DEAR CAROLYN: I have known my daughter-in-law for 14 years, but we have no relationship. We have never had an argument or even any unkind words between us. Their son, our only grandchild, is the apple of my eye and we have a wonderful time with him. The problem is that no matter what I seem to do, my daughter-in-law shuns me. She rarely speaks to me. If I speak to her she responds with one or two words. On a recent visit to their home, there were no sheets on our bed, no towels, and no toilet paper in the bathroom. I had just sent them a gift for their anniversary, and it was sitting in the family room. She never acknowledged it or thanked us.
I asked my son, in private, what I might do to improve my relationship with her. He said there is no problem; she’s like that with everyone, she is just quiet. He seemed annoyed I would even ask. I clarified that if I perceived it to be a problem then there was validity in that, but he simply changed the subject.
I know things could be much worse. She is not mean to me; she does not prevent access to my grandchild or overtly interfere with my relationship with my son. It is just so terribly awkward and uncomfortable to be around someone who works so hard to maintain distance. I worry that if I try to address this directly with her, I jeopardize what I currently have. I sadly find myself simply ignoring her during our visits now, since I cannot continue to tolerate what I perceive as her rejection of me.
I vacillate between accepting her “as she is” and being angry at what can only be described as rudeness. Your suggestions?
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Never Thought It Would Be This Hard
DEAR NEVER THOUGHT: Your son gave you the only answer you need, and an out: This is just the way his wife is.
It’s not the answer you wanted — you want a warm relationship with your daughter-in-law (“Dilly”), understandably, and TP is nice, and so you were hoping to hear there was something concrete you were doing wrong and could therefore fix.
But it was the second-best answer, and also a totally workable one. Your son gave you license to accept Dilly as she is. Forget whether it’s actually true that “she’s like that with everyone”; for your purposes, it is. She’s inert matter: not good, not bad, just there.
Let’s put proper emphasis, too, on the “not bad.” You are welcome in the lives of your son and your grandchild and I obviously don’t have to remind you that not everyone with a less-than-welcoming son- or daughter-in-law is so blessed.
I’d also argue this reframing is not optional. Your son’s answer is workable only if you choose not to walk yourself out onto the “I cannot continue to tolerate” limb, and choose to rethink “what I perceive.” Taking Dilly personally makes you her adversary. Taking her as socially awkward, and being consistently warm and kind, makes you her ally. Maybe a thaw will never happen, but where’s your best chance that it will?
Oh, and about those absentee linens — Dilly and your son are manners-challenged. Don’t lay that all on the girl.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.