Dear Neil: We have had trouble with our daughter-in-law for years. She has decided to not let us into our son’s life, or our grandchildren’s lives. We have tried to make amends, but to no avail. We love our grandchildren, but are not allowed any contact. Do you have any recommendations?
Hurting in Bristol, Tennessee
Dear Tennessee: You apparently have trouble with both your son and your daughter-in-law, because your son is no doubt an active participant in the decision to exclude you from contact with his wife and children. I have no idea, based on your letter, what their grievances are with you or how serious those grievances are, but I will offer some ideas about how to go about repairing your relationship with them.
Tell your son and daughter-in-law that you would like a conversation with them. This conversation could be in person, on the phone, by letter or by email, although face to face would be ideal. This is not an opportunity to see your grandchildren—you have a bigger goal in front of you first. Tell them that you would like to understand their feelings toward you, and promise them that your interest is in really understanding their feelings, and not to talk about your own. Your own feelings are important, but not in this conversation. If they refuse to talk with you, ask them if they would write their feelings down and send them to you.
If they consent to this conversation, keep to your promise. You are there to learn and to understand, not to defend or explain yourself, or to justify what you did, or to complain about how they’ve been treating you.
There is a reasonably good chance that your son will criticize you for how you raised him, and that your daughter-in-law will criticize you for how you’ve handled yourself or how you’ve handled certain situations. Joshua Coleman, in his book When Parents Hurt (Collins Living Publishers), says that navigating a child’s criticism is a challenge for every parent, but that parents that can hear their children’s criticisms (even ones that are untrue) without becoming undone—are more likely to end up with closer and healthier relationships than those parents who recount the “I did the best I could” response. Coleman recommends the following:
If you find yourself getting angry, defensive or provoked, you might say: “I didn’t realize that you felt that way, and it’s painful to hear, but I am grateful you’re telling me.” Or: “You’re right. I didn’t protect you from your father’s temper, and I feel terrible about that. You deserved better from me.” Or: “It’s hard for me to hear that right now without getting defensive. How about writing it out in a letter? I think I’ll be able to digest it better if I could sit with it for a few days.” Or: “You may be right about that.” Or: “I’m sorry.” At the end, say something like: “I’m sure it’s not easy to tell me these things. I’m glad you’re willing to open up to me about this.” (Even if you’re not glad to hear these things, you must approach this interaction from the perspective that your son and daughter-in-law are not trying to hurt you, they’re trying to have a better relationship with you.
When you can, either in that same conversation or in a future one, make a fearlessly honest admission of your mistakes to your child. Leave out the reasons, justifications, or any other detail that makes it sound like s/he has no right to complain. If you are willing, talk with your child about whatever regrets you have about the past.
Express heartfelt empathy for how your child feels. Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s place, looking at things from his/her perspective, and experiencing what s/he experiences.
Ask the two of them what they would need in order to be willing to reconnect with you, and allow you to reconnect with their children. If they list conditions that they want you to meet, carefully consider what’s at stake. You want a relationship with them and your grandchildren into the future. If this is what you have to do in order to have those relationships, by all means make the decision that will give you the greatest long-term happiness and feeling of contentment.
In the end, you may need to accept that you and your child may never have the closeness and connection that you wish for. If that’s the case, managing your feelings of disappointment is the key to your ongoing serenity, contentment and mental health.