Mother-in-law triggering PTSD
February 17, 2012 2:21 PM   Subscribe

How do I keep sane when my mother-in-law does crazy things?

My MIL didn't like me before she met me or knew my name. According to my husband, she doesn't know how to separate herself from her children.

I tried to hang out with her for the first 6 months of our relationship. Since day one, she kept asking me highly personal questions and tried to bring up touchy topics. For example, the second time we ever hung out -- in the first week of meeting -- she asked me what my religious beliefs were, told me she had googled my name, and told me when was an appropriate time to start having sex. I'm in my late 20s.

By the end of six months, she asked me if I was using her son as an "escape," demanded that I give a list of reasons why I love her son, gave me a list of personal goals, and told me not to marry her son anytime soon. She regularly tells me that she "loves me deeply and wishes for nothing more than [my] happiness."

She knows that I'm estranged from my parents and has tried sending them letters and cards. She continues to send them, even though my husband and I have both asked her to stop. She keeps telling us that they (my family) is now her family. She has never met my parents and doesn't know their names. I've told her that I feel uncomfortable when she asks me personal questions gives me religious lessons, or tells me that she loves me deeply. She takes my discomfort as a sign that I need lectures from her.

My husband and I have repeatedly told her that we feel like we're not being respected and that we would like her to stop sending my parents mail. She said that we are "stepping over her free speech rights" because we don't want to have conversations about her religion, that my husband is "turning his back on family," and that we are trying to change her beliefs.

These interactions have triggered panic attacks for me, so I called her to tell her I didn't want any more contact with her. She has now made surrounding family members guilty and they sometimes blow up at us with their stress. He is the first person in his family to set up boundaries with her. Our boundaries are taking the form of physical distance and less contact. We've been reading several books on in-laws and boundaries. We each have our own therapist. So far, these things seem to not be enough to dial down my anxiety. Recently, she bypassed her usual modes of communication (phone and postal mail), and sent my husband a letter questioning my morality, character, whether I am fit for marriage, said I was not selfless enough to be a parent like her, and much more. Although nothing in the letter was true, it really hurt.

First, was my response to cut off contact harsh or extreme? What else can I do or think when I am reminded of the MIL? What can I do in the future when/if she continues to find ways to bother us?

And finally, we'd like to have kids someday, and we don't want our kids to meet her until we can trust her. We used to be optimistic about her getting better, but we notice that she has become more reactive to our marriage. I am scared and think she will up the ante on crossing boundaries. How should I begin to think about how to deal with her when we tell her that she will not be meeting her grandkids?

I do not want advice on how to fix MILs feelings. If you think I'm obliged to have a relationship with my MIL, please feel free to keep responses to yourself. I'm looking for advice and stories from anyone with similar MILs or in-laws. How did you get through it?
posted by mild deer to Human Relations (37 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Unless you've given a very one-sided account here, MIL sounds crazy. You can't reason with crazy; you just minimize contact with the crazy.

Until MIL does something to change her own behaviors (e.g., therapy), I doubt it will get better for you if you keep in contact. Cutting her off sounds entirely reasonable to me. How committed is your husband to breaking contact? If MIL has taken to writing mail, could you just move and not tell her your new address? (Datapoint: my MIL does not have my phone number, for instance, and if I were compelled to give her one, I'd give her my google voice number, not my real number.)
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:34 PM on February 17, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: You have not cut her off enough. And future letters from her should be returned unopened. You do not owe your relatives anything.
posted by hworth at 2:37 PM on February 17, 2012 [16 favorites]

When I was reading the first half of your question, I was thinking to myself that if someone I knew treated me that badly I would cut off contact with her. So no, I don't consider your response extreme.

It's also not surprising that she would act out or ratchet up the drama in response to you cutting off contact. I would just continue to avoid engaging - not read her letters, not talk to her, etc. You can't control what a crazy person does, but with more space from her and good boundaries I hope your panic attacks will become less frequent.

What does your therapist think?
posted by medusa at 2:54 PM on February 17, 2012

Best answer: What she's doing now that you've gone no-contact sounds like an extinction burst, as one would say in behavioral psychology. It sounds weird, but the fact that she's getting crazier means it's working. If possible, cut off contact to an even higher degree. Return letters to sender unopened. Give no indication that anything she's communicating is getting through, either directly or through other family members. Try to convince your husband, and hell, even the rest of his family, to do the same.
posted by supercres at 3:01 PM on February 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Your MIL is crazy and interfering. Is she married or divorced? My ex MIL was living her life through her son which was just ridiculous. Your husband will be caught in the middle of all this and I would not suggest dragging him into this during your arguments/disagreements.

Make it clear to her that you need her to respect your boundaries and then ignore her attempts to try it. People like her love the back and forth that they get, they thrive on it. Keep a cold response to her and she will not have any further reasons to act up.
posted by pakora1 at 3:02 PM on February 17, 2012

Best answer: I am confused as to why you are dealing with this problem rather than your husband. That said, "If you ever want to have any relationship with your future grandchildren, you will learn to respect our boundaries or we will both terminate all contact with you. You are not to lecture us on your religion. You can not to contact anyone in Mild Deer's family. If we get one hint that you are badmouthing us to our shared family, all bets are off."

Your husband needs to be 100% on board with this but basically, she who holds the baby rocks the cradle. It's the ultimate trump card.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:08 PM on February 17, 2012 [18 favorites]

Best answer: It is your husband's responsibility to deal with his mother, not yours.

No, it's not your husband's responsibility to handle his mother on his own. It's your husband's responsibility not to undermine the steps you two agree on and act on together. In other words, the both of you decide, together, whether and how much to cut her off, and then act as one to do so. Any division between you becomes an exploitable weakness. Don't put this all on him.

You and your husband's unity is your best defence in this.
posted by fatbird at 3:24 PM on February 17, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Did you marry my brother? 'Cuz it sounds like you're talking about my mom.

The Daughters of Narcissitic Mother's website that the young rope-rider linked to saved my sanity. Go, read, feel better about yourself.

Don't feel bad about not being in contact with MIL, it's the only tool you have in the battle against her crazy.

I use Valerian Root for Panic Attacks (and to calm down after a phone call), Cymbalta for Depression, and therapy for sanity. YMMV.

I don't have anything else to add except that you can read some of my past questions for some other mom horror stories and if you ever need to chat with somebody who understands you can MeMail me.
posted by TooFewShoes at 3:25 PM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: telling her not to do it won't help, it just lets her know that it bothers you. The only way you know she's doing this? She tells you. That means you're really not no-contact enough and she is still able to bother you and harass you.

Well, a sibling who still lives at home tells me, "So your MIL sent another letter..." My husband does the confronting. The first couple of times this happened, my husband talked to his mom and asked her to stop and she neither said she would or would not stop. However, my husband had the distinct impression that she would. When he shared this with her, she said, "Well, I never said I would stop sending them anything." He told her that she misled him on purpose, and she said, "Well, that's what all parents do." He tried to argue it, but the conversation went nowhere.

I have decided to care less about her sending letters to my parents because I understand that is not within my realm of control. However, this action of hers makes me feel disrespected on many levels. I suppose I could remind myself that it doesn't matter if she respects me at this point.


What does your therapist think?

My therapist actually said, "Your MIL sounds exactly like my mom!" Anyway, my therapist recommended no contact and to send a formal letter stating so (I called instead). What my therapist observes in people who do similar things to my MIL is that you can keep telling them whtever they want to hear, but they will continue to use it as ammunication against you. She didn't try to further psychoanalyze MIL.

OTOH, I have sought advice from two people I look up to, who are around MIL's age. One, who has known me for 13 years, told me to do total cut-off. The other is my husband's aunt, who I have come to love to pieces. She says she goes back and forth on the issue. She says she loves her sister and thinks I'm stronger than I think I am. She either tells me that I should do more for my MIL, or changes her mind and says there's nothing wrong with not having a relationship with MIL. She says she feels like we should all try to make her sister happy.


Is she married or divorced?

She is married, but her husband is alcoholic and withdraws from her on most days. The husband has been like this for as long as my husband can remember. The one thing they bond over is their religion.


I am confused as to why you are dealing with this problem rather than your husband.

Actually, I was dealing with this without his help at first. Then he became my advocate a few months before the wedding. Since we got married, he has been the main person dealing with his mom. The last time I talked to her was when I called to tell her I didn't want anymore contact. He has been more patient with her, but her increasingly difficult reactions/lectures has made him lose all patience. He is still at the stage of repeating what the boundaries are, but not implementing consequences (eg, hanging up the phone when she starts lecturing). Other than this part about implementing consequences, he is fully supportive of cutting off contact if she continues this way for 1-2 more years.
posted by mild deer at 3:30 PM on February 17, 2012

Best answer: Has the father-in-law passed away? Because that's what it sounds like to me. She clings for dear life to her kids because she feels alone and they're all she has.

Unfortunately, she also doesn't sound like she intends to change. My father is somewhat like this: very toxic and harmful to my life and that of my siblings. At one point I got fed up and cut off all contact with him for about a year and a half. Eventually he called me and while he didn't apologize, we've had a much more civil relationship since then. We don't talk often or anything like that, but when we do it no longer ends up with me being pissed off.

So my suggestion is to just stonewall her. Stonewall her till she realizes that she's going to have to either back the hell off and shape up or not be apart of her son's (and your) life. And if she never comes to that realization, well so be it.
posted by Modica at 3:30 PM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I bet part of the reason she is freaking out so much is that she knows you have cut off contact with your parents and is afraid that you are "making" her son do the same with her.
If you do want to preserve the relationship, I think a little talk about how your goal isn't to eliminate her from your lives; it's to have a nice family. She can be part of that nice family as long as she respects your boundaries.

It sounds like she has crossed some major lines, so you might not want her in your lives at all, but if your husband wants to have contact with her then I think you should try to assuage her fears while at the same time maintaining your expectations about following your rules about contacting your parents etc.
posted by rmless at 3:31 PM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There is no need to tell her that you are not going to talk to her again. Just don't do it. Don't return the letters, just dump them in the trash.
posted by dawkins_7 at 3:32 PM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think there's nothing YOU can do to get through to her. Your husband seems to be able to. Have him tell her flat out that if he does not start respecting you, he is going to sever all contact. And then he has to do it. She has got to see that he's serious.

You can maintain contact with the rest of his family if you get along with them. It sounds like they know what's she's up to.
posted by elizeh at 3:39 PM on February 17, 2012

Response by poster: I bet part of the reason she is freaking out so much is that she knows you have cut off contact with your parents and is afraid that you are "making" her son do the same with her.

This is spot-on. She wrote in a recent letter that I was trying to make sure my husband didn't have a family since, she claims, I don't have one. However, when my husband calls her, it's because I remind him. He has also stated explicitly, multiple times, over the phone and in emails that he wants to have a relationship with her, he wants to have normal conversations, and he wants to be respected as an individual.


and when you do have kids, why would you want to expose them to this crazy, toxic person?

Full-disclosure: I have PTSD as a result of trying to please my parents/family and take care of their feelings for 20 years. When MIL wants something and doesn't get it, I feel automatic guilt, anxiety, and a desire to make her happy. My husband's aunt (and MIL's sister) is supportive about half of the time.

However, she recently changed her mind again, and said I was making her and my MIL suffer for deciding on having no contact. Sometimes the aunt-in-law says it's my right, and sometimes she calls is extreme and unnecessary. These interactions, too, make me feel guilty. I like the aunt-in-law and want to have a relationship with her, but don't want to feel this guilt and obligation to make MIL happy. Ahhh, I just want everyone to feel okay! But I want these important people to acknowledge and act as if my sanity mattered.
posted by mild deer at 3:50 PM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think both you and your husband have to decide together to stick to no contact. You doing it by yourself isn't going to work so well if he stays in contact. It's an access point she can get to, and you still have to put up with her because of him.

How does he feel about this? Is he willing to cut her off?
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:59 PM on February 17, 2012

This is a hard one. Your mil does sound nuts. I would leave it at that except ... it may be that you are overreacting because your only frame of reference is your family of origin, who you had to cut off for what I assume are good reasons. It is possible there is some other way to deal with mil, and that she is triggering you in part because of your past, in addition to her own behavior. I think you might want to give family therapy a try, see if she will agree to change her behavior, see if she can be mature enough to realize that its not all about her. You may eventually find you can ignore some of her stuff and not let it get to you.

If you do decide you still need space, expect to continue to get grief from other family members from time to time. You just have to ignore it. The thing is, you cutting her off makes their lives more difficult, because she will complain ceaselessly to them. But that is their problem, not yours.
posted by yarly at 4:08 PM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Other than this part about implementing consequences,

Without this, your threats are empty. He's either on board or not. I would never, ever tolerate my parents treating my partner this way. Your husband chose you as his family freely -- you were not foisted on him with a genetic lottery -- and he needs to make that the relationship priority. There are no ifs ands or buts there, sorry.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:11 PM on February 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

I wasn't going to chime in here since all the usual suspects with family like this have already put in appearances above, but after your update, I gotta say this...

You're WAY too sensitive. It was clear from the absolute beginning this woman is a nut job. Investing in anything she says, does, or feels is a Fool's Game. Why are you playing it?


I agree on cutting this woman off and either severly limiting her access to your future children , or never ever be letting her near them in the first place, is wise. But why on earth do you need to tell her this will be the case?? That's exactly what I mean when I say you're being foolish. This move you're proposing is a bit "tit for tat" in spirit. I hope you see this constructively and reign in your thoughts and feelings towards this person. Being angry with her is only hurting you.

Your MIL is very ill. There's no person in there.

I think you could have managed some sort of distant-but-cordial relationship with her, if you had been distant-but-cordial from the very beginning. But those days are long gone. The sickness that lives inside of your MIL now knows it can successfully push your buttons, that you are a juicy target, and that you can be counted on to assist in escalating the drama factor.

Time and distance will help with the anxiety. Your therapist doesn't sound like a winner exactly, so you might want to rethink that avenue as a source of support. This was never an interpersonal problem or a MIL issue - it's all about mental illness. Your therapist should have given you the head's up to quit engaging in the drama of this illness. She failed you there.

Again. You can not argue with this illness. There is no MIL, just a collection of motivations all focused on creating trouble and drama. The people who successfully interact with these types of entities do so by 100% ignoring the drama. They keep it light and breezy, they ignore verbal digs and any attempts to instigate negative emotions, they leave the car running so they can make a quick and polite exit at a moments notice. People who interact successfully with this type of sickness see that it's sickness talking, that it isn't personal.

The MIL will continue to escalate and get attention for as long as you go no contact with her, but remain on speaking terms with other family members. I think you and your husband need to talk.

If I were you, and I wanted to remain civil with my husband's entire family into the future but limit the damage my MIL could do, I would either apologize to my MIL (even though you don't mean it,) or I would just start acting nice towards her without acknowledging that anything was ever wrong. In fact, I would definitely do the second option. Sure it's crazy, but what do you care? It's just an act to distract the illness from seeing you as a target! Once my ruse was successful and the illness was momentarily placated, I'd make SURE to be fakey nice-but-distant at family get togethers from then on. And I'd always leave the car running at the curb so I could exit immediately, but with a smile, whenever necessary. I would never read another letter. I start using my caller I'd and NEVER pick up the phone for her or listen to her voice mails ever again. I would stop caring about anything MIL did or said. I would blow off all the stupid things MIL does that involves my parents, husband's family or friends. If she ever fucked with my or my husband's ability to make money (career, employers, customers, online reputation) it would be the NUCLEAR OPTION and I would never be in the same room with her ever again. If I were you, that's what I would do.

In short, I think you can manage this into the future, but you have to stop being a victim. This illness likes victims. Stop feeling hurt, see this as the tragedy that it is.

I've said it a million times about my mother - she has an inner life I would not wish on my worst enemy. Your MIL has an inner life just like that. Developing compassion for the situation is not the same as allowing yourself to be vulnerable to it. You're in charge of how you react.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 4:29 PM on February 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Please, for your own sanity, cut off ALL contact with MIL: don't give her one more 'warning' that you're going to, simply DO it --- do not make or accept any phone calls or emails, and drop any letters from her straight into the trash (unopened, of course!). And while I'm sure Auntie is TRYING to be reasonable, I'm afraid that you're going to have to tell her that you do not wish to discuss MIL or anything ABOUT MIL with Auntie.
posted by easily confused at 4:33 PM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The only long term fix for people like this is to stop giving a shit about them in any way. She's a crazy old woman don't invest her with any power beyond that.
posted by fshgrl at 4:34 PM on February 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I was typing while you wrote your second update.

If you have PTSD you won't be able to manage fakey-nice-but-distant.

Cut off all contact with this woman and seek healing. There are fabulous modalities out there now. You CAN recover, and quicker than you think. Dump your therapist and find someone who understands your condition, because that one doesn't. You require a mind-body approach.

Stop depending on the Aunt. Stop making this personal. Stop playing the victim. A person has not harmed you. Instead, a pathology that knows no other way to behave, behaved exactly that way in your vicinity. It sucks, but it is not personal. It's tragic, but it is not personal.

Good luck. Maybe try framing this as a blessing and an opportunity? Without this experience, you might have labored on with the PTSD diagnosis. Now you've been given a wake-up call and can really tackle this thing once and for all.

I'll pop back in for some healing recommendations. I gotta google around for a second...
posted by jbenben at 4:38 PM on February 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: > He is still at the stage of repeating what the boundaries are, but not implementing consequences (eg, hanging up the phone when she starts lecturing).

A boundary doesn't exist unless there are consequences for trampling it.

The link above to Extinction Bursts is useful. If you don't answer 50 times and pick up on the 51st, it has the unfortunate side effect of teaching her that you'll answer if she calls 50+ times. And then, after 60 times, she'll call another 50 times just in case you'll pick up.
posted by bookdragoness at 5:15 PM on February 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: She will not get better. Live very far away. Do not have kids unless you are 100% certain of your husband because, if you two break up, she will make him hate you and work to turn your children against you. At least, that is what happened to me.

She has no right to contact your parents but you cannot stop her. You should not ever have to deal with her again. She is you BF's problem. Be loving and supportive to him. Let him know that you are there for him but you will not spend more than 15 minutes a week discussing her with him. Recommend that he sees a therapist on his own to deal with his mom.

I also had anxiety issues when my MIL was around. I was right to trust my instincts. She was and is a terrible person. She has always and still does speak badly about in-laws in front of their own children. There is no such thing as 'sanctity of marriage for her' only 'honor thy mother' and she is the only mother that applies to, in her mind.

Trust your instincts. Even someone with an anxiety disorder has valid instincts. It sounds like she is a real threat to your future happiness.

Be strong.
posted by myselfasme at 5:20 PM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

AskMe is all about the complete cut-off; you don't owe this person anything; they're not even human (seriously?). Well, your husband does owe his mother something, on account of she's his mother and bore and raised him: specifically, he owes it to her not to cut her off unless absolutely necessary.

You can cut off contact with her. She sounds like a royal pain, and you don't have to deal with it.

Your husband can still talk to her, but he needs to let her know that his wife is an off-limits topic. If she brings you up on the phone, "Love you, Mom, but we're not talking about that, so I'm gonna go now. Talk to you next week," and he hangs up. If he's at her house, "Love you, Mom, but we're not talking about that, so I'm gonna go now. See you another time," and he leaves.

Once children are in the picture, he can bring them for daytime visits, always supervised, and again, if she brings up anything nasty, "Bye, Mom -- kids, give Granny a kiss -- see you another time."

I think it can be hard for a person who grew up with dysfunctional parents to understand the much, much lower impact of dysfunctional grandparents and extended family on kids. Take it from someone with a functional, happy immediate family and a crazy extended family: it's just not that big a deal. Some of their shenanigans came from a place of disrespect for my mom, but it didn't affect my view of her at all. It's good for kids to see a variety of people who love them, even if they aren't all perfect reflections of perfect family dynamics.
posted by palliser at 5:21 PM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your MiL is using classic triangulation with your husband where she is not respecting your boundaries so she is still trying to communicate/control you through your husband. Either your and your husband are a team and cannot be split/triangulated or else he is feeding a sick system and your marriage will never be healthy. Considering he was raised by an alcoholic and someone with a high conflict personality he probably has not had healthy models for adult relationships. As noted above, he has not set boundaries if he is not enforcing them - he is actually making the situation much, much worse by giving her so much rope to hang herself and destroy any hope of a relationship with her.

That letter she sent was clearly an attempt to break up your marriage (make your husband realise his mistake in marrying you and telling him to return home to "mommy"). Her attacking your character, morality, parenting potential etc was a grievous insult and disrespectful to you AND your husband. This should not be okay with your husband and he needs to deal with this and show her you are his family (forsake all others...).

As part of her extinction burst she is planning on destroying your marriage (and any other marriage your husband attempts). Does your husband recognise this threat and is he prepared to act on it? Because from your description he is willing to sacrifice your feelings to avoid hurting his mom's feelings. As a husband, he needs to decide who to prioritise and stick with it.
posted by saucysault at 6:31 PM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

And in case it isn't obvious, she is creating a smear campaign against you where she is the victim (hence the aunt defending her).
posted by saucysault at 6:53 PM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Do the exact opposite of palliser's advice. She has crossed several unforgivable lines and it's time for your husband to cut off contact completely. Yes, I am saying in no uncertain terms that he must choose you over his mom. That is what marriage is.

And please don't ever subject your future children to this woman. No contact.
posted by spaltavian at 7:00 PM on February 17, 2012 [7 favorites]

Sure you can cut off contact with her and yes that sounds like a good idea but what you really need are boundaries.

You cannot control this woman she is crazy.
Seriously; visualize a fence around you and keep telling yourself that she cannot hurt you.

She craves a reaction, don't give her one.

You cannot control her acting out but you can control the hurt frustration that you feel from it.
You control your own feelings, don't let her have hold over you.

She won't get better, but you will
posted by ibakecake at 7:49 PM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

jbenben. Casting the OP as a too sensitive, foolish, tit-for-tat playing self-victimizer who doesn't have enough good sense to know if her own therapist understands and helps her strikes me as very similar in tone and spirit to the criticisms, bullying and presumptuousness that she finds so objectionable and hurtful in her MIL.

MIL is a sickness? Wow.

mild deer. You haven't described any effort to distance yourself from or contain MIL that strikes me as particularly cruel or harsh in proportion to her bizarre and extreme behavior. Theoretically cutting off contact completely is an option, but it may take time for you and your husband to clearly decide if it is a viable one. It sounds like you have a sound approach - develop and calibrate you're boundaries, therapy, and working together on experiments in who manages her and how.

It also sounds like you have a clear understanding that for you there is a direct relationship between MIL's behavior, your childhood and your current anxiety attacks. My only encouragement would be to keep exploring those relationships and working with your therapist on managing the knee-jerk anxiety and guilt. You have far more influence in this arena than anyone else.

Yes, you want your family to acknowledge and act as if your sanity matters. But counting on crazy-making people to acknowledge their crazy-makingness just makes for more crazy.
posted by space_cookie at 10:47 PM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

my therapist recommended no contact and to send a formal letter stating so (I called instead). What my therapist observes in people who do similar things to my MIL is that you can keep telling them whtever they want to hear, but they will continue to use it as ammunication against you. She didn't try to further psychoanalyze MIL.

This actually sounded very level-headed to me, so I too don't understand criticism of the therapist. Your therapist is rightly focusing on you, not the MIL. From your accounts here, and I'm assuming your accounts to your therapist, she is correct: you can tell these people whatever you want, you can even enforce boundaries, and they will use it as ammunition.

You don't need any more psychoanalysis of a third party your therapist doesn't know herself than that. My own therapist has never analyzed my mother; she wouldn't be able to... my mother is not her analysand, I am. What my therapist does do, and which is immensely helpful, is act as an informed observer of things that come up in therapy regarding my family. She's variously said (and I mention it because I too wondered if you'd married my brother, so the mothers sound similar) that my mother behaved immaturely, disrespectfully, neglectfully, manipulatively, dangerously, selfishly etc. and that given my surprisingly (her word) consistent, constructive and defensive-when-appropriate approach to her growing up, it's clear I did everything I could, more than most people would have done, and it's clear that continuing in such a destructive relationship would only have destroyed me. So no contact was the right choice.

Now. Your husband is the one who will need to make his own decision, and it's great he's in therapy too. As for yourself, and to your question: build a life you love, that fulfills you. Find things you genuinely enjoy, no matter how simple or whatever. The more you put into things like that, the more space they take in your heart, and the rough MIL stuff will naturally take up less – because it truly is unimportant. I don't mean that as a brush-off, I mean it as an abiding truth: she is fighting against something inside her; you are a projection screen. To protect yourself, yes, you do need to distance yourself and go no-contact. You, who knows for your husband yet, that's his decision – she has no real relationship or attachment to you, you are thus even more a perfect projection screen she can rip and tear apart with no feeling connection whatsoever. (My own mother used tactics such as "you killed your older brother" to devalue me and make me out as some sort of parasite, rather than her own choice, see, so that she could cut off an emotional connection to me and better do the objectification/projection screen thing. "My older brother" was a 6-month pregnancy that she miscarried. I was born 10 months later.)

So: it really has nothing to do with you, though of course her destructive behavior does, and so it needs to be made a moot point. Back to the filling your life with fulfillment: that does have everything to do with who you are as an individual. It takes time. It's taken me 5 years of true no-contact with my own family to finally get to a place where my base emotion is no longer fear (anxiety), but a stable contentment. Because I know that no matter who or what I deal with, my puffball cats will be waiting wide-eyed at the door when I get home; the little one will carry on chatter-happy conversations with me; the older one will quietly share how delighted he is. I'll have time to sew, garden, cook, write, and holy crap I live in France, the country I could only dream of one day visiting as a kid. Never ever ever did I even conceive of one day having dual French-US citizenship, which I do now. And then there are my friends! Friends I've had since childhood who are like brothers and sisters; teachers still in touch; new friends who are so neat too.

That sort of thing. My parents matter less and less to me. I'm my own person; my life has nothing to do with them. They fester and pester against me still, and I hear about it secondhand, and I tell the few friends in the know and they look at me, wide-eyed, and laugh.

So. Do that :) Encourage your husband in his therapy. He'll need to follow his own path; his history with her is different.
posted by fraula at 12:32 AM on February 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

edit for clarity: "Do that :) And encourage your husband [etc.]"
posted by fraula at 12:43 AM on February 18, 2012

When you marry someone, you marry their family. I wish I'd known that in hindsight myself, but that being said, I'd seriously question having children in this situation until after you have a really really good idea of just what kinds of communications are happening in his family, that he is strong enough to be your partner and supporter and that he isn't going to someday give in to his mother and make your life hell in the process.

I am in a much similar situation, and I try hard not to regret my decisions. For me the answer was, after 10 years of hell, to just quit interacting with my MIL and moving my family 2500 miles away.

You need to decide how you want to "be married" to your MIL, because no matter what you do, she will play a part in your marriage one way or another. You and your husband HAVE TO agree 110% on how she will be a part of your life, and it might take years of hurt feelings and strain in order to sort out how this is going to work, but first and foremost, your husband has to be on your team, not hers. You need to find a way to ensure that He understand that he is not allowed to knowingly or unknowingly game you in any way. I say this because He is probably not too aware of just how deeply he is affected himself, based on the description of his ma and pa. There may be or have been backchannel pleading, negotiating and bargaining going on between him and his family that you are not aware of. This may have been going on his whole life, or maybe it just started with you, but this system he is in with his family is a system he plays a role in. It is not seperate from him and he needs to understand fully how that affects you, and his relationship with you. He needs to watch what he says and does. You do not mention him being therapy, he needs to go.

Basically, MIL wants to break up your marriage, and you need to decide if you love your husband enough to be married into his crazy ass family.

Don't have kids until you've gone a few years into this with wide open eyes and ears and can trust your husband is not subject to manipulation and triangulation behind your back.

Some of the things I've heard said about me just hurt, and there are days where I think I can't spend another in my own situation, I wish I had a complete answer for you.
posted by roboton666 at 1:00 AM on February 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You might also benefit from depersonalizing this. Think of the big picture here: you do have other family members that you care about and like (the aunt, for one). You don't want your existence to be defined by your conflict with MIL. Rather than framing this as you-vs-MIL, think of it as an assertion of the values that matter the most to you and your husband. Values aren't about specific people, they're about the person YOU want to be and the life YOU want to live. Values are positive and not judgmental or cruel, but help give you the strength to deal with negative people.

Then *articulate* them to yourself, to your family, and -- if you have to -- to the MIL. Values like:

"We are building a peaceful and safe home, and so we do our best to handle conflict calmly and minimize drama." (This explains why you don't like to talk to MIL.)

"Our marriage and our future is important to us, and we work together to make decisions. We appreciate our choices being respected by others, just as we respect others' choices." (This explains why you set and assert boundaries.)

When your values are incontrovertibly good things, nobody can argue with them. And even if somebody does argue with you, what do you care, if you wholeheartedly believe in your values? Another benefit is that when you are discussing this with your friends and family (the ones whose opinions matter to you), the discussion becomes less about you-vs-MIL and more about you-and-husband-being-healthy-and-whole. You leave some space for a future time when MIL-the-person might emerge. Impossible as that sounds -- and it may never happen -- it allows you and aunt (for example) to stop discussing the merits of MIL as a person, and shift to how you and husband are handling this situation consistent with your values.

And, ultimately, your relationship with your husband and the process of building your OWN family are the most important things here.
posted by woot at 4:34 AM on February 18, 2012 [6 favorites]

If you have PTSD, you absolutely need to reduce your incidence of things that trigger you. In this case, I'd advise you to ask your sib not to tell you when it happens. Sadly, neither you or your husband can stop her from doing this. The only thing she wants is the only thing you're not willing to give.

But I'd also ask your husband if he's comfortable with blocking her number on the house phone. She can still call his cell. Have him set her number at vibrate, so he knows not to pick it up if you're around.

Her presence will start to waft away from you, at least, and help with the anxiety.
posted by corb at 5:03 AM on February 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: "This actually sounded very level-headed to me, so I too don't understand criticism of the therapist."

The OP has PTSD (which I missed at first because I was reading this on my phone) and I think that makes the therapist's advice to send a letter establishing "no contact" probably an even worse idea than I originally thought. It's the equivalent of saying,"Here's some gasoline - you know what to do!" Plus, not explicitly counseling the OP from verbally delivering the news was pretty irresponsible (a/k/a - stay away from that even bigger can of gasoline!)

So much of the OP's narrative had a back-n-forth element of unnecessary escalation. There are dignified and graceful ways to start being the calm and safety you require to heal from trauma, tools it appears the OP is not being taught. Also, the therapist's personal life (my mom's just like that!) has no place in the client's session. But mostly, I was concerned that the therapist's feedback didn't include techniques to de-escalate the situation. Or maybe there was a fair bit of that and the OP was not listening??Whatever. OP needs someone they listen to that provides proper tools that minimize risk and drama.

It's useful to learn how to speak up for yourself, yet this wasn't that teaching moment if the OP wasn't specifically told not to expect MIL to hear her, or that a move like that would be taken has a challenge and engender retaliation from MIL.


There are heaps of healing modalities out there for PTSD, but I was thinking of EMDR therapy.

I think there is evidence that endlessly going on about any trauma you've experience reinforces the memory of the event and any negative after-effects, while processing a traumatic experience and coming to peace within yourself is an entirely different path with true healing as a defined goal.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized everyone who finds their way out of these types of damaging entanglements, finds their own unique way out. The tools and assistance show up when you start looking for them.

OP, go beyond. Start researching. For some people it's working with horses or other animals (this a real thing! Google!), or acupuncture, meditation, martial arts, Buddhism - you name it. Get proactive. There is plenty to explore. You can get better. Time helps, too.

At this stage, tho, it's likely many of the things you think are a good idea, actually are not. So try and slow down before you engage. Give yourself absolute permission to simply say, "No thank you," and walk away from anyone or anything during this period of transition.
posted by jbenben at 10:00 AM on February 18, 2012

palliser's answer really described well the low-impact drama solution I poorly described. But it also sparked a question for me...

OP, is it possible your husband is the one triangulating between you and his mom, even subconsciously?

I assume by the time he married you, you were already "no contact" with your family. It sounds like his family is pretty bad, too. Maybe he's hoping you force the situation directly or indirectly and he'll have a plausible excuse to get out once and for all?

Maybe go ahead and gently notice any bigger patterns at play. Noticing doesn't make anyone a bad guy. Anyway, I assume your husband admires you, or else you wouldn't be married. If he is attempting to emulate you as he deals with his family, that might be interesting to know. If he's hiding behind you a little bit (or a lot) when it comes to his family, that would be helpful to know, too.
posted by jbenben at 10:18 AM on February 18, 2012

Response by poster: I have read through each of the responses at least twice. Thank you, MeFi hive. I really appreciate the opinions, stories, and advice you've shared.

I no longer see the therapist I mentioned in previous comments because I felt less and less confident about her as the months passed. I'm now seeing a different therapist, but we're only two sessions in. [Shopping for a therapist isn't fun. Sigh.] In any case, I have read 4-5 letters MIL has sent me and the therapist looked wide-eyed the entire time. It was the end of my session when I finished reading, and all my therapist could say was, "Wow, this woman is a piece of work."

I have spent a few hours browsing through the Narcisisstic Mothers forum. My husband even looked at it and said that 2/3 of the descriptions on one page matched his experiences with his mom. Thank you, young rope-rider for this resource. I will continue using this website as a reference.

This is the first time I've heard of the extinction burst. References like this help me keep an intellectual distance from people like MIL. Thanks supercres. Also, I like the posts about triangulation, which seems to be apparent in communications for the last year.

I didn't know that letting MIL know I was going "No Contact" was going to be so harmful. My husband has continued to remind her of our boundaries. However, the boundaries/reminders are leading her to escalate the situation. [We naively thought that communicating boundaries repeatedly was the compassionate thing to do.]

She sent another letter (in response to my husband's very short email about boundaries) since the last post here. She sounds crazier than in anything she's written before. Now she claims that my husband (her son) is disrespectful and is a dictator -- meaning she is the victim. And she attacked me oh-so-indirectly: she wrote that she was still concerned about me because she wants to know why her son has become such a mean-spirited and uncaring person.

So here's our action plan:

No contact: We've decided to do No Contact with his mother together. I notice that none of our boundaries have been respected, and this is where the MeFi advice/opinions became handy. Just telling her that I didn't want to talk to her anymore provoked her to send several more hurtful lectures. And I think jenfullmoon was right: MIL works very hard to get to me through my husband. Mr. mild deer sees what has been happening clearly and is completely on-board about No Contact. My current therapist also advised me to say nothing about not wanting her to meet our future kids because that would only provoke her further.

Aunt: My husband will talk to his aunt and establish boundaries about MIL. He will make it clear what we're capable of and responsible for. And while I think it will take some time, we both think the aunt is reasonable enough to respect our decisions about what kind of relationship we will (or will not) maintain with my MIL. I have also made a decision to stop sharing my thoughts about MIL with the Aunt, and focus our relationship on everything else we have in common.

Values: We will spend more time articulating our values about family, respect, kindness, etc.

Activities: There are quite a few things I'd like to do and have taken steps to fill my life with. Yes, filling my time with these things instead of spending hours thinking of and being scared of MIL has helped a little. I hope No Contact will help me stay focued on these activities.

PTSD: I will simply continue therapy and guess that it will take anywhere from 1-4 years to come to terms with my childhood family and the ongoing stress it has caused. Others who pointed out that it will be hard to be fake-nice are right. I have tried that already and that actually made things worse for me. I may or may not be overly sensitive, but that is irrelevant. What I want is to reduce triggers for my panic attacks. And it's hard to improve the situation and keep my emotions under control when there is a constant stressor waiting to push all of my buttons. I think controlling this one hot element -- MIL -- will remove the single largest source of stress for me to make progress in therapy.

Finally, I will do my best to not take MIL's actions personally. Distance is exactly what I need -- physical, emotional, and mental. No contact is the best thing I can do at this point.

Anyway, I hope this thread will help others. I will keep it open in case anyone wants to offer other final comments. Once again, thank you so much for the support, MeFi.
posted by mild deer at 8:30 PM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

« Older A Video Camera in Every Pot   |   How do you "check in" on a relationship? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.