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.”