Here to Help: “My mother-in-law is trying to turn my husband against me”

Ask the Daughterhood Frances

“Dear Frances,
I’m having trouble with my husband’s mother. She raised him and his sister on her own and has always been overly-dependent on him, as well as raising him to be very emotionally dependent on her.
My mother-in-law has always been against our marriage and has often tried to turn him against me, but since the birth of our second child, she has begun ringing him every day after he comes home from work, asking him if he is happy or why he is so tired or why his wife is not doing this or that for him.
My mother-in-law is constantly saying negative things about me, but my husband says nothing to defend me as, in his eyes, his mother can do no wrong. She is always asking him to do things for her and he does these without question.
At first I gritted my teeth and tried to ignore her, but lately my husband has begun snapping at me and echoing my mother-in-law’s criticism of me. He is over-worked and stressed out, with two young children, and I know he doesn’t mean it, but it seems like my mother-in-law is slowly poisoning him against me.

What can be done to help him see just how unhealthy his relationship with his mother is? And how do I break the vice-like hold that his mother has on him?”

-Anonymous, Wicklow

Frances replies: Thank you for your email, it certainly sounds like you are trying to deal with a lot. I am struck by your comment about how you “at first gritted your teeth”, which suggests to me that there may be things you need to say, or even acknowledge as true feelings. These things may well need to be said to, and acknowledged by yourself initially. From your letter, it appears that you feel your presence in your husband’s life, and that of his family, is not welcomed. We could muse over the family dynamics at play, some of which appear to be passive-aggressive in character, and the lack of boundaries which could also be a factor, but I am not sure that this musing would do you much good.

While you are not in control of someone else’s behaviour or response to a situation (as none of us really are), you can certainly take care of your own feelings and respond to your own needs. Always remember the importance of owning our feelings and, as I said above, it is important that you acknowledge those real feelings to yourself, especially if you have no one to confide in. One way of doing this would be writing down how you feel. You do not have to show anyone, and you can burn or rip up what you have written afterward. This may in turn provide a space within you that is required for you to be able to respond to the situation.

And if you feel that discussing this with your husband is an option, something to consider is that your husband’s way of relating to his mother, and vice versa, has been years in development and he may not be fully aware of the impact it is having on you. So after carefully acknowledging your true feelings on the matter, maybe you could have a talk with him. But it is important to focus on how you feel – using “I” statements  and avoiding accusations or laying blame. You could talk to him about how you see things working best for you both and your children. If he is agreeable, this would help in establishing boundaries. With a bit of luck, this could ease the “vice-like hold” you feel your mother in law has on your husband – and, in a way, on you- and any decision you both make as a couple and parents.

Frances Macken (Professional Diploma in Counselling & Psychotherapy) is The Daughterhood’s resident psychotherapist and is Here To Help with all of your mother-daughter relationship dilemmas in a sympathetic and practical manner. If you have a question for Frances about your relationship with your mother, send it to ask@thedaughterhood.com

Here to help: Dealing with my mother’s dementia diagnosis

Ask the Daughterhood Frances

Here to help: My mother has just been told that she has early onset dementia and the diagnosis has completely floored me. She is only 65-years-old and should be looking forward to her retirement years instead of facing this. Although memory loss and withdrawal are the only noticeable signs for the moment, I am filled with the guilt that I didn’t keep tabs on whether she was looking after herself enough in recent years. She has always been the one to take care of me, especially when my husband left me last year. The idea of now having to look after her makes me sick to my stomach. What do I do when my Mum no longer recognises me and I start to lose her?

- Anonymous, Laois

Frances replies: Thank you for your email, I was very struck by all you are dealing with. I’m sure the news about your mother must have come as a great shock. The diagnosis coming so soon after another major upheaval in your life, the breakdown of your marriage, must be adding to the impact this is having on you. I would suggest that you contact a support group that might be able to help you through the imminent changes for you and your mother. They would offer a wealth of knowledge and experience.

That said, I get a sense that there is a more personal issue for you arising – the relationship with your mother. You acknowledge yourself that you are a dependent daughter. It might be worthwhile for you to explore your attachment to your mother as you both charter new territories. Therapy is a good avenue for this. You speak of feeling sick to your stomach at the prospect of not having the mother you have grown to know and depend on any longer. When we lose a loved one through death, a natural grieving process begins almost immediately, moving through several difficult, yet natural, stages. In a case like yours, where your loved one is still here physically, grief, though still present, is more complicated. What of your emotions? Where do they go? How do you negotiate them in a relationship that no longer has the natural flow of back and forth communication? The communication (and I don’t just mean words) that brought about a special intimacy you once shared is now gone. That is a big grief and it would be good to get support for that.

You do mention that it is a recent diagnosis and I am wondering if the memory loss and withdrawal are only mild at this stage. If it’s possible, keep up the communication with her, try and include her in decision making, for as long as possible.

Frances Macken (Professional Diploma in Counselling & Psychotherapy) is The Daughterhood’s resident psychotherapist and is Here To Help with all of your mother-daughter relationship dilemmas in a sympathetic and practical manner. If you have a question for Frances about your relationship with your mother, send it to ask@thedaughterhood.com

Here to Help: “I blame my mother for my dad leaving when I was younger”

Ask the Daughterhood Frances

Here to help: I have been angry with my mother since I was 10-years-old. When my father left us for another woman I spent most of the rest of my childhood blaming her for him walking out. My mother has since raised us by herself and even retrained at night to provide for us. I rebelled against her big time in my teens, not coming home at night, drinking at a young age and always testing her.

I’m now 36-years-old and our relationship has improved since my teens, but I’m still angry at her for not trying harder to make things work with my father. I rarely see him and know that he should bare the brunt of my anger, but I find myself craving his approval. It’s difficult for me to spend more than a few hours with my mother because she makes me irritable and at times passive-aggressive. I’d just like to know if it’s normal to to carry this anger into middle age and how I can direct less of this frustration towards my mother?

- Anonymous

Frances replies: Firstly, I would like to say that all feelings are “normal”, even really awful ones. We must remember that we are more than what we feel. (I’m sure we will be looking at this as we explore the many facets of the mother/daughter relationship in this forum.)  That said, they are a gateway into our way of being in the world and how we relate to those around us.

Answering your question, if it is normal to carry these feelings from childhood into middle age, it can be if we haven’t dealt with them from our “inner child’s” perspective. You mention that your father left when you were 10-years-old and that essentially is when the hurt occurred. This may be the case for so many children. At the time, it is possible that you were unable to fully express how you felt. The experience and your feelings around it may have gone underground, leading them to surface and be expressed in an indirect way, for example in the rebellious behaviour in your teenage years and the passive-aggressive behaviour you are aware of as an adult.

It’s clear from your email that you recognise how well your mother coped with this upheavel, by single handedly raising you, going back to retrain and providing for you. This would suggest a great deal of will and determination, as well as genuine care for her children, which is a wonderful platform for you both to work through some issues you feel are in the way of a good relationship.  In a world where people walk out of other people’s lives and trust can take a hit, your mother has remained. Maybe allow yourself to trust her now and talk to her about how you’re feeling. This can clear space for both of you to spend whatever time you have left together in a healthier way.

Frances Macken (Professional Diploma in Counselling & Psychotherapy) is The Daughterhood’s resident psychotherapist and is Here To Help with all of your mother-daughter relationship dilemmas in a sympathetic and practical manner. If you have a question for Frances about your relationship with your mother, send it to ask@thedaughterhood.com

Here to Help: “My Mother is constantly criticising me”

Ask the Daughterhood Frances

Here to help: My mother is constantly criticising me and it’s affecting my self-esteem and confidence. Whether it’s my weight or my life choices, she has a problem with everything. I’m about to turn 30, I run a successful business and household, but my one failure is my relationship with my mum. I feel like an awful person, but I can’t bear to be around her. I really hope that when the time comes for me to look after her when she gets older, the constant belittling and disregard for my personal feelings will be a thing of the past. There is only so many times I can be called ‘a failure’ before I bite back. I consider confronting her about it daily so I am really at the end of my tether.

Jenny, Howth, Co Dublin.

Frances replies: Thank you for your question. Seeing your relationship with your mother as being your “one failure” is an issue that is too big to ignore and a very limiting thought. These are all very difficult feelings to have, I’m sure. I can understand that you would like things to be different and that you are thinking about the future, where you would like to be able to look after her and not feel the weight of her criticisms.

Telling her how you feel can be a challenging yet necessary option. It should be done in a gentle but firm way, rather than in an aggressive manner. Using statements beginning with “I” allows us to express what we are feeling while taking responsibility for them too. Try sentences like: “When you talk in that way about my weight, I feel…”, or “How you speak to me at times can leave me feeling belittled”. People often speak without thinking and aren’t aware of the impact their words have or how they will be perceived by the other person. Bringing her awareness to these feelings may allow her to take responsibility for her part and, even better, open up a way for both of you to explore how you move forward in a more healthy way.

What I am suggesting may be a big step for you and could require a lot of courage on your behalf and on hers, if she decides to listen and hear what you say. Family dynamics and mother-daughter bonds (your unique way of relating), have strong roots so maybe approach it when you feel you are both quite relaxed, perhaps with some forward notice and not rushed for time.

Frances Macken (Professional Diploma in Counselling & Psychotherapy) is The Daughterhood’s resident psychotherapist and is Here To Help with all of your mother-daughter relationship dilemmas in a sympathetic and practical manner. If you have a question for Frances about your relationship with your mother, send it to ask@thedaughterhood.com