Apr 21, 2014

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Dealing With a Difficult Suegra

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Jennifer Lopez’s on-screen character, “Charlie” faces off with her mother-in-law, “Viola”, (played by Jane Fonda), in the movie “Monster in Law.”

“Suegra” is Spanish for “mother-in-law” but the problems that can occur between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law need no translating. The historically difficult relationship knows no borders when it comes to race, religion, or nationality. Around the world, women often struggle to make things work with the mother of the man they love.

While most women avoid “airing their dirty laundry”, my suegra problems have never been much of a secret. I’ve been very public with the difficulties I’ve faced with my mother-in-law while she lived with us, (on and off for almost our entire marriage.) I didn’t share our problems publicly to be vindictive, but because I knew there were others out there suffering in silence – It was therapeutic to write about it, and many women wrote me, (often privately), to tell me that they found comfort in knowing they weren’t alone.

I still receive E-mails on occasion from women asking me advice on how to deal with their mother-in-law. “She’s insane!” and “Is this normal?” are the most oft repeated phrases. Many of the women who contact me are dealing with a Latina mother-in-law, but the truth is, I’ve spoken to women dealing with mother-in-laws of many other backgrounds and Latinas don’t own exclusive rights on the “difficult mother-in-law business.” In fact, some of the behaviors exhibited by mother-in-laws from vastly different parts of the world are strikingly similar – from the words they use to manipulate their sons, to their sneaky way of saying hurtful things to us in front of everyone while looking completely innocent.

With more than a decade of experience under my belt, and many days when I honestly didn’t know if my marriage would survive another Suegra problem, I now want to pass on the wisdom. Here are the lessons I wish I had known from the beginning.

Boundaries
Establish boundaries as soon as possible. The first time your mother-in-law just shows up at your door unannounced or criticizes your parenting skills, tell her nicely but firmly that in the future you would appreciate it if she would let you know in advance that she would like to visit, or that while you appreciate her tips, you intend to continue parenting your child as you see fit. Feelings will get hurt and she may get defensive, but stay strong. You teach people how to treat you, and if you act like a doormat you can’t complain later when they wipe their feet all over you.

Be a Team
If your husband is totally aware of the problem, sticks up for you, and is proactive in trying to resolve issues between you and his family – you are in the lucky minority. Work as a team to let his mother know that she is loved, but that she needs to respect the boundaries you establish together.
If your husband isn’t ready to deal with this uncomfortable love triangle and either:

  1. doesn’t back you up, stays silent to avoid conflict and/or emotionally retreats  (or)
  2. sides with his mother and aggressively defends her behavior and/or accuses you of being the problem

– things will be much more complicated for you in your marriage and, I’m sorry to say, you have a very long road ahead.

Calm Communication
Tell your husband how you’re feeling about your relationship with his mother, but be calm. Avoid name calling or phrasing that will cause him to become defensive. If your husband is open to it, communicate how you’re feeling to your mother-in-law directly, either one-on-one, or with him by your side – again, be calm and avoid accusatory language. Use sentences that start with “I feel” instead of “You.”
Some mother-in-laws simply don’t realize they’re over-stepping boundaries and while there may be some hurt feelings for awhile, just talking with them could make a difference going forward… but remember…

For The Most Part, People Don’t Change
Your mother-in-law is no exception, so don’t expect her to. If you have problems with her from the start, chances are, things won’t improve drastically as the years go by. She may never come to love, or even like you. She may never grow to accept that her son is married and that she needs to take a secondary role. If she doesn’t accept this in the beginning, it’s a pretty good indicator of how things will be for the duration of your relationship.
In the end…

You Cannot Control How Others Act, Only How You React
You have absolutely no control over how your mother-in-law behaves or how your husband deals with it. Let me say it again, because this is big. You have absolutely no control over how other people choose to act. Got it? Accept that and move on to what you do control – yourself.

This Isn’t Truly Your Fight, It’s Your Husband’s
As much as you want to take your mother-in-law’s behavior personally – it isn’t about you. If your husband had married any other woman in the world, (despite what she might say to the contrary), these problems would still exist. This problem is between your husband and his mother, and it is about the unhealthy relationship that exists between them. Your husband may mature as he grows older and draw boundaries – but he might not.

You’re Not the Only One Who Is Unhappy
Sometimes it helps to get some perspective. Remember that this is no picnic for your husband – and in fact, may be even more difficult for him. Again and again, he is being forced to choose between his mother and his wife – the two women he loves the most in this world. He may know logically that his mother is being unfair, difficult, selfish, manipulative, overly dependent, or even mentally unwell – but in the end, it’s his mother, and demanding that he cuts ties or puts his foot down prematurely may backfire. Be careful about making ultimatums unless you’re prepared for the reality of losing.

Even more difficult to accept, is that your mother-in-law is also unhappy. More than likely, she thinks she is totally justified in everything she says and does. You’ve taken her son away from her. She sees the way he looks at you, kisses you, enjoys the food you make. You’ve given him children who are the apple of his eye and he adores you. YOU have become the center of his world – a place she once occupied. Is this a mentally/emotionally healthy perspective? Of course not, but that doesn’t make it hurt less.

Have a Sense of Humor
Sometimes it doesn’t seem at all funny, but avoid becoming vindictive, hateful, and petty. Do it for your own spiritual/mental/emotional health. If you can find a way to laugh, you will be much better off.  Say you host Thanksgiving dinner and you tell your mother-in-law not to bring a thing, that you’ve got it all under control and she is your guest. You prepare a lovely feast and you can’t wait to impress your in-laws  – yet your mother-in-law shows up with a turkey, perfectly roasted “the way her son likes it.” – Look on the bright side, now there’s even more turkey to freeze and use in future dinners that you don’t have to cook. Take a photo of the two turkeys side-by-side and have a laugh with your girlfriends about it later.

Don’t Suffer in Silence
Many women are taught at a very young age that it’s a shameful thing to discuss family problems with those outside the family. Instead of seeking support, they keep quiet and suffer silently. Doing so can lead to built up resentment and even clinical depression.  Find a friend to confide in, preferably one who also has a difficult mother-in-law.

One thing I would advise against though, is ranting and venting to your own mother or sisters. Naturally they feel protective over you – knowing that your mother-in-law isn’t treating you well and that your husband is doing nothing about it, will cause them to resent your husband causing even more familial discord.

If you don’t have a good friend you can talk to, find a support group online and talk about it anonymously if needed. If it becomes emotionally too much, seek professional help from your doctor – This is nothing to be ashamed of. (I was on anti-depressants for several years as I navigated the difficult relationship with my mother-in-law and the marital problems it caused.)

When it Gets Toxic, Get Help
There’s a difference between a run-of-the-mill difficult mother-in-law, and one that is toxic and abusive. If your husband realizes this and is ready to deal with it, support him however you can. You can do this by providing books for him to read, (recommendations below), or encouraging him to get therapy. Be there to listen to him but avoid jumping in with unhelpful commentary on how awful you think his mother is.

Be Thankful for the Lessons You’re Learning
Think your mother-in-law isn’t teaching you anything? Maybe she won’t give you the recipe to your husband’s favorite cookies – but you are learning something else – PATIENCE, among other things.

There’s a quote by Catherine Aird which is very apt, “If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to serve as a horrible warning.” – You can learn something from everyone – even if it’s how NOT to behave. Remember what you’re going through now so that you don’t become a difficult mother-in-law yourself in a few decades.

 

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Tracy López

Tracy López

Tracy is a writer living outside the D.C. Metro area. Her blog, Latinaish.com, examines cultural differences she discovers as she navigates life in a bicultural, bilingual family.

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Comments

  1. Tracy is “LA” expert in the suegra dept.! Now I know who to go to for advice. Lol
    I’ve been having problems here and there for 20 years! And the worse part is that I’ve known the woman since I was four years old so she’s known me for a long time. I have to say it’s probably because she doesn’t like the fact her only son has “another” woman he loves. I dony know. Still after 20 years I don’t get her. I’m the one who tells the hubby to call his mom bc if I don’t, guess what? He won’t call her AND I’m the mean one! I hope & pray I am NOT that kind of mother-in-law. LOVE, LOVE this post! It hit home.

    • Wow – having a suegra that has known you since you were 4 years old! … I imagine that could make things even stickier as she watched you grow up and saw all imprudent decisions you may have made in your youth and judge accordingly. (Not that you made imprudent decisions – but I did. LOL.)

      Thanks for the comment, Lisa!

  2. Oh and I meant “LA” as “THE” ..lol not LA as in Los Angeles.

  3. I am in the minority here and get along pretty well with my MIL. Things were great from the start, since my partner and i firt got together in high school. And my mother loves him to death. However, things did change once I delivered her grandson. After speaking with my therapist, he said she probably felt as if I took everything away. I mean, her son moved to DC to be with me (out of her house), he was no longer financially helping her, and her grandson was miles away (she’s in NJ). She became distant, more defensive of things, and somewhat judgmental with how I was doing certain things with my son. She rarely started visiting and only called my partner when she was having an issue.

    Regardless, she is nice when she’s around now and has gone back to the way she was before we had our son. I do notice the differences though and can tell she’s not an open and asks here and there, “Is this okay if I do this with….” It’s nice to know that she doesn’t overstep boundaries anymore. Naturally I think we both know there is some tension, but overall I think after I’ve said calmly a few times what I do not like that she does, I think she got the hint. Some ppl are lucky with MILs, others – not so much. I really enjoyed this article and have passed it along to quite a few women.

    Note: This is not only a problem for women/men relationships, but also in gay marriages/partnerships as well.

    • Tara – I’m so glad you said that. You’re totally right that this situation isn’t exclusive to male/female relationships. I should have been more conscious of wording.

      Thanks for passing the article along and for your comment!

  4. Great article Tracy! Clear, respectful and I bet very helpful for those who suffer from Suegritis Aguditis!

    • Sue,

      Thanks for saying this post is respectful. I really don’t want the negativity that comes with chisme and sincerely wanted to help others from my own experience. I’m glad I got the tone right.

      Abrazos!

  5. Lori Nolasco says:

    I never met my Suegra, since she died when my husband was 11 years old. However, mi cuñadita (beloved sister-in-law, said sarcastically) started exhibiting the same invasive, possessive traits. She was only 54 years old at the time and is three years younger than my husband, but it was like having a crotchety “Suegra” who was old before her time. This past Labor Day weekend she came to visit and kept her distance, so we have more or less reconciled, but we will never have a close relationship.

    She and my two nephews came to stay two years ago, and luckily they left after five weeks when I couldn’t take her meddling (which, to this day, she insists was “helping”) anymore. She was always behind me cleaning up compulsively. I had no liberty of movement in my own home. The more I did for her, the more she complained.

    I will admit that I envied the closeness she still has with my husband’s first wife, who is Dominican like her and the same age, not to mention that they have known each other since childhood. I am sure she never gave her former sister-in-law “advice” on how to keep house. I have resigned myself to the fact that I will always be perceived as “imperfect” in her eyes.

    My husband was in the middle and felt powerless. The situation got so bad that she was even calling us after she left to check if I had groceries, and I told her that if her brother needed anything, he could go to the store himself. I ended up writing her an e-mail and leaving a voicemail telling her to leave me the @#$%^ alone.

    I think it’s the same dynamic as with the Suegra, and la cuñadita has that dynamic with her own sons, who have become quite rebellious. She lives in another state now and this is how I like it.

    • Lori – You aren’t the only one who has dealt with a similar situation with a sister-in-law. This is also a very common problem. I feel especially sorry for women who don’t get along well with a mother-in-law or their sister-in-law(s) — as the MIL and SIL(s) have a tendency to gang up on the wife together.

  6. I don’t have too many issues with my “mother-in-law” (we are a lesbian couple so not legally married). The problem is with my own mother who loves my ex-boyfriend! She invites him over for Christmas and even to come see her in the hospital after she had surgery! my partner hates this because she feels she has to compete with my ex and that my mother doesn’t accept our relationship. I’ve talked to my mother several times about this and each time she just insists that she loves my partner and that she just invites my ex over out of habit and that its not fair she has to stop being friends with him just because im not dating him. WE DATED IN HIGH SCHOOL! for less than a year! I’ve been with my partner (post-college) for 3 years already and this is still going on! I have to call her and remind her not to invite him to family events. My sisters are also still friends with him- my partner hates it and its so awkward for me.

    • Wow, Rosanna – I’m sure that is hurtful to your partner and very awkward for you.

      I suspect that your Mom doesn’t just “forget” she shouldn’t be inviting him. Has she accepted that you’re gay or bi? …It seems like maybe she’s holding out hope that you’re heterosexual.

      If she has a hidden agenda, maybe you just need to talk about it in the open and let her know that if that’s what she’s trying to do, (get you to hook up with the old boyfriend), that it won’t work and she needs to accept things the way they are.

      Keep the boundaries in place. You’re doing a good job by speaking up and letting her know how you feel.

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  1. [...] relationship, but most of all to those in interracial and intercultural relationships.  These tips for dealing with in-laws will be life savers if you read them in time, but if you don’t, how can your recover from the [...]

  2. [...] relationship, but most of all to those in interracial and intercultural relationships.  These tips for dealing with in-laws are true life savers, so be sure to read them before it’s too [...]

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