“Maureen, I don’t understand how you can handle your sick-o mother in law! Mine is perhaps the twin sister of Jessica Lange in Hush!” (Jessica Lange is an actress who played Helen Baring in the movie “Hush”, a twisted mother whose love for son and herself transcended everything to the point of killing other people just to get her way.) My friend and I are movie critics and so we often refer real-life situations in the movies that we review.
“I don’t have to handle her or anything like that. She warmed up to me, but it wasn’t easy.” I told her with a smile while I washed our mugs and dishes.
“How did you do that? Tell me! I just can’t take it anymore. Maybe, I’ll just divorce Justin so that I don’t have to deal with her sagging face. I hate her so much!” She was so tense and stressed out when she said that. I could see the panic on her face and she was really anxious. Then I remember an expert Linda Walter, LCSW with her notion. “It’s all about perceived loyalties and threats to relationships.”
I faced my friend and held her hands. “You are not going to divorce your loving husband just because his mom is difficult. What you need to do is relax, take a deep breath and devise a plan to keep your mother in law breezy.” I continued with washing the dishes as she curled her forehead.
“What’s the secret, then?” She asked me.
Empathy must be relayed.
“You know that Jack is an only child, right?” I told her.
“Yeah.” She answered.
“There you go. Why are you still wondering why she’s like that? In her mind, you took her baby away from her, meaning – she feels left out, ignored, neglected and everything else. Also, your mother in law feels that she is not needed anymore and that she will be discarded. You have to empathize with her.” I said.
“How do I do that exactly?” She asked.
“When she gets all bossy, you just say – Thanks mom, I’m really happy that you’re teaching me these things. I know it is hard being away from Jack and I really appreciate how you’re coping with this – You know, these kind of words will soften them up.” I told her.
Address the behavior and not the character.
“Behavior and character are two different things. If you want to involve your husband and keep him on your side, then, you better talk about his mother’s behavior instead of criticizing her character. It won’t help if you do the latter, but I know how tempting it can be!” I said. As to what says, “when a husband or wife fails to get along with the in-laws, it’s predictive of marital unhappiness down the road.”
“For example – Jack, your mom is so domineering. Why is she always in our business? – This is going to spark fights between you and jack, as well as your mother in law. Rephrase that and say – Honey, I think your mother went behind our back and rearranged the schedule of the kids without our knowledge and now, I’m in a jam with their teachers and activities. Maybe, we can talk to her about how we want our own schedule with the kids done as laid out? Thank you sweetie – Now this, it will do wonders.” I relayed some more.
Never ever pick a fight with her.
“Don’t lift a finger and don’t be sassy or sarcastic. Learn how to control your feelings when around her and she will get the drift.” I said.
“Oh no, girl. This old hag, she doesn’t feel anything” My friend said.
“She will, trust me. This woman is the mother of the person your love – always remember that. If you’re passive while you do your thing, she will understand that you are the queen of the house and that is how you want things done. You can tell her in a very calm manner – Oh, mom. I’m sorry. This is how we celebrate our birthdays, with the kids. I do appreciate that you are helping out, though. Then end the conversation by leaving the room with a smile.” I said.
If she hurt you in any way, tell her about it respectfully and right away.
“Don’t leave the room without telling her what you want her to know because if you do, you will end up complaining to your mother, sisters, friends and everybody else. That’s not good. Talk to her politely. Be frank and say it as is, without the tone. My mother in law used to tell me about how overweight I was and one time she bought me a box of diet coffee and gave it to me as a gift in front of everyone. When we were alone, I told her – Mom, thanks for thinking about my health. I just wanted you to know that I don’t drink diet coffee or use Stevia.” I shared to my friend.
“Ok, I will try all that.” She said.
“If nothing helps, then, don’t talk to her until the dust has settled. Chat with a therapist so that you will have a brand new perception of your mom in law. Online therapy can help in times like this. Maybe you should check out some sites for that.” I gave her a pat on the back as we walked out of the kitchen.
Dr Terri Apter, a psychologist, is right when she explains, “mother-in-law and daughter-in-law conflict often emerges from an expectation that each is criticizing or undermining the other, but this mutual unease may have less to do with actual attitudes and far more to do with persistent female norms that few of us manage to shake off completely,”