Inside His Head: A question about the mother-in-law


Welcome back to Motherlode’s monthly feature, “Inside His Head” which is written by an anonymous panel of husbands. This month we’ve added a new guy to the mix for your continued edification into the male psyche 😉

If you’ve got a question for our tell-it-like-it-is guys, just send it to and it may be featured in an upcoming installment.

Now on to this month’s question from a dread-filled daughter-in-law:

Q: Christmas is just a few weeks away and I’ve been dreading it for months. We’re driving to his parents’ house (again) and I know my mother-in-law will find plenty of ways to put me down (again). I’ve kept these feelings to myself for years. Should I ask my husband to stand up for me?

greg.jpgGRAY: My feeling is your husband already should have been standing up for you. Secret as you may have kept your feelings, odds are your husband knows what his mom’s like and is aware of how she’s been treating you. By all means, ask your husband to help. Though all families are imperfect, nobody should be put in a situation to suffer by themselves – especially for Christmas.

Family confrontations don’t need to turn an ugly mess into something uglier either. Your husband ought to be chock full of ways to deal with his mom. He likely outfoxed her repeatedly when he was growing up and knows how to push her buttons without pushing the ones that make her eyes glow red. And another reason to have him mitigate the issue is if his mother’s already browbeating you, standing up to her by yourself will probably not make her opinion of you any better.

The MIL may have been wired that way for so long and been protective of making sure her “perfect little boy” got only the best (in her eyes anyway) that she either can’t snap out of it or doesn’t even realize how petty she’s being. “Mom, you’re doing it again,” may be all your husband needs to say. It may not make it all go away, but if folks are reminded enough about their behavior they usually change it.

The point is, there’s little in life that’s worth months of dread over. Even though you can’t choose your relatives, they should always be important, and that means we ought to work together just like, yep, you guessed it, a family. And Christmas ought to be precious enough for everyone involved to spread cheer, be merry and all that nonsense. So go ask the husband to give you a hand on this one before you decide to doom mom-in-law to a lifetime supply of fruitcakes as holiday gifts.

john.jpgMAVERICK: Soooo, your husband won’t stand up for you.

Seems like you have an issue but I’m not sure what the issue is.

I’m gonna toss one thing out here before I go forward. Is his mom right? Are her put-downs justified from her point of view? Like, say, if she always has a snide comment when you habitually arrive 2 hours late for lunch and the rest of the family is waiting, well, is it really a snide comment at that point? Ask yourself if you bring the behavior on yourself by actual, questionable conduct. If so, change the trigger behavior and see what happens. If not, move along for more advice.

Does your husband realize his mom is putting you down? Does she do it in front of him and does he fail to register it as a derogatory comment? Does he see it happen and simply ignore it?

Some families communicate in put downs. It’s how they relate. It may actually be considered inclusive for her to hammer you. It’s a form of goofy communication. I doubt that’s the case, because if it was, your husband would likely do the same thing to you when he’s not around his family and you’d be wise to that.  If that’s how they talk to each other though, I’m afraid you’re a bit out of luck. You should have paid more attention when courting.

If your husband sees it and ignores it, there’s not much you can do but I’d at least confront him and try to find out why he’s so scared of his  mommy. You might not get a reasonable excuse or a move to fix the situation but it’s better than suffering in silence.

If the put downs are not registering with your husband, he either isn’t hearing it when it happens or he’s not there when it does. If he’s not hearing it, you need to let him know what’s going on and  come up with a non-verbal signal to let him know when the “put down” happens so he can witness and assess them.

If his mom is doing it behind his back, well that may be a problem. I’d hope your husband would believe you when you explain, but in any case how you explain is important.

First, let him know how you feel about  how his mother treats you but be specific. Don’t say, “Bob, your mom puts me down all the time.” Let him know how she does it, when she does it and how often she does it.  Don’t bring in issues of how you suspect his mother feels like putting her actions off on long-standing dislikes or her feeling you’ve taken her son away. Simply stick with the behavior at specific instances and how it  makes you feel.

Now you’ve given him enough information to assess the situation. He’ll likely want to see these put downs in action to gauge the situation for himself (assuming it’s not all no-witnesses sort of stuff). Allow him to do this. Don’t expect him to pounce on his mom without seeing what you’re talking about.

Now, here’s the hard part, once you’ve done all this you’re gonna have to wait and see if  your husband will man up.

If he observes this happening, he should move to stop his mom for using you as her verbal punching bag. Now that he’s seen and recognized the behavior, and has the opportunity to react to it himself, he can stand between you and his mom. He doesn’t have to say “Sue thinks you’re mean to her.” Now he can say, “I’ve noticed you said XXX to my wife just a second ago. What’s up with that?”

If your husband won’t be a man and confront people, even family members, even his mommy, who treat you poorly, well, I feel sorry for you. There’s no amount of advice I can give in this situation that will replace a spine. Here’s hoping the guy you married has one.

jon.jpgJON: Yes.  In an ideal world, you shouldn’t have to ask, but it appears as if you do.  These conversations are never enjoyable, but all healthy relationships have uncomfortable discussions.  Here are some things to think about.

Time and place – the holidays are a stressful time on all.  Perhaps now is not the best time to discuss this. My wife and I had such a discussion regarding Christmas at her parents during the summer. Try to find a time were stress is at a minimum and your husband is in a place to truly hear what you are saying. My guess is he already knows what his mother does, he may not be aware of how her behavior affects you.

Remember it’s his mother – I think that mothers hold a special place in all men’s hearts even when they are wrong. Tell him what she does and how it makes you feel, but avoid personal attacks. Many men are defensive regarding mom. Ask yourself what motivates her behavior. Does she feel abandoned? Did you steal her only son?

Is she just mean and nasty to you or is she like that to everyone? If she treats everyone poorly, it allows you to realize it is not personal or about you in any way.

Just because she says it doesn’t make it so. Words can certainly be hurtful, but they only have as much power as you give them. Ask yourself some questions. Why do you feel hurt? Do you long for her approval? Do you think what she says is right? Once you understand why what she says bothers you, you can minimize the effect.

Here are some ways to deal with her. 1) Walk away. Don’t allow yourself to be treated poorly. 2) Interrupt her. “That’s not nice.”  “That’s not funny.” “I don’t agree.”  3) Engage her. Ask questions. “Why would you say that?”  “On what behavior is that comment based?” 4) Be with her, but don’t engage. Tune her out.

Remember all people say things they don’t mean or later regret. My mother once said she didn’t like my wife or my kids. It took time, but we worked through the hurt feelings and emotions as a family with open and honest, albeit difficult, discussion. You can too.

marty3.jpgMAX: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt

You can ask all you want but he probably won’t do it, or at least do it to your satisfaction. That’s reason enough to find another less-confrontational way to handle the awkwardness of Christmas with mother-in-law (which I get
to do every year, yay.) I would say something non-accusatory to your husband before the get-together just so he knows his mom’s comments hurt you. Then leave it up to him how to handle her but let him know you expect a very nice children-free dinner for your patience. With a tablecloth. Perhaps wine. Definitely dessert.

One important factor to consider is: Does your husband stand up for you in other situations? If he does, then you can rest assured his failure to protect you from his mother is simple Fear-of-Mom Syndrome, the dreaded FOMS. In cases of FOMS, just know you need to cut him some slack because some people
can’t find the gumption to stand up to their parents.

My wife has discovered, to her shock and utmost glee, that I do NOT have FOMS. Of course, both of my parents have passed so I spend my time standing up for my wife to HER mother, which makes my wife love me more (she certainly didn’t marry me for my looks, my money, my hygiene, my … let?s change this subject).

The best method, though, is good humor. Chances are your mother-in-law doesn’t hate you and is just tactless. Prepare yourself and let the comments roll off your back so you can enjoy Christmas.