Re­fus­ing to trust nasty mother-in-law

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Hi, Carolyn: My mother-in-law has very un­kind things to say about my ex-sis­ter-in­law, and, as a woman, I de­plore how my broth­erin-law han­dled his di­vorce. I am re­ally strug­gling with my re­la­tion­ship with her. I just don’t trust her. I can’t help but feel if I were in the ex-sis­ter-in-law’s shoes, she would be talk­ing about me in the same way.

I have main­tained a re­spect­ful re­la­tion­ship with my mother-in-law, but I do not want to be close to her. – Daugh­ter-In-Law That’s fair. Though it might help if you tack a “right now” onto your thoughts.

“My mother-in-law has very un­kind things to say right now.” “I just don’t trust her right now.” “I do not want to be close to her right now.”

Two rea­sons: (1) Di­vorce un­hinges peo­ple; a son who is suf­fer­ing, even a grown one, can cer­tainly un­hinge a mama bear. Maybe that’s too kind, maybe she’s ter­ri­ble and her son’s worse and the di­vorce merely ex­posed it all, but it is pos­si­ble she’s just re­act­ing ter­ri­bly (and im­parted her ter­ri­ble cri­sis skills to your brother-in-law?), which would al­low for her to re­turn to a gen­tler ver­sion of her­self in due time.

(2) The best-case sce­nario for you, your spouse and your in-laws is for you all to be in each other’s lives for a very long time, yes? So, even when it’s en­tirely ap­pro­pri­ate to ques­tion an in-law’s be­hav­ior or trust­wor­thi­ness – as it ap­pears here – it’s also prag­matic to look for rea­sons to for­give and for­get any­thing that falls short of be­ing ter­ri­ble, em­pha­sis on the for­get.

Ihopeyou also rec­og­nize the de­cency in stand­ing up for your ex-sis­ter-in-law, with gen­tle good na­ture. Such as: “Yikes, what do you say about me when I’m not here?! I’m never leav­ing the room again.” Warm hy­per­bole lets you clap back with mit­tens on. If she re­sponds de­fen­sively, then stand firm on an unas­sail­able point: “I un­der­stand your hard feel­ings – but I con­sider(ed) her a friend. This hurts.”

If she and your broth­erin-law prove they’re truly ter­ri­ble, ver­sus fleet­ingly so, then you can al­ways drop the “right now” and make re­spect­ful dis­tance your thing.

Cer­tainly some trash­ings have con­se­quences, es­pe­cially from peo­ple in power and from those who aim and suc­ceed at turn­ing oth­ers against you. But ex­pe­ri­ence tells me the av­er­age back­stab­ber re­li­ably comes out worse in the end than the back­stabbee.

If the con­text of what you’ve known about her up till now sup­ports it, then there might be grounds to see your mother-in-law as more an ob­ject of pity, even sym­pa­thy, than as a vil­lain. If noth­ing else, it’s a dis­ci­plined ex­er­cise to view her with the kind of hu­man­ity that she her­self has been un­able to sum­mon for her own ex-daugh­ter-in-law.

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