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- Detach and think of her as an acquaintance. Don’t try to think of her as your “other mother” unless the relationship is warm, friendly, and family-like. Don’t call her “Mother” or “Mom”. She isn’t your parent; you are equals. Call her by her first name, unless you are living in (or your spouse is from) a country in which it’s considered rude to call your mother-in-law only by name. In that case, follow the custom properly as to how to respectfully address her, and ask your spouse if you’re not sure about it.
- Express your feelings and know the common problems. Be aware that there is a belief that mothers-in-law often assume that daughters-in-law are terrible manipulators who wickedly control their son’s lives. Other common issues: Mother feels a little less important to her child, Mother wants to be more involved with the young couple, Mother still sees son/daughter as her child rather than someone’s spouse. These issues can lead Mother to be overly critical or to get her nose bent out of joint over little things. Don’t make judgemental comments as she does, but let your husband (or wife) know that it hurts. You are entitled to share these feelings with your spouse (your best friend). Do not criticize her – remember this is his/her mother – but don’t protect her either.
- Get spouse support. Does your spouse support you? It’s very important, and will determine your success in dealing with your mother-in-law. But sometimes you need to tell your spouse there’s a problem, since s/he will not want to ruffle any feathers. It’s important to face this problem head-on, as soon as possible. Don’t criticize your mother-in-law, just calmly state, “It hurt my feelings when your mother implied that it was me who “made you” move here/made you change jobs/made you buy a new car.” (Encourage your spouse to make it clear to his/her mother that it was both of you as a couple who made these decisions, and that she should not be blaming you.) Each of you should take responsibility for putting your marriage/spouse first, and your childhood family next, which sometimes requires you to protect your marriage from your birth family. If your husband/wife will not step up and protect you to his/her mother, then you have a problem that will plague you for your entire marriage.
- Example problem: Your spouse is warmly greeted by his/her family, while you barely rate a nod. You feel a little like the invisible woman – most of the family takes their cues from Mother, and she is not really acknowledging you. When it comes time to eat dinner, your spouse is seated next to Mother or Dad, while you are sent to the far end of the table, or worse, to the children’s table. Mother sweetly asks, “You don’t mind, do you? This table is so small.” (of course, there’s plenty of room for your brother and sister-in-law to sit between you and your spouse). This makes you feel isolated and you end up virtually eating alone. You valiantly offer to help clear and wash the dishes, and about halfway through, you realise you’ve been left on your own to finish while the rest of the family is in the den watching TV. Mother comes in to grab a few munchies and drinks for the family and smugly reminds you to turn off the lights when you’re ready to join them. She does not seem to mind at all that you’re finishing the dishes alone.
- Example remedy: When you get home, tell your spouse calmly what happened. If your spouse becomes defensive and shuts down, you will need to continue this discussion until you are satisfied. But usually, the spouse will feel bad that you felt alone and put upon. Be very clear about what you want to happen, don’t just vaguely say, “It hurt my feelings.” Instead, say, “I think you should talk to her. If my mother did this to you, I would go to her and say, ‘Mom, I saw how you treated David, and I did not appreciate it at all. You put him at the end of the table, separated us from one another, and then you deserted her while she was washing the dishes, and that was very small of you. I expect – and will require – better of you in the future. Because if this is the treatment David can expect when we visit you, you should know that we won’t be visiting you much.” If a spouse is willing to step up and call his parent on the BS, it can go very far toward putting that parent on notice that his/her spouse must be treated with respect, or the result will be that the couple will not volunteer to be treated this way. This presents a united front to the parents and family.
- Distance yourself physically. You don’t need to move cross-country, but you also don’t need to show up at every event. It’s okay for your spouse to attend some family things without you. You should not try to drive a wedge between your spouse and his family, however, if your spouse is often content to go without you, it’s a big win for that mother of his/hers. This will cause discord in your marriage eventually, so it’s highly recommended that you make it clear that you don’t intend to be a “stay-home” spouse, just so that Mother can be appeased. Encourage your spouse to stand up for you, or this issue will follow you forever. But do understand that you probably won’t be getting a lot of hugs from dear old Mom, and it’s best to keep a little space between you and her.
- Remember that it’s highly unlikely that she’ll change. If your mother-in-law has criticized you, stabbed you in the back to other family members, and has been dismissive of things you’ve said, she is making a very clear statement about this “relationship”. Believe her. She may be occasionally nice. Judgemental, negative people often do this; they do something nice to reel you in, and then grab the opportunity to make a jab at you. If she’s done this, remember to keep your distance even when she’s being nice. You are more important than your relationship to your mother-in-law! Take care of yourself. Let the hopes go. Look to other women for mentoring, advice, kindness, role modeling. You probably have to write this woman off. It’s not going to happen.
- Recognize and avoid the triggers. Before coming in contact with the in-law, visualize the scenarios which always manage to get under your skin. What is it that is said or done that makes your blood boil? Once you determine those triggers (which tend to be the same emotionally, manifested in various ways), think about ways in which you can avoid them.
- Don’t raise the emotional temperature. If conflict is impossible to avoid, go ahead and respond honestly – not rudely, but don’t sugar-coat either. Remember that despite your efforts to avoid direct conflict, this person has shown little regard for your feelings on whatever the issue is. Don’t let the fear of hurting the feelings of your relative or in-law stop you from responding appropriately – she hasn’t allowed any fear of your feelings to stop her from disrespecting you. This is a case where you must adopt the attitude that “I care about you as much as you care about me.” If the answer there is “Not much,” then don’t worry about hurting her feelings – she certainly doesn’t care about hurting yours.
- Define your boundaries. You set the boundaries in your relationships. If those boundaries are crossed and the other person can’t seem to take the hint, and if your spouse is unwilling to address the situation and stand up for you, then you have to assert yourself to restore balance. If you have relatives who fail to respect your boundaries and behave as if the purpose of the relationship is for you to bend over backwards to satisfy all of their needs, you certainly aren’t alone. What you need to do is define boundaries which you consider to be bottom lines that should not be crossed, ones that make you feel violated when they are. For example, if you value your privacy and a relative insists on frequent unannounced drop-in visits, that may be a bottom line for you. The first thing to realize is that it’s perfectly OK to satisfy your own needs. A relationship that makes you feel violated isn’t healthy.
- Example problem: Mother drops over unannounced just before you and your spouse are headed out for dinner. You say, “Gee, it’s nice to see you (not), but I wish you’d called. David and I are on our way out to dinner. If we’d known you were coming, we’d have made plans to eat at home.” (hint hint – leave, Mom – and call first next time). Your spouse seems content to allow her to just sit and visit. Meanwhile, you’re starving, it’s getting later and later, and you realize you may not get any dinner at all. The visit seems to get lengthier and lengthier, the more you remind your spouse that dinner awaits (Mother just keeps on chatting and ignores the hint to leave).
- Example Solution #1: Simply say, “You guys, I need to eat. Let’s all go.” This will let Mom know that if she wants to continue visiting with her baby, she will need to accompany you. If she says, “Oh, no. I already ate,” then say, “Okay, David, say good night to your Mom. Althea, it was good to see you, but we need to go now.”
- Example Solution #2: If this is early on in your marriage, then just go with the flow. Accept that she won’t leave, and your spouse won’t force the issue tonight. Go in and fix yourself something to eat. Offer some to both. Eat. Don’t wait. This way, you take care of your needs, and you allow them to visit. After she leaves, you can calmly discuss this with your spouse: “Janie, please talk to your mom about the unannounced visits. I don’t mind occasionally if someone surprises us, but your mom makes it a habit, and I feel it’s best if you ask her to call first – I don’t want to be seen as overly dominating. If it comes from you, she might take it better. Tell her she’s always welcome, of course, but please – call ahead of time to make sure we’ll be home.”
- Verbalize your boundaries. Use nonviolent communication (observation, feeling, need, request) the next time a relative oversteps boundaries. If you’ve been going years without clearly verbalizing and enforcing your boundaries like a mature adult (i.e. you’ve been letting your mother treat you like a child for too long), most likely she won’t take you seriously at first. There may be a “shock” reaction (usually feigned) at the mere suggestion that you dare attempt to put restrictions on this behavior. Just let her have her reaction, but stand your ground anyway.
- Example Solution #3: If this has gone on awhile and (1) your spouse is too weak to tell his/her mom to call ahead of time or (3) your spouse has told her to call ahead, but she ignores it and just barges on over anyhow, then it’s up to you. When Mom shows up at the door at an inopportune time, you simply do not let her in. Kindly, calmly, and firmly say, “Althea, I’m so sorry, but this is not a good time. David is working and I have things I need to do tonight or else we’ll be working over the weekend. Let’s plan to get together later in the week, okay?” If Althea protests that she just “needs a minute,” firmly say, “I know you two – once you get going, it’s not just a minute. David has to work now or he will be up all night – you don’t want him to get exhausted and have to deal with that all day tomorrow, do you? He asked me to make sure, no matter what, that he wasn’t disturbed. I hope you won’t be angry with me, but I don’t want him to be angry with me, either. If you’d have called first, I could have told you it wasn’t a good time, and made plans for later this week. It really will be best if you do call ahead after this, just so this doesn’t happen again.” She may be miffed, but she will definitely get the message. Of course, that message will probably be, “That little #$%!?@&!!” but at least you will have made it clear that you won’t be allowing any more “little surprise visits.” And she probably thought that about you before, anyhow.
- Enforce your boundaries compassionately but firmly. Try to enforce with kindness and compassion at first – after all, there’s a good chance you’ve allowed this behavior to go on for years, and that makes you partly to blame for the fact that your mother-in-law has not learned the behavior you want from her. But if that fails, and she doesn’t respond to gentle reminders, here’s a no-nonsense approach to enforcing your boundaries: Let her know that for the next 10 days (start with 10, expand to 30 if she doesn’t get the message after the second try), you intend to strictly enforce the boundaries you’ve described. Make it clear that if she violates your boundaries even once during those 10 days, you will then begin a 10-day communications blackout. For 10 days you simply have no contact with her. No drop-in visits (if she shows up, you firmly say, “Sorry, we just aren’t ready for visitors right now. Also, we are not having contact with you at this time – remember? That is to help you with our new rules.”), no phone calls, no emails, nothing — unless it’s absolutely necessary. After the 10-day “fasting” period, you can restart the original 10-day boundary-enforcement trial and repeat the process. Of course, you should let your mother-in-law know that both you and your spouse are equally committed to doing this (and it’s best if your spouse is the one to inform his/her mother, not you) — be totally transparent about what you’re doing. Also, let her know that you’re resorting to this process because she’s left you no choice – remind her that you’ve made many attempts to let her know how serious you were, and those attempts were ignored.
- When you see this pattern occurring where you don’t have the leverage to enforce boundaries, such as with your spouse’s relative, and your partner seems spineless about having a confrontation, then you have to enforce these boundaries with your partner. You must clearly tell your partner to speak to his or her relatives, to defend you and your marriage/partnership, and to make it clear to his or her relatives that you must be respected, or else the two of you will not be visiting much. This has the benefit of pushing your partner to grow up (albeit sometimes kicking and screaming), learning to put your needs first and the “Mommy” figure’s needs second. Some people just need a good kick to get themselves out of childhood and into adulthood, especially during their 20s. In the long run, your partner will likely be grateful to you for his/her new spine.
- Disarm the primary weapon: Guilt. If Mother-In-Law attempts to use guilt as a tool of manipulation (which is extremely common), it’s fairly easy to overcome. Whenever you perceive her attempting to manipulate your emotions by making you feel guilty, bring the whole matter to conscious awareness by asking, “You’re not trying to make me feel guilty, are you?” She will probably deny it, but soon the pattern will re-emerge. Keep interrupting the pattern of falling into a state of guilt by bringing attention to her emotionally manipulative tactics. Simply keep asking questions like, “You’re trying to guilt me again. Why?” or “You must really find this upsetting if you feel it necessary to try to make me feel guilty to get what you want. Can we try a different way of discussing this?” You don’t need to beat her up about it, and you don’t want to say anything to her that your spouse would hate to hear you saying (such as reprimanding her, or telling her to be more mature) but put a stop to the use of guilt as a weapon, once and for all. If you refuse to enter the emotional state of guilt, it will allow you to be more objective and compassionate in seeing that she is probably using guilt because she feels powerless. If you can address that sense of powerlessness (i.e., say something in front of the family to flatter her, such as “We usually reserve Friday nights for dinner with Mom and Dad – we need family time with them!” This gives her a sense of importance in front of everyone, and helps her feel needed and wanted), you have the opportunity to transform the relationship for good.
- You are entitled to a peaceful life. You do not owe this woman your life – but she does deserve respect as your spouse certainly does owe his/her life to her. However, she’s just a person, the same as you, and if her behavior is ugly, she isn’t entitled to any sort of special privilege. Mothers-in-law sometimes assume that they’re going to be a powerful matriarch. No. Respect and admiration are earned. If she doesn’t deserve it, you’re certainly entitled to protect yourself and your marriage, and keep strong boundaries.
- Be yourself. You married your significant other, not her. You don’t have to change yourself because she doesn’t believe in the same things as you do. The more you can remind your spouse that s/he married you, not his/her mother, the more your spouse will address the issue, as s/he properly should, and respect you and the marriage.
- If she really attacks you, your husband or wife needs to support you. Your spouse can simply phone her and said “I heard you say X to my wife/husband. I didn’t think that was very nice, and it really hurt her/him. Do not do it again.” (Note: it is very important that your husband or wife not leave you alone with her! He or she needs to be a witness! Otherwise, that mother-in-law may say that your interpretation of events is incorrect, etc.). But if she does something in front of your spouse, your spouse can say that it bothered him or her. This is key. And it is your spouse’s responsibility to handle his or her own mother, just as you should deal with your family, and he or she shouldn’t have to.
- Mothers-in-law sometimes “lay in wait” until no one else is in the room (including their own husbands, whom they want on their side). Do not be alone with her. If you find yourself alone with her, immediately get up and go to the bathroom, take a walk, do whatever you need to in order to not be alone with her.
- It’s highly recommended that if you have a child, take them out of the room at the same time that you are leaving. If you don’t trust your mother-in-law yourself, you can’t trust her with your child. Don’t allow her to say poisonous things to your child, undermining your relationship with that child.
- If all else fails, run! If the above solution fails, just up and move to another city. Many people swear their marriages have been saved by this solution!
- How to Cope With an Overbearing In Law
- How to Get Along with Your Mother in Law
- How to Be Comfortable Around in Laws
- How to Make Your Inlaws Like You
- How to Deal With Intrusive, Needy Mother in Laws
Sources and Citations
- StevePavlina.com – Dealing With Difficult Relatives. Original source of some of the content in this article. Shared with permission.
- StevePavlina.com – Understanding Family Relationship Problems. Original source of some of the content in this article. Shared with permission.
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