My four-year-old daughter does not have contact with her paternal grandparents, and has not had contact since March 2010. My husband and I initially made this decision as we went through marriage counselling for issues related to my husband's parents. Our daughter has always had contact with other members of my husband's family, as well as members of my family and my parents.
Both of our counselors believed that my MIL might be narcissistic, and said that his father displayed both narcissistic and borderline behaviors. We've had significant problems in the past with his parents recognizing boundaries that we've set out verbally and in writing. We've met with both of his parents to try to resolve our issues, and have been met with comments like, "I'm sorry you feel that way," or denial of behavior. Our marriage counselor said that my husband's relationship to his mother involved enmeshment, and that she recognized my husband as her partner, relying on him heavily during her divorce from my FIL 19 years ago.
We've had problems with his parents saying hurtful things, such as his mother making derogatory comments about me, telling my husband that she hates me, and she's told me that I wouldn't understand the special relationship that she has with my husband because I am an "outsider." My husband's father, on the other hand, tells my husband that he is worthless, that he is not a good son, and has asked my husband if he were worried that I would "psychologically" damage our daughter. When we've met with my FIL, he's avoided speaking to me, and does not make eye contact with me. Both of his parents have mentioned how our daughter looks nothing like me, and my MIL has referred to me as "the mother."
Throughout our period of no contact, my MIL has made requests for contact with my husband and our daughter via email and phone, despite our request that we would be the one to engage contact. To this point, we've refused, but my husband recently expressed a desire for my daughter to meet with his parents again. He said he feels like things weren't really resolved with his parents, and that he feels like his parents have the right to contact with their granddaughter. He knows that they're not going to change, but says he still feels like something is missing from his life without contact with his parents.
I love my husband very much, and I understand that he is hurt by not having contact with his parents. I know why he wants them to visit with our daughter--she is an incredible little girl, and we are both so proud of her. I am scared, however, of the impact that his parents might have on our daughter and our relationship with our daughter. I am afraid that they will do or say things that will make her scared or upset. I don't believe that his parents, who have said that they hate me and have no respect for me, should have any part in our lives. I am worried about the impact they might have on our marriage; the past two years of no contact have been peaceful ones for us in our marriage.
All of this being said, what is the healthiest, safest course of action for our daughter?
I'm so sorry you find yourself in this upsetting situation. As you know, what's good for your daughter is to have only positive relationships with healthy adults. Since that is not likely to be possible with paternal grandparents who "hate" her mother and have unhealthy relationships with her father, the question I think you are asking is, "Is it worse for this child to have no relationship with her paternal grandparents, or to have a relationship with them that may be hurtful to her?"
I think the obvious answer is, it is worse to have the hurtful relationship. I might give a different answer about an estranged parent, given the important role that parents play in a child's psyche. But Grandparents, as wonderful as they can be, are not essential to development. Your daughter could be completely healthy with no grandparents at all in her life. And in fact, your daughter is not without grandparents -- she has your parents, with whom she presumably has a good relationship.
I need to point out that I have only heard your side of the story, and life is always more complicated than any one view. But since more than one counselor has apparently agreed with your assessment, and you and your husband have a long history of trying to navigate the complicated relationship with his parents, I will accept, for the purposes of my advice to you here, your view that your husband's parents would most likely be a source of confusion and hurt for your daughter.
So having ruled out the potential that these grandparents would make a positive contribution to your daughter's life, we have to weigh their presumably negative influence on her against any benefit to others -- specifically, that the grandparents desire a relationship and her dad would like to facilitate that. Frankly, I disagree with your husband -- Grandparents have no legal right to see their grandchildren. In this case, it doesn't sound like they have earned a moral right, either, although of course I am hearing only your side of the story. But the truth is, they don't actually have "the right" to contact with their granddaughter while she is minor, because that contact is mediated through her parents.
Once she is of age, of course, you have no right to restrict contact and they are free to contact her. Once she is older, she may ask to meet them, at which time she will have more ability to evaluate for herself whether these are people she actually wants in her life. But at this point your job as her parents is to protect her from unhealthy influences to whatever degree that is possible.
The sticking point, of course, is if your husband disagrees with your assessment. If he thinks that his parents would be able to have a healthy, loving relationship with your daughter, and would be able to communicate to her their positive acceptance of you and of him, then why wouldn't he want them in her life? So if indeed he thinks that, then you and he disagree about their likely impact, and this is an issue between you and your husband, to be worked out in the context of counseling.
If, on the other hand, your husband acknowledges that his parents would probably give his child less than affirming messages about you, about him, or even about her, then he needs to consider why exactly he wants to subject his child to those relationships. His obligation to protect his daughter should take precedence over his desire to please his parents.
And if he "wants them to visit" with her because, as you say "she is an incredible little girl, and we are both so proud of her" then that's just about proving his worth to his parents. Subjecting his daughter to risk to prove himself to his parents is ethically questionable, and what's more is not likely to work. Either his parents will find fault with your daughter or they will accept her but still find your husband "unworthy" -- both on his own and because he has married you.
Bottom line, if your husband acknowledges that his parents would be a negative influence on his daughter, I can't think of a justifiable reason to have them in her life. Of course, I can understand why your husband feels things are not resolved with his parents, and I would encourage him to continue to do internal and external (i.e., with them) work on those relationships until he does feel resolved. But that lack of resolution is about him, it is not about his daughter.
And is it possible for this situation to heal, so that your husband's parents can connect with their granddaughter? Always. But I think that healing will need to begin between your husband and his parents, and then extend to their relationship with you. At the risk of offending any grandparents reading this, they had their chance. If they can't have a good relationship with their son and his wife, they can't really expect access to their granddaughter.
It sounds to me like you and your husband will want to discuss this loaded issue in counseling together. I wish you luck in working out a healing solution.
Thank you very much for your response, Dr. Markham. I shared both my original post and your response with my husband, and we agree that continuing with counseling is critical. In the meantime, we will not be meeting with either of his parents with our daughter until all issues are resolved. Thank you again.