Baggage Check Live: "In-Law Syndrome"

Jan 09, 2018

Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Andrea Bonior was online to take your comments about her advice column, Baggage Check, and any other questions you might have. These comments may appear in an upcoming column running in Express and online.

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We're four chats in, and growing-- thanks for joining us! Got a question of your own? Think I answered a question so stinkily as to require ventilation? (Some do, in today's Baggage-- and we'll get to that momentarily.) Pull up a chair and bring it on!

I befriended my last Uber driver. He is new to the area so I invited him to tour DC with me. He turned out to be a mooch in making me pay for his metro fare & the food we ate. At the end of the day, he attempted to kiss me but I turned him down. I let him know we can be friends but he still pesters me on social media begging to be his girlfriend. What to do?

What's not to love? A "friend" who mooches and begs you nonstop to hook up with him! Where can we sign up? Ugh. An offer to be friends assumes certain things: that you will be treated with respect, that there will be trust and reciprocity, and that each person is entering into the relationship voluntarily. Pestering that borders on sexual harrassment is a disqualifier, plain and simple. I am guessing your question is less about whether or not that's true (as a culture we are finally starting to acknowledge what's not okay!) and more about how to actually extract yourself from this situation. Methinks you're both being too nice and also too worried about the necessity of being nice. That necessity was out the window once his desire to step all over you and ignore your feelings. He doesn't have the right to keep pestering you. If you can't cut things off for yourself, do it out of kindness for him-- he needs the news flash that this behavior is unacceptable if he's ever going to have a functional relationship. Say in simple terms that he is making you uncomfortable, and that a friendship will not work if that behavior continues. If it does, then a civil "I wish you all the best, but I'm not going to be able to be in contact anymore" and then blocking him on social media is long overdue. 

Hi Dr. Bonior, I'm having trouble figuring out if I'm being manipulated and how to handle it. It doesn't happen often, but I'm definitely seeing a pattern when I express a real disappointment in something my husband of 10 years has (or usually hasn't) done and his response leaves me feeling guilty and angry. I don't mean the typical nagging stuff (e.g., dishes); this was more serious and related to a language barrier with my family, who were visiting over the holidays. It'd been a year since we saw them last. After they left, I mentioned that I was sad and disappointed he didn't spend any time practicing in the months leading up to their visit, and left me to be his (and his family's) sole interpreter for 2 weeks. I also said that when I've nagged him in the past, he just got mad, so this time I didn't, and nothing changed. He thought about it a bit, then came back and said "I'm sorry I'm such a disappointment to you." When I've heard this from him before, I've immediately felt guilty and tried to minimize my own disappointment, but this time, I just wasn't having it. I took a deep breath and told him that HE doesn't disappoint me, but that his (in)actions did, and if he wants to make it up to me, what's he going to do about it? He looked shocked that I didn't immediately accept his 'apology' and we had a tense few days. It hasn't come up since and I also haven't seen him doing any practicing, though there are literally hundreds of apps/resources online to help him practice if he actually cared to. This is the same man who, before we were married, actually took language classes to help him communicate with my family; he made an excellent impression on all of us then. In most other respects, he's a wonderful husband. Any suggestions? I know I can't change his behavior, only how I react to it, but I feel like I need to call BS on this manipulation. Thanks, Angry bilingual wife

So, here is the question I answered in today's column. Like most print Baggage Check columns, it was quite condensed and heavily edited, unfortunately. Some of you thought I was way too easy on the letter-writer, and that she sounded very controlling. Does your opinion change at all, seeing the whole letter? I'd love to hear from you. My original printed answer is below.

Yup, the old “Woe is me, you don’t like me and I’m not good enough for you” generalization may not be deliberate manipulation, but at best it’s an unhelpful deflection that keeps the real problem from being solved. He needs to understand that when he does that, he chooses to invalidate your feelings, and loses his chance to target the behavior that is upsetting you. Instead, he frames it like you wronged him. (It’s like a second-cousin-once-removed from gaslighting.) Ask him whether you have a right to sometimes be disappointed, and how he would prefer that you express it. Get him to think about why it seems threatening for him to hear things like this — is he all-or-none in his thinking? Overly conflict-averse? A bit insecure in his ego? Start from scratch with how much you love his otherwise wonderful nature and go from there.

Is it controlling to insist on spouse to not smoke? My wife quit smoking over 20 years ago before we met but she restarted. I tried to reason her to stop via cognitive conversations but she uncharistically stonewalled me but smoked unseen and in unknown quantity. I consider smoking to be using nicotine as psych drug and it aggitates and demoralizes me. After a short 2 weeks of no sound sleep I insisted she quit. She complied (against her craving) but once a month the subject pops up as “she wants to smoke but I won’t let her” or “why am I being unreasonable.” In heathly relationships partners are not supposed to emotionally threaten or hold hostage so I don’t feel justified as a husband and I recognize my significant short comings in our marriage. She complied because it bothered me greatly but it wasn’t her free choice and she would not quit had I not elevated my objections. I know there were life altering instances where she withheld objections to my choices that impacted her so it does sting me to have her feel not in control of her personal space.

Whether or not this is controlling depends greatly on whether or not she actually wants to quit. It is pretty unclear from your letter, and perhaps from her behavior. Some people grumble about "having" to not smoke because of their partner, but are still overall grateful for the motivation and don't really want to keep smoking in the first place. Other people grumble about "having" to not smoke because of their partner, and are secretly cursing their partner and planning an out where they can live their own life however the heckfire they want. This tug-of-war will continue ad nauseam unless you are willing to put aside all your preconceived notions about her-- and perhaps about smokers in general-- and really listen to what's going on for her. Lots of people take up smoking because they are newly anxious about something, or depressed or stressed, or perhaps substituting one habit with another. What's really going on for her? And how can you help? There's an underlying emotional issue for her here, and being black-and-white about what she should and shouldn't do isn't right. It should be about what she needs, whether to be left in peace for a while while she works it out herself, or true help quitting (beyond just commanding it) because that's what she wants.

I'm a young 60-year old Libertarian living in comfortable retirement in Rosslyn, which is dominated by liberal, Democrat millennials. (My wife (RIP) was a very liberal D, and I just don't want to live with all those arguments again.) I've been thinking about moving to a 55+ community (and renting my townhouse) where possible relationships may be more age- and politics-appropriate. So my problem question is, I really enjoy Rosslyn and being around millennials knowing there's little or no relationship potential, but wonder about the possibilities in a 55+ community. Not a fan of online dating. How would you recommend I go about resolving these contradictory yearnings for a retirement "playmate" relationship for social activities, travel, etc.?

The way I see this, the potential of being around other people your age, and who you think have a better chance of sharing your political views, could only be a positive thing in terms of the potential for a relationship, no? Or are you assuming that most people in retirement communities are paired off already? I think both of your issues, though, are potentially solved with the same solution: getting more access to people who are like you. You say that you enjoy being around these whippersnapper liberal millennials and yet also you're sort of tired of the conversations that that can bring. So I'm not sure which side of that wins out, but overall looking for a relationship and also for social companions-- those both point to seeking out people more like you. Maybe that means a retirement community, but it could also mean joining other social communities on your own-- not "online dating" per se, but hiking clubs, volunteer work, fitness classes, meetup groups, community gardens... whatever you're into. And if these needs DO point to a retirement community, just do a lot of research on the retirement communities themselves. Because there's the possibility that you'd be on such the young end that you're bound to be the liberal whippersnapper yourself, in comparison. 

The other week I was flipping around the radio and came across that horrible cover of Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" by the band Alien Ant Farm. Honestly, I've always thought it was one of worst songs ever made/conceived, but for the past 10 days I've been singing it in my head NON-STOP. Its beginning to get really intrusive and annoying. Every time there's a pause in my thinking its starts in with the "Annie are you OK? Are you OK Annie? Annie are you OK? Are you OK Annie..." over and over and over again. And it's not even Micheal Jackson's voice I hear, but rather the lead singer of Alien Ant Farm!!! I'm beginning to think I'm experiencing some sudden new form of OCD. I'm also having trouble sleeping because of it. Have you heard of anything like this before and what should I do about it?

This question is almost meta. So, "Are you okay" if "Are you okay" is stuck in your head nonstop? I agree that nothing comes close to Michael Jackson's version and that that particular cover seemed at best unnecessary, but before I go down the rabbit hole into what even IS an "Alien Ant Farm" in the first place, let me refocus here. Earworms are really common, and are pretty distinct from active obsessive thoughts. So unless you are having any other symptoms of intrusive thoughts or compulsive behaviors, this likely has very little in common with OCD.  That said, they all can be targeted in similar ways. The more you focus on it-- even by fighting it-- the "stickier" it will become in your head. Best to just breathe through it, accept it, and let go. Try finding another song if you dare. And now that you have perhaps afflicted me with the very same illness, anyone else have any notorious earworms that get stuck in your head so that I can shake this?

This is a pretty judgmental attitude. You'd get more sympathy from me if you objected to smoking because of the health risks. Quitting smoking was a big issue between me & my husband until he finally quit, but my objection to it was from watching my grandfather die an agonizing death from lung cancer (and his lamenting that "I did this to myself" -- he was a heavy and lifelong smoker). It's possible that your wife sees your objection to her smoking as coming from a place of arrogant superiority rather than a desire to have her live a long healthy life.

Yeah, I think you are spot on. The language of the original poster was pretty interesting. There seems to be not enough focus on her needs-- including the fact that the number 1 reason to quit smoking should be to have her around longer and more healthily. Not so that she can measure up to his standards. Thanks for this!

I think you're right that the husband's response is a dramatic cop-out trying to shift the blame but I also think that he over-committed - probably with the best of intentions - and is not going to learn the language. I think the LW should try and find out whether the husband honestly still wants to learn the language as he might not want to cop to no-longer wanting to learn it since it is so important to the LW. This is a very different problem to one of finding a good way to buckle down and learn it.

This is great, thanks-- you are so right. Yeah, perhaps the husband had the best of intentions and has been feeling guilty about not meeting them ever since. This sounds like a super-loaded issue for them. They're both going to have to let down their guard pretty significantly to be open about it.

It's not quite the same but I'm a recovering alcoholic. I'd say we may initially quit because of outside pressures (spouse, job, law) but you stay sober for yourself. My brother (also friend of Bill) said quitting smoking was way harder than giving up drinking. I hate to say it but until your wife really wants to quit for herself she is going to smoke.

Thank you-- and congratulations on your continued recovery, and your brother's as well. I completely agree-- if she doesn't actually want to quit smoking, then her giving the proverbial finger to him is not playful but rather a truly angry gesture that will drive a wedge in their marriage.

The iPhone ringtone.

Okay, this interests me!! Really? Because it doesn't have a traditional ongoing melody or a hook. Is it just those few repeating bars over and over again? 

My husband and I got married this past October and we had a great wedding. As is common, the wedding PLANNING process was incredibly stressful for me in particular due to my "momzilla". At one point during the summer (August-ish) my mom said some downright nasty things to my husband via email - I was CCed on the emails. (for context, the emails were about a wedding-weekend event that my husband and I DID NOT WANT but my mom was insisting upon - at a certain point she said "this is about ME and MY FRIENDS, not your [my husband's] family" to my husband and that he can "suck it up and get over it." The event ended up not happening but that's beside the point...) The women in my family (my mom, aunt, and grandmother) have a habit of bullying the men in their lives and I've made it clear to my husband I think it's unacceptable behavior. At the time of the incident, I emailed my mom back saying, essentially, "I'm sad you chose to communicate with my future husband this way; I will not tolerate it moving forward". She never responded and because of the stress of the wedding, my husband and I decided to put it aside. She essentially acted like the exchange never happened and never apologized...and we are still not okay with how things transpired. my question is: is it too late to bring up how disrespected we (particularly my husband) felt? My mom is GREAT at dismissing things like this and I'm afraid she is going to use the time that has transpired as an excuse to ignore me/him. I know the "incident" may seem small to others and she probably doesn't think anything of it ... but I'm worried it sets a precedent for her to bully and undermine my husband in the future (just like her sister and mom have always done to their husbands, BILs, SILs, etc.)

You are really, really wise to be on top of this, because this type of behavior can absolutely corrode a partnership over time. (So many of my clients' marriages have suffered from In-Law Syndrome. It's even worse than Dishwasher Loading Differences of Opinion Syndrome.) Good for you for taking a stance. My question would be, what more would you feel that you want to say about it, since you already established that you will not tolerate the behavior, and that it saddens you? I totally get that you want (and deserve) an apology, but I wonder if there is a potential silver lining in her silence-- that maybe she will NOT try something like it again, and/or is mulling it over. If she did, could you just repeat the same mantra? You may be worried that the precedent has been set for her to bully you in the future, but I might put my money on the opposite-- that you set the precedent with a strong boundary about what's acceptable and what's not and that you may have truly changed the tide. So, unless you think that you can't move forward without an explicit apology, would you consider just going from here and assuming (even if it seems pipe dream-ish) that perhaps she will listen to you at least for a while, and if she doesn't, you can cross that bridge with another boundary-setting session when you come to it? In other words, is the status quo of no active bullying and you having had the last word so bad?

Yes, his reaction there is judgemental. However, I can see where he's coming from. If my wife had been a smoker when we first met, the romance would never have started. If she had started at any time before we were married, I would have walked away immediately.

Thanks! No doubt smoking is a deal-breaker for plenty of folks, and I do think there's something to be said for the fact that she had quit for years and years and that's what he had come to expect. I'm curious-- since you said you would have walked away if she started smoking before you were married, what would you do if she started smoking now (after marriage?)

Let it Go

hahah! Welcome to my world circa 2015! Thanks!

Yes, and I hate it, even though I love my iPhone.

Hoo, boy. I can imagine! Godspeed!

Anything from "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood." "When you have to go potty, stop and do it right away, wash and flush!"

This is a great candidate for bringing other into your misery at your next work meeting!

I have a nine-year-old who says the nine-year-old equivalent "I'm the worst kid in the world". She's not, she's a great kid, and rarely gets into trouble. But all kids get into trouble, and when she gets called on something she falls apart. The dramatic reaction is so over the top it's more annoying than the original infraction. I usually just say "you're not the worst kid in the world, but (fill in the blank correction.)" Any other suggestions?

Yup, I think this is common (and maddening) in a lot of kids, especially sensitive ones who really are taking the criticism too seriously, and also kids that are trying to be a little-- ahem-- instrumental in how they express emotion. Sounds like for her, since she's falling apart, it really is a sensitivity issue. I agree with your matter-of-fact approach, not rewarding the behavior over and over again by overcompensating. But I also wonder whether-- if what she's looking for in that moment is more connection and assurance-- you could talk to her at another point in time about what she needs from you right then, and how it bothers you to hear her say that because you know it's not true. You could role play, even, and reverse roles and see what she would say to YOU if you did that.  It's a great opportunity to work on all-or-none thinking and catastrophizing with her, and also to get her to express her emotional needs better and more clearly without it coming across so negatively. And I think if you can have the discussion at a time when she is not actively losing it, it will go even better and stick even longer.

Now that I've given vows, it would be harder to walk away. I would at least move out, so that I don't have to smell that horrid smell everywhere. Beyond that, I'm not sure yet. Fortunately, I haven't had to deal with it.

Yup, I am glad you don't have to deal with it. But I am assuming you would at least try to help her quit, no?

I'm not that poster, but I would really struggle with this. I can't live with a smoker (I'm the one whose grandfather smoked himself to death) but leaving my husband would be unbelievably difficult for many reasons. I don't know whether I could do it, but I think I would have to try.

Smoking is loaded for so many people-- but I do feel the need to bring up that there are so many resources to help folks quit! Behavioral, emotional, medical.... I imagine most spouses would exhaust those options before walking away (at least more than a few minutes to get fresh air.) I am sorry about your grandfather!

"I also haven't seen him doing any practicing, though there are literally hundreds of apps/resources online to help him practice if he actually cared to" wow! No wonder it has become an unpleasant chore. Why is his learning your language so important to you? Dial back. pick your battles carefully. He attempted to learn your language as a token of love for you. how have you helped him? have you forgotton to show your appreciation? Are you being a bossy-pants? Learning anything is a lot easier if it is fun and interesting. What is he getting out of it?

Thank you for this. It's really helpful to remind me (us?) to see things more fully from his perspective.

Dear Dr: Bonior: I am responding to your advertisement in the Washington Post express – – and I do have a problem! Are you ready to chat?

Am I ever! For four more minutes, at least!

I have talked to some of these people, some truly do not know what caused the problem, others continue making a mistake so visible you could see it from space. Do you have any insight into how often it really is behavior on the parent's part and how often something in the child or the family of choice the child acquires as an adult?

In response to the second question in today's column.

This is a great question, and I'm afraid I don't have any hard numbers on how frequent either side is to "blame."  The truth is, mental illness and emotional challenges can wreak havoc on the parental relationship from either side-- it can make an adult child abandon their family for reasons that stem from their own disorder, and it can also, of course, create an abusive or unsustainably toxic relationship when it stems from the parent. I think one problem I see often is that by the time the child is an adult, the parent has been acting a certain way for so many years or even decades that it can be really hard for them to break through it and stare at their own behavior in the face. They might instead just blame their "bad" child. So perhaps when it is on the parents' end, the damage is more likely permanent, and harder to reverse? Especially since it's affected a developing brain in their child. But still all the more reason that an objective, skilled therapist can be of help.

may I suggest changing your ringtone to a song from the standards. How about something by Alient Ant Farm? :)

hahahah!!! Yes, I do wonder if the original poster has changed their ringtone!

Hi! I've been with my husband for over 20 years - he's a good man...and we just started the process of determining whether he has the beginning stages of dementia. Up until this though, particularly for the past 15 years (coincidentally the same time we've been parents), I've become increasingly more angry and about two years ago, I stopped trying to bite my tongue and so started telling him exactly how I felt. Using horridly mean and vicious words. I'm currently looking for a therapist who can help me to channel my frustration and anger into a more productive outlet...but I do wonder if it ever possible that maybe my anger was justified and I just blew it? I worked with a therapist when it first started happening (15 years ago) but stopped going when she basically said that everything was my fault because I wasn't being explicit about what I expected. (And truthfully my expectations are that he will do what he says he is going to do). So, I guess my question is - could I be the abusive one? How much fighting/bickering/arguing is healthy?

I am sorry, truly. There are many aspects of this that are quite tough. People deal with anger in many different ways, and sometimes even if the anger is "justified," the behavior that is borne out of anger-- and the damage it causes-- can be anything but. The fact that your husband may be in the early stages of dementia means that the road ahead will not be an easy one emotionally, and there are a lot of murky, complicated emotions that go with being a caregiver to someone suffering from that-- to the point where this "Is my anger justified? And how should I handle it?" question needs to be tackled again and again, head on. I am so glad that you are seeking out therapy. No two couples are alike in terms of how much bickering is "healthy," but you may soon be dealing with some special circumstances here where rules don't apply. I commend you for starting to talk about it. Keep me posted.

"bossy pants"? Really? Much dislike having a woman have a preference that isn't "Whatever you say, dear"?

Yeah, it's a loaded word that may have a story or two behind it (or may not.) Thanks!

OP here... thanks for the response! I think a critical part I forgot to add is that I am more okay with hoping I established a strong boundary than my husband is. I'm afraid telling my husband "I'm not condoning her behavior but her silence is a good sign; let's let it lie" will make him feel...unsupported in his frustration? At the end of the day, he knows that if he has "beef" with my mom, he should address her directly and not through me; but I still feel a nagging desire to stand up for him/us and demand an apology. (...It could also be those years of watching the women bullies has made me hypersensitive and wanting to respond with a show of force... but that's a therapy session for another day)

Gotcha. This all makes a ton of sense. I wonder if you could help him figure out whether an apology is a) realistic and b) would actually make him feel better if it seemed coerced. I totally get how you want to stand up for him and avenge this-- and I have always maintained that it should be the member of the couple whose own family it is who should help serve as mediator with their own family, rather than making their partner go it alone-- but I just wonder if an apology is more for symbolism than anything else. Let's say she apologizes and it's full of passive-aggression to the point where you feel like you need an apology for the apology. And then the cycle continues? It's wonderful that you have your husband's back. You both just need to decide together exactly what that should look like.

So many questions-- and a shift from Spinal Tap to Alien Ant Farm (oof. Still in my head.) You guys are wonderful. As always, if I didn't get to your question, keep a look out in the column for it, or in a future chat. Thanks so much for joining us and I'll see you next week at the same time!

We have the original poster about the language issues with husband who has just written back in. Thank you! We're past our deadline here, but I will definitely revisit in in next week's chat!

See you then!

In This Chat
Dr. Andrea Bonior
Dr. Andrea Bonior is a licensed clinical psychologist and the voice behind Baggage Check since its start in 2005. She serves on the faculty of Georgetown University and is the author of the Publisher's Weekly best-seller "Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World" and "The Friendship Fix.”
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