My mother-in-law is causing problems in my marriage

My wife is beginning to treat me in the same way. She has become dismissive of me.

PROBLEM: My wife’s mother is driving me crazy and I sound awful if I bring it up because she is sick and getting feeble.

My wife and I had a great first few years living in a city away from all relatives, but then she wanted to move home because her mother was a widow and lonely, so we moved to her town, into her house and built a granny flat.

I am very sorry we did this. My mother-in-law is a snob, self-centred and never misses an opportunity to put me down. She has favourites in the family, and my wife is the current choice. She talks about the others as if they were imbeciles. When I walk into the room, she sighs and rolls her eyes, and I have overheard her saying to her friends on the phone that her daughter married beneath her.

The problem is that my wife is beginning to treat me in the same way. She has become dismissive of me and I feel I have no comeback because maybe she is right. My business took a huge hit in the recession, and my mother-in-law is paying for the kids’ schools, our insurance and so on. I am so angry and on edge all the time and I am even dreaming of terrible things happening to my wife and my mother. I wake up ashamed and trudge through another day of pretending that I see an end to this misery.

ADVICE: There are three aspects to this situation: your relationship with your mother-in-law, your relationship with your wife and your own sense of floundering and failure.

For most marriages, the relationships with in-laws need negotiation and renegotiation over a lifetime. These relationships are often the cause of conflict in a marriage, and it is unfair to expect a daughter or son to view their parents in a very negative light, so trying to get your partner to agree with your disapproval is unlikely to be a useful way forward. Instead, perhaps you could work on your own relationship with your mother-in-law; this entails having an adult, direct engagement with her.

Could you take her out for coffee to another town where you won’t be disturbed and tell her you would like to find a way to communicate with her better? Ask her for her ideas about this and keep the focus on how the whole household would benefit from this, especially her daughter. Tell her that you are seeking to be a better provider and that you need encouragement and support to take advantage of the end of the recession.

The aim is not to get your mother-in-law to see the error of her ways (which is unlikely), but to recruit her as an active participant in making everyone happier. If at all possible, get her to come up with ideas for the way forward (that you agree with), such as you and your wife spending more time alone together. The intervention does not end there; you will have to follow up with approval for her help and arrange to meet again to review the situation. My guess is that she will be pleased with this important position and might buy into it.

Your wife is an enormously important person in your life, and your current sense of shame and misery is possibly making you withdraw from her as a husband and lover. Is there some way that you can establish a belief and faith in your marriage again? What was it that first attracted you to one another? What did you share in terms of dreams and hopes? It sounds as though disapproval and hurt are getting between you. Perhaps you could offer her hope and reassurance. This might initially feel false, but if the two of you work towards the same outcome, there is a much higher chance of succeeding.

It feels as though a division has arisen in the family, with you on one side and your wife and mother-in-law on the other. Most divisions in relationships have a huge component of criticism in them, and yours has this in spades. The part that you can do something about is your own criticism – including criticism of yourself – so make a decision to stop this now.

Without that negative input, it is likely that the old sense of care and affection can be expressed and some of the critical patterns erased. Just exercising this competency will help you to challenge the idea that you are defeated, and instead you can begin to reconnect with your potential and capability.