Ask Dr. Merry: Conflict with Mother-in-Law

» Posted in Ask Dr. Lin, Family Life, Marriage and Relationships | 6 comments

grandma with baby

I’m having a hard time dealing with my mother-in-law and would love some advice on what I should do.  She’s the kind of woman who’s used to being in charge and kind of wears the pants in her family so I think everyone is used to catering to her.  I know my husband doesn’t want any conflict with her so he’d rather just go along with what she wants to avoid any drama.  But that’s just not my style.  Don’t get me wrong, she’s very loving and will make herself available to help us out, but I’m finding that my back goes up with her almost all the time now.  It’s been worse since we’ve had our first baby.  It’s so hard to pinpoint why she makes me feel defensive, but she will throw out these little comments all the time that really bother me.  For example, the other day she told my husband she’s glad that he married such a “strong woman” who doesn’t need anyone’s help.  I’ve also heard her tell friends that she wishes she could spend more time with her new grandson but her daughter-in-law (me!) is so competent that she doesn’t feel needed.  I get the feeling that she wishes she could be more involved but honestly, she’s not my mother so why would I go running to her for everything?  I feel like she keeps throwing these little digs out at me and so I’m starting to dread seeing her because I get so tense around her.  At the same time, I’m a Christian so I want to handle this in a godly way.  My husband thinks I’m making a big deal out of nothing but I really want to resolve this so that my son can have a good relationship with his grandmother.  My own mother lives far away so it would be great if we could work things out.  I’d appreciate any ideas of how to handle this.

Good for you for wanting to resolve this sooner rather than later.  I hear your desire to have a harmonious relationship with your mother-in-law, especially for the good of your son and any future offspring.  And it’s great that you’re trying to be proactive rather than wait until things degrade to the point where there are a lot of hurt feelings or offences built up.  That can lead to so much damage that can be very hard to repair.

A few thoughts for you:  before you approach mother-in-law, it’s important for you to sort through your own feelings and get to the root of why you’re bothered by her words and actions.  Perhaps she is triggering some underlying insecurities or fears in you that would be good for you to identify and address.  When something bothers you to the extent that it does, it’s important for you to understand your part of your “dance” with her and take responsibility for your own emotional response to her.  For example, perhaps you are sensing her judgement and it’s triggering your feelings of insecurity in wanting to be accepted by her.  Or perhaps you are responding this way to her because of your own historical patterns with other authority figures, notably your own mother.  It may help you to reflect with a wise and objective friend or even a therapist or pastor if that would help to give you some perspective.

Once you’re able to understand your own emotional response and take time to process it, you will be in a much better place to respond calmly to your mother-in-law and work to strengthen or repair your relationship without some of the emotional reactivity that can occur when you don’t take the time to get a handle on your own emotions.  By the way, you may find that your husband isn’t the best person for you to process this with because of his own relationship with his mother.  He’s not going to be as objective, and you may inadvertently cause damage to his relationship with his mother when you vent with him or cause his back to go up in defense of his mom.   As well, if he feels that he’s unable to help you, he may withdraw from you or be dismissive of your concerns in an attempt to move past the emotional turmoil that he hates.  That’s because for many men, it’s very uncomfortable for them to feel like they can’t help their wives and so they will sometimes respond by expressing frustration towards their wives to combat those uncomfortable feelings of helplessness.

From what you’re describing, it sounds like your mother-in-law may be trying to emotionally manipulate or guilt trip you into allowing her more access to your life and son, and so she is perhaps throwing out some passive-aggressive digs to try to express her unhappiness with your perceived lack of cooperation.  No wonder you’re feeling your back go up – it’s very natural to feel the way you do when you sense deep down that someone is trying to manipulate you.

On the positive end, she is likely trying to be careful with you as her daughter-in-law because it sounds like normally she would just tell her family what to do and expect that there would be compliance.  So giving her the benefit of the doubt, she may be trying to be gracious but failing to realize that in communicating indirectly, it’s actually causing more tension than if she were to be straightforward with you.

This is, in fact, a common response that many of us do to avoid conflict.  Women in particular are often taught to be polite – to keep quiet about our feelings, so we can keep the peace.  Instead of directly expressing our feelings (especially when we’re hurt), we keep it inside where those feelings rattle around and continue to cause us distress (and gain momentum).  Worse, we aren’t able to actually resolve the problem because we aren’t tackling it openly.  Many times instead, we escalate things further because we vent with other people.  Not only does it typically increase our frustration when we vent (because there is no resolution) but we may inadvertently cause damage to our listeners’ relationships with or their perceptions of the person in question.  This is often an insidious way that negativity spreads about people, and is commonly what happens in high school because teens don’t have the wisdom or social skills to handle conflict appropriately.

If you’re serious about resolving this problem with your mother-in-law, then consider taking the initiative to build a bridge with her.  Plan opportunities for her to spend time with you and your son, and look for ways you can involve her a bit more in your lives – to the degree that you’re comfortable and still within your boundaries.  Don’t bend over backwards to accommodate her but at the same time, give a little.  Even better, do it spontaneously and not in response to one of her digs (otherwise it may reinforce her tendency to use these passive-aggressive means to get her point across).

I know this may feel like you’re giving in to her manipulation as she’s “getting her way” but recognize that you’re responding to her legitimate desire to spend time with her grandson.  Remember, her desire to do this is reasonable and expected (and even a good thing!), it’s just her behaviour and way in which she is trying to communicate with you that’s problematic.

Address her underlying need first, showing sensitivity and a genuine desire to make her happy.  Once you’ve built this bridge and your relationship is stronger, you will then have the opportunity to let her know how her words and actions have hurt you and help her understand your emotional needs and desire to be respected.  If you confront her with her “bad behaviour” too early – without having invested in a relationship with her or building her trust in you – you will likely get her back up so that the tension will increase rather than resolve.

If regardless of your efforts, your mother-in-law refuses to change and she chooses to continue in her dysfunctional patterns, then you will need to move towards setting boundaries with her.  For more information about setting boundaries, you may wish to refer to my recent four part series on boundaries to help you understand how to respond to her.  Take responsibility for your part of the dance, do your part to build a bridge and then experience the peace that comes with knowing that you’ve done all you can and the rest in in her court and in God’s hands.

By the way, if you want to understand more about resolving relational tension, an excellent resource to help you manage conflict biblically is Peacemaking for Families, whichoutlines great strategies and insight that will help you work towards peace in your relationships.

 

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6 Comments

  1. Thank you Dr. Lin, I faced similar situation. Before our first child was born, I never had issues with my MIL. I think largely also because we never stayed under one roof for more than a couple of nights; we lived in different countries.

    But when I was about to deliver Sarah, she visited us and soon so eager to extend her help to clean our new house. We told her nicely and repeatedly that she did not have to do that, just enjoy her newly born grandaughter. But she would not stop. She even went went behind my back and ask my husband if she could do laundry for him. We were very firm on this part, that she should stop treating him like a child for he is now a husband and a father. But she took it as an act of disrespect and went around telling her world how she’s being ill-treated during her stay in our house. She also constantly demand respet and credits for raising my husband. To me, it’s just emotional blackmail. Shortly, my husband received multiple text message from her sister and brother telling him off. We decided to ignore them. Also because we simply did not have the time and energy to defend ourselves since the baby needed our full attention. We do realize she had traumatizing past of losing her husband early in their marriage, leaving her with four young children. And we believe that’s what causing her to act the way she is.

    It’s now been eight months since the incident and we have not spoken. We texted and called her but she did not respond. She is still mad but now she has her eyes focused on having a new daughter in law, the one who will let her do anything she wants. Infact the wedding is tomorrow and honestly both muly husband and I don’t know how to deal with her and his siblings. But we agree to just do the right thing: attend the wedding for the sake of the family.

    I felt guilty sometimes for setting the boundaries in our house and marriage, although my husband shares the same values. After reading your blog, I feel strengthened. And I just want to say thank you.

    • You’re very welcome, Rita, I’m glad that my blog was helpful to you. It sounds like you’ve handled everything well and stayed above the drama. You’ve also clearly extended the olive branch to her to maintain a relationship with her, but at this point, it looks like she is choosing not try and reconcile. Not much you can do about that!

      It’s so unfortunate when families refuse to adapt to change so that relationships can be healthy, supportive and life-giving. I’m actually writing a series now on Family Ties that you and your husband may find helpful.

  2. I am having issues with my mother in law interfering in my family life, and endangering my husband and i’s relationship. My husband and I have been together four years, and we love each other very much, and aside from his mother, we are very happy. Since I have known my mother in law, she has been very dominating, and has to know every singly detail about every day of our lives. We can’t go a day without a phone call and when she calls she has to know everything. For example, if I have any one of us has a doctors appointment she is texting me first thing in the morning to make sure i let her know how it goes (even though it is just a regular checkup) and she is calling before I even get to walk out of the office. I try not to answer, because unless there is something important to tell, I don’t feel the need to call, but when she calls of course my husband picks up and answers every question. About two years ago we had our first song together ( i had one before I was with him.) When she found out I was pregnant, things got progressively worse. She would start little fights by telling me my husbands father did not deserve to be a part if the babies life like she does because he wasn’t there for my husband like she was. It was be a daily conversation with her. When I was due to deliver, she decided without asking that she was coming for THREE weeks (she lives 400 miles away.) I had an issue with it, but of course, my hubby didn’t want to tell her, and I of course, felt like okay this is her first blood grandchild, and it would be nice to have help. Boy, was I wrong. I went into labor at 12 am and they gave me medicine to rest and so while I was sleeping she decided she was staying in my hospital room, all night with me and hubby. After I had him, she barged in 5 minutes after, I was not yet cleaned up, and she took baby from me. I left the hospital the next day and she was texting me before saying let me know when you leave, and then let me know when you are close to home. As we got home she took baby, and would not let us do a thing. I was trying to change him she would literally push me out of the way, and when I wanted to feed him she would say i don’t know how to make his formula you make it, and then she would not give him up so I could feed him. in short, it was a disaster and I cried every single day. I am now pregnant again, and she is rarely here, even though she has the means, and does not have to work, so she could be here. But, because baby is coming even though we told her our wishes, she refuses to follow them. She says she is coming right after he is born to stay for a week or so. We have specifically told her no, and I would like her to come but not for that long. She even asked us to let her know when and we did, and she stilll refuses and is going about her way. I am so confused, I have been so sick, and stressed, I cry everyday. I am not sure how to handle this. When I do, she gets worse, and does what she wants. my husband I think is afraid of her, but I really think he needs to be the one since she does not take my seriously. I want to resolve this, as I am not the kind of person who likes to have tension, and i like to get along and respect people around me. But I am just not sure what to do. I hope you can give me some advice as to where to go from here.

    • Wow, it sounds like things have been really tough for you with your MIL, Amanda. It sounds like she is actually controlled by a lot of fear and her way of handling her anxiety with her kids is to hyper-manage their lives. That makes it so much more difficult to set boundaries with her. When people struggle with fear, anxiety or worry, they can be very hard to shift. It may help you a bit to understand that this is where she’s coming from.

      Having said that, however, it is not healthy for you and your husband to allow her to have so much control in your lives, especially given the way she disregards your boundaries. I suspect your husband has allowed her to push him around most of his life – finding it easier to give in – so she doesn’t realize how bad it’s getting for you. She just figures she can get her way as usual, without there being any negative consequences for her.

      So here’s what you need to do:

      First of all, you and your husband have to be completely united on this. Talk this through as much as you can and be very clear on what your boundaries are and what consequences you will implement if she crosses your boundaries. Make sure neither of you are going to buckle on this. If you find that your husband tends to back down no matter what you say to him (because he’s stuck in his family dance and hasn’t been able to break free), I would strongly encourage the two of you to meet with a therapist to help you work all of this out. If you’re both not on the same page, it’ll mean disaster for you.

      Second of all, you need to clearly communicate to your MIL how you feel. I know this is hard, especially if she doesn’t have a good track record of listening. But give it a try. If she won’t listen in person, consider writing her a letter/email. Keep it short but also keep it loving. That means no attacks, no “you made me”, or “you always”. For example, you can say, “I know how much you love our kids and we’re very grateful for your help. But when you step in and take over for me, I feel disrespected (put in your feelings here). I know you don’t mean to and you only want to help but it’s important to me that I am able to take care of my babies myself.”

      Third of all, communicate your boundaries to her. “We have decided that we would like you to visit for 3 days after baby is born.” There is no need to give a reason or excuse your decision. Stating a boundary just as is. If she insists on coming for more days, then you say, “I’m sorry that you insist on coming for a longer period of time but we only want you to come for 3 days.” You must also be willing to stand up to her if she does something you don’t like. So if she comes over and just grabs your baby, you say, “No, the baby stays with me”. Say it firmly and confidently. Walk away from her if you have to.

      Fourthly, communicate to her the consequences if she doesn’t respect your boundaries. So if she keeps insisting on coming for a longer period of time, say to her, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but if you can’t respect our wishes, then we do not want you to visit at all.” Many times, once your MIL realizes that she will lose access to her grandkids, there’s a good chance she will eventually follow your wishes.

      It may take some wrestling, but stay strong. Also, look for opportunities to build a bridge with her that YOU initiate so that she knows you are interested in having a relationship with her. This way, she knows you want to be in relationship with her but you have some sense of control over this.

      If you’ve tried repeatedly to resolve this and she’s not listening, then it’s time to distance yourself from her. If she’s not someone who will respect your boundaries, and she constantly over-rides your wishes even when you are vocal in expressing them (a lot of times, I find that people don’t speak up enough so it’s part of the reason, stronger personalities override them all the time), then she is not a safe person in your life. Sad to say but that can be a reality.

      Again, having a therapist helping you with this can be very beneficial. You can even do a family session with her MIL and your therapist can help you communicate and negotiate with her. You can read my four part series on Boundaries (http://www.drmerrylin.com/2012/10/boundaries-from-the-inside-out-part-1-of-4/) for more ideas. A great book to read is called, “Who’s Pushing Your Buttons?” by John Townsend that will help you set boundaries with difficult people.

      Hope that helps!

  3. Hi Dr. Lin,

    I recently stumbled upon your website in my quest to find answers regarding my own MIL relationship issues and felt the advice you’ve given previous commenters is perfect!

    My situation is a little bit different than theirs, so I am wondering what your advice for me is. 🙂

    My husband is the oldest of 3 boys. We’ve been together close to 5 years now, married for 2, and were the first to get married. When hubby and I first got together, my relationship with my MIL was great and mutually respected, and I was in such awe of her as a wife and mother, which I truly admired and adored. We really got along great at first! Not that we don’t get along now, we’re still cordial, but there’s definitely an unspoken tension between us in the air. She is the head of the household and is a very strong womanly figure in their family. At first, I felt like I was accepted by their family and was “loved” and adored. After hubby and I got engaged and wedding planning began, I started to feel some discord between us as I felt she was becoming too overbearing. For example: after my bridal shower, she came back to my house with me and proceeded to open all of my gifts and show my (fiancé at the time) everything we had received, instead of allowing me to do that. I felt this was something that he and I should’ve done together, without her there. Now I will openly admit that I am not the type of woman that likes to depend on other people and truly did not ask for other people’s opinions/suggestions regarding our wedding day, other than my husband. We wanted to plan it on our own and we felt that that was okay.

    Another issue is: their boundaries. MIL and FIL live a little over an hour away and will drive to our city on the weekends to go shopping and will last minute call us and invite us out to eat with them, or ask if they can stop over. Obviously we feel obligated to oblige them, which reallyyyy frustrates me. My own parents live less than 2 blocks from us, and we see husband’s parents more than we see my own if that puts it into perspective for you. And now that we have our own house and are working on finishing our basement, MIL and my FIL are constantly throwing themselves at us to help out, which is great that they’re so willing, but it’s just too much for me and believe me, she has an unsolicited opinion about EVERYTHING.

    As time passes, I have found that my MIL does things that are hurtful. She will give my husband overly emotional cards for promotions/birthdays/holidays, etc. She will completely spoil him on his Birthday/Christmas, but not the same for me. She will send him texts sometimes saying things along the lines of “thinking of you. hope you’re having a wonderful day. I love you.” She even goes so far as to say “love you” to him when we’re visiting and will sometimes say it to me, but most often not. That is not how my family is. Everything in my family is equal, so I am not used to spouse’s family’s way of doing things. Maybe I am just being too sensitive, I don’t know.

    Another iron in the fire here is my now soon to be sister-in-law. I absolutely love and adore her and so does my MIL, but she is very opposite of me. She’s very warm and open and affectionate whereas I am more of a private person and I take a while to warm up to people. I also feel very uncomfortable around my MIL because she is a complete “perfectionist” and I am very much the opposite. I like being silly and goofy and I feel extremely judged by her like I’m not “good enough”. She is constantly “liking” or “loving” and commenting on everything my SIL posts on Facebook and does not do that with me. MIL is also always talking up how great SIL is….to me…and although I know I’m not there to hear the other flip of the coin, I am going to guess the same is not said in reverse. Also, I should add- SIL doesn’t mind how often they try to visit my brother-in-law and her, and my BIL/SIL accept MIL and FIL’s help/suggestions with open arms.

    I have tried to talk to my husband about this and am direct with him about how I am feeling. He think it’s all in my head and that his mother couldn’t possibly do anything to upset/offend me and that I’m just being petty and too sensitive and is adamant that they love me just as much. But I am a woman, with intuition, and I can feel that that is just not true. I feel like I have tried so hard to gain her approval and the harder I try, the more I fail, so at this point I basically just avoid her like the plague. That way I don’t even give her the chance to hurt me or upset me. But I know it’s only going to get worse over time, especially once hubby and I start having kids (which is going to be soon!).

    I am a Christian and want to deal with this the right way, it’s just difficult because husband and I have different opinions on this subject and it has even started causing a lot of turmoil in our marriage as I do not feel supported by him. I fully believe and honor that when a man and woman get married, they are to leave their families, and cleave to their spouses, and I continue to feel that he has not done that yet. He has recently started deleting texts from his phone so that I don’t see them, so that my feelings don’t get hurt and then he doesn’t have to deal with it. I know I am being petty about some things, but I also know that there is a bigger issue here and because of that, all of the smaller annoyances are mounting into a much bigger issue than they probably really are. Please help. I am so lost with how to navigate this entire situation all together. 🙂 Thank you!! And sorry for the novel- just trying to give you an accurate picture of the whole situation (at least from my perspective). 🙂

    • Hi Katelynn,

      Oh boy, it sounds like it’s been quite a trial for you trying to wrestle through this MIL and SIL challenge and still do the right thing. I’m really sorry to hear about all that you’re going through and how hurtful it must be to have your husband dismiss your concerns as petty. Even if it’s based on something you’ve “imagined”, it still doesn’t feel good to have your emotional pain minimized. Feeling rejected by your MIL or “less than” is always very painful even as you try to talk yourself out of those feelings.

      From how you describe yourself, it sounds like you’re someone who is just more private and doesn’t as easily express your feelings as your SIL. So before I comment on how to deal with your MIL, I’m wondering how clueless she may be to how you feel and how she may be misreading you. In your reserve and withdrawal from her (a very natural reaction), I’m wondering if she’s perceiving that as your lack of interest in a relationship with her, or even rejection of her. Not that it’s your fault for how she’s acting towards you but I do wonder if there’s a disconnect happening here. At the very least, I suspect that she has no idea how she’s being perceived as many people don’t have that level of self-awareness.

      I would encourage you to prayerfully consider how you may be able to speak with her. Perhaps the Lord will direct you to be the one to initiate building the bridge with her. I often find that those who initiate relationship building have good success in their relational life overall. Even though she is your “senior” and it would be ideal if she did initiate, this may a chance for you to take the higher road and choose to extend that invitation to connect.

      Once you’ve had a chance to build the trust and connection (which may take several positive interactions), then you could broach the subject of how you feel, respectfully and kindly but also clearly. Cloud and Townsend have an excellent book, “How to Have that Difficult Conversation” that might be helpful. Relationships rarely get strengthened if people are afraid to have honest conversations.

      As to your husband, talking to him honestly and vulnerably about how his reaction hurts you is an important part of building the trust with him. If he continues to dismiss your feelings and minimize your hurt, it could start to build a wall around your heart towards him, which is not good for your marriage. If this is something you struggle to do, I would encourage you to consider seeing a marriage therapist to help you. Your relationship with your husband is of greater importance than yours with your MIL or his and his mother, and is worth leaning into to repair and strengthen.

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