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Ask the Rabbi/Psychologist: Mother-In-Law from Hell
Ask Rabbi/Psychologist

Ask the Rabbi/Psychologist: Mother-In-Law from Hell

Should I tell my husband it’s me or her?

by and


My husband and I have been married for eight years. We have three children and are usually happy. We fight most of the time over his mother. She is widowed and lives just down the street. She comes over four to five times a day which started right after we got married. Five minutes after he got home she would be at the door. Several years ago I found out she made her own key to our house without our knowledge from a set that was accidentally left at her house. She has no problem using it and just walking in when she feel like it. She tells lies around town about me and when confronted, denies it. I have caught her myself.

My husband refuses to believe the incident saying it was taken out of context. She has input on everything from the TV we watch when she is here, to telling my children how to behave. I feel that I am the outsider in "their" marriage and am about at the end of my rope. I am considering a divorce, but would like to save my marriage. I can't do it alone. I need help from someone.

Dr. Michael Tobin

Dr. Michael Tobin's Answer:

I read your letter a few times and after each reading, I said to myself, "How is it possible that in the same paragraph that she writes about the mother-in-law from hell, she describes her marriage as 'usually happy'?" Something doesn't compute. Your description of your mother-in-law puts new meaning on the word "intrusive." What's even more problematic is the fact that your husband doesn't seem to get it. As you see it, your husband is more interested in his mother's welfare than he is in yours. The picture that you describe is absolute poison for a marriage.

So when you describe your marriage as "usually happy," it more than begs the question of how it's possible for you and your husband to put aside your chronic mother-in-law crises - especially since she's in your space five times a day - and still connect as husband and wife.

The Torah says, "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife" (Genesis 1:24). In other words, the first principle of marriage is that a husband must establish a new family and that new family takes precedence over his family of origin. The health of a marriage has a great deal to do with the boundaries that a couple establishes to protect and preserve the marriage. Just as you don't invite your children into the middle of your marriage, you also don't invite your respective families either.

A man who is still attached to his mother in an unhealthy bond is unable to create a mature relationship with his wife. Although this is not the format to go into a detailed psychological explanation to prove the efficacy of that statement, suffice it to say there are no exceptions. To put it simply, it makes sense that you're suffering. The situation is untenable and if it continues, it will lead to divorce or a lifetime of marital misery.

You and your husband need to be on the same team.

If anything is going to change with your mother-in-law, you and your husband need to be on the same team. Where is he in all of this? He may not believe that his mother told lies about you, but how does he feel about the amount of intrusion that you experience from his mother? What was his response to her letting herself in to your house and parenting your children? If there is any agreement between the two of you about the inappropriateness of her behavior, you may be able to work together to set some boundaries.

Perhaps your mother-in-law would be open to some gentle help from her son to "getting a life of her own." If your husband doesn't understand your distress and his role in it, you may have to force him to choose who he wants to be married to - you or his mother. You don't treat cancer with a band-aid and you don't cure an in-law problem of this magnitude without being willing to confront the problem directly. I would suggest that you make it an absolute condition that he join you in therapy.

Your husband needs help in understanding the ties that bind him to his mother and how to extricate himself from this relationship. Undoubtedly, he will have to deal with her rage and/or depression as a a reaction to any attempt he makes to create healthy boundaries. He will need your support and understanding through this process and you will both will need the guidance of a professional.

I encourage you to take immediate action in order to save a marriage that I can only assume has a great capacity for happiness.

Rabbi Yaacov Haber

Rabbi Yaacov Haber's Answer:

So you have three children, are ‘usually happy’ and are considering a divorce. Why? Because you married your husband and not his mother; your ability as a wife and mother are being questioned and scrutinized, and your privacy is being invaded.

I suppose the most obvious answer to this painful situation is to do whatever it takes to get your mother-in-law out of your house and life. Being that the only person who can really achieve this is your husband, you could simply tell him, ‘It’s your mother or me!’ In other words, he has to be a man and stand up to his mother.

Bad advice. I wonder if doing this would make things better or worse.

In all likelihood, you will be viewed as the insecure, paranoid, selfish wife missing the basic respect that one should have for the previous generation. It certainly won’t hush your mother in law – in fact, it will probably do the opposite - and it’s quite possible that your ‘usually happy’ marriage will turn sour with an irreparable breach between your husband and yourself.

When you married your husband, you also married a family with all its positives and negatives.

What’s the other option? The more difficult one. Understand that when you married your husband you did marry his mother, because you married a family with all of its positive and negative points. Your mother-in-law is a challenge but at the same time she is a reality in your life. She is as real as one of your children, your financial situation or any health issues that may be abound.

God sometimes challenges our lives in an uncomfortable way because He wants us to reach our full potential in life. We can push away the discomfort and search for relief, or we can look at life's situations and struggles as opportunities to confront ourselves and who we really are.

There is no doubt that you are in a difficult situation. But even if you can’t change the externals of the situation, you can change how it affects you inside.

Think to yourself: Why does it bother you so much what your mother-in-law thinks of you? Why would you think of divorce if you are ‘usually happy’ and have three children? I’m sorry to be harsh but considering the severity of the situation and the lack of other options, perhaps it is time you address your own insecurities and teach yourself to rise above.

First of all, make sure that your mother-in-law’s criticisms are not true. Introspection is the first and main step to growth. Have a meeting with your husband and explain to him that you want to grow together, and as individuals in your partnership. Tell him that you yearn to be a team.

When you are sure that your own house is in order and your partnership is solid and confirmed, the two of you should sit down with his mother and explain to her, with one voice, how you respect and appreciate her and how you want her to be part of the family. Have a conversation about how you want your home to be; about how decisions are made in the family and how privacy is honored. Invite her to be part of the family, according to the principles of the family.

Be secure with yourself and your husband, take charge of your lives and live happily ever after.

Published: July 15, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 83

(66) Anonymous, October 14, 2013 6:58 PM

your comments helped me

It was very useful for me to read the original letter and all the responses. I thought I was isolated with my problem and now I feel more connected and reassured. My mother in law is not very nice. She did not like me at all when we met and for 5 years she made comments that hurt my feelings. Whenever I told my husband, he would reply that I do not understand his wonderful mother. I am a professor and scientist working in an Ivy League School and my mother in law went as far as telling me that my job was worthless. My husband is constantly checking his phone, even during moments of intimacy, in case she calls. She is constantly nagging about things and he lives his life to please her. Sometimes even saying irrational things. In 6.5 years we never went on vacation or left New York for more than 3 days because he cannot be far away from his mother. He told me that he feels extremely anxious when he is far away from her. I am not sure how you can make a relationship succeed when your husband does not want to listen in the first place. Although I found the advice of the Rabbis very positive, I don't think that advice can work with a completely brain washed person. I would like to know if some of the people that wrote on this blog are still married or they ended up divorcing. I love my husband but sometimes I do not see a a feasible solution.

Anonymous, November 14, 2013 3:38 PM

Anonymous - it's tough but dont give up!

Anonymous, the comment u posted on 10/14/13 broke my heart. You have a really tough situation. I have a bad MIL but my husband mostly agrees with my grievances when she is rude, hurtful, or deceitful. It took us a while to get there (3 yrs too!) but it helped that I took my father's advice:

To my dad's first point, when highlighting something she did to hurt or offend me, I always state what her perspective probably was - AND I GIVE HER THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT. Similarly, I do pay compliments about her to him about how she did such a great job raising her kids and how I admire her strength and faith.

I also say many nice things about his mom.

Turning to hear, I launched a quest to get her to feel a little less antagonistic towards me (my crime? marrying her beloved, favorite son). How? 1. Inviting her sometimes and saying Now is not a good time other times. This way the control of our space and time turns to us and but she isnt being shut out 2. Thoughtful gifts for mom's day, and birthdays, and anything else! I bought her a necklace from amazon that had inscribed something beautiful about Mothers, and she cherishes is. It brought her closer to me. 3. When she gives unsolicited advice - treat it as advice from your manicurist. You nod, smile, say hmmm interesting. Perhaps t hat would work though this is my concern X, but I'll think about it, thanks!!!!!!!! And that validation is all she needs. Go on and do whatever the heck you wanna do, btw.

Last part is working on your relationship with him. This is general marriage building and there are many great books out there to help (and articles on Aish actually!). We like "Getting the Love you need."

PS a good inlaw book: Toxic In Laws - Loving Strategies for Protecting your Marriage. Good luck!!! STAY STRONG! You guys are worth the effort!!

(65) neha, September 16, 2013 6:49 AM

your mother in law is your family

you talk to your mother in law directly , what you like and dislike,, and her interference is spoiling your married life..

you dont forget that your mother in law is widow and she is also your husband's responsiblity just like your are and she if she is parenting her grand child its not something you call marriage breaker reasons. try to devleop good relation with her.. you cant just side out her from family. your husband needs you also so dont ask him to choose btw you n his mother. you sound bit insecure. your insecurity is reason for your marriage problems.. talk to your husband and mother in law. and say you dont like much interference of you mother in law.

anonymous, January 29, 2014 8:53 AM

Agree to Disagree

Some of what ur saying is true. I have also been involved in the same type of relationship with mil.(9years). Do not ever call it insecuritys!!!. Its a lack of respect for you!!!! No one has the right to treat anyone so rude. Especially the woman who is going to be there for her precious son when MIL passes on. The MIL is doing it for the control, seems to be like a drug for her. Stop giving her control over you, shell freak out , then find someone else. Lay boundaries and stay firm, just like you would for your children. Everything will be ok, stay strong.

(64) Nana, February 7, 2013 2:48 PM

You cannot win this one my darling

I have been married for 3 years and in all those years I have learnt 2 things:It takes a certain type of man to be able to standup to his mother when they are wrong. 2. Even if you are lucky enough to be married to a man who will be able to see your mother in law's antics, you (the wife) are going to be expected to be understanding and forgiving because "That's just who she is". They have enable her to be insuffereable all these and expect you to join them. I know it does not solve anything but I just stay the hell away from my mother-in-law. I've decided she's bad for my emotional health and to protect my emotional health coz my husband sure wont. Most times we make so many sacrifices for our husbands and families and forget about ourselves. You need to do what's best for you coz no one else will. The house you live is also yours so all you need to tell your husband that his mother's presence is detrimental to your health so he must try and be considerate. Suggest for him to visit her instead. Peace

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