Behavioral Health Consultant, Trainer and EAP Manager

Seattle, Washington

So Mad at my Mother-in-Law

Question:

I’m so stressed and irritated. I live with my husband, our kids and his mother. The problem is she is too hard to get along with. She pesters and criticizes me constantly. I try to be polite sometimes I just blow up. I don’t want to upset my husband but I’m afraid some day I’m just going to pack up and move out. How can I keep myself calmer?

 

Answer:

You’re feeling pushed out of your own house, you might lose your marriage, split your children’s’ parents… and you don’t want to upset your husband? Is he that fragile?

I always have mixed feelings about helping someone to have an acceptable mood in an unacceptable situation. Stress and irritability could be looked at as a useful signal, like fear, or pain. If it is indicating there is a problem that needs to be rectified, you don’t necessarily want to just relieve it while the problem persists or grows.

Having your husband’s mother move out could be one solution, but every problem should have more than one. Here are some things I’ll suggest. You might sit down with a friend and draw up a brainstorm list of all conceivable solutions, from the most obvious (including no action), to the overly-exotic (build a bigger house), and so on. Hopefully, by going at some length, resisting the temptation to begin evaluating ideas, you could come up with creative directions. For instance, there could be multiple ways your boyfriend’s mother could give you more space besides moving out, perhaps. There could be changes to scheduling, communication, physical arrangements, ground rules and so on.

Second, it could be that your quarrel is not so much with your mother-in-law as with your husband. If she is asked to move out, wouldn’t he have to be the one to convey the news? And, if he is giving her signals that contradict yours, you may never feel she is hearing you. So, you could be so blunt as to tell him you will not accept the current arrangement, and that it is up to him to fix it. Hopefully, you won’t have to be quite that stark, and there would be a productive process between the two of you. But, if he is not hearing you, not picking up on just how important this is, it would be natural that you would amp up in order to get the message across.

Irritability can be pretty useful in putting some intensity into a message, so that it is not ignored. However, it can backfire. When there is a little too much, the receiver begins to block it out and to shut down. This will give rise to a vicious cycle: more anger bringing on more resistance, bringing on more anger. We have all these cultural images of the communicative one, who needs to agitate for change (maybe more often the female), getting nasty labels like shrew, nag, and worse, while Mr. Brick Wall, protecting the status quo, hides behind the newspaper (and two of the classic insults for him actually apply to his mother!). It is not anyone’s fault, just a pattern we can naturally fall into. So, you might pay attention to what kind of approach is going to be the most effective with him. Consider a careful choice of timing, a soft and gentle voice, and as powerful a statement about your misery as you can compose.

Other than this, I just don’t know how you can find some kind of solution without your boyfriend having to make some tough choices, which doesn’t come without disturbance. You can help him without being upset but I’m not sure you want to protect him from it.

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