Difficult Mother-in-Law

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

I’ve been happily married for 22 years. For 15 of those years, I thought I had a good relationship with both my in-laws. FIL called me “number 1” and loved me, but he passed away 3 years ago. I bent over backwards for both of them. Things changed about 7 years ago when I suddenly found out my MIL “can’t stand” me. I don’t take it personally because she is rude and offensive to everyone, however I did stop making all the effort in the relationship. But since then our relationship and her behavior keeps getting worse. My MIL prefers to be able to be mean and yell then state she doesn’t want to talk about it and storms off. Then later on she will pretend that nothing happened and pretend to be cheery (she has taken medication for depression for decades so pretend is the right word). If I try to bring up our problems to sit down with her and calmly talk through them, she blows me off and says “why are you so difficult?”.

In the past, I apologized for whatever to smooth things over but she doesn’t apologize. My husband has advised me over the years to ignore what she does and says and just move on and also pretend nothing is wrong. I’ve always thought this was the wrong approach, but it was his family so I went along with it. He sticks up for me and told her she crossed the line, but she ignores him. I even tried to call her twice after the last incident to apologize for upsetting her, but she never returned my calls or has spoken to me since.

So, am I off the hook to apologize to her for upsetting her? Do I have any responsibility to speak to her other than “hello and good-by” and answer her questions? Also, do I have to have to cook dinner for her if she comes to my house? If the family goes out to dinner do I have to go? Do I have the right to ask my husband not to invite her for the holidays? I hate that my husband and my teen kids are in the middle of this drama. I hope you can provide some advice because I’m losing sleep over this.

A: Please listen to your husband. He’s giving you good advice. Even better, he has stood up for you and given you ongoing support. Like his father before him, he’s acting as a buffer between you and his impossible mother.

This difficult woman isn’t about to change, no matter what you say or do. She has been this way forever. She sees no reason to put in the effort to be more agreeable. She doesn’t care about the relationship as much as you do. Let it go.

The best thing to do in such a situation is to take the high road and do what makes you feel best about yourself. That probably means occasionally going along when there’s a family event, cooking dinner for her now and then, and including her in holidays. Just because someone is mean doesn’t mean that it’s okay to answer in kind. Instead, you can come up with a few stock phrases when she is critical or offensive. “I’ll think about it.” “Thank you for the input.” “I know what you mean.” Such statements don’t commit you to anything but keep the social wheels moving.

Explain to the kids that you put up with her because she is old and she is family. Let them know they should be polite, as you are, but that they don’t have to take her rudeness personally or seriously. She’s a sad, sad person. When she leaves, you can all breathe a sigh of relief and be happy that you don’t see the world as she does.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 11 Jun 2013

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2013). Difficult Mother-in-Law. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2013/06/11/difficult-mother-in-law/

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