Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
Just over a year ago I lost the love of my life and best friend in my husband. I’m still missing him so much still, and my daughter who is married now, has her own life. But when I visit with her, She seems to judge me all the time about everything I do and sometimes I feel I am walking on eggshells, so to speak. She likes to control situations and when things don’t go her way, she voices her opinion. I just feel I don’t give the correct answers and feel like I just give her the answer she wants to hear so I don’t have to go through it all with her. I guess I always had my husband to talk to, who was also opinionated, but at least my answers weren’t being judged. Not sure how to move on with this issue with her. Thanks for any perspective you can provide.
Your description of your family situation following your husband’s death raises a question that is often ignored in our focus on the emotional pain of losing a loved one: namely, the changed relationships with other survivors. Sometimes these relationships grow and deepen in compassion as each deals with a partly shared loss. Sometimes people remain who they always were, for better or worse, supporting or challenging us in familiar ways. And sometimes other relationships grow more stressed when the buffering provided by the deceased is removed from the equation. From what you say, it seems that you and your daughter are experiencing something along the latter lines.
You note that your daughter voices her opinion readily, especially when “things don’t go her way,” or perhaps when she is “judging” you for falling short in some fashion, perhaps even in how you are trying to reorganize your life in light of your loss. I’m sure this can be frustrating to you, especially if the silence or false compliance into which you retreat leaves you feeling even more alone than if you weren’t with her. As you imply, your daughter might be someone who has long preferred to be “in control” of her life, and few things can challenge that cherished illusion more than the death of a loved one. As a result, she might feel the need to control other outcomes all the more urgently–and it may be that some of these also involve you.
So here’s a thought about using and defusing her vocal advice-giving: invite it rather than resist it. This might sound paradoxical, but often times people will de-escalate in their voicing of advice and criticism if they feel they are being heard, whereas they escalate when they feel they are being deflected, resisted or tuned out. For example, rather than “walking on eggshells” about some decision you need to make or action you want to take, ask for her advice without describing your own opinion. How might this sound? Let’s imagine you are thinking about redecorating the living room or seeking a new job. You might ask, “Honey, I’ve been thinking about the pros and cons of rearranging the living room, and maybe moving your father’s brown chair to the den. What do you think of the idea? How would you feel about that?” Then follow her response with further inquiry: “Ah, yes, I guess I would need to remove something from the den to make room, just as you say. What would you move or let go of? Is there anything in that room you and your husband could use?” You get the idea: Really delve into her opinion, getting details, without quickly committing yourself to a given course of action. You might even close with something like, “Yes, that’s something I hadn’t really considered. I’ll need to give that some thought. So let me ask your thoughts on something else–the pros and cons of my looking for a part time job. What would you do if you were in my position?” In other words, you don’t need to commit yourself prematurely to anything more than taking her seriously and inviting her to elaborate thoughtfully and thoroughly on her advice. Critics often become useful consultants when they are encouraged to expand on their opinions without resistance.
Finally, you mention that your father was also a man of strong opinions–indeed, he may have provided the model on which your daughter based her own conversational style. If so, remember that you are not married to your daughter–she has her own spouse! So while you can converse with her about her perspective on things, you are under no obligation to negotiate your decisions with her the way you would your husband who was living in the same home. Claiming the adult role that is by rights yours, seek the counsel of anyone you trust, including your daughter, but recognize at the end of the day that some decisions are necessarily your own. As you make them, and reassert control over your own life, your daughter may come to play a supportive part, but not take the lead. Ultimately, she is but one person among many with whom you consult as you redesign a life that works in light of your husband’s passing.