Setting Thoughtful Boundaries with Mother-in-Law

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Reader’s Question

My mother-in-law is becoming more and more of a problem; her comments are destructive and stressful for my wife and children. I have not been successful in trying to get her to stop behaving this way and furthermore, my wife’s family won’t help me in my efforts. Much of this is the result of tragedy in her childhood, but she uses this to hurt my family. My mother-in-law was only 7 when her mother died while giving birth to her third child. Understandably, this has haunted her, but she has been mentioning it at any opportunity, ruining what should be happy occasions.

When my wife was pregnant with our third child, and about to go into hospital, my mother-in-law stopped by to tell us that she was “trying to keep happy thoughts, because her mother died while having her third child”. This stressed my wife. Throughout the process I encouraged her and tried to help her forget what her mother had said. Luckily, everything turned out fine, and we were blessed with a healthy, beautiful girl. However, later that day it happened again. My parents and my in-laws were at the hospital, gathered around my wife and newest child, and my mother-in-law brought up her mother’s death. I tried to lighten the mood by pointing out that everything turned out fine for us, that my wife and the baby were doing great and that was the important thing. But my mother-in-law simply sat there and started to sulk. My parents joined me in pointing out the positive outcome, but my father-in-law didn’t say anything to help.

More recently, it happened again. Our eldest daughter gave birth to a healthy baby boy and my wife called her parents to give them the good news. My mother-in-law answered, and when my wife said “She has just had her baby…” my mother-in-law immediately asked “…was it alive?” Later, when visiting my daughter, her husband, and their new baby, my mother-in-law again mentioned how her mother had died. As before, I tried to lighten the mood, talking about how everything worked out fine, but my daughter and her husband were shocked, my wife just got angry, and my father-in-law said nothing at all.

Repeatedly I’ve tried to talk to my mother-in-law about it, letting her know how distressing it is to all of us, and that she should try to seek professional help about it. Each time, she simply shrugged and said that life wasn’t fair and she didn’t have any illusions about it, so we had to face up to reality. I find myself getting more and more angry about it, and I am running out of ideas for dealing with it. I’d rather limit our exposure to this woman, but my wife feels guilty about it, even though we always come away from my mother-in-law feeling distressed, or angry, or worse. Am I right in staying away from this woman?

Psychologist’s Reply

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What if you tried a more moderate approach first? Clearly, your mother-in-law suffered a huge tragedy when she was younger. This probably shaped how she sees the world and, as she gets older, this perception only gets stronger. Knowing first-hand how dangerous childbirth can be, I wonder how difficult it was for her to have her own children and if anyone helped her through that. It’s very possible that your mother-in-law has gone through life with very little support for this huge fear that she carries. I mention this not to excuse her behavior, but more to encourage understanding for it. However, it also could be that her tragedy is a way for her to get attention and she doesn’t know how else to get it.

Whatever her reason for her behavior, you do not have to put up with it. But that doesn’t mean that you have to separate yourselves from her either. The more moderate approach would be to develop boundaries. It sounds like so far people have engaged with her on the topic. This is reinforcing to her. Basic behavioral theory dictates that if you want to eliminate a behavior, you stop reinforcing it. Thus, you give her a short answer and then change the subject. For example, when she asked if your grandchild was born alive, your wife could have just said yes, and then gone on to wax eloquent about the baby. Similarly, if she mentions her mother’s death, someone could say, “That was a tragedy” and go on to talk about the challenges of new parenthood. In this way, she does not get reinforced, and she will eventually stop. She may not like the boundaries you set (most people don’t) but she will learn that people don’t want to talk about it, and you don’t have to ostracize her.

It sounds like you are angry with your father-in-law for doing nothing to stop your mother-in-law’s behavior. He may not know what to do, he may not feel like it’s his place, or he may be so used to it that he just ignores it. Whatever his reason, it might be helpful to you and your wife to have a discussion with him about it. He could offer some insight or, at the very least, you will know why he doesn’t intervene.

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