My mother-in-law is a difficult person

She puts me down, she pops in, she meddles, she scorns, she does the backhanded compliment … need some help here!

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAR 19, 2007


Dear Cary,

I am not one for hate or grudges. I dislike how they make me feel. Despite my flaws, I have always had a great capacity for empathy. This is perhaps why it is so distressing to me that I have finally found someone I have nothing but hatred for, and it is someone that I cannot be without unless I extricate myself from my living arrangement.

I hate my mother-in-law. I know. I am a cliché. I know these relationships are often fraught and loaded and laced with all the bittersweetness of letting go of your son. I know how hard it must be for her that we live on a different coast. I know that I am an imperfect match for him in that I am not traditional. I work freelance and travel frequently as part of my job. I am not an excellent cook. I hardly ever notice a dusty window sill. I laugh loudly and often. I hate shopping.

She is quite traditional. She likely dreams of a perfect match for her son that stays home every day cooking divine organic meals, cleaning the house from top to bottom, shopping for clothes for her son and getting the best possible deals.

I love her son unconditionally. It’s interesting that I have been referring to him as “her son.” In a way, that may be why I hate her. Nothing about my life with my husband seems truly to be mine or even ours. She wants to live every moment of it for us.

She shows up on a whim and stays for weeks at a time, no matter what else we may have planned. She stays with us and makes passive-aggressive, critical comments about every morsel I eat, how I clean, how the furniture is configured, what I need to buy, how often I am away, how I exercise, how I should exercise more, or less. She does everything she can to make me feel powerless and like a failure in my home. She is brash and opinionated with a veneer of “Oh, bless your heart! I love how laid-back you are that the floors are so dusty! That would drive me insane, but you just go on about your life as though nothing is wrong!” “I can’t imagine ever eating anything so rich! You are so blessed to have such a strong stomach and to care so little about your figure!” Every time I try to establish some boundaries about her involvement, she breaks through them.  Every time I try to simply appease her by, say, taking her advice, she is dissatisfied with the result. Every time she gives me those “compliments,” I choke out a “thank you” all the while feeling that there is simply no appropriate response.

She does whatever she can to register her disapproval of everything I am, and I am so, so resentful of her no matter how I try to tell myself that I should view putting up with her as an act of love for my husband. I am having a harder and harder time being civil to her when she makes disrespectful comments. My husband is a fiercely loyal son and bristles at any mention that she may be treating me inappropriately. I feel trapped. I cannot escape her. I am terrified that this anger, this hatred will cost me someone I love when I inevitably say something rude as a retort to one of her jabs. I know that is coming and I dread it. I know that in that case I will be very much in the wrong and will likely confirm what she has expected all along.

Please, you are such a lovely writer. I would love your insight.

How can I stop hating my mother-in-law?

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Dear Mother-in-Law Hater,

Wow.

You are dealing with someone who has a rare black belt in the art of putdown-fu. She is a trained master of tai-shit-on-you.

She’s a badass. That comment about you not caring about your figure is deep black magic.

This is a woman who, when she meditates, the Buddha looks nervous.

It’s not that you are holding a grudge, or that she’s your mother-in-law. It’s that she’s a difficult person.

You need counter-moves.

The good news: There’s help. The bad news: There’s help.

I mean, if there’s that much help, there must be that many difficult people.

Scary.

I wish I could say I’m an expert but I’m not. My one counter-move involves taking a deep breath, counting to three and running out the door.

But you can’t run. You have to stand and take it.

So get some help.

Google “difficult people” and see what I mean.

Here are some of the less-annoying and almost-helpful sites:

Think Simple Now has a few good ideas.

So does www.dealingwithdifficultpeople.com.

There is a ton of other advice out there on how to deal with this and much of it is useful and good … if you can put it into practice.

That’s the key. If you have a friend who is great at handling difficult people, spend some time with her. Do you know anyone like that? Think hard. Difficult people thrive in certain businesses and lifestyles. Fashion, the arts and entertainment businesses, as well as fast-paced, high-risk businesses such as high finance  … wherever difficult people thrive, you will find also the people who are good at handling difficult people.

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So seeking informal help among your set of friends is one good solution. Talking it out and learning from people who deal with this a lot may help.

Here is another thought. It’s hard to put into words. But I have seen people do it. To me, it seems like they have hit on a tone, a magical tone that they use on the difficult person. Or a way of positioning themselves psychologically. Perhaps it is partly physical posture, too. I know this is vague. It’s like … a center of strength. Find yours.

And the other thing, which I know I suggest a lot — because it’s so often needed! — is to find a therapist with whom you can work on ways, strategies to cope with her. There are so many problem-solving techniques, ways to limit your contact with her, setting boundaries, stuff like that, but they are hard to implement without somebody to talk them over with. If a therapist is not available, then use this friend of yours you’ve identified as your local difficult-person expert.

You just need some help dealing with a difficult person, and the Secret Service is unfortunately not in your employ.

Wow, wouldn’t that be something — sleek guys in suits with earpieces.

But no. No such luck.

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