Dear Captain Awkward.
You have advised that a person does not “owe” anyone else their time, friendship, or anything, and I agree with this.
However, I am struggling with being on the receiving end of this. My mother-in-law stopped speaking to me. And I feel SO MUCH anger and hurt over this; I have been obsessed about it for a year and a half now.
A little background: I hit it off with my MIL the first time we met, and we had a great relationship for 8 years. We spoke on the phone at least weekly, having long, fun. and close conversations, and always enjoyed seeing each other. All visits/plans/holidays were coordinated with me, and I was included in everything. We were good friends!
That ended after a visit to help them with an upcoming move. We had a bit to drink one evening, and the conversation turned a bit heated. I went to excuse myself from the table, and my FIL yelled at me, twice, “Fuck you!” My MIL was horrified and yelled at him to stop; he regretted it immediately and apologized profusely, with tears. I forgave, and thought all would be fine.
Following that, she stopped speaking to me. I thought a “cooling off” period would be good, but it never ended. It’s as if I am not in the family any more. I have made many overtures to my in-laws that I hold no grudge, and to try to get things back to normal. I have called, attempting friendly conversation (and get blown off). I have offered to travel to family events with her. I have shared pictures of trips, and sent nice holiday cards. My husband and brother in law have asked her why she no longer talks to me (her answer, “I don’t know”). Nothing changes. All the calls, texts, emails, Facebook posts, etc. that are exchanged amongst the family leave me out.
I HATE this. It makes me so angry and upset! I hate being excluded. I hate that the close relationship we had apparently meant nothing to her. I hate visiting them, where they all act friendly with each other while I sit there quietly. I hate seeing her be nice and friendly to everyone but me. And now, I hate her too. I want to punish her, and never see them again (which I won’t do, because that wouldn’t be fair to my husband). And, I hate feeling that way. I don’t want to have all this anger and hurt. Please help me deal with this. I know she has a right to do this, but I can’t seem to accept it.
Sad and Angry
Dear Sad and Angry:
I wish I had insight into your Mother-In-Law’s state of mind, or magic words to say that would make her reconsider her behavior and mend the relationship. Alas, I do not.
People have a right to not like you, but in a family, assuming you haven’t harmed anyone, I don’t think they have the right to give you the silent treatment and subject you to a constant low level of scorn and expect you to stick around for that.
You talk about how going to events where people give you the silent treatment is the “fair” thing to do for your husband, but I’d like to question that assumption quite a lot. Because if we’re talking “fairness,” I think you do not have to sit quietly and pretend that this is normal. I think you do not have to play this role called “Pleasant, Approval-Seeking Wife” and audition for good will…or basic recognition of your common humanity… from someone who mistreats you. I do not think you have to send cards or presents or remember the birthdays or do all the “wifely” social secretary stuff for people who mistreat you.
What would be the worst thing that happened if you gave your husband’s family gatherings a giant “I’ll be home with a good book drinking wine, catch you later?” He would miss you and feel bad and lonely, probably, but BOTH of you would be free of the tension. What if you gave yourself the gift of a year free of attending stuff with his family or worrying about anything to do with his family? Putting some kind of time limit or scheduling a time to review on the decision to stay away may help your husband come to terms with it and help all parties take pressure off themselves.
I realize this is an anxiety-producing prospect for a lot of people, because it means acknowledging that things are broken and not normal. It means backing out of what “the holidays” and “but we’re a faaaaaaamily!” are supposed to mean. It means putting down a socially acceptable and comforting role and stepping into the unknown, where this person hates your guts and you don’t know why. And it would mean your husband would have to make some choices about how and whether to go to bat for you, which I suspect have been put off indefinitely in the hopes that things will magically get better without him having to say “Mom, what the in the name of fuck is going on?” Your husband may also have to make some choices about whether he is comfortable spending time in places where you are not welcomed. The relationship that needs and would benefit the most from some work right now is the one with your husband, and by work I mean HIM taking care of YOU and doing his best to support and reassure YOU. And the question he needs to ask his mom isn’t “Why don’t you like her?” but “When are you going to stop treating her like garbage? Because, however you may feel, that’s when I/we’ll be back.”
That’s the abusive power dynamic contained in the silent treatment, by the way. Your husband’s mom is the one mistreating you, but by using the silent treatment everything is reframed as you having to audition for her approval and trying to win your way back into her good graces. If you reframe it as “Wow, you are being mean and unreasonable and acting like a bully” instead of “Whyyyyyy don’t you like me?” it’s not a more comforting picture, but it is a more honest one.
You may never find a new normal that feels all the way good here. You will likely never recapture the feeling of inclusion you once had with your in-laws, because even if your Mother-In-Law resumes normal relations you will never be able to trust that it will last. I am so, so sorry. “Good” outcomes here mean “being a basic amount of civil and hoping things thaw over time.” We’re a long way from there, and the work to be done is not yours to do.
The steps I know about in situations like these are 1) admit how bad it is and how broken things are 2) grieve and be really nice to yourself, which includes taking a lot of time away from the situation 3) put up a buffer between you and the badness (so you’re not looking at these Facebook posts and choking down Silent Treatment Pie and The Mashed Potatoes of Guilt and Trepidation), and 4) Reach out to and be around people who make you feel good.