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11/20/00
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My question for Dr. Apter is:
I have been married for over 20 years and have three sons.  My mother-in law is a truly cruel and mean spirited person who is mentally ill.  She has been confined in a mental hospital in the past, so trying to talk or reason with her about her behavior is not an option.  She is very hurtful to the entire family.  She tends to try to play one family member against another, for example, saying horrid things to my kids about me or my husband.  One of my children is handicapped.  My MIL's psychiatrist called me a few years ago and stated that my MIL was particularly obsessed with him, and he would not recommend that I allow her to be alone with him.  This obsession has continued, and she will say wicked things to my other children about him, and she says over and over that he should be "put in a home", often stating this in front of him.  He is only mildly handicapped, and understands what she is saying.  He is basically just frightened of her.  My middle child internalizes everything, and never says a word.  He just gets "sick", his stomach hurts, he doesn't sleep or eat when they visit.  My oldest child, who is in college right now, is just angry at them.  He loves his parents and siblings, and their comments just anger him and bring out his protective "big brother" side.

My husband seems to just take whatever they dish out.  I get the impression from him that he just wants their approval and love (which he never seems to get) so badly that he is willing to tolerate just about anything.  Recently he had a telephone conversation with her, and as usual, was very upset afterwards about cruel things that she had said.  I found myself instantly very angry (at him).  It was an unexpected emotion, but with a lot of reflection I realized that I am just at the end of my rope with this situation.  I can't deal with the emotional fallout that she causes.  I don't want to be part of this anymore.  I think telling my husband that I want his mom out of our lives would be very hurtful to him, but I am not willing to cope with the harm she causes my children and me (and him too).

What do I do?  How do I resolve this situation?  How do I end the torment?

Dr Apter's reply:
You can protect your children from your in-laws without making your husband cut himself off from them.  I suggest that you take time to explain to him how upsetting you and your children find visits from his parents.  Try to focus on how you feel, rather than on their faults.  Ask for his help in solving the problem (though his asking you just to put up with them is not a solution).  You could tell him that you know he loves them, and you want him to honor his love for them, but that you feel he should find some way of carrying out most of the visiting and communication with them on his own.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
My husband & I have 4 girls, 2 are mine and 2 are his.  My MIL also has 6 other grandchildren.  My problem is that my MIL favors my husband's oldest daughter over all the other grandkids, even his other daughter.  She will buy her presents for no reason, something she doesn't do for any of the others, and when she is buying Christmas or Easter outfits, my husband's oldest daughter gets to pick out everybody's outfit, and they are expected to like it and wear it no matter what.  Because of this, my oldest stepdaughter acts like a spoiled little princess, expecting everyone to do what she wants and give her everything.  How do we keep the other children, especially the three living in the same house, from growing to hate Grandma and my oldest step daughter?

Dr Apter's reply:
Parents tend to be very careful about showing favoritism to children, but grandparents often indulge their bias.  Perhaps you could explain to your in-laws that you want all your children to view them as their grandparents and that you would like their help in this.  Explain that it appears to you, and to your children, that they sometimes favor the older girl.  Assure them that you believe they love all the children, but that their special love for the older girl interferes with the family dynamics.  They might deny it,
and take offence, but it is worth a try.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
We live in Australia.  My now, Husband, was involved in a traumatic accident at work a month ago.  He was trapped by a road roller at work.  He has undergone several operations and skin grafting.  The entire time that he was incapacitated in the hospital, my soon to be MIL constantly interfered and undermined my relationship with him, and completely disregarded our requests that no one visit him in the hospital until he had time to deal with the accident himself.  She phoned everyone she knew, even people he had not had any contact with in a year or so. When we demanded that she then phone everyone back and tell them that he was not ready for visitors, she then proceeded to tell everyone that he was just not coping with the accident, and that the fact that he didn't want to see anyone was because he was in denial and falling apart.  Not that HE just needed some time to accept his injuries and spend some time adjusting.  The entire time he was in hospital, she would sit at his side, and even remain in the room when we needed to kiss and cuddle.  We had no time to ourselves, and it got so bad that the nurses on the ward had to intervene and tell her and his father that they weren't helping his recovery by constantly being there.  Thank God for those nurses and their diplomacy.  Needless to say, this did not go down well with the MIL, as this was "her son" and "no nurse was going to tell her when she could and couldn't see her son, and that she would take the matter further".

Eventually, my then fiancé, told both of his parents that we needed time together, to which they took offence, but they did leave us alone (for about 10 minutes).  As he was totally incapacitated, even when he had to pee, they wouldn't leave the room.  At one stage he asked them to leave, so he could go to the toilet, they left for a few minutes.  When they returned, we were trying to cover him up with some underpants.  They went into a scene of "nothing we haven't seen before, etc."  I told them that it was about dignity, and that he was now a man and had some pride left.

He was transferred to a hospital about two hours away.  Upon arrival, my fiancé asked his mother to leave us alone, to which she took offence.  Cutting a very long story short, she vocalized her disgust at how selfish we were to want to be alone, and that he was her son, and that she had looked after him all his life and didn't want to "pass the torch" on to me.  We didn't hear from her for a few days, and then she re-appeared as if nothing had happened.

When my fiancé was finally "released" from the hospital, we eloped, to her absolute disgust.  She has now disowned her son, left her husband, (because of all of the hurt we have caused her) and she doesn't want anything to do with any of us.  She is so controlling.  I could write for days about the emotional blackmail she uses on her two sons and husband.  We are so happy, and just want them to accept our decision.  We understand that she's hurt because she wasn't involved, but this is also a woman who calls me by his ex-girlfriend's name and tells me she thought that the ex would have been her daughter in law.  MIL had never congratulated me or discussed our engagement or what our wedding plans were.  She just assumed that we would get married the way she hoped.

Dr Apter's reply:
Your parents-in-law were under enormous stress when their son was injured, and some people would say that they should be forgiven everything.  People can't be reasonable and considerate when their child is hurt.  But their subsequent behavior puts things in a different light.  Their attachment to their son is so possessive that it may ultimately be destructive.  Perhaps you could prevent that by taking the first step.  You could say that you are sorry that what you did hurt them (that's different from apologizing for what you did).  You could explain how important it was for you both at the time to stake out your claim on your own future.  They may want to rant on at you for a while, and tell you how disappointed and hurt they were.  I suggest you listen patiently, and keep repeating yourself if necessary.  At the same time, continue to protect the boundaries you have already drawn.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
HELP!  My marriage is suffering from my MIL, and I'm not sure what to do about this!!  I have been married for 4 years ... my second ... his first.  It has been a constant nagging nightmare with his mother!  She calls constantly.  When we're not there she leaves messages like ... "you didn't tell me you were going anywhere!"  This man is in his early 30's.  She whines when we go to visit family - besides her, including his father (they're divorced).  My husband had to go work on the east coast for 8 months, and I stayed @ home with our 2 kids.  During that time he went to visit her every other weekend (he was very close to her house).  Of course, she would always lament to him, when he came to visit, about never getting to see the grandchildren (of course she only called when he was @ home visiting us for a weekend).  Then she got upset when I called him there because "I was interrupting her time with him".

Numerous episodes like this have gone on over the years, and recently it exploded.  We had a phone conversation where we pretty much aired how we felt.  Now, she refuses to call him at home, and has been e-mailing him @ work, constantly.  When a relative died, she had his sister call to tell him!

I think it has started to affect our marriage.  He seems upset about the strain between us.  But this has been building up for 4 years, and I am sick and tired of her!

Dr Apter's reply:
Your mother-in-law seems to view her relationship with her son as an all-or-nothing affair.  She seems to reject him and cut him off when he tries to set reasonable boundaries.  I suggest that you express sympathy for your husband's position.  You could tell him that you know how upset he is by the breach with his mother.  Encourage him to think of ways of mending the relationship.  He could tell her that he misses the contact she had with the family.  He could tell her that he wants to find a balance between being a married couple, and being a good son.  Of course, keeping that balance may be difficult.

My question for Dr. Apter is:
I hope I am not wasting your time when so many people here seem to have really awful in-laws, but I would like some advice for a newlywed on how to get things right, first off.  My in-laws are not horrid at all.  They are really quite nice.  However, even though my mother and mil were born in the same year and grew up in the same city, it is like our families are from different worlds.  Some things I just grin and bear, like being told basically any meal other than roast beef is "ethnic", and consequently dubious (I barely ever ate meat and three veg as a kid), or being introduced to her friends as "Mr. and Mrs. Thing" (I have called my parents' friends by their first names at least since I was a teenager, and many all my life!), or having her still commenting nearly a year on (not nastily) that our wedding was "small and casual" when it was a sit-down four course meal for 80 in a top restaurant with white dress, cake, speeches, etc. (My parents catered their own reception in my Dad's flat!).  Other things however seem to go to the heart of what I believe about families, and I am worried if I don't get this right, now, it will cause huge problems in the long term, especially if we have kids.  As an example, I did not change my name when I married.  MIL knows this, and knows that I had good reasons (which I do not want to expand on here, not that I need a reason, especially when I had my husband's complete support!).  However, she frequently asks me whether I am "used to being 'Mrs. X' yet".  Do I give up saying, "No, because I have not changed my name and no-one calls me that," and just make something up?  Or, do I keep telling her?  She also thinks this is very unusual and novel, even though only one of the married women in my workplace (of 7) changed their names.  She addresses mail to my mother to "Mrs. (Dad's Initial). Surname", which my mother has always loathed, and actually campaigned against when I was at school.  Do I tell MIL to use Mum's own initial, and if she really has to call me by my husband's surname at all, to at least use my initial, or just Mr. and Mrs.?  (I am actually Ms., but that's another one I am happy to let go!)  Similarly, she constantly says that "in her day" women just did not have jobs after they married.  Do I keep saying that my mother (who was born in the same year) always had a career, as did all my aunts (and for that matter, both my grandmothers, for the most part).  When she says it must have been so interesting growing up in a family where my Dad "helped out with the cooking" do I bother to point out that he (and I) hates her saying this, because he, in fact, did most of the cooking.  It was never assumed to be my mother's job, or for others to just "help" with, and because my mother had an extremely demanding paid job of her own?  (Incidentally, I am actually probably more conservative in this regard than my parents.  I think my mil knows that I actually do most, by far, of the cooking in our house, especially during the week, so it is not a case of her little boy not being cared for!).  Another issue is that, although she is nice to me, she is quite nasty to my husband.  She says she is just "teasing," but I have actually never heard her say anything nice to, or about, him.  Worse, she seems to think that all women should band together against all men, so she tries to draw me and my mother into this picking on my husband (and my FIL!).  I am not going to b*tch about my husband to anyone, especially his mother, but she seems to get hurt when I won't join in.  Lastly, my mil wears a lot of perfume and hairspray, which is quite strongly scented.  Unfortunately I have quite bad allergies, and one of her products (not sure which) sets off my asthma and other allergies.  This is aggravated by the fact she lives in an old house with a lot of other triggers (I hasten to add she keeps it very clean, but it is still a problem).  It is getting to the point where, if she kisses me, I have to gasp for air straight after!  How on earth do I bring this up with her?  I am sorry this is so long, but I would really appreciate any tips you can give me.  I really want to get this right the first time, for all our sakes!  Thank you very much.

Dr Apter's reply:
The problems you have are really at the crux of the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law problem.  Two people are both well-meaning, but the relationship is still impossible.  Your mother-in-law refuses to respect your way of doing things.  She uses her views as a template for what's right and what's "normal".  In spite of all the research I've done on in-law relationships, I still don't fully understand why so many women, as mothers-in-law, are rigid in their assumption about a daughter-in-law's lifestyle.  So I don't have any easy tips.  You will simply have to keep repeating that you are not "Mrs. X".  (You could do so gently, with a smile, perhaps even touching her arm.)  You can also explain that you have allergies.  Perhaps you could say how much you like being able to greet her with a hug and kiss, but that her perfume or hairspray makes this difficult.  Your task isn't easy, but if she really is well-meaning, it won't be impossible.
 


The Sister Knot, Apter
The Sister Knot
Why We Fight, Why We're Jealous, and Why We'll Love Each Other No Matter What


Secret Paths: Women in the New Midlife
Secret Paths
Women in the New Midlife


Working Women Don't Have Wives, Dr. Terri Apter Working Women Don't Have Wives
Professional Success in the 1990'S


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Dr. Terri Apter
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