Friday, April 26, 2019

The Case of the Abusive Mother-in-Law

Surely, we understand the decisions. A husband tells his wife that he wants to cut all ties with his family, especially his mother. His wife does not want to help precipitate a major family disruption. She wants a harmonious and inclusive family environment. We understand her reasoning perfectly.

Husband accepts her reasoning and continues to try to maintain good relations with his mother. It is not working out well. Mother-in-law continues to abuse her son at every opportunity. So, the daughter-in-law writes to Carolyn Hax:

When I married my wonderful husband, he asked if we could cut ties with his family. I thought he was joking.

He grew up in a verbally and emotionally abusive household — something I will never fully understand, but definitely didn't grasp pre-marriage. While his mother was also a victim (her father was the abuser), she is the one we have the most problems with. I spent the first part of our marriage telling my husband he should be more supportive of her because she was a victim and has clear untreated mental illness. What I didn't understand was that she filled his childhood with manipulation, passive-aggression, severe OCD and hoarding, and helicopter parenting.

Now she continues to unload her untreated anxiety on him. He tries to set boundaries, she ignores them. Many people have suggested therapy, she refuses treatment. She blames every problem she's ever had, including things that happened four decades ago, which she still ruminates about constantly, on any- and everyone but herself. Every 20-minute call leaves my husband drained and frustrated.

She wants to be around her grandchildren. How do we let this woman into our life without feeling depleted? How do we set boundaries with someone who ignores them?

— Distraught Daughter-in-Law

Carolyn Hax offers a wise and correct observation. This woman created the problem by refusing to accept her husband’s suggestion the first time. She bears some considerable responsibility for the current state of affairs. Thus, she owes him a large apology. Once he receives it, and once he knows that his wife is with him, he will have an easier time standing up to his abusive mother.

Surely, this is totally correct. And it is very important to note that his inability to deal with his mother derives from his wife’s disloyalty. Kudos to Hax:

You laughed off your husband’s cry for help! And then sided with his tormentor against him.

This history must be addressed before you deal with the present. Why? You owe him a massive apology. And because your husband needs strength to hold the line with his mother — wherever he draws it, which we’ll get to — and healthy relationships with the primary people in our lives are, for any of us, a significant source of emotional strength.

As his wife, you are likely the primary person.

Maybe you get it and have long since repaired the trust you damaged by siding against him. My apologies, if so. But your letter doesn’t have that “WOW I messed up” vibe, and his mother is still tormenting him — and that tells me there’s still work to do on your marital trust. That means a full reckoning with your part in his pain. Such as: “You asked sincerely to cut ties with your family and I treated it as a joke. I’m so sorry. I left you to deal with her unsupported.” Show him you get it and you’re safe to lean on now.

As a full and fully comprehending partner, you can join him in learning about boundaries: namely, that when properly set and held, they aren’t subject to anyone’s disrespect. You decide what behavior you’ll accept from people, and become unavailable to those who behave otherwise. She gets blamey on the phone? He says, “Sorry to interrupt, but I have to go,” and hangs up. She screams? He screens.

She keeps hurting him? He cuts ties.

Ultimately, cutting all ties is the right thing to do.

I would only add one point. We understand that the new husband accepted his wife’s suggestion because he wanted to ensure harmony within his family. In a better world he would have politely refused from the onset. After all, he had known his mother his entire life. His new wife did not know her at all. He should not have suggested it, he should have explained that he has no other choice but to cut ties with his mother. A loyal wife would have acceded. It’s fair to say that the wife created the mess, but her husband allowed her to do so. If he could not stand up to his wife, why would we expect him to be able to stand up to his mother?


Anonymous said...

She keePs huRting him? He needs to ask pOLly for relAtionshiPS advicE.

Sam L. said...

Given that the wife is asking Polly, I presumed the M-I-L was being hard on the wife.

Also, how (HOW) did he get married without his wife getting to know and see how his mother treated him?

AND, their children need to be protected from their grandmother.

Anonymous said...

Yup. Sounds good Sam.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe it's not Freud is sleeping in.