How to disengage from a narcissistic, manipulative mother-in-law?
June 25, 2016 3:18 AM   Subscribe

My mother-in-law is a classic narcissist. I've known her since the mid-nineties, and she has always gone after me with offensive little comments and digs. If I objected she would say something along the lines of "I'm sorry you took it the wrong way," "You're just being oversensitive," or "I shouldn't have to watch what I have to say."

I married her son when we were both 23. We paid for our wedding ourselves, bought our first house later that year, bought an investment property a couple years later. Even though we were successful and independent, she'd always look for something to criticize. We had to play by her rules, or face her wrath. One year, for father's day, we had decided as a family that we were going to spend only half the day at the in-laws, because we had plans for the second half of the day. MIL was absolutely furious. She told us we needed to spend the whole day at their place, and if we were going to plan on coming out for the morning only they would make a point not to be there.

My husband drove out there -- nearly an hour drive one way -- and of course, they had locked everything up and left. She was true to her word.

Our family has also endured a Christmas holiday with dead raccoons left outside on the picnic table, and a dead coyote [photo] hung up with a bucket of blood underneath its head in the shed. MIL laughingly told our family about how they only caught a beaver toe in the leg-hold trap, and how they had to shoot the coyote 3 times before she died. My kids were preschool and elementary-school aged at the time ... and this was not the Christmas memory I wanted them to have.

When my children are at family birthday parties, my MIL will make a point of putting them in their place, too. At the last party, I was talking about my daughter's 5th grade graduation -- which my MIL did not attend, of course. And MIL interjected with something along the lines of "It's only an elementary school graduation, what's the big deal?" My daughter was there and I think she was hurt, although she is used to her grandma's off-color comments.

Recently, for this father's day, my husband went out to his parent's place for a half day. His siblings went out for the entire day. Apparently, after my husband left, my MIL sat my husband's siblings and their families down and had a huge tantrum. She told them how horrible I was, how she didn't like what I posted on Facebook, how I was keeping her son away from her. It must have been quite awful, because we got a text a couple days later from my husband's brother talking about what a horrible bitch I was to keep my husband away from his real family. Apparently I am incredibly disrespectful and rude.

The real reason my husband is not seeing is family as much is because my husband is a vice-president at a big corporation, and he's working on his MBA. He puts in 70 hours a week on work and school every week. Giving up an entire weekend day is a big deal. That's the main reason he not as available to his parents. It has very little to do with me.

I'm emotionally crushed by all of this and I really can't take anymore. I told my husband, "Honey, I love you, but your mom -- you need to realize that a normal, loving mother does not try to put her children's families against one another. You're used to this, but this is not normal!" My husband agreed, and he has said that he will take care of it. I want him to defend his wife and children, and honestly -- I would be very happy if we just cut off contact with my in-laws.

To protect myself and my own emotional well-being, I have blocked my MIL from my social media, my phone, and my email. I will not attend future family gatherings for the rest of the year ... I just can't handle it.

What are some other reasonable steps to take in this situation?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (44 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I honestly think you are doing all that you can do. You have set your limits, and you have asked your husband to deal with the situation and he has agreed. Therapy together might be good to decide as a couple how much contact is good for your children and what your husband's boundaries actually are when it comes to his own family. If he grew up with that kind of mother, it might be a good idea to explore some of his own assumptions about parenting, even though he sounds like a great guy.

I'm sorry you're going through this. Bad mother-in-laws sound like a joke, but my ex's Mom was also incredibly narcissistic and missing any semblance of boundaries and it caused me a lot of pain during our marriage. One of the good things about our divorce is I never had to see her again.
posted by frumiousb at 3:41 AM on June 25, 2016 [8 favorites]

The only thing I have to add is, protect your kids --- MIL does not ever get to be with them without your husband there, and if/when she pulls this shit then he takes the kids and walks out, on the spot.
posted by easily confused at 4:26 AM on June 25, 2016 [47 favorites]

I wouldn't let her anywhere near your kid either. The last thing this horrible toxic woman needs is a chance to turn your child against you too.
posted by Jubey at 4:30 AM on June 25, 2016 [18 favorites]

Do not engage with this person. Don't go over to see her, don't answer her phone calls, and don't let her in your home. Do not engage her in conversation if you're in the same place. If she does try talking to you, walk away. Expect the tantrums about you to increase. But you don't care because she is no longer able to impact you.

From your description I saw a lot of weird and disturbing behavior, but a limited amount of stuff I'd call narsassism. I gave you my advice for dealing with a legit, multiple therapists have declared narcassism person. I'm not getting that read here, but this should also work for really difficult person. It maybe is possible to deal with MIL, but you maybe would need to go to counseling with her and husband. Or maybe just get the advice of a really good one.
posted by Kalmya at 5:14 AM on June 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

we got a text a couple days later from my husband's brother talking about what a horrible bitch I was

That's completely unacceptable. What is your husband's response to these incidents? I would tell him that you are done dealing with his family until they can be civil to you. It's his responsibility, both to you and your kids, to either enforce a reasonable level of behavior around you guys or to keep them away from you.
posted by deadweightloss at 5:27 AM on June 25, 2016 [29 favorites]

Oh hi. Your MIL could be my stepmom.

Blocking everything, no contact, don't go to events where she will be there... all the best things you can do. Be like she doesn't exist at all. It's the only way I can deal with mine.
posted by kitten magic at 5:49 AM on June 25, 2016 [8 favorites]

I think the hardest part of these situations is learning to accept that for this group of people, you can never win your good name back. They will forever blame you for everything they lack from your husband, and you cannot change that. That's a bitter pill to swallow. I'm in the no contact with the grandkids camp. If they won't behave as rational human beings, they do NOT get rewarded for their shitty behavior by having the opportunity to bag on you to your children when you're not there to defend yourself. When they push back on this, your DH will have the responsibility to explain that they've earned it themselves.

I'm so sorry, I've been on the receiving end of my mother resenting the fact that I wouldn't blindly do everything she expected of me, and the associated family backlash. She called it loyalty, the circling of wagons, gossip and backstabbing. She thought that ostracizing me would force me to toe the line. She got the opposite, a complete withdrawal from the family. It used to make me sad to be left out, now after many years all I feel is relief, esp. when the drama drifts my way and I'm left thinking, hmm I wonder how that relative feels now that the heat's on them? (Because after a while they'll have to accept defeat with you and then your MIL will cast her eyes on her next victim.)

Lastly, remember the extinction effect. It will get quite a lot worse right before it finally dies down. When your DH does put his foot down, he will be subjected to extreme bullying and other techniques which he must resist. You'll know it's almost over when you don't think you can stand one more fucking incident. Just stay back and it will die down on it's own, like a toddler throwing a tantrum.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 6:59 AM on June 25, 2016 [27 favorites]

Your MIL is beyond toxic. Animal cruelty? Laughing about it in front of your kids? That is some flat out sociopathic behavior. I would never let the kids near her at all. If you can't please her then I would stop trying. She will abuse you no matter what you do.

Where is your husband in all this? It's HIS mother and you and he need a united front to deal with her and protect you.

You can't make her happy. Stop trying. Protect yourself and the kids from this person. And get your husband on board. He grew up with her so maybe he is just used to her. But trying to adapt to crazy will make you crazy and not affect HER at all.

I feel for you. It is okay for you to protect yourself, all right?
posted by sister nunchaku of love and mercy at 7:01 AM on June 25, 2016 [23 favorites]

This is my grandmother, you are my mother.

It is not good. It has never been good. My relationship with my grandmother has always been based exclusively around doing the bare minimum to please her so she won't hurt my parents in awful little ways. I wish my parents had never let me spend a second alone with her - as it is, some of my worst childhood memories are of times when I was left in her care. I wish my dad had been able to cut her out entirely without sacrificing our relationship with the rest of his family, who are all good, some wonderful, people. We all say that she's too evil to die. This is not the relationship I ever wanted to have with her, and have tried repeatedly to form a better bond with her, but to no avail.

When I got older and the internet became a thing I learned about NPD. To absolutely no surprise, the methods that are suggested to family members of people with NPD to help cope are extremely similar to the strange behaviors my family has organically developed to deal with her. None of them really work. I'm sorry.

Your mother in law has to want to change, and she has to somehow acknowledge that she lacks empathy. For some people with this kind of problem they can have some other mental health issue (or think they do) and get in with a good therapist who can identify the NPD and sneak in treatment for it on the sly. But treatment for NPD is all unproven and theoretical and difficult to test and the subjects are of course notoriously bad at self reporting. A better bet would be for you to budget for therapy for you and your husband and your kid to get some professional help handling the fallout.
posted by Mizu at 7:08 AM on June 25, 2016 [10 favorites]

What the whaaaat?

The only thing you need to worry about is your relationship with your husband. The MIL is easy. Cut off, no contact. 0%. And most certainly none for your children. Absolutely none. Should have done this long ago. (On reread I see you cut yourself already, great, but the kids thing is just as important. You must protect them, they can't protect themselves.)

How you handle it with your husband is another thing. I wouldn't insist he cut her off - you can't do that - just put your foot down that you and the kids won't be coming along. Maybe you could obtain some of the books recommended above, read them, and sit down with him and show him what you've been reading and let him know what you've decided is necessary to protect you and the kids from this madness. And let him know that you love him and won't pressure him, just that this is how it's going to be now and why.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:15 AM on June 25, 2016 [9 favorites]

What are some other reasonable steps to take in this situation?

The only reasonable step is to cut off all contact with her and any other family member who takes "her side" (looking at you, husband's brother). This includes not allowing the children to visit. You can't make your husband do anything, so it's up to him, but taking the kids over there? Hell no. It's ultimately harmful for you and them and serves no good person.

If there are sane family members, by all means develop a relationship with them. But otherwise, zero contact is the only choice you have here. Seriously, there's no other reasonable choice at this point, there's nothing you can do to please her, so stop trying.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:38 AM on June 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think you're doing the right thing, except you should cut of contact permanently. Don't go to events when the year is up. And honestly, your husband and the kids should cut off contact, too (particularly the kids; the husband is more optional, but it would be nice if he would take your side here and I'm concerned if he won't).
posted by J. Wilson at 7:55 AM on June 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

If the husband doesn't agree to cut off contact, it could be very difficult.

Is it possible this could be related to class differences and the Mom feeling like the son is not only separating from the family, but that his family thinks they're "too good" for them? The whole flaunting of the killed animals thing is making me wonder about this.

I mean, I'm vegetarian, and I'm not going to be happy if someone starts laughing about how long it took for a creature to die. Ugh. But if it wasn't intentional, I'm not sure it's actual, legally-defined "animal cruelty".

Her insistence that you guys do exactly what everyone else does and/or what she requests also makes me think she's essentially holding on too hard and very much not understanding that you might enjoy doing other things, which makes sense if her background is very different from yours. That, plus a feeling of powerlessness and desperation would be enough to make someone seem absolutely crazy when they're mostly, well, desperate and resentful.
posted by amtho at 8:14 AM on June 25, 2016 [6 favorites]

You and your husband need a consult with some sort of degreed mental health professional who can break it down and explain the situation with his mother and family to him. Your husband needs to protect his children, his wife (you) and himself from this abuse.

Sometimes when one grows up in a culture of abuse, dead animals on the porch seem normal. It's not. Your family should have gotten back in the car and gone out to a restaurant, and then home. You did not do that. You and your husband need to be on the same page. Big deal, an hour in the car only to drive home another hour. So what? The values and boundaries you could have taught your children in that moment would have been worth it.

Make up for all those missed opportunities and start setting healthy boundaries today. Get input from someone who can help your husband be on the same page. You don't want your children to think a family culture of abuse is OK.
posted by jbenben at 8:15 AM on June 25, 2016 [18 favorites]

The real reason my husband is not seeing is family as much is because my husband is a vice-president at a big corporation, and he's working on his MBA. He puts in 70 hours a week on work and school every week. Giving up an entire weekend day is a big deal. That's the main reason he not as available to his parents.

Your husband's busy-ness must not stand in the way of his loyalty to you. Please, insist on him putting you and your children first! Since weekends are precious, why in god's name would he dream of spending any time with his deranged mom?

For the record, in-laws are not your relatives. They're simply some randoms who are related to your spouse, but have nothing to do with you. Yes, if you want to get sentimental, the kids' grandparents, but this witch hasn't earned the right to maintain a relationship with them.

The photo and animal story horrified me. Don't visit a stinking tarpit of vermin hell when you can have family time in your own, peaceful home, and that includes weekends and ALL holidays. Cut the in-laws out like the malignant tumor they are.
posted by BostonTerrier at 8:16 AM on June 25, 2016 [10 favorites]

Yeah. The real reason your husband isn't seeing his mom needs to be because she's abusive towards him, his wife, and his children.
posted by jbenben at 8:19 AM on June 25, 2016 [20 favorites]

Since all the answers are clumping on one side, let me counter balance with the fact that I don't think grammar school graduations are very important and my grammar school didn't have one. Now, I certainly believe that your m-i-l is tactless and doesn't think about the feelings of other people, like your daughter, before she speaks. I certainly wouldn't enjoy spending time with her.
posted by puddledork at 8:21 AM on June 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

I agree with cutting the kids out, too, but I would seek guidance in the best age-appropriate way to explain to them what is happening. My parents cut ties to the family when I was young and I never understood why it involved me, but I assumed it did.
posted by Room 641-A at 8:26 AM on June 25, 2016

Go to therapy. You can't make him go, you may or may not need to make your children go, but you have bought into your husband's family's Sick System and it is almost impossible to extricate yourself from that without someone else to provide leverage.

Do it before this becomes your children's lives and affects their ability to form normal healthy relationships themselves.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:32 AM on June 25, 2016

Yeah. The real reason your husband isn't seeing his mom needs to be because she's abusive towards him, his wife, and his children.

This. Quoted for truth. I have a MIL who is just basically an asshole. I was really tired of hearing my husband say "she means well", which of course is another way of saying, "Yep she's an asshole but I'm not ready to deal with it yet". No one says "she/he means well" about someone nice/good/friendly/mature/whatever. Let's face it, they use that phrase and the just as annoying, "Well, her/his heart is in the right place" to dismiss shitty behavior. Now that my MIL's shittiness is becoming apparent to my husband and others, as it has all along to me, he is much better about setting boundaries. He calls her on her crap all the time now, which is great. I wish he had been able to take my side more years ago, but I will take what I can get, now.

Long story short: your husband has to be on board with this. He has to understand that his mother is being abusive towards his wife and children. That is NOT ok.
posted by the webmistress at 8:46 AM on June 25, 2016 [16 favorites]

My daughter was there and I think she was hurt, although she is used to her grandma's off-color comments.

Here's the thing: This is not the kind of things your kids should get used to. None of this is.

My (maternal) grandmother is somewhat like this. No weird animal sacrifices, but highly critical, often downright mean, very reactive, vindictive, etc. That whole pitting one sibling's family against the other? Absolutely. She did that with us grandkids too.

My mother never did anything to shield me from this. (Nor did my father.) Holidays were miserable. The only saving grace was they lived far enough away that we only saw them a few times a year. But I still dreaded it.

Sure, I learned how to play along, how to make nice, not to react to the small and large ways that she would undermine me/my mother, the little insults. And yes, if you got upset, it was all, "Don't be so sensitive."

There was one time, in particular, where she got pissed off (because I agreed with my mother instead of her about something). She went off on a rant about how I was cold and terrible and she couldn't possibly love me. (My mother saw the whole thing, said nothing.) By the next time, it was as if it hadn't happened, but I never forgot. I was 11 or 12 at the time.

I say all this to emphasize how important it is not to subject your children to this. (Nor should you have to put up with this, but you have a choice, and right now, your kids don't, so you have to put them first.) In retrospect, I see just how much my mother failed me by continually subjecting me to this crap and encouraging me to play along with it.

Don't do that to your kids. You can't change her. You can't reason with her. But you should do whatever you can to protect your kids. If you won't go completely no contact, then do the shortest, least frequent possible visits. The minute she says something rude or does something upsetting (like the dead animals), you and the kids should leave. Bring separate cars if you can't trust your husband to leave with you. Don't leave the kids alone with her. Honestly, since your husband doesn't seem willing to intervene, I wouldn't even leave the kids alone with him and your mother in law.

If you can go no contact, that's even better. It sounds like everyone is caught up in this dynamic. Your husband's siblings' response to this is completely unacceptable and terrible. No wonder you're fed up! You shouldn't have to be subjected to this either.

I do think a trip to a couples/family therapist could be helpful. It sounds like you might benefit from a third party to help you and your husband negotiate this. A good family therapist can also help you explain this to your kids in an age appropriate way. If your husband won't go, go for yourself.

tl;dr: Do whatever you can to get yourself and most importantly, your kids, away from this toxic environment.
posted by litera scripta manet at 8:47 AM on June 25, 2016 [26 favorites]

If I objected she would say something along the lines of "I'm sorry you took it the wrong way," "You're just being oversensitive," or "I shouldn't have to watch what I have to say."

Oh also...these things she's saying to you. So classic passive aggressive. Just repeat them back to her after you speak your mind. You for example:

"You're the most small-minded, mean, abusive person I've ever met and I will no longer allow you access to my children. Oh...what's that? You find that hurtful? I shouldn't have to watch what I say. You're just being oversensitive. It's too bad that you took it the wrong way". Mic drop.

Or words to that effect ;)
posted by the webmistress at 8:52 AM on June 25, 2016 [9 favorites]

There's lots of good advice here already. As others said, this is not your fault. She just chose you as an outlet for whatever problems she has.

If you're looking for a further outlet, I highly recommend the reddit community Just No MIL.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 9:34 AM on June 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

In a very similar situation, I was unsettled to realize that my own ego was getting in the way of cutting ties that needed to be cut. I hated giving my MIL the satisfaction of believing she was right about me (i.e., only a terrible person would keep a grandmother from her grandkid, right? wrong).

But if it's any encouragement, I'd spent years losing sleep over how to cope with her and how to protect my kid from her passive-aggressive criticism, and after making the decision it took a very short time to stop caring what she thinks. Occasionally I'm sad things weren't different, but I never obsess over it, which I did when I felt the need to keep her happy (maybe it helps that she couldn't be pleased anyway).

I'm an outlier in this regard, so YMMV, but I don't need my husband to run interference; I only need his acceptance of my decision to keep our son away from his mother. Frankly, his talking about me and my feelings to his mother only served to give her an opportunity to defend herself and make him feel guilty for pointing out her hurtful behaviors (he'd end up consoling her when she turned on her "never meant to hurt anyone; I'm so misunderstood" bullshit). He can decide whether and when he wants to see or talk with her (not often, as it turns out), but I choose to be left out of that entirely.

When my son was 10 or 11, my husband and I talked with him (together), and we found out he was relieved that he'll never be required to visit her and that he'd still never, ever be left alone with her. It can seriously confuse and damage kids to hear adults saying cutting things in a sugary tone of voice, but by a certain age, and with parents who have the kid's back, they have a surprising ability to see that something's amiss. We were as careful as possible to avoid disparaging my MIL, but it was helpful to our son to know that we saw the troubling behavior too. Again, YMMV.

Good luck to you. This stuff's not easy, but it is manageable!
posted by whoiam at 9:39 AM on June 25, 2016 [19 favorites]

I shouldn't have to watch what I say. You're just being oversensitive. It's too bad that you took it the wrong way". Mic drop.

Fighting fire with fire usually only leads to more fire. Plus, it's better to set a good example not only for the kids, and even for the husband, but also for one's self. If you act a like a thoughtful person, you'll understand yourself to be a thoughtful person, which will help you be calm enough to _be_ a thoughtful person.
posted by amtho at 9:44 AM on June 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

Your husband is throwing you and his children under the bus in order to avoid being the target of his mother's (family's?) abuse. This is not ok. You guys can't control your MIL but your husband can control his own behaviour - by refusing to use his wife and children as a shield and choosing to show more respect for you than his mother. He should defend you in words and deed, but you have not given even one example of him prioritizing you over his mother's feelings.

You don't have am MIL problem, you have a weak husband problem. Marriage counselling may help, but individual counselling would be even better. You can shore up your skills in advocating for yourself and your children and distancing yourself from people who are abusing you - which includes your husband.
posted by saucysault at 9:50 AM on June 25, 2016 [21 favorites]

Random dead animals on Christmas??? If you need an outside voice to say it for you, I will: YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW IS EVIL AND YOU DON'T NEED TO HESITATE A SECOND TO CUT HER OUT OF YOUR LIFE. If you can't do it for your own sake, do it for your kids: they do not need to learn that (a) this kind of behavior is normal and (b) their parents won't shield them from horrible people, but rather will force them to interact with them.
posted by praemunire at 10:10 AM on June 25, 2016 [16 favorites]

I wanted to point out that this is also part of the abuse cycle. Most people are aware of the cycle for physical abuse: Parent abuses child > child grows up, becomes parent/partner and abuses their own child/spouse.

There is the exact same abuse cycle for emotional abuse - training the victims to not advocate for themselves and redirect the abuse to someone "weaker". Your husband views you and the children as "weaker" people that will accept (deserve?) the abuse that would have otherwise been directed at himself.
posted by saucysault at 10:25 AM on June 25, 2016 [9 favorites]

It sounds like you've got most of this covered already by not engaging with her yourself, and I agree that you should keep the kids away as well and speak to your husband and make sure he's on board with the boundaries you're setting. He's an adult, this is his family, and he can make his own personal choices, but he needs to respect yours. Despite what his brother might think, you guys are his 'real family' now.

I also think it can be helpful to put these things in context. She is obviously from a very different background from yours. I'm pretty creeped out by the dead animals too, but I've been around enough hunters and farmers and such that I know that there are a lot of people for whom this sort of thing is normal. You probably know people who gleefully describe killing insects and spiders, right? Well, there are people who consider raccoons and coyotes as pests in much the same way. It's gross, I totally agree, but it's a pretty common type of grossness. That's one of those 'common sense' kind of things that result from people assuming that their cultural background is the default. In this case, it's probably both of you who think your perspective is the common sense one.

Similarly, graduation ceremonies before high school are a pretty new thing, and it probably seems strange to a lot of people who aren't used to that. So she could just be being a buffoon and saying the first thing that pops into her head.

Which doesn't excuse her or mean you have to put up with it, but it also doesn't necessarily mean she's got NPD. Like Kalmya, I am acquainted with someone with an official NPD diagnosis, after a court mandated assessment. It was a very long process, as the diagnosis itself is an extremely dire one and not something that a professional will consider until they've ruled out pretty much any other possibility. Colloquially, she sounds pretty narcissistic, though, in the sense of being controlling and self-centered.

I know this probably sounds facile, but it's really helped me dealing with snarky, gossipy, and/or passive aggressive people to train myself to not give a shit. Easy to say, hard to do. I don't have the time, energy, or the interest (this is the hard one) to suss out whether someone is being passive aggressive with me, so I will thank them enthusiastically for the clinical strength antiperspirant or the remedial instruction or the misguided compliment. If they're just being awkward or something, then no harm done. We're all accidentally inappropriate sometimes. If they were hoping to get a rise, though, tough shit for them. If they are too cowardly to address whatever they're trying to get at, I'm not going to bother with it.

And if you continue getting direct trickle down insults and criticisms, including trickling down from your husband (assuming the 'we' who got the text message was him, and not sent to both of you), shut that down. He should be shutting them down himself, and then maybe reporting to you afterward about it if you like, but if he's just relaying the messages to you, maybe just let him know you aren't interested in what his family says about you.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:27 AM on June 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

I agree with what others are saying; I would recommend therapy for everyone, perhaps including the kids to catch and address anything that has entered their thinking.

People have covered the biggest things. I have some questions about your husband's role and opinions. You wrote:

Our family has also endured a Christmas holiday with dead raccoons left outside on the picnic table, and a dead coyote [photo] hung up with a bucket of blood underneath its head in the shed.

The "our" should include your husband, but I didn't get a good impression of what his thoughts were on this. I am curious and you can't follow up, so just posing some questions: Was he used to this kind of thing from his upbringing? Did he warn you and serve as an "ambassador" about things like bleeding coyotes, letting you know what to expect so you (together) could make an informed decision about being around his family? Does he think this is normal or does he share your disgust and (almost more importantly) surprise? --was he "enduring" it as much as you were? If he knows to expect the kind of behavior you describe *and* hasn't taken many steps to protect himself and the rest of you from it, I wonder how much he is still being impacted by it all. And, given how fraught things are, I wonder if there is more behind his busy-ness than simply his career growth. Is he trying to avoid being around his mother and family, but not yet willing to tell them directly? If this is the water he swam in, he might struggle to be a good ally to you guys right at this time.

Also: I agree some of this can be understood in a contextual/cultural frame. Having dead animals around may be strange for some people but not for others. In this case they're part of a tapestry of dysfunction and verbal abuse, but on their own they aren't always an example of cruelty. I didn't necessarily see this in your question (except for maybe the photo), but it's come up in some of the answers and I think it can be easy for people to take this tack given a particular blend of class and geographic background. After all, hogs are killed this way in many cases, right? The way they laughed about the beaver? That is icky and I would remove my kids from that conversation. Dead raccoons on a table? Shocking, and possibly unhygienic, and not what "normal" people of a certain stripe would do for Christmas, but I'd try to let go of a strong moral judgement about it. Letting yourself have condemnation for a way of life that is just *different* might get in the way of sorting out what is actually wrong and abusive and inconsiderate.
posted by ramenopres at 10:51 AM on June 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

That's one of those 'common sense' kind of things that result from people assuming that their cultural background is the default. In this case, it's probably both of you who think your perspective is the common sense one.

This is not "we killed a hog and hung it up in the shed to cure" or "we shot a deer and we're butchering it out." This is randomly strewing animal corpses around and taking great glee in the reaction. Even if she doesn't herself personally react viscerally to animal corpses, that doesn't mean she can't knowingly deploy them to hurt people. The "oh, it's a different culture, we shouldn't judge" allowance is something an abusive person can exploit, just like any other social slack offered.
posted by praemunire at 11:01 AM on June 25, 2016 [16 favorites]

My grandmother was pretty mean to my mother (her DIL) while I was young, and even though she was painfully nice to me and my dad, I never, ever liked her for it.

She is digging her own grave in the eyes of your kids.
posted by samthemander at 11:05 AM on June 25, 2016

praemunire: exactly; don't be judgmental of the cultural differences, but separate those from the real problems. Otherwise, it all gets mixed together and the "oh, you're just being prissy" jabs are more difficult to deflect.

If you're clear that "no, I understand about hunting, but doing _this_ thing in _this_ way is a deliberate provocation", then, even if the perpetrator doesn't respond positively in the moment (she won't), there's a chance that your real reasons for being upset will be heard, maybe by her, probably by the husband.
posted by amtho at 11:16 AM on June 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

The anonymous OP can't answer for herself, but the husband grew up in suburbia. The "country" thing is a retirement thing. The "bloody critter" thing was not unintentional.
posted by notsnot at 11:24 AM on June 25, 2016

Yeah, about the dead animals, what everyone has said about different cultural frameworks is totally valid. My mother's side of the family are born and bred liberal, Jewish, New Yorkers, but I grew up in the South. I definitely knew people for whom this would seem unremarkable, or worth a laugh, or whatever.

But, I also can see how in this type of toxic and abusive environment that it all reads very differently. I imagine if you mentioned how upsetting this was to you/the kids that you would have gotten shit for it. Again, thinking of my own grandmother, I remember how we were in a restaurant once, and I was upset about them having duck on the menu. Not that big a deal in the scheme of things, but I really liked (live) ducks, and I was a young kid. Anyway, as soon as I said something about it, my grandmother made some nasty comment then went out of her way to order the duck.

My point is, none of this happens in a vacuum. It sounds like the episodes you mention in your question are just a few examples of a terrible pattern (although these alone are bad enough to make cutting off contact worth considering if a person didn't apologize, admit fault, change their ways, etc.)

If my mother had said we would never see my grandmother again, I would have been perfectly happy about it.

Oh, and if for some reason you do see this woman again with your kids, if she says anything nasty to you or the kids, then please, please, say something to her. You don't have to get into a pissing match, but it will be valuable to your children to see you stand up for yourself and them. A simple, "What you just said/did was rude/hurtful/unacceptable and I won't subject myself or my children to this kind of treatment" followed by you and the kids immediately getting up and leaving is all it takes. It shows that you will stand up for them, and it also models to them that one shouldn't put up with that kind of shit. Trust me, they'll remember you doing this, and it will count for a lot. I certainly will never forget the fact that my mother never once did this for me (with my grandmother or with my even more terrible father, but that's not relevant here).

And if you never see her again, you should still talk to them about this. Explain why you're doing this. That it's not okay for people to treat someone this way, that they didn't do anything wrong or anything to bring this on.

I had a therapist who once very diplomatically described my family as very "limited" people. There was nothing I did to cause it, and there was nothing I could do to change it. And that's how I would frame it to your kids. You don't want to go on a tirade about your mother in law, but you should acknowledge that some people are flawed and there's nothing that they can do to change this or cause it. All you can do is protect yourself. (Again, a good therapist can be very helpful for this kind of thing, especially making sure you break it down in an age appropriate way.)

I've included these personal anecdotes only to emphasize how this can seem from a kid's perspective and to help you from feeling like you're overreacting if you cut off yourself and your kids from this woman. None of this is intended to make you guilty for anything that's happened up to this point. It's easy to say in hindsight what one should or shouldn't have done, but all of you got caught up in this vicious cycle. The good news is you've recognized that, and now you can get yourself and your kids out of it.

Now, your husband gets to make his own decision about what level of contact he wants to have with his parents. It sounds like he was open to what you said about not putting up with this, and I hope he backs you up if you decide to cut yourself and the kids off from this woman. You might also want to set a boundary that, if he does continue to keep in touch with these people, that you don't want to hear from him anything that they had to say about you or the kids. I would also block all their numbers (not just mother in law, but also the brother in laws who said that crap, and anyone else who you think might choose to be her messenger).

I'm sorry you have to deal with all of this. It's awful having to deal with these kinds of people, but good on you for recognizing it and putting your foot down.
posted by litera scripta manet at 11:25 AM on June 25, 2016 [9 favorites]

Our family has also endured a Christmas holiday with dead raccoons left outside on the picnic table, and a dead coyote [photo] hung up with a bucket of blood underneath its head in the shed.

Oh man, I think I remember you. Yeesh. I think it would be reasonable to not only remove yourself from any interactions with your MIL, but also your children. However, your husband needs to be on your side for this. You need to talk to him about how he can run interference between his family and you. There's no reason you should be receiving a hateful text from your BIL. Husband needs to shut that down yesterday.
posted by chainsofreedom at 11:45 AM on June 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

The anonymous OP can't answer for herself, but the husband grew up in suburbia. The "country" thing is a retirement thing. The "bloody critter" thing was not unintentional.

I grew up in suburbia too, surrounded by people who had been there _before_ it became suburbia. Also, a lot of people move to suburbia from other places. There's no way to know where the husband's parents came from -- just these tiny stories to hint at one possible background.

Of course the thing was intentional. No disputing that. It's the intentionalness that's the problem.
posted by amtho at 12:18 PM on June 25, 2016

You can do your kids a huge favor by being explicit about what is going on here. "We have values and standards and we believe in treating people decently and we are not hanging out with the in-laws anymore because they do not share our values." The lack of respect for animal life is shocking, as I see it, and it is a very graphic thing to expose kids to. But, as had been pointed out, it's a very easy thing for people to turn around on you. So I would make this about the way they treat people.
posted by BibiRose at 1:14 PM on June 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

As to why it took you so long, you could point out to the kids that in families you try to accommodate personal quirks and tolerate differences but there comes a point where you draw a line, and that point has been reached.
posted by BibiRose at 1:18 PM on June 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

One side of my family is full of women like this. I find the only way to deal with them as a blood relative and a woman is to be more alpha than they are*. The men fail utterly to deal with them and spend their entire lives "humouring" them because ultimately in families like this the men are more important and even the worst woman who makes everyone miserable will never be seen as something a man needs to actually deal with. It's annoying as fuck.

As the in-law you are in the same position as my relatives wives, which sucks. Your husband needs to step up and he needs to realize that this is a real problem not women having one of their inconsequential squabbles that doesn't actually affect him. Which means it needs to start affecting him. Stop participating. If he gets a text like that say "oh" and walk away. Refuse to discuss, say "I'm tired of your family, I don't care". If you know he's taking the kids to grandmas, don't dress them up for a family event or buy gifts or send food, let him do it. Don't encourage the kids to be nice to her, and be as honest with them about how you feel about her as she apparently is about you. When the emotional labour falls on your husbands shoulders you'll see changes.

*this caused a pretty epic scene and I had to deal with their menfolk too but it's done now and I won. They're all afraid of me.
posted by fshgrl at 2:37 PM on June 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

If you do go to therapy, I'd try to find a therapist with expertise in Cluster B personality disorders.

Otherwise you can end up with someone who is trying to steer you in the direction of having compassion for this woman, working on the assumption that she really loves you and means well, etc., which if she lacks empathy, is a huge mistake.
posted by Puddle Jumper at 5:16 PM on June 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

Post this question on DWIL Nation.
posted by heigh-hothederryo at 7:24 PM on June 25, 2016

OP, you might find Reddit's r/JustNoMIL community helpful for this situation. Lots of men and women over there with narcissistic, boundary-stomping, belittling mothers-(and fathers!-)in-law, and they've built a nicely-supportive community.
posted by magstheaxe at 5:48 AM on June 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

My mother was narcissistic and bipolar. All drama, all the time. She said really unkind things, was manipulative, played us off against each other. I moved 1,000 miles away and lived without a phone for a year to cut the cord.

Read Stop Walking on Eggshells. Read about natural and logical consequences, which is a child-raising concept, but works well with selfish jerks. Decide how much time you will spend with/ near her; reduce it if she's a jerk, expand it if she's nice. If she says something unkind, label it "That's harsh" "Why would you say that to my child?" "I don't like it when you say hurtful things." She'll escalate. Leave the room, leave the house. Do not tolerate crap. She's a holy terror because it works, and when it stops working on you, she'll escalate. Be prepared.

She has positive qualities. Look for them, praise them. Encourage any good behavior. Teach your kids to be respectful, to see her good points, and to forgive her when she's a jerk, and also to not accept crap by walking way from it. Tell your husband that you will be enforcing good boundaries, that you understand that he wants to be close to his family, and respect his choices.

My Mom and I eventually had an okay relationship. Not great, but with way less drama, and some good times. It took years. She's not your Mom, distance will help.
posted by theora55 at 7:16 AM on June 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

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