Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Her Mother-in-Law Ruined Her Wedding

It’s the old mother-in-law problem… in spades. A woman recently got married. We wish her all the best. That is not the problem. The problem is that during the wedding weekend her mother-in-law refused to talk to her. As though that were not bad enough, said woman got sick during the wedding and had to be taken to the hospital.

The blushing bride was seriously discommoded by all this. She has accused her mother-in-law of ruining her big day. Said mother-in-law has since apologized profusely, but that has not prevented the bride from still bearing a grudge.

So, she writes to therapist Lori Gottlieb to get some advice about how best to stop wallowing in her feelings.

Here is the letter:

I recently got married, and have not been able to move past feelings of anger and resentment toward my mother-in-law that surfaced during the wedding weekend.

Before the wedding, she and I had a close and very positive relationship. But during the weekend, she refused to talk to me and caused me great distress. To make matters worse, she collapsed during the party, which cut our wedding short. An ambulance had to take her to the hospital; my husband and I thought she was going to die, and spent our wedding night crying and in complete shock. She was discharged the next morning. The cause is still unclear, but she seems to be doing fine.

I feel like she ruined my experience of my wedding. After a couple of months, I decided to talk with her about what happened, particularly how she treated me before she got sick. She has since apologized for everything that happened, but she says she has no memory of how she treated me. I desperately want to move beyond this, but I can’t escape the feeling of having been robbed of what was supposed to be one of the most special days of my life. I’m torn between wanting to move on and being stuck in the trauma and sadness I now associate with my wedding.

How can I move on without repressing everything that has happened?


I might be missing something, but is it possible that the woman actually got sick. After all, she was hospitalized. No one seems now to know what the matter was, but that does not mean that nothing was the matter. And it would not be unheard of for a woman who is coming down with an illness to behave strangely, even to avoid the company of other people.

I raise this point because the bride and therapist Gottlieb seem to believe that the mother-in-law was doing it on purpose, had gotten sick to send a message and intended to ruin her son’s wedding. We note, and not merely in passing, that the older woman was also making a mess of her son’s wedding.

The first issue is quite simple: was the mother-in-law’s behavior intentional? If it was, we are dealing with one problem. If it wasn’t, we are dealing with something very different.

The bride believes that the actions were intentional and Gottlieb seems largely to agree. And yet we have no information about what kept the woman in the hospital over night. Being discharged does not mean that nothing was wrong. It means that they don't know what was wrong.

For my part, when in doubt we do better to think that the actions were not intended and that a woman who required hospitalization was not making a scene to embarrass her son or to demonstrate her disapproval of the marriage. Gottlieb seems to believe otherwise and obviously this colors her approach to the case.

While Gottlieb notes that the bride has nothing to say about her husband’s reaction, this might mean that he did not take his mother’s behavior personally. And that he did not take it as a reflection of her attitude toward her new daughter-in-law.

If the bride is the only one who believes that her mother-in-law did it intentionally, then clearly she has done too much therapy.

For her part Gottlieb borrows a page from cognitive therapy and recommends that the bride list the good parts of the wedding… the better to attain to a balanced judgment. This is standard cognitive treatment. For the most part it is valuable. Here, however, it does not appear to be the right approach. The problem is not in her mind, but in the way her wedding was seen by the assembled family and guests. To emphasize a point that no one seems to understand these days, shame involves how other people see you, not how you feel about yourself. If you attempt to deal with shame without doing anything to change the way others see you, you will fail. I guarantee it. If it’s just you and your shame, alone in the shower, you will lose.

The letter writer does not tell us anything at all about the way other people reacted to her mother-in-law’s medical emergency. Because that is the real question. If she could get over thinking that everything was about her, perhaps she would see this.

One fails to understand why the assembled guests, seeing the paramedics arrive to take mother-in-law to the emergency room, would have assumed that said woman was commenting, through her illness, on the wedding. For the most part, people assume that someone who got sick simply got sick. And that it does not mean anything in particular. It's the normal default.

If there is any ambiguity, the bride can deal with it, not by doing cognitive exercises or by feeling her feelings, but by calling the guests, one by one, to explain that her mother-in-law has recovered from her mystery illness, but that she will be placed under observation.

Above all else she needs a plan of action to ensure that other people do not over-interpret the illness. Evidently, the task is made more difficult by the fact that the bride is full-on over-interpreting the event. One suspects that other people called her the next day to ask how her mother-in-law was… and that this will have moved things in the right direction.

For the record, her mother-in-law did apologize to her, because it’s the right thing to do, even when an action was unintentional. One trusts that she has taken the time to convey her regrets to the guests that she knew personally. Gottlieb wants the mother-in-law to consider whether her illness had anything to do with her own internal conflicts, which is a way for therapists to drum up business. It’s a bad piece of advice… for someone who might be suffering from an undiagnosed illness should not be induced to think that it’s all in her mind.

And Gottlieb is also off the mark when she suggests that her mother-in-law’s illness might become “a hilarious story” that will be recounted over and over again at birthday parties and picnics. So much for therapists’ superior capacity for empathy… for feeling anything for the woman who had to be hospitalized during her son’s wedding.

If perchance the incident was a sign that the woman was suffering from a more serious illness, one that had gone unrecognized, it is wrong to believe that everyone should start thinking that she was clowning around. If the woman humiliated herself at the wedding, for whatever reason, what possibly can be gained by making her into a permanent family joke? Why make her children’s grandmother into a laughing stock? And why continue to rub it in her husband’s face?


jfmoris said...

Yes, it seems like it wouldn't be a big deal if not for the solipsistic bridezilla making it all about her. It may be that the MIL's internal conflicts caused her to feel ill, but the fact that she TRIED to calmly sit through her son's marriage to someone so self-centered shows a lot of tact - something the bride should learn.

Everybody is aware of the 'divorce rape' situation in our society. I think women likely have a hard time acknowledging the severe risk that a man takes by getting married. One of the few situations where they may be able to bring themselves to worry about it is when it is their own son taking the risk.

Anonymous said...

If the bride assigns malicious, manipulative psychological intent to illness, she’s already having a problem with the vow “in sickness and in health.”


Sam L. said...

My mother told me, before my first wedding, that her job was to "wear beige and be quiet". She died before my second wedding, 30 years later. As had my first wife and her mother.

Sam L. said...

My mother told me, before my wedding, that her part was to wear beige and keep her mouth shut. All went well. Wife's mother was calm and easy-going, having done this 3 times before.