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Family Relations/Difficulties with in-laws


QUESTION: Dear Mr Borkosky,

 I'm recently married in another country, after 3 years of relationship with my husband, with whom I have a stable, loving and caring bond.
The only problem we come across is his family. Apart from not being raised in the same country (Western and Eastern Europe), we come from completely different social backgrounds. The fact would never bother me, because the two of us are very similar in character, interests, beliefs etc. From the day I met his family I faced a problematic communication that I thought I would try to ignore and be nice, try to build a good communication and treat them almost as my own family.
 My husband comes from a 6 children-home, where everyone is envious to the other siblings, they are mean and gossipy, there are no boundaries and no one cared to teach them as children how to behave. There is also a crime and jail history at several members of the family, living on welfare, not caring of any education, etc. My husband and the eldest brother were the ''black sheep'' and from an early age they wanted more than living on a welfare like their parents so they went to a University, moved to other cities, started a normal life, careers. The parents have always put their noses in their childrens' relationships, so every time we come and visit there is a gossiping going on about someone of siblings' dates or spouses, very harsh words which I ignore, not wanting to be a part of the gossip. Also, I recently learnt that the eldest brother had cut all the contacts with all family members some 10 years ago, to protect his wife and kids from constant control of my mother in-law, gossiping of the siblings, jealousy, etc.
 Now they started turning themselves against me, and also from the beginning I constantly faced being ridiculed for my accent (although I speak 5 languages apart from my mothertongue), with the negative opinions about the people from another countries, I'm constantly asked if ''in my country there is electricity, running water, if we have supermarkets, tv-s, etc.'', stereotypes that all foreign women are prostitutes who marry for getting a visa (although I am a PhD, like my parents, grandparents,etc., I've lived and studied in many European countries, I'm successful and I don't need to justify myself, I think).     Those people don't have the slightest idea how to behave, and with the mean intentions to add, it is very difficult time when we have to visit them, which is twice a month or so. Christmass is a disaster, I'm always scared that someone will throw someone of the siblings from the window in all the quarells. My mother-in-law is even friend of my husband's ex girlfriend, and that girl is always present and invited to the family events when we can't come, and being nosy she too gets into this circle of getting the information about our private life.
 My husband is saying he is trying to make a distance from his family, but when confronted, he puts his head down, lets them insult him and thinks that pushing the problems under the carpet will make the problems dissappear. I tried to talk to him for several times, but he avoids talking to his family. I am not talking of cutting all the contacts, I mean - when your brother insults your wife in an sms, you shouldn't ignore it because he is your brother, but tell him not to dare talk about your wife that way! When your ex girlfriend writes to tell you that your mother asks this or that, you should tell her that it's not her business to transfer the family news... He just ignores everything, which will, I'm afraid, worsen the situation.
 Which would be the best way to protect ourselves from these people, in this situation?

  Thank you very much!

ANSWER: Hi, Liana, thanks for your question. You asked, "Which would be the best way to protect ourselves from these people, in this situation?"

First of all, let me say that I know that cultural influences affect interpersonal relationships quite a lot. I apologize beforehand for not knowing your (or husbands) culture. I'm afraid that my answer will not be as helpful as I would want it to be (because of that).

The first thing I would do is to get more clear about the behaviors you are asking about (things that people do and say). For example, you say that "they are mean and gossipy, there are no boundaries and no one cared to teach them as children how to behave." So, make a list of the actual behaviors that are mean, and the actual words that are gossipy. That makes it easier to think about the situation logically.

The closest I could come, from your message, was:
"ridiculed for my accent"
"negative opinions about the people from another countries"
"in my country there is electricity, running water, if we have supermarkets, tv-s, etc."
"all foreign women are prostitutes who marry for getting a visa "

2nd, I think it is less helpful to impute/assign motive for people's actions. One way of thinking about it is that people live at all different levels of functioning. We know that some people are intellectually disabled, but we don't call them lazy. In a similar way, many people live their lives at a lower level - doing crimes, fighting, arguing. Many, perhaps most are not able to even see that there is a better way. That is the only life they know, and they don't know that they don't know any better.

3rd, it is helpful to distinguish your life from their lives - you from them. IOW, stop trying to get other people to change their behavior. Not only is that bringing you down (because now you are arguing, which is something you would not do by choice), but it is ineffective. Instead, decide beforehand how you want to live, what kinds of things you want to do. Then live your life that way. Don't let other people decide for you by reacting instead of being proactive.

There is a story I heard once. Perhaps a Buddhist one. A fearsome warrior invaded a village, killing the men and raping the women, and burning the houses. He came to the house of a great wise man. The man opened the door and just stood there. The warrior said, 'bow down to me, don't you know who I am? Why, I could run this sword right through you without blinking an eye!" The wise man slowly answered, "don't you know who I am? You could run your sword right through me, and I wouldn't blink an eye!"

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thank you very much for a quick and helpful answer. I can say it helped me understand the fact that some people live a certain way and cannot do better. And I shouldn't ever expect that people change. I think that way because I always question my own behavior and always try to correct what I and my close people may notice as inapropriate. So, living in a civilized world, I'm also expecting from other grown-up people (which are mentally healthy) to have some self boundaries in what should/shouldn't be said to another person, what is a bad behavior, etc. Because I could, if I wanted, be like them. Not caring of what I say and to whom to say...It's like being in a traffic and caring or not caring of other vehicles, pedestrians, etc.

 And in this story I believe there is no question if I know how to live my life - I'm living my life the way I like it, in peace with other people (and myself), my job, hobbies, loving person, friends, etc. It is only the moment when the ``clouds of in-laws`` approach our normal and fulfilled live that the ''situation of danger'' beginns.
 Thank you very much!:)

ANSWER: Hi Liana, I made that suggestion, because you said, "... tell him not to dare talk about your wife that way ..." and "... tell her that it's not her business ..." I suggest NOT  doing stuff like that, because

1. you are essentially arguing with them (which is contrary to how you want to live your life)
2. it is ineffective (won't alter their behavior)
3. it actually increases the unwanted behavior
4. waste of time

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Hi Mr Borkosky!

I understand what you meant, you're right - this stuff is in fact like arguing, I realize it....So some other way of putting boundaries would be surely more effective instead of 'you must,... don't dare, he shouldn't', etc.

Thank you again!!!;)

yes, correct. Further, I prefer not using psychology jargon words (e.g., boundaries) when helping people improve their lives. Those words are better when speaking to other psychologists. I prefer using more concrete language, such as the things that people do and say. The reason is that everyone can change their actions, but not everyone agrees on what "boundaries" should be (or even what they are). Lastly ... and I forgot to mention this, but additional reasons not to tell others what to do:

5. we don't have the legal authority to tell others what to do (only the govt does).
6. we don't have the moral authority to tell them (only God does).
7. cognitive therapy tells us that this kind of thinking is actually unhelpful - even when we tell it to ourselves! IOW, there is actually no such thing as 'things we should or should not do'. This distinction is made up, fabricated, not real.

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Bruce Borkosky, Psy.D.


questions framed similarly to 'what are some ways to respond when someone does/says X' are best. Questions posed in the form of 'why does my father do/say Y', or 'how would you diagnose my mother when she does/says Z' are difficult, if not impossible, to answer. I will probably reframe your question to fit the first question (what do I do). Nay question regarding any family member is fair game. Some of the most difficult are in the area of step-parenting and divorcing families.


I've been a licensed psychologist in Florida since 1994. I've evaluated and/or treated thousands of patients.

American Psychological Association Florida Psychological association National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology


Psy.D., Miami Institute of Psychology, 1993 M.CS., U. of Dayton, 1984 B.A., Ohio Wesleyan U., 1978

Awards and Honors
Award for Years of Dedicated Service, Palm Beach County Legal Aid Society, 1999

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