Mother-in-Law Mayhem

Dear Andrea*

My mother in-law is ruining my marriage. She made it clear from day one she didn’t approve of me and cruelly rejected my attempts to reach out and include her when my first child was born. Over time, she warmed up somewhat, but things were always a bit strained between us.

Then her husband died, and she seemed to snap. Now she’s always complaining of phantom illnesses and running to the doctor, who finds nothing, but she diagnoses herself. She’s also suddenly calling my husband every day , several times a day, and uses her “ill health” to manipulate him into going to visit her, in order to help her (and we live out of state.)

When I try to talk to my husband, he takes her part. He doesn’t seem to see how his mother is manipulating him. He claims I lack compassion for his mother and defends his enabling behavior by quoting, “honor thy mother.”

I love my husband, but this is getting to the point where separating is starting to sound appealing. I need an outsider’s perspective. Who’s right?


Ready to Snap, too.

*fictional letter based on a true situation.

Dear Ready,

Not sure how outside (unbiased) my perspective is as I’ve only heard your perspective. But based on your account, she strikes me as incredibly lonely ( potentially to the point of neurosis but you’d need a doctor to diagnose that). She also probably has too much time on her hands; if you could get her to volunteer her time for charity, giving back to the community, I’m betting she’d discover her health “issues” miraculously vanish (and with it her dependency on others, including on her son)

If you’re thinking that’s a polite way to say your mother-in-law needs to get a life, yes, that’s part of it. But it’d also do her a world of good to get her focus off herself.

But that’s her. I have a feeling if your perspective is accurate, it’d take a court order to convince her to take that advice. But it’s definitely worth a try.

Now, all three of you probably have some fault in this, but I did pick up one issue that you need to address: forgiving your mother-in-law. And your husband for that matter. As you mentioned, she’s done quite a bit to harm/undermine your marriage, and he’s allowed her to, and few women would go through that without bitterness welling up in her heart against them both.

As such, your husband is probably right, too. It’s very hard to have any compassion for someone who’s hurt you as much as she has, in our own strength. That requires a supernatural grace from Above.

With adult children, honoring your parents means speaking to them with respect and taking care of genuine health concerns. That does not mean letting her control you, using fictitious (if they truly are) illnesses to become the defacto head of your house. That honor belongs to your husband, not your mother-in-law (or any of either spouse’s parents.)

Knowing men, you need to be careful here. Men have an emotional need to be the leader of their home, and for love, respect, approval. They feel a driving need to provide well for their family and to make you happy (in and out of the bedroom.) Yes, I’ve been reading Dr. Laura’s book at left, as if you couldn’t tell.

If he’s letting his mother run his life on one hand, and he has you on the other hand vocally against it, from the male view point, he’s between a rock and a hard place. Our tendency to react harshly to a weak show of leadership such as this cuts them to the core emotionally and further robs them of their confidence in their ability to lead, which with most men leads to defensiveness, a “faking it” bravado, and often digging in their heels.

So voice your opinions once, twice (a limit I would be already well over in your shoes–this isn’t always easy for me, either). Then step back and let him lead. He needs you to affirm him in that role. Such encouragement might just enable him to stand up to his mother.

But if he’s convinced honoring his mother means taking care of her imagined health concerns instead of her true problem, biblically you have to let it go, show him the respect he needs, and pray that the Lord would open your husband’s eyes to what his mother’s doing if you’ve perceived right. And pray for your mother-in-law!

We ladies need to learn to lament before the Lord instead of whining/making demands to our husbands. She’s done a lot to hurt you and I didn’t get any indication your husband has made efforts to protect you as he should. His vows to you should be at the very least as important as honoring his mother, indeed, the bible indicates it is more important. For this cause shall a man leave his mother and cleave unto his wife and the two shall be one flesh, Genesis 2:24 says.

But that’s a two-way street. If you’ve been fighting about this non-stop, you need to let it rest a while. Considering how much it upsets you, do what you can to remove yourself when she calls, perhaps get away for a little while if you can, but I would not advise making further demands on him at this time.

Instead, work on forgiving them, loving them (ask the Lord to help you), and listening to his perspective and his feelings. We don’t like having our feelings dismissed, but as they don’t often show their hurts, it can be all too easy to dismiss theirs. Especially as we live in a culture that treats men as irrelevant and teaches wives it’s all about us and our feelings. It makes it hard for a man to hold onto his human dignity, let alone his manhood.

What I’m trying to get at is this: a man needs his wife’s approval, and we have a tendency to withhold it in these situations, and that spiral ends in disaster. It’s counter intuitive, but the truth is, the more you show honor and respect to your husband, and the more honorable and respectable he’ll tend to become. He probably feels personally attacked and torn down when you fight about this. Is it wrong for him to side with his mother over his wife? Absolutely. But on some level, he’s actually defending the manhood already under cut by his mother as much as her.

We need to get out of attack mode and start building husband up, affirming him in all his roles; but especially as a husband, lover, father, breadwinner, family leader, and family protector. I’€™ve heard a rumor men who get this from their wives even though they don’€™t deserve it start living up to the last two more.

In His Grace,

Andrea Graham
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