Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Mother-in-Law Is Making Snide Comments about Daughter-in-Law’s Affair


A few months ago I had an affair with a guy who was an independent consultant on a project where I work. We often traveled together on business trips. When his wife found out, he removed himself from the project and we never communicated again.

Having this affair was stupid and reckless, especially since my husband is a decent man, and a good husband and father. I got caught up in the excitement and romance of being wooed and thinking we had so much in common intellectually by working together.

A couple of weeks ago, I confessed to my husband what I had done because I was making myself sick with guilt and shame and feeling awful about deceiving him.

My husband is very, very hurt and not sure he can ever trust me again. He has agreed to see a therapist with me, which we will do in a few weeks when our insurance kicks in. I will do whatever he needs me to do to make this right. I love him and want to be married to him.

An issue I could use your help with immediately is my husband’s mother, Arlene. My husband told her about my affair and now she doesn’t talk to me directly, but she makes snide comments in front of our seven-year-old twin girls. For example, she said, “I hope certain people are not planning any business trips. We all know what that means.” One of my daughters said, “Huh? I don’t know what that means.” No one said anything and I changed the subject.

Any suggestions about what I can do about my mother-in-law will be greatly appreciated.

A lot has been written about the guilt and shame people experience when they have behaved in ways in which they have let themselves and/or others down, but not much addresses the situation you raise about your mother-in-law: that is, how to deal with others who want to perpetuate the guilt and shame someone may already be feeling.

The therapist or psychologist with whom you and your husband will be working will be a good resource to help you address the issues you currently face, including the one you raise about your mother-in-law. However, because these sessions won’t start for a few weeks, I want to give you a suggestion for what you might do right now.

I suggest you write your MIL an e-mail in which you say something along these lines:

Dear Arlene,

Yesterday when you were visiting you made a comment in front of the girls about how you hoped certain people are not planning any business trips, because we all know what that means. Stacy [one of the seven-year-old twins] said that she didn’t know what you meant. It is perfectly clear to me what you meant.

Just so you and I are clear: in the future please feel free to say directly and privately to me anything related to how you feel about the things I have done, but, you may not say negative or insinuating things about me in front of the girls.

I want to make sure we do not have a repeat of what happened, so this is how we will proceed. When you want to spend time with the girls, you may call me and we will set up a time for a visit. I will bring the girls to your home and stay with them. In this way I can remove the girls, if that becomes necessary.

I think you need to communicate this kind of a strong message to your mother-in-law to make sure that you and your husband remain in charge of how and when your current situation is shared with your daughters. Of course you cannot control what your MIL is feeling, but you can do everything possible to protect your daughters from her randomly dropping innuendos that can cause unnecessary hurt and confusion.

Regardless of what decisions you and your husband make about your marriage, I hope that you can look forward to the day when there are no more uncomfortable silences when your MIL, or anyone for that matter, talks about you in front of your girls in ways that can cause you pain and humiliation, whether intended, or not. A desired response from your husband is, “Mother, what you are saying/implying is out of bounds and will not be tolerated.”

A clear cease and desist is appropriate under the circumstances you have described, whether it comes from you, your husband, or both of you. It would be better if it came from both of you, but sometimes you have to go it alone and do what needs to be done protect your children.

Update Two Weeks Later

I sent my mother-in-law an almost word-for-word e-mail to the one you suggested. I showed it to my husband before I sent it. He tried to talk me out of it because he said it was just going to make her even angrier with me. We talked about it and he agreed that it was important to put our daughters first.

Within an hour of sending the e-mail, I got a reply. She said that I had every right to be upset with her for dragging the girls into things. She also said that my father-in-law [her husband] was upset with her and said he was surprised she would behave in such a mean and spiteful way.

Further, she said she was sorry, that it would never happen again, and that she hoped I knew she could be trusted to spend time with her granddaughters without my having to worry about anything she might say.

I am glad I wrote her that e-mail. I am glad I followed your advice. Thank you. As for the rest, time will tell, but at least I am not worrying about my MIL saying negative things about me to my daughters.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

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Dr. Rancourt’s latest book:
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Savvy Advice to Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts

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