Dear Prudence

Help! My Father-in-Law’s Behavior Completely Changed Overnight.

Dear Prudence answers more of your questions—only for Slate Plus members.

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Every week, Dear Prudence answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members. R. Eric Thomas is filling in as Prudie for Jenée Desmond-Harris while she’s on parental leave. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)

Q. I want answers: For the first 10 years of our marriage, my in-laws were pretty great. Then a few years ago, everything changed with my father-in-law.

A minor request from my husband—“please communicate when you plan to visit”—triggered a raging, screaming rant about how I don’t belong in the family. He announced he wanted a divorce out of the blue. He got kicked out of therapy because he was screaming at the therapist. He refused to talk to me for two years, was short-tempered with our kids and annoyed at their noise (he used to be great with them), and filled visits with passive-aggressive power plays and the silent treatment—when he wasn’t holed up in his bedroom on his phone. The only reason we continued seeing him was because we were concerned for my mother-in-law’s safety (she acquiesced to all his demands to save the marriage) and didn’t want to cut off her contact. We agreed that we would not allow him to babysit or be alone with the kids, but we never told him this explicitly. We just never let the situation come up.

And then, as suddenly as it appeared, the behavior change was gone. In the last year, my old father-in-law is back, deeply engaged in play with the kids, and laughing and chatting with us. He even complimented my cooking! My sister-in-law recently had our in-laws babysit her three kids while she and her husband went on a vacation. My in-laws had a great time, and now they want to watch our kids while we take a getaway ourselves.

My husband would like that—he loves having his dad back. But I don’t feel ready. My father-in-law won’t talk about what happened. We don’t know whether it was a midlife crisis, job problems, or long-brewing issues. He’s never offered any sort of explanation or remorse for how hurtful he was during that time. Without knowing what precipitated this behavior, I’m not ready to lift the babysitting ban because who knows what will set it off again? At the same time, my husband is afraid maintaining the ban will destroy whatever fresh start we’ve gotten.

Am I just being unforgiving, or am I justified in wanting an explanation and an apology before I leave him alone with my kids?

A: The sort of abrupt personality change your father-in-law experienced is cause for concern, as is the fact that your family seems content to treat it as a nonissue. There could be a medical reason, a psychological one, a chemical one—any number of explanations. But offering no explanation seems unreasonable. It seems very clear that your whole family unit is still being affected by the aftereffects of this personality change. And those aren’t simply going to go away, particularly if everyone just reverts back to the way things were before.

It’s telling that your husband wants to lift the babysitting ban to keep from triggering his father and causing a conflict. This is the strongest indicator that things are not OK and they have not gone back to normal. If your father-in-law still has to be tiptoed around for fear that you’ll get the brunt of his rage again, then he’s not safe. Moreover, he hurt you, emotionally, and he has a responsibility to own up to that. His simply changing his behavior doesn’t undo what he did.

While he was resistant to therapy before, perhaps part of his new leaf is an openness to therapy. See if you can approach your husband or mother-in-law about getting him back in family counseling. And, if you feel comfortable, sit down with him and your husband and share with him how his behavior affected you. Hopefully, he will acknowledge it and apologize. If not, it’s hard to move forward. This isn’t about withholding the grandkids; this is about repairing the harm that was done so that trust is possible.

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My wife and I are finally at a point in our lives where we are ready to adopt children, as we’ve always planned. I love the idea of being a mother and always thought I wanted this when the time and circumstances were right. Well, the time and circumstances are right, and now I’m terrified. I keep stalling the conversation whenever my wife brings it up, but I don’t want to do that to her for long. I also don’t have a clue how to tell her the fear that’s overcome me, because I feel like a monster just for having it: I’m scared I’ll be abusive.