Dear Dr. Michelle:
My mother-in-law is very critical, and she makes negative comments about things I say or do, and this really bothers me. My husband is aware and even though he agrees that she is inappropriate, he never sticks up for me or says anything to stop it. It makes family events very uncomfortable. What can I do to encourage my husband to come to my defense?
I am sorry to hear that you are having problems with your mother-in-law. When there is family tension it makes gatherings and family events difficult. While this may not actually be your husband’s problem to solve, his silence could be inadvertently be communicating agreement or complacency about how his mother is treating you. This may not be the impression he intends to make and knowing this might motivate him to speak up.
Talk to Your Husband
I encourage you to ask your husband the reason he remains silent and discuss if he has the desire to intervene. Even though he is aware of her behavior and does not like it, this does not mean he is motivated to do something about it.
If your husband does not want to intervene, you will have little control over changing his position, but you can provide him with information to help him understand your needs. Explain how your mother-in-law’s behavior makes you feel and how it impacts you, and then make sure you are clear what you are asking him to do. If he knows how important it is to you that he be there for you in a different way, this may be enough for him to choose a different action.
Take the time to understand your husband’s reasons for previously not intervening. There could be a variety of legitimate reasons, which could include his desire to avoid conflict, him being intimidated by his mother, a belief that addressing it will not change it, not knowing how to intervene effectively, or he is willing to intervene but does not want to do it the way you expect. Together, talk about his reasons, and if he is willing to do something, support him handling the situation in the way he is most comfortable.
For example, if your husband cannot address her behavior head on, he could try a more subtle approach. When his mother says something critical, rather than telling her to stop, he could make a statement about how he thinks differently. For instance, if you mother-in-law makes a negative comment about how you make the potatoes, after she makes her comment, your husband could make a counter statement that he likes the way you make the potatoes and that he hopes you continues to make them the same way. His comment is an active way for him to demonstrate his support of you.
While it would be great for your husband to support you by taking direct action, it could also put him in the middle between you and his mother. Take care not to expect your husband to “choose” between you and his mother. Such expectations can lead to long-term resentment and create even more family tension.
Control What You Can: How You Respond and Your Actions
Given this risk, I encourage you to take matters into your own hands and consider the following options:
- Talk directly to your mother-in-law about how you feel about your relationship with her. This approach is best taken outside of an immediate criticism. The purpose is to talk in general about how you feel and what you hope will be different before the next critical comment occurs.
- You can respond directly after she criticizes you and tell her how to you feel about it. To keep the situation calm, be sure to use “I” statements, such as, “I think you are trying to help me, but when you criticize me on how to make the potatoes, I feel bad about myself because it feels like I am doing something wrong.”
These two options require you to be vulnerable and your relationship with your mother-in-law might not be strong enough for you to feel comfortable using them. If this is the case, a third option focuses on your own confidence:
- Build your personal resilience and learn to manage your reactions so that her behavior does not bother you so much.
No matter what you do, I am sure you are aware that you are unlikely to change how your mother-in-law treats you. What you can control is your confidence, how you feel about yourself and what you do to manage the situation. Remind yourself that her criticism says more about her than it does you and push against believing that her statements reflect the reality of who you are.
This third option requires you to either ignore her comments or deflect her criticism. For example, when she criticizes you about how you make the potatoes, you can say something like, “Thanks for your input, I never thought about it that way” all the while continuing to make the potatoes the way you want to make them.
Another way to deflect, is to ensure that you make a statement that clearly says you are not accepting her criticism of you. For example, let’s say your mother-in-law says something like this, “You don’t keep your cupboards very clean.” You can say, “Yeah, they always need cleaning. It really is annoying isn’t it.” You are essentially taking the criticism put on to you and turning it back on to her for being annoyed about the cleanliness of the cupboards.
You are reframing her criticism as merely a comment, making it clear to her that you hear her, but do not necessarily accept her perception. You are choosing to listen to your mother-in-law, but also choosing to see it for what it is - her way of giving input and not a statement about who you are.
If none of the above ideas work for you, your last option is to begin to limit how much time you spend around your mother-in-law. Just because she is family does not mean you have to choose to expose yourself to her criticism. If limiting contact is your only option, be proactive and make this decision with forethought and planning.
Decide ahead of time what family events are critical for you to attend and which ones can be let go without creating more family conflict. Talk to your husband about this plan and get his input about his priority for which family events you attend. Decide together how your limited involvement will be explained and communicated so that you are aligned around the messaging.
Dear Dr. Michelle blog posts are informational in nature. The posts are not meant to take the place of consulting your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health providers regarding your well-being or the well-being of others. Submitting a question does not establish a client/therapist relationship.
Submit Your Question on mental health and/or family relations to Dr. Michelle K. Murray.