Marriage panel members answer the question of how to set boundaries with your mother-in-law.
This post is part of our ASK THE PANEL series where readers submit questions and our marriage panel answers them. As explained here.
Here’s the submitted question:
About a year ago, my husband found a great job in his hometown and we ended up buying a house just a block or so over from his parents. My mother-in-law is actually a really amazing lady, she’s just a little . . . intense. Type A. She watches my two little kids once or twice a week so I can get some work done, which I really appreciate, but she’s always been very passive aggressive and opinionated in giving me advice. Everything from how I discipline my kids, to how to do their hair to how I do my laundry. I believe she has my best interests at heart, but I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t drive me crazy! And the thought of living with this every week for the rest of ever makes me want to cry.
When I talk to my husband about it, he agrees, like, “Yep, sounds like my mom.” Shrug. He thinks saying something to her would really damage our relationship with her and wouldn’t be worth it. Add to that that I hate confrontation and I just really don’t know what to do about it.
So my question for the panel is does anyone have any experience in setting boundaries with in-laws? Or a script? LOL Any experiences or advice would be appreciated! Thanks!”
I totally understand where you are coming from. My mother-in-law is also extremely difficult.
I also completely understand your lack of motivation to have a conversation about it with her. As far as I’m concerned, having that convo with my mom-in-law would do nothing but hurt her feelings. Her behavior wouldn’t change, she’s just not at a place where she can make changes like that because she suffers from mental illness. However, this doesn’t make her insensitivities any less hurtful to me, particularly when it comes to raising my kids. Here are some things I’ve learned over the years:
1) Complaining doesn’t help anything. I used to adore telling stories about my mother-in-law acting nutso. I’ve told Celeste a million of them. They were just too good and shocking and evoked too much sympathy for me to keep my mouth shut. A little while ago I met a woman who swore that her difficult mother-in-law became manageable, even likable, when she stopped complaining about her. So I tried it. It is honestly the hardest self discipline thing I’ve ever done, but it makes a huge difference.
1a. Don’t complain to your husband either. My mom once told me that she was complaining to my dad about his mom. After a while he couldn’t take it anymore and said “please stop, that’s my mommy.” I think putting our spouses in a position between their wife and their mom makes it so they can’t win. We should honor that relationship as much as we can.
2) Just smile and nod. Your mother-in-law has no real power over what you do in the walls of your own home. She can complain all she wants but you are the one making final parenting decisions. Feel free to be drunk off that power. You can let her talk at you, while you smile and think ‘I am not going to listen to a thing you say.’ It’s oddly liberating. Having someone criticize our parenting is really hurtful, but as Eleanor Roosevelt once said “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Try to grow some tough skin, it’s hard and it takes practice and time, but you can do it.
3) Is she right? This is incredibly difficult, but I think all of us can admit that we aren’t perfect parents. Perhaps there’s something we can learn from the woman who raised the man we fell in love with? When people with aggressive personalities give us advice it is easy to be defensive, but if we can be humble we might be able to pull a kernel of truth out of what they are saying. Remember that you’re both on the same team. You both love your babies. You want what’s best for them. She won’t be right all the time, but instead of immediately thinking ‘these are my kids, not yours.’ maybe we can think ‘is she actually making a valuable suggestion?’ Even if it is sometimes disguised as abrasive criticism.
4) Make “I feel” statements. I hope this doesn’t sound cheesy, but if something hurts your feelings you shouldn’t feel bad about expressing that. You don’t need to have a big huge conversation about how she is constantly bossy and critical. Just the next time she says something hurtful you say “That hurt my feelings” or “I am trying really hard with these kids and when you said that it made me feel like you don’t think I am,” or whatever. If you talk about how you feel she won’t be able to argue with you and she probably doesn’t want you to feel like that. It might be scary but it will really bring you closer together. When I read your sentence about dealing with this for the rest of forever it made you want to cry, my first thought is that your mother-in-law does not want you to feel that way. She needs to understand how she is making you feel.
5) Serve her. The best way to develop love for someone and get to know them better is to serve them. As you love her and know her more, then your reaction to her criticisms will more closely resemble your husbands: a shrug and a ‘that’s my mom.’
Hang in there! This will get easier as you get used to each other and as your kids get older.
I feel for you!! I think many people have situations like this in their married life. I think dealing with different family cultures, especially with in-laws, can be one of the biggest stressors in trying to build a successful family. I would say I get along pretty well with my mother-in-law, but there are a few things that rub me the wrong way. I also have some personality conflicts with a sister-in-law that have left me in tears to the point that meeting up at my husband’s family reunions have been so nerve wracking that I dreaded them for months in advance.
While I was attending college, I had a chance to also attend some religion classes at an Institute of Religion for our church. One of my teachers was Dr. John Lund and in addition to being a religion teacher, he was a marriage and family therapist. He’s the author of the book, “How to Hug a Porcupine: Dealing with Toxic and Difficult to Love Personalities”. His book teaches about different toxic behaviors that people in our lives (or we, ourselves) might have. These toxic behaviors might range from passive aggressive behaviors like you spoke about with your mother-in-law to cutting off people when they are talking.
The take home message that I got from the book was that I need to recognize toxic behaviors in that person. Then I need to recognize in myself what it means to be a good daughter-in-law or sister-in-law, etc. I also had to recognize that I cannot change that person. The most conflict I’ve had has been with my sister-in-law. I felt like she was always judging me on the choices I made while raising my kids. She is also quite sensitive and frequently gets her feelings hurt by others in the family.
It has taken me very many years to get to the point to say to myself, “That is how she is. I can’t change her but I can change how I deal with her.” The funny thing was, when I got my feelings hurt by her, I wouldn’t necessarily take it to her to talk about it, because she wasn’t ready to hear my complaints. This might be similar to what your husband said about talking to his mom might hurt the relationship more than it helps. I would take my struggles about her to the Lord and found that if I hashed it out before the Him, I could come to forgive her for her behavior toward me.
It also took a long time for me to decide how I was going define being a good sister-in-law with her. Once, I realized that I was fulfilling my definition of a good sister-in-law, I can feel comfortable in my own skin. There did come a time recently that she was ready to try and change her behavior and we established how we wanted to move forward in our relationship. This was not an easy process. However, you may never get to that point with the toxic person in your life. They may never be willing to change. So, that is why it is so important for you to define for yourself how to be a good daughter-in-law and once you’ve done that, be okay with that.
If there comes a time when you do get a chance to talk to your mother-in-law about different things that you struggle with, I would suggest that you create a safe environment for both of you to talk about it. Maybe write down what you’re going to say beforehand. There are a bunch of good suggestions in the book if you get to that point.
I would recommend the book (and if you search for “John Lund Porcupine” on YouTube, there are a few video clips that he as on the topic of criticism and toxic personalities that I find helpful). Just be prepared to recognize a few toxic behaviors in yourself too (because no one is immune from them!) Good luck with figuring things out!
Celeste here. I don’t have anything to add to this conversation (thank goodness my panel had such great advice!!), but one panel member emailed me this for help in determining how close to in-laws you should live 😉 and also gave me the idea for creating the pin for this post.
If you have any advice or experiences to share- add them in the comments!
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