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Difficult Mother-in-Law
Rebbetzin Feige

Difficult Mother-in-Law

Adopting the attitude: "it's not about me."


Dear Ms. Rebbetzin Feige,

I had had a wonderful relationship with my in-laws for two years until the birth of my first child. Suddenly my mother-in-law turned very malicious, and now my son is 8 years old, and I'm fed up with her untrue snide remarks, unasked for advice and downright rude behavior when she visits (like screaming at me, of course only when her son isn't present).

I feel I should confront her with my husband when these things come up, of course with the preamble, "Mama, I know that you are trying to help. And we really do appreciate your thoughtfulness, but we would really appreciate if you..."

My husband tells me, "That won't work. She's not going to change. Just ignore it and lighten up." But after eight years of this verbal abuse, I can't.

She makes me so worked up that I don't sleep for days and I am in tears. That's when my husband starts to feel that he needs to do something about her boundary issue. But of course, she always convinces him that I have taken all she said all wrong and how she is the poor victim of misunderstanding.

This way of interacting just isn't healthy. I can't stand losing sleep or crying because I feel so sad and helpless. I often wish I were dead. And then in the morning, I have to be all happy and smiles and take care of the kids like everything is just perfect. (Don't worry: I know that I would never commit suicide until after my children are grown and no longer need me, because I know that they do need me a lot, so I can't afford to die.)

It is just so insane. I know that I probably should never have gotten married. But now that I have, what should I do? Thank you. I would appreciate your balanced answer.

TS (in a lot of emotional pain)

My dear reader,

A great rabbi was nearing the end of his life. His parting comment and insight to his surrounding family and disciples was that he had started out his life idealistic and enthusiastic; fully expecting he would change the world. As he matured and became more realistic, he perforce adjusted his dreams -- first, to reform only his country, then his city, his community, his family. Now finally on his deathbed, he confessed that if he left this existence really having made the requisite corrections and changes in his own life, he would consider it a huge achievement.

Changing others, my dear reader, is a futile attempt fraught with dashed hopes and great disappointments. You are setting yourself up for exactly what you are getting. Your repeated attempts to figure your mother-in-law out and gain her approval are pointless. Her reactions are not rational, so no amount of mental agonizing will lead to a solution. Emotionally driven behaviors do not respond to logical analysis.

You simply have to adopt an attitude of "it's not about me." It's not about your handling of a particular event or situation. You need to learn not to take things personally; it's about her and her emotional state of being. You are merely the random target.

A person in a state of well-being would not present the inappropriate responses and behaviors that she manifests. Bottom line, be assured you are not at fault.

You are giving your mother-in-law way too much power over your life.

Having said that, you are, however, responsible in the sense of having the ability to respond (‘response-ability') in a healthier, more constructive manner. To allow yourself to get depressed, lose sleep and be robbed of the joy in your life is terribly unfortunate. You are giving your mother-in-law way too much power over your life.

The paradigm shift to an "it's not about me," posture effectively removes you and your ego from the picture and will allow you to gain clarity. Instead of seeing in your mother-in-law a person who is maliciously trying to hurt you, you might see a very threatened and insecure individual. It might be an insecurity resulting from aging, ill health, lack of fulfillment or a myriad of other factors and causes. Your husband's exhortation not to waste your time and energy trying to change his mother suggests that the scenario is not a surprising phenomenon and may well be personality related. In any case, it's not about you!

I recently heard a beautiful insight. If you look out your window at night when the lights are on, all you will see is your own reflection. If you turn the lights off and the focus is no longer on you, you can see the world beyond -- a broader and more expansive view becomes accessible. Our self, our ego, the me, obstructs our ability to see the other.

Practically speaking, when you feel yourself falling into the old pattern of taking offense, beginning the spiral of obsessive thinking, recognize you have a key -- you can get a grip on your life. In actuality it's not your mother-in-law and what she says, but rather just your thinking about what she says that undoes you. The key is to know that you are the thinker – you don't need to be thinking anything you don't wish. You can drop the toxic thoughts and not let them take over your mind. Move on to something else like taking your children to the park or reconnecting with a friend -- whatever it takes to clear your mind of the obsessive thoughts.

The cleared space in your mind will allow your innate wisdom to inform the situation. Ultimately, you'll get to the point of being able to interact with your mother-in-law from the vantage point of an objective observer, looking from the outside in without personal involvement.

This objective stance will give you the ability to diffuse her comments. When she makes untrue, snide remarks about your husband never being so thin when she had him, you might respond, "But of course, mom, nobody is as good a cook as you are." End of subject. Don't argue the point. Don't get sucked in. Chuckle and laugh it off.

Or when she remarks that breastfeeding is not good, just say very dispassionately, "The jury is still out, mom. The pendulum swings back and forth. There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to both positions, but at this point in my life, breastfeeding feels right to me." Period and end of discussion!

Perhaps Eleanor Roosevelt said it best: "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." Don't let anyone in your life to undermine you. It's not about you. And you are the thinker in charge. You don't have to be at the mercy of whatever thoughts pop into your head.


I must tell you, my dear reader, that the level of stress, pain and anxiety described in your question is of concern to me. You speak of going on with your life and not committing suicide because of your children. Furthermore, you conclude you shouldn't have gotten married in the first place. These are extreme statements, especially since they are made from a context of having a loving and supportive husband, the blessing of children, and the personal achievement of being a physician. It appears as though you may be a perfectionist, setting very high standards for yourself, with little room or tolerance for the piece that doesn't fit in with your view and perception of how things should be.

Self preservation must be your first priority.

My advice would be that if you can't get relief by invoking the above outlined methods, the next line of defense would be to confront your mother-in-law. Tell her that while she may not be intentionally or maliciously setting out to give you grief, and regardless of whether she thinks that your take on this situation is merely your perception and interpretation, something has to change. Emphasize that you can no longer suffer what to you feels like cruel insensitivity and put downs.

If she pleads innocent and clueless, tell her that in the future when she moves in that direction, you will immediately give her a signal that she is entering dangerous territory. At that point, tell her that you expect her to abort the conversation with no further discussion. This can serve as sensitivity training for her. If she can agree to this plan, the relationship can continue, with emails, photos of grandchildren, etc.

If she is not amenable, let her know that personal contact with you will be curtailed. Self preservation must be your first priority. Your husband deserves a happy, functioning wife; your children deserve a healthy mother, and most importantly it is imperative for you to dissipate the cloud that darkens your existence -- by hook or by crook, whatever works.

In the event that none of the above works for you, I would strongly recommend you seek professional intervention to help you determine what is obstructing your ability to move forward. Good luck!


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Visitor Comments: 103

(92) Dalia, July 21, 2016 6:41 PM

Great answers, Thank you!

Thank you Rebbetzin for such inspiring words.
I also have MIL issues, even though they are not as extreme as this writer, I still loose sleep and get very angry about it. I will try to implement your advise. Thank you!

(91) Anonymous, July 4, 2016 6:30 AM

Response to "Please Help"....

I totally understand how you feel! For a long time I thought I was the only one that was experiencing such hatred and distain from their MIL. Marriage is not suppose to be that way.
Long story short, My husband passed away 6 yrs ago. I have two children (current ages) a daughter 16yrs and a son 7yrs old. My husband left us nothing when he died and he did not have health insurance. Nonetheless, we had to move in with my parents, I went back to school of my MBA in finance (the got a job at a local jewelers, blahahaha) my kids go to to private school.
And YES the my MIL is still treating me the same. Most recently she sued me for custody of my children - under the grandparents visitation act here in PA. What a bunch of BS. She isn't even involved with them at all. Except for the one major fact - she wants my son. go figure. Anyway after the hearing she doesn't even follow what the Masters determined to be fair. For over two months she has canceled her scheduled visit. On this past Friday I received a notice that she is taking me back to court . Again I ask WTF. At her home they use drugs, have guns not locked up and have her terminal father in an unknown condition. But she wants my children to visit her home. Please anyone have any advise on how I can get the court to she her acting out and not as the victim? I would be forever grateful!
Also - YES I have a lawyer. and believe it or not so does she and he agrees with her. My lawyer said the same advice "It's not about me, it's all about her" but that is easier said than done. Please help me.
thank you

(90) Anonymous, May 23, 2016 7:28 AM

I would love a discussion of the opposite -

I have a son-il-law who had a very difficult upbringing and for yrs has absolutely no contact with his parents. They didn't even come to his wedding.
Now' I feel he is taking out on e what he really wants to take out on his parents
He is trying to become the head of the family (I am divorced from a pedophile who had a problem even before we got married and never told me - I have been on my own raising and B:Hmarrying off 4 out of 7 children I the lasr 15 yrs. ) and I feel this SIL wants to act as though he is the head of the family
He goes around acting and doing many painful things and if I am hurt gets upset, if I turn to people for help, he saya I am bad-mouthing him
Can we open such a discussion???

(89) Anonymous, January 2, 2016 7:20 AM

Response to "Please Help (64)"

You're not going nutty! Please, don't doubt yourself! NPDs use "gaslighting" ("that didn't happen, you're going crazy"). Yes, the child who grew up w/ a NPD parent, esp if that child was the "golden child" will defend their parent to the n-th degree. They have been sucked into the manipulative charade of the NPD parent and they know the consequences for not complying w/ the NPD's wishes. The NPD seeks their narcissist supply from hurting you and destroying you in various ways (e.g. character assisination or ruining your marriage). NPDs like to light a fire then walk away and watch it burn while others panic. They are cruel, lack empathy and a conscious. The children of NPD will sometimes exhibit narcissistic traits too, because it's the only way they survived and they also don't know true unconditional love because they never received it. Your husband would know something is amiss with his mother. He probably doesn't know it's NPD, but he'd know she's not normal. He probably doesn't want to admit that to you for fear of the consequences (severing contact, judgement, conflict, etc). My MIL has NPD and my husband says it's all me and I'm at fault and his mother is lovely, despite witnessing horrendous things she says and does not only to me but also to our baby. I am currently in therapy to try to manage how I am dealing with it (thank you Rebbetzin for the great article BTW - I'm trying to change how I react and cope: I'll never change the NPD MIL). Despite my profession (I'm a psychologist), I can't deal with it alone. It's tremendously hard. It's even harder without your husband's support. Be there for him. Observe without judgement (listen but don't comment negatively). Have a good friend you can talk to about all the nasty things. Your husband grew up w/ her NPD, it's your turn to show him what a true loving wife (and mother to your children) really is. I hope & pray your husband (and mine) come around to see things as they are & support you, speedily!

(88) Anonymous, November 10, 2015 4:37 PM

While I agree that it would be good for this young woman to get help to not let her mother-in-law's behavior get to her, it is WRONG for her to have to submit herself to it. And it's wrong for her children to see it. I would advise making it clear that if the abuse doesn't stop, then the mother-in-law cannot be allowed to visit. This is a very unhealthy situation and it has to stop.

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