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Ask the Rabbi/Psychologist: Mother-In-Law from Hell

July 15, 2012 | by Yaacov Haber and Dr. Michael Tobin

Should I tell my husband it’s me or her?


My husband and I have been married for eight years. We have three children and are usually happy. We fight most of the time over his mother. She is widowed and lives just down the street. She comes over four to five times a day which started right after we got married. Five minutes after he got home she would be at the door. Several years ago I found out she made her own key to our house without our knowledge from a set that was accidentally left at her house. She has no problem using it and just walking in when she feel like it. She tells lies around town about me and when confronted, denies it. I have caught her myself.

My husband refuses to believe the incident saying it was taken out of context. She has input on everything from the TV we watch when she is here, to telling my children how to behave. I feel that I am the outsider in "their" marriage and am about at the end of my rope. I am considering a divorce, but would like to save my marriage. I can't do it alone. I need help from someone.

Dr. Michael Tobin

Dr. Michael Tobin's Answer:

I read your letter a few times and after each reading, I said to myself, "How is it possible that in the same paragraph that she writes about the mother-in-law from hell, she describes her marriage as 'usually happy'?" Something doesn't compute. Your description of your mother-in-law puts new meaning on the word "intrusive." What's even more problematic is the fact that your husband doesn't seem to get it. As you see it, your husband is more interested in his mother's welfare than he is in yours. The picture that you describe is absolute poison for a marriage.

So when you describe your marriage as "usually happy," it more than begs the question of how it's possible for you and your husband to put aside your chronic mother-in-law crises - especially since she's in your space five times a day - and still connect as husband and wife.

The Torah says, "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife" (Genesis 1:24). In other words, the first principle of marriage is that a husband must establish a new family and that new family takes precedence over his family of origin. The health of a marriage has a great deal to do with the boundaries that a couple establishes to protect and preserve the marriage. Just as you don't invite your children into the middle of your marriage, you also don't invite your respective families either.

A man who is still attached to his mother in an unhealthy bond is unable to create a mature relationship with his wife. Although this is not the format to go into a detailed psychological explanation to prove the efficacy of that statement, suffice it to say there are no exceptions. To put it simply, it makes sense that you're suffering. The situation is untenable and if it continues, it will lead to divorce or a lifetime of marital misery.

You and your husband need to be on the same team.

If anything is going to change with your mother-in-law, you and your husband need to be on the same team. Where is he in all of this? He may not believe that his mother told lies about you, but how does he feel about the amount of intrusion that you experience from his mother? What was his response to her letting herself in to your house and parenting your children? If there is any agreement between the two of you about the inappropriateness of her behavior, you may be able to work together to set some boundaries.

Perhaps your mother-in-law would be open to some gentle help from her son to "getting a life of her own." If your husband doesn't understand your distress and his role in it, you may have to force him to choose who he wants to be married to - you or his mother. You don't treat cancer with a band-aid and you don't cure an in-law problem of this magnitude without being willing to confront the problem directly. I would suggest that you make it an absolute condition that he join you in therapy.

Your husband needs help in understanding the ties that bind him to his mother and how to extricate himself from this relationship. Undoubtedly, he will have to deal with her rage and/or depression as a a reaction to any attempt he makes to create healthy boundaries. He will need your support and understanding through this process and you will both will need the guidance of a professional.

I encourage you to take immediate action in order to save a marriage that I can only assume has a great capacity for happiness.

Rabbi Yaacov Haber

Rabbi Yaacov Haber's Answer:

So you have three children, are ‘usually happy’ and are considering a divorce. Why? Because you married your husband and not his mother; your ability as a wife and mother are being questioned and scrutinized, and your privacy is being invaded.

I suppose the most obvious answer to this painful situation is to do whatever it takes to get your mother-in-law out of your house and life. Being that the only person who can really achieve this is your husband, you could simply tell him, ‘It’s your mother or me!’ In other words, he has to be a man and stand up to his mother.

Bad advice. I wonder if doing this would make things better or worse.

In all likelihood, you will be viewed as the insecure, paranoid, selfish wife missing the basic respect that one should have for the previous generation. It certainly won’t hush your mother in law – in fact, it will probably do the opposite - and it’s quite possible that your ‘usually happy’ marriage will turn sour with an irreparable breach between your husband and yourself.

When you married your husband, you also married a family with all its positives and negatives.

What’s the other option? The more difficult one. Understand that when you married your husband you did marry his mother, because you married a family with all of its positive and negative points. Your mother-in-law is a challenge but at the same time she is a reality in your life. She is as real as one of your children, your financial situation or any health issues that may be abound.

God sometimes challenges our lives in an uncomfortable way because He wants us to reach our full potential in life. We can push away the discomfort and search for relief, or we can look at life's situations and struggles as opportunities to confront ourselves and who we really are.

There is no doubt that you are in a difficult situation. But even if you can’t change the externals of the situation, you can change how it affects you inside.

Think to yourself: Why does it bother you so much what your mother-in-law thinks of you? Why would you think of divorce if you are ‘usually happy’ and have three children? I’m sorry to be harsh but considering the severity of the situation and the lack of other options, perhaps it is time you address your own insecurities and teach yourself to rise above.

First of all, make sure that your mother-in-law’s criticisms are not true. Introspection is the first and main step to growth. Have a meeting with your husband and explain to him that you want to grow together, and as individuals in your partnership. Tell him that you yearn to be a team.

When you are sure that your own house is in order and your partnership is solid and confirmed, the two of you should sit down with his mother and explain to her, with one voice, how you respect and appreciate her and how you want her to be part of the family. Have a conversation about how you want your home to be; about how decisions are made in the family and how privacy is honored. Invite her to be part of the family, according to the principles of the family.

Be secure with yourself and your husband, take charge of your lives and live happily ever after.

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