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Dr. Mark
Dr. Mark, Psychotherapist
Category: Relationship
Satisfied Customers: 5334
Experience:  Dr. Mark is a PhD in psychology helping with relationships
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I have a terrible time getting along with my mother-in-law

Customer Question

I have a terrible time getting along with my mother-in-law and I'm not sure how to handle the situation anymore. My husband does not talk to his mother outside of obligatory holiday calls and his father has never been in his life. I sort of felt bad for his mother when we first met because she seemed very lonely and I wanted to try to include her in our life. Unfortunately, after 6 years of marriage, I realize that she is not able to be a part of our lives in a positive way. She is terribly insulting, verbally abusive, and just a negative person to be around. My husband tells me that after her fourth marriage failed, she fell into a funk that she hasn't pulled herself out of for the past (almost) 15 years. She probably weighs close to 350 pounds, is an alcoholic, has a ton of health problems due to obesity and smoking, and does not have any close friends. None of the family members on my husband's side ever reach out to her due to the same reasons I am describing here. She does not understand or approve of our jobs, our traveling, or our opinions on anything. Whether it's a car, a hairstyle, a piece of furniture - she has something negative to say about all of it. This spreads to complete strangers also...she'll insult a server at a restaurant or a cashier behind a counter, it doesn't matter who they are. She takes any opportunity to be negative. My husband says she has a huge ego and a closed mind and I don't disagree with him, but there is obviously something underlying that she is not dealing with. She won't, however, have a conversation about any of it. For example, when my husband and I visit her on Christmas (or whenever), my husband will give her a hug goodbye and say "Bye mom, I love you". She always just stands there with her arms at her side, will not give him a hug and will not say "I love you, too". When my husband tried to talk to her about how hurt he is by it, she tells him he expects too much from people. Maybe we are expecting too much from her because she just can't contribute to the kind of positive lifestyle that we are trying to have. The funny thing is, she is rather pleasant via email. She sends me emails every other day that are quite long, detailing things like the weather, TV shows she has watched, her opinions of all sorts of things. I don't respond to most of them, but sometimes I'll respond with a few lines just to acknowledge her. I feel like she just sends them because she's lonely. My question is, are we supposed to suspend all contact with her? My husband seems to absolutely not care at all. I have to force him to sign a birthday card to her and send her a Christmas gift...I now wonder if I was wrong in forcing all this. I don't know why I feel such guilt when she is not my mother. I have a great relationship with my own mother, so I don't feel like I'm trying to fill a void there.
Submitted: 4 years ago.
Category: Relationship
Expert:  Dr. Mark replied 4 years ago.

Hi! I'll be glad to help you with this issue.

I can imagine how confusing this situation must be for you. You are truly an incredibly kind, caring and loving person who is very sensitive to other people's needs and hurts. I'm being sincere in saying that and it is really very wonderful that you are making these efforts for a person who is so truly needy and has no clue how to fill her needs.

And this is actually the key to my answer to you that you need to consider and think about. I am a little hesitant to give psychological insights about her because I don't want you to take that as a recommendation to include her in your lives. You can't and you shouldn't. This is important. You need to take your husband's lead here. He's lived with her his whole life and he's learned how to protect himself. I need you to do the same.

She can, however, handle distant communication that's not too personal: email. That's a good opportunity for you to exercise all your kindness and goodness. But respect the boundaries your husband has set up and that she really needs.

Because you see, it's not that she's egotistical, full of herself. It's the opposite. She's extremely needy, has very low self esteem. She needs to protect her fragility at all costs. From everyone. From the waitress to her own son. She makes everyone reject her because she's so convinced she's only going to get rejection. This is a mental health issue and that's why I don't want you to feel as though these words are intended to make you try to help her. The opposite is true. You need to let her be. You need to treat this as her disability and work within it. Emails is a good tool, cards at holidays. Visits only rarely as you've been doing.

So know that your husband is doing the best he can to deal with a mom who has a disability. She has an emotional disability and you as her loved ones just have to accept it and hope she will choose to do something about it if and when she's ready.

Okay, I wish you the very best!

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Expert:  Dr. Mark replied 4 years ago.
Hi. Was this approach to thinking about and dealing with your mother in law helpful? Or should we look at other approaches? Let me know,

Dr. Mark