A precedent is set.
June 8, 2013 3:15 PM   Subscribe

Should I wait for an apology from my mother-in-law, let it go, or none of the above? My IRL counsel is giving me mixed answers.

Newly wed, to a wonderful man with a difficult mother. The kindest way I can describe her is "incredibly unhappy".

She recently said very unkind things about me to my husband. Of course, he (gently) told me, because he knows that if I had found out later, it would have hurt me more than knowing right away, because I would have felt foolish on top of the injurious comments.

I see my options as this:

1. Hold out for an apology that is unlikely to ever come. I was leaning toward this only because of my own personal baggage of having allowed people to walk all over me in the past. I didn't think it through more than "She needs to apologize to me, or else...". I assumed that I would allow her to come to me and apologize. I would certainly be gracious, as I have already forgiven her. An apology would be more of an acknowledgment that her behavior was wrong and that she will be more respectful of me, my husband, and our marriage in the future.

2. My own mother, a very kind and understanding woman, told me that holding out for an apology may be futile and would ruin any chance of a civil relationship with MIL. "Forgive, forget, and move on." (Obviously, I come by my doormat tendencies honestly.) This is the kindest thing to do in light of my MIL's rough past and rough present, as she is currently dealing with some health problems. But, I feel that it gives MIL a pass.

3. This one is my latest brain child: I don't have to do anything. The onus is squarely on my husband. He needs to tell her that her behavior is unacceptable, and why, and that if it happens again, then X will happen, with X being her relationship with her son at risk. She doesn't care if I never speak to her again; I feel the only way to reach her and get her to behave civilly toward and about me is to know that my husband also won't tolerate her crap. And then my husband needs to put his foot down and follow through with action.

My husband has told her, repeatedly, that if she forces him to choose, he chooses me. That, if it comes down to it, she will lose her son. I have no problem with how my husband has handled his mother up to this point or in the heat of the moment in this situation. We have discussed this at length, and he said that he supports whatever I want to do.

I would like to go with 3, but before I bring it up to my husband, am I totally off-base? Is there another way I should handle this situation? I haven't done anything yet, so I can still go an entirely different route in handling it.

posted by anonymous to Human Relations (33 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You are not at all off-base. When I started reading your question, my very first question was, "Why on earth would her husband let his mother say those things to him???" He should very definitely shut her down immediately when she tries that, and let her know she's damaging her relationship with him when she tries it.
posted by jaguar at 3:22 PM on June 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

She didn't say these things to you, correct? She said them to your husband? Then the answer is 3.

The point is not to force her to cough up an apology (which may or may not be sincere). Clearly communicating to her what kinds of treatment are and aren't acceptable is the point.

You're exactly right that your husband is the one who needs to make that happens, because he has more leverage with his own parent than you do.
posted by ottereroticist at 3:24 PM on June 8, 2013 [12 favorites]

But, I feel that it gives MIL a pass.

So? Aside from her hurting you because she's messed up, does it damage you any to do this? Did you think you were going to just now teach her a lesson?

I'm all for minimizing exposure to people who are awful to you, but if you can let this go, just do. Revel in being the better person and just let it go.

Yes, your husband should acknowledge when she's being awful, but he can't change her either. It's up to the two of you how much exposure is okay, but beyond that you just kind of have to let her be herself.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:24 PM on June 8, 2013 [8 favorites]

Of course, he (gently) told me, because he knows that if I had found out later, it would have hurt me more than knowing right away, because I would have felt foolish on top of the injurious comments.

This is unclear. Why would you have felt foolish because your mother-in-law is saying bad things about you? Your husband has made this into a triangle. He shouldn't have told you. So, yes, (3), but also tell your husband that you don't want to hear "trash talk" about you from your mother-in-law ever again. He has to handle it (her) when it happens and it has to go no further than him.

(I'm not your therapist, though)
posted by DMelanogaster at 3:32 PM on June 8, 2013 [31 favorites]

Of course, he (gently) told me

When you're married, it is the two of you against the world. But that doesn't mean telling your spouse everything, particularly things that you know your spouse will find hurtful.

Unless your MIL said these hurtful things in front of a gathering and your husband is pretty sure you'll hear about it later, I would suggest considering what you share in future. This isn't keeping things from each other - this is protecting each other. Mr. Arnicae, for example, doesn't share some of the ire-inducing things our landlord says to him because they make my blood boil. We've agreed that he'll handle the landlord, and anything I need to know about, I'll know about. But he doesn't tell me every time our landlord stops by to make snippy remarks about the value of our car and style of interior decorating.

Also - if she is saying mean things about you to him, he should be handling that directly. If he's not sure what to say, you can practice a script together. Something like "Anon is my wife, please don't talk about her like that." And he should consider immediately ending the conversation or leaving if she won't quit it.
posted by arnicae at 3:42 PM on June 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Your husband needs to A) start cutting his mother off the moment she starts into criticizing you, and B) realize that he absolutely does not need to tell you about anything hateful she says to him about you.

If she were laying into you behind your back in public, that'd be one thing ("Just so you know, honey, Mom was ranting about you when I saw her earlier with Sister and Brother-In-Law; I shut her down but if Sister gives you a really big hug the next time she sees you, that's why"), but if he's the only person she's saying them to, telling you about it does nothing but hurt your feelings and perpetuate hostility and ill will.

(On preview, arnicae and I seem to be thinking along the same lines.)
posted by Lexica at 3:46 PM on June 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

My husband has told her, repeatedly, that if she forces him to choose, he chooses me.

This keeps coming up, it seems to me. Your MIL is putting your husband in a difficult position, despite him telling her she's doing so, and this has come to a head repeatedly?

I think the issue is that MIL is calling his bluff on any consequences he is claiming to bring to bear. She is totally getting away with it because he has threatened but never gone through with it, so she considered the threats to have no teeth. He needs to ramp up the defence of you if she is acting in a way that you find unpleasant, your husband knows is unpleasant and has tried to get MIL to stop.

Basically, bluff and posturing time is over. This needs to stop, and he needs to stop threatening sanctions and enforce them - apologies are indeed necessary if she wants a relationship that is comfortable for you both. If this is a problem, then it needs solving, and if your husband i supportive, he shouldn't let you take this flack.
posted by Brockles at 3:47 PM on June 8, 2013 [17 favorites]

Your husband should not be allowing his mother to speak of you like that to him, period, and he needs to be very clear about that with her.

This is something that can very easily become a huge, huge source of conflict and resentment in a marriage - my father's insistence on trying to please his irrational, emotionally abusive mother is one of the key factors that led to the breakdown of their relationship. You need to have a serious talk with your husband now about what is acceptable and what you expect from him when it comes to his family. You're a team, and if he allows his mother to come between you in this way it will damage your relationship. It gives her power she should not have. Seriously. Work this out with your husband right now.
posted by something something at 3:47 PM on June 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

And as far as how you should react - well, nobody gains anything by you holding a grudge, least of all you. I try to live by the principle that it's not my business what anybody else thinks of me. You can't change her. Accepting that she kind of sucks and not expecting anything different is probably going to be the strategy that results in the most sanity for you long-term.
posted by something something at 3:50 PM on June 8, 2013

Totally agreeing here with everyone. Your husband should flat out stand up for you, even when you are wrong, even when it's to his own mother. He can't choose his family, but he did choose you to spend the rest of his life with.

This is a conversation to first have with your husband. So, option 3. He is letting it happen in front of him. That's not okay.

If she says things in front of you, or things that follow down a longer grapevine to you, then I would suggest talking to her in person and letting her know that you are upset by things she has said. But at this point it sounds like she is only saying these things to your husband and getting away with it. He can stop that behavior.

Now, I don't know what she said. If she said "wow, she leaves the house kind of messy" and the fact is that you leave the house kind of mess.. then that's rude but not awful. Your husband should still stand up for you, but I don't think it would warrant a talk to MIL. However I am assuming that harsher things about you and your relationship were said, hence it bothering you.
posted by Crystalinne at 3:54 PM on June 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Number three. My husband and I lived with each other for close to a decade before we got married, and on top of that, MIL has known me since I was 16 (we met in high school).

We eloped mostly because we did not want to deal with months of nastiness from her, so instead we only got some extra-great lecturing about the way we got married.

Two or three years into living together my husband had to put his foot down, HARD. She starts shit? We leave. We don't speak to her until she learns to behave like a grownup.

But yes, he has to be the one to lay down the law here. I love my husband very much, but I don't know if I'd have made it through half her nonsense without knowing for a fact he had my back 100%.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 4:04 PM on June 8, 2013

Leaving the husband management portion of this to others, I'll address only whether you should expect an apology.
The only healthy expectation you can have of terrible people is that they will continue to be terrible in new and exciting ways. If you allow yourself to form any expectation that they will somehow unterrible themselves and do the right thing, even when it's spelled out for them, is essentially handing them detailed instructions on how to aggrieve you further.
In short, let this go. Then recalibrate your overall expectations to absolute lowest. If, by freak of happenstance, she does something not terrible, then hey! you'll be pleasantly surprised.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 4:07 PM on June 8, 2013 [22 favorites]

Option three. He needs to hang up, walk out, or step up and tell her that's enough. Ask him politely to do these things, and not to tell you any more of her nastiness, unless it's public, and then he merely needs to warn you so you aren't blindsided.

She sounds like a real piece of work. Ignore her. She's not worth getting upset about, and hell will most likely freeze over before she apologizes--or is honestly sorry.
posted by BlueHorse at 4:26 PM on June 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes, another vote that three is the way to go. And also that you shouldn't expect her to ever change. One day she might! But if you don't expect it, then hearing about awful things she's done will not have quite as much sting. Do try to limit your time with this person.
posted by Glinn at 4:27 PM on June 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Number three.

We deal with this at my house only it's my mom saying the out-of-line stuff. I shut that stuff right down. At times I have limited contact, not to be cruel but to reinforce my boundaries. As to results, they wax and wane.

As far as your feelings go, understand that this really isn't about you. This is about her, and her outlook on life, and possibly bad experiences she has gone through. It's sad, but in our case we understand that for reasons this is who she is, and we make the best of it.

So, hand this off to your hubby because it's his job. And give him a big hug and smooch for being a man and handling this, because sounds like he is and he is.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:44 PM on June 8, 2013

How about 4. Let it go, allow unhappy person to have her unhappy unkind thoughts, where they will affect no one but herself?

I know the high road isn't especially satisfying, but I don't see anything here other than her baiting for a response, and getting it. How about denying her the satisfaction and not rising to the bait in the first place?
posted by ook at 4:53 PM on June 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Another vote here for #3. You're never going to get an apology from MIL: at the very least, she'd say that since she didn't make the comments directly to you, she has nothing to apologize for.

So far your husband has done well --- he's made it clear to her that if it comes to it, he'll choose you over her, and that's the proper thing for a spouse to do. But he's got to take it further: he needs to clearly tell her that from now on, whenever she says these kinds of things, the conversation is immediately OVER, and he will leave the room/hang up the phone/etc. if she even STARTS insulting you. And then he has to carry through on that --- making the threat to walk away but not doing so would just tell her she can keep doing what she's been doing.
posted by easily confused at 4:55 PM on June 8, 2013

Your MIL doesn't need to apologise to you, at all. Your MIL should apologise to your husband for insulting his wife. And your MIL isn't a child; she doesn't need to have consequences laid out for her like a toddler. Just "Mom, it isn't OK for you to talk to me about Anon the way you did last week. She's my wife and I'll thank you to keep your opinions to yourself."
posted by DarlingBri at 5:04 PM on June 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ignore her. Playing the tit for tat, waiting for apologies and keeping score is letting her win.
posted by gjc at 5:32 PM on June 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Here are some ways for him to stop her Mom, you know how much I love Anon, so you just can't tell me stuff like that She continues. Gotta go now, Mom, love you, hug, kiss, and out the door.
Aww, jeez, Mom, it's just not fair to put me in a position where I know you think this and I hate to tell Anon, because it will really hurt her feeling, but I tell her everything She continues. Gotta go now, Mom, love you, hug, kiss, and out the door.
Mom, you're too loving a person to be talking this way about Anon, who, I may have mentioned, is the love of my life. She continues. Gotta go now, Mom, love you, hug, kiss, and out the door.
on the phone it's Gotta go now, Mom, love you, bye click.
I used this technique to teach my Mom not to say mean things to me. It took time, esp. as I'd already moved 1,000 miles away, but it worked. I also always had a mental list of topics to divert the conversation, so she might start to say something mean, I'd say Ouch, that hurts my feelings. So, what have you heard from your sister lately? Is she still into bird-watching?
posted by theora55 at 5:32 PM on June 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

#3. Consider it a good test on the firmness of your husband's resolve. But be warned, no man is a hero to one's wife.
posted by jadepearl at 5:49 PM on June 8, 2013

I have a difficult mother-in-law. She has been unkind to me in both aggressive and passive-aggressive ways. I think it's unrealistic to expect my husband to cut her out of his/our lives; she has done a lot for him and he loves her very much.

Where I am after some 15 years or so of dealing with her is, it's important to me that I know my husband knows when her behavior towards me is mean or unacceptable. One thing she does is, when we visit, she deliberately cuts me out of conversations. I ignore it -- and at this point kind-of laugh about it because it is a sad strategy for a grown woman -- but I couldn't ignore it until I had pointed it out to my husband and discussed it with him, and he watched and said, "Oh, yeah, she is doing that." But we don't really address it directly because it's not really hurting anything.

When she is being more what I'd characterize as "shit-stirring" towards me (usually by explaining how I am parenting wrong), I say things like, "I'll definitely keep that in mind" or "Thanks for the idea" or "I think I've got it handled." I'm neutral in tone, but pretty firm that the conversation is over. My husband is on board with this and knows I'm being self-protective towards a person who isn't very nice to me, not curt or mean.

When she is pursing a line of conversation that actively upsets me and gets me wound up (she said some pretty awful things when I was pregnant and emotional), my husband deals with it and tells her to drop it and leave me alone.

Anyway, she's pulled off some seriously bullshit moves (I don't use this sockpuppet often but if you memail me and I see it, I am happy to share privately) and most of the time the best strategy is to ignore it and to refuse to let it affect me. She won't ever apologize because she doesn't think what she's doing is wrong. I send her birthday cards, mothers' day cards, pictures of grandchildren, appropriate gifts, etc. Because for me, the final point is, my husband loves her, he knows she's difficult, and *I* want to make his life easier and more pleasant. So I don't engage with her shittiness, for his sake, and I ignore 99% of it (since I know he's in sympathy with me). However we also live on opposite coasts and don't have to see her in person too often because she no longer really travels. If she lived two houses down I might draw somewhat different boundaries.

I do think it's appropriate for your husband to tell you, btw. I mean, after 15 years my husband doesn't go into specifics (unless it's important or about our kids) but will say (with an eye-roll), "My mom's being weird about your underwater basketweaving hobby." I, too, feel it's important that I know she's being a jerk behind my back and that he is upfront with me about that (and not participating in secret conversations about my awfulness with his mom, you know?) but I don't really need to know the specific ways in which she's being jerky.
posted by Sockish American at 6:08 PM on June 8, 2013 [7 favorites]

I think you should call her on her bullshit. Get her on the phone and tell her if you EVER hear anything like this again, she will never meet her grandpuppies, or grandchildren or whatever you have planned. There is not room on Earth for this passive-aggressive crap, and the only way to stop it is to get in her face, period, and the quicker the better.

If your husband thought he was doing you a favor, he wasn't, and you need to talk with him about that, too.

I went through about a year of this kind of behavior, and direct confrontation cleared it up real quick.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 6:10 PM on June 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

You are owed an apology- from your husband. He should not have told you what his mom said. He should have defended you in the moment and never mentioned it. That's what real men do- they protect the women in their lives. Your mother in law isn't the problem, her son is. I would work on him. If your relationship is strong with him and he matures into a man who will protect you, then it won't matter what she says.

Option 3, if I have to choose.
posted by myselfasme at 7:05 PM on June 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I feel the only way to reach her and get her to behave civilly toward and about me is to know that my husband also won't tolerate her crap. And then my husband needs to put his foot down and follow through with action.

This. But he is tolerating her crap, and he's not putting his foot down.

If he can't learn to back up his words, further declarations that he will choose you over her will only get you what you've already gotten.
posted by yohko at 7:09 PM on June 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

3, and be forewarned that if he can't put his foot down now with his mother, he will never be able to, and in my opinion that makes him a very lousy life partner.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:38 PM on June 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't know what you should do. It depends on what you want, so let's explore that. With your mother-in-law:

1. You might want to display power. To force her to submit to you via an apology. With a person like this, it would require force and it would make her lose face to apologize.

2. You might want to keep the peace at all costs. This could mean refusing to react to her, letting it roll off you, never objecting.

3. You might want to establish your husband and yourself as a solid team, backing each other up to outsiders. This could mean asking him to establish boundaries around what she is allowed to say about you while still continuing a conversation with him, as detailed by others above.

4. You might want her to like and respect you more. Without details, I don't know what this would entail. Maybe she isn't interested in liking any other woman in her son's life. Maybe she is but something isn't working for her. Would the above aims make her respect you more or less?

5+. You might want something else. It's useful to consider the outcome you're aiming for before picking a strategy.

It's also useful to consider the outcome she could be aiming for. Even the most difficult people are usually not actually out to get you. (Some are. Most hurt you accidentally with another goal in mind.)

Of course, your negotiation with your husband is a whole other ball of wax and this is a useful exercise to consider there as well.

Sometimes asking for an apology forces a person to defend themselves, and this can entrench their original negative position. A soft answer might allow them an out so they can later contradict those ugly words without losing face — apologizing without the pain of having to apologize. She hasn't yet said these words directly to you, so you have some room here. The high road is a tricky one but the results can be really incredible.

A book that might be useful as you navigate this: Don't Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training

I know, it sounds like a weird book to recommend, but this book made me think about my options with difficult people so differently.
posted by heatherann at 7:51 PM on June 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think Sockish American has a really important long-term perspective - your MIL is likely to be a player in your life for many, many years to come.
1 - remember that you and your husband are the team here. you want to feel confident that he is on your side (and it sounds like he is) but you also don't want to make things even more difficult with his mother than they need to be.
2 - work hard at maintaining perspective - she is going to thow a lot of garbage at you. save your outrage for the ones that really matter (again see how Sockish Amrican does this)
3 - remember that you are in charge of your own feelings. if it is possible for you to feel some pity for her - you said that she is a deeply unhappy woman and her behavior has every thing to do with her unhappiness and very little to do with who you really are, you may find that you are less distressed by her behavior. this doesn't mean you need to condone it but rather that the bad behavior is unfortunate but not a dagger to your heart.

your husband has the really hard job - how to manage his relationship with his mother in way that respects his own values (and his own marriage). you don't need to be a demanding here because what you want is already what he wants. work on being his ally, helping him to navigate a path that appropriate towards the woman who is mother while still standing up for himself and his life partner.
posted by metahawk at 8:19 PM on June 8, 2013

Your mil is jealous - you took her son away, and he prefers you. She will continue to try to belittle you because of this. Also, you are young and she is not; she is probably 'losing her looks' and it bothers her. What massive change do you think you could make in this rude woman by way of a confrontation? You are secure, she is not. She is an unhappy person with a sick personality.
Think up some non-cutting remarks. "Are you still worried about that?" "Didn't you exhaust that subject last week?" " How sweet of you to worry about that." Your husband will appreciate your kind forbearance.
posted by Cranberry at 12:22 AM on June 9, 2013

As someone with a mother who has been critical/difficult to my ex girlfriends and now my wife (though rarely with my wife)...

In my experience, the best thing for you to do is try to understand as best you can that this is about his relationship with his mother and its toxicity and less to do with your relationship with her son or who you are as a woman.

Does he need to learn to set boundaries? Yes. Will than happen overnight? To my experience, no.

I can say, however, that the best way I found to improve the quality of my romantic relationships was to work on my relationship with my mother. Through communicating, and more importantly through demonstration, that while I love her, I am a grown man and no longer a child, whether that be critiques of my SO, the clothes I wear, my weight, or my career choice. And let her know through my words and actions that while I will always love her, the proximity of that love is dependent on my right to have my own adult life.

It took about a year of guiding conversations away from negative talking points, and gently setting boundaries, but our general relationship has improved, and she is not as enmeshed in my daily life.

Does she occasionally "go off" in private about my wife? Unfortunately, this does happen, but the frequency is about one or twice a year, and I quickly end the conversation. The only thing I tell my wife is that I'm upset with my mother (and only if she notices or asks) and I leave it at that, so as to not start the candle burning at both ends.

I continue to work on my relationship with my mother, and establish more appropriate boundaries, and as our relationship gets healthier, so do the criticisms diminish.
posted by Debaser626 at 12:32 AM on June 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Some of the happiest people I know are the ones who have risked the relationship with damaging parents in favour of more important nurturing relationships. The 3rd option is the best I think.
posted by BenPens at 5:48 AM on June 9, 2013

I think you have a role in this that's overlooked: supporting your spouse with a difficult parent. If you're tearing around being upset over this terrible person being terrible, you're not helping to address the issue at hand: he has a serious problem parent. And that burden falls on him.

If she said stupid mean things about you, so what? We already knew she was stupid and mean. It's not like she's successfully undermined your relationship with your husband, which is surely one of her intents. But what she has done is (successfully!) made you mad AND made herself a subject of discussion in her home.

In that way, the troll wins.

So the real job for the two of you is to work together to help him manage his relationship best. Does that mean he has to confront her? Maybe! Not always. Sometimes these kind of people are just looking for a fight; maybe that's exactly the toxic kind of engagement that she wants.

I find that when people are delivering ultimatums ("Act like this and I'll choose her!" "Continue to behave like this and you'll never see your grandchildren!") it's just making themselves feel better and propagating drama. Adjust your lives accordingly. If you have children and don't want them near this mean horrible person, just don't arrange for them to be together.

I don't think this is a case about being a doormat or not. This is a case of playing for results with your teammate. What results do you want? One result that you don't want, I suspect, is for your spouse's life to be more difficult, just as he does not want yours to be more difficult.

So when you say "the onus" is on your husband, while that's technically true, since he's the one dealing with her, but it's actually isolating him from you as well. So he goes to see her, he comes home, and then you're like "Well? So what did she say? And what did you say back?" And then he's caught in this web of ensuring that you're satisfied and not upset after having dealt with a gross situation, and honestly that's just exhausting. What if, instead, when he came home, you asked after him? How's he dealing with having a horrorshow for a mother?

This all gets very Shakespearean, the family insult. Your honor is insulted, so you want to go to war. That's natural! I get and hold grudges, and want to make people pay. But that's lose-lose.

Think of all the other ways you guys could be expending your energy. And consider the source of the insult. That source is ludicrous. She sucks. You all know this. Move on.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 7:32 AM on June 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another vote for #3. Your husband should deal with her because (a) she told him not you directly; and, much more importantly, (2) your husband should deal with all things related to her and his side of the family. You should deal with your side of the family. Keeps things easier, in my opinion.
posted by juliagulia at 8:36 AM on June 9, 2013

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