Our Son-in-Law

Dear Rabbi and Susan,

Our son-in-law has disrespected my husband and me on two separate occasions when visiting him and my daughter. We live far away, and so we see them in intense bouts.

He has a lot of baggage from his childhood (he never spoke to his father until he was on his deathbed) and his previous marriage, that seemingly he has not dealt with and explodes without provocation in an instant. He bears grudges, has no friends, and takes everything extremely personally. However, this does not give him the right to disrespect us, as his elders and his wife’s parents.

We miss our grandchildren and are planning a trip to visit our daughter but are very anxious about being in his company and suffering his abusive behavior towards us once again. My granddaughter, who just turned 4, asked me the other day if I remember when “abba” shouted at us in a very loud voice and showed me where I was sitting at the time and where my husband was sitting. I find this extremely disturbing and worrying as she was only two and a half at the time this last incident occurred.

We will not be staying with them, but we don’t want to have to engage with him. Are we obliged to speak to him in his own house or can we simply ignore him, apart from a possible formal brief greeting?

My husband refuses to go to their home when he is there and wants nothing whatsoever to do with him. We obviously don’t want to hurt our daughter or for her to get into any fight with him that will subject her to his “abuse” or any potential tirade.

Do you have any suggestions/recommendations on how best we can deal with this situation without subjecting ourselves to his wrath or causing emotional harm and distress to ourselves or our daughter?

Regards,

Cyndi P.

Dear Cyndi,

Our hearts sank as we read your letter. You are in a painful and sad situation, but we shall do our best to be of some help. Apart from our appreciation for your question, your letter makes us even more grateful than we are for our own sons-in-law.

You are clearly worried about your daughter and grandchildren who, if your assessment is accurate, are not living in the tranquil home we all wish for those we love. Staying involved in their lives and being there for them is important, which means that your visit is a priority. On the other hand, you recognize that you don’t want to make things worse for your daughter and grandchildren. Do try and help your husband overcome his perfectly normal and perfectly natural male response towards the man he sees as not good enough for his daughter and who has insulted him. Help him move his reaction from his heart and stomach to his brain. You should both remember that it undoubtedly pains your daughter to witness the stress between her parents and her husband. You have the power to reduce that stress but only by choices you make about what you will say or do. You cannot exert any changes on your son-in-law.

We think it may be time for an open conversation with your daughter. Do you have honest conversations with your daughter, or do you all avoid the topic of her husband? Did she think the last visit went as badly as you do? Although you may find it difficult to understand, is she happy in her marriage in general and committed to making it work? You do need to respect your daughter as an adult who is making her own choices, so if she doesn’t want to discuss things with you, that is her prerogative. On the other hand, do you think she would want to talk openly but is afraid of your reaction? You are walking a fine line between letting her know that you support her while not overstepping your boundaries.

While you and your husband don’t have to engage your son-in-law in deep conversation, it is hard to see how you can blatantly ignore him if you are in the same room. Perhaps the two of you can agree to conform to the conventional rules of social politeness and not to engage if your son-in-law becomes provocative. Would the best thing be to have your daughter visit you at your hotel and go on outings with the children rather than coming to her home? Do you think your daughter would appreciate you making a suggestion such as this one, or would it hurt her feelings?


You mention that your son-in-law doesn’t have the ‘right’ to disrespect you. The Torah doesn’t acknowledge the existence of any rights. The word “right” doesn’t even appear. It speaks only of obligations. We feel that this describes reality. What you see as your rights is irrelevant. Your son-in-law naturally does have an obligation to treat all human beings with respect, particularly those to whom he owes a debt of gratitude such as the parents of his wife. Unfortunately, we can’t make other people take their obligations seriously. So, what you expect from him is irrelevant. You’re not trying to change him; all you are planning is your and your husband’s conduct.

Try and make sure that you and your husband present a united front and agree on modes of response for any anticipated behavior of your son-in-law. Try and coat yourselves in Teflon, as it were. Show no annoyance or anger. Prepare to have absolutely no emotional response to anything your daughter’s husband says or does. But above all, try to have that candid but respectful conversation with your daughter and accept guidance from her as to her views on how you should best interact with her husband. This could all become a satisfying growth opportunity for you and your husband, and who knows, maybe this visit will be quite different.

Parents endure much discomfort for their children’s sake, including emotional distress as we watch our children get hurt and sometimes make what we see as poor choices. The more you and your husband can remove the focus from your own (understandable) discomfort, upset, and pain, and keep in mind that your priority is to be a pillar of support and love for your daughter and her children, the smoother the visit will go. It is possible that if your last visit was about two years ago, that your son-in-law has been working on himself and has grown. If your daughter encourages you to come over, stay open to meeting him anew without anticipating a repeat of last time. Try, together with your husband, to erase the movie playing in your mind of your last visit.

Prayer always helps,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

This Ask the Rabbi is in memory of Mark Mordechai Peretz, age 51, who was shot by Hamas terrorists on October 7, 2023. When he heard of the attack down south, he raced from his home to try and save his daughter, Maya, who was attending the Supernova music festival. Maya survived.

And with prayers for the safe release of the remaining hostages (and the bodies of those who have been murdered) and among them, Pongsak Tanna, age 36, a farm-worker from Thailand. It is now five months since the hostages were taken and the world is putting no pressure on Hamas to release them. If anything, the world is signaling that taking hostages is a successful strategy if you have no interest in the well-being of your own people while the group you are attacking deeply cares about their own.


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