Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Mother-in-Law Bad-Mouths Her Daughter-in-Law

When Garrison and I married 30 years ago, it was clear that my mother-in-law (MIL) thought her son was “marrying down.” Garrison said then, and has always said, I should ignore her because she’s a hopeless snob and she’ll never accept me. Even so, I have always been polite and respectful to my MIL, while she is cool and often condescending to me.

Garrison and I have a strong marriage. We have two grown children, a daughter, Leigh, 24, and a son, Hunter, 19. Hunter is easy going and was a joy to raise. Leigh, however, was born defiant, moody, and difficult and has been a handful every day of her life. There is always tension between us. She has told me more than once that she doesn’t like me.

Here is my situation. Although my MIL (whom my children call Granmama) has treated me rudely, I have always been the one to remind them, especially now that they’re grown and living away, to stay in touch with her. Whenever they come home, I make sure they call and/or visit with her; also, I remind them to call her on her birthday and to buy her holiday gifts.

Last week, at my suggestion, Hunter and Leigh had lunch with Granmama. Hunter came back from the luncheon and told me that a lot of the conversation was between Granmama and Leigh; they went back and forth saying negative things about me, e.g., I was really a lousy gardener when I thought I was a good one, I said silly, uninformed things in serious conversations. Hunter was upset and wanted me to know they bad-mouth me.

Garrison said I should ignore the whole thing, that we know his mother can be a witch, but I have to admit I am really hurt that my daughter and mother-in-law talk so negatively and critically about me. Please, any advice?

Coincidentally, I received your e-mail on the same day I read an obituary for Dr. William Glasser, a psychiatrist who published more than two dozen books promoting his view that being happy or being miserable are both, mostly, a matter of personal choice. His “choice theory psychology” states that when a person is unable to meet his needs for safety, love, power, fun, and freedom responsibly and respectfully, he/she will be unhappy. In short, Glasser’s basic premise is that most people’s unhappiness stems from their attempts to meet their need for love and belonging by trying to control others (Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom).

Glasser’s theories have its critics, but while thinking about his work in the context of your situation, several relevant points came to mind. First, prior to getting married, it seems you were well prepared by Garrison for what you could realistically expect from your relationship with his mother: rejection, lack of acceptance. Armed with this assessment of your MIL you were at what I call a “relationship fork in the road” – one path you could have chosen would have been to treat her as she was treating you, that is, patronizing and aloof. You could have made it clear to her that you had no use for her. You did not do that. Dr. Glasser would suggest you purposefully decided not to let her misery – the basis of which might be her disappointment in her son’s choice of a wife – make you miserable. (The source of her unhappiness is irrelevant, especially if it stems from what she considers your lack of pedigree.)

However, you chose to be polite and respectful toward her, a path that perhaps is often emotionally draining for you, but at the same time, it is hoped, gives you some peace of mind that you are being true to your core self by not intentionally trying to demean her. You chose a road that spoke well of your character and values. Perhaps there were times you questioned taking the high road, but I assume your choice proved at least satisfying most of the time, or you would have abandoned it. In short, you made the best of a difficult situation.

Another point that Glasser’s work brought to mind pertains to his basic axioms of choice theory, two of which lead into what is my advice to you. The first two axioms are: “The only person whose behavior we can control is our own,” and “All we can give another person is information.” You cannot change your daughter’s behavior, you cannot change your MIL’s behavior. If they decide to say nasty things about you, that is what they are going to do.

However, you can inform them that you’re aware they do this; you can also inform them how it makes you feel. For example, you can say to both of them something along these lines: “It saddens me to learn that when you get together you say unkind things about me. I just want you to know that.” You’re not asking them do to anything different, you’re just informing them that their doing so makes you feel bad. You’re not asking them why they do it; you’re not requesting they stop doing it. Will they care enough about your feelings to stop doing it? Maybe, but most likely, no. (Your husband may want to reinforce your message to them by letting them know he’s aware that they do this and he shares your hurt.)

I think yours is a situation in which there is nothing to be gained by trying to have any “let’s get to the bottom of this and come to a meeting of the minds” discussions. Sadly, there are some relationships in life that are what they are, and as Dr. Glasser would point out, you are not going to change them.

All you can control is your own behavior, inform others when their behavior is hurtful and disappointing, and leave it up to them to make any changes – knowing full well that changes most likely are not forthcoming. Adhering to these axioms is difficult, especially when trying to apply them to family members, such as a daughter or a mother-in-law. At the very least you can feel good about the choices you have made and know that you are being a good role model for those around you.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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