Unable to Forgive Mother-in-Law

By Daniel J. Tomasulo, PhD, TEP, MFA, MAPP


Hello! I’m 24 and I’ve been with my husband (partner, really; no wedding yet, although it’s in the works) for over 4 years. Up until earlier this year, I had a pretty okay relationship with his mother.

At the very beginning of the year, I completed my law school applications, a very tedious process! I called her to let her know I’d completed them, as I was very excited. I’m estranged from my own parents, as she is aware, and I told her on the phone that she was the closest thing to a mom, so I wanted her to be the first to know.

Then we went on vacation with her. (That in itself was a bad idea; she paid for it but it was clear she was only doing it so she would get praise about how wonderful she was.) Two weeks later, she came over to our house while I was at work and had lunch with DH. He didn’t tell me why she came until things hit the fan a few weeks later– she came over to tell him to convince me to not go to law school.

He ignored her, because he supports me and knows it’s been my dream since junior high. I very specifically remember talking to her about it the first time I met her; it’s not new to her, and even if it was, it’s not her place to make my plans for me. I worked at a small law firm and am well aware that not all attorneys drive fancy cars and live in mansions.

Well, when her first attempt didn’t receive a response, she tried again. First she sent DH an article on the economics of law school. He glanced at it, we both shrugged it off. Then, she had her brother in law, a VERY successful attorney, send DH a two-page email which, summed up, said that I shouldn’t go to law school because there’s no money in it and that if I knew what attorneys did I wouldn’t want to go anyway (I’d been a legal assistant for 2 years at that point), and that if I did decide to do it, that he and I should split up because he’d never be able to find a job near me (he’s a nurse).

He called his mother and yelled at her, reminding her that she is the only parent-figure I have and that it’s not her place to crush my dreams.

I received a feeble “sorry” email a few days later, complete with the words “you should just get over it,” to which I responded that I was incredibly hurt by the fact that she’d gone behind my back and I couldn’t ‘just get over it,’ and asked that she never go behind my back like that again. Her response to that was that I needed to stop putting DH in the middle. I’m sure I don’t have to point out the irony of that statement. A few months later, she went behind my back to ask DH about the status of my applications. When I did get in, she went behind my back and told DH what to tell me in terms of me commuting between my school and his work (5 hours), even though having him commute made more sense.

It’s been about 10 months since this all happened; I’m unable to trust her. I feel like every other week she does something else that makes me want to keep my distance, and it’s not new. When he and I first began dating she would routinely call at 10 PM to talk to him about pointless things (dish sponges, among others). Then she would invite us over “just for dinner,” but would have prepared a long list of home improvement projects, keeping us for hours beyond dinner so he could do things she was capable of doing herself. For family holiday dinners, she demands we bring food that does not follow our eating ethics (DH told her no). She calls when she knows he’s sleeping, plays dumb, then says “well since you’re awake…” Now she wants him to use his vacation time so she can fly to see him (her profession allows her a very, very flexible schedule; she could just as easily visit when he already has a break).

What do I do? I don’t trust her. My parents were emotionally and verbally abusive, and I don’t trust authority figures easily. I already feel it was a huge mistake to let her know so much of my life. To further complicate the situation, she has a younger sister, whom she tells everything. I don’t like knowing that everything I say to her is discussed with her sister and 5 closest friends, or I might have tried talking to her again. I certainly do not do the same (which is why I’m on an anonymous therapist website!).

Am I irrational for not being able to “just get over it”? What do I do? I am always tried to be civil at minimum, but usually go out of my way to be kind. I’m tired of getting stabbed in the back and walked all over.

I’m sorry for the long explanation, but everything seems so interconnected. THANK YOU for any help you may be able to give! Happy holidays!

A: This isn’t something to just get over. In fact this is something to be very proactive about – with both your mother-in-law (to be) and with your partner. That relationship will be where the intimacy and connectivity can grow. Stay connected with him about your feelings, be sure to acknowledge his support, and be much more discerning about what and how much you share with your mother-in-law.

From your description your mother-in-law doesn’t sound like she knows or cares that she has this impact on you. You will need several tools to unhook from her. The main feature is to not let her activate your defensiveness. In other words, the work here is to ‘detach with love’ as the Al-Anon programs might say, and don’t take any of her bait.

There are three strategies that tend to work in these situations, and they come in varying degrees of leverage. All three have one thing in common, and that is to leave the discomfort with her rather than with you. This is not antagonistic, but rather leaving the problem at its origin, with her. You and your partner have already begun doing this by not responding to her manipulations.

In his classic book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig referred to the fact that the Japanese have a notice at the beginning of their instructions on how to assemble the newly purchased object. The notice says (I am paraphrasing): “To begin, the assembler must be in the right frame of mind.” This is where you begin with your encounter with her. Begin in the right frame of mind, which is: This is her issue — don’t let it become yours.

When she says an unkind comment or criticism offer back a simple descriptive statement of what she said: “It sounds like you’re unhappy with the fact I want to go to law school.” Or, “You seem disappointed in our decisions.” In other words, let her criticisms and persecutions be hers, don’t take the bait and feel the need to defend yourself. A descriptive statement allows you to stay present but not overwhelmed by her manipulation.

The second coping method is to respond with a statement that directly identifies the fact that the issue is hers. “It must be hard for you to feel so disappointed so often,” or “It seems like you are unhappy with me.”

The third encounter has a uniqueness to it because it is two-fold. It uses a question as a way of undoing the hurtfulness behind her condescending or persecuting manner. It works something like this: After she has said something hurtful, you ask a question: “When you say things like that, do you ever wonder what it might be like for me to hear?”

The second part of this depends on you, and what you feel is appropriate. The stance is the same. DO NOT TAKE THE BAIT. After she answers the question you may use the other strategies to stay engaged with her while not being defensive. Typically someone like your mother-in-law is skilled in not taking responsibility for his or her passive-aggressive hurtfulness, so a direct confrontation is usually unproductive. But offering some feedback, with very little or no expectations, in this second part might be helpful. After her response to the first part, something like: “…because when you say things like that it makes it hard for me to be around you.” Don’t feel the need to explain or defend yourself. Doing so will get you nowhere but more frustrated. Just say what you feel is factual, then back to the other strategies without trying to defend or criticize. Your job here is to protect yourself from feeling overwhelmed. With some practice your mother-in-law will learn that she isn’t upsetting you and your partner, but that her manipulations land back on her doorstep.

Good luck with this –and with law school. It will take you a while to get good at responding but in the words of the great Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Wishing you patience and peace,
Dr. Dan
Proof Positive Blog @ PsychCentral

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 22 Dec 2011

APA Reference
Tomasulo, D. (2011). Unable to Forgive Mother-in-Law. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2011/12/22/unable-to-forgive-mother-in-law/