My husband is southern-European and our parents live abroad. Shortly after our eldest was born, my mother-in-law attacked me verbally about how I was raising my daughter. Some months later, when we had invited both our families for Christmas, she launched a new attack on me, claiming I did not treat her son well. He was tired and overworked and had to do too much house work. This happened over Christmas dinner and it left my family stunned. (We both have full-time jobs.)
For a while, my husband cooled off contact with her. He agrees his mother was out of line, but insists she does not mean badly.
All this happened six years ago and, since then, the relationship I have with my mother-in-law has been tense. She never truly apologised for her actions. We still invite her to our house two/three times a year but I have not made further efforts to get along with her. I want to give my children the opportunity to meet their grandmother and this side of their cultural background, but I cannot accept her any more.
With my father-in-law (my in-laws are divorced), the situation is different. While we get along fine, there are some (partly cultural) differences that make my relationship with him tense as well. He is very traditional: when he visits he expects life to revolve round him. He decides when and what we eat and is offended when I don’t accept his plans with enthusiasm. My husband stays quiet at such moments.
In recent years, I feel my in-laws’ visits have changed in character. While they still clearly like to see their grandchildren, most of their time is spent interacting with their son. They both adore him and it feels as if they are trying to make up for the time lost when he grew up (it was in difficult circumstances and minimised contact with them for a while).
I can have perfect conversations with my husband about this situation when they are not here. However, the moment they set foot in our house it is as if he is five years old again. As a consequence, every time my in-laws visit, they in effect rule our house.
My mother-in-law has started to manipulate the situation between me and my husband. On her most recent visit, she was doing things she knew would annoy me. She shows very little interest in our kids but insists on hugging and kissing my husband frequently. I can survive these visits, but I cannot forgive my husband for not standing up to them when required. When they are here, he is focused on pleasing them. I think this situation will escalate and I do not know how to change it. I am very conflict-avoiding (and so is my husband) but I feel that they walk right over me. This year it is our turn to host Christmas dinner again and I truly cannot see a way of continuing in the same manner.
I can see this is a potentially explosive and frustrating situation. One thing is certain – you and your husband must act united. Any hint of division and it sounds like your mother-in-law will exploit this, as you’ve seen. It’s clear there is a lot of guilt at play – your husband for reducing contact with them some years ago, your in-laws for your husband’s “difficult upbringing”. Guilt makes people over-compensate.
I consulted family psychotherapist Tony Manning (aft.org.uk). He feels you should “set reasonable boundaries agreed by both of you. This implies discussion between you about what constitutes ‘reasonable boundaries’ and how much flexibility there should be.”
In a calm moment, try to talk to your husband. I hear what you say: that he changes when his parents get there, but, ask him what happens, what changes for him when they are there and think of some ideas that you can both put into place (maybe some code words for “I need you to back me up here”). Don’t expect miraculous changes overnight but try really hard not to let your in-laws turn you against each other.
Manning thinks there may have been “unpleasant consequences in the past for standing up to a parent, and this will lead to a discontinuity when as an adult there is a rational agreement to act in one way but the old script pushes actual behaviour in the opposite direction.”
In compromising, remember you will both have to modify your behaviour. Given that you cannot change your MiL (repeat this to yourself several times), all you can work on are your reactions and behaviour. You can never stop her from commenting about how you do things, but you can bat certain things back at her if/when she next speaks to you: “How did you feed X [her children]?” “Did X [her ex, your father-in-law] help much in the house? How did you deal with that?”
All this bitterness directed at you is about her, not you. Repeat this to yourself many, many times.
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 6 November 2015.