Category Archives: Living in Harmony
Five long years waiting for the freedom of letting go
This is the painfully true story of “Mrs. Katz” (names and some details changed).
Mrs. Katz has two daughters: Miri, 32, with four children, and Yocheved, who at age 29 was still waiting for her bashert.
It was five long years since Miri and her mother last spoke.
It started when Miri was sick and asked her mother to come babysit. Mrs. Katz, who was usually available, had had a hard day and was in no condition to deal with her adorable but admittedly rather-a-handful grandkids. In modern jargon they say “she ran out of emotional bandwidth.” But Miri couldn’t accept that.
How could her mother let her down when she needed her? How could she be so selfish?
Miri was very upset and said something to the effect that her mother was there for her “only when it suited her.” These words cut Mrs. Katz, and she was incensed. How could Miri say this? After everything she did for her, too. Such ingratitude! Such chutzpah! And to her own mother! Where was kibbud eim?
If both mother and daughter wouldn’t have uttered another word and simply got off the phone …. But Mrs. Katz really lashed out.
Perhaps no one more than parents and their children know how to say words that will poke through a chink in the armor of the other like poisoned arrows and enter the heart, causing great pain. Acidly Mrs. Katz reciprocated by reminding Miri of an incident from her past that was the epitome of egotism – an episode of selfishness that Miri was deeply (and rightfully, to be honest) ashamed of.
Miri was shamed and wounded to the core. She shouted that Yocheved had always been Mrs. Katz’s favorite and it “killed” Mrs. Katz that it was Miri who was married while Yocheved was still alone.
The conversation ended with Miri crying and screaming that she never, ever wanted to see or even speak to her mother again, and Mrs. Katz, bleeding emotionally and blinded with rage and pain, retorting, “Fine! Don’t even come to my levayah.”
And that was that.
What ensued were five long years of disconnect. Mrs. Katz missed her grandchildren sadly, and the kids couldn’t understand for the life of them where Bubby suddenly disappeared to. No one talked about it, but everyone was increasingly miserable.
Both Mrs. Katz and her daughter developed mechanisms to keep their true feelings in check, but a shadow hovered over everything in their lives. No simchah was complete. No normal conversation with the other one also in the room could be held with either of them. Family members tried to mediate, but to no avail. Their joy of living was sapped; they became increasingly miserable and eventually even their health suffered.
All the while Yocheved remained unmarried. Time slipping through her fingers left her in despair.
This last Yom Kippur, Mrs. Katz couldn’t take it anymore. She decided to swallow her pride, pick up the phone, and call Miri to wish her ah gut gebentched year.
“Hello?” said Miri.
There was a stunned silence. Neither really knew what to say.
Mrs. Katz started “I…I wanted to wish you…” but couldn’t finish her sentence as tears were chocking her. When she shakily asked Miri how she was, her daughter exclaimed, “Oh, Mommy…” and broke down.
She told her mother how miserable she had been. How sorry she was, how she regretted every single word she had said. Her mother was crying, lamenting the time they both lost and the damage they had caused their own families. They talked for an hour straight, catching up.
And three weeks later Yocheved became a kallah!
Not all feuds are dramatic, perhaps, but people hardly ever realize the heavy price they pay for holding on to a grudge. Dinim – heavenly indictments and decrees – are only too real, and nothing brings them down to earth more readily than a machlokes! Strife makes people sick, both in body and in spirit. It makes their lives solitary and bitter, and damages them and everyone around them.
Conversely, nothing undoesdinim (harsh decrees) like vatranus – looking away from a real or imagined wrong.
So if you feel as if your life hit a snag and instead of growth you experience atrophy and unhappiness, think back. Are you holding onto a grudge and refusing to let go “on principle”?
You can do yourself – and the klal – no greater chessed than humbling yourself and letting it go.
Suddenly you’ll feel optimistic again, ready to go forward.
You’ll start to live!
Esti learns what a real friend is.
Esti was a vivacious seminary girl with strong opinions, unwavering self-esteem, and a ton of friends. Esti was, in fact, a magnet for friends.
To be near her was to bask in the glow of her self-assurance, her “with-it-ness,” and her popularity. She was great. She wasn’t overly generous, but let’s face it: how many of us truly are? She was like most of us in that regard – okay, with a serious need for improvement. Not the end of the world.
Then there was Ruchi. We all know quite a few Ruchis. Ruchi was a year younger than Esti. She was sweet and genuinely generous and…well…“a little off.” You know, like someone wearing a tichel with the center ornament just off to the side. Ruchi spoke with a slight lisp and often suspected she was being made fun of (which, unfortunately, was sometimes true). She would then get all red in the face and stammer.
Ruchi had one hero she admired above everyone else. Yes, our Esti.
Now that put Esti in an awkward position. She was just a girl growing up, having a reasonably good time, with little patience for those on the sidelines. Unfortunately, Ruchi’s idiosyncrasies rubbed Esty the wrong way. Her “nebbiness” irritated Esty like a sound of a fingernail scratching on a blackboard. She couldn’t help it. She was genuinely repelled by the adoring Ruchi and just wished her gone.
Around Esti, Ruchi simply glowed. She would greet her idol with a smile that revealed braces, which weren’t always very clean. Esti would groan inwardly. Most times Esti was actually pretty good at concealing her aversion and Ruchi was so infatuated she didn’t notice a thing. Esti was HER FRIEND! Wow!
Ruchi would offer Esti to get together. She invited her to her birthday parties and tried to expand their “friendship,” and took all of Esti’s refusals as the price you had to pay to have a superstar like Esti as a friend.
But one day Ruchi decided to force the issue. It was a bad move, with terrible timing. Even popular girls have bad days and problems. Oblivious as always, Ruchi found Esti and asked why it was always she who did the inviting while Esty turned her down and never reciprocated. “Friends don’t treat friends that way.”
Esty exploded. “Friends???” she exclaimed. “We’re FRIENDS?? You’ve been pestering me FOR YEARS. We’re not friends, we never were friends and we never will be. Every time I see you I want to run away! JUST. LEAVE. ME. ALONE. ALREADY!!!” Esti turned and stormed away, fuming.
Ruchi stood there, all color drained from her face. She wanted to run, but didn’t trust her legs to carry her. Walking away, Esti couldn’t help but feel some regret because she didn’t really mean to be vicious, but she was secretly relieved, too. Ruchi would leave her alone from now on. She never asked for Ruchi’s admiration, so why was she responsible for not reciprocating the feelings?
Both girls graduated, and they didn’t see each other again for many years. They both got married, too. Ruchi married a gentle yeshiva boy who became an accountant, and who cherished his awkward wife like a precious jewel. Over the years they had seven children.
Esti, of course, got married too. Her bashert fit her status as a star, a smart and popular girl. A astute businessman, he did very nicely. They bought a nice house and owned two latest-model cars. The only thing wrong with this picture was that fact that that wonderful house was empty. All medical tests showed there was no problem with either of them, but seventeen years after their wedding they were still without children.
Esti looked at her image in the mirror. Her sheitel was expensive and exquisitely cut. She looked as radiant as ever. Only her maturing hands told the story of the passing years and the rapidly closing window of opportunity.
Truth be told, her life was empty. She had a husband who loved her, yes, but the strain was hard on him as well. Time was encroaching; they were nearing their forties. Esti realized she needed a miracle.
Of course she and her husband reached out to Gedolei Yisrael for blessings and advise. Each one asked them if ever in the past they hurt someone deeply and never made amends. When the third Gadol asked, a light bulb finally went on in Esti’s mind.
Esti stood on Ruchi’s doorstep and cried like she had never cried before – and the more she cried, the worse she felt. She was sorry, of course, but she was apologizing mostly because needed a yeshuah.
And wouldn’t you know it, Ruchi was the same Ruchi; still “slightly off,” still as kind and generous as ever. She took one look at Esti and understood everything – both the said and the unsaid. “Of course I forgive you.” She hugged Esti and consoled her, which made Esti feel even worse, of course.
Looking into Ruchi’s kind, wise eyes Esti suddenly realized how lucky she would have been to have her as a friend all along. She cried harder in her remorse. “I’m so stupid” she wept. “I was stupid when I was young and I’m still as stupid as ever. Stupid…stupid…stupid…”
“No, you’re not,” Ruchi said.
“Yes, I am. You don’t know what’s in my heart.”
Ruchi smiled, “No, but I can venture a pretty good guess. You’re not stupid at all, you’re just normal. You were always popular and successful, and that’s a very hard nisayon. Like being rich, it’s a honey-trap. I forgive you with all my heart. Don’t worry.”
Esti just held on to her, the tears streaming down. “Can I be your frend?” Esti whispered.
“Of course,” Ruchi said simply, as she started crying too. “Oh, how many years I’ve waited to hear you say that…”
About ten months later Esti gave birth to a girl.
This is a true story. “I’m so lucky,” Esti says when she recounts it. “Hashem had mercy on me and gave me a second chance. Of course I can’t roll back the lost years…
So sit back in a quiet room, alone, and reflect. When you hurt someone, the two of you are tied to one another with invisible chains – until you make amends and set both of you free.
Just do it.
The complete guide to getting along
The relationships in our lives can be rewarding or painful, simple or complex. But few are as volatile as our relationships with extended family – read that “in-laws,” between you and your daughter-in-law (DIL), you and your mother-in-law (MIL), you and your sister-in-law (SIL).
The “problematic in-law” is not merely a trite cliché. Studies show that 60% of women experience a stressful relationship with their MIL. The most prevalent complaint of MIL’s is that they are frozen out of the relationship, and of DIL’s – that they feel disapproved of or intruded upon by their MIL. Only 15% of MIL’s regard their DIL as a precious friend.
Whether your relationship with your in-laws is idyllic or horrific, the insights below are vital for your well-being. If you are dealing with frustrating situations similar to the ones we will discuss, understanding the subject will certainly add peace to your life. But even if you are not experiencing in-law tensions, learning about the topic will make you more sensitive to what others are contending with – and perhaps prepare you for interactions lurking around the bend…
We invest so much into relationships with our extended family. How we long for a harmonious, gratifying co-existence! Why then do we so often end up feeling more exhausted than satisfied?
Consider the following typical situations:
- Your MIL asks to come for Shabbos. You work all week whipping up delicacies, organizing your closets, polishing every surface. On Friday afternoon, just as your MIL arrives, your husband steps out to pick up one last item at the grocery. Ignoring the sparkling house and tantalizing aroma, she says disapprovingly, “You’re sending him out so close to Shabbos?” Tears fill your eyes, before Shabbos even begins.
- You enjoy spending time with the extended family on Yom Tov. But one SIL has a habit of addressing one of your children, saying, “Ask your mother for a tissue,” or “Tell your mother to change your shirt.” You feel constantly criticized.
You love your DIL and appreciate that she makes your son so happy. But you find it so annoying that she always waits till the last minute to say which Yom Tov meal they’re coming for, because she works around her parents’ schedule. “How does my son let her twist us around her finger?” What makes in-law relationships more complicated than others? They are often more complex, involving some kind of triangulation – e.g., you, your MIL and your husband. They deal with adults, not children or adolescents, whom we can excuse with immaturity or inexperience. And then there is the sheer power of the negative emotions that erupt from these misunderstandings, affecting our mood, functioning, marriage, and the strength we have to get through the day.
Our in-laws can cause us tremendous joy and be a source of support or be an unending source of tribulation and challenge. To a great degree – it depends on us.
Time to ACT!
If you want to make things better, don’t wait for other people to take the lead. You need to act, not react. I would like to share a formula that has proven itself in my personal and professional experience to minimize in-law conflict and help us make the most of what family life has to offer. I call it the ACT formula: Awareness – Communication – Timely boundaries.
Information and communication are power. When we develop an awareness of people’s personalities and what makes them tick – or get ticked off – we see things differently. When we master the intricacies of constructive communication, we respond responsibly and create a climate of understanding and cooperation. And when we set timely boundaries, we proactively set the scene for better relationships in the long term.
Awareness – of Personality
Please, do not use this information about personality types just to categorize others. Use it to understand them, to put their conduct into context – and to turn the lens inward to see how you respond and how other see you. Remember, every quality has both positive and negative aspects. We won’t call them “bad,” but rather “difficult.”
Four difficult MIL (or SIL) personalities:
- The OPEN CRITIC gives unasked advice, always “altruistically” – “I’m only trying to help you. If you would only put away each ingredient/ get some exercise/write down your expenses, etc. you’d feel much better.”
- The MANIPULATIVE CRITIC criticizes you when your partner’s not around or by proxy, to your husband when you’re not there. “My mother’s upset that you don’t come into the kitchen to help.” Nobody likes criticism, especially coming from someone whose approval you crave.
- The ENGULFER is loving and connected. The problem is that she measures your love by the hours you spend with them, how often you call, etc. Too much love can be stifling, but how do you explain this to your husband without appearing to be an “ingrate”?
- The CONTROLLER says, “I bought you the … now you have to …” or builds on guilt: “After all we did for you, you must…” leaving you feeling powerless and intimidated.
- The REJECTER rejects the newcomer, and much as you try to coax her, all you get are short phone calls, one-word answers, and the gnawing pain of feeling unwanted. Then there are the easy personalities that we all aspire to be:
- The ACCEPTER accepts you just as you are, making no comparison.
- The VALIDATOR goes a step further and validates your approach, your disciplinary measures, everything you do.
- The ASSISTER is always there to help – with money, knowledge, listening ear, technical assistance.
- The ENCOURAGER helps you be the best “you” you can be.
DIL – Also Differ Surprise!
The wrench in the works is not always thrown in by the MIL. Sometimes the DIL is the difficult one to deal with:
- The WITHDRAWER makes it obvious that she’s unwilling to become a part of the family. Her MIL is hurt, her husband feels torn, and quiet pain permeates the family.
- The COMPLAINER is never happy with anything we give her – jewelry, linens, financial assistance.
- The USER feels very comfortable using her in-laws’ car, the contents of their freezer, babysitting services: “You’re there to serve.”
- The ENTITLED similarly feels that everything is coming to her. Other daughters-in-law are so much easier to love:
- The APPRECIATOR always acknowledges you with a note or a word of thanks dropped to you, to your husband, to your son.
- The CONNECTOR seeks ways to make the family closer – initiating picnics, buying small items for your home.
- The RESPECTER honors your privacy. You can’t exchange your difficult MIL or DIL for an “easier model.” But you can identify yourself in these types and work to soften your character, make the most of your talents and do Hashem proud.
Next Step: Communication—Overreacting
Has this scenario happened to you? You have so much to say, but you try to keep quiet and exercise self-restraint to keep the peace. Frustration builds up, until finally you end up talking – not at the best time, not with finesse, often in a screaming tone. It’s a cycle that can take place with anyone important in our lives, and it leaves us feeling unhappy and defeated.
When communicating with in-laws, we tend to overreact or underreact. Both result in the same sorry situation.
Here is an extreme example of overreacting:
Miriam has to travel abroad to her sister’s wedding. Rather than impose on her in-laws, she decides to leave her toddler by his regular babysitter, who knows his routine. Her MIL is devastated. Don’t they trust her? She conveys her feelings to her son. Miriam explodes – she speaks to all her siblings, rehashes all her complaints against her MIL from day one, leaves a long, nasty message on her cell phone – and regrets it a day later. Do you (sometimes) overreact?
Try this checklist:
- Are you not giving the benefit of the doubt?
- Are you taking everything personally?
- Do you find yourself issuing threats (“I’ll never speak to her again”)?
- Do you lapse into lashon hara?
- Do you sense you are behaving immaturely? If the answer to most of these is “yes,” your antennae should go up.
Underreacting – Also a No-No
When Dina married the youngest son in the family, she got along easily with all of her sisters-in-law except the last one, who did everything possible to make her feel unwanted. She always found something negative to say to Dina’s husband or their MIL in Dina’s presence, and then muttered, “Only teasing.” Dina felt physically sickened by the situation, but she thought, “This is my life. Better not to say anything.”
When we underreact, we convince ourselves that it is better to be miserable than to take control over our lives and we indicate our acquiescence. Do you (sometimes) underreact?
- Do you ignore your feelings?
- Do you fail to confront them, even when your marriage is being affected?
- Do you blame yourself for their unhealthy responses?
We know that there is special reward for the “ne’elavim v’eynam olvim,” those who accept offense without responding. If you can really transcend the pain, that may be true. But if the situation makes you feel depressed and ill or is impacting your marriage, ask your Rav whether silence is the best policy or if – and how – you should react.
It’s How You Say It
In order for communication to be realistic, respectable, and effective, we must give thought to two aspects: form and content. Content is what I have to say; form is how I say it, the packaging.
There are many facets to good form. Here is a sampling:
- TIMING – Am I or they in a rush? If there is a taxi waiting, that’s not a good time to talk.
- PRIVACY – Are there others around? The same words may be accepted graciously when there are no spectators, and summarily rejected when in front of children or parents at the Shabbos table. A public forum brings in issues of shame, ego, etc.
- INVITING COOPERATION – Before you begin to speak, ask, “Can I talk to you about something now?” The minute the other party says yes, you’ll sense an atmosphere of cooperation.
- TONE – Our tone of voice can be sarcastic and hostile, or warm and nurturing.
- FOCUS – Are we addressing too many issues at once? Remember, “Tafasta merubah lo tafasta,” if you try to pull in too much, you may be left with nothing. Zero in on a clear, concise message.
- EXAGGERATION – Avoid sweeping generalizations like, “You never help me.”
But Also – What You Say Now you are ready for the nitty-gritty. You have an unpleasant message to convey, a piece of criticism. How do you say it in the most painless manner?
First and foremost, avoid comparisons. Comparisons can often be even more stinging than outright criticism – whether it is a MIL comparing her daughters-in-law, a parent contrasting her different mechutanim in front of their children, or a wife comparing her in lawsto her own parents.
The secret to “helping the medicine go down” is to follow two rules: Make a sandwich and be the other party’s lawyer. A sandwich is a thin layer of filling between two thick slabs of bread. Here, the bread is the positive statement and the thin layer, the criticism you want to slip through. Being a lawyer means presenting the situation as if you were acting as their defense attorney.
Let’s see this technique in action:
Mindy is upset that her MIL constantly criticizes her son – Mindy’s husband – in front of her and the kids. Mindy asks her MIL if she has a few minutes to speak privately, when neither is in a rush. “I know you always want the best for us (lawyer). You probably don’t mean it, but many times, Chezky gets criticized (not you criticized him – passive form, a bit easier to accept) in front of the children.” Give an example and describe how it affects you /the children – makes it more difficult to respect him, pains you to see him hurt. Then work on a solution. “Can we try together (we’re on the same side) to think how you can show your love and caring (lawyering) in a less public way?” Pause. Then Mindy says, “Maybe we’ll both think about it and see what we come up with.”
I’m Sorry, But…
Apologies are a valuable component in communication, but only if you know how to make them. Identify the hitch in each of these “apologies”:
- Sister-in-law to sister-in-law: “I’m really sorry for not telling you about the joint Yom Tov gift, but really you started it when… Apology with blame.
- MIL to DIL: “Sorry I didn’t give them the nosh you left them – but I really expected you to give them more healthy nourishment” – Apology with criticism.
- DIL to MIL: “Sorry I didn’t let you know we weren’t coming for the meal, and you prepared and waited for us. My mother never minds if we change plans, as long as we feel good…” – Apology with comparison.
So how to apologize? Just – apologize! Without blaming, criticizing, comparing.
“I’m sorry for doing xyz. I didn’t realize how it would hurt you, I didn’t mean to make you feel bad, I hope to be more careful in the future.” And that’s that!
Time for Timely Barriers
We’ve gotten the first two parts of our “ACT” together – awareness and communication. At this point, depending on the relationship you have with your in-laws, you may find that the best way to implement your goals for a positive relationship is to enforce healthy boundaries. Remember, most choppy relationships do not stem from a conscious, directed affront on the part of your in-law. Sometimes, the in-law is clueless; she has absolutely no idea that she’s causing us tension. Either she is busy with her own life and simply doesn’t remember your birthday – or she is well-meaning and offers her two cents without imagining that she is stepping on toes.
Other times, she is confused. She senses her behavior upsets you but doesn’t know what to make of it and what to do about it – resulting in awkward silences. Alternately, she might realize something is awry but is unconsciously afraid to make a change because that would shake up her internal image as the perfect MIL, DIL, etc. Instead, she tries to shift the blame to you.
Only a small minority are aware they are causing pain, yet intentionally refuse to change because they are convinced they are right and that you owe them what they demand of you.
Here again, the goal is not to categorize and point a finger, but to grasp where others are coming from so we can accept them a bit better, and if necessary, set boundaries to defuse the points of contention.
Why should close, loving relationships need boundaries, and why should you be the one to enforce them?
Let’s take two exaggerated examples – of a MIL and a DIL – to answer these questions:
- Your MIL loves you so much, she decides to move in to a house right across the street. She knows when your lights are on and if the car is in the driveway. She pops in uninvited, and if the door is locked, she calls at all hours. If your kids answer, she asks, “What’s Mommy doing? Did you have a bath tonight? What did Mommy cook for supper?” She opens closets, expresses opinions, tags along on outings – you get the idea.
- Your DIL always leaves the children for you to babysit, never cleans up after herself, borrows money and doesn’t repay, takes for granted you’ll foot the bill for anything she buys when you’re with her, takes home stuff from your freezer for supper for the week, expects you to pay for the bris, a new carriage for every baby, a week at the mother-baby home…
Got your answers? If we don’t set boundaries, we will enable these scenarios. And if we don’t enforce them – nobody else will.
Falling into the Trap
Many times, we find ourselves doing things we do not want to do:
- “I don’t want to be at my in-laws’ home every single Shabbos ….
- “I don’t want to pay my married children’s debts every few months…
- “I don’t want to take care of my nieces every time SIL goes off learning or vacationing….
But I don’t know how to say no…”
We consider ourselves intelligent and in control of our lives. How do we fall into the trap? Often we are manipulated by subtle and not so subtle techniques:
- The Punishers tell us what they want and warn us what will be if we don’t acquiesce. “If you don’t name the baby for Zeidy – I’m not sure we’ll participate in the bris, buy the new car, etc.” Sometimes the threat is explicit, other times, they dangle a question mark: “If not, I don’t know…” These punishers make us do things we don’t want to do.
- Martyrs (self-punishers) – If you don’t do what they want… they won’t be able to sleep, calm down, work. We don’t want to hurt our nearest and dearest. So when my 65-year- old diabetic MIL says she won’t be able to eat a thing if we don’t…
- Sufferers offer catastrophic forecasts on what will happen to them: “I’m not going to be able to enjoy myself the whole night” and say it’s our fault.
- Tantalizers make us jump through the hoop by holding out a prize they never give us. “If you help us take care of Babi and Zeidy, we think the house will go to you.” Usually the “prize” doesn’t materialize, and when we realize that, it generates a lot of bitterness and explosions.
These painful situations can leave us crying from confusion, trembling from frustration. What do we do about it? Hone our awareness and set timely boundaries.
Good Fences Make Good… In-Laws
Some people hear “boundaries” and think of stifling, imprisoning limits. But boundaries are actually liberating, since they protect us from unwanted effects. Yiddishkeit is full of such boundaries – muktzah to guard us from Shabbos violation, yichud to protect our kedushah, and much more. Countries mark boundaries to protect the rights of the people within them.
True, setting boundaries may be uncomfortable at first, and we don’t want to clamp down rules at every step and turn. First we have to choose our boundaries and get the problem and the solution absolutely clear.
What if there are a few issues that bother you? How do you choose your boundary? Ask yourself: If I could change one thing in our relationship, what would it be? Run the internal “film” through your mind and press “stop!” at the point you wish could be different.
Blocks to Boundary Setting
So often I hear women say, “I know that a boundary is important and will work, but it’s just not me.” What blocks people from setting boundaries?
On a simple level, nobody likes to feel mean. I don’t like when people put boundaries on me, so I don’t want to be the “bad guy” either. Besides, I don’t like when others are upset at me, and if I set a boundary, that is bound to happen.
At a deeper level, resistance to boundary-setting stems from the belief that “Nothing is going to help. It doesn’t pay to try.” There may also be the internal expectation that “I should be able to deal with the situation and grow from it, without being angered and having to draw the line.”
Turn down the volume of that inner voice. You have options! Things can and should be different! An investment of short-term discomfort is well worth a lifetime of peaceful bonding!
Before Making a Boundary
Before presenting a boundary, check if this is something you can enforce. Do not choose a boundary that requires you to control other people’s compliance. Discuss the issue with your spouse; don’t let him hear about it from his mother. Prepare yourself for the fallout.
How do you explain your need for this boundary to your spouse? Not by going into a tirade about your in-law’s intolerable behavior, but rather by using the “I feel/I need” formula. Here are a few examples:
- I feel betrayed when you discuss our issues with your parents. I need you to stop doing that and start discussing it with me instead.
- I feel alone when you’re quiet while your parents criticize me. I need you to back me up.
Boundary in Practice
A boundary is not an automatic “no.” It’s a “Yes – but.” We might call it a position statement: “I am willing to take your children when you go away, but only if they have a morning playgroup/afternoon babysitter… ”
A position statement enables you to set forth in advance what you are willing to do and what not, rather than taking on more than you can handle to avoid friction, and ending up with everyone unhappy anyway.
Your in-laws want you to spend all your time with them. You appreciate their affection, but feel it is much too much.
Discuss the issue with your spouse. Remember, he may not realize how strongly the problem is affecting you. “I feel that spending every single Shabbos, Motzoei Shabbos, and Sunday with your parents is too much and is chipping at our family togetherness. I need you to understand and support that.”
First, approach your in-laws with a “sandwich message“: “We love spending quality time together, but we feel we’d like some time for just us and the children. Let’s try doing every other Sunday, and see how that goes.” Leave it open-ended, for later reevaluation.
If that doesn’t work, it’s time to set clear boundaries with a clarifying position statement. “We can only spend every other Sunday with you. Would you like us to come to you, you to us, or meet at the park?”
Be prepared to hear reactions like: “How could you be so selfish!” “Don’t you love us – after all we’ve done for you…” “I never thought I’d live to see the day that…”
Don’t argue or try to give long explanations. Apologize for causing them pain, but not for the justified request. Be careful not to dredge up old issues. Stand your ground respectfully and try to show your love in different ways. Call a bit more frequently, send over cookies, show warmth.
Peace – the Ultimate Goal
“There is no greater receptacle for blessing than peace.” As we navigate the stormy waters of in-law relationships, let’s remember that if all our efforts increase the shalom in our family by even one iota, then all we invest, attempt, share, and pray are worth it.
This complete lecture series, by Atara Malach, can be purchased from the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation 845-352-3505 extension 101.
By Batya Ruddell
It’s never too late to let go.
She stumbled out of the doctor’s office and into the hospital elevator. Her husband must have pressed the button for the ground floor, because she suddenly found herself there among the throngs of people pulsating with life in the lobby. Life! How much more did she have left of it? How much time?
“It will be all right, Chana” her husband attempted, the anguish burning in his eyes. “We’ll go to Gedolim for brachos. There must be something.”
In a trance Chana moved out of the main entrance and reached the sidewalk, gulping each blast of fresh air as if it was her last.
So they went. Though Chana was exhausted and sick from treatments, she and Shmuel made the rounds, visiting one Gadol after the other, gathering brachos in their desperate arms and lapping up sage advice. It was the last Rav they visited who ignited a spark in Chana’s mind.
“Think back to whether there was someone in your life you really hurt,” the Rav said. “If you think he or she still hasn’t forgiven you, go ask mechilah. Keep going, again and again, until you get it.”
The Rabbi’s words were like the button on a tape-recorder; Chana’s mind rewound fast, straight back to the incident. Even though it had happened many years ago, the memory was still fresh and easily retrievable. And it wasn’t pleasant.
Esti and Chana had been close childhood friends. But they were not friends anymore. Unfortunately, Esti’s marriage had ended in an ugly divorce, with her ex-husband taking her to court claiming she was an unfit mother, unable to care for her children. Esti was instructed to bring witnesses to court to vouch for her capability as a mother, and one of them was Chana. Standing before the judgein the courtroom was a nerve-wracking experience, and Chana found herself nervous and fumbling for words. Unconvinced by her statement, the judge drilled her with more and more questions that she stammered and stuttered over. Sadly, after reviewing all the witnesses’ statements, the court ruled that Esti’s children be taken away from her. Despite Chana’s attempts to explain to Esti that she’d tried her best to defend her and was on her side, her friend refused to listen, blaming Chana instead for ruining her life.
Clearly, this was the terrible event that the Rav was referring to.
Chana murmured a tefillah before ringing Esti’s doorbell. How would her old friend receive her? Would she even let her in? It had been years since a single word had passed between them.
She drew a deep breath and pressed her finger on the buzzer. Maybe Esti wasn’t home? That would be a relief. But after what felt like forever, the door finally opened and Esti stood there, the shock on her face immediately giving way to hardness.
“May I come in?” Chana asked tentatively.
Esti hesitated a moment then nodded, indicating with her head that Chana should follow her inside. They entered the living room, toys scattered across the floor, evidence of the children from her second marriage. Chana appraised Esti as she sat down at the table. She’d aged of course, they both had, but basically she looked the same, a little heavier but still elegant, a sheitel on her head even in the house. Chani twisted a stray lock of hair from her own sheitel. Since beginning her treatment her wig had become her trusted friend, replacing her usual headscarves.
“Why did you come?” Esti said bluntly, interrupting Chana’s thoughts.
“I…I…” Chana felt like the heavy end of a seesaw, thrown off guard to the ground. “I came to ask mechilah again…for what happened.”
Esti’s eyes narrowed. “Why now? After all this time?”
Chana swallowed. “Well, unfortunately I’ve been diagnosed with a serious illness…I went to see Gedolim, to get brachos…and one of them told me to ask forgiveness from…”
“Oh, I see,” Esti interrupted. “Now that you’re sick you need my help! But where were you when I needed your help?”
“I tried!” Chana cried, raising her hands in a helpless gesture. “You know that I feel bad about everything but I did my best!”
Esti shook her head. “No. You didn’t do enough. You caused me so much anguish, Chana. I never got my children back. You ruined my life!”
Chana’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m so, so sorry…I truly never meant for that to happen.”
“And I’m sorry too.“ Esti stood up abruptly and pushed her chair back. “But I can never forgive you.”
What was I thinking?” Chana lamented to her husband later. “Did I really expect her to forgive me just like that after all this time?”
“You should try again,” Shmuel said. “Keep going back to her like the Rav told you to.”
Chana lay on the couch and closed her eyes. The room was a mess; the children’s games all over the floor, schoolbooks strewn across the table. She was too tired to tidy it now, too emotionally and physically drained.
“Seriously, you should ask her again,” Shmuel insisted. “But first, listen to something beautiful I heard today. Maybe it will help you.”
Chana sighed wearily.
“Do you know why we Yidden are called Yehudim?” Shmuel began, without waiting for an answer.“We’re named after Yehudah, from the root ofhoda’ah, confession. Yehudah admitted he did something wrong even though he was publicly shamed by the confession. So when Hashem named us after him it means we all have this middah, the strength to be able to admit we’ve done something wrong. That’s the first step of teshuvah.”
Chana frowned. “But that’s just it. I don’t think I did something wrong. I don’t think what happened to Esti was my fault.”
“Think about it,” Shmuel persisted. “Maybe you can find a place…somewhere…to see things through Esti’s eyes.”
After her husband was asleep, Chana still lay awake in the darkness, contemplating his words. Scenes from the courtroom ran through her head and she remembered things she had said that might have inadvertently caused Esti pain and suffering. She hadn’t meant things to come across that way, but for the first time in all these years she could see how it must have looked to her friend. She choked back the lump in her throat. Shmuel was right. She should go back.
No.” Esti shook her head. “I can’t.”
“Please,” Chani pleaded. “I beg you to forgive me. I realize now that there were things I said wrong at the time. I didn’t mean for things to end up the way they did but still, I ruined your life. I’m so very sorry. Please, please forgive me.”
“No,” Esti said again. “I can’t forgive you for the anguish you caused me.” She began closing the door in Chani’s face. “Don’t come back.”
So that was it! Chana had tried but there was nothing more she could do. Her heart ached from the pain, knowing that Esti was still angry and hurting. But her hands were tied – she had no control. The months passed and Chana grew sicker as the savage disease attacked her mercilessly. About two years after her visit to Esti, Chana slipped into a coma. Her doctors expected her to pass away within a few days. But she didn’t. Chana hung on; first one week, then two. Her obvious suffering was unbearable for her family who, while appreciating Hashem’s will and the importance of life, wished herpain could be over. It was as if her neshamah was hovering in torment.. It needed to fly away, but it couldn’t.
“It seems like they don’t want her up in heaven at the moment,” a non-frum doctor observed. “Something is keeping her back.” How right he was!
Esti was rocketed out of her sleep, sweating and shaking with fright. That dream she just had was so vivid, so real–that she could remember every detail. Esti pulled on a robe and made her way to the living room, where she tried to calm her breathing and think clearly. Through the window the sky looked pitch black and she could see nothing. But there, inside her house, the images of the dream seemed visible. A message had been relayed to her from Shamayim. She needed to say out loud three times that she forgave Chana. Only then would Chana be able to release her neshamah and pass on to the next world. Esti was stunned!
Chana had been only a shaliach, the heavenly messenger was saying. It was Hashem who conducted the orchestra and controlled how the symphony played out. Chana had been just one part, a flute or a violin among the vast array of musical instruments. Esti began to shake again, her shoulders heaving. How blind she had been! Her anger and bitterness had caused her to block out the big picture,not to look beyond the first sketch. Her life had gone, and was going, exactly the way Hashem wanted it, but she hadn’t been able to see that. She stared out of the window as if looking for something in the depths of the night. Soon a new day would be dawning. She knew what she had to do and it couldn’t wait a minute longer. Chana’s neshamah was hanging in this world by a thread and could not let go until she received Esti’s forgiveness. Still trembling, her eyes wet, Esti opened her mouth and said the words.
“I forgive Chana for what she did. Everything that happened in my life came from Hashem.”
She said the words three times, just three short sentences that left her emotionally and physically drained. But it was a welcome exhaustion – because she had let go.
And a few hours later, on the other side of the city, a young woman named Chana let go too. Finally, she could return her neshamah to its Maker.
This story is true; only the names have been changed to ensure privacy. At first glance the narrative seems a sad tale, but if we look at it closely we can see the beauty in it. First, it was a great chessed that Chana received mechilah before she passed away. It appears that once she’d been able to admit to Esti that she’d wronged her (even if the wrongdoing was inadvertent), then Hashem made sure she got her mechilah.
Second, it was a huge accomplishment that Esti was able to forgive after so many years. By focusing on emunah and acknowledging that Hashem was the Conductor, she was reminded that one cannot raise a little finger without Him enabling it.
Third, we see that it’s never too late to make peace. When people make shalom it brings Hashem great nachas, because that’s exactly the way He wants us to live. And that’s why this story can be considered a success.
And yet… one cannot help but contemplate how much greater Hashem’s nachas and how much more glorious the story might have been if Chana and Esti had made shalom long before that fateful last day.