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.
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