My Mother-in-Law Has Destroyed My Marriage

Reader’s Question

I know it is common for people not to get on with their Mother-in-Law, but I believe mine to be a spiteful, hate-filled, manipulative, evil bully of a woman, but to my wife, she makes out to be a victim, with the world against her and my wife is so under the thumb, that she falls for it and doesn’t think butter would melt in her mouth.

I think things started to go bad just over three years ago when my daughter was born. My wife is American and we lived in England. Her mother arrived the day my daughter was born and took control. She didn’t allow my mother to hold the baby and hogged everything. Once she arrived, I didn’t get to hold my baby for three days as a result. She then stayed with us for five weeks. She won’t drive, so had to be ferried around by my mother or us and makes out that she has the run of the house and doesn’t respect it as a guest. She has always resented me for taking her daughter away from her and tries whenever possible to cause friction.

Last year, my wife’s younger brother died in unfortunate circumstances so natuarally she was devastated. She flew home on the next available flight and at this point I believe that mother-in-law decided to go in for the kill. Whilst heavily in grief, she didn’t try to stop her two daughters having their necks tattooed, saying she was going to do the same. I think she knew it would cause arguments. Needless to say, she never did it herself. When I saw my wife a couple of weeks later I was infuriated at this, as I felt it was something she should have thought about, and her mother should have tried to stop them — even temporarily — from getting it done. I also don’t think the tattooists were acting in a professional manner, doing this less than a week after the brother died, knowing they were grief-ridden, but that is a different story.

I shouldn’t have got mad and I have regretted it ever since, but my mother-in-law phoned me and accused me of not loving her daughter as a result. She said she was coming over, and arrived a couple of weeks later. Whilst myself and my wife were at work, she would do things like rearrange where things were in the house, or throw away items she didn’t like. I believe all of this was to cause arguments and put me in a bad light. Just before she left, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to go into chemotherapy.

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She imposed herself on us at Christmas too, well when I say Christmas, she arrived at the end of November and didn’t leave until near the end of January. She got up to her usual tricks of throwing things away, moving furniture and damaging it in the process and I truly believe that she came with an agenda to split us up. As my mother was too weak to drive her about, she ignored her and barely spoke to her in the seven weeks. She kept my children from her as we lived in a neighbouring village and she could have easily taken a taxi into town. My mother regarded this woman as a friend as they had seemed to get along OK, but started to see what she was like. My mother was depressed anyway, without having her grandchildren kept from her. Two days after Christmas, my wife took me to one side and told me she wanted to separate to save our marriage. She said she wanted to go back to the States for six months and we could work on things. Immediately, mother-in-law’s credit card was thrust into my wife’s hand and she was told to book her flights. My wife was instructed to hide the children’s passports at work, to stop me blocking their exit. Something I would never do.

My family left at the end of February and I went to see them at Easter, as my mother had needed a mastectomy in early March and I helped her with her recovery. My wife and I had spoken every day on the phone and got on well. As soon as I arrived, the attitude changed. I was vilified for the smallest of things and made to look a bad person. My words were twisted and it was very uncomfortable, showing me in a bad light to my wife. I’m not perfect and sometimes I open my mouth before engaging my brain, but often things were taken out of context or turned on their head.

A week after I got back, my mother collapsed and we rushed her to hospital. It turned out that the cancer had spread into a terminal brain tumour. Of course I was devastated and wanted my children to spend time with their grandmother before she passed away. I found a website with an amazing price on flights, but it needed a US-based credit card to purchase the tickets. I asked my wife if she could ask her mother to buy the flights and I would wire her the money the following working day. I was met with a blank refusal of “I don’t have any money.” My wife was told to finish the phone call as they had to go out and buy the new granite work surfaces for the kitchen. The flights ended up costing me more than $1000 more.

As soon as my wife arrived in the UK, she called her mother to say she had arrived safely, to be met with “What happens if he doesn’t let you leave?” Apart from that, we had a fantastic time together as a family again and I really thought we were on the road to recovery. For the record, mother-in-law didn’t bother trying to speak to my mother when she was diagnosed with the termianl cancer. My mother felt ignored, as even my wife’s father sent a bunch of flowers and he hardly knew her. Even after her death there was no card, no call, nothing.

My mother passed away at the end of July and I had cared for her up until the end, but within three days, when I asked my wife when she was returning home with the children, I was met with “Well you haven’t bothered to come and see us again”. I know exactly who originally said that comment. I can also tell if my wife speaks to me on the phone and her mother is in the house too as there is an attitude change. My wife turns aggressive and isn’t the same person. If I get her alone, or away from her mother we get along like a house on fire.

I’m sure my wife was prompted to extend her stay until November, in order to spend her birthday with friends. This meant she would be there an extra three months, so of course I had issues. Especially as I wasn’t consulted on anything and would be kept apart from my children for longer.

I went out to see my family again at the beginning of September and everything seemed fine. We got on well, we had a great time together although we did have one argument, after her mother started to pick a fight with me while my wife was out. She then phoned my wife to lay the blame at my door and make out I was the one who started it. I can honestly say I wasn’t.

My wife dropped me at the airport and she had a tear in her eye. I knew she was unhappy to see me leave and promised she would be home soon. We continued talking on the phone and I was happy with the situation, when I recieved an email telling me that my wife wanted a divorce. I had no idea this was about to happen and it has knocked me for six. Every couple argues and has issues, but we have always talked things through and made up. I feel that I am constantly vilified and my wife is pushed into thinking there is no hope. I am not the only person that thinks this either and belives my wife has been helped with her decision.

I really don’t know what to do. I don’t want to divorce, I love my wife and would do anything to make us work. I am being given no choice, no chance of counselling or negotiation. I really feel like it is a “look at me, I’ve been divorced twice and I’m OK” approach from her mother. What can I do to try and get my wife to see how she is and hopefully rescue something of my marriage? Am I being unreasonable?

Psychologist’s Reply

From your description, your mother-in-law has a personality disorder. We often forget that individuals with significant personality problems also become parents. When our parent or in-laws have a personality disorder, conflict in the family system is almost non-stop. Personality Disorder Parents (PDP for short) tend to be extremely selfish and often see their child’s marital partner as a threat to their control over their adult child. They are highly manipulative, controlling, and attention-seeking. In social situations, they literally “take over” the interaction and quickly create a debate, argument, crisis, or turmoil that places them in the middle. They often create a fight at a grandchild’s birthday party because the child is receiving all the attention. Their behavior rapidly changes, depending upon their needs. They can be vicious and aggressive, then play the helpless victim. I’ve described many of their behaviors in my article entitled Identifying Losers in Relationships (on this website). I’ve got plans to expand that article to discuss what happens when a Loser is actually a parent.

Children of PDPs, even adult children, are often caught in a type of Stockholm Syndrome (article on this website). Your wife is caught between her marriage/children and the intense pressures of her mother who sees your marriage as something that keeps her daughter from her. In this regard, you aren’t battling your wife’s feelings for you as much as she’s trying to avoid her mother’s wrath. This will likely be a very tough fight. Parents with personality disorders are often emotional bullies (when female) and physical bullies (when male).

I would recommend reading my article on Stockholm Syndrome and using some of the techniques I provide for friends and family of someone caught in Stockholm Syndrome. Recognize that your MIL will use anything you say (also adding 500%) against you. If she calls you, she will ask for your opinion, then report to your wife that you tried to bully her on the phone — that kind of thing. Try to remain as calm and businesslike as possible. You may not be able to stop the divorce, given the distance. However, you can maintain contact with your partner and children — what I describe as “Hold on Loosely”. Your MIL will eventually emotionally exhaust your wife and at some point, she may want to reconsider her decision to divorce. Parents with Personality Disorders are often very toxic parents. In their selfishness, they want to control those around them but after a time, when they become responsible for those victims (financial, babysitting, housing, etc. ), they begin to push them aside. Counseling for yourself is also recommended as these situations are often very difficult to understand and manage.

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