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

“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