One of the most visited posts I’ve written in the five years I’ve been blogging is A wife’s best defense against a troublesome mother-in-law. As I write this it is the fifth most visited page on the blog. This popularity shouldn’t be surprising, as this is sadly a very common problem, and the “normal” methods of trying to address the problem simply don’t work.
Recently commenter Laura has been discussing her own challenges here. From the discussion it sounds like she has made some progress, but she made a comment in reply to another reader which made me want to revisit this topic:
I will not give on this issue for certain reasons that I guarantee any mother that was in my position would be doing the same.
Like I said you make think I am not being a supportive loving wife and daughter in law however you really don’t know what I am talking about when I say she did some really horrible things. So stop assuming that its a normal tense relationship between us because it was not.
I can’t speak for the other commenter, but I have no problem believing that Laura’s mother-in-law is doing truly vile and astounding things. Like Laura, I have witnessed things which I won’t go into out of respect for the privacy of those involved. The question is not should something be done about the problem, but how to best address the problem.
As I explained in the initial post on the topic, the problem is every modern wife’s go-to solution maddeningly stops working when the mother-in-law is involved. Modern wives are masters at manipulating their husbands through nagging, drama, threats of divorce, denying sex, etc. While wives using these tools create a miserable marriage for both husband and wife, the tools themselves are generally speaking extremely effective in manipulating the husband. If a wife wants to spend more money, get her husband to work harder to earn more money, buy a bigger house or a new car, etc, these tools do generally work quite well, and wives know this.
Aside from creating a miserable marriage, the practical problem with this approach is it fails miserably when dealing with mother-in-laws. As I explained in the original post, in this scenario the mother-in-law outranks the wife in the de facto matriarchy the wife has created. It is, however, worse than this devastating fact would suggest. Not only does the mother-in-law outrank the wife, but the wife is playing the mother-in-law’s game. No matter how good at manipulation and drama Laura is, her mother-in-law is going to be far better at this game. It would be less foolish for Laura to challenge LeBron James to a game of 1 on 1 in basketball. And make no mistake, if Laura is trying to pressure her husband to fix the problem with her mother-in-law, she is playing the drama and manipulation game. All of her best moves suddenly fail spectacularly; it is like she is moving in slow motion. Every scheme she concocts to outwit the mother-in-law ends with Laura being knocked down and dunked on. She gets fouled but somehow the mother-in-law makes it look like she was the one in the wrong. It would be hilarious to watch if it weren’t so tragic.
Why won’t he stand up for himself?
Like most wives in the same situation, Laura is no doubt extremely frustrated that her husband won’t stand up for himself. Why does he let her manipulate him that way? Yet her chosen tactic is to manipulate her husband even more. She doesn’t really want him to stand up for himself. On the contrary, she wants her puppet to stop taking direction from that other woman and do exactly as she tells him to do.
Part of the problem is that Laura no doubt chose a husband she felt she could keep in line, one who would respond positively to her leadership. She didn’t want to marry a man who was good at standing up to manipulation, and she doesn’t want him to stand up for himself now. What she hadn’t considered is that another woman already trained him in how to be manipulated, and this woman has decades of experience on her. Even worse, every tactic Laura will be tempted to use only weakens her own hand and strengthens the mother-in-law’s. Whether it is threats of divorce, denied sex, or just plain nagging, all of this creates a wedge in her own marriage, pushing her husband away and weakening the very hold she hopes to exploit.
For an example of how wives get knocked down and dunked on, consider one of the more standard plays wives try to run. The mother-in-law does something pernicious, so the wife demands that the husband “Go talk to her about it”. This is of course exactly the sort of drama the mother-in-law is craving. The husband carries out his wife’s orders, and delivers her message to the mother-in-law. The thing to always keep in mind is that drama, any kind of drama, is like a lit crack pipe to an out of control mother-in-law. That sinister smile you swear just flashed across her face when you sent him over isn’t something you imagined. She is outright delighted that you chose to send this drama her way. How the mother-in-law chooses to play this hand is at her discretion, as she can either paint the wife as a vindictive controlling person who is trying to push the innocent mother out of her son’s (and grand-children’s) life, or she can play it the other way, by making a huge emotional display explaining how sorry she is that she has “made the wife hate her so much”! What can she ever do to be forgiven of this? For added effect, most troublesome mother-in-laws will also prefer to throw in some sort of health emergency into the mix. This could as easily be real as it is feigned, but the veracity of the emergency doesn’t really matter much.
She almost caused a divorce!
When laura first started commenting she utilized the passive aggressive language of the threat point:
Letting him guide the situation last time almost caused a divorce so this I why I turned to the Internet because Im lost and just don’t know what to do.
The problem with threats of divorce as I mentioned above is that they only strengthen the mother-in-law’s hand by weakening the marriage. Following through and actually divorcing does the same thing. The state is at all times delighted to step in and remove a husband and father from the home, but don’t expect that enthusiasm for destroying families to extend to the grandparents. If Laura divorces the father of her children her mother in law’s hand with the children will only be strengthened. Just like divorcing wives, mother in laws understand the power of using children for manipulation.
What to do when you are tired of getting dunked on.
For wives who are tired of trying to out manipulate, nag, and drama queen their mothers-in-law, the best option is to allow the husband to do what she keeps complaining he won’t do: learn to stand up for himself. But how to do this, since the normal tools of manipulation by definition won’t teach him to stand up for himself? I’ve given advice on how a wife can encourage a husband to show more leadership to a very sweet wife who wasn’t in nearly this bad a situation, and a year later she wrote back to tell me how much her marriage had improved as a result of following the advice.
Realistically wives in Laura’s position have more bad habits for both the husband and wife to learn to break, so it will not be easy. It is however the only viable solution short of divorce and a court order banning the mother-in-law from all contact with the children (the first part is a slam dunk under our system, the second is very unlikely). Even with a court order however, this is a woman who is an expert at manipulation. Breaking apart your family is extremely unlikely to create a better shelter for your children.
What wives in Laura’s situation need to do is what is most against all of their instincts. They need to let go and let their husband stand on his own two feet and lead. Good feminists will of course have picked husbands who are particularly weak at standing up to women, so this will mean a steeper learning curve for him. Good feminists will also find it very hard not to pretend to allow him to lead while retaining hold of the reins. One thing the son of a manipulative mother understands is manipulation, and while he may not be able to vocalize it, he will sense this manipulation in his gut. His mother will as well.
The end goal
The end goal is to get the husband to a situation where he is truly leading, and as a natural result is protective of those he is leading. Ironically what his mother probably needs more than anything is for a strong man to tell her to knock off the antics. As I explained above, men who are acting as a messenger for another woman can’t deliver this. Only a man who is acting of his own decision can do this. What wives will find is when their husband decides to do this of his own volition, the mother-in-law will almost always become surprisingly calm, happy, and pleasant. However, for difficult cases like Laura’s mother-in-law, this effect is likely to only be temporary. What the husband needs to learn is how to identify manipulation and drama and disarm it. Men in my experience are far better at understanding how to do this than women, as women will almost always choose an option which increases the drama.
Edit: Laura has returned with an update.