The Mother-in-law

Letter #1

Introduction:Over the centuries, mothers-in-law have been given a bad rap. Because of a few that are insensitive, or misunderstood, a whole classification of people are often viewed with suspicion. The facts don't support the bias, however. In the vast majority of the cases, mothers-in-law, my own included, are terrific.

However, some marriages do suffer because of a mother-in-law. I hope my perspective on the issue can help if you find yourself struggling with conflicts between the interests of mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law.

Dear Dr. Harley,

I've been married for three years to a man whose mother has almost no life outside of him. She is totally devoted to him to the exclusion of just about everything -- work, hobbies, friends. Plus, she turns to him for advice on everything from programming the VCR to complex legal transactions. He is an only child whose father left before he was born.

In the early part of our relationship, about 7 years ago, his grandfather, who raised him for a good portion of his childhood, was very ill. Consequently, his mother called quite frequently and I didn't think too much of it considering the circumstances.

In early '91, my husband's grandfather passed away and his mother inherited quite a bit of money. Free of financial pressures, she had (and still has) the opportunity to do just about anything she wants. Instead, she has become increasingly involved in my husband's life and mine, too, by association. Meanwhile, I have felt more and more encroached upon.

I, obviously, have handled the situation badly because our disagreements over her role in his life have deepened. He has always defended her actions and now I'm told that things which transpire between the two of them are none of my business.

I have often wished she would go get a life and have made several suggestions. But she has told me that school is boring, work is boring, traveling used to be okay but is now boring, even people her own age (late 50s) are boring.

My husband and I planned on having children but I refuse to start a family with so many intrusions from his mother. In fact, lately I have been considering leaving my husband. What should I do?


Dear K.B.,

When a woman's parents die and she loses her husband through death or divorce, she often finds herself quite alone in the world. Instinctively, she turns to her children for emotional support, especially her sons. Although she often has no desire to interfere with her children's marriages, she becomes embroiled in a power struggle with her daughters-in-law. With desperation as her motive, she usually feels guilty for the trouble she causes, and yet cannot think of an alternative for her own survival.

Your husband's mother, who has become increasingly dependent on her son, may think she cannot survive without him. He may have become the most important person in her life, and her desperation may prevent her from seeing the situation objectively. In fact, she may have already talked to your son about how important he is to her, and how she couldn't live without him.

Most men have numerous female relationships that come and go, while their mothers are there all their lives. Many men feel that they owe a great deal to their mothers, who gave birth to them and usually raised them. So when their mothers ask for help, they feel obliged to come to their rescue. Their wives are also important to them, but they feel that the help they give their mothers should be encouraged by their wives, not discouraged. They often view their wives protests as self-centered jealousy rather than a legitimate complaint.

On the one hand are the needs of a desperate mother with no one to turn to for help except her son, and on the other hand, the needs of a wife who finds her mother-in-law's intrusions threatening and frustrating. It is for these very situations that the Policy of Joint Agreement was written (never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). The policy helps decide what to do in situations where there are no easy answers.

In this case your husband is trying to decide between your interests or the interests of his mother. Which are more important? Of course, he wants to please both. But lately, he has been ignoring your feelings to please his mother. That choice, as you have noted, has motivated you to consider leaving him.

My experience as a marriage counselor has taught me that if he wants a decent marriage he must learn to put your interests before all others. That means whatever he does for his mother MUST be with your enthusiastic agreement, or he should not do it. Every act of care he gives to his mother must be screened by you first. If it makes you uncomfortable, you work together to find other ways she could be cared for.

For example, suppose she calls at 7:30 in the evening wanting to talk to him about something. He should first ask how you feel about taking time out of your evening together to talk to his mother. You may agree to his conversation with her as long as it's no longer than ten minutes. He then respects your feelings by watching the clock and ending the conversation within the ten minutes.

Since his handling of her finances is part of his care for her, he should tell you precisely what they discuss together if that would make you feel more comfortable. You may want to know how their planning might affect you, especially in regard to such things as his inheritance. Besides, if you've read my Policy of Radical Honesty, you know that I think that couples should not keep anything from each other.

The Policy of Joint Agreement represents a willingness of both spouses to put each other first in all of the decisions they make. It is a recognition of the fact that unless their marriage is successful, nothing else they do will matter much, so they give each other veto power over all their actions, including relationships with their mothers.

But following the Policy of Joint Agreement does not mean that your husband will abandon the interests of his mother. In fact, when people follow the policy, their other interests and priorities are usually pursued vigorously. It's just that they are pursued in a way that is not in conflict with the interests of a spouse. If you put your spouse first in life, all your other interests usually flourish. If you put any interest between you and your spouse, not only will it ruin your marriage, but the divisive interest will usually suffer as well.

As you already anticipate, this problem will get worse over time, and even if his mother passes away, you will always remember that his mother's feelings were more important than yours. It will never be the same unless you and your husband make an agreement with each other to put each other's feeling first --- do it NOW!

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