The in-laws came to visit today and it ended up once again with my husband and I arguing about how difficult it is being around his mother and how she tries to create problems for us. I get a feeling that he thinks I’m just trying to be difficult and he doesn’t fully recognize the negative ways his mother treats me. Even though he tries to play that he is on my side, I feel deep down he blames me and sees it as my fault instead of acknowledging the behaviors of his mom. To give some examples of the behaviors I have to manage, I will start with when my husband’s parents first arrived this weekend as it was all surface level talk because my husband was not home from work yet. Any time that he is not home or not in the room, it is very superficial conversation. Then once he came home, there were several times when I would leave the room or even be across the room and his mom would whisper things to him. Some things she would whisper are pieces of advice about what to do with our children… you shouldn’t do this, and you should do that. What do I do in this situation? If I can make out what she is whispering then I respond and comment to defend what we are choosing to do as a family. She will ask him questions about things she is fully aware I manage (I am a stay-at-home mom), such as schedules for the kids, their sports, school pictures, etc. This time in particular we had already had a discussion about the holidays and I expressed to her the dates we were available to come visit. So what does she do? She leans over to my husband to have a semi-private conversation with him about the holidays and asked him if we could come visit on dates that were outside our availability that I had already told her.
I recognize my husband is in a tough position and he does what he can, but maybe you could have some suggestions of more he effective ways to respond. He usually responds with, I don’t know and says he will check with me. Then of course when he tells me afterwards what his mom asked/said and it pisses me off, which creates an argument between my husband and me.
To provide some back-story… my husband and I live two hours away from his parents. We have three children and I decided to stay home after we gave birth to our second child. My husband had previously discussed his mom’s behaviors with her and how it upsets me. She changed for a month and then it seemed to get even worse. I am worried if I talk with her that she will just resent me more and the behaviors will get worse. There will be more whispering, secretive behaviors and going behind my back. I don’t know what else to do. I try to play nice and hold in just how hurt I am by her but that doesn’t seem to be working. I have a hard time expressing myself, especially when someone has wronged me, but I am willing to do anything at this point. My MIL is going to ruin our family… PLEASE HELP!
Wife with MIL problems
Dear Wife with MIL problems,
Oh how I feel for you and what you are going through. It must be distressing and hurtful to be treated in such a disrespectful way by someone that you have to be tied to because of your marriage. The wife/MIL relationship can be such a sticky one that is difficult to navigate at times. It sounds like you have definitely been handed a challenging situation but hopefully I can provide you with some different techniques to try or at the very least an objective perspective.
It seems as if your MIL is trying to give your son more authority in the family decisions. Why she might be doing this… I imagine she believes that you are calling all of the shots and you are dictating her son. With this she probably fears her son’s needs are being minimized and therefore she is indirectly being slighted, so she becomes even more possessive and controlling of your husband and kids. I always urge people to walk around in your opposition’s shoes and try to have some compassion for their perspective. In your particular case, imagine your child growing up and (in your perspective) not having a say in their marital decisions. This might help when approaching your MIL. If this is the case, when your husband says, “I don’t know, I’ll talk to my wife” in response to a lot of her questions, even though the intention is to show unity in making decisions, it probably infuriates her even more and affirms the belief she already holds about what goes on in your household – that your husband can’t make any decisions without you. Frankly, it is none of her business how you and your husband agree to make family decisions. However, if you want her behaviors to change it might be beneficial to let her in on how you and your husband make decisions. How to do this? I will add to this in a minute…
I think it is important to say that the above is just a conceptualization based on the minimal information you provided me. So instead of basing decisions off of what we think is going on, why not ask your MIL? The most mature thing to do is always talk-it-out! You mentioned how your husband had a conversation with your MIL in the past, but nothing seemed to stick. So now it is time to present as a united front and let it be known (through your presence and words) that from this point on, both your husband and you will be acknowledging and confronting this issue together… each time you see the behavior present itself. This is a way for her to receive the message that she will not get away with playing husband/son against wife/DIL anymore and she will be held accountable for her actions. We can’t have healthy and respectful relationships without setting firm boundaries. Included in boundaries are verbalizing consequences, which is necessary in order to prevent from continuous boundary violations and also an effective way for behavior modification.
My favorite way to format a consequence statement that puts all the ownership on the person is as follows: If you choose to (behavior), then you also choose to (consequence). An example in your specific situation could be, “If you choose to continue to whisper to anyone of us in front of the other, then you choose to have what you just said be repeated out-loud because we don’t keep secrets in this family.” Before having the conversation it will best serve you if you prepare by writing down the boundaries that you want to set.
In addition to the boundary setting there are a few more things to consider:
- Before any serious conversation that stems from some sort of dispute, I would suggest the first step is to self-reflect. Have a moment to yourself to really be honest and think about any behaviors, thoughts or words used on your behalf that needs to be acknowledged. The most growth comes from this step, if you can truly be honest with yourself. Then make sure to take accountability for your part in the conversation ahead.
- As always, using the Caring Communication format when speaking with your MIL will limit defensiveness and clearly get your feelings out there for her to hear. While using this way of speaking it is necessary to have specific examples to provide clarification and understanding. You can find more details on Caring Communication and setting boundaries from my previous post Fighting for Family Time.
- Also, it will be important to remain respectful, confident and goal-oriented. By being disrespectful you lose your credibility and you just give the other person more ammunition, plain and simple. The more confident you stand, with your husband, the more strength there is in your message. One of people’s common defense mechanisms when being approached about their hurtful behavior is to deflect. They deflect because they try to avoid hearing, dealing with and having to take ownership for what they have done. This is why it will be so important to stay on task, by approaching one topic at a time, in order to prevent any attempts to deflect.
- Ask what you want to know. It is better to have her answer any questions you might have, rather than you fill in the blanks and make-up stories in your head that could be wildly off. There is obviously no guaranteeing that your MIL will tell the truth but you can stand with your head held high knowing you asked. In the end… what harm is done by giving her the benefit of the doubt and believing her answer? If she is lying, the truth will come out regardless. Asking also sends your MIL the message that you will ask for clarification if you question her intentions, which is an effective consequence for those who might be misbehaving like her! A helpful tip for asking questions… try to avoid using the word “why” because people tend to have a defensive response to that word, instead use words like “I was wondering if…” to frame it in a more gentle way.
- Be mindful of who is speaking and making decisions during the conversation, regarding your husband and you. If in fact, your MIL does have the belief that her son has no say in your marriage then the last thing you want to do is reinforce that belief. Making sure that you showcase in front of your MIL that your husband has a part in the decision making process for your family will help. This is how you let her in on how you and your husband make decisions for the family, which I was referring to earlier. I can hear you saying now, “Why do I have to give her this? It’s none of her business.” You are totally right, this isn’t necessary, but it will most likely provide some relief of the issue. If your MIL is able to see that you value her son’s opinion and perspective then she might ease off much more rapidly.
I just unloaded a lot of information on you and it is understandable if you feel overwhelmed. Take your time because there is no need to rush through this process. You have a heavy conversation ahead of you and there will likely be strong emotions at play since you are dealing with family. I am hopeful the tools I have shared will help you get closer to where you want to be. Feel free to keep me posted on your progress. Best wishes on the conversations ahead and as always; the most strength is in asking for a helping hand.
Your fellow daughter-in-law,