Toxic Mother-in-Law: 5 Years Later
When I 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.
Five years later I reflect on how the relationship with my MIL changed.
The Toxic MIL Epidemic
But first, let me tell you about the "10 Signs" article and the response it received.
I wrote it because I needed relief from the anguish my in-law discord was causing me. After all, writing is meant to be therapeutic. So I've exercised my demons. I've 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, but I didn't know what to tell them. I was in the same boat as them. So I offered 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.
As I wrote before, "she will never accept you, and you can never have a relationship with her."
The Glimmer of Hope
I do not recall having had any hope up until the day my daughter was born. Suddenly there seemed to be a new beginning, inspired by the new life that entered the world. Everything seemed small and petty compared to this terrifying, overwhelming, exhausting love you feel as a mother. So we were both mothers now. It leveled a playing field (somewhat) and gave my mother-in-law a new perspective on me.
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. We still disagreed on a lot of things, but we also made an effort to find common ground and to be respectful. 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.
All of a sudden there was that light at the end of the tunnel. So I thought: finally!
But it's always one step forward, two steps back with her. All it takes is one fight to turn our fragile temple of peace back into shambles. 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.
Parenting became another point of contention between my MIL and me, which was one of my biggest fears about having a baby. Being the arrogant know-it-all, my MIL is often critical of my parenting choices, just like she was critical of everything else. She gives out unsolicited advice like candy and practices new "divide and conquer" tactics.
So is there improvement? There is a slight improvement in the level of honesty between us, and a basic recognition of each other's strong sides. But in another way, it's become more difficult because I find myself being way more emotional when my child is involved. It doesn't take much for me to perceive her as mistreating my daughter, and that is something I find impossible to tolerate.
However, I still hope that we can be more honest with each other instead of shutting down, and that the communication will be there, even if understanding and acceptance won't.
Let's Get One Thing Straight
To reiterate, having a child is not a fix to a family conflict. Not at all! The only thing that made any 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?
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 (as calmly as possible), 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! Say "no" when she goes too far, and 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
The worst part about toxic MILs is that they make us question our self-worth. And we are often alone in that feeling, wondering why we aren't good enough.
Don't do that. Stand up to her. Because she will walk all over you if you don't.
I know that in some cultures 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 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. You're not wrong for feeling the way you do. So have faith in yourself, and in your marriage. The relationship with your husband's mother might change for the better, or it might not. She will grow to appreciate you some day, or she will despise you even more.
But in the end, this is not about how she feels about you. It's about how you feel about you. Cultivate peace of mind, integrity and strength of character. It'll help you face any critic that comes your way.
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© 2017 Lana Adler