Dear Family Advisor

My father-in-law treated his dying wife so badly, he doesn't deserve our help himself.

Last updated:

March 04, 2010

My husband was the primary caregiver for his mom, who died less than a year ago after a horrible, year-long cancer battle. He had to deal with so much more than any son ever should. I tried to help support him and spent countless hours researching alternative treatments, cancer-fighting foods, herbal remedies, and so on.

My father-in-law was no real help. He fought us every step of the way on improving her diet and nutrition, argued with her constantly, and even dumped bills on her bed the week she died. I have a lot of unresolved anger toward him, and so does my husband.

Now his dad has had a heart attack and is in the hospital --- and my husband is ready to dive in as his caregiver when he's released. I don't feel the man deserves it. I know, I'm a horrible person to say that, but if you saw how miserable he made his wife's last months, you'd understand where my feelings come from. So what are my responsibilities? How do I support my husband but stick to my boundaries? I don't want to get stuck making meals again -- or let my husband make me feel guilty because I don't.

The choice to give care has more to do with the character of the caregiver than it does with the person receiving the care. Regardless of how your husband's dad behaved, he's still his dad. And your husband may want to care for him partly because he needs the closure -- not for his dad's sake but for his own. He may partly be doing it to honor his mom, if he thinks she'd want him to. Or he may just believe it's the right thing to do.

No matter how you look at it, your husband is probably going to care for his father more than you think the man deserves. If that's his choice, he should be the primary caregiver, not you. Be his rock, his comfort, and his sounding board. Every caregiver needs a caregiver. Tell him that you love him and you're going to find ways to support him, but you get to decide at least some of the time how and when and how much to give.

With your father-in-law, you can and should maintain your emotional boundaries. While you gave wholeheartedly to your mother-in-law, you don't have to go that far for him. Your well is dry. You can be decent, polite, and supportive. Consider too whether it's possible that some of how he acted might have been driven by fear and simply not knowing what to do.

To set your boundaries, privately make a list of all the things you'd rather not do. Blurt it all out on paper. Decide which things really bother you and you therefore don't plan to do, such as cooking special meals. Share with your husband what's not up for negotiation and stick to your guns. If he starts in with the guilt, simply don't accept it. No one can make you feel anything you don't consent to.

Because you love your husband, you may end up bending a little. If you create strong boundaries in one or two areas, try to be understanding about others. I often find that when I stop resisting, either my perspective changes or the other person stops pushing so hard against me. I call it the marriage balance system. My husband and I always have to add up to a ten. So if I'm an eight on the negativity scale, my husband is hopelessly positive -- he has to be a two. If he's in a spending mood, I'm in a saving one. We try to create harmony even when we don't know we're doing it.

When you get upset about your father-in-law, try hard not to unleash the "Wrath of Khan" on your husband. Call a good friend and vent instead. Unburden your frustrations to your journal. Or alone in the car, yell and scream and get it all out. Bite your tongue at times, too. Your husband can say all kinds of things about his family, because it's his family --- but you can't. When you complain about his dad, it hurts him even if he says similar things. He needs to believe that he has admirable qualities because they're a part of each other.

Get busy with your own life and don't let his dad take center court. Your marriage and your own work, dreams, and plans should take up more of your thoughts, time, and energy than your father-in-law's care does.

Finally, get out of their way. If your husband asks for your help, listen and really consider it -- but remember that you've chosen to play second string on this one. Let the two of them work this out, duke it out, give and forgive, and make peace or choose not to. Life has brought them together, and by staying firmly in your own space, you give them a unique opportunity to walk this final road as father and son.