advice: when YOUR mother is the dreaded mother-in-law

In ALL, FAMILY MATTERS, MARRIAGE, STRAIGHT UP ADVICE by Stephanie Klein31 Comments

QUESTION FROM A GREEK TRAGEDY READER [Let’s call her Olivia]: Hey Stephanie….so I’m an avid reader of your blog. Your writing is so eloquent. You often hit on day to day real life issues and give great advice. Okay, so, not that I think you are a Dear Abby or anything, but I still wanted your take on a family issue I have:

I am married one year. Married later in life. I’m close to my mother, who did not take the marriage well, choosing to see it as me leaving her ( a wealth of issues there). Because of that, she decided she did not like my husband. Thus, many issues have ensued.

In turn, he reacts to how she treats him, and now nothing each of them do is good enough. He thinks she does not care and should reach out to him, while Mom thinks he is rude and disrespectful and that he should reach out to her. I am caught in the middle.

It has always been hard for me to stand up to my mom …again issues…so I stay neutral and this has solved nothing……..I am not sure what to do. I hope to be married forever and the thought of all these issues is daunting. I have not brought them together to talk because frankly I am afraid of that… They both have strong, aggressive personalities…God only knows what would happen, so instead I keep them apart. Except little things come up now and then.

For example it was my anniversary..mom sent a gift…now husband felt mom should have called and talked to him to say happy anniversary…..mom thought husband should have called to say thank you…as he should have…so neither did anything. Both have animosity…..HELP !!

 straight up advice

Before I take a smack + crack at answering this (and I will), I’ll let others weigh in with their own words of wisdom. Floor’s all yours…

As promised, here’s my take:

I was your husband. Once upon a life ago, before my husband became The Wasband, I had a motherfucker-in-law. She refused every possible wedding date we offered, always an excuse why she couldn’t possibly attend her son’s wedding on that day. It eventually lead to a secretive wedding day (since she’d always have an excuse, we’d marry, tell no one, then act as if any day she chose, no matter how distant, would be just peachy.) We married on May 20. By August, she still refused to choose a wedding date that worked with her schedule, so I forced the boy to sack up and tell them we were, in fact, already married. He sat in their driveway for over an hour, panic-stricken. He didn’t know how he’d get the words out.

Fast forward to our 1 year wedding anniversary. All the cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents sent gifts, cards, called with warm wishes. Whereas motherfucker-in-law simply refused to acknowledge it. Her own mother apologized on her behalf. “I didn’t raise her to be like this.”

Point is, I get it. On one hand, I had to suck it up. This was the dynamic they co-created his entire life. His balls wouldn’t suddenly drop; it would take time for him to outgrow his pussy. As long as I believed he was working toward doing his part in changing that dynamic, I was willing to bite it. To recognize how hard it was for him to deal with confrontation, to acknowledge his efforts, however small. I tried to be patient. It sucked, but I tried. This is the part your husband must learn to play.

Your role in all this? You already know, don’t you? You chose him. When you marry, your new family comes first, period. You are the unit, a unified front against all others, including yo’ mama. Lady, you’ve got to sack up and set boundaries. You need to tell your mother, in no uncertain terms, that your husband must come first. If she doesn’t respect the boundaries you have set, she won’t be included in your lives. You, of course, don’t want it to come to that, but it will if she makes the choice to ignore the boundaries you’ve put in place. Yes, it’s a choice she’s making.

Assuming you’ll have yourselves a pack of chitlin’s, the sooner you establish these boundaries, the better. And let’s be clear, this is your job. You, and you alone, need to have this confrontation. And if your mother tries to throw it on your man, if she begins to make him the bad guy, it is 100% your responsibility to stand up and tell her she’s wrong. This is coming from the both of you. If she has a problem with him, she has a problem with you. I know it’s hard for you, but it’s essential to the health of your family.

As for this specific anniversary thing… the woman sent a gift. He should have called to say thank you. I honestly think in this isolated example, your mother is right, husband is wrong. Her sending the gift was wishing you a happy anniversary. That’s not really the point though. Here’s what is: YOU, madam, need to cowboy up. Let mama know that you don’t want unnecessary stress in your life; it’s bad for your health, and her power struggles with your honey need to end… because there’s no contest: he wins. Even when you disagree with him.

On a final note: I once told the Roman Empire that if she had a problem with me, she should come to me directly, not complain to Dr. Cock & Balls, sticking him in the middle. She had to learn how to go to the source because way too much was getting lost in translation (and built up bigger than it ought to have been). This helped, actually. Only, if your mother confronts your husband on something, and it’s really out of line, you do need to get involved and stand by your man, like that hideous song says.

go ahead, askGOT QUESTIONS? NEED ADVICE? If you have questions or need advice on anything from where to eat to how to get over the bastard, just email your question to my advice email address. Nope, I’m not a shrink, but since people keep asking for my opinion, I might as well share it and air it, so everyone else can weigh in too.

Comments

  1. This one is a no-brainer for me, but only because I faced the same situation. My mother didn’t like my fiance and he didn’t particularly care for her. But since I loved both dearly, and knew they loved me, I knew I had to act. But what to do?

    I have a conversation with each of them separately. I told each that if they loved me, and I believed they did, they would have to respect each other. I didn’t need them to like each other or enjoy each other, but they surely needed to be courteous to one another.

    You are not “caught” in the middle, but you are surely in the middle. And you will probably always mediate. I think the only way to reduce conflict is to let each of them know that you won’t tolerate conflict. Because they love you, they ought to respect the choices you make. Your mother isn’t married to your husband, you are. She may not like your choice of a mate, but she should honor the choice you made. And I would gently tell her that.

    And your husband needs to respect that your mother has always been, and will always be your mother. She deserves respect by virtue of that.

    I believe your tone will set the tone of their future interactions. Stand firm and gently let them know what you expect of them. Because they love you, I suspect you’ll get what you want from them.

  2. are you in therapy? i’m not saying this at all because you seem strange or anything like that at all, but simply that the challenges you are facing are a BIG DEAL and 2 of your main supports–your husband and your mom-are dead smack in the middle of these issues, so discussing this and getting an trained and objective view from a counselor could be really, really, really helpful right now.

    moving on, your mom needs to tolerate her distress regarding this change. your husband needs to have realistic expectations of your mom, who clearly has some boundary issues, and not take what are lively multinational issues so personally. you have formed a new family with your husband and are now charged with the task of learning to stand up for yourself and your new family unit. regardless of what your mom says ( and even how she reacts) it is possible to disagree with someone and still love and respect them. if you feel your mom is breaking boundaries or being inappropriate, being “neutral” isn’t being neutral, it is passively making a decision to relinquish your views and any power you have in these interactions. an option is to express how you feel but also affirm that this is how you feel and that you love and respect your family member, and stick to this line, over and over. in some families confrontation is the ultimate rejection. if that has been the case, know it is one of the many many ways people negotiate conflict. you can also acknowledge it and it’s distress without rejection each other.

  3. I certainly know what it’s like to have an uber-close, codependent relationship with your mom. :) In fact, when I got married, I grappled with where my loyalties now lay: mom or the hubby. And the thing is, you do have to pick a side. When you’re married, it doesn’t help anyone to remain neutral and, as a couple, you should be supporting each other, and presenting a united front. How can you do this without alienating your mother?

    I wouldn’t do anything as crazymaking as forcing them together. Rather, I’d talk to each of them separately about how the situation is making you feel, taking care not to get accusatory. Explain to your mother the reasons you’re with this man… how much you love him… and much it hurts you that the two of them don’t get along. Explain to your husband how close you are with your mother, and how much this conflict hurts you, while still acknowledging how hurtful the situation is to him as well. Ask the both of them to *please* not put you in the middle.

    They may never be best buddies, but the least they can do is avoid outright hostility.

  4. You’re either married to your mother or you’re married to your spouse. When you get married, your spouse becomes your new family. Your “old” family is still important, but your marriage should be your #1 priority. Otherwise, you might as well just get divorced, move back in with Mommy, and get some cats.

    I don’t understand being a married adult and not being able to stand up to your mother. Obviously you need therapy. Your husband seems like he’s being petty, but maybe he’s just drawing a line as what he sees as being second priority to your mother. It’s your job in your marriage to have your husband’s back and you’re just being spineless by doing nothing- keeping no one happy. Yes, isolated, your husband should have called and just said thank you, but I’m sure he’s tired and pissed that you do nothing, so he’s nitpicking. And your mom is probably doing things to set up a conflict between you and he and also giving her reasons to be able to say, “SEE, he’s a sh*t!”.

  5. Hi,

    I’ve had so many issues with mothers, my own included as well as my husband’s. In regards to dealing with my own mother, I’ve never had the balls to confront her, but I have made it passively aggressively clear that my life is now with my husband, not with her. I don’t share any details about my marriage with her – this is a result of learning that she would take it out against my husband if i did. Basically, its very important that you don’t let her see any weaknesses in your relationship with your hubby because she’ll take full advantage of that. Whether its controlling you or using it against you.

    In regards to my husband, he just has to respect her when we see her and that’s all I care about.

    Good luck, C

  6. My mother is the dreaded mother-in-law toward my sister-in-law (I’m not married, this is my brother and his wife). About two years into it, my brother had to cut the cord with my mom. It happened not so much with words, but with actions. He and my sister-in-law did some counseling, and he set boundaries that he didn’t necessarily announce to my mom, but he didn’t let her cross them. It was an awkward transition, but he had to put a stake in the ground and let her know that his wife was his family. he had to stand up for his wife. Things are much better now. Not easy, but better.

    Have you read a book called the “The Good Marriage?” It says that one necessary thing for a happy marriage is cutting the cord with your nuclear family.

    For what it’s worth, coming from a single lady–

    xoxo, E

  7. I agree with the others who’ve posted: have separate conversations with each of them, and your husband (your ‘new’ family) should now be your priority. They don’t have to like each other, ever, but you can explain to your mom that this man is now your husband and deserves some respect and that you won’t hear negative comments about him or your relationship.

    Honestly, hang up on her or leave the room if she starts to bash him or your marriage. And, you need to reestablish with your husband that he is your #1 priority (other than taking care of yourself), that your relationship with him is now the center of your life, and ask that he simply treat your mother with kindness and have reasonable expectations of her behavior. Also explain that you will work to shut down any negative comments she makes about him/the relationship, because you want your marriage to be sacred/protected from her commentary.

    Most importantly: NEVER complain about your husband to your mother. I don’t care if he doesn’t unload the dishwasher, refuses to change dirty diapers or mow the lawn. I don’t care if he forgets to pay the mortgage on time, or leaves you stranded at the airport for hours. As soon as you complain about him to your mother, you’re inviting all kinds of commentary that will not help the situation. Talk to a close friend or counselor (therapist, pastor, etc.) but don’t talk to family about marital strife (unless you’re truly on the outs and divorce is imminent–not that it is in your case!).

    Good luck!! :)

  8. I am with tsdk. You chose your husband. You back him up. If that means you lose your relationship with your mother – you lose it. Plus – it sounds like from your description that you actually married your mother in a man’s body. Might want to talk with someone about what that means.

  9. There are some great answers above but I decided not to read them all so I don’t lose track of what my initial thoughts were.

    I agreed with my husband early on that each of us was responsible for his or her parents. Under no circumstances should I be forced to have to deal with ‘a situation’ with his parents and vice versa. In other words, if my parents are out of line with him then it is my responsibility to tell them to back off. I like this arrangement because its only natural that I cannot answer back to his parents the way he does. I want to be polite and pleasant and I don’t want to be forced to have to be blunt or worse with them.

    Also if his parents want something from us, he’s the one they need to turn to. When we first got engaged it was like the flood gates opened and suddenly his mother was calling me on a regular basis and stopping by unannounced to have a little chat or get my opinion on matters which (I felt) were really none of my business and I did not feel comfortable discussing or hearing about.

    So I guess what I’m trying to say is that your mother is your responsibility and you need to deal with that situation. If there are issues that are between you and your mother that need to be resolved then that should take precedence over everything else. First step would be to acknowledge what those issues are (both you and your mother) and then admit that those are the issues that are ruining the relationship.

    Do it now before the bad relationship becomes something that they cannot overcome.

    1. I remember coming up with a similar agreement when my husband and I got engaged. It works well with me and my family, but my MIL has incredibly hurt feelings and is highly offended over the fact that I do not pick up her phone calls or call her, or answer every one of her e-mails (oftentimes needlessly lengthy). My husband insists that I make an effort and I do every once in awhile, but it is definitely more challenging than my family.

      My husband and I have talked about the disparity and honestly, I’m afraid that if he left me it would because of his parents and he’s afraid that if I left him, it would be because of his parents. In-law relationships are by far the most difficult I’ve ever encountered. You can’t fire an in-law or cease a relationship with them. You are stuck and learn how to deal with it. If anyone figures it out, please let me know.

      1. Wow – Sara sounds like you are living my life. The only difference is that my husband’s first marriage suffered from my MIL so he’s determined not to allow it to become such a big issue the second time around.

        He’s been on a business trip for two weeks and she’s been calling me every day asking me to go visit her so I won’t be alone. She does this every time he is away and it’s been 4 years now and I always say no thank you. She still doesn’t get the message though.

  10. When I was writing my new book, “It’s Either Her or Me. A Guide to Help a Mom and Her Daughter-in-Law Get Along.” published this spring by Random House, I focused specifically on all the woman-to-woman relationships in a guy’s life; ie. his mother and wife, his sister and his wife, his mom and his wife’s mom, etc. But while I was doing the research on that book, men constantly complained to me that their issues with their mothers-in-law were far worse than any that could exist between their own mothers and their wives. The difference is that women don’t like to see conflict perculate and will not be shy about acknowledging it. Men – being men – are happy enough to just avoid any conflict even if they know it exists. Consequently, it’s allowed to continue unchecked, and forever.

    I advise men that they must always put their wives first, a rule that applies to wives, as well. If your husband and your mother do not get along, your husband still comes first. And your mother needs to know that. Your mother, being your mother, isn’t going away. She’ll continue to love you no matter what and once she realizes that she can’t get between you and your husband she will eventually start to consider that you see something good in him. She might even get to like him.
    You are in charge here.

  11. Dude. Are you an only child? If so, even if not, http://www.match.com or http://www.expedia.com. Your mom needs a life outside of you. Your husband and your marriage shouldn’t be such a focal point in her life.

    I agree with a poster above. You need to sit them both down, separately or together and tell them that you won’t stand for this any more. It’ll only get murkier when you have kids.

    Good luck. Do post back and let us know how it goes.

  12. Hi everyone, we all are going through one turmoil or the other with our in-laws. we have a whole thread on issues with in-laws. Every day, my MIL gives me daily doses of pain :) Sometimes, I take it to my heart, sometimes I let it go… I would like to know your thoughts on HOW/WHAT can…

  13. It’s amazing how many people seem to suggest to all but break ties with her mother. Yes, of course you HAVE to mediate and communicate to both of them. And in this case, the main discussion needs to be with her mother. But to suggest that she should go so far as to cut her mother out of her life seems ridiculous to me at this point. Yes, of course your husband is your family. But don’t forget how many marriages fall apart. If she is unlucky enough to befall that fate, can you imagine how awful it would be to have lost even more of her family? It’s so important to try to maintain our family and friends even when forming our new adult families. Of course, if her sincere attempts were in vain, perhaps more drastic measures would be warranted. But jeez, what ever happened to communication and asking for support from your loved ones?

  14. “Where you go I will follow”

    Your new family is your husband and you should (attempt) to give him your total love and respect in this obviously difficult situation. That being said it’s not that easy so I’d address your mother first. You might want to speak with a therapist about how to do this. It can be helpful to roleplay the conversation with your therapist. You might want to also address why you are continuingly finding yourself in the submissive role.

  15. Mother in laws are HOME-WRECKERS. The sooner you realize this, the better.

  16. Being a woman married to a ‘momma’s boy,’ this is a big issue that I’ve been dealing with for 10 years (of which we’ve been married for seven). My mother in law has told my husband she doesnt like the way i dress my boys, gone behind my back to parent my kids the way SHE saw fit (long story.. involves my choice for my son’s shoes..which she said were going to defect his legs and cause him to need braces) and though she acknowledges my birthday with a card and (sometimes) check, she ALWAYS disregards me for mother’s day (though we send her an overly effusive card). She’s said things about me to him, to others, to me.. and what I’ve come to realize is none of this matters.

    My husband and I have gotten into HUGE fights about his mother/family because he views her as a saint. Nothing she ever says or does has any ill will.. and if it’s because she doesn’t think before she talks.. it’s that ‘she doesn’t mean anything by it’ and it is always excusable.

    It has nothing to do with taking sides.

    What YOU as the spouse, needs to do is to NOT take sides. Both your spouse and the parent (or parent in law) are ADULTS and should be able to talk about their problems with each other TO each other. If not… tough. They will flesh it out. Taking sides does nothing except cause bad feelings on the side you didn’t take.. and with a parent or spouse.. that’s hard to sort out once the feelings have been sitting for awhile.

    Now.. when you have KIDS… this is entirely different. You should talk to your spouse and tell him/her that when it comes to PARENTING.. you are a TEAM and thus… he/she should back you up. And you should explain to the parent that what you do with your kids is YOUR call.. and thus.. if they say or do anything you disagree with, or espouse any advice you (individually or together as parents) DON’T want to take… that’s your right… and you will express yourself.

    Aside of this… the offended spouse needs to let it roll off their back. Tough? Absolutely. Trust me.. I’ve been working on it for ten years and while it’s easier.. it’s never simple EASY.

  17. If you LOVE your husband then you love the woman who created him…
    she’s a part of him, and he of her…

    now shut up and go watch soccer!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. Author

      Helen love, you’ve been staring at too many balls. Her issue isn’t with the woman who created her husband, but with the woman who created HER.

  18. HA! mother in laws…. in the minefield of marriage, mother in laws are people who remotely detonate mines just when you least expect it. ka boom!

  19. VERY few people out there, REALLY know how to handle their problems. I HATE unsettled arguments or disagreements and would much rather talk it out than let it fester. But, I find it difficult to find other people who are willing and able to talk things out in a civil manner. If I ask to please discuss something and they turn their noses up at me, play silent, snub me, etc., then at that point, I couldn’t care less what they do after that. I no longer want anything to do with them at all. I get that you can’t do that in this case, given that it’s family, but it’s still a good way of negotiating a conversation and figuring out who your friends really are.

  20. I wouldn’t “stay neutral.” Your ultimate loyalty has to be to your husband, and you have to make sure both he and your mother know that. After that, work with your husband and mother to help them get along, but your husband shouldn’t feel threatened by your mother.

  21. I have and I’m not ever going to look at a man the same way again, or at balls.

  22. I come at this issue from a husband’s perspective. When I met my wife and we became engaged, my mother in law and I got along almost too well. I felt so comfortable in their home and was getting close to being able to call her Mom which would have been a big deal for me.

    Then as the wedding got closer, the crazy came out. She began to pull stunts to sabotage the wedding. When she had told us she was paying for our reception and I had laid out the deposits myself (which she told me we’d get back as a gift), she then told us she had no money when the balance was due.

    Faced with canceling our wedding, my wife and I liquidated a lot of what we had in order to keep it as is. We had to put off buying a house. Too many of our friends and family were coming in from around the country and the world for us to screw them by canceling or rescheduling. This literally was done weeks before the wedding.

    Still, I kept my anger in check and didn’t fight with my mother-in-law to be. I sat down with her and my father-in-law to be and asked them what was wrong? Why didn’t they feel the same way about me that they did before. The woman sat there and lied to my face and told me “I’m sorry you feel that way, but we don’t feel any differently about you and there’s no problem”. Okay.

    On the day of our wedding, my mother-in-law walked around the event telling everyone within earshot that she paid for the entire thing. My Mother almost killed her during the cocktail hour when my mother-in-law’s friends moved her to the front of a long line for food proclaiming, “make way, here’s the woman who paid for this whole thing”. My Mother knew that wasn’t the case, but didn’t confront the crazy. Later that night when people were giving toasts, family members from my wife’s side got up to give a toast to my mother-in-law to acknowledge that she paid for the whole thing and we all should thank her. She actually stood up and smiled and thanked everyone for coming.

    After the wedding my wife became estranged from her Mother. She learned her Mother had maxed out credit cards in my wife’s name. My Mother-in-law also began to use an ex friend of my wife’s to confront friends and family who knew us to tell them what a bad guy I was and how unhappy my wife was with her choice.

    My wife made a difficult choice and that was to cut her Mother out of her life.

    She put us first realizing the destructive force her Mother was on everyone around her. She knew if her Mother stayed in our lives the way her Mother wanted to be in our lives, we’d hate each other. We could feel the stress rise in our chests when we’d talk about her.

    All this stuff about how you have to respect your Mother and your husband has to respect your Mother fail to mention that your Mother has to respect the both of you as a couple.

    Your situation is different since your husband is refusing to give in to your Mother whereas I’ve always been up front with my wife that I would do whatever she wanted to in regards to her family.

    That said, I know what it feels like to be in the middle. Not a day goes by that I don’t sit and think that my wife doesn’t talk to her family because she married me. It’s a horrible feeling to live with.

    Luckily, we have a relationship with her Dad and some of the extended family so it’s not total isolation, but it still stings me that this woman took an event that developed out of pure love and did everything she could to destroy it for her own selfish reasons.

    My advice to you is to listen to what Debra said in the first response. This situation will never go away and you need to take control of it and tell these people what it is doing to you and how their childish tantrums are not acceptable.

    What my wife did to protect us from the insane woman who gave birth to her shows me that she loves me dearly and loves our life and family. I’ve encouraged her to try to fix the relationship, but she’s not interested in letting that kind of presence back into her/our life until she’s truly ready for it.

    Good luck with what you do and don’t let your husband be a drama queen. Remind him that he’s better than that and sometimes doing the right thing, like calling to thank her for the gift, will shut your Mother up and be the best revenge.

    I learned early on to kill my mother-in-law with kindness when she started to turn on me. All that did was make her look like a complete ass to everyone around her, my wife included.

  23. Why should a Mom, or anyone, wish anyone else Happy Anniversary. The only ones celebrating should be the celebrating couple.
    The husband in this situation sounds like a wuss – hurt because he didn’t hear Happy Anniversary. Really….. Move on buddy…

  24. Have a baby! …or get a puppy. Let your mother throw her nurturing skills into someone new.

    Also, I completely feel for you. It is so difficult when the people who love you more than anything, don’t love the person you have chosen. I wonder how often this happens and what people do about it. I don’t agree with writing off your mom…you will regret that later in life. Maybe stop forcing them to be together, let your mother know that her words affect you and let your husband know that you appreciate his support.

  25. I totally agree with the advice given here. You and your Hubs are a unit. You chose him and he chose you. Time to show mom that the two of you are in this together, and your life is not devoted to her happiness. You mentioned that she was scary, and I can totally relate. It took three years of therapy (which I do encourage anyone with co-dependent mom issues to pursue), but I finally stood up to my mom. And you know what happened? She got mad. That was it. She was mad. So I let her be mad. I was so afraid of her anger for so long, I forgot I was an frickin’ grown-up. Now, her anger isn’t nearly as scary as I remember it being.

    But then you know what happened after that? She got over it. And your mom will get mad and get over it too. As much as it seems the world will end if your mom gets mad at you, it really won’t end. In the moment, it will suck. But it’s just for a moment. She may actually have more respect for you after you confront her. Your husband definitely will. And the best part is, you might even have more respect for yourself. Best of luck to you!

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