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TODAY contributor
updated 6/10/2009 12:36:06 PM ET 2009-06-10T16:36:06

Q. I am 28 years old and have been married for three years. My husband and I have a lovely life and are happy together. My problem is my parents. Every time they come to visit, they say something that upsets me. They make me feel like I am naive and my husband is taking advantage of me. This is absolutely untrue — my husband loves me.

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My parents are so selfish. They expect everything from us but have never done anything positive toward my married life. I was their favorite when I was at home, but since I became independent, married and successful in my academic and professional careers, their behavior has dramatically changed.

Sometimes I feel as if they don’t treat me like their daughter anymore, which  upsets me so much. I often think they are envious of my life, especially because my parents never had a good relationship with each other. Can you help me cope with their upsetting statements?

A. It would be great if you could get inside your parents’ heads and find out what they are really thinking. It’s true that there are some parents who are envious of their children. They regret that they lack a quality marriage of their own, or they see their children having new opportunities they no longer have, or they feel useless and out-to-pasture when the kids are off on their own making their way in the world.

So they may be hostile to you and your husband because they wish things remained as they used to be.

You can suggest to your parents that you have noticed their pattern of criticism and nastiness, and you are sorry they are sad or stressed. Be empathic if they are having a hard time.

But you are doing nothing other than being a normal, healthy adult. So also let them know you will not allow them to continue to behave badly.

I suggest you have a confrontation. Call your parents out on their bad behavior the next moment they say something upsetting.

Don’t wait until after the fact, when you must say, “Remember when you said such-and-such?” Rather wait until it next happens and as soon as they say something nasty, ask, “Why would you say that?” or say, “That was very hurtful and I wish you wouldn’t say things like that.”

If you draw a firm line that way, they might well back off. They might revamp their behavior if you are very clear about what is and is not acceptable. They may not even realize what they are doing until you tell them. It can take some time to turn the child-to-parent relationship into an adult-to-adult relationship that works.

There are instances, however, where parents are truly toxic and either unwilling or unable to change, in which case you may have to create some distance. This is sad but sometimes realistic.

You can let your parents know this before they get to the “why don’t you ever call” stage. Tell them now: “I will not tolerate you saying hurtful things to my husband, and if you must say those things we will not do much visiting.” Again, be specific about what the hurtful thing is at the time it has just been said.

They must then decide whether they want to maintain their relationship with you, which will require them to change their approach. They may never be as warm and snuggly as you wish, but you may find common ground.

Then again, you have presented only your side of the story, so I can’t judge whether you are contributing to this tension. Maybe you are also saying things that anger your parents. Maybe you are critical, childish or demanding. It’s possible they know you think they have a bad marriage and are flaunting the fact you have a good one. So you must examine your own behavior and be open to change as well.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: If relatives behave badly, let them know specifically when and how they need to change while making changes yourself.

Any ideas, suggestions in this column are not intended as a substitute for consulting your physician or mental health professional. All matters regarding emotional and mental health should be supervised by a personal professional. The author shall not be responsible or liable for any loss, injury or damage arising from any information or suggestion in this column.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her most recent book is “The Ripple Effect: How Better Sex Can Lead to a Better Life” (Rodale). For more information, please visit www.drgailsaltz.com.

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