I married my partner of two and a half years, six months ago. We had our first epic argument in the run up to the wedding, which was largely caused by his mother. She’s a wealthy widower and insisted on paying for the wedding, which we were very grateful for. However, it was obvious from the first planning meeting that she also had very strong opinions on where we should have it, who would be invited and what I wore. Despite almost losing it many times, I managed to get through a great day and ignore the drama, thinking she’d calm down afterwards. But it’s just got worst and worst. She calls my husband about three times per day, we spend every Sunday with her, at least one evening mid-week and my husband visits her by himself once a week for dinner too. She’s constantly texting us both to co-ordinate dates for city breaks and holidays, which she pays for. She’s controlling and manipulates my husband, her only son (her daughters live overseas), who signs us up to everything and anything with her because he feels guilty. She’s also incredibly negative and bitchy and spends most of her time judging other people’s lives. She’s starting to really come between us and her looming presence in our life is the only thing we fight about. How can I get her to back off, politely, and reclaim our space and sanity as a couple? I feel simultaneously suffocated and enraged by her. Making a Murderer, Meath.
I don’t want to be anything less than 100% supportive of you in this legitimately noxious bind. You have a big problem on your hands, that’s undeniable. But I must admit that when I got to the part about enforced city breaks and holidays, all financed by the bossy mother-in-law (MIL), my sympathy momentarily waned. Yes, you are technically sleeping with the devil in Barcelona, Amsterdam or Puglia, and she’s brazenly using money to manipulate you both but I must admit to being slightly envious of your (fully funded) luxury trips. Just call me a bald opportunist!
Mothers-in-law have been at the heart of family friction and interference for centuries. Among the most famous is Sara Roosevelt, mummy to Franklin D. Not only did she try to stop him marrying Eleanor but when they did eventually marry, she ordered a double townhouse be built so that she could live on one side and the newlyweds could shack up next door. When Sara died in 1941, after a long and fractious relationship with her daughter-in-law, Eleanor wrote that it was hard to have known someone for 36 years yet ‘feel no deep affection or sense of loss’ at their passing.
Interestingly, and because you’ve signed off ‘Making a Murderer’ (just lending some context here!), historically there are far more cases of MILs knocking off their daughter-in-laws, than the other way round. There was one high profile case in the UK in 2012, where a woman beat her mother-in-law to death with a rolling pin, claiming she had been goaded, belittled and bullied for six months by her MIL. This did not tally with the jury’s findings however and she was sentenced to life imprisonment. Either way, this is an extreme lose-lose situation and one you should avoid at all costs. I think that goes without saying. But I’ve said it now just in case.
So what to do? Based on the info that you’ve supplied, there’s every chance that your MIL has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. There’s a basic ‘know the signs’ piece here* on narcissistic parenting to kick-off your research. Manipulation, co-dependency, superiority and possessiveness are just some of the tell-tale markers. It’s just a hunch and by no means conclusive but understanding how your MIL operates will determine how you respond.
Getting your husband on board is the first thing you need to do. Guilt and a sense of duty to his mother is crippling your relationship but he doesn’t seem to recognise it. His loyalties are very much divided, meaning he is beholden to two women when he is married to only one. He needs to know that you are at your wits’ end here and that your marriage is in real danger. Mentally divorcing his mother and presenting a united front with you is where he needs to be.
After a lifetime of co-dependency and coercion, however – I wonder why his sisters fled the country? – he is unlikely to get there by himself. He may think that his mother’s behaviour is normal and she may convince him that you are the control freak. If this is the case, you need to thrash out your issues with a professional. As it’s likely to be your husband’s first time with a therapist, he may benefit from some one-on-one counselling before you start joint sessions. Psychotherapy Dublin is highly recommended, if one or both of you work in the city.
Regardless of your mother-in-law’s diagnoses, she is not going to change her behaviour unless you set some boundaries. Your husband needs to lead the push-back here, explaining how imperative it is that you live your own lives. Plan your conscious detachment by blocking off weekends where you will not be available. Agree with your husband on how many of your precious holiday days you’re willing to spend with your overbearing and negative mother-in-law, before committing to her plans and encourage him to reduce their daily contact. Be a united and unbreakable force.
However toxic your MIL may be, she is also alone and doesn’t seem to have many friends. Expect her to take your step-back personally and even punish you for it. Don’t humour the drama but do try to remain compassionate, investing time and energy when you do see her.
If relations break down you can always propose the old Aboriginal tradition of banning any direct contact with your mother-in-law. The practice was introduced, in part, to neutralise the spitting hotbed of tension within small tribes. Only catch is, your husband will have to act as messenger between you both, leaving him dangerously open to rolling pin offensives.
Rhona McAuliffe might not be a trained therapist but she does have very big ears, quite a long nose and a gaping heart. If you have a problem that won’t just go away, she’d love to hear it. Write to Rhona at [email protected]