My Mother-in-Law is Impossible

October 23rd, 2019 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 10 comments

Dear Rabbi and Susan Lapin,

Do you have some wisdom for me?  My mother-in-law has been a constant strain on our marriage.  To give an example:  This last weekend we made a special trip to an amusement park where we joined up with my in-laws.  While we were there,  my mother-in-law did everything she could to keep my husband from riding rides with my children or being around me. 

It went so far, that my mother-in-law spun the old story: about how she used to carry my husband around everywhere and she made him promise that he would one day carry her around.   After this retelling of the story,  she got him to carry her around like a bride crossing a threshold for 5 minutes.   🙁  In the amusement park.  🙁  In front of everyone.   🙁

I don’t know what to do. I have so many in-law stories it is ridiculous.   I keep making myself choose JOY because it is a choice.  At the same time however,  I would love to hear some teaching for me or me and my husband, on the topic of unhealthy in-laws and healthy in-laws.  This way maybe I  can be a good mother-in-law someday, and my husband and I can traverse this choppy ever recurring water. 

Signed,

Your friend

Dear Friend,

We absolutely love the way you are using a problem in your life as a springboard for training yourself for the future. The Bible repeatedly tells the children of Israel to be kind to the stranger “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  Obviously, the Hebrews had little choice and didn’t want to be strangers in the land of Egypt but people still  can choose how to react when they are treated badly. Tragically, some take the attitude of “payback time,” looking to mistreat others as they were mistreated. You have cleverly and bravely adopted the Biblical response of using your own mistreatment to make you more sensitive to others.

Nonetheless, you and your husband do have a problem. However, it may not be the one you are thinking of. Let’s  focus on the phrase you used, “…she got him to carry her around…” As an adult, your husband made the decision to carry his mother around. Your mother-in-law may be difficult; she may be very difficult, but she probably did not whip out a pistol and force her son to do so. The problem is not your mother-in-law.  The problem is that you and your husband haven’t yet got onto the same page dealing with this problem as you most likely have for so many other issues in your married life.

We   suggest that you and your husband get on the same page. You both can choose joy, which is a valid choice because the joy comes from observing the Fifth Commandment and you both also need to decide where to draw the line. You don’t mention if you get together with your in-laws once a year, once a week or somewhere in between. You also don’t mention what your father-in-law’s reaction is to his wife’s behavior. These all should be taken into account. Is it possible that over the years your husband has learned an unhealthy tolerance of your mother-in-law’s antics from his father?  Have the two men in her life, her husband and her son, enabled her disturbing eccentricities?  Another possibility is that you have told your husband that you can handle this type of behavior – and maybe you even thought you could – but that is no longer true?  Whatever the case, the necessary solution must spring from you and your husband talking about this honestly and arriving at a joint decision which, since she is his mother, he will have to summon up the determination to act upon. 

However often you see her, you know in advance that your mother-in-law will most likely make an irrational demand or do something to cause friction between you and your husband (examples we didn’t print showed this angle). The two of you must decide what types of demands you will agree to and at what point your husband (not you) has to intervene or refuse. Being firm when necessary and declining a request does not constitute violating the Fifth Commandment. 

As for proper behavior of in-laws, the most basic one is knowing that your child’s first loyalty should be to his or her spouse and family rather than to you. Respecting parents has very specific meaning. It is not a broad and undefinable sentiment. We personally do not agree with the oft-repeated statement of, “Close your lips and open your pocketbook,” but we do agree that thinking three and four times before saying something that could be seen as interfering in a married child’s life is a good idea. So is doing whatever you can to form a loving relationship with the new member of your family.

We think you are well on your way to being a great mother-in-law,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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10 comments

Barbara Tahir says:

42 years ago when I was a new bride I called my mother, specifically to complain about my mother in law. My own mother asked me two questions, “Do you love your husband?” “Of course” I said. Mom’s second question was, “Where do you think he learned to be the excellent man and wonderful husband that he is today?” I thought of that many times over the years and I truly became her bonus daughter and she became my heart’s mother.

Susan Lapin says:

What a lovely story, Barbara. You have a wise mother. And a completely different take that we could have had. We have seen wise daughters-in-law work assiduously on building good relationships with truly difficult mothers-in-law. We have also seen marriages severely harmed by interference from parents because the related child could not give primary loyalty to his/her spouse.

Matt says:

Universal law of justice: You get what you deserve.

Victims are not blameless even if it seems so. Generally, poor strategic decisions got them there. Or being clueless about their environment. When bad things happen to you ask yourself what did you do wrong.

You know what your mother-in-law is like. Anticipate how your mother-in-law will behave and strategically control the situation ahead of time. That might mean smaller doses of her. Just don’t agree to things where you will spend a long time together. Or just let your husband spend time with her without you and the kids.

Susan Lapin says:

Matt, we agree that planning ahead can be very helpful in situations like this one.

Mark says:

My mother was Catholic. My father came from an unspecified Protestant denomination, but he willingly converted to Catholicism in order to marry my mother. However, his father was such a virulent, anti-Catholic bigot that he refused to attend my parents’ wedding. Imagine that! This is something I wasn’t told until I was in my 30s. He also forced my grandmother to not attend, although she wanted to. Despite my mother’s constant efforts to be kind and establish a friendly relationship, my grandfather was mean and cruel to her, especially when no one was nearby—and to me, too, when I was alone with him. I suppose he saw me as the product of an evil union. His behavior was one of the factors that eventually destroyed my parents’ marriage when I was about ten or eleven. It wasn’t the only factor, but it was an important one. She couldn’t take it anymore. Again, my mother didn’t tell me this for many years. My father told me she was right. (Again, I was by then in my 30s.) He said—I’ll never forget it—“My father was a first class son of a %#*%.” [Sorry, we changed the language] I guess my only comment is that these sort of problems can be very treacherous waters.

Rabbi and Mrs. Lapin, I deeply respect you both, and I learn things from you.

Susan Lapin says:

Mark, I’m sorry that your upbringing was disturbed by family turmoil. The point you’re making is that in-laws and family matter, something many young couples don’t take into account enough.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Thank you Mark–
A sad story but unfortunately not unique. We know too many who ruin their families. They don’t mean to and they subsequently hate themselves for having done so but they have been unable to rein in their passions or harness their furies.
Hope you were able to move forward, onwards and upwards,
Cordially
RDL

Janet McIntosh says:

Wow that was interesting and I agree that the married couple have to be a team. Although it is primarily the husbands responsibility to speak with his mother honestly about her behavior, the wife can lovingly assure her there is no need for competition. I believe being in the amusement park was an ideal situation for wife to demonstrate to mom that the children needed their dad to play with them took precedence at that time. ❤️

Susan Lapin says:

Janet, we agree heartily that the child of the parent causing the issue needs to be the one to talk to the parent and that the ‘married into the family’ child needs to bend over backwards to judge favorably and be flexible as this writer was.

Divine says:

Thank you Rabbi and Susan. I always look forward to reading and hearing from you through your podcasts. The insights you bring from Ancient Jewish Wisdom more than very few things have tremendously impacted and transformed my life. Todah Rabah.

Today’s post seems to me as a good springboard to ask a question I have had in mind to ask you, about the 5th Commandment. What does it really mean or imply from the perspective Ancient Jewish wisdom. You said as I had suspected; “Respecting parents has very specific meaning. It is not a broad and undefinable sentiment.” What’s that specific meaning?

Looking forward to your answer. Thank you in advance.

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