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How Caregiving Wives Can Handle the Challenge of In-Laws

When in-laws second-guess your caregiving, stand your ground without arguing

By Diana B. Denholm, PhD, LMHC

When you’re caring for a seriously ill husband, it’s not uncommon to begin seeing your well-meaning in-laws as sources of conflict rather than comfort. Your interactions can quickly turn volatile, especially when there is second-guessing about your caregiving. Comments about subjects as basic as what your husband should eat can lead to arguments. But you can take steps to anticipate and prevent conflict before frustrations escalate.
Meet Marsha and Stan

When they met, Marsha and Stan, now in their 60s (their names have been changed for this column), were 40-something widows with children — she had three and he had two. They did better than most at creating a happy blended family. Then Stan developed terminal pancreatic cancer. Now years of congenial extended-family relations have given way to resentment and hostility.
Stan’s health is Marsha’s mission. She chooses his doctors and treatment plans, and oversees his diet exercise, and social activities. And it all works — when just the two of them are involved.
But Marsha's in-laws visit and call frequently and generally question everything Marsha does when they're on the scene. Stan doesn’t appreciate his relatives' intrusions either, but he says nothing to them, which makes it worse for Marsha. "Who do they think they are?" she complains to him. "They aren’t living this 24/7. They just waltz in here, spend a little time, then disappear before the hard work has to be done. And they think they know what it’s really like?" She’d love to ban them from the house.

With Your Spouse, Plan an In-Law Summit

It's your husband’s right, as long as his health allows, to decide the course of his care, and other aspects of his remaining days. But you both need to get on the same page regarding the involvement of relatives. What information will you share and with whom? Which relatives should visit and for how long? And what role, if any, should they have in his care — the actual caregiving and the decisions pertaining to it? Once agreed on, these expectations need to be shared with the extended family.

Marsha was a client of mine, and I advised her on a course of communication with her family. First, she needed to have a talk with Stan, then they both needed to have a talk with his family. To start, I asked Marsha to write her frustrations down on paper, for her eyes only. She sorted her issues into: Things she wanted to say to her husband; things she wanted to say to her relatives; things she wanted to say but wouldn't, because it wouldn't help the situation; and things she would share only with friends. For example: Marsha hates visits from her controlling sister-in-law, and while it made her feel better to vent about it on paper, she knew it would not have been helpful to tell her sister-in-law she was not welcome in her home.

After writing down her concerns, Marsha set up a "talking date" with Stan. Rather than using the dreaded phrase, "We need to talk," which can make people shut down or become defensive, she said, "Stan, I have some concerns about all the calls and visits from your family, and I’d like to talk with you about that. Would this evening be good, or would tomorrow morning be better?" She used "I" statements because it wasn’t Stan’s need to talk, it was hers. She also gave him two scheduling options, since that would more likely lead to a specific time.

Stan is more cerebral than emotional, so when they sat down to talk, Marsha spoke in terms he could relate to, asking him what he thought about the situation, not what he felt. She spoke respectfully about his relatives, rather than attacking or criticizing. These steps helped them resolve concerns instead of arguing. Marsha and Stan were able to come to some agreements about their wishes, which they then related to his family with a unified voice, following the same process Marsha had employed for her talk with Stan. For example, they had agreed that there should be no visitors during Stan's regular rest time, and when they shared that request, family members understood and cooperated.


Communicating With Your Extended Family

Whether family relations have been good or bad, relatives care about one another. Facing the prospect of a major loss — a father, a son or a brother — they feel powerless and stressed. Some may be so distressed that they withdraw completely. Others will demand constant updates and insist on sharing their opinions. Both reactions are normal. When you understand where family members are coming from, you can get past taking every comment as a personal challenge, and respond in a comfortable and productive way.
Even when you take this approach, though, there may be areas on which you simply cannot agree, and that’s OK. You are never obligated to change your point of view to please someone else, and they have no obligation to change theirs, either. Rather than arguing with no resolution, you need to find a way to agree to disagree. This will reduce stress and create a more peaceful household for you and your spouse.

Here are some responses you can employ when in-laws press you on contentious issues:

  • “I realize … however” statements. For example: "I realize you think he should be in the hospital now. However, that’s not what he wishes."
  • Simple, rote responses. For example: "Thank you for sharing that. I appreciate your concern."
  • Replies that don’t make the other person feel wrong for asking. For example: "I’m sure it’s difficult for you not knowing all the details. We’ll tell you as much as we can, but Stan and I agreed we would only share certain information."

Marsha and Stan used these tools to establish expectations for each other, and to speak to their family with one voice. Instead of letting her in-laws upset her life and her marriage, Marsha was able to reclaim her treasured, congenial relationships with them. Most important, she gained the peace of mind she needed to continue to be a successful caregiver for her spouse.

Diana B. Denholm, PhD, LMHC, a board-certified medical psychotherapist for more than 30 years, is the author of  The Caregiving Wife’s Handbook: Caring for Your Seriously Ill Husband, Caring for Yourself (Hunter House, 2012). For 11 years, she was the primary caregiver to her husband during a series of grave illnesses. Read More
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