Dear Dr. Gail: My father-in-law has been living with my family — me, my husband, and our three children — for the past year. Originally, this was to be a temporary arrangement, until my family moved. But since then, we have decided not to move and his dad has decided to stay!
Don't get me wrong: I love my husband’s dad. But enough is enough. He doesn’t work, but he does nothing to contribute to our household. And when we buy groceries, he eats what he wants without considering the menu I have posted on the refrigerator. I work hard to keep my home in order, but his presence makes it 10 times more difficult. He doesn’t care when he has said something derogatory toward someone (mainly me) and he blames me for things over which I have no control.
My husband has a good job, but we are still short on money. I am more than willing to get a job to help out with our finances, but I feel it is not right for his dad to stay at our house watching TV, sleeping and eating, while we are out working. I’m going crazy. I’m very depressed and I’m tired of sitting in my room. I can’t even clean the living room, unless it’s a good time for my father-in-law. How do I tell him it is time to hit the road? — Daughter-in-Law in Dire Distress
Dear Dire Distress: Your letter is interesting for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that you give a long list of complaints about your father-in-law’s behavior, yet you say nothing about any attempts to resolve the situation.
It’s understandable that his presence in your home is disruptive. It’s hard to live with a parent or an in-law and keep your own family life on track. Your husband, your father-in-law and you should have discussed having your father-in-law live with your family. But it sounds like this was a unilateral decision — and one made by your father-in-law.
So you are sitting around being miserable, but where is your husband in all of this? You make no mention of him — a singularly glaring omission. Why are you not discussing this with him and asking him to back you up? Obviously, you don’t want to pit your husband against his father, but the situation right now has his father ruling your home life.
To remedy this situation, you have to tell your husband your feelings: you resent the fact that your father-in-law consumes your family’s resources, dominates your schedule, and fails to show any gratitude. Then, you must have your husband remind his father that this arrangement was supposed to be short term. (Generally, it is better to have blood relatives discuss these kind of sensitive matters with blood relatives.) Finally, you need to have a plan for the future. This could either be a way to make the current situation work or a timetable for your father-in-law’s departure.
Your husband may feel you and he owe his father something, but that doesn’t mean you have to tiptoe around your own house. It’s quite clear that you have a lot of built-up anger toward your father-in-law, so it’s probably not a good idea for you to speak to him about these issues. Your husband can tell his father how much you need his help around the house as well as his appreciation. (Of course, your husband should do this in a nice way.)
With that said, it’s also a good idea to try to look at the situation from your father-in-law’s perspective. It’s not unusual for an older parent to feel infantilized because he no longer has a meaningful role to play in the world. It’s also possible he is as miserable as you are and doesn’t want to be a loafing parasite, but he doesn’t know how to remedy the problem.
You need a plan to help him get back on his feet. And remember, when I say “you,” I mean “your husband and you.” For example, you could delegate certain tasks around the house to your father-in-law. These tasks can’t be vague like “keep the living room clean.” They must be very specific. Your father-in-law could be put in charge of taking out the trash every week, brushing the cat every morning, or setting the dinner table every evening.
It’s possible you haven’t been very flexible. If you post a menu on the refrigerator and then get angry because your father-in-law disregards it, it sounds like you want your household run your way. This is entirely your right. But if a disruption in your plans is annoying you, you should take steps to work around it. For example, have your father-in-law make a list of foods he likes for snacks. Then get those from the store, so he can eat those instead of the dinner ingredients.
So who pays for those snacks? It doesn’t sound like you’ve made it clear to your father-in-law you are struggling financially. So do that. Your husband can ask him for money to go toward the food bill, or come up with another arrangement that has him contribute a fair share. Negotiate with him about other things, too. For example, tell him you will be vacuuming in the evening, and give him a choice of times. He can plan to be in a different room then.
You seem to think your father-in-law is enjoying sitting around being waited on. As I mentioned, I suspect he is feeling aimless and depressed, and needs stimulation and purpose in his life. So it’s worth trying a different approach: Encourage him to volunteer, get a part-time job, or make friends.
If you do want him to move, help him with a timetable and a deadline. Tell him that despite the temporary living situation, life has moved on and plans have changed. And remember, your husband should be your family’s main messenger.
Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: Instead of letting a difficult household situation fester, view the situation as if you were standing in everyone else’s shoes, and figure out an action plan that works for all.