Mother-in-law blues

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 6, 2004

She’s not a bad person, but I resent how she imposes herself on our lives.


Dear Cary,

I’ve noticed that often your advice doesn’t come in the form of a specific answer to a specific problem. The advice you give tends to come in the form of a philosophy that transforms the problem into something acceptable and less overwhelming than it was before. I need a new way to see my mother-in-law before I am consumed with exhaustion and resentment.

My mother-in-law is not a bad person. She has a good heart buried under insecurities and self-centered behavior from a dysfunctional childhood with an alcoholic mother and a father who never thought she was good enough. She has spent years in therapy and reading self-help books to become a more secure person, and in many ways she has succeeded. She raised a son whom I love very much, and she has a circle of friends she is devoted to.

While I can recognize that she is a good person, and acknowledge that she has had to overcome a great deal in her life, I resent how her struggle has imposed itself on me. She needs to control everything to feel safe. She is constantly trying to control me and my husband. She intrudes into our personal business, she makes frequent and unreasonable demands on our time, she sabotages our plans so that my husband will be available to her when he is supposed to be elsewhere, and she has questioned every decision she has ever seen us make.

Over the years, I’ve learned to deal with her to a degree. I’ve learned how to protect my privacy around her, how to avoid some of her more relentless manipulation and why she is acting the way she does. I have sympathy for what it must be like to be her. Most important, I’ve learned that I’m not going to be able to change her behavior, and I can only adjust how I react to it.

But now I resent her. I resent the amount of energy it takes to be around her. I resent that she comes into my home and that I have to be nice to her because she is my husband’s mother and my daughter’s grandmother. I resent always having to be the bigger person when we have a conflict because she can’t deal with not getting her way.

I have a hard time looking at her when she visits us. I feel resentful when she calls on the phone, when she comes up in conversation and every time I think about her. When she is around, I feel myself becoming withdrawn, sullen and angry. I can feel this resentment choked down in my chest like a hard knot or poison. I don’t think it is good for me. I think it makes me less of a person.

How do I get past this? I feel like I use enough energy dealing with her that I don’t have enough left over to keep this resentment festering inside of me, but on the other hand, I don’t seem to be able to make myself not resent her. How can I have her be part of my life and find some peace?

Resentful

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Dear Resentful,

As I read your letter I thought to myself, what a marvelous person you are! You seem to have such insight into your mother-in-law, such understanding. And then I realized that was the problem: You’re way too marvelous. You need to be way less marvelous. As long as you keep on being marvelous, your mother-in-law is going to keep walking all over you and you’re going to keep resenting it.

Paradoxically, as she walks all over you, you stand above her, judging her as she mistreats you. She walks all over you from underneath, as it were. It’s a peculiar geometric arrangement; it’s a metaphor for a relationship that has turned topsy-turvy.

This is a long answer. It’s taken me a couple of days to think this through and realize that understanding and sympathy, without active love flowing through them, can harden like dead skin and become a brittle shell. Knowledge about a person can come to substitute for knowledge of a person.

So in answer to your request for a new way of seeing your mother-in-law, I am going to suggest that you stop understanding her.

How does one stop understanding a person whom one understands so well? It may require pretending at first. Pretend that you have never seen her before. Next time you see her, take a deep breath, stand back and say as little as possible. Just try to see her clearly. See what she does and how she does it, how she exits a car, how she enters a room, how she puts down her purse, what she is wearing, what kind of skin she has, the texture of her hair, the color and condition of her shoes. Watch what she actually does and says. Try to remember the exact words she uses, and the tone.

The purpose of this is to try to superimpose your sense impressions over your knowledge, to edge out what you believe you know about her, in order to begin knowing her anew. And part of it is to give you something else to do other than fighting for control. It may have a calming effect; as you work to observe and be there in the moment, and as you fight off your habitual responses, refusing to say the regular things you say, the things you have learned to say over the years to avoid confrontation, you may find that you are not quite as upset. You will be getting some distance. The object is to try to neither control her nor be controlled by her.

So when you speak with her, be noncommittal; neither agree nor disagree with the assertions she makes. Say that you are not sure, that you will have to think about it. Do not argue with her, but do not agree, either. If she invites you somewhere, say you’re not sure, you will have to check your calendar. What you are doing here is wedging in some resistance, carving out a little space for yourself, for some autonomy. As you do this, take notice of what you feel, and how she reacts. Does she seem to grow angry if you do not agree with her? Does she grow argumentative? And do you feel fearful and awkward? That’s fine if you do; you’re in new territory. Just take careful note of what you’re feeling, and what she says and does.

The reason I suggest that you stop understanding her is not because it’s bad to understand why people do what they do. It’s because I think the view that we do what we do because of things that happened long ago has, at times, allowed us to remove ourselves from our more basic emotions and instincts about how others are treating us; if we can say I understand, I sympathize, we feel that we are acting in a correct way toward someone whom in actuality we may simply dislike, or whose behavior we disapprove of. The reason for understanding the roots of our behavior is not to relieve individuals of responsibility, but to give them the tools to change. It’s so we can see the irrationality and inappropriateness of our actions more clearly, and let go of them more easily.

So though you have been very kind, you haven’t been doing her any favors by being understanding and sympathetic. In fact, since she has been in therapy, she probably knows what she is doing but needs some help in changing it, in noticing the exact moments when it’s occurring. So I suggest that you do that. I don’t mean attack her. I just mean: Take note of specific things she does that you do not approve of. These should be things that directly affect you, not your husband or anyone else. These should be things she does to you directly that you want her to stop doing.

Then it’s time for a long drive and a chat, like they do on “The Sopranos.” But take note: If this scene ends with her bullet-riddled body in the trunk of your car, you misunderstood my advice. Just take a long, relaxing drive, just you and her, out in the country somewhere. Driving makes it easier to talk sometimes. Pull over somewhere and have a picnic, or park where there are things to look at. Tell her first of all that you love her but that you haven’t been satisfied with the relationship you’ve had up till now and you want to put it on a new footing.

Now, if you’ve done your homework, if you’ve identified exactly the things you’re feeling when she comes over to your house, you can tell her these things: that you’re feeling out of control when she walks in the door, that last time she came over you felt your schedule was disrupted, that you’ve wanted to say no or place limits on when you are available but haven’t done it for fear that she would be offended, that you’ve made certain decisions that were then overruled and you felt overlooked or ignored or stepped on, that you’ve been angry with her at times but haven’t expressed it and now you feel it’s been all stored up inside and it’s eating away at you. Keep the focus on your feelings and not her behavior. Because what you want is an agreement that it’s OK for you to tell her how you’re feeling. You don’t want to start accusing her of things right away. You just want to tell her how you feel about them.

Be very careful to tell her only things that are true and concrete, not vague and generalized.

Since she’s been in therapy, she’s probably acquainted with the basic outline of her personality, and the things you tell her may ring true. She probably knows she has a pattern of stepping over boundaries until somebody stops her. She may feel relieved. You may find that she’s been waiting for this moment, that she’s known things are uncomfortable but didn’t know how to broach the subject with you. So she will probably be able to talk about these things. And if the going is rough, if you think it would be helpful, it probably wouldn’t be hard to arrange a session with her therapist as intermediary.

But first, give it a try on your own.

And if after a year things haven’t changed, do what a friend of mine suggests: move.

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