This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on March 25, 2021, by Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS; Health Affiliates Maine.
Question: I am absolutely fed up with my mother-in-law. She has spent pretty much my entire marriage to her son criticizing me as a wife and mother. My husband used to defend me more but has given up saying his mom won’t change her ways so it’s not worth the fight. Recently she called me a “lazy mom” in front of our ten-year-old. Our daughter cried on the way home and said she doesn’t want to see grandma anymore. My husband brushed it off. I’m furious as my daughter deserves to see him stick up for me (and her) and should not be exposed to that. I want to have a discussion with my husband but see red every time I start to gear up for it. How can I discuss this without making matters worse?
Answer: This is an important question to which so many can relate. You would like to not be criticized by your mother-in-law. You would like to be supported by your husband when there are problems between your mother-in-law and yourself. And you want healthy behavior about relationships and respect, to be modeled for your daughter.
Relationships with in-laws and parents are so significant. When troubled, they can be like a tormenting drip, drip, drip of a faucet or they may be like walking through a field with dangerous mines all around, always waiting for an explosion. The criticism can be at the table for every family gathering. When good, however, they can add richness to your life and the lives of your children. All your family relationships can be impacted by this difficulty with your mother-in-law. It can be helpful to see a counselor, a neutral party, to help you sort it out.
“Seeing red” when you want to talk with your husband is not getting the problem solved. Keep in mind that your goal is to help him understand what you need from him. If you go about this angrily or in an accusatory fashion, he will stop listening. Also, remember that he is in the middle. His mother may have been critical all his life, and he may feel powerless to think she can change. He will need some tools to be able to help and counseling may help the two of you stand together to resolve this.
Learning about setting boundaries is one way of making improvements. I encourage you to get a book or do an internet study on how to set boundaries or ask the counselor to help you with this. Learning to set boundaries helps you know what to do when you are not respected. The result of healthy boundaries is that slowly you will begin to gain respect. One of my favorite sayings about boundaries is “people use the people they can use and respect the people they cannot use.” If your mother-in-law can get you upset, cause you to storm out, and leave you hurting then she is the one who is in control. You can say to your mother-in-law, “I value our relationship and your time with your granddaughter, but I cannot allow you to speak to me in that way especially in front of her. Please speak to me with respect or we will need to leave.” If she continues and you allow it, she remains in control. Instead, quietly gather your things and your daughter and let her know you are leaving. No drama, no tears, just leave.
This learning process also includes evaluating those areas in which you may be contributing to the discord between the two of you. You cannot ask to be spoken to with respect unless you also speak and treat her with respect. Most often in these situations, everyone needs to do better.
Lastly, it may sound odd, but try to ignite feelings of love and kindness towards her. You can do this by looking at her life. Is she lonely, hurt, depressed; does she have needs that are not met, or were never met? People often push away the people they need most by the things they say and the things they do. Creating kind thoughts for her may help you connect with her in a more meaningful way. This takes practice, but modeling this for your daughter can have a big payoff for everyone.
Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS is a professional counselor and the Outpatient Therapy Director at Health Affiliates Maine.