Direct Answers – Column for the week of November 3, 2003
My mother-in-law drives me crazy! She is an antisocial, critical, know-it-all who can’t find anything decent to say about anyone but herself. Every time she comes to visit it puts such a damper on my relationship with my wife, it takes us days to recover.
We have never really gotten along, but lately it has gotten much worse. She left yesterday after a week’s visit, and my wife and I didn’t talk the rest of the day.
My mother-in-law barely gets along with her own sisters who live next door to her, and she is estranged from her own mother. She has only two friends in the whole world and no social life. She spends hours each day watching television and doing genealogy research.
When we got married 11 years ago, she said, “Don’t call me mom, and don’t expect me to love you more than my own children.”
She divorced her husband after eight years and four children. She then devoted her life to her kids, to the exclusion of the rest of the world. She constantly talks about what we can and should do with our house, our property, and our money. Every time she comes over she points out things she thinks are wrong in our house.
The final straw came during her second to last visit. She blamed me for telling her to park at a train station where she got a parking ticket. I wasn’t with her at the time, and I didn’t tell her where to park. But she told my wife, “If I hadn’t listened to your blankety-blank husband…”
This last visit we borrowed a suitcase. The handle was damaged during baggage handling, so she had it repaired and we paid to get it fixed. In the meantime she damaged the interior of our car, which she borrowed, and never mentioned it. Then my wife wonders why I resent my mother-in-law.
This woman constantly criticizes her nieces for bad lifestyles, yet she never talks about her two kids, the crack addict son who steals from his dad, and the living-on-the-fringe daughter who was imprisoned twice for credit card theft and fraud.
I try to be polite, but her constant bad behavior puts a damper on my best intentions. It doesn’t help that I don’t have a sparkling personality myself. I have a reprieve until Christmas. Help me get this under control before then!
Kirk, we don’t believe in rewarding bad behavior with good treatment. Not only will that not discourage bad behavior, it worsens it. You have seen that for yourself. You have been polite, and your mother-in-law’s behavior is getting worse.
It is as if you have been thrust into a boxing ring against your will. An honorable boxer wouldn’t hit an unwilling person, but your mother-in-law hits below the belt, throws kidney punches, and bites in the clinches. You have had enough provocation to at least defend yourself.
You can’t change her, but you can change how you deal with her, and that may mean fighting fire with fire. It may sound harsh, but when your mother-in-law criticizes you, inquire if her daughter is turning her life around. When she accuses you of things you haven’t done, ask about her son’s rehab.
Or on a more subtle level, you could give her books about how to be a good guest, a good friend, and a good person. She could also use a good book on manners. Your mother-in-law needs to understand that negative comments about your life will be met with negative comments about her life. By the same token meet any positives from her with positives from you.
Self-centered people view politeness and good manners in others as a weakness they can exploit. There is only one strategy which is likely to work for you. Make this a Christmas your mother-in-law will remember.
Wayne & Tamara
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