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The Mother-in-law

Letter #2

Dear Dr. Harley,

My husband and I have just split up - the only problem in our marriage was his mother. She has made comments like I have kidnapped her son, I've taken him away from his family, and just recently has taken a fondness to calling me lewd names. The big problem for me is not so much those comments (I try to consider the source of one that would do such things) but that my husband sticks up for her.

Part of the problem is that my mother-in-law's husband is an alcoholic and she has always looked to her son for help. This is not my first relationship and I have never had this type of problem before. Also his last serious relationship ended for the same reason. Yesterday when we were arguing they happened to call. Sensing he was upset they (both his parents) drove over and tried to "rescue" him (as if I had him locked up or something). Well, suffice it to say, there was quite the scene (called me a tramp and a whore etc.) and I asked him to leave afterwards.

I just really got tired of feeling that if his mother and I were both drowning she'd get the life preserver. I'm not saying I'm an angel in all of this. Far from it, I'm sure. I've antagonized her but that was after she said insulting things about me. Well given all of this, I wonder if you think that we are way past counseling. I feel as if we are, but I'd really appreciate your opinion.


Dear J.O.,

I don't think that your mother-in-law is the "only problem" in your marriage. As soon as you mentioned in your letter that you and your husband were arguing, you tipped me off to the fact that you probably have other problems too. If you argue often, perhaps fight often, it's because you have not learned to consider each other's feelings. But I agree that your mother-in-law is certainly one of your problems.

If you read my Basic Concepts, you will see why it's so important to solve conflicts by taking the interests of both you and your spouse into account. The Policy of Joint Agreement (never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse) is a good rule to follow because it ensures mutual consideration. If you and your husband had agreed to this policy when you were first married, your in-law problems would never have occurred.

Ideally, if you and your husband would agree to follow the Policy of Joint Agreement from this moment on, your problems with your mother-in-law along with all your other problems would become resolved. But let's say, for the sake of discussion, that your husband won't agree to it. What should you do then?

I would introduce the policy to your husband, but, at first, you be the only one to apply it. In other words, be sure that you take his feelings into account every time you want to do something. Ask him how he feels about all of your plans, even the way you talk to his mother. Don't even bring up an issue unless he is enthusiastic about discussing it with you. Be sure that you understand the Policy of Joint Agreement and learn to apply it to your marriage.

Then, encourage your husband to apply the policy to situations that are not as volatile as the conflict between you and your mother-in-law. Apply it to situations that don't mean much to you, so that he can fail and yet not disappoint you. It takes a lot of practice to get it right.

If your example sinks in, your husband will begin to see that the policy is in his own best interest, and in the best interest of his mother. You may be able to convince him with actions, rather than words, that making you first in his life is the only way he can be successful at everything else.

If you can motivate yourself to show him what consideration looks like, you may be able to start something that will not only get your mother-in-law off your back, but it will also save your marriage.

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