Ask Dr. Lin: Mother-in-Law Affecting Marriage

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lonely lady 2

I’m having serious issues with my husband of 8 yrs. due to the influence that his mother and his ex have in our lives. Ever since his mother has moved to our apartment complex (literally two buildings away from us) it’s been hell. She calls him and tells hims to come over to be with her, ignoring that he’s married and cuts in to our time together. I know he has to be the one to tell her that he’s with me, but he feels so bad that she’s lonely so he caters to her. She tells him that his family are his two children and himself, that my children and I are not his family – I know this because she has told me herself. She’s encouraged his ex to try to destroy our marriage and get him back. She’s done this through Facebook and talks to her constantly on the phone informing her of our marriage. He never believed me when I brought this issue to his attention until I showed him the post. She blamed her medication for this action claiming she wasn’t aware of what she wrote, to which he also dismissed it as a harmless action on her behalf because “she’s sick”.┬áHis ex has constantly harassed me through every possible resource available to her. I’ve ignored her to avoid drama and damage to my marriage but have not succeeded. My husband’s ex has told her children that if they were to come to live with us they would never see her or their younger siblings again. She made up lies about having arguments with me and have filled these children’s mind with hate towards me, therefore they told their father they wanted nothing to do with me. Both my mother-in-law and his ex have made his life and mine a living hell. He has gone to the extent of making his ex believe that we’re separated so he can talk to his children if not she will not allow him to communicate with them. I talked to his mother about the things she was doing and the harm she’s caused to our relationship hoping she would understand that there are boundaries she needs to respect. I told her she needed to respect our marriage. It was a private conversation between us or so I thought. She was very calm when we spoke and acknowledged what she had done wrong, but then turns around, calls him to complain, twists things around – next thing I know he’s jumping down my throat defending her, treating me as the bad guy. I resent the fact that he defends everyone but me. I feel bad for my husband because he feels defenseless because he does not want to “lose” his kids. I’ve assured him it’s not possible to lose them. They will grow up and see the real situation. He feels this need to defend his “family” above his own marriage. It’s almost like they’ve made him believe he has to choose me or them. He loves me, but lacks the courage to defend his marriage because of what he can “lose” in the process. It makes me angry that in the whole thing he is not mature enough to stand his ground, defend his marriage and put everyone in their place. I’ve told him to recur to legal help for the situation with his children. He supports them so he has the right to be with his children, but he doesn’t want to. And I’ve also told him about my feelings towards what his mother is doing. I’m angry at the way he’s been brain washed with all these lies and I’m left looking like the liar and the troublemaker. I’m frustrated and very angry towards everything going on but I feel powerless to change anything. I’ve tried every mature resolution I can think of to no avail. How do I get him to see that he’s being manipulated by his mother? How can I deal with his pain regarding his children? How can I get him to realize that he needs to defend his marriage and assume his position as the leader of our family? Desperately waiting for an answer.

Wow, it sounds like you’ve had some real challenges with your mother-in-law! I am so sorry to hear how difficult it has been for you, and especially how alone you must be feeling in all of this when your husband doesn’t defend you. It doesn’t sound like your mother-in-law is a safe person for you, at least not right now.

The challenge for you is that you have absolutely no control over her actions or your husband’s ex-wife’s actions, and so it’s vital that you focus on what you do have control over. The most important priority right now is you, your husband and your marriage. I think it’s critical that you address this because if your husband isn’t able to stand strong against his mom and ex-wife’s manipulation, I truly fear for your marriage. And I hate to hear how helpless you feel, so I think it’s important that you take action where YOU have control, and that is in the choices you make in how you want to handle the whole situation.

My strong recommendation is that you seek a good marriage therapist and work with this person to help you work things out with your husband. You need to let him know that you love him but you cannot continue on this way, and that is why marriage therapy is a must for you. With that person’s guidance, you will find it much easier to make sure you are being heard by him, but that he feels he is being heard by you as well. He needs to understand how he hurts you and how you feel abandoned whenever he dismisses your concerns or accepts his mom’s accusations against you. And he will also need a therapist’s help to stand strong and to know how to set boundaries with his mom and ex-wife, and well as how to enforce them.

But it’s important that you realize that you have no control over your husband. You can’t get him to see or do anything – his thoughts, opinions and actions must come from himself. So you can’t “get” him to see that he’s being manipulated by his mother or realize that he needs to defend his marriage and assume his position as the leader of our family. You also can’t take responsibility for his pain regarding his children – that is all work that only he can do. All you can do is encourage and support him. What you can focus on is trying to develop a good relationship with his kids. Don’t worry about what his ex is saying to the kids – again, you can’t control that. Just treat his kids with love and kindness and as you say, they will eventually figure things out when they get older.

But for you – when you let go of trying to change HIM, you can then focus on what’s going on for you. You need to seriously think – if your husband doesn’t change and if the situation with his mother and ex doesn’t change, will you ever be happy? If your husband refuses to take ownership for this and doesn’t want to take steps to change, then do you still want to be with him? How you decide this is critical to your own well-being and allows you to be intentional about how you want to respond.

Don’t stay with him just because you feel like you have no choice. When all of that craziness is happening around you, you don’t have to feel like you’re a victim in all of that. You do have a voice, and your voice will be reflected in how you choose to respond to his action or lack of action. If you can’t live with how things are because he refuses to change, then you must take steps to take care of yourself. If you choose to stay with him, do it because you want to and you choose to, not because you feel trapped. If he refuses to change (or says he can’t) or he doesn’t want to go to marriage therapy and you still want to stay with him, then I would encourage you to do your own individual therapy so that you can learn how to live with the reality of the baggage that comes with your husband, and also how to set appropriate boundaries for yourself and your children to minimize the harm as much as possible. Believe it or not, you CAN be happy even in the midst of all the shenanigans going on.

As to your mother-in-law, it’s good to hear that you have tried to talk to her. However, having an honest dialogue with someone does require her to be open to hearing your concerns, and I’m not sure this is quite the case. If you wanted to try again, you may want to try to speak to her in your husband’s presence so that he can be a witness to what is actually being said. If you choose to do this, you should talk to him in advance about doing this so that he doesn’t feel blindsided. Also, it would be best if you were both on the same page about setting the same boundaries with his mom. I find it helpful to write it out in advance so that you can be thoughtful (rather than emotionally reactive) and then practice what you want to say. It’s important that you don’t speak to her out of anger or frustration, but calmly and clearly. State clearly what behaviours she’s doing that bother you and how they make you feel. Then be very specific about what kind of changes you’re asking of her.

If she isn’t willing to hear you, you may want to try family counselling with a good therapist to help you work through this and set important boundaries. Having an objective third party can be very helpful. If she’s not willing to, I would encourage you to meet with someone on your own to help you make some wise decisions on how to handle her.

Regardless of what you choose to do with your mother-in-law, it’s very important that you set boundaries with her, expressing them clearly and then enforcing them if she does cross them. For an excellent book that is very helpful with this, Dr. John Townsend has a book called, “Who’s Pushing Your Buttons“. It will be worthwhile reading it as he gives you very good pointers on how to handle these kinds of situations. You can also read my series on Boundaries in my blog, which could help as well.

If you’ve worked hard at setting boundaries, and your mother-in-law still refuses to respect them. then unfortunately, you may have to distance yourself from her. Remember, you are not responsible for her emotional well-being or what she chooses to do if you set good boundaries with her.

I hope that helps!


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