Me and my husband have been together for a bit less than seven years now. I have never really liked my mother-in-law and my husband doesn’t really like her company either. Also, everyone who has met her and I’ve talked about this agrees with me. She is exhausting to be around: she talks literally all the time about things only she is interested in. It’s also impossible to concentrate on anything if she is around: she will come and interrupt us with something else. I can spend about a day in her presence, after which I will be totally exhausted and sleep for a day.
What bothers me even more is that she wants to control and micromanage everything in our life. For example, me and my husband are attending the pre-Christmas party of the company that I work for, and my mother-in-law obsesses about it. She has bought my husband a suit (he could afford it himself) and she calls me often to say that I need to put my hair up for the occasion. I don’t really care and don’t know how to do it but she keeps pushing. She also gives us a lot of cleaning tips and buys a lot of cleaning utensils (that are not the ones I prefer, for ethical reasons) for us. She also always starts to clean our apartment when she visits. These are just examples, she has an opinion on every little thing in our lives.
The problem is that she never listens to anything we say. Especially for me, it is hard to confront her because she does get hurt easily. And I know she means well by everything she does. But even when we talk about these things quite straight (and my husband even harshly) to her, it doesn’t change her behavior. It will maybe work for a few weeks but then she will continue the controlling behavior.
Another problem is that because it’s not pleasant to be around her, we spend a lot more time with my mother. Even though both mothers live equally far away, we visit my mother a lot more often. It just isn’t as big an investment of energy from us to visit my mother. My husband agrees with me on this but I still feel guilty about it. My mother-in-law isn’t evil, I just personally don’t enjoy being in contact with her.
How can I reach a more peaceful existence with my mother-in-law? Should I feel guilty about visiting my mum more often? Is it ever possible to get through to her that we want to make our own decisions?
Thanks in advance,
An introvert who isn’t a native English speaker 🙂
Should I feel guilty about visiting my mum more often?
Nope! It’s okay to like your mom better and to like spending time with her more than you do with your mother-in-law. The extra piece of good news is your husband isn’t dragging you or pressuring you to spend more time with your mother-in-law. This is a good problem to have, so do what you can to stop feeling guilty!
Is it ever possible to get through to her that we want to make our own decisions?
Maybe someday, but probably not in a “we talk about it and work things out like rational adults” way that you hope, and probably not anytime soon.
How can I reach a more peaceful existence with my mother-in-law?
You can change how you interact with her and hope that she will adapt over time. Here are some processes that might work.
Schedule a weekly check-in with her. Your husband should set up a short weekly phone call (or Skype session or what have you) with his mom at the same time every week. He should be the one to initiate the call – “I’ll call you on Sunday at our usual time.” If he has to miss it for some reason, or will run late, he should let her know in advance with a text. “Won’t be around at the usual time, can we do it at X time instead?” You can hop on the calls (or not) for a few minutes at the end if you want.
Why this works:
- It re-focuses communication between mother and son, makes it less your problem.
- Routines are reassuring. Knowing they’ll talk at a set time each week might relieve some of his mom’s anxiety about how often they are in contact and will relieve his and your anxiety about how often you have to deal with her.
- It gives an opportunity to create positive regular communication patterns that might replace old patterns.
How to make it work:
- Your husband announce the plan as a positive way to keep in touch, not as a negative or strategic response to her behavior. “Mom, how would it be if we talked every Sunday afternoon around 4 pm? I’d love to be able to catch up with you more consistently.“
- If she balks, do it anyway. “I understand, we don’t always know our plans in advance, but I’ll try to call you then anyway. If you can’t talk, we’ll just try again next week or find a time that does work!“
- If she tends to call or text a lot every day or during the week, over time you can both redirect everything to that weekly call. Don’t leave communications from her hanging completely, but be perfunctory in your answers and save discussions for the weekly call. “Sorry I couldn’t pick up, I was driving. Let’s talk about it Sunday!” “This isn’t a good time, but I’ll catch up with you Sunday.” “Can’t talk now, but when (Husband) talks to you on Sunday have him give me the details!“
- Husband should schedule some kind of relaxing ritual or a treat for himself after the weekly call with mom, like, now it’s time to take the dog for a run or play a favorite video game or read. Something to look forward to and defuse tension.
- She will not like this in the short-term, but if you both redirect her (i.e. enforce the boundaries) consistently, she’ll very likely adjust to the routine over the long-term.
“Thanks for the advice!” Unwanted advice (like the constant stressing about your hair) is intrusive and annoying. One of the fastest ways to get past something like that is to say “Thanks! I’ll think about it!” and then change the subject to something else. You will think about it before styling your hair however you want and possibly cursing her under your breath, so it’s not a lie to say you will!
You’re a reasonable person, so your instinct is to say “Hey, I appreciate that the hair advice is kindly-meant, but it’s not really your business how I wear it and your constant references to it are stressing me out.” A reasonable person would hear that and think, wow, I probably did overstep the line. I’ll apologize and I’ll make more of an effort to stop doing that.
With your mother-in-law, asking her (reasonably) to step off probably won’t work, so the best strategy for you is the one of least resistance. If she’s expecting an argument (and therefore a chance to remind you of how she perceives her role in your life and a reason to feel aggrieved and righteous), saying “Thanks, I’ll think about it! How is your holiday baking coming?” stops her in her tracks.
This works for all kinds of opinions. See also:
- “You might be right about that.”
- “Interesting. We’ll think about it.”
- “You’ve given us a lot of food for thought.”
You want to make it very boring for her to heap advice or opinions on you, in other words.
Return or donate unwanted gifts. Your husband should ask her once not to buy you stuff you don’t want (like cleaning supplies), and then let it drop. If she keeps doing it, donate the stuff or return it to the store without guilt or comment. If she notices and/or asks you where it is, be honest. “We didn’t have space to store it/We can’t use that kind/We already have our favorite version of ____, so we gave it to someone who could put it to use. Thanks again!” If she tries a guilt trip, remind her that you asked her not to buy you things without checking first and you hate to see things go to waste. If having it given away bugs her enough, she’ll stop doing it eventually.
Engage her positively with three “safe” topics. I suggest:
- One TV show or author or other pop culture thing you both like.
- One hobby or interest (doesn’t have to be a shared one) that she likes talking about- “How’s the garden planning going? Got your seed catalogs yet?“
- A topic where she is the acknowledged expert. Family history can be a great one for this.”What was (Husband’s) favorite food as a kid? What was it like when you first started working? How did you meet Husband’s dad? Are there any pictures of you going to parties when you were young? What were the hairstyles like? Did you have a favorite dress? Did you wear ridiculous platform shoes back in the 1970s? What was it like the first time you voted?“
(P.S. If you’ve never understood why people follow sports and talk about them all the time, try thinking of them as a fairly low-stakes, localized conversation topic that’s always changing a little tiny bit depending on the scores this week.)
She’s probably gonna clean your house when she visits for the rest of time. It is the way of parents. So, channel her energies with projects that you’d like done but don’t really want to do yourself, like, going through the spice rack looking for expired spices or installing shelves in the hall closet or sorting your sock drawers by occasion and color. Last time my folks visited I ended up with curtains hung in every room and lots of advice about bookshelf placement. My dad grumbled the entire time he hung the curtain rods but if we hadn’t found something for him to do he’d have found something for himself to do. Thank her profusely for working on channeled/requested projects – “We really appreciate your help with x project, Ma!” Try ignoring it or being pretty noncommittal when she goes off-schedule. “We didn’t need the sheets ironed, but suit yourself I guess.”
Ditto for gifts like suits, probably. If it makes her feel good to give your husband stuff like a new suit, sometimes accepting the other person’s gift IS the gift. I’m not saying it’s fair, or right, just, choose your battles.
Keep your visits short. You’ve got about a day of tolerance before you collapse? Then I guess your visits last about a day, with a scheduled recovery day! Make sure some of that day is budgeted for engaging with her attentively and think about arranging some of that time to go to the movies or seeing a concert or theater – special, fun, togetherness outings that give you both a reprieve from talking and a safe topic of conversation afterward! Also, take turns hanging out with her so you both get some time to yourselves. Naps are great, as are baths, as are solo drives to pick up milk even if you don’t need more milk.
Press the re-set button often. You’re not going to change the dynamic in a single conversation or even in a single year. If you do this right, you will basically train her that:
- She’ll get your husband’s & your focused attention at set, predictable intervals.
- If she tries calling every day or multiple times a day or turning everything into a conflict, she’ll get less attention from y’all.
- There’s really no point in giving you unwanted stuff – you won’t fight with her about it anymore, you’ll just give it away, every single time.
- She can state opinions and give unwanted advice if she wants to, but your answers to all that will be very boring. “Thanks!”
- If she engages positively with you, you’ll do your best to give her your full attention and talk to her about things she’s interested in and make her feel welcome.
- You value her assistance and advice in certain areas and you value the family history that she knows and the way you raised the person you love.
- If an interaction goes south or a visit goes badly, you’ll try to reset and start fresh with the next one. Let go of grudges or expectations and try again.
Give her (and yourselves) time to implement this.