June 16, 2011 at 2:06 pm , by Jennifer Castoro
It’s true that the mother-in-law, or, as she’s often known these days, MIL, gets a bad rap. (Monster In Law, anyone?) Even the way she’s referred to, with the “in law” bit, implies a certain coldness and distance that’s not always the case. But for Kathy, a mom of two young girls who’s been married to John for five years and hated his mother for all of them, her MIL may as well be from H-E-L-L.
Kathy’s turn Her MIL is an intrusive, bullying troublemaker, and her husband won’t stand up to the woman. Barbara blames Kathy when John doesn’t return her calls, whines that her son loves his wife more than her, shows up at their home unannounced and refuses to come over without her dog, who bites. John tries to ignore her, leaving Kathy to run interference, and criticizes her behind her back but won’t say so to her face. He stifles all his anger then explodes when Kathy complains, punching walls and throwing things. Kathy’s been a people-pleaser since childhood, so she tries to smooth things over, but the stress ends up making her anxious and gives her headaches and insomnia. She won’t stay married to a man who won’t stand up for her.
John’s turn He knows his mother is a total nightmare. She throws fits if she’s made to wait at a restaurant, only gives presents with strings attached and lashes out in anger constantly. She got pregnant young and left John to be raised by his grandparents, so he’s never had a relationship with her and doesn’t want one now, and his solution is to avoid her as much as possible. Their phone conversations are the same every time: She complains about their relationship, invites herself over and freaks out when he says no. But he’s a people pleaser, too, and he feels obligated to stay in contact. And he hates losing his temper but his mom makes him so angry he can’t help himself. He’s desperate to gain control over his mom and his marriage.
The counselor’s turn In-law problems are very common, but this case is extreme. Barbara is narcissistic, needy and irrational, and it’s not surprising that her son doesn’t know how to deal with her. There are two choices: sever ties with Barbara completely or set iron-clad limits and stick to them. Separately, Kathy had to deal with her anxiety, which stemmed from her childhood and grew worse with her MIL, and she needed to stop trying to “fix” the mother-son relationship. First, John agreed to call his mom at scheduled times, and she began to ease up on the phone calls once she knew she’d hear from him. If Barbara started to get upset, John refused to engage her and politely got off the phone, and when she didn’t get the reaction she wanted, she stopped flipping out. John also learned to express himself to Kathy, and letting his feelings out helped him manage his temper. With the added structure, the mother-son relationship has improved, though they’ll never be best friends, and Kathy no longer feels responsible for making everyone happy. The couple is a united front, and Barbara is less of an enemy.