Dating Maze #356: In-law Collision
Our engagement broke up because I’m bickering with his mother. Can things be salvaged?
Dear Rosie & Sherry,
Two years ago, I met a man I thought I was going to marry. From our first date we felt an instant connection – something that usually doesn't happen to me, because I am very cautious about who I let into my life.
Our relationship had many ups and downs. We loved spending time together. We argued over silly stuff and would laugh it off later. Our major fights were instigated by his friends and family. His group of friends is very tight-knit and they don't like to let anyone in. His friends would leave me out, and we'd fight about it – and even broke up over it for a while. We decided that since we really cared about each other, we wouldn't let others affect our relationship. We learned to communicate over these issues, and he stopped leaving me in the wings. We haven't had a fight concerning his friends in more than a year.
However, we have had fights about his mother. His family is Reform and I am traditional. She was also born and raised in a foreign country. I made it loud and clear that I will not eat in non-kosher restaurants, and his mother exploded, saying that if I drive on Saturday, I might as well eat at whatever restaurant they pick. I let her comment go because he protected me. However, over the past few months she has made hurtful comments about me to her son, like, “We don’t speak the same language," and "She may be pretty, but looks aren’t everything."
When he told his mother he was going to propose, her reaction was less than excited. Well, he proposed to me and we were both extremely happy and excited to share the news with our loved ones. We went to his mom's house first, I showed her the ring and she said, "Wow, my son has a great taste!" I said, "Yes he does – he chose me." She didn't respond, but toasted us. Then she toasted his brother's girlfriend 10 minutes later on her graduation from university. I thought it was tacky and out of place. After we left her house we laughed it off because we were on cloud nine.
She bought herself a gift that was double the price of my engagement gift.
A few weeks later, we invited his mom to meet my parents. She brought me an engagement gift that I did not love, but I appreciated the effort and thanked her endlessly. She told me I could exchange the gift if I didn't like it, and she'd add some money. I found that to be odd and just smiled. I later went to the store to exchange the gift, and learned that his mother had bought herself something the day she bought my engagement gift. The "wrong" gift receipt was left in my bag and the price of what she bought herself was double the price of my engagement gift.
I expected his mother to invite my family back to her home, but nothing happened. Instead, his brother's girlfriend's mother decided to have a "family dinner so the future in-laws can meet," even though the brother was not yet engaged. I was very upset and told my fiancé that he should speak with his mom so that she'd finish up with us before moving on to meet the next new in-laws. This did not sit well with him, and he yelled at me not to tell his mother what to do and how to do it.
I asked him not to go the dinner so his mother would understand that it's not okay, but he said that he was going because this was an important night for his brother. I did not want to go with him, but after four days of fighting, I called him to say that because we're getting married, I'd go to the dinner even though I was unhappy about it. He told me he spoke with his mother, and they decided it was best I stay home because he and I were fighting most of the week.
After all this, I decided to call off the wedding. My reasons were that he un-invited me to a dinner; didn't see anything wrong with his mom not inviting my parents to their home; the chintzy gift from his mother; and he has not been protecting me.
I love him very much and am not sure I’ve made the right decision. Do you think I read too deeply into everything his mother was doing, or have I pegged his mother correctly as doing everything possible to break us up?
We're glad that you wrote, because viewing your situation from a different perspective might give you clarity about your relationship with your former fiancé, his family, and his friends.
Let's first look at the fiancé. Your felt a connection to him right away, and since you describe yourself as a somewhat closed person, this connection encouraged you to open up to him and get to know him. You enjoyed his company. When you bickered over small things, you were able to laugh about your disagreements afterwards. And when you hit your first serious glitch – feeling left out when he got together with his friends – you eventually realized that your arguments were not productive. You learned to talk through the issue, improve your communication, and find a healthy balance between your relationship with each other and his long-term friendships. Both of you, as well as your relationship, matured as a result of this.
Unfortunately, your relationship with his mother has disappointed you in a number of ways. This appears due to a combination of factors: personality differences, different cultural background, different levels of Jewish observance, and different approaches to life. Although you haven't said it outright, it's clear that you had hoped that your fiancé's mother would accept you more readily, and that you'd have a warmer connection to her over time. Unfortunately, many people have similar experiences.
But the picture you portray is not that of a "toxic" mother-in-law who hates you and wants to sabotage your relationship with her son. Granted, she's not your biggest fan, and that has clearly been hurtful to you. For a moment, though, we'd like you to look beyond the hurt you feel, and try to see the situation from a different perspective. It might change your feelings about things.
She may have felt attacked when you made a "loud and clear" pronouncement.
You explained that your fiancé's mother made a negative comment about your refusal to eat in non-kosher restaurants. It's possible that she felt attacked by the way you made your "loud and clear" pronouncement and lashed out defensively. She might have felt that your declaration was a personal attack on her Jewish values. Perhaps she would have reacted differently if you would have used a quieter and more diplomatic approach to the different ways each of you practices your faith.
You were hurt by some of the statements she made about you, but it sounds as if she was feeling as disappointed as you about the lack of warmth in your relationship. A comment that the two of you “don't speak the same language” seems more of a lament about your cultural differences and unharmonious personality styles than a personal attack. Is it possible that because your personalities aren't such a good fit, she gets the impression that you don't like her and was trying to express her own feelings of hurt?
We sense from your letter that it is hard for you to see situations from other people's perspectives. For example, although you characterize your major fights as having been instigated by his friends and family, it appears that you have a hard time when things don't transpire the way you expect them to. For example, you were disappointed by his mother's reaction when you became engaged because several minutes later she also toasted the brother's girlfriend. You were slighted because your announcement was no longer the center of attention. She may be a person who feels it's important to celebrate something good in each of her children's lives, and didn't see anything wrong with acknowledging a milestone in the life of the woman who is very important to her other son. That just could be the kind of person she is.
Then, your fiancé's mother graciously went to meet your parents and gave you an engagement gift, even offering to add more money to get something you preferred. The fact that she bought something more expensive for herself at the same time is completely irrelevant (she has the right to buy herself presents whenever she wants, and has no obligation to spend less on herself than she does on you), but instead it became a sore point for you. Perhaps you heard the message, "You're not as important to me as you want to be." It's the same message you heard when you announced your engagement and it seems to have reverberated when she didn't reciprocate and invite your parents to her home.
Here, too, it may help to understand that this woman's approach to life is different than yours. You felt that she must host your parents in order to fully celebrate your engagement. Isn't it possible that she, like many other parents, felt that once both sets of parents meet, it isn't necessary to get together again? So when she planned to attend a “meet-the-future-in-laws dinner” for another son (even though he was not yet engaged), she may simply have been enjoying a second happy event in her family, rather than intentionally slighting you or minimizing your engagement.
It seems to us that insisting that your fiancé chastise his mother for her plans, and then demanding that he not attend the party for his brother, highlighted the fact that it is very difficult for you to see a perspective that's not your own. We don't believe that your fiancé's mother was wrong because she didn't meet your expectations about the way things should be done, and we feel that you put him in an extremely difficult position by insisting he not attend the dinner as a way of showing solidarity with your unreasonable position.
Undoing the Damage
You may still be able to resurrect this courtship with your former fiancé, but before you try to do so, we'd like you to take an honest look at how you unwittingly contributed to the current situation. You were offended when your expectations weren't met by a family that has different perspectives and ways of doing things than yours. This happens to a lot of people, and we've seen it cause difficulties in relationships when each partner believes that his or her ways of doing things are the "right" ones.
In fact, much of the work we've done with engaged and newly-married couples involves helping them understand and accept the different sets of expectations, problem-solving approaches, and attitudes toward life situations that they and their respective families have. These couples also need to learn better ways to communicate with each other so that, in time, they can blend the attitudes and approaches they each brought into their marriage into something that works well for them both as a couple.
It seems that you and your former fiancé would benefit from some help in this regard, should you decide to get back together. We also believe that you and his mother can improve your relationship, even though you didn't start out on the best of terms. It can help to know that many people don't get along with their future in-laws in the beginning, but can slowly cultivate a better relationship.
In your situation, it's a good idea for you to make the first gestures. One reason is that you made the mistake of expecting her to follow your expectations about how to handle your engagement. The other is that ultimately, the efforts you make to have a better relationship with your mother-in-law will enhance the quality of your marriage and your relationship with your husband's family, making it both noble and worthwhile for you to be the initiator.
Talk to your fiancé about his mother's life story, background and sensitivities.
It may help for you to keep in mind the Jewish precept of judging another person favorably. We believe this is a good approach for anyone who joins a new family. Think about the points we've made in this letter and decide how you could view what your fiancé's mother did and said in a more positive light. In addition, talk to your fiancé about his mother's life story, background and sensitivities. Try to understand her better. Is she a single mother? If so, it must have been hard for her to raise her sons alone, and it may be hard for her to accept the fact that her son will be moving out of her home.
You seem to be outspoken, and she may feel threatened by a woman who is somewhat more Jewishly traditional than she and who has different viewpoints and approaches to life. She might have expected someone more soft-spoken, or more like herself. She may not feel that you appreciate her, or that you understand that marrying off a son and accepting someone new into the family is hard for her.
We suggest talking to your fiancé about wanting to improve your relationship with his mother, and asking for his ideas about how to approach her and how to keep him out of the "middle" when you and his mother don't see eye to eye. It's important for both of you to work as a team, even though you will be making the initial gestures of reconciliation. You'll need his support and understanding if difficulties arise. Both of you will also need to understand that it will take time to develop a better relationship, and that it may never be the ideal one each of you hopes it will be.
Before you speak to his mother, it's a good idea to carefully plan what you're going to say. You might consider apologizing for taking a wrong approach in the past, and telling her that you'd like to have a good relationship with her. Express genuine appreciation for her having raised such a wonderful son, and if you have other things to show appreciation of thanks for, do so. Don't be disappointed if she doesn't initially respond with the warmth you'd want. This may take time.
We can't devote time here to a step-by-step guide to nurturing a relationship with a future mother-in-law. Some research on the subject may be helpful to you, and it's worthwhile to check out In-Laws: It's All Relative, by Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski and Leah Shifrin Averick.
You seem like a sincere young woman who loves him and would like to make things right. We think that by opening yourself up to a different way of looking at another family, and by stretching yourself to judge others more favorably and admitting that you made a mistake, you may be able to resurrect your engagement and develop personal tools that can enable you to have a healthy marriage and a decent relationship with your mother-in-law.
We wish you success,
Rosie & Sherry