The Squabbling Grandparents

My husband Rick and I are the parents of twelve-month-old Martin. The problem you can help us with is my in-laws, Gracie and Hal. Apart they are the nicest, most pleasant people you’d ever want to meet. However, when they are together they constantly bicker with each other over the stupidest stuff. Gracie says the fish is grilled perfectly and Hal says it’s dry; this is followed by an unpleasant exchange. Hal says they need a new car and Gracie says there’s nothing wrong with the one they have; this sets off an argument.

It goes on all the time. I don’t understand how they’ve stayed together for 34 years when they obviously make each other so miserable. I often wonder if they’re headed for a divorce.

I want to pay for some marriage counseling for them as a gift, but Rick said they’ve always been that way with each other, and I should stay out of it. That was easier to do before Martin was born, but I think Martin is beginning to get agitated when they argue. He looks back and forth at them and at us nervously. Rick agrees that Martin seems uneasy when they’re squabbling. What do you think about my idea of getting them some couples therapy?

Before I answer your question about getting your in-laws some couples therapy, I want to address your musing whether Gracie and Hal might divorce. I would guess probably not, even though “gray divorce” is increasing. In fact, recent U.S. census figures reveal divorce rates for those over 65 have doubled since 1980, with divorces in this age bracket accounting for eight percent of all divorces. One of the major reasons is simply a factor of age, as some of those marriages that in previous generations would have ended in death now end in divorce.

Interestingly, it is mostly older women who initiate the divorce, not men, primarily because of some form of abuse – verbal, emotional or physical, or a combination. Based on what you describe, your in-laws’ haggling seems petty and annoying, but not abusive. Also, it’s telling that Rick almost shrugs off their quibbling when he says, “they’ve always been that way with each other.” And it is 34 years later!

When you conclude that your in-laws “obviously make each other so miserable,” you are basing this on your observations which are tempered by your own experiences, values, and judgments about what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior in a relationship. This is all well and good: you can say with certainty that participating in a relationship with lots of squabbling in it would not work for you. In fact, it would make you miserable. To conclude that behaviors that would make you miserable must be making your in-laws similarly miserable isn’t necessarily so.

Research abounds on the bedrocks of deep, satisfying and enduring relationships. When couples are asked what makes their relationship solid or what would make it better or what is lacking, several elements consistently emerge. They are:

  • honesty
  • forgiveness
  • communication
  • realistic expectations
  • similar values
  • respect
  • trust
  • commitment
  • appreciation
  • love/friendship

You are not in a position to assess the role each of these elements plays in your in-laws’ relationship, with the possible exception of some of their communication with each other, which we’ve already established is not the kind of predominant communication you want in your relationship with Rick. You’ll notice that I used the qualifier “predominant” because many couples will admit to bickering at times.

However, as with all the elements listed, only the couple in the relationship can determine when the amount of haggling moves from acceptable to unacceptable for each of them. You, as a daughter-in-law, do not get to tell Gracie and Hal that they should find their squabbling unacceptable or that they should seek professional help.

I want to point out that it is possible that what you see as bickering in Gracie and Hal’s communication is so embedded through rote usage that they’ve habituated to it – that is, they are so used to it that it is emotion free and they don’t even realize the way they talk with each other could be viewed as unpleasant by outsiders.

However, having said that, I do think you and Rick are justified in pointing out to them that Martin often seems uneasy when they have exchanges in which they do not agree. I suggest you not refer to their bickering or squabbling, as they will most likely become defensive and will not be open to what you’re trying to say. Instead, I urge you stay focused on the effect that their interactions seem to have on Martin: “We’ve noticed Martin gets anxious when he thinks people aren’t getting along, an example being when the two of you disagree about something. For Martin’s sake we’d appreciate it if you’d not have discussions in front of him or us that involve raised voices or what might be interpreted as using an agitated tone between you.”

Then, the next time it happens you can remind them that the way in which they’re communicating with each other is an example of the communication exchange you’d like them to stop doing. With this approach you’re not asking them to change what they do, you’re merely asking them not to do it in front of Martin and you.

Back to your original question about what I think about your idea of getting Gracie and Hal some couples therapy. If you see any validity to what I’ve discussed, then I think you’ll agree with me that your suggesting they need couples therapy would most likely be viewed by them as intrusive and inappropriate on your part. Many grandparents are more than willing to change or modify their behavior when they realize it is negatively affecting their grandchildren. I hope Gracie and Hal fall into this category of being willing to do “anything for the grandchildren,” the mantra of many a grandparent.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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