Dear Carolyn: We live a long way from my wife’s father, who lives in his own home but who now needs assistance. We’ve been providing financial assistance to my wife’s sister, who otherwise has limited employment prospects, to live with their father and assist him.
My wife’s father and sister have verbal sparring matches pretty constantly, and my wife sometimes spends up to three hours a day on the phone, providing “guidance” to her sister and father on what they should eat, how they should clean the house, and other things.
She gets pretty bossy and demanding at times, and I’m concerned that what she is doing may actually be abusive. She claims she is saving their lives by spending all this time on the phone with them and they should be grateful.
I’m particularly concerned about the potential for abuse because her sister depends on us for financial support and may feel she can’t hang up the phone. Any ideas on how to change this?
– Concerned Spouse
A: Start by speaking your truth fully: Prepare what you’d like to say, think of examples to support your point, imagine how you’d feel if you were the dad or sister, and imagine how you’d feel if you were in your wife’s position. Then, choose a time when you’re not in a hurry to be anywhere and neither of you is upset about something.
Then, start with any insight you gleaned from trying to see things from her perspective. For example: “I realize you are worried about your dad and sister, and I realize how hard that is, to know they’re not taking good care of themselves. I know I’d be worried that if they die prematurely or become ill, I might blame myself for not trying harder to prevent that.”
Then share any conclusions you drew from imagining yourself in her dad or sister’s place. Maybe: “But I’d realize I can’t make them live the way I want them to. And I know how I’d feel if you spent three hours on the phone with me, dictating my menus and chores. If I were counting on you financially, as your sister is, then I might be afraid to stick up for myself.”
Then hand the thinking and talking over to her: “Have you thought about how you’d feel, and react, if you got so many hours of such calls?”
If she doesn’t say, “I’d probably hang up on me,” then she’s lying, to you or to herself or both.
And that, in turn, would mean your chances are slim to imaginary that your wife will do anything except micromanage them off this mortal coil. However, please don’t let that stop you from interrupting calls when your wife sounds abusive, and consulting a therapist who specializes in elder care.
And do not fail to thank your sister-in-law for her efforts on the family’s behalf. I don’t want to think how rarely she receives gratitude calls, if in fact she ever does.