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Another MIL Question

post #1 of 2
Thread Starter 

Hi Dr. Laura,

Thank you so much for being available for our questions and concerns--really appreciate that! Like the previous poster, I also have a challenging (borderline abusive) relationship with my mother-in-law. I have know her for nearly 20 years, and at first thought she was an extremely supportive mother to her children, but after so many years, I see her behavior much differently.


MIL is a very manipulative person, and quite emotionally abusive in my experience. I am not a professional, but after multiple therapy sessions, I have come to accept that my MIL likely has a narcissistic personality disorder. She has an extremely close relationship with my husband, and there is little emotional boundary between the two of them. There are many things I wish that I had paid more attention to when we were dating. We have now been married for over 8 years, and those years have not been easy for a few reasons, one of them being his mother's treatment of me. He always defends her behavior and says she could never mean anything negatively--of course, I know differently as I have experienced it directly, but I no longer expect him to be supportive or protective of me in any way. What is happening now with our children is what is concerning me.


Now she is starting to manipulate our 5 year old daughter to get her way on things. For example, my daughter was in a ballet recital recently (like the previous year), and I knew that having a large crowd of relatives there might be too much for her. She is only 5, and that is a lot of attention. In my husband's family, they typically would do everything together, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents...everyone (this is how MIL likes it). So, after arguing with my husband for several days, he agreed to inviting only the grandparents, which is what we did the year before and seemed to be fine. Well, we had MIL down to babysit the week before the recital and she made a point of talking to my daughter about the ballet, asking her if she was excited about it and about her and grandpa coming, and then making the point to "not forget about Aunt Jenny." She told her that if she asked mommy, maybe mommy would let Aunt Jenny come too. I was pretty angry about this, but didn't let my daughter see how I felt, as I don't want to put her in the middle anymore than she already has been put there by MIL. My daughter was then very concerned about whether Aunt Jenny would be coming, and I just told her that her father and I had already decided who would be coming.


Also, knowing how MIL can be, I have been concerned that she was saying undermining things about me to my daugher, but didn't really have proof of it--just know intuitively. Today I was making pasta and apparently making pasta reminded my daughter of the last time MIL came over and babysat her. My daugher told me that MIL asked her if mommy made her stand back when draining the hot water off the pasta, and my daughter said, "no." Not true, but anyway, then MIL said, "Well, you tell your mommy that she needs to make you stay back when she is making pasta because that is dangerous." I just told my daugher, "I am very careful when I am cooking and it is my job to make sure you are safe. This is very important to Mama." I consider this exchange between MIL to be undermining of my competency as a mother, and it puts my daughter in an inappropriate position. I am concerned that these types of interactions are happening a lot, because this is how she acts when I am around, quite frankly. My husband would see this as MIL is just trying to help and doesn't mean anything by it. Unfortunately, that is not the case.


I don't know what to do. We can't really afford to see a therapist, but I feel like I need some advice I can live by. Thanks!

post #2 of 2

I'm so sorry that you find yourself in this position with your MIL. It is likely that she has no idea she is being manipulative and inappropriate with her granddaughter. She simply wants what she wants and is very unconscious. But that doesn't mean it isn't harmful to her grandchild to use her as an intermediary to get her way.


So the question is, what can you do to protect your granddaughter? I think mostly you want to recognize her experience, validate the difficult position she finds herself caught in, and give her an opportunity to express her feelings to you. That will be healing and will allow her to see what's going on, so that over the years she will become more and more able to notice and not fall prey to her grandmother's "games."


How can you do that?  Mostly by listening, acknowledging feelings, stating boundaries, and giving her explicit permission not to obey her grandmother.


So, for instance, when she is very concerned about whether Aunt Jenny will be coming, it is fine to reassure her, as you did, that this decision is not on her, as you and her dad have already decided who is coming. But that doesn't help her deal with the distress of having been assigned a job (to convince you) by her grandmother, and feeling like she is disappointing her grandmother if she doesn't follow through, even though she feels uncomfortable about pressuring you.


So you might acknowledge her distress directly:

"So it sounds like Grandmother really wants Aunt Jenny to come, huh?....So she wanted you to ask me?....Hmm....I think it is Grandma's job to ask me herself if she wants something....It is not your job to ask me for Grandma....How did you feel when Grandmother told you to ask me?.....Worried? Yes, I can see why you might feel worried.....You want everything to feel good, and you felt like it was your job to make sure I agreed with Grandmother, huh?...."


Help her explore her options:

"So are you worried about what to say to Grandmother?....What do you think you will say to her?.....So you will tell her you asked me and I said that I would decide? That is true....But you feel a little worried that she will be mad at you?....Yes...I understand...."


Reassure her about the boundaries and adult responsibility:

"Sweetie, I know Grandmother asked you to talk to me. But it is never your job to make sure I agree with Grandmother. It is the job of grown-ups to talk to each other about things. Sometimes grownups agree, but sometimes they disagree. That's okay. It is the job of grownups to work things out with each other. It is not your job to ask me things for Grandmother, even if she asks you."


Give her permission to set her own boundaries: "Sweetie, if you feel awkward when Grandmother asks you to do something like this, you can say to her, 'Grandmother, you can talk to my mom about this. This is for the grown-ups to work out.'"


It will take your daughter some time, and probably some role-playing to learn to do this. But it will help her maintain her integrity with her grandmother, and it will teach her an invaluable skill.


Good luck supporting your daughter. With your help, she will be just fine.

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