Dear Rebbetzin Feige,

I'm 41, divorced, no children, trying to rebuild my life after an 18-year marriage. I have a new someone in my life, we get along well, she has no children either, comes from a previous 15-year marriage. Everything is fine up, except for one thing: her mother, who just turned 65, lives the high life, doesn't work, is a widower and wants the world to turn around her.

I have asked my fiancée to please control the expenses, my future mother-in-law demands two maids, a car, a big house, travel, etc. To make things a bit more challenging she was diagnosed with severe diabetes and loves sweets, and whenever she's asked to be considerate of herself she responds that she'll die with a candy in her mouth, as if diabetes were that simple.

We decided to put her mother's house on the market, (my fiancée owns it) and are building a beautiful smaller house just next door on land that I bought. I had to ask the architect and engineer not to listen to her because she wants all kinds of expensive extras. I love my future wife-to-be, and I understand the need to support her mother. What I don't understand is how to make her mother be grateful and appreciative of all that she's getting, to find something productive to do instead of just demanding and wasting resources that are not even hers. She has no pension, no inheritance just one desire to waste and waste.

I don't want her attitude to influence my life, I want to help, give her a nice and decent life, but not at my present and future expense.

Please help

Rebbetzin Feige Responds

Dear reader,

Congratulations on your finding a person with whom you will hopefully share a good life. Parenthetically, given the fact that both of you are coming off long and failed marriages, it would be advantageous and even crucial that you avail yourselves of counseling in order to get off to a good start and give yourself the wherewithal to stay the course.

if not dealt with at the outset, The situation with your mother-in-law that you describe can potentially cause stress and tension in your relationship. Please consider the following few points.

A Dose of Empathy

From your account, your future mother-in-law seems to be a handful. Be that as it may, I would encourage you to stop for a moment and instead of viewing her as a list of problems, look at her as a total human being. For instance you write that she is a widow. Has she worked through her sense of loss and abandonment? Does she suffer loneliness and sadness? Her lack of caring and destructive attitude towards herself may be a product of depression, a feeling that she is, as is clear from your assessment, nothing more than an albatross, a huge burden to both yourself and your wife to be.

Nobody thrives when they feel expendable. We all need to feel that life would be diminished if we wouldn’t be around. Towards this end, I would urge you to work on fostering a relationship with her. Money and financial issues aside, try to find out what makes her tick. Does she feel fortunate or taken for granted? Energized or drained? Do you know whether she is lonely as are many in her situation? How has she derived fulfillment in the past? How does she see herself now and in the future? What does she regret? Upon whom does she lean when she is sad? What makes her laugh? Feel understood?

Maybe I have read less into your letter than is actually there but what seems to be lacking is a warm and personal feeling. Empathy, caring, listening, and sharing seem to be missing in this picture.

Changing Others

The first principle in effective interactions with others is the understanding that we can change nobody but ourselves. When you write that you would like to make her “feel grateful and appreciative” you are embarking on a no-win course. The only way to effect a change in attitude is by example. If you adopt a posture of thankfulness, of making a point to find the positive ways she might impact on your life (as difficult as this might seem now).

Find the positives and express them to her and to your wife. This might diffuse the hopeless and resigned feelings that she has towards her existence (i.e. “I will die with a candy in my mouth”). As you get to know her better – her talents and capabilities – you might identify some area where she could be helpful to you and the community. Perhaps a school in the area might solicit her to volunteer as a resource person. Perhaps she might consider hosting a book club (that would mandate growth and time spent constructively through reading), etc. In other words, if you would begin to view her holistically, as a human being replete with both assets and problems as are all of us, rather than a collection of problems exclusively, the dynamic might shift and bring positive results.

A Third Party

Moreover dear reader, you need to be sensitive as well to the parent-child relationship. This relationship defies reason and transcends logic. Hence, legitimate as your concerns might be, understand that there exists a deep and abiding connection between mother and daughter that you would do well not to ignore. At the end of the day, to you, your mother in law is a problem that needs to be fixed. But to your future wife, she is her mother.

Towards this end, I would advise that you seek a third party who would objectively assess the situation and be placed in charge of reasonable measures, procedures and safeguards that the situation requires so it might not get out of hand. This trustee would be the one who would make it clear to her what she can expect and what will absolutely not happen. This person – a rabbi, a Rebbetzin, or a trusted friend – would be the one and not you or your wife who would keep her on a “tight leash” financially. He would be the one who would explore with her the possibility that she seek employment of some sort (if that is even feasible in our economic times for a 65 year old woman).

In conclusion, dear reader, no one would suggest that you allow your mother-in-law or anyone else to take advantage of you. Remember, however, that whatever you do in an effort to create a fair and tolerable environment must be done with respect. People in our lives appear on our scene with a great deal of history, of which we are not even aware. Therefore, proceed with great caution, sensitivity and the behavior of a mensch. As important as finances and money may be, sensitivity and being a mensch under adverse circumstances is ultimately the mark of a worthwhile human being. Good luck.