Dear Dr. Yael:
We have taken our daughter-in-law into our home with warmth and love. Unfortunately, her parents are divorced and she grew up in a dysfunctional family with neither of her parents giving to her financially or emotionally. As the chassan’s parents, we did everything possible for this couple, taking care of all of their needs. We gave our daughter-in-law love and attention, generously giving the two of them money and trying to help them establish a beautiful home of their own. Unfortunately, her resentment toward her parents, who did not do anything to help her, has led her to take out her bitterness on us.
How is it possible for a daughter-in-law to not have hakaras hatov after having been showered with love, affection and generosity? How could she feel and act this way after we, her in-laws – and not her parents – gave her all that I’ve mentioned, including a business? We’ve been told that her feelings have something to do with the emotion of “transference,” namely that she is transferring the anger she has toward her parents onto her in-laws.
It is very hurtful that after all we’ve done for them, they have nothing to do with us. While they initially expressed their thanks by sending us a dozen roses, now there is minimal, if any, communication between us. We are in so much pain. What can we do to cope with this situation?
Dear Wounded In-Laws:
Thank you for your heartfelt letter. Based on your version of events, here are some reasons why your situation is such: It is possible that your daughter-in-law feels uncomfortable that you had to give her and your son the bulk of their support, and is thus reacting negatively toward you because she cannot deal with those uncomfortable feelings. You may be correct that she is angry with her parents and is “transferring” the anger to you because she cannot do so with her own family.
There are various places this anger could be coming from, and while knowing the source may be helpful to the reparation of your relationship, ultimately it is secondary to the solution. Having written that your son and daughter-in-law have minimized their communication with you, are they talking to you at all? Would they be receptive to your request to sit down and talk with them about what is going on? If so, try to approach the situation in a way that will reduce their defensive feelings. Instead of asking why they are acting this way, try saying, “We feel like we did something to upset you and are not sure what it is. We want to repair whatever it is that we did and resume a loving relationship with you.” In this way, you are getting to the root of the problem without making your son and daughter-in-law feel that they are wrong and that they must explain themselves. Even if you feel that they are completely wrong, it is likely that you will not be able to mend the relationship by asking them why they are behaving so terribly. This is especially so if your daughter-in-law is already feeling misplaced anger and/or is embarrassed.
With all of your hurt, this approach will be challenging. However, if you can repair this relationship, you will eventually feel better. Perhaps you unintentionally made your daughter-in-law feel uncomfortable by doing so much for her and her husband – when her parents did not help them. Maybe having the kind of conversation I’ve suggested will help her move away from these feelings, so that you could enjoy a close and loving relationship with them.
The easiest way to deal with your situation would be to be angry with your son and daughter-in-law and want them to apologize for what happened to the relationship. But this, in all likelihood, will just result in more anger and pain for everyone involved. Thus, even though my suggestion will be very difficult to pursue, it will hopefully be worth the effort in the long run.
Your perceptive analysis of the situation is admirable. It is sometimes the case that one’s anger may be transferred to another available target. When parents get divorced and the mother gets custody and acts lovingly, children often express anger toward their mother while reserving their best behavior for their father, who they fear may abandon them. It is often the person who one feels is more loving and stable that has to bear the anger that a person has toward another more volatile person.
If you recognize the situation this way you may realize that you are the “safer parents,” and that deep down this couple may be more trusting of your devotion and love. As a result of their possible subconscious feeling, you may be seen by them as the “safer parents” – the parents who receive the brunt of their anger in a difficult situation.