Dear Therapist:

My husband and I are faced with the following situation and we're stumped as to what to tell our children.

Our family was always very close to my parents in law and their children at home. My father in law is a controlling person. He thinks the world is against him. He doesn't talk to most of his married kids because he thinks they don't "hold" of him.

My husband and I are close to the married siblings.

My father in law recently gave my husband an ultimatum. You can either be close to me or them. "I don't want to know you if you talk to them. "

My husband and I are not ready to cut off ties with his married siblings.

My in-laws aren't answering our phone calls...

My children keep asking why they can't go to bobby and zeidy [grandma and grandpa] and why they don't answer the phone.

We don't know what to answer.

The oldest is 7 years old.

Thank you!



Obviously, you’re in a very difficult situation. Unfortunately, this type of circumstance is not unheard of. You’re faced with multiple intertwined issues. How do you deal with your father-in-law’s ultimatum? Do you agree to his demands in order to preserve the relationships that you have with your in-laws and your unmarried brothers- and sisters-in-law? Do you refuse to do this in order to maintain your relationships with your husband’s married siblings and their families? Do you attempt to walk a fine line to somehow try and keep all of your relationships intact?

As you know, there is no good answer. In addition to the practical consequences of any decision, there are emotional implications. I’m sure that your husband feels very torn by this situation, likely making it difficult for him to step back and make objective decisions. You are obviously conflicted as well.

There may be practical options that can help to alleviate some of the problems inherent in your situation. If there is someone (professional, rabbinic, or otherwise) whose opinion your father-in-law respects, they may be able to help him understand the position in which he is placing your family. If you have a good relationship with your mother-in-law, she may be able to advise you as to whether there is such a person. If at all possible, family therapy might be helpful.

Understanding your father-in-law’s unconscious motivations can be somewhat helpful—if not practically, at least in helping you to reach a decision from a less emotional perspective. It can be difficult to place yourself in the shoes of someone who acts in ways that you would never consider. Doing so, however, can help your husband and you to feel less anger, confusion, and anxiety. This can make reaching the right decision faster and easier. One way or the other, it is crucial that your decisions be based on logical thought rather than emotion.

Hopefully, the situation will change for the better. This hope, however, can be a double-edged sword. It can keep you from making a firm decision, thus trapping your family in a perpetual state of emotional turbulence. If, at some point, you realize that things are unlikely to change, it’s important to recognize that your primary responsibility is to your own immediate family. You will need to plan for the long-term.

A number of questions should be considered. Once out of his house, will the unmarried children be on your father-in-law’s side? Will your mother-in-law be? Will your decision impact on their decisions? How might this affect your father-in-law’s stance?

If nothing will change your father-in-law’s mind—and not coming to a solid decision will be more harmful than doing so—the welfare of your family needs to come first. Your job will be to identify as many factors as possible, and logically come to a conclusion based on what is best for your family. Eliciting the help of an uninvolved third party can help you to view this from a more logical perspective, allowing you to recognize various ramifications and helping you to come to the right decision.

Until you have a clear handle on the situation, and have a sense as to how you will approach it, discussions with your children may be difficult. They can pick up on your confusion and uncertainty, leading them to feel anxious and confused themselves. Avoiding their questions can also be confusing for them. Hopefully, you will soon be able to work out a resolution to the problem. Once you are less conflicted, identifying the appropriate ways of discussing the situation with your children will likely become easier.

Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

 psychotherapist in private practice

 Brooklyn, NY   |   Far Rockaway, NY

 author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 718-258-5317