Handling The Hostile Mother-In-Law


Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against mother-in-laws as a natural and inevitable byproduct of getting married. In fact, if you get married and don’t expect to have a mother-in-law, barring unusual circumstances, you’re in trouble.

No, this post is about what happens when you get married and your mother-in-law rejects the fact that you have married her son or daughter. For some reason (which we’ll talk about in a second) she does not like you.

If you are one of those lovers of people (like me) who will work hard to ‘win her over,’ you’re headed for an extra bad feeling. The mother-in-law I’m talking about cannot be persuaded to accept or love the person who has married her offspring. I guess if you knew this ahead of time you’d have saved yourself a lot of energy and time (money).

Now some mother-in-laws will respond to these efforts to win her over with a secret loathing and a willingness to be taken out, wined, and dined. This kind of charade could go on for a considerable amount of time. Until one day, you see evidence for the fact that she never had any intention of accepting or liking you. Not a good feeling, to say the least.

Other rejecting mother-in-laws will not accept any efforts to win them over. Right from the start they are clear as to their feelings and refuse to participate in any peace offering you might make. In some ways, this is a lot more honest. Now it’s important that you try to avoid any ‘guilt feelings’ you might have. This person you are in conflict with (more precisely, who is in conflict with you) can make you feel like you’ve done something very bad marrying her beloved child.

More than that, your crime is basically that you took something vital way from her. Ripped it right out of her, or so it seems. The point is, you weren’t supposed to marry this person (your wife or husband) because your mother-in-law had other plans in the works. Sometimes children can be earmarked for something in life by the parents that gave birth to them. Something more than growing up and leaving home.

For example, your wife or husband may have been slated for a career of caregiving to your mother-in-law in some way physically and/or emotionally. As long as he or she does not marry, the plan is in effect and never challenged, at least not by someone he or she marries. Mother-in-laws of this ilk usually harbor a fair amount of unresolved rarely expressed old-fashioned dependency. The type of dependency that is fundamentally narcissistic because it does not take into account the emotional needs of the child now adult to grow up and have his or her own love life.

What to do now? If this is your unfortunate plight, best advice I can give you is try to find a healthy way to live with it. Consider the problem, first and foremost, as one of those realities you can’t change. That initial realization will take away a lot of the stress. It’s like having a condition you need to live with.

Next, you’ll have the difficult job of making an ’emotional arrangement’ with your spouse about his or her mother. Chances are, and here’s the hard part, your spouse will probably have a touch of ‘counter-dependency’ on his or her mother. Hopefully, this is not strong enough to challenge or seriously jeopradize your marriage.

Open communication of feelings and a willingness to negotiate an arrangement that takes into account your mother-in-law’s hostility will get you the most mileage. Remember, your spouse is going to feel bad about the conflict between you and his or her mother. In a perfect world it wouldn’t exist. What you’re looking for is the most comfortable arrangement where you are not being openly or wantonly abused.

Comments? Welcome. Dr. Tom Jordan

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Dr. Jordan

Dr. Thomas Jordan is a clinical psychologist, certified interpersonal psychoanalyst, author, professor, and love life researcher.

1 Comment

  1. TL on December 21, 2015 at 4:29 am

    Thanks for this post. I am the person whose mother is hostile to my spouse. I didn’t see it or was in denial for many years, but the past few years, my husband and I have been trying to work through this. We tried confronting my mom in several ways, but it has just brought her hostility more to the surface. She denies it, but it is pretty clear to us both now. My husband has lived with it for many years, but I think he’s done allowing her to get away with it. I feel bad excluding her from our life and my children’s lives because she is always the victim, she thinks. It is so hard for me to let her go, but I feel like the less time we spend with her, the happier our immediate family is. Except when it comes to holidays. I feel like I’m supposed to make them happen, or I feel so much guilt over neglecting her. She has no friends and hardly ever contacts us. Then when we see her, she has a hardly veiled hostility toward my husband. He has actually been extremely longsuffering, now that I see it more clearly. I just don’t know how to not feel like an ungrateful person rejecting my own mother and still make things peaceful at home. I love them both, and I do feel that I need to be much more on my husband’s side because that’s where my core family is, but it just all stresses me out so much. I’d love advice on what to do. What we have done is reduce duration of visits and location to neutral places. We meet near but not on holidays so we can enjoy our own family time with the kids. She doesn’t seem to ever be willing to discuss the real issues and barely speaks to my husband.

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