Dear Ann Cannon • I received a desperate call from my daughter-in-law, explaining that my good-hearted, good-father stepson (whom I’ve raised since he was 8) is not so good. They hide their issues from the extended family, but in private he denigrates her, refuses to help with five kids, and demands sex continuously as some kind of “payment” for what he provides the family. Although the decision that she be a stay-at-home mom was mutual, he constantly derides her for not pulling her weight, laziness, blah, blah, blah.
Lately, he’s been using expletives in arguments in front of their children, and to add more pain, my stepson’s biological mother has re-inserted herself into their lives, and he has been surreptitiously giving her large amounts of money (that they don’t really have). (Birth mom is manipulative and selfish.) His father and I have taken steps to become more involved with the family (they live about 1.5 hours away from us), as I think his dad has a leveling effect on him. But any ideas on what we can do as concerned parents to help him out of this dark place he’s in?
— Sad and Concerned
Dear Sad • Wow. I’m assuming that you believe your daughter-in-law is credible, which means there’s a lot of heartache here. For her. For you and your husband. For everyone involved. Because the situation you describe is especially complicated, I ran your letter past a good friend of mine who’s a therapist. My answer reflects some of her insights.
By reaching out to you, your daughter-in-law has taken a brave and important step toward changing that situation. She has chosen not to remain silent, so if you haven’t done so already, thank her for exposing her family’s unsavory secret. And kudos to you for hearing her out.
Obviously, you can’t swoop in and make everything immediately all better. (ALTHOUGH IT WOULD BE SO AWESOME IF YOU COULD!) Because your daughter-in-law has asked for your help, however, you can empower her to respond rather than react to your son’s abusive behavior. Provide her with examples of things that she can say to him, such as, “I’m not sure why you think it’s permissible to degrade me, but I want it to stop” or “I would never speak to you this way, so I’m not sure why you feel like it’s OK for you to denigrate me.” She can also tell him that she’d be happy to discuss their problems in front of a neutral third party, such as a therapist.
Tell your daughter-in-law that you and your husband would like to be part of the solution, then ask what that would look like to her. Would she support you, for example, in speaking directly to your son? I’m going to throw something else out there. If there’s been a change in your son’s behavior — in other words, he hasn’t always been a jerk (and I suspect he hasn’t) — there might be something else going on. Escalating aggression in a person is often caused by another issue — addiction, for example, or an affair. This may be something to keep in mind as you attempt to help these people you love.
I’m sorry this is your story right now. Remember, though, that if people will own the problem, things can change for the better. Please don’t give up hope.
Meanwhile, I received one of my favorite letters of all time this week …
Dear Ann Cannon • What do you think the great preacher Billy Graham would say about the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy?
Dear Wondering • I doubt he would have made it past the first shade or two.