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

» Posted in Ask Dr. Lin, Family Life, Marriage and Relationships | 12 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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12 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.

      • Hi Dr Lin

        Having read your comments, it compelled me to share my story in the hope that you would guide me in how to handle my own situation.

        I have been married for 6 years, during the 6 years I have always felt there was three in a marriage and also married in to her mess. It was never apparent to me, my husband or his family what this woman had been doing before it came to light a few months after we married. She has repeatedly been stealing thousands of pounds from family and friends, including my husband by minipulating and lying that she had cancer and many other diseases to get what she needed. Till this day we still dont know what she has done with all this money. Moreover, she continues to lie and cheat and steal from the few friends who stuck my her side. What hurts most is the fact that my husband has protected her even though she does these things, I have seen him go through depression, and drinking during these times. I can honestly say that we go through this cycle 3 times a year, every time she does this. It has caused so much distress to him and our marriage as he continues to make this his problem. Our life has been stagnant because of the constant drama in the family and I am told by him that I should support him. Yet I am tired of supporting him with her mess that he chooses to stick his nose in. He would take out his frustrations on me, repeatedly withdraw and dealing with her mess and the many people who call him demanding their money back who do not report to the police for the sake of her child. Yet I am seen the child neglected and suffering as her mother goes through the motions of distress every time she gets caught out by her victims for fear the police will be coming to her door.

        We have had some many issues as a result of his pain, he went off the rails at some point living life as a single man out every other night hanging out with ‘lady friends’. He was horrible to me during this period. I was suffering from depression and lost so much weight. He was emotionally abusive, withholding intimacy, giving me silent treatment for weeks. We never had physical intimacy for years in the marriage.

        Early this year his sister did it again, stole 7k from a vulnerable person. The whole cycle started again. At that point I told him I was done with her issues and him fighting her battles. He ignored me under the same roof for 2 months because I told him exactly how I felt. Being ignored and treated like nobody crushed me soul so I had enough and left him and decided I wanted a divorce. He begged me back, after some time I said only if we get help and we place boundaries with his sister to which he agreed. He acknowledged all his failures as a husband over the years to me. After a few months I returned.

        Since then we have been seeing a therapist and I have seen a change in him and we are working through issues. But recently his sister has committed another crime to someone else she knows. He is withdrawn again and has a short temper. He doesn’t know I know, but he wont reveal anything to me. I’m looking at my life and beginning to question if a marriage can be sustained with continuous problems with his sister.

        Sorry its long, but your advice would greatly be appreciated.

        Thank you

        • Hi Laura,

          Wow, it sure sounds like you’ve been through a lot, at the hands of a very unhealthy, manipulative family member. And it sounds like your husband has been pulled into this dysfunctional dance for years, but because of his unwillingness/inability to break free, he has allowed his sister to control his life, and ultimately, yours. The sad thing is that as long as the pattern “works” for his sister and there are family members to rescue her or tolerate her bad behaviour, then there is no motivation for her to change.

          It was a very wise decision on your part to separate yourself from the situation and begin to set boundaries. I’m glad your husband chose to fight for your marriage and that both of you took steps to get some therapy to help you sort through the messiness of it all. However, it is clear from his response to his sister’s latest crime that some of his old patterns are still in place – feeling a sense of powerlessness and responsibility for his sister, trying to “keep the peace” and not rock the boat with you (by keeping it “secret”), all of which creates intense and unnecessary pressure for him to try to resolve a situation over which he has no control, nor any responsibility. What he DOES have a responsibility to is to his own happiness and mental well-being, and to his marriage – including doing everything he can to build trust and to create open communication and true partnership, while prioritizing his marriage over his family of origin. That is not what he’s doing right now, but likely he is trying his best not to rock the boat so only faces the problem when he’s forced to – either with his sister or with you.

          I find that often, these types of pressures can bring out to light the problems in the marriage that still need to be addressed – the pattern of hiddenness and fear, of withdrawing when life is overwhelming, and giving over priority and power of his life and marriage to his sister. The only way to deal with this is to put it all on the table – openly, honestly and with vulnerability sharing the pain you are feeling, and letting him know that you know. However, I would strongly encourage you to do this with the help of the therapist so that you don’t resort to old dysfunctional patterns with your husband. Otherwise, it could implode in a way that could be very damaging.

          It’ll be important for you to process through both of your feelings about what’s happening with his sister, and come up with a agreed upon plan to address that situation, ensuring that you’re both on the same page with the boundaries you will set. But if he’s unwilling, or he says okay but then secretly breaks those boundaries, you need to know for yourself what your boundaries are, what you will or won’t tolerate, and what steps you will take if those boundaries are crossed. Ultimately, YOU are responsible for your own well-being, and you cannot give – even to your husband – the power of your well-being to someone else. We are meant to be inter-dependent, not co-dependent, which means that you need to set your own boundaries, communicate them clearly and enforce them kindly but firmly.

          Please give your husband a chance. I know it may feel like he has gone entirely backwards and is back to old patterns, but chances are, while there are some old responses, he has changed. He also clearly values you and your marriage, and so give him a chance by being honest in a vulnerable way (not angry and punitive) and being very clear with him that you love him and want your marriage to work, but you can no longer tolerate what happens to him when his sister commits a crime or manipulates someone. Be clear about what you want from him and also what you’re prepared to do/not do, and ask the therapist to help you navigate this.

          All the best! Let me know if there’s anything else I can do. I’m not sure if you’ve ever read, “Who’s Pushing Your Buttons?” by John Townsend, but it’s an excellent book on setting boundaries with toxic people and may help you make some good decisions around boundaries you need to set with his sister.

          Take care,
          Dr. Merry

  4. Hi Dr. Lin,

    First off I wanted to say I loved reading your articles. I am relieved to have found your website filled with great advice. I was wondering if you could give me some insight and advice as to why certain things are happening. My future in laws daughter passed away 11 years ago. I feel this may impact our one on one relationship. I understand how it could.

    I have been engaged for a year. I started noticing issues with now my future mother in law pretty early on in our relationship. The first incident was Christmas. His family had rented a house in Palm Springs and it was beautiful. Before we were invited we were told we had to sleep in separate rooms because we were not married and we would send the wrong message to his cousin’s sons. We had been together for over a year at this time. Future husband did not agree with this and said we would stay at a nearby hotel for the nights we were there. While we were at the house the family avoided us most of the time we were there. I have asthma and left my inhaler in the car and had to step out to get it from the car and future husband came with me. The family decided it was a good idea to take family pictures and excluded me from most of them and locked us both outside as a “joke” Future husband was not pleased it was very cold and we were outside for about 15 minutes. Future husband confronted his mother and she and her sister apologized. We left rather quickly after that.

    We were left a little confused as to why it wasn’t okay to stay with the family on Christmas because a few weeks before future mother in law had asked me and her son to stay the night at her house so we could help them with a garage sale. We of course said yes. I had talked to her about how we may purchase a home soon and she automatically replied with “I am not buying you a house.” That was never anything I implied so I was left puzzled.

    It took me over a year to get her phone number. She would not give it to me until I had pictures that she wanted sent to her.

    On another vacation, she told future husband to entertain me because I look bored. I told her I am not bored. I am having fun. She replied with Grow up and then walked away.

    Over the past 6 months we have been living with future in-laws until house is completed. We have tried to pay rent and they do not accept and begged us not to get an apartment in the meantime. We normally have dinner with them every night and she tries to do our laundry. I told her that I appreciate it, but it was not necessary. I have tried cooking with her, buying her gifts, and asking about her day but she seems to shun me. If I try to help her cook she responds with It’s my house, and my way. If I get her anything she often uses backhanded compliments. My future husband is in his 30’s and we need to break some of these habits in my opinion.

    She was very persistent on figuring out who was paying for our wedding. They took us out to dinner and she kept asking me how we were going to pay for the wedding. We both said we haven’t discussed this yet. She would ask me every day to ask my father. I declined and said my father has helped us with so much, I will not be asking anyone to pay for our wedding. We have it covered.

    They then asked if they could move in with us when our house is done. Future husband declined and their response was we took care of you your whole life. Future husband was not happy with this conversation and ended it quickly but respectfully.

    I told her I would like to include her in wedding planning but it got sour with how much she and her husband wanted. Not letting us choose where, when, ect. So now I have chosen to not plan the wedding until our house is done.

    She wanted to throw us an engagement party. We declined because my family situation is divided with parents and step parents who do not get a long. She was very frustrated and said I would like to see how they all interact and it would be like a show, why not? I simply said I appreciate your offer but no thank you. She was not pleased.

    Most recently, she started going to the same hair dresser as me and keeps telling my hair dresser to say Hi to me because she never sees me. We see her every day and ask her how her day is every day. I am very confused.

    Future husband has talked to her twice with how she should try to do things with me and maybe laying off the rude comments she makes almost daily. She acknowledges to him that she needs to do better and she never has asked me to do anything because she fears I may say no. So far nothing has changed and she still throws out rude remarks and future husband corrects her and she backs off.

    These are some things that really are confusing me. I want to have a good relationship but it is very hard to try to have one.

    Sorry this is so long. I am in desperate need of some help.
    Thank you in advance.

    • Hi Nicole,

      Thanks for your encouragement about my website! I’m glad you are finding the posts helpful 🙂

      As to your future MIL, it sounds like she has a lot of insecurities which you are somehow triggering. She seems to veer from bending over backwards to “earn” your love to feeling resentful about the “power” you have over her. I’m sure she would like to have a good relationship with you, but clearly, she does not know how to navigate this. On top of this, she can’t seem to talk directly and honestly with you, and so you get all these passive-aggressive digs that makes it very difficult for you to interpret. And so you are left not knowing what she wants.

      On top of that, you are also wanting to have a good relationship with her, but with the uncertainty, it can create tension for you, which can cause you to over-interpret offence where none was intended. That can happen a lot in the early stages of relationships between in-laws.

      I’m glad to hear that your future husband is trying to defend you and protect you. I do wonder, however, if he’s handling it in an overly assertive manner with his mom, which may add to the tension, especially if future MIL has a hard time being honest (without being offensive) and is harbouring some hurt or has misinterpreted his or your intentions. I find that families can veer from too passive (and passive-aggressive) to too aggressive in their communication, which can add to the tension.

      Giving your future MIL the benefit of the doubt, she likely genuinely would like to have a good relationship with you, but is handling it poorly, likely because she doesn’t know how.

      In these circumstances, I find that things will continue to escalate with more and more misunderstandings unless you talk this through honestly and with vulnerability about the confusion and hurt (rather than with anger or accusations). However, I would strongly recommend that you do it with a qualified family therapist who will help you all navigate this, interpret for each other and give you communication tools to help. He or she can also determine if there are more serious issues going on that would warrant individual therapy to address (such as a possible personality disorder with your MIL).

      If your future MIL refuses or you give this an honest try but there are no changes, then you will have to take steps to set and enforce strong boundaries with her. But give her a chance first to try to change. These kind of patterns will take time, and likely there are also some longstanding patterns that your future husband has with his family that needs to be addressed.

      Hope that helps, Nicole! Please feel free to contact me again with any other questions or an update to your situation.

      All the best,
      Dr. Merry

      • Thank you so much for your quick response. That gave me some hope to this situation. And thank you for letting me update you and continue to ask you questions. You have no idea how appreciative I am. Thank you.

        Here is a recent update:

        FH told me in their last private talk his mother said she needs to do better and she would not tell his father about their talk because it would hurt his feelings. FH and I both were a little confused on how.

        FMIL was upset that we did not attend a dinner over the weekend that was an hour and a half away. We declined because it was on a Sunday and it did not fit in our schedule on late notice. It was not for a birthday or event. FFIL also declined because it was late notice and he had to be up early the next day. FMIL said No, you will be coming with me. We politely said we will see you guys later and left.

        I am noticing she keeps a lot from her own husband about this situation. FFIL is the “peace keeper” in my opinion. He truly wants everyone to get a long.

        I think both in laws are not happy with us moving out. They have made a lot of comments like they will cry every day when we are gone and how I am taking their son away from them. It is making me very uncomfortable and FH avoids both parents when they do this. Their relationship is not very close because he says he feels smothered and guilt tripped into most things. His mother texts or calls almost daily since I have been with him but has cooled off a little but not much. FH is getting fed up and most of the time does not pick up or answer. We see them and talk to them in person every day.

        Future MIL likes to bring up future grandchildren a lot. She persists on telling me she will be taking her grand kids to different countries without me. I replied with I’m sorry but you will not be doing that. I was very thrown off why that was said and replied kind of defensive tone. I am not comfortable with not having a relationship with her and her wanting to be close with my children without me.

        I have not included his parents in recent family events on my side because I am uncomfortable with what has been said. I am struggling. I do not know if those were the right choices but has relieved me in some aspects. I am uncomfortable with FIL’s getting close with my family and not with me. I am unsure if this is an okay feeling. I do want to include them but I feel big change is necessary.

        FH and I have not been home lately getting ourselves ready to move into our home. Since we have not been home FMIL has asked me to clear the air and wants to plan a day. I said we should that is a good idea. I am concerned on how this will go and do not want to hurt her feelings. I am unsure of what to say. She has been nice the last few days and I want to keep it that way. Do I mention therapy in this conversation?

        Thank you so much for all your help so far.
        -Nicole

        • Hi Nicole,

          I can hear your heart to do the right thing and to handle your relationship with your FMIL well, so please don’t be so hard on yourself. Relationships are messy at the best of times, and even more so when we’re establishing boundaries and trying to work on making a relationship as healthy as can be. When we’re working on setting boundaries with others, it can often make us feel guilty or bad but it doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is wrong.

          Your boundaries are just that – YOURS, and that means any relationship that is going to be healthy requires clarity about what you will and won’t tolerate, but also what YOU feel is safe for you, physically, emotionally and mentally. The other reality is that your boundaries have to be APART from the other person’s responses, in that even if someone is nice to you, it doesn’t mean that you start to allow that person to encroach on your boundaries to maintain their “niceness”. Can you see how that will make you walk around eggshells, and eventually, you will start to resent your FMIL?

          Getting this healthy balance between caring for others while caring for yourself is going to take time, and you’ll definitely make some mistakes along the way! But keep this in mind… a truly healthy relationship can tolerate the mistakes we make and can bounce back from setbacks, conflicts and misunderstandings. All of that is the reality of humans doing life together! So if time and time again, you have to “lose” yourself or consistently back down on your own boundaries to keep a relationship “healthy”, than that relationship isn’t good for you.

          The good news is that I can tell your FMIL genuinely wants to have a good relationship with you, but I think in her eagerness to do so, she’s almost rushing to a depth of intimacy and closeness that hasn’t been earned or developed yet. So then it feels overbearing and unsafe to you! It sounds like she has a history of being controlling, invasive and manipulative to try to keep her loved ones “close” but doesn’t realize that in her fear of losing them, she’s acting in a way that actually pushes people away and causing resentment. I suspect that she has hidden fears about “losing” her son to you, and that’s resulting in a lot of triggered emotions for her and a tendency to be clingy. And she probably senses that her son is drawing away as a result, and rather than understanding that this is his reaction to her clinginess and manipulation, she sees it as her losing him to you. Mothers go through a lot of intense and mixed emotions when they have to let their children go.

          All that to say, giving her the benefit of the doubt, I think her heart is in the right place. But I don’t think she has the tools or enough self-awareness for you to try to navigate this without the help of a family therapist. And so I think it’s very appropriate that you introduce this idea to her at this next “heart-to-heart” meeting, and do it early enough before you unpack too much of the messy hurts and misunderstandings. You can say that you really value her and want to build a strong relationship with her, and because of that, you’d like to have the benefit of a family therapist who can help you understand each other better. If you position it as something you would like to help YOU build this relationship with her (rather than any sort of blaming language), then I think she should be receptive.

          If she refuses, or if you try it and she chooses not to change, then you know that she is not a safe person for you and you will have to maintain strong boundaries in your relationship with her. But give her a chance to see if she can make the changes and as long as you see genuine attempts (it will take time and she will have setbacks and go back to old ways, but that’s human nature as we try to change), then you can continue to give her grace and try to do your part to build this relationship on a healthy basis.

          Since your FFIL sounds like he is a peacekeeper and is passive through all of this, I actually think it would be good for him to be involved in these sessions as well. He is inadvertently contributing to the problem by being a silent player in this drama, but at the same time, it would a great time for him to start developing a voice and setting boundaries too!

          Hope that helps!
          Dr. Merry

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