How Do I Deal With an Unsupportive Mother in Law?

mean mother in law
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I truly want to release myself of the anger and bitterness I feel toward my mother-in-law. She lives 20 minutes away, but doesn’t ever offer to come by to help or just to see her three-year-old grandson. She is a very active woman socially with golf, luncheons, and friends. She has three older grandchildren from her other son and seems to have given them a lot of attention.

She expects us to come over to her home on weekends, which are busy for us, to see her for coffee, not for dinner. She is nice when we’re there visiting.

Both my husband and I thought she would have been more supportive. My husband does not want to confront her because he feels that he has asked her to come around and visit in his own way. Also, there are some additional hurts that resulted when my husband worked in the family-owned business my MIL and her now-deceased husband had.

I spend a great deal of time worrying about this and what have we done wrong. It’s causing stress in our marriage. I don’t want our son to pick up on all this.

When you say both you and your husband thought your mother-in-law “would have been more supportive,” you’ve made some assumptions about how you think she should act and behave as a grandmother. Actor Henry Winkler’s famous quote, “Assumptions are the termites of relationships,” seems appropriate in your situation, because as long as you hold on to your mis-communicated or never-communicated expectations about how your MIL should act as a grandmother, the anger and bitterness you feel toward her will continue to gnaw. If your MIL senses your anger and frustration with her, she may feel tense and uncomfortable around you and want to limit her interactions.

Before we talk about how you might proceed, one point: It’s easy in hind sight to say that the ideal times to work out the assumptions and expectations for how you want grandparents to fulfill their roles are before the first grandchild arrives or to address them head on sensitively as they arise. The fact that your son is three suggests these windows of opportunities for discussing your assumptions have already passed. To revisit them now would probably result in a destructive emotional torrent that does more harm than good, and has the potential to damage relationships beyond repair. Also, as you indicate, there are other factors, history and dynamics in play here around the family business that complicate the relationships.

So, here are some things you can do to maintain a cordial relationship with your MIL that do not require bringing up old hurts, frustrations and disappointments. Since your MIL does want you to visit in her home on weekends for coffee, and you say these visits are pleasant, then that is what you can do: let go of all your old assumptions and expectations and plan visits that are in response to her invitations. Over time, you may find her more responsive to your invitations.

In short, I’m suggesting a new playbill for you: drop the current drama that focuses on your constant disappointment and hurt resulting from your assumptions about how your MIL should behave, and shift to a focus on the relationship between your son and your MIL. You need to become a supporting actor in which your role is to make sure your son gets to spend as much time as possible with his grandmother, even if it requires inconvenience to you and your husband. In your new supporting role I suggest you adopt a mantra of … “cordial and pleasant, cordial and pleasant, cordial and pleasant” to remind you of what’s really important.

Instead of wishing your MIL were different and hoping she’ll change, I’m suggesting you make some changes — changes that have a far better chance of getting rid of your anger and bitterness, and can help your MIL and son have a nice relationship.

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