Tell Me About It

My mother-in-law’s bad behaviour towards me has caused a family rift

Tell Me About It: My husband wants nothing to do with her unless she apologises

PROBLEM: My mother-in-law is mostly a fantastic, kind and giving woman, and has helped us out financially several times.

We have always paid her back with a bit extra as a thank you. She is energetic, independent and very active and is now a little over 90 and is getting a bit forgetful and can misunderstood things. Over the 40 years I’ve been married to her son, she has mostly been loving and kind to us, not directly but saying nice things to friends in front of us.

My husband and I have been her main go-to in case of emergency if work or help is needed. Some of the other siblings are abroad so my husband is her main support, doing most of the work.

To the outside world she is a remarkable woman, and indeed she is, but over the years we have put up with bad behaviour because that just how she is – she is angry with everyone and is constantly fighting with sales people, doctors etc and is always asking me when I’m going on a diet, or telling me if my clothes/hair/are not looking good.

She regularly questions us if we reared our children correctly and cancels dinner arrangements or outings for better offers.

More recently she misunderstood a situation and is adamant that she is right – she started screaming in my face and called me some very nasty names and I backed away and she said all the family dislike me. This is not the case. The family all get on very well and all are grateful for my husband’s and my help. They have all had disputes, but all go back and mostly let her away with it.

My husband says she has been abusive, manipulative and self-absorbed for all his life in the family and this latest outburst is the last straw.

He asked her to apologise to me saying we would stay away until an apology was made to his wife. She has made no contact to us other than to write him a letter saying how good she has been to him over the years. My husband says he does not want me to contact her and he is willing to stay away from her for as long as this takes. He said he will deal with any guilt he may have if she dies.

The other family members have tried to get her to see sense, but to no avail.

ADVICE: This is a complicated story as there is a lot of ambivalence in it: you have experienced huge generosity and kindness at the hands of your mother-in-law and also criticism and bad behaviour. From reading your letter, it also seems that you could get through this latest outburst but that your husband is experiencing a “last straw” event and he is putting his foot down.

If you decide to get her to see the folly of her ways you need to get help for her as she will not have the capacity to deal with it on her own

It seems you feel that the decision is mostly yours as to whether to mend this rift, but I wonder if this is true. Your husband clearly has deeply felt issues with his mother, and it sounds as though he feels taken for granted and abused over the years. Of course, the normal thing would be to suggest that these issues are brought to the surface and tackled (perhaps at a whole family level) but your mother-in-law’s age complicates things – at over 90 you would wonder about her capacity to participate in such an engagement.

There is a truth in that whatever we practise over the years we become better at, so at 90 it seems that some of the lesser qualities of your mother-in-law are more prominent and are resistant to change. So, the direction is to follow whatever decision you make fully. That means that if you decide to get her to see the folly of her ways you need to get help for her as she will not have the capacity to deal with it on her own. This might require some other family members getting much more involved or indeed it might be that psychotherapy should be sought for her. Your husband may also need help with dealing with his emotions as he has had years of subverting his feelings and he may be stuck in a response that is resistant to change.

If you wish to continue to have a relationship with your mother-in-law you will need to set clear boundaries

Indeed, if you chose the other option of never contacting your mother-in-law again, there will be consequences for both you and your husband that will require navigating as there might be that nagging voice in your head that says she is over 90 and vulnerable. In either situation, your husband’s family carry responsibility for managing their mother and perhaps you can organise your own response so that the major obligation is left with them.

What are you happy doing? If you wish to continue to have a relationship with your mother-in-law you will need to set clear boundaries, but you will also need to manage your own responses around it, eg you tell her that if she is being rude or critical, you will leave but you will come back when she is not (this does not require an apology from her every time). Do not take on her bad behaviour but let it with her and you do this by accepting her as she presents.

She is now paying the price for her actions – loss of the care of a son and daughter-in-law and she will never be loved and respected as she might have been. These are her burdens to carry and you do not need to try to fix her. Should you decide to sever your relationship with her, you must hand over her care to your husband’s family and work at supporting him with the fall-out from that.