Few people are truly lucky with their mother-in-law: the kind that gives just enough help, but does not butt in; the kind that respects your decisions and does not believe that her “poor boy” is abused or underrated; the one that does not expect you to call her “mom.”
What can you do if you don’t hit the jack-pot? What if your mother-in-law is practically a monster with the airs of Queen Victoria and the skills of an experienced manipulator?
Let me give you a real-life case first. The usual scenario goes like this:
“On Sundays I make a cake and ask her over. She’s a tartar, of course, but what can I do – I just put up with it. After all, she’s my husband’s mom.”
Besides, as the wife of her son you incur a number of responsibilities as a matter of course:
- To call and ask after her health and show that you care.
- To serve your time sitting silently at the dinner table because you have nothing to talk to her about.
- To put up with criticism. To listen to how rottenly you cook and how poorly you bring up your children.
- To keep your opinion to yourself because she brought up an amazing son and who knows what your children will be like with a mother like that!
You get no rights at all.
“Be grateful. You’re incredibly lucky to have married so well.”
So, do you put up with this all life long, eating humble pie and sitting at family dinners as if you were a school girl? Is it like this for everyone and is there no way out? After all, what wouldn’t you do for the sake of the family…
A cage built with your own hands
There is always another solution if you evaluate the situation correctly. Here are the facts: you deal with an unpleasant older woman on the regular basis. She gets on your nerves, pulls down your self-esteem and makes you feel like a sponger.
Note: this is an important question. Why do you put up with it?
Who has laid this geas, this duty on you? Who holds the gun to your head making you spend your family time with people you don’t like?
This unkind stranger is not your mother, nor even a blood relative. In fact, she is no one to you. If she is not nice to be around, don’t hang out with her. You have that right and that option.
It seems that putting up with her is your choice, your decision that can be changed any time. You are the only one who holds yourself to those dreary family meals. You hold yourself with fears:
“What’ll it look like? What will his relatives think of me?”
“What if I upset my husband? What if he decides that I don’t love him enough?”
“What about the kids? Shouldn’t they get to see grandma?”
We’ll come back to the fears. For now, you simply need to realize that you do have another choice!
A long time ago I read a wonderful metaphor illustrating a standard woman’s reaction when advised not to deal with unpleasant toxic people:
“Doc, I take meth in the morning and I don’t feel so good. Help me!”
“Why don’t you stop taking meth?”
“But, I mean, the family won’t get it… They expect me to…”
“I don’t know how to make you feel better if you choose to take meth.”
“But you’ve got to tell me! You’re the doctor!”
“Stop taking meth.”
If you are a present-day person living in the city and not materially dependent on your family’s help you are not obligated to spend your time dealing with unpleasant people, all the more so, since your mother-in-law is not too eager to make you her bosom buddy.
Your mother is your responsibility
There are usually two parties to a relationship. However, in the case of a mother-in-law, there are three of you: you, she and your spouse. Split the relationship. In order for communications to be comfortable to everyone, each has to bear their part of the responsibility.
- Mother-in-law. Her area of responsibility is to become nice to be around, if she wants you to be around. She needs to feel that if she does not make the effort, you will easily do without her. She will be risking your disfavor and that means a part of influence over her son and grandchildren. Mother-in-law does have something to lose and you need to help her realize it.
- Husband. His area of responsibility is his relationship with his mother. This is also not your territory, naturally, as long as it does not interfere with your interests. Don’t undertake the extra responsibility for a relationship that, by and large, has nothing to do with you.
- Wife. Your area of responsibility is to create the environment where your husband can support his relationship with his mother and your children – their relationship with their grandmother. Do note that you personally are not at all obligated to deal with her.
After all, there is nothing you need of her. So why should you waste your resources and your time on someone who makes no effort? Whatever for? You have your friends, your job, your children and your interests. They don’t care whether you’re wasting your time meekly sitting at the “obligatory” family meals or doing something more pleasant.
How not to insult the husband
Many are deterred by the fear that the husband will view your refusal to deal with the mother-in-law as a personal insult. In that case, think about the following example:
Let’s say that your husband has a close friend that he went to school with. This guy, however, indulges in:
- Dropping in without a notice;
- Calling at 2 AM to say that his light bulb went out;
- Having a fight or using obscene language in front of your children;
- Unceremoniously visiting your fridge and generally acting as if he were at home;
- Criticizing your decisions and belittling you in front of your children.
Are you going to put up with it and ignore such behavior? Are you going to simply sit meekly in a corner and let him humiliate you? All for the sake of not hurting your husband’s feelings?
Note, this is an important question: whose wellbeing should be more important to your husband – a friend’s, even a close one, or his own family’s? You and your children are his key responsibility, his main care. Or, at least you should be.
Now match the example with the relationship with your mother-in-law. Explain to your husband quietly and objectively why you personally do not want to support such communication format.
Your arguments might go as follows:
- Your task, as a wife and mother is to create a healthy atmosphere for your own family. You have a right to live in a supportive environment, preferring friendly, considerate, intelligent and ethical people. Communicating with these people is pleasant, interesting and good for you. If, for any reason, your mother-in-law is not such a person, your duty is to put some distance between you, to protect your family.
- You do not make him deal with your mother and he should not make you deal with his. Separate your relationships with your parents. “Your mother is your mother and you deal with her, while I go and attend to my business.” Your husband might even be happy about having such freedom. After all, that lets him off visiting his mother-in-law any time. He can spend his time some other way too.
- Your peace of mind. Does he want a calm, loving, caring woman next to him? Or would he rather have a scratch cat that blows up at the drop of a feather? After all, when your mother-in-law winds you up for three hours and you have to grin and bear it, it’s no wonder you lose self-control.
- Setting a good example for your children. Even if your husband is ready to ignore humiliating criticisms his mother makes, you can’t hide them from the children. First of all, they lose respect for their mother. If grandma can do it, so can they. Secondly, they lose respect for their father, who is supposed to protect his wife, even from his own mother. Finally, in the future, they might copy the scenario in their own families.
Another solution is to set the right distance
Any communications either put you in a good mood and inspire you or humiliate you and put you in a bad mood. If after you have talked to someone you don’t feel too well and become depressed – that person is definitely not your friend, because friends improve your mood and general wellbeing by their concern or even simple chit-chat. It is always better to be with friends than without them. By all accounts, your mother-in-law does not satisfy that criterion.
Why should you put up with it? Isn’t it better to set such a distance that talking to her does not humiliate you? Why should you surround yourself with “toxic people” who make you “sick with meth?”
The only solution is to distance yourself. Move away to a safe distance and your life will become so much more pleasant. It will certainly be emotionally healthier.
Some people might say,
“Isn’t that deserting the battlefield? Why should I retreat and forgive her for all her rudeness and humiliation?”
A grown-up person can evaluate the situation, as well as their chance of victory, reasonably and rationally. Setting a distance does not mean running away from your problems, or “ignoble behavior,” or avoiding responsibility. It is the normal reaction of a healthy person – to avoid what causes them harm.
What will happen if you engage in unhealthy competition with your mother-in-law? What will the damage be? How much time and effort will be wasted? What will your children see?
“That’s easy for you to say… Just how do you put it into real life? I still haven’t managed.”
Maybe you haven’t managed because you lacked determination, a confidence in your right to do that, to build the relationship that way.
As soon as you are 100% convinced that this is your right decision, the others will follow suit and will have to accept the situation. It is quite possible to have your children be with grandma so that you don’t see her at all. You leave and she comes in, for example. You are not obligated to be a part of her visit if you don’t like her.
You don’t have to put up with kicks, insults, scorn or patronizing conversation. You can very easily walk away from all that without feeling guilty. It is destructive to put up with things like that even from your own mother, even more so, since this is a mother-in-law – practically a stranger.
The choice of any type of behavior, however, is yours. At least now you know what your choices are.