The Other Man in Your Marriage

Do you feel like your father-in-law is controlling your marriage? These steps may help you resolve the situation.
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The Other Man in Your Marriage

Here's Vinny's story:

Family Matters

To improve your relationship with your father-in-law, take time to validate each other and show interest. This can be done in simple ways such as having brunch together every Sunday or meeting for a walk once a month. There's no magic formula, only effort, caring, and kindness.

For 20 years, my marriage and family were fairly normal. Like everyone else, we had our ups and downs, but we did okay. Then my mother-in-law became ill. We moved back to my wife's home town to be near my in-laws so we could help out. Two years ago, my mother-in-law died. And I have now lost my wife, Lisa -- to her father! She has become daddy's little girl all over again.

My father-in-law is an energetic, intelligent man who retired from his job shortly after my mother-in-law became ill. Even when we lived 500 miles away, he tried to run our lives. Now that we live nearby, he completely runs everything. On the plus side, he has time to supervise our home repairs, take the kids on trips, and run errands for us. But there's a lot on the negative side.

The man is a control freak. He tells us what utility company to use, what brand of paint is best, how to invest our money. He buys the attention of our children with things that we can't afford and prefer that they don't have. He criticizes the way we raise our children, how much I earn, and just about everything else. Even though my wife manages a division of a major corporation, she has never been able to stand up to her father. Her mother always acted as the buffer. She was able to tone down my father-in-law's most flagrant power plays, but now she's gone.

Don't Go There

Under what I call the "Parental Law of Inertia," most parents continue to treat their married children as though they were still toddlers. Fathers-in-law are especially prone to this problem, so be forewarned. Long after you are married, they are still likely to slip you a $20 bill or check the air pressure in your tires.

What does a husband do when the "other man" in his marriage is his father-in-law?

When you and your spouse form your nuclear family, you are setting its boundaries. You decide who gets past Checkpoint Charlie -- and who gets detained at the border. Setting limits protects you as a couple from intrusions from the outside world, especially from those nearest and dearest.

But what happens when you're 20 years into the marriage and the rules suddenly change? In this instance, Vinny's mother-in-law kept her husband in check. When she died, however, the balance shifted. Now Vinny's father-in-law is successfully driving a wedge between the couple by his need to control and his loneliness. What can you do if this is your situation? Try these ideas to reestablish the equilibrium in your family.

Don't Go There

If you decide to ask your spiritual leader to help you solve a problem with your father-in-law, make sure that you're all singing from the same hymnal. Pick a religious leader whose views everyone respects.

  • The old-switcheroo. Put yourself in your father-in-law's position. What is motivating him to act this way? Vinny says that his father-in-law is a "control freak." No doubt this is true, but it's also quite possible that Vinny's father-in-law genuinely believes that he is being helpful, especially where the grandchildren are concerned. Perhaps, too, he is lonely with his wife gone. He's probably at loose ends as well, not having envisioned spending his retirement alone.

  • Make a choice. It's hard to have it both ways. You can't accept your father-in-law's largess and then deny him access to his grandchildren without really good cause. Similarly, don't expect him to become your personal Bob Vila and then freeze him out of easy and pleasurable decisions, like choosing the paint colors.

  • Conference, communicate, converse. I know: Been there, done that. It's not easy for most of us to upset the apple cart and say what needs to be said. Notice, however, that nowhere in his complaint did Vinny say that he tried to explain his feelings to his father-in-law. At the very least, Vinny owes his father-in-law of 20 years the courtesy of truthfulness.

  • Get a neutral party. Cat got your tongue? Why not try an intermediary? Find a respected person, such as a trained counselor or a religious leader, to mediate as you and your father-in-law hash out the issue.

  • Matchmaker, matchmaker. Start looking for another woman-for your father-in-law! With all that energy, he needs an outlet other than his daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren. Hey, he should live and be well. Always consult your spouse about your matchmaking plans. Fixing up your father-in-law with a new tootsie can be a little sticky, considering how your beloved felt about his mother (assuming, of course, that the last wife was his mother).