Name That Tune

by : Wayne and Tamara

Direct Answers - Column for the week of July 26, 2004

I have been married to a wonderfully grounded woman for nine years, and we have two young children. The problem? My mother-in-law lives from crisis to crisis. She claims to have a "plan," but it is always the wrong plan and my wife and I are constantly picking up the pieces.

A one year experiment of her living with us turned into a stressful five year stay. We are financially stable, but our oldest child is a special needs child who is draining our financial resources at a healthy clip. When our second child was born, we gave my mother-in-law an ultimatum, and she moved into a house with a female roommate 15 minutes away.

The arrangement lasted two years before the roommate had enough and booted her. She then traveled to California to stay with my wife's older sister and her family. That arrangement didn't last six weeks. According to our family in California, she showed more interest in her hair curlers than in her grandchildren.

My wife's mother is well-educated and in good health. Her first love is writing. She has been working on her "masterpiece" for 25 years, and I am sure it will never be submitted to a publisher. She refuses to pursue financially rewarding work, but she is a great talker. If she were paid by the spoken word, she'd have more money than Bill Gates.

If my mother-in-law knows there's a safety net, she'll use it. My wife knows this, too, but in the end she feels obligated to be her mother's savior. I've given plenty of warning in the past by saying if preventable "situation X" recurs, I will not be a party to it. Sure enough, situation X repeats itself, and I'm asked at the last minute to drop everything and provide a solution.

Just yesterday my mother-in-law enlisted our help moving again. She didn't ask until the moving deadline was less than 48 hours away. I want to support my wife, but I can no longer condone her mother's behavior. The one blessing is that my marriage is on a solid foundation.


Nathan, whether it's heaven and hell, karma and rebirth, running a prison, or teaching a child, the one idea that runs through all life is that behavior has consequences. When behavior doesn't have consequences, disorder prevails.

As long as your mother-in-law doesn't bear the consequences of her behavior, you and your wife will. The problem is this. Your wife feels obligated to meet her mother's demands, whether those demands are legitimate or not, and your mother-in-law is a master at pushing her daughter's buttons.

In her book "Emotional Blackmail," Susan Forward writes, "Every time we capitulate to emotional blackmail, we lose contact with our integrity, the inner compass that helps us determine what our values and behavior should be." This is why you feel you have had enough of your mother-in-law's behavior.

Children learn by being given responsibility and suffering consequences when they don't act responsibly. But your mother-in-law, a grandmother, isn't learning anything. All these years she has been getting away with it.

Your mother-in-law doesn't feel bad about the repercussions to you. She is like a gambler gambling with someone else's money. She is like the teenager whose parents bail her out of every situation. The fewer the repercussions to her, the more destructive and thoughtless her actions can be.

In the old television show "Name That Tune," contestants competed to name a tune in the fewest number of notes. That is also the key to understanding people who manipulate us. When we can name a manipulator's tune from the first few notes, we can stop their controlling behavior the instant it begins.

The book "Emotional Blackmail" teaches you the blackmailer's tunes. It is the perfect antidote for people who feel they have lost themselves in trying to please others.

Wayne & Tamara