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I’m trying to work out the best course of action here.

Backstory:

My father-in-law was, at one time, violent abusive and manipulative. My wife now keeps an arms-reach relationship with him on the premise that he has “mended his ways” - but her fear of him, and to a lesser extent his wife, is still there and very much baked in (from here on, every time you think “why would you agree / let that happen?”, this is the answer)

And while he is no longer violent, the manipulation is definitely still strong.

The complication is, we have children. He adores our eldest son, and has - since before his birth - tried to emotionally manipulate my wife into a closer relationship. On the other side, he often sets up a “buddy grandpa” dynamic. Things like letting him eat almost nothing at mealtimes. We have always found it difficult to get him to eat sufficiently, and so one day of this made him refuse to eat properly for a week.

Thankfully, they live far enough away for this to only be a problem 2-3 times a year.

The problem:

This year we have agreed to go on holiday with them. It’s all booked.

We are worried about the flights. Grandpa will want the eldest to sit next to him by the window, probably with his wife beside him, the thought of which leaves my wife trembling.

We are worried about the mealtimes. We are worried that the Grandpa will manoeuvrer us into a position where he gets one-on-one time with him, which given his violent history, is also a big no - though we don't want to voice this boundary unless we absolutely have to. We are worried that they will plan exhausting / boring days out without considering child stamina. We are worried that the “captive audience” effect of being abroad and us being unable to drive away from the situation will make his boundary pushing worse, to the point where we might see the “old him”.

In short, we are worried we’ll be entirely powerless.

So we’re left wondering… what practical steps can we take to frustrate his manipulations and boost our confidence? We want our children to have an enjoyable holiday, and to not know anything about the fears gripping my wife and I. But as the holiday approaches, the stress levels are rocketing.

(The holiday is in August, so we have some time to prepare)

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    How old are your kids? – A.bakker Mar 6 at 7:19
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I have a similar type of situation with my father-in-law, and can point out some measures that we take.

Your core responsibility is towards your own family unit, meaning your spouse and kids. Put their needs first. If your wife does not want your eldest to sit next to grandpa, then enforce that. Your own family's needs are more important than the grandparents desire to spend time with your kids.

Time spent with grand-kids is a privilege, not a right. It is good to want your children to spend time with their grandparents, but if it does them more harm than good, then stop. No one is forcing you to allow your in-laws to spend time with your kids.

Your kids, your rules. Long before you go on holiday, get together (or phone / videochat) with everyone that will go on the trip and agree on expectations. Everyone needs to understand the rules that you set with regards to your children, and agree to enforce them. For example, agree that your son needs to eat at least x amount, whether he sits next to you, or next to grandma. If grandma does not agree to it, or does not enforce this, she loses the privilege of sitting next to him at mealtimes. This can also include rules like nap times, or rest time. But let your wife communicate this to her parents (and you talk to your parents) otherwise they'll just resent you. If they won't listen to your wife, back her up. If they won't listen to you as a pair, then don't go on holiday with them.

Never be absolutely dependent on the grandparents. As sad as this may be, you need to have an out. That way your in-laws don't have manipulative power over you. You don't specify who pays for the holiday, but being dependent on your in-laws is not a good idea. If you have an exit plan, you will never reach the 'captive audience' effect. You don't need to share your plan, or use it as a warning (behave or we leave), but having the plan will give you confidence to stand up for your own values, because if they don't agree, you don't have to put up with it. It may be expensive to get alternative transport and accommodation, but weigh that up against the well-being of your family.

As a final note, agreeing to go on holiday with them goes along with certain implied conditions: it's a holiday, it's supposed to be relaxing. If you strongly believe those (implied) conditions will not be met, then cancel the trip. If you believe that it can be enjoyable, then go ahead and enjoy it, but with agreements in place about how everyone will keep it enjoyable for each other.

Personal experience: we set ground rules with my in-laws. It worked for a few months, but then they broke them in a serious way. We had an upcoming trip with them, which we subsequently cancelled. We lost loads of money in deposits, but gained so much more in terms of freedom and confidence.

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Manipulative people, I find, often cross boundaries by taking advantage of your aversion to breaking with social norms. They can expect to get away with getting, in your example, one on one time with the kid, because in the face of no evidence, you would be more socially awkward to refuse that situation than they were to suggest it.

Know that you do not have to comply with such social norms. Your only need is to cater to the safety of your family, if you feel that is threatened.

I suggest you make a very explicit statement to the grandparents before the trip that you will not allow him to have unmonitored access to your children, due to his history. He is going to make you feel like you're being absolutely unreasonable. Don't let that get to you. Be confident in being unreasonable, then. You don't have to reason about the safety of your children. Be clear that you will tell your children in detail why you feel the way you do if you're being pressured to go against your will. Be clear, if this is what you feel, that if they do spend one on one time without your prior knowledge, that that will be the absolute last time they are trusted to see the kids ever again.

That way, when he suddenly approaches you in front of your kids to say that the kid would rather sit with them, you can simply say "yeah, well you know what we've talked about, so that's not an option."

You say you don't want your children to know about your fears. Scrutinise that value. Think about what it'll take for you to no longer hold it. It's very easy to commit to such an idea and never question it, when in fact, you may on closer inspection find that you only cared about that to a point. Having thought out ahead of time where that threshold is, will decrease the risk that you'll miss passing it, and hold on to that value when it is in conflict with a higher value, such as protecting your children from harm.

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