Psychological research clearly shows that people who feel under appreciated tend to resent the criticism and ignore the advice they’re given.∗
As you could probably have guessed, I’m not a fan of reality TV. “Reality” and “TV” are one of the great oxymorons of our day. I get enough of “reality” in my therapy practice. When I’m home relaxing, the last thing I want to do is listen to people belittle each other, one-up each other, act all righteous and then use their own pride as a justification to put others’ in their place. One of our great marital researchers, John Gottman, has studied the negative emotions that predict divorce and he’s concluded they are defensiveness, criticism, contempt, and belligerence. These emotions are abundant on these TV shows and what they portray is relational disaster. So if you want to know how to ruin your relationships just start quoting these TV shows to your loved ones and see how well things go. After a while we’d probably agree that calling your relatives “loved ones” would be a stretch.
Sadly, you don’t have to watch these shows to learn how to be mean. You can do it on your own accord without even trying. If you want to hurt your spouse or your child or, better yet, your mother-in-law, practice scoffing at them. But don’t just stop at scoffing. Make sure you roll your eyes and shake your head and look away. Timing is everything. Go for the effect. See how they take it. And then when they scoff back, you can get mad and blame them for being rude to you. How dare they treat you with such disrespect?
I’m curious why I see the lion’s share of this type of distain between daughters-in-laws and mother-in-laws. I’m also curious why, in my therapy office, I hear ten daughter-in-laws complaining about their mother-in-laws before I hear a mother-in-law complaining about her daughter-in-law. What’s the deal with that? What is this great evil that mother-in-laws are committing? They say things like, “When I raised Johnney, I didn’t do it that way.” Or, “You seem to be working a lot. Do you think you are spending enough time with your children?”
This is one of the hazards of being an older person. We’ve been down the road before. We’ve seen a few potholes. Watch out over there for the ogre behind that tree! It’s hard not to give a warning here or there. But we should probably keep Bing’s Ground Rule of Giving Advice in mind when giving advice:
Don’t give advice unless asked.
As soon as I give this advice I break the rule because I’m giving you advice about advice without you asking for it. Also, this Ground Rule isn’t universal, so that’s why it’s not in the Bible. The police officer at the accident scene takes over and tells everyone what they need to do and he should and you’d better listen even though you might not be inclined to take advice at that moment. He’d never sit around a wait for you to ask for his input. You give advice to your 2-year old son without asking and for his safety and well-being he’d better take it. But when he’s 14 you walk a bit softer because you’re dealing with a budding adult. He isn’t your peer, but he can think and reason and critique things and he can read your mood and tell if you are being kind or sarcastic or if you care or if you are just being a butt-head, and if the latter you can expect a sigh or a rolling of the eyes and that will be hard to take and the temptation will be to dish it back and now you’re both reverting to the 2-year old. And if she’s 26 or 35 and married to your son and you are in the mentoring type mood and start in on how to do thus and so you may quickly find that Bing’s Ground Rule for Advice really does apply in this situation and you’d better wait to give advice unless asked. Or, if you are a tad impatient you can apply Bing’s Corollary Ground Rule for Giving Advice:
If you have an idea about how your daughter-in-law might improve her life or the life of your grandchildren or your son, say, ever so gently, that you have an idea and you aren’t telling her what to do or anything and if she is interested you’d be willing to share this idea, but you aren’t sure, but sometimes it’s helpful, but not always, and you’d have to weigh the pros and the cons, but who knows, it might be worth it, but you’d have to see.
∗ Maurer, Robert. (2004). One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Zaizen Way. New York: Workman Publishing. P. 70.