Ties That Bind

updated 12/17/2001 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/17/2001 AT 01:00 AM EST

Overbearing in-laws make good fodder for sitcoms, but in real life they're no joke. Take the man who took one look at his new granddaughter and told his daughter-in-law, "That's the ugliest baby I've ever seen." Or the parents who refused to include their son's wife in family pictures because she was too fat. Therapist Susan Forward heard those stories from her patients, but they're hardly unique. "Everyone knows what a toxic in-law is," says Forward, the author of 1986's bestselling Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them. "But there hasn't been a resource out there for people to turn to for help with them."

Forward, 73, has changed that with her new book, Toxic In-Laws: Loving Strategies for Protecting Your Marriage. Based on her experience as a therapist and onetime radio talk show host, the book describes the many varieties of poisonous in-laws and offers antidotes to their behavior—a service the author feels is especially needed at this time of year. "Holidays exacerbate family tensions," says Forward, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Kensington University in Glendale, Calif. "There are so many land mines."

She knows that firsthand. Born and raised in The Bronx, Forward, the daughter of an appliance salesman and a homemaker, has married (and divorced) two men with difficult mothers. "They were overhearing, narcissistic women," she says. "We saw the second one every Christmas, and she would pick on her son and then he would dump it on his family. I wasn't good at handling them." If her own children, Wendy Forward, 50, and Matthew Jones, 47, ever have spouses of their own, she's determined not to need handling. "Parents," she says, "have to let their children go." At her home in Los Angeles, Forward talked with PEOPLE's John Hannah.

What is your definition of toxic in-laws?

They aren't just in-laws who annoy or occasionally criticize you. They're in-laws who, by assaults on your character, appearance or personality, can have a serious impact on the integrity of your marriage.

How do they accomplish that?

I classify toxic in-laws into five categories: critics, engulfers, controllers, masters of chaos and rejecters. The critics harp and pick. The engulfers want to live through their offspring and act as if the child never left the family. The controllers want you to do everything their way. The masters of chaos aren't necessarily mean—their lives are just such a mess that your partner is always having to rescue them. The cruelest are the rejecters, who let you know that they wish you had never come into the family. Dealing with any of them will cause stress between you and your spouse.

Is disrupting your marriage what toxic in-laws are after?

In some cases, although they may not realize it. They may feel very threatened by the new person on board or by losing their status as parents. Almost always, they have unhappy marriages themselves. That bitterness and hostility affect their relationship with their children. Toxic in-laws usually start as toxic parents.

So if your spouse-to-be has toxic parents, should you call off the wedding?

No, but you should be aware that you're going to have some issues to deal with down the line. Too often people think, "It'll get better after we're married," or "They live out of state, how much can they bother us?" Answer: a lot, because each visit is concentrated. A week in the same house with people who don't like you can be a nightmare.

What's a son-or daughter-in-law to do?

Don't wait for your in-laws to change. Define what they say and do that hurts you, and let them know in a gentle but specific way. Not "You're driving me crazy!" but "When you say I'm not strict enough with my children, it really hurts." Be nondefensive. Use short sentences. Say, "I want a better relationship with you. Will you work with me?"

Should you do this alone or with your spouse?

If you can show a united front, that's best. Some people are fortunate in that they have partners who say, "I had no idea it was hurting you. I'm going to do something." But other partners will say, "Look, I've never been able to stand up to my parents, so if you're having problems with them, you have to confront them without me." Either way, you must confront them.

What does confrontation accomplish?

There are three possible results: One, your in-laws will say, "We didn't know. Let's sit down and talk." The great middle ground, where most people are, is they will get annoyed, a little defensive, but ultimately some of it will sink in and a slightly healthier relationship may come out of it. The worst scenario is that the relationship will get worse.

Why risk that?

Some therapists say, "These people gave birth to the person you love, so just make nice." That's not my style. Peace at any price hurts everyone.

If confrontation doesn't work, what's next?

Most in-laws aren't monsters, but a small number are, and those you might have to just get out of your life. You can refuse to invite them to your house, or your spouse can see them alone. This can be dangerous to a marriage, but if it's between your in-laws and your mental health, choose your mental health. Even in those rare cases, though, it's worth it to tell them how you feel before you cut off contact. Once you do, you'll grow 10 feet in self-respect.

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