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AdviceLine: The Mother-In-Law

Bassi Gruen

Ninety percent of the time, my mother-in-law and I get along wonderfully. It’s the other ten percent of the time that’s the problem

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

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N inety percent of the time, my mother-in-law and I get along wonderfully. It’s the other ten percent of the time that’s the problem. That’s when I’m hurt or disappointed by her passive-aggressive behavior. I’m not talking about regular slights, but seriously nasty incidents. I’m married for nearly a decade, and have a mental list of painful things she’s done. I wish I could just delete all these memories, but every time my mother-in-law behaves inappropriately I have flashbacks of the other times she’s disappointed or hurt me, and these make me want to go far away and never speak to her again.

I know you’ll probably say I should have a frank discussion with her, but trust me on this one; it’s not going to work. She’d either deny everything I say, or get very upset — or both. In her mind, she’s a fabulous mother and mother-in-law and doesn’t want to be bothered with the facts. My husband agrees with my view of his mother’s behavior, but encourages me to look away from the miserable ten percent and focus on the good 90 percent. It doesn’t work. After each incident, it usually takes me a few days until I’m back to myself. What can I do to keep our relationship harmonious at all times?

Mrs. Joanne Dove works for Seed, a London-based adult kiruv organization. In addition, she has done extensive pre-marital and marital counseling. She also oversees and advises the volunteers of Made in Heaven, an organization that helps make shidduchim and advises singles.

Mr. Moishe Herskowitz, M.S., LCSW is a couples and marital therapist, and a graduate professor at Touro College Guidance and Counseling program. He is also the director of How We Communicate, PLLC. A 12-step program for healing couples in crisis, and the founder of Cable Therapy, which uses energy and hypnotherapy as a cable for couples to reconnect. He’s published dozens of articles in the Jewish Press.

Mrs. Aviva Keren Barnett, UKCP Reg. is an existential psychotherapist living in Ramat Beit Shemesh. She has over ten years experience in clinical work, and currently offers face-to-face, Skype, and telephone counseling on a variety of issues including anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties, work-related stress, illness, and bereavement.

Mrs. Joanne Dove

Your mother-in-law is well-behaved, and even positive, 90 percent of the time, yet all these painful incidents pull you down to the point that your entire relationship with her is difficult. You seem to want to get past the pain and release these memories, but the pain is very real and it’s hard to you reach a place of forgiveness. It sounds like you can’t deal with this directly since your mother-in-law isn’t willing to do so.

It’s hard to give specific advice since you don’t give details about what exactly is going on. Most difficult situations with mothers-in-law revolve around a mother-in-law being aggressive, dismissive, or critical, so I’m assuming that’s what’s going on in your life.

You can’t deal with this directly since your mother-in-law is unwilling or unable to face the reality of her behavior. If you can’t be direct, and it’s important for you to have a harmonious relationship with your mother-in-law, then you’re going to have to overlook the negative behavior. How do you achieve the ability to do so?

It requires viewing these incidents differently. It sounds like your mother-in-law is incapable of being perpetually friendly. The best way to deal with such a situation is to realize that your mother-in-law should be pitied. Feel bad for a woman who has reached this stage of life and is still lashing out at others. What’s going on in her life that leads her to act in such a negative manner? What life events caused her to become hurtful?

We don’t know what pressures and stresses she has in her life, nor what’s triggering these incidents. Try to look past the hurtful behavior and see the person who’s hurting. Realize that the things she says and does are not actually about you, and not even against you; it’s just the stresses of life getting to her.

Since the unpleasantness only occurs on occasion, consider that it may be taking place when she’s having a difficult week or going through a stressful period. How often do you see your mother-in-law? Do you notice any pattern in the incidents? Is there a particular situation that triggers her frustration? Is there any way to alleviate the triggers, at least to some extent? See if there’s any way you can help her during those time periods.

Work to let each individual incident go. Don’t dwell on them and let them fester. If you find that you can’t overlook the behavior, and the memories are interfering with your relationship with your mother-in-law and possibly even your husband, then you may want to consider doing EMDR therapy, which can be very helpful in such situations.

Most of all, see it as a middos workshop. One thing I often recommend when a relationship is rocky is to do lots of nice things without expecting anything in return. Make a lot of a food she enjoys when she comes for Shabbos and send the leftovers home with her, get her a nice birthday gift, send her photos of the children. See beyond the pain she’s inflicting to the pain she must be feeling. Realize that this isn’t personal — it’s her flaw. And strive to rise above the situation and let it go.

Mr. Moishe Herskowitz, M.S., LCSW

Our brain is constantly evaluating and trying to create meaning from the information it receives. One thing it’s on the lookout for is potential danger. This is especially true in relationships with significant others. When things are bumpy, the brain usually processes information in the following four stages: resistance, resentment, rejection, and repression. Here’s what they may look like:

Resistance — You’re initially hurt by a comment made, but the next day it’s forgotten. Your thought process goes something like, “Oh its no big deal... she doesn’t mean it, why make an issue over a tissue, she means well. I’m not going to be infantile about this.”

Resentment — At this stage, the comments start to bother you. There’s low-grade anger but you say nothing, trying to cope with your feelings. Your thought process: “she was nasty again!” The brain will automatically compare the current information with both positive and negative information of the past. With your radar turned up high, and a flood of negative memories, you no longer feel safe.

Rejection — Here, you move into full-blown anger. The thought process: Who does she think she is? The brain will have flashbacks to similar unpleasant situations in the past, bringing them all into the present. At this point, you’ll either lash out or distance yourself.

Repression — If you don’t respond in anger, you’ll distance yourself in the hope that you’ll avoid the pain.

These stages aren’t static — you can go up and down them, and you may also spend years in a particular stage. But if you don’t deal with the pain, you’ll eventually slide to a lower stage. Now that you understand the progression of your feelings, how do you deal with them? You don’t want to be rejecting or repressing. You need an intervention plan.

Your husband suggests that you focus on your mother-in-law’s good points. He is asking you to repress your negative memories with positive ones. It’s a good approach, but without an intervention plan, it’s not likely not to happen.

So what can you do? There are three steps for intervention here, and we will go through them one by one.

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