My mother-in-law is the quintessential thorn in my side. She says awful things about people she doesn’t know, based on her naivety, judgmental heart, and sometimes based on her racist beliefs. It is beyond difficult to see her, to do anything with her, to listen to her hatefulness (which usually comes out as a passive aggressive and arrogant). At times I offer suggestions on trying new things, she always says no. She says she doesn’t like such and such. But she never tried whatever it is, I cannot understand how a person can blow off trying things, and then say they don’t like it. How would you know if you didn’t try? I asked her as much, and then got rudely trounced on. She in effect blames me for things and presses my buttons to the Nth degree, and she is worse about it lately more so than ever. I don’t know how to reason with her.
I don’t want to be her friend, I just want to be able to not feel uncomfortable every time I have to see her, for my husband’s sake. He’s an only child, and to her, he’s still her baby. She makes everything about him, which is frustrating, because he isn’t perfect, and she acts like he is.
What is the best I can do to help this situation? Should I convince my husband to intervene? What if he refuses? Do I think more about my own peace of mind first, my husband’s? I am sure I have said some things over the years where I sounded judgmental of her with her racist remarks. Do I apologize for things said long ago? What would you suggest?
Not Happy with Mother-in-law
Dear Not Happy with Mother-in-law,
She sounds like the inspiration for all bad mother-in-law jokes, ever. If she reorganizes your kitchen without permission, or conspires with your husband to keep secrets from you, run for the hills!
Difficult relatives are an issue in every marriage. There’s extra tension when it’s one of the moms, and your visits have become stress minefields. Your letter doesn’t give much detail on how your husband reacts when she goes on a rant, but I suspect he’s very practiced at remaining mum during the tirades. He may think you ought to behave the same way: avoid the bully and hope they’ll go away. Instead, you’ve tried to engage her as an adult. But, she doesn’t see you as a grown up, just as she still sees her son as her baby. She holds the floor because she’s the matriarch, pure and simple. There is no changing your MIL. Accept this as a given.
Talk to your husband about this situation. Instead of enlisting his help to change your MIL’s mind, strategize ways you can make the visits more bearable. Is there an activity you can do together—play a game, go to a movie, scrapbook family photos—to take the pressure off of making conversation? If she starts in with the negative comments, leave the room. It’ll be uncomfortable at first, but keep at it. (If you both do this, you may affect some change in her behavior.) Perhaps your husband feels he’s caught in the middle. Do you both need to visit every time? Send your husband on his way and skip a visit now and then. I think part of your resentment may stem from feeling trapped and obligated. The visits are primarily your husband’s responsibility, so give yourself a break.
I consulted my friend and colleague Kenneth Pruitt for additional insights on handling racist remarks. He is Director of Diversity Training at the Diversity Awareness Partnership. He reminds us that “being firm and convicted about issues of race will cause conflict…it just will.” You’ll have to decide how much you want to engage her on these issues. As Kenneth suggests, those who are racially conscious “have to determine for themselves what their work is and what others have to work out for themselves. I may not argue with my grandmother, for example,” he writes, “but I’m sure not going to be vague about where I stand. And if that makes her uncomfortable, perhaps that’s a really good thing.” For more resources on this issue, visit the Diversity Awareness Partnership website.
Bottom line, we recommend that you take self-care really seriously. There are some important boundaries that need to be set with your husband, and with your MIL, for you to gain health and well-being. Minimize your contact with her, and when you do visit, don’t engage the negative comments. When you’re with her, pay attention to how the sunlight streams in the window, or the song playing on the radio, or the cool drink of water in the kitchen. In other words, be very intentional about finding beauty in the moment. Work on your own head by identifying one or two things you appreciate about your MIL—they could be as simple as her tasty cherry pie, or that she gave birth to your husband. Think on these things when you think of her. Practicing appreciation can help soften how you react to your MIL, and that will bring you peace of mind. Remember: All of us are doing the best we can with what we know. Use what you know to take care of yourself.