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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: 88

(69) Heidi Stokes, November 9, 2014 9:01 AM

A control mother in law

My mother in law interferes with our plans since we got married. She always likes to contra my husband, and I am getting tired of it. She likes to control our money, likes to control when we should have our children and gets upset that we don't celebrate the holidays of this world. He is the only son. My husband is in denial because he does want to see or accept what his mother does. Even my parents found out how she treats me. I am tired of it. What can i do?

(68) Christine Nation, June 22, 2014 6:14 PM

Doing my mother in laws job

My time is devoted to caring for my husband’s Grandmother, which is often, times is harder than you would think. I know that this is not my family but I am married in the mix. How would you deal with the mother in law and her sister not helping at all? Their answers are that they have their life to live and their mother is not their responsible. Your brother in law comes 2 times a week if he is not business and all he does he to tell you how is life is much harder than yours. (Keep in mind all he has is a husband, dog, and two cats and they are freelancer). My husband work 40 hours a week and is there in the morning to help until he goes to works. His grandmother Hits, slap, kick and punch me and call me names but no one believes me they say all I do is complaining because their grandmother would never do those things. I feel depress and used by my in laws because my husband and I are grandchildren and this was his grandmother only option because no one else would take her in. I think this is me just venting because I feel that I cannot talk to his family because they see this as my duties to the family so they can all live their lives while I feel like I am dyeing.I also work fulltime and go to school full time and take care of her full time. When my husband comes home I go to work at night and see clients. 90 % of the time is it me with this person alone. I know my husband is there for me but we can only do so much. I am so tried and in pain. Yes, he has tried to talk with his mother and she told him that I was the worst person (that I am not the daughter in law she wanted) in the world and that I am the reason she does not come to see her mother. Which I believe is an excuse not to come her way of getting out of help. His Auntie just does no call or show up at all. But, I am the one that is caring for her mother or and she is under the impression that when she is old and ready that I will take care of her (lol it hurts)

(67) Beryl, April 23, 2014 4:26 PM

Be Fair And Kind To The Wife.

Where are the other grown children. Can't the mother in law also get her needs met from her other grown children. Nana you are so correct. The other commenter who spoke of the wife as being insecure, is so wrong.
Wives have the right to not allow their mother in laws to control their homes, use a key and walk into the house, supposed they are nude and in bed, then what?
Also, a husband who is not respecting his wife is wrong . If I was the wife I would tell him to move in with his mom for as long as she needs him. Then the wife can have some well deserved peace and quite from a disrespectful husband and rude mother in law.

To all the people who continually say that when you marry someone, you marry their whole original family. THAT is so not true and we need to stop saying it. The mates original family is his or her original family and the other spouse really owes notheing to that family. Out of human decency she can treat them with can be cordialness, but you all have got to stop saying that she married the whole family. That is not fair. Also, when a husband ignores his wife's discomfort from his mother, then the wife has a right to ignore his needs until he sees and admits how he is hurting her.

She could tell him that he is not being the husband that God expects him to be and until he gets his act together hat she will not do her wifely duties. Why are you all giving the husband a free pass to allow his mother to disrespect his wife. I can bet that if the situation was reversed, that you all would be scolding the wife and telling her that she is doing the husband wrong and that he will cheat if she does not listen to his complaints.

Why do we scold women when the husband allows someone to hurt her, but do not scold the husband when he allows his wife to be done wrong? Why are we in this society and this world tlike that? 4-23-14

(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!!

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