Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Mother-in-Law Feels Rejected by Daughter-in-Law

daughter in law doesn't want a relationship
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My older son, Tom, 32, married to Tracey, became involved with her when he was 17 and she was 19. She is really the only person he ever seriously dated. She has always called the shots in their relationship.

During the past 15 years she is always warm and friendly at family functions (while my son is present), but outside of that she wants no relationship with me. An example: several years ago I invited her to a holiday shopping trip so I could buy her, my sister, and my now-deceased younger son’s fiancé gifts. She had Tom call me and tell me that they were a couple only, that she didn’t want to do things with me one-on-one, and that it was “nothing personal.” When I explained that I always did things with my mother-in-law, my son told me that not all families do the same things.

Tracey also works at the same business where I work. At company events, I am basically snubbed. She makes sure that she talks with everyone in the room, except me. If we speak, it is always me making the effort, and I have grown tired of it. She also never responds to e-mails from me, unless they are work related.

My first Mother’s Day after the death of my younger son, I spent the weekend alone while Tom and Tracey flew to another state to be with her mother. Every Mother’s Day is hard for me. Either they are away or I get a generic card printed with “We love you.” This past Mother’s Day I was invited over at 10 a.m. to get ice cream with my son. We were on a schedule because after me he was taking his stepmother out for ice cream. Being treated the same as he treats his stepmother is particularly hard for me because she is my sons’ father’s former secretary. I have never bad-mouthed her or their father even though they had a public affair while he was married to me.

Tom and I had always been close, but things changed once he got married. When my younger son was still alive, Tom never invited him over unless Tracey wasn’t there. I keep asking myself: Am I expecting too much from my son since his brother is no longer living? I am tired of making all the effort in a relationship with Tom and Tracey.


Alas, it seems that the one thing you and Tracey seem to share in common is that you are both tired. You are tired of reaching out and being rejected by Tracey, and I suspect Tracey is tired of you reaching out when she has been clear from day one that she does not want to have any kind of a close relationship with you. She says it is “nothing personal,” and although this may be true for her, this is very personal and hurtful for you.

You say Tracey has always called the shots, and apparently this is the relationship that works for Tom and Tracey; otherwise it would be different. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you: it means he defers to her. He has done so in the past, and he will probably continue to do so in the future. For whatever reasons, she wants to keep you at arm’s length and Tom chooses not challenge her on this. This is an unexplained reality she’s set out for you, one which you experience as cold and unkind, made even more difficult because Tom seems to find it acceptable. Your son has, in effect, sided with his wife on this.

You have your ideas about how a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law should interact with each other. However, I think Tracey is right: different families do things differently, and she and Tom get to say how things are going to be in their family. As long as you hold onto your idea that she should do things with you, e.g., such as how to spend Mother’s Day with you, go shopping and have lunch, etcetera, you will be hurt and disappointed.

I think you will find some peace of mind if you stop reaching out to her in personal ways. Be cordial and pleasant when you need to interact with her, both personally and professionally, but I suggest that you need to disengage from her emotionally and just be all business with her. It’s what she wants, and it’s the best you’re going to get from a relationship with her. As difficult as this is to accept, you probably won’t ever have the kind of daughter-in-law – mother-in-law relationship with her that you seek. She’s either incapable and/or unwilling to give you affection and closeness. This doesn’t mean you aren’t deserving of them; rather, it means she cannot or will not try to make them part of the relationship between the two of you.

For whatever reasons, a long time ago Tracey chose not to be warm and welcoming to either you or your other son when he was alive. I repeat myself: it seems this was and continues to be okay with Tom. In the past he may have tried to get Tracey to behave differently toward you, but that’s neither here nor there. I suggest that your current focus needs to be on accepting invitations to spend whatever time possible with Tom and to have a good time together. During these times you have with Tom alone, tell him you hope Tracey is doing well and then just enjoy your special time with Tom. Look at these Tracey-free times as a gift!

As for Tom, I suggest you believe him and thank him when he writes or says he loves you. Say Yes! to his last-minute invitations. Remind yourself that he is doing the best he can and trying to do the right thing by you, his wife, and his stepmom. I don’t envy him the tight rope he walks! It sounds like you are by nature a loving and supportive person, and I think Tom needs as much of both as you can give him.

Looking downstream a bit, all the hurt you feel and all of your attempts to accommodate Tracey may have payback if they decide to have children. By abiding by Tracey’s “relationship rules” now, this may keep you in good-enough stead so you can be part of your grandchildren’s lives. Loving and close grandmother-grandchildren relationships can compensate for a lot of hurt and disappointment.

Update: Four Weeks Later

I have been following your advice. I am trying really hard to disengage from my daughter-in-law emotionally. I am finding that it has helped. I have always thought of myself as a loving and caring person, so this will be hard for me, but I feel it is the only way that I will indeed find peace.

I miss my younger son terribly but am trying to fill the void by spending time with my hubby and special friends. I realize that I have to make the best of things in my life in order to find some measure of happiness. I’m working hard at it, but when I see how other mothers are struggling after losing a child, I count myself blessed.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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