Sharon Denise Allison-Ottey
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My Mother in Law is really a “MONSTER in Law”

Dear Dr. Sharon Allison-Ottey,

 I’m a 37 year old woman, have been married for 6 years and we have two children. I love my husband but we have one area that is a major issue for us that has gotten worse. My mother in law is 67 years old and spent about 3 weeks with us during the holidays. It was been pure hell dealing with her; she the real “Monster in Law”. She’s a nice lady to everyone else but I can never do enough, or do anything right. She criticizes my cooking, my weight, how I handle my children and on top of all of that –she bought everyone in the house Christmas gifts except for me. She even bought my best friend’s daughter a gift. This is the longest that she’s ever stayed with us but even when she’s come for a few days it has caused problems with my husband and me. She visits about three times a year and we go to see her maybe once or twice. However, last year I was fortunate to be able to come up with an excuse so that I did not have to go to her house.

 Dr. Sharon, I’m not exaggerating—this relationship is toxic. A few things have happened during her last visit in addition to the gift issue:

 1. I cooked breakfast for everyone one morning before I went to work. I came home to find most of it in the refrigerator. My seven year old told me that his “Nana” had told them that whiles she was here they’d have good food because she’d cook.  

2. She refused to let me wash her clothes with the rest of the family’s clothes. She told me that she didn’t like “dingy” clothes and that she’d wash her clothes and my husband’s while she was in town. She then asked my husband why he didn’t teach me how to wash clothes.

3. She sent my husband’s ex-girlfriend a Christmas card and talked about her in front of me. She emphasized how well she was doing, how they seemed like the perfect couple, and kept talking about her perfect figure and beauty. 

 This is just what happens when she is in town and the list goes on. However, I can tell you that I rarely speak to her when she calls and she usually calls when she knows that I’m not home or calls my husband on his cell phone. I’ve talked to my husband about his mother on several occasions and he always brushes it off. He always defends her and in the end says that he shouldn’t have to choose between me and his mother. He constantly says that I am making too much out of this and that he loves me, he chose me and that his life is with me. When I challenge him on the specific actions, he defends her to the death. For instance, he even made excuses for the Christmas gift incident; he talked to her and told me that it was an honest mistake. His mother told him that she’d forgotten to write my name on the gift but that the gift was meant for both of us. Dr. Sharon it was male cologne and a scarf—how can that be for both of us? I’m tired of arguing and trying to make my husband stand up for me. We’ve had shouting matches and I’ve sent him to the couch (in our bedroom) for several nights.  In every other way, our relationship is good but his mother is driving a wedge between us. When I talk to her she denies any bad feelings and then goes to my husband crying saying that I don’t like her. My husband does have a brother but he is not married so I don’t have any sister in law to befriend.  What on earth can I do? 

 Daughter in law to the “Real Monster in Law” in Phoenix, Arizona


Dear Daughter in Law,

 There is an age old problem with daughter in laws and their “dear” mother in laws. There is no magic answer but many wives, fiancées, and girlfriends feel your pain. Unfortunately, many marriages have ended because of this struggle between the woman that birthed him and the woman that he loves. In fairness, there are husbands who have major “issues” with their mother in laws as well. 

I tried to read your account of the situation with an open mind and take into consideration that there are two sides to every story. I dare say that your mother in law probably has her own “horror stories.” However, she didn’t write me so let’s start with some basics.

1. You must talk  to your husband, I know that you’ve spoken to him about this before but try again with some of my suggestions: 

    1. Have the conversation during a time of “calmness” and perhaps during a “date night”. I also suggest that you take don’t rush the conversation or evening;  dress very nicely and wear his favorite fragrance (for a man, the possibility of sex always makes whatever the subject is easier to handle). 

 i. BIG DON”T: You have committed major error in sending your husband to the couch—BAD MOVE! This only makes things worse and the old adage of never going to sleep angry is a bunch of baloney in my book—it is unrealistic but even if you go to bed angry—both of you should be in your marital bed.

    1. Don’t begin the conversation with “Your Mother is a Witch”, “Your Mother hates me”, and “Your Mother can NEVER come back to My House”. All of these are killers to any reasonable conversation. I also suggest that you use just a few RECENT examples. Under no circumstances should you go back to when you were dating or engaged, etc…. give real examples.
    2. Tell your husband how you were made to feel in the specific situation.

 i. You wrote:   “I cooked breakfast for everyone one morning before I went to work. I came home to find most of the breakfast in the refrigerator. My seven year old told me that his “Nana” had told them that whiles she was here they would have good food because she would cook for them.”

My suggestion: “Honey, I appreciated your mother’s help during the holidays. However, when she cooked breakfast and told the kids that they’d have good food while she was here her comments made me feel bad. I really love you and the kids and I try to balance work, the house and being the best wife/mother that I can. You mother’s comments made me feel and look small and were very hurtful. I will never speak negatively about your mother to our children and I need you to understand and agree that I deserve the same amount of respect. What do you think honey, am I over reacting?

A. Possible Outcomes:

a. He could brush it off and say that is just how Mom is.

 i. You then should say, I understand that but… and give another example. Don’t get angry in this exchange (take a deep breathe).

b. Hopefully it will open the door for conversation and he can approach his mother.  

  1. You must understand that your husband will most likely try to protect his mother and appease you—it’s an awful position and nearly impossible. However, if at all possible you should think of solutions which are acceptable to you. It now becomes your decision as to how you can best navigate this and pray a lot about what your steps should be. Some suggestions for you:
    1. “Kill her with kindness”: Why don’t you send a thank you card to her? Just a note from you to her thanking her for birthing and raising your husband and for being a great grandmother to your children. This should be a quick, sincere (if possible) note that is just from you to her.
    2. Why don’t you call her (even if you need to call when she’s not home and leave a message)? You can call to say hello and that you wanted to check on her make sure that you end it with a pleasant note that this not phony but is warm. Don’t tell your husband about the call or the note so that when she mentions it to him, he will be surprised.  
    3.  When she does something that bugs you, take a deep breath and understand that she indeed might just be a “witch” but this cannot ruin your life and particularly your marriage.

 Finally, CHOOSE YOUR BATTLES. Do you really care that she didn’t buy you a gift? Who says that you have to get along with your mother in law? How often is she in your home on the larger scheme of things? Can you “grin and bear it” if what you describe is the worst of it? Don’t let anyone belittle or disrespect you—that is not what I’m advising. However, on the grand scheme of your life, your marriage and your children—is this problem big enough for you to leave your husband? If it is then your marriage is not as great as you say it is—really choose your battles and try your best to ignore the foolishness. Also, accept the fact that your relationship may never be the loving relationship that you desire. However, a man chooses a wife—not a mother, he choose you!