Counselor helps families heal wounds in A&E’s “Monster In-Laws”

Every comedian has some kind of joke about getting along (or not) with the in-laws, but in real life it’s not always a laughing matter. Monster In-Laws — premiering tonight at 10 on A&E — sends two relationship experts into troubled domestic situations to try to improve communication between warring familial factions.

Mel Robbins is one of those counselors. A syndicated radio host who bills herself as “America’s Life Coach,” Robbins considers it her job to get people to face those feelings they’ve kept buried inside, a pattern of behavior she believes only leads to bigger and bigger blowups.

Robbins brought that same cut-through-the-bull attitude to my recent interview with her, when we discussed the secret to most conflicts, and why she’s happy when people get angry at her:

Describe your basic approach to helping families on this show.

Mel Robbins: Most of us only want to talk about the issues that bother us on the surface, and my job is to walk into a household where families are on the brink of disaster and kick open Pandora’s Box, because unless you can get a family to talk about the root cause for all the nitpicky bull@#$% problems they’re constantly pecking at one another about, you’re not going to fix anything. It’s my job to force the tough conversations and the tough truth to come to surface. You can talk for decades about problems and not actually change your behavior, so one of the things I think is very unique about this show and about the approach is [that] I use experiential learning, which is forcing the family into physical situations that confront the underlying emotions or issues that we’re talking about. That way when the show is over, from my standpoint as a relationship expert and America’s life coach, they have something they can refer back to. “Remember when Mel wanted me to put duct tape on your mouth, Dad? I have a feeling you’re not listening again.” “Hey, Mom, remember when Mel pulled the moving van in front of the house because she wanted you to understand what’s at stake here? I think you need to remember that moment.” ‘Remember when we pulled out the timeout chair, what that was like?” There are tools that seem a little bit kitschy, but they actually are extremely effective in marrying the insight that I want the family to have with the corrective behaviors they need to adopt.

I saw the episode with the duct tape. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I got the sense you weren’t necessarily expecting the woman to actually duct tape her mom’s mouth shut, but trying to show her—

MR: Oh, I wanted her to. She didn’t go far enough. If the father-in-law and the son-in-law hadn’t broken out into a fistfight, I would have bullied her into it. What you didn’t see is she’s saying, “No, no, no” and “respect, respect,” and I then start yelling at her, “Look, you keep saying you can’t speak up and be an adult because of respect, do you understand how disrespectful it is to your father that you act like a brat all the time? By not following my instructions, you’re being a brat to me. Putting a piece of tape over someone’s mouth is not a big deal.” And then I rip the tape off the roll and stick it on my own mouth and start parading around acting like the father-in-law and that’s what really pissed the father-in-law off. … So my job is to push people to the point where they’ve had it. That family, if I hadn’t shown up, I’m 100 percent comfortable saying that the couple would have gotten a divorce, or there would have been some blow-up … and they never would have spoken to the grandparents again. There was so much tension brewing beneath the surface that you had to do something to get a reaction and that worked. I would have just kept going. I’ll keep going until I got the reaction I want. I got all day.

What effect do the cameras have while you’re trying to treat the family?

MR: They don’t have any effect on me. There’s a tone shift that happens the first day, because when the cameras are there with the family before I arrive capturing just a day in the life, the family starts to feel very comfortable. They become friendly with the people who are there for sound and camera. There’s a levity of kind of, “Oh, we’re doing a show. There are cameras in the house.” When I walk in and they realize that I’m serious and that I actually know what the hell I’m doing and I start going for the tough issues immediately, there is a seismic shift in the level of stress and tension in the household, because now people realize, “Oh my God. This isn’t some joke.”

When it comes down to it, is communication the root of just about every family’s problem?

MR: If you’ve got somebody acting out or they’re controlling or they’re nasty, it all comes from the same place: They don’t feel special. They don’t feel regarded. Someone’s done something and feels that you just don’t give a s#$%. They may not be right. They may not be rational, but that is the source of where the hurt is coming from, and where the bad behavior is coming from. For example, in the episode you saw, the father- and mother-in-law had worked for 18 months in this restaurant. Now they didn’t want to do that. They had come out of retirement to create a restaurant with Anthony and Kim, and when they opened the restaurant it got way too stressful for Anthony and Kim, they started fighting all the time and they basically bailed on the restaurant and left the grandparents holding the bag. So here the grandparents have been working their tails off for 18 months in order to make the restaurant a success, they’ve invested their own money in it, the kids have basically bailed on them and they feel completely disrespected and taken advantage of. That is why whenever Kim and Anthony come swooping in and they want Richie to serve pizzas, or once a month when they stop by and think, “Oh, you know what we should do? We should have a Hawaiian night out on the deck!” And Richie says, “What are you @#$%ing talking about? You bailed on this restaurant when things got tough and now you want to swoop in here and pretend you own the place?” Totally disrespectful. That’s where his upset is coming from, and why he is constantly micromanaging and smothering his daughter because she hasn’t acted like an adult. On the same side of things, Kim feels disrespected because the father is smothering her.

When I saw the way the grandparents treated the granddaughter, spoiling her like they do, with no rules, I wondered if that’s how they got into the situation with their daughter because they raised her the same way.

MR: A hundred percent. We actually had an exercise that didn’t make it in that was all about that. I’ll tell you, it was a shocker to be on a set where somebody threatens your life and tells you you’re not going to walk out of here. The police are outside and all that stuff, and literally hours later he’s crying and hugging you and you’ve gotten to the core of the matter. His daughter constantly threatens to take the granddaughter away because she doesn’t like how her dad’s acting.

As scary as it must be to have someone threaten you, is that when you know you’ve gotten through?

MR: When somebody turns on me — and in almost every episode, one of the family members is screaming at me, that it’s my fault, “You’ve gone too far,” “How dare you?” “You’re a pit bull,” “Get out of my face,” “F#$% you” — it’s actually good news in my mind because I know I’ve hit the button. When people get angry or when they try to deflect by blaming me, I know that we’ve gotten to the real issue that nobody wants to talk about. So that’s good news. In that situation, frankly all hell had broken loose. Now, I’ve been in some pretty serious situations in my professional career. I’m a former criminal defense attorney. I did felony defense work in Manhattan for the first four years of my legal career, and being at Riker’s Island, being in the courtroom with predicate felons, being in the dangerous situations investigating cases, I’ve certainly been nervous before. But I will tell you that the cameras were all over the place because the family had disbursed. … Richie came right up to me and he started poking me in the chest. The camera was right on my face and I remember saying to myself, “Just don’t react. Just don’t react.” What I wanted to do was to stand up even taller and tower over him and absolutely verbally assassinate him, but I also knew that wouldn’t get us anywhere and that it would be my job to reel him back in after that explosion. When you’re dealing with a man that’s filled with so much pride, dominating him isn’t the way to win him over. But the camera was right on my face, and he’s standing there threatening me, and he’s really pissed — I thought that there was a 50/50 chance that I am going to get punched, and when he punches me this freaking camera is going to film the whole thing. So I’m sitting there sort of having an out-of-body experience, thinking, “Just hold it together. There’s a camera 5 inches from your face and you’re about to get punched and it’s going to replay on every television set in America, like, 100 times” like that crazy Italian lady who flipped the table on the Housewives series. It was a surreal moment, and luckily he just kind of walked away. But I was nervous because our crew wasn’t around. It was just a camera guy.

So luckily this family is on the path to recovery, but were there instances when a family couldn’t be saved?

MR: The truth is in every episode that I shot, things got really better. The family was given the tools to sustain at least a small shift in the way they related to one another. Most importantly what got brought to the surface is a renewed commitment and connection. One of the things that’s awesome about working with families is you know walking in the door that no matter how pissed off everybody is there is a commitment to keep the family together. So you have an implicit buy-in from everybody. Some families made much bigger strides than others, for sure. That has to do with how crazy certain people were in the families. The Ciccones, they were completely broken, very dysfunctional, violent in their communication style with one another and I believe that they are going to go forward and have an extremely successful relationship and restaurant. I was extremely proud of Richie, because Richie told me flat-out when I walked in, “Look, I’m 60 years old. I’m not changing. I’m not changing for you. I’m not changing for anybody. You can do what you want to do, but I’m not changing.” And he, honestly, was the one who surprised me the most. He was able to see how domineering he was, he was able to see how he was constantly talking, he was the one who opened up and cried and admitted what was really scaring him. In the end, he told me, “By God, you got to me.”

That had to be a big thing for him to admit.

MR: Huge. Well, you know, 10 minutes after he threatened my life, he was hugging me and apologizing. People just need permission to have that explosion. I see the fights that are mediated by me as, emotionally, great news. Getting something off your chest, finally saying something that you’ve been harboring for 10 years, having an expert there that give credence and maybe translation to the feelings you’ve been having, it’s an enormous opportunity for these families.

Compare your approach toward helping the families with that of Tom Kersting, the other counselor on the show.

MR: My style is way more in your face. Tom’s background is he’s a high school guidance counselor and he has a private therapy practice, and he’s just one of those guys that you just … everybody loves Tom. He’s one of those guys you just want to be around. He’s insightful and he’s tough when he needs to be. I think he’s a great combination of somebody that’s easy to be around but can get tough when he has to be. I’m a bossy dictator. I’m a pit bull for change. I think you can probably tell by talking to me, my commitment is to force a family to resolve their issues and come back together by any means necessary. I will do whatever it takes. … Tom is very even, and I am wildly unpredictable. One style fits all approach doesn’t work, so I bring whatever’s necessary.

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