Standing Up to a Critical Mother-in-Law
As I approach my 40th birthday, I'm starting to feel like I want more respect from my mother-in-law, who's been mistreating me for the last 15 years. I could give you numerous examples of how she's been rude, critical and outright hostile to me — often right in front of my husband and our 4 kids. When I've asked my husband why he doesn't stand up for me or confront his mother about her behavior, he says, "I know my mom is mean, but that's just the way she is. Try to ignore it." He doesn't feel like anything can be done to change his mother. I'm wondering what you think — should I just accept this treatment? Or do I or my husband need to confront her? And how should we do it?
I received an e-mail very similar to yours about a year ago, and my advice is pretty much the same. God provides us with a model for successful marriage relationships in the Bible. In Genesis 2, He tells us that a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife. Jesus repeats this command in the Gospel of Matthew.
The word "cleave" means to be united as one flesh and to establish a new family unit, separate from the family of origin. In order for a marriage to be successful, that new family unit needs to take priority over the husband's family and the wife's family.
Your mother-in-law has no right to treat you with such disrespect. Your husband has a responsibility to you and your children to step up to the plate and defend you. But from your description, either he's afraid of his mom or simply doesn't want to rock the boat. I suggest you make a date with your husband, and tell him you have some important things to discuss, away from the kids. Lovingly and patiently explain that you've had it with your mother-in-law's mean-spirited attacks and criticism, and that it's time for both of you to start setting some firm boundaries with her. Explain that you can't do this alone and that you are counting on his support.
If he agrees, the two of you should sit down with his mom and let her know that things are going to be different in your relationship from this point forward. Your husband should take the lead in this conversation, and tell his mom that her constant criticism of you hurts him deeply and that he is no longer going to accept it. He should make it clear that unless she can make a genuine effort to change her attitude and behavior, she will no longer be welcome in your home.
Based on your e-mail, I'm guessing that your mother-in-law may react in anger, or she may play the martyr role and attempt to make you and your husband feel guilty for confronting her. Stand your ground and refuse to be manipulated.
Unless your mother-in-law is willing to admit her faults and make some significant changes in her behavior, I believe you may also want to consider limiting the amount of time she spends with your children. Ask yourself this: Is it truly in their best interest to be spending time with a woman who is so hostile and demeaning? Perhaps her desire to see her grandchildren will motivate her to examine her attitude and her behavior, but based on your description, I'm not holding my breath.
If your husband doesn't have the courage to back you up and confront his mom, I suggest that you seek the assistance of a family therapist. That will send a strong signal to your husband that you are dead serious about this issue.