Toxic Mother-In-Law 2: Five Years Later
When I first wrote "10 Signs You Have a Toxic Mother-In-Law," I was happily married to the man I could see spending the rest of my life with. But our domestic bliss was tainted by his mother's disapproval of me, and her constant passive-aggressive attacks. Her negativity was seeping through every aspect of my life, and there was no escape from it. Sometimes I even wondered if it was all worth it.
At the time I couldn't imagine that the relationship with my MIL was ever going to change.
But it did.
The Toxic MIL Epidemic
Before I get into that, let me tell you about the "10 Signs" article and the response it received.
Raw, poignant and personal, it was written with no research, all from experience. Although I tried to maintain a lighthearted tone, it reeked of bitter disappointment and pain my family discord was causing me.
I wrote it because I wanted relief from the burden of being a "no-good" daughter-in-law. After all, writing is meant to be therapeutic. So I've exercised my demons. I described being in a relationship with this woman, and I gave a name to what she was to me. This is how the "toxic mother-in-law" was born.
Since it was published hundreds of women (and even men) shared their mother-in-law woes with me. They left comments. They contacted me on social media. Those who wanted to keep our conversations private sent emails. The overarching sentiment was: "I'm glad I'm not alone."
Suddenly it seemed like there is a toxic MIL epidemic. Call FEMA, call CDC, call someone, because the toxicity is reaching dangerous levels!
Moved by their sincerity, I wanted to offer some advice to the battered and emotionally drained daughters-in-law who reached out to me, but most of the time I only managed to offer a compassionate ear. I figured, having your feelings validated can make a difference too, however small.
Still, I tried to distill some sort of wisdom from my "monster-in-law" conundrum and to pass it on.
For me, it was accepting the status quo without ever expecting it to change. This is the path of least resistance, the one I took because it offered some peace of mind. "Take your situation philosophically, treat it with humor and find comfort in the fact that other people love and accept you" was my mantra to those with a toxic MIL problem.
Although I didn't want the readers to walk away with a sense of hopelessness, I didn't see a light at the end of the tunnel. As it says in the article, "she will never accept you, and you can never have a relationship with her."
So I've become accustomed to always being on guard, and I figured, people like her never change.
The Turning Point
People don't change, but circumstances do.
If I had to pick a specific point in time when things started to shift, it was the day my daughter was born. It wasn't the magic moment that healed our relationship, but it was the beginning of something new. We were both mothers now. It leveled a playing field (somewhat) and gave my mother-in-law a new perspective.
All of a sudden there was that light at the end of the tunnel. The baby became the balancing force, something that kept both sides grounded and more focused on maintaining a positive environment. We had a common goal now: a nurturing loving family for the little one.
Having an infant tests you in every way, and in my case it tested our entire family. But at the end of the day, it made us stronger.
So is everything perfect now? Absolutely not. It's one step forward, two steps back. She's still the same person. She still makes choices that are selfish and unreasonable. She's still demanding and overbearing. She still conjures up drama where there is none. She still injects her opinion into everything. We still disagree on a lot of things, but we also make an effort to find common ground and to be respectful.
I learned to appreciate her positive qualities, and she finally saw mine. She started treating me better. She'd said things she never told me before, like that I'm beautiful or that her son made a good choice by marrying me.
She adores her new granddaughter, and I have to admit, I like watching her light up around that baby. I know we still have our differences and I will never be totally "at ease" with her, but I can see that we've come far from where we started, and she does treat me differently now.
Time will tell whether this change is permanent. I certainly hope it is.
But Let's Get One Thing Straight
I don't want to give an impression that it was as simple as popping out a baby, or that having a child is a fix to a family conflict. Not at all! Many of you do have children and are in the same rut with your MILs.
What's made a difference for me is being more upfront with my mother-in-law.
At some point I gave up on trying to impress her or earn her affection. I've accepted that this was never going to happen. So I started being more honest. Say how I feel. (Politely) call her out on her bullshit. Respond to her passive-aggressive manipulative ways with direct communication. I thought: she already hates me, what do I have to lose? Weirdly, it made us closer.
I found that being more honest with my mother-in-law empowers me. If I've managed to let her know how I feel, that something she does bothers me (without being rude or emotional), that's a victory to me, because in my family (and in many families) the status quo is sweeping things under the rug and moving on.
And that's the key: I don't measure our progress by how "nice" we are to each other; I measure it by how honest I can be with her.
Another thing is: boundaries. It's so important to have boundaries with a domineering MIL, otherwise she will take over! I say "no" when she goes too far, and I make sure to be direct. Vague doesn't work!
Hope Springs Eternal
Do you think the relationship with your mother-in-law will ever change for the better?
Keep Calm and Speak Up
I know some of you come from a culture where you're not supposed to speak up or disagree with the elders. I come from a similar culture, and it's a struggle for me too.
But you have to do it. You have to find a way to speak up in a respectful but firm manner. You have to find a way to be true to yourself - more or less - otherwise a normal relationship is impossible and you will always feel bullied by your MIL.
And I want to reaffirm that you're not crazy, you're not overreacting. The worst part about toxic MILs is that they make us question ourselves, our self-worth. And we are often alone in that feeling, wondering why we aren't good enough. Don't do that. Do stand up to her. Because she will walk all over you if you don't.
So don't lose faith in yourself and in your marriage. The relationship with your husband's mother will change, or can change for the better. She will see you differently some day, and she will appreciate you.
And if she doesn't, it's her loss.