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.
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:
- doesn’t back you up, stays silent to avoid conflict and/or emotionally retreats (or)
- 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.
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.
- For you to read – Toxic In-Laws: Loving Strategies for Protecting Your Marriage by Susan Forward
- For him to read – Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Susan Forward
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.