My Mother-in-Law is a Liar

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My husband and I have had it with his mother, Norma. She is a liar, claiming she doesn’t smoke anymore, but we can smell smoke on both her and Bethany, our one-year-old daughter, after they’ve been together. Also, there have been times when we come home to open windows and whiffs of cigarette smoke in the air.

Norma doesn’t live near us, but she comes to visit every couple of months and stays for a few days. She is great with Bethany and loves spending time with her, taking her for walks, hanging out at the playground, playing with her in the apartment. My husband and I both work, so when Norma is here, we give our sitter time off because Norma likes her special time with Bethany.

My husband is ready to tell Norma that he can’t abide her lying anymore and she can just forget about visiting until she can prove to us, with a blood test or some other fool proof method, that she really has given up smoking. Any ideas?

“My mother-in-law is a liar.” Wow. Harsh. In order to fairly and calmly look at some possible options, let’s reframe this characterization of Norma as a liar to say instead, “My mother-in-law is a nicotine addict and she lies to us to cover up her addiction.” Many smokers, because they have difficulty freeing themselves from their addiction, tell lies about their nicotine addiction — they are embarrassed and ashamed, they often feel like a failure and a loser. Viewing her as having a serious physiological and psychological addiction, rather than a personality disorder, is not to excuse Norma, but understanding her behaviors may help you and your husband make a good decision about how best to deal with her. I see three options.

One option is to follow through on your husband’s inclination to sever all ties with Norma until she can produce definitive proof that she in no longer a smoker. The downside of this approach is that it is based on a threat and its longer-term sustainability is poor. Smoking cessation studies are clear and consistent: those who are able to remain non-smokers for at least a year are intrinsically motivated, meaning they want to quit smoking for themselves, not to please someone else or because they fear repercussions. Even when intrinsically motivated to stop smoking, success is hard won. National Institutes of Health (NIH) state that most successful smokers have tried to quit an average of seven times before finally being cigarette free. So, although depriving Norma of seeing her granddaughter until she convinces you she is no longer smoking, is an option, it is punitive and threat based and chances for its success are short term, at best.

A variation of this option is to bombard Norma with all kinds of scary statistics, (e.g., about 430,000 deaths per year are linked to cigarette smoking; in the United States, more people are killed each year by cigarettes than by alcohol, car crashes, suicide, AIDS, homicide, and illegal drugs combined), but like most smokers, Norma probably is already familiar with those numbers. And if you share them with her because you’re angry, frustrated and out of patience, you’re back to scare tactics, and they don’t have a great track record.

Another option is to stop being Norma’s adversary. She already knows you’re upset with her and you want her to stop, but nevertheless, she’s still smoking and lying about it. Just accept her as a smoker and go from there. Tell her you love her, you’re afraid her smoking is going to cause her serious health problems and maybe eventually kill her; let her know you’ve come to realize that she will quit smoking on her own when she’s ready and you’re not going to bug her about quitting anymore.

Assure her that you know how important her relationship with Bethany is to both of them and you want them to continue to spend time together. This said, tell her you’re concerned about the secondhand smoke her smoking causes because you’ve learned: secondhand smoke annually causes between 150,000 and 300,000 lower respiratory infections in children younger than 18 months, and results in 7,000-15,000 hospitalizations each year; secondhand smoke kills an estimated 50,000 Americans a year.

Further, you’ve learned that thirdhand smoke, referred to as “the smoke that sticks around,” — the residue that smoke leaves on furniture, carpets, walls, clothing, food, even in dust, poses its own health hazards. Turning on a fan or opening a window does only a little to get rid of the penetrating odor and clinging compounds. Granted, the danger is certainly small compared to secondhand smoke, though the exposures are often longer. Still, no level of these hazardous compounds is safe, especially for children and infants, who are more vulnerable.

And finally, tell Norma that as long as she is a smoker, she needs to make certain commitments when she is around Bethany to ensure that her smoking is not jeopardizing Bethany’s health. You understand that Norma currently cannot go long periods of time without smoking, so you’ve decided to have the baby sitter around when Norma and Bethany are together. When Norma needs to smoke, the baby sitter assumes care of Bethany. And most important, under no circumstances does Norma smoke anywhere near Bethany where secondhand or thirdhand smoke, inside or outside the home, can be a factor.

Perhaps you will agree that the approach I am suggesting has several advantages, because it:

  • Accepts Norma for what she is, an addicted smoker.
  • Re-channels the anger, frustration and disappointment you feel toward Norma.
  • Makes it easier for Norma to talk about her addiction instead of trying to cover it up.
  • Keeps Bethany (and you, too!) safe from Norma’s secondhand and thirdhand smoke.
  • Preserves all the family relationships.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every Thursday.
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Note: Wishing everyone a wonderful spring break! My next column will be published April 5.

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