When you have difficult relationships with your in-laws, it’s not up to you to sort it out.
In general, it’s better if the blood relative intervenes on your behalf.
But what do you do if your husband won’t stand up to his mom (or dad)? Or what happens if you have a sister-in-law who is always making cutting remarks, and your husband doesn’t see it?
Christmas is a time when relationships with extended family, and all the drama that can come with that, take center stage.
Last Thursday, on my podcast about toxic family, I was sharing some words of wisdom from Gary Thomas, whose most recent book, When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People, is so helpful for those of us trying to navigate these difficult relationships. One of the examples I shared from Gary was of a husband who told his parents that they couldn’t join them for Christmas this year, because he needed to protect his wife and his marriage. Gary talked about how that can be just the right thing to do if parents are being toxic to their children’s spouses.
But what if your husband won’t intervene with his mother on your behalf? What if he doesn’t see the problem–or, if he does see it, he’s unwilling to deal with it?
This is what so many women talk to me about–a mother-in-law who interferes, or who is very cutting, and a husband who doesn’t do anything about it. Sometimes husbands just don’t see it, because the mother-in-law treats the son like an angel, but then says absolutely terrible things to the daughter-in-law whenever she’s alone. The husband misses all the bad stuff, and can think that the wife is exaggerating. Alternatively, the husband just doesn’t see it because he emotionally can’t–he’s being treated horribly, too, but he can’t deal with admitting this to himself.
I wrote a long post a while ago which is quite comprehensive about this: What to do about a mother-in-law who interferes. I recommend you read that one! But I want to mention a few things today.
In as much as it depends on you, try to love your mother-in-law.
Your mother-in-law does not have to be as wonderful to you as your mom (if you have a great mom). It’s okay if your relationship with her is more based on the fact that you’re related, and that’s about it. You don’t need to be best friends. She doesn’t need to be your confidante. But she is your children’s grandmother (if you have kids), and she is your husband’s mother. She’s going to be in your life for a long time. Rather than getting into a power struggle, it can be so beneficial to just try to pursue a relationship with no expectations.
As James wrote, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,” (James 1:19). And Paul said something similar: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18). It is possible to just not get angry at people if we remain emotionally aloof, and look at their interests rather than your own. That does not mean that we should tolerate abusive behaviour (and I’ll say more about removing yourself from abusive situations), but sometimes we do get worked up when it isn’t always necessary. This is your husband’s mom, even if she’s not a nice person. Whatever you can do to be generous to her will be appreciated by him.
Then, if you stop expecting you and she should have a close relationship, then when she says something ridiculous you can see it more in that way–as ridiculous–rather than as hurtful (I’m not saying she’s not being hurtful; I’m just saying that if you distance yourself emotionally, you can be more like a casual observer of the situation than a participant, and you can react accordingly.
So if she says to you something like:
“I can’t believe how fat you’re getting. You should take better care of yourself. You look horrible.”
You could try:
“Thanks for the feedback. I love how your turkey turned out! It’s so lovely and brown.”
That should leave her cold, because she was trying to get a rise out of you. If you just acknowledge it, and then change the topic by giving her a compliment, that would likely throw her off.
Or you could be more direct,
“That’s a very rude thing you’ve said. I sure hope you don’t speak like that to others, because they may not take it as well as me.”
And then leave the room. Don’t get emotionally invested; just leave the room.
If you don’t think you can do either of those two things, then remain glued to your husband all night so that she doesn’t have an opportunity to say anything biting. But when you resist the urge to get offended, sometimes you bring a peace to the relationship all on your own. If you do find yourself with your mother-in-law, ask her questions about something you know she loves to talk about. Compliment her. Show genuine concern about some things. She may find that she enjoys talking to you!
Repeat what she has said
Another tactic that works well for bullies is to repeat what they have said. So if your mother-in-law makes a comment about Joe, her nephew who is unemployed, and then launches into a diatribe about welfare recipients and how they’re all deadbeats and taking everyone’s money, you can pipe up and say,
“Mom, are you saying that Joe is a deadbeat who is taking everyone’s money?”
Usually, at this point, people retreat a little bit. I’ve seen my son-in-law David use this tactic in many conversations, and my mom uses it all the time, and it does tend to floor people!
After giving a lot of guidelines in my previous post about interfering mother-in-laws, I ended with this:
What if Your Husband Never Chooses to Leave and Cleave?
What if you’ve done all of this and your husband is still at her beck and call?
Can you move away? I’ve known several marriages that have broken up that I’ve always felt would have survived if they had just moved away from her parents (in those cases it was SHE who wasn’t leaving, not HE).
If that’s not possible, you have two choices:
- Grow bitter about it and make his life miserable
- Decide to let it go and love your husband
I know that everyone would be better off if your husband learned to leave and cleave. But you can’t make him. You can seek out a mentor couple; you can ask for all of you to sit down with a counselor; you can even go to your pastor. But if things don’t change, what are you going to do?
I wrote a post a while ago about changing our attitudes when there’s one big area where your husband disappoints you–and you have to learn to accept it, and find ways to make your own life happy and peaceful anyway.
If you know that your husband is going to talk to his mom every night at 7 for an hour, then can you find something you do at 7 that you enjoy, so you’re not disappointed and stewing every evening? If you know that your mother-in-law is going to want your husband to help her with errands this Saturday, can you plan something fun for you and the kids so that you don’t end up making him feel guilty?
And if your mother-in-law wants you all to come do something with her, it’s quite okay on occasion to say, “I really need a weekend just with the kids. I’d love for you to join us, but if you feel you must go with your mother, feel free. But I think I’ll keep the kids here with me this weekend.” You don’t need to go along with everything; you can set boundaries yourself.
I think that’s a good perspective, so that’s my final point:
Remove yourself from difficult situations
If the conversation gets too difficult, it’s okay to leave the room. In fact, bring a book so that you can go somewhere else and just read, or bring some toys and then you can retreat into a room with the children until it’s time to go home. Make it clear to your husband beforehand that if his mother (or father, or whomever) crosses a line with you, you will have to remove yourself from that situation.
Sometimes a situation is so toxic that you just feel as if you can’t emotionally handle seeing her at all. And in that case, you can say to your husband:
You are welcome to do whatever you would like for Christmas, but I know that I can’t handle seeing your mother right now, so I will stay home. I would like it if you stayed home with me, but if you feel as if you can’t, then you can go alone this year.
You can’t draw boundaries for your husband, but you can draw them for yourself, if necessary. Again, though, I’d see this as a last resort, and only when the other things don’t work, or when you’re just too emotionally tired to deal with the games right now.
If you do need to take this step, and if he’s upset at you enough and he goes anyway, I would suggest seeing a licensed marriage counselor to talk through some of these issues, because they do matter.
Some other Christmas family posts that may help:
Have you ever been in this situation with your husband? How did you handle it? Let’s talk in the comments!