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Difficult Mother-in-Law

May 8, 2009 | by Rebbetzin Feige Twerski

Adopting the attitude: "it's not about me."

Dear Ms. Rebbetzin Feige,

I had had a wonderful relationship with my in-laws for two years until the birth of my first child. Suddenly my mother-in-law turned very malicious, and now my son is 8 years old, and I'm fed up with her untrue snide remarks, unasked for advice and downright rude behavior when she visits (like screaming at me, of course only when her son isn't present).

I feel I should confront her with my husband when these things come up, of course with the preamble, "Mama, I know that you are trying to help. And we really do appreciate your thoughtfulness, but we would really appreciate if you..."

My husband tells me, "That won't work. She's not going to change. Just ignore it and lighten up." But after eight years of this verbal abuse, I can't.

She makes me so worked up that I don't sleep for days and I am in tears. That's when my husband starts to feel that he needs to do something about her boundary issue. But of course, she always convinces him that I have taken all she said all wrong and how she is the poor victim of misunderstanding.

This way of interacting just isn't healthy. I can't stand losing sleep or crying because I feel so sad and helpless. I often wish I were dead. And then in the morning, I have to be all happy and smiles and take care of the kids like everything is just perfect. (Don't worry: I know that I would never commit suicide until after my children are grown and no longer need me, because I know that they do need me a lot, so I can't afford to die.)

It is just so insane. I know that I probably should never have gotten married. But now that I have, what should I do? Thank you. I would appreciate your balanced answer.

TS (in a lot of emotional pain)

My dear reader,

A great rabbi was nearing the end of his life. His parting comment and insight to his surrounding family and disciples was that he had started out his life idealistic and enthusiastic; fully expecting he would change the world. As he matured and became more realistic, he perforce adjusted his dreams -- first, to reform only his country, then his city, his community, his family. Now finally on his deathbed, he confessed that if he left this existence really having made the requisite corrections and changes in his own life, he would consider it a huge achievement.

Changing others, my dear reader, is a futile attempt fraught with dashed hopes and great disappointments. You are setting yourself up for exactly what you are getting. Your repeated attempts to figure your mother-in-law out and gain her approval are pointless. Her reactions are not rational, so no amount of mental agonizing will lead to a solution. Emotionally driven behaviors do not respond to logical analysis.

You simply have to adopt an attitude of "it's not about me." It's not about your handling of a particular event or situation. You need to learn not to take things personally; it's about her and her emotional state of being. You are merely the random target.

A person in a state of well-being would not present the inappropriate responses and behaviors that she manifests. Bottom line, be assured you are not at fault.

You are giving your mother-in-law way too much power over your life.

Having said that, you are, however, responsible in the sense of having the ability to respond (‘response-ability') in a healthier, more constructive manner. To allow yourself to get depressed, lose sleep and be robbed of the joy in your life is terribly unfortunate. You are giving your mother-in-law way too much power over your life.

The paradigm shift to an "it's not about me," posture effectively removes you and your ego from the picture and will allow you to gain clarity. Instead of seeing in your mother-in-law a person who is maliciously trying to hurt you, you might see a very threatened and insecure individual. It might be an insecurity resulting from aging, ill health, lack of fulfillment or a myriad of other factors and causes. Your husband's exhortation not to waste your time and energy trying to change his mother suggests that the scenario is not a surprising phenomenon and may well be personality related. In any case, it's not about you!

I recently heard a beautiful insight. If you look out your window at night when the lights are on, all you will see is your own reflection. If you turn the lights off and the focus is no longer on you, you can see the world beyond -- a broader and more expansive view becomes accessible. Our self, our ego, the me, obstructs our ability to see the other.

Practically speaking, when you feel yourself falling into the old pattern of taking offense, beginning the spiral of obsessive thinking, recognize you have a key -- you can get a grip on your life. In actuality it's not your mother-in-law and what she says, but rather just your thinking about what she says that undoes you. The key is to know that you are the thinker – you don't need to be thinking anything you don't wish. You can drop the toxic thoughts and not let them take over your mind. Move on to something else like taking your children to the park or reconnecting with a friend -- whatever it takes to clear your mind of the obsessive thoughts.

The cleared space in your mind will allow your innate wisdom to inform the situation. Ultimately, you'll get to the point of being able to interact with your mother-in-law from the vantage point of an objective observer, looking from the outside in without personal involvement.

This objective stance will give you the ability to diffuse her comments. When she makes untrue, snide remarks about your husband never being so thin when she had him, you might respond, "But of course, mom, nobody is as good a cook as you are." End of subject. Don't argue the point. Don't get sucked in. Chuckle and laugh it off.

Or when she remarks that breastfeeding is not good, just say very dispassionately, "The jury is still out, mom. The pendulum swings back and forth. There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to both positions, but at this point in my life, breastfeeding feels right to me." Period and end of discussion!

Perhaps Eleanor Roosevelt said it best: "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." Don't let anyone in your life to undermine you. It's not about you. And you are the thinker in charge. You don't have to be at the mercy of whatever thoughts pop into your head.


I must tell you, my dear reader, that the level of stress, pain and anxiety described in your question is of concern to me. You speak of going on with your life and not committing suicide because of your children. Furthermore, you conclude you shouldn't have gotten married in the first place. These are extreme statements, especially since they are made from a context of having a loving and supportive husband, the blessing of children, and the personal achievement of being a physician. It appears as though you may be a perfectionist, setting very high standards for yourself, with little room or tolerance for the piece that doesn't fit in with your view and perception of how things should be.

Self preservation must be your first priority.

My advice would be that if you can't get relief by invoking the above outlined methods, the next line of defense would be to confront your mother-in-law. Tell her that while she may not be intentionally or maliciously setting out to give you grief, and regardless of whether she thinks that your take on this situation is merely your perception and interpretation, something has to change. Emphasize that you can no longer suffer what to you feels like cruel insensitivity and put downs.

If she pleads innocent and clueless, tell her that in the future when she moves in that direction, you will immediately give her a signal that she is entering dangerous territory. At that point, tell her that you expect her to abort the conversation with no further discussion. This can serve as sensitivity training for her. If she can agree to this plan, the relationship can continue, with emails, photos of grandchildren, etc.

If she is not amenable, let her know that personal contact with you will be curtailed. Self preservation must be your first priority. Your husband deserves a happy, functioning wife; your children deserve a healthy mother, and most importantly it is imperative for you to dissipate the cloud that darkens your existence -- by hook or by crook, whatever works.

In the event that none of the above works for you, I would strongly recommend you seek professional intervention to help you determine what is obstructing your ability to move forward. Good luck!



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