In-laws Are Like Artichokes

by Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC

A Prickly Subject: Mother-in-laws

prickly artichokeI can't prove it, but my guess is that leading up to and, especially, after the birth of children, the subject of in-laws is a touchy one for many couples.

Heck, if a recent online poll is right, resistance around in-laws -- at least mothers-in-law -- is perpetual: 51% of respondents said they'd rather clean than spend the day with MIL's, and 76% said they wouldn't ask MIL's for parenting advice!

So what to do if we disagree about in-laws? As importantly, what not to do?

Understanding is not the Same as Agreeing

Dave and Stacy are expecting their first child*. Recently, they've started to bicker every time the topic of Dave's mom, Iris, comes up.

Stacy used to find Dave's close relationship with his mom sweet, proof he's a sensitive guy; a nice contrast to her distant relationship with her mother.

Yet as her due-date approaches, she worries his closeness with Iris will damage their marriage, in part because Iris plans to stay with them post-delivery.

The closer they get to the birth, the more Dave welcomes his mother's unsolicited parenting advice and encourages Stacy to ask Iris about how to raise their child. "After all, she raised me and my sibs and we turned out great!"

Stacy is concerned that Iris will show up and take over. She's more concerned that Dave will let her, and that Stacy will be too tired to resist.

What does Dave think? He loves his mom and thinks she's a great parent. Why not ask her for her advice and help? Stacy's overreacting.

Here's the thing about our differing opinions. They're all right...partially.

Faced with disagreements, most of us assume that the best course of action is to convince our spouses that our perspective is correct, and to point out the error of their ways.

Yet anyone who's been in a relationship for more than a minute knows the success-rate for changing a spouse's opinion on important stuff (meaning, important to them, not just us) is pretty low. And even if we do succeed, we sometimes wonder if we've really convinced them or just bullied them into agreeing with us for the moment.

Instead of continuing to argue about Iris, I suggested that Dave and Stacy try another approach, a first-step to decrease conflict and ramp up understanding.

Just to be clear, understanding is not the same as agreeing.

The Artichoke Principle

Based on psychologist, Harville Hendrix's concept of finding "the desire at the heart of the complaint," I call this approach "The Artichoke Principle."

Let's assume for a moment that, while Stacy appears focused on the topic of Iris, that's not really what's at issue, not really. If not Iris, then what?

Now the fun part. Pretend that each bullet-point in Stacy's case against her MIL is like an artichoke leaf, tough and prickly, especially to Dave.

What if Dave found a way to gently pull off each leaf, to peel back the spines, and get to the tender artichoke heart, a.k.a. his wife's real issue; her core concern?

If we dig far enough under most relationship complaints, we often find dreams -- the heart of the matter -- we have yet to fulfill or desires we fear we'll have to give up.

How do we get to that core? With a question worth memorizing and repeating. "What's your yearning or dream at the heart of your complaint?"

The initial response is often another complaint, such as, "Stop assuming your mother knows how to raise our child better than we do."

"What's your yearning or dream under that complaint?" Stacy replied, "That you respect me as much Iris, that you have faith I'll be a good mom (I worry I won't be), that you and I parent based on who we are and who our kid is, not based on someone else's approach, that we're a team, unlike my parents."

To solicit these and other responses, Dave had to ask the question a few times. The more he did, the more Stacy was able to get to the heart of her complaint.

This works both ways. When Stacy asked what was under his complaint about Stacy's concerns regarding Iris, she heard some interesting stuff. "The more we respect my mom, the more we teach our kid to respect us. I want you to have a close relationship with my mom, because you didn't with yours. I want to ease the parenting burden on you because I have to go back to work right away."

Getting to the heart of the artichoke doesn't make a problem disappear. Iris is still opinionated and plans to stay with them postpartum. Understanding each other's core yearnings does give Stacy and Dave a new vocabulary to navigate Iris's visit and support each other's dreams when she's around.

What can we all do once we get to the core issue, once we're holding our beloved's (artichoke) heart in the palms of our hands? Try acknowledging each other's desires and, as much as possible, work together to honor them, even if 60% or as little as 10%. Trust me. Doing so is less painful than being pricked by those tough complaint spines!

*Names and details have been changed.

Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC is a professional relationship coach and founder of Parent Alliance®, a resource for expectant couples and parents with young children who are committed to ensuring their relationships thrive after they have kids. Rhona received her training from the Coaches Training Institute and the Center for Right Relationship and is accrediated by The International Coach Federation. She is mom to a pre-schooler and will be welcoming her second child this summer. From her office in Los Angeles, Rhona coaches couples across North America.

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