This classic picture depicts the true state of affairs when it comes to the ‘intrusive mother-in-law.’ This is a mother who is still psychologically merged with her daughter at the time that you, the husband, take her as your wife. Just like in the sketch, if you look at it one way, you see your wife. If you look at it another way, you see your mother-in-law. Now that’s enough to scare the bejesus out of most husbands.
I can hear you now, “I married my wife not my mother-in-law!” Unfortunately, you didn’t notice that you were getting a package deal. You know, if you marry a woman with a child you get a package deal, right? Well the same thing here. Only the package consists of your wife and her mother.
Now here are a few tips and things I learned over the years that might help with this kind of love-life problem. First off, if your mother-in-law has a husband living with her, thank your lucky stars because chances are that will make things easier for you in the long run. If your mother-in-law is alone you’re out of luck because there’s a good chance the attachment she has to your wife is stronger than it would otherwise be because of loneliness.
If you and she (your mother-in-law) hit it off at the beginning of your marriage, that might be to your advantage. Though what usually happens is the ripped-off unhappy angry feelings she has toward you won’t surface until she figures out how easily you can be manipulated and controlled. If she is able to control you and your wife, that’s dreamland for her you see. Now she has two ‘children’ available to do her bidding.
If you’re in need of a little left over ‘mothering’ now as a married man, that puts you at a distinct disadvantage. If you’ve already separated from your own disappointed needs for childhood and adolescent love, you’ll fair better but expect some heat because it’s going to come when your mother-in-law figures out she can’t control you.
Basically, you’ll get beat up by her (mother-in-law) simply because you messed up an emotional arrangement she (mother-in-law) had with your wife (her daughter). Most intrusive mother-in-laws, if they are being honest, will say that they never wanted their daughters to marry because they are dependent on them in some way. Again these kinds of feelings will probably be buried at least at the beginning.
Now when the heat comes and she’s attacking you, how your wife responds will be a pretty good diagnostic for your marriage. Mother-in-laws are very powerful you see, so you are going to need your wife’s help to push her back. Your wife’s task is to make a choice. This is going to be hard for her because deep down inside she still thinks she ‘needs’ her mother. What your wife doesn’t realize yet is that her mother really doesn’t have any more ‘childhood or adolescent’ type love to give.
The only love she should give your wife is the love an adult daughter who is now married is supposed to get. By the way, that adult love would compel her (your mother-in-law) to back off and let you and your wife make a life without interferences or intrusions from her. Basically, that would be the most loving thing she could do for her daughter and you. Instead she’s in an emotional battle with you using whatever advantages she can get from your wife’s incomplete emotional maturity.
If your wife is ready to ‘separate’ emotionally from her mother, the heat on you will begin to subside because she will take on the responsibility of ‘setting the right limits’ on her mother’s behavior. You see, it’s one thing for you to try to do it, it’s another when your wife does it. Basically, your wife takes over and says to her mother, stop what you’re doing. This is my husband and I love him.
At that point there are usually tears sometimes on both sides, especially if your mother-in-law is not too narcissistic (I want what I want syndrome), otherwise her reaction will be anger and frustration. In my line of work, I often see the relationship between how emotionally separated a daughter is from her mother, and how intrusive her mother is in her marriage. When there’s less separation, there’s more intrusiveness and vice versa.
On some occasions something very positive will happen to mother-in-laws stuck in this kind of struggle. As their daughters mature and separate, they (mother-in-laws), once recovered from their feelings of loss, move on to start having a better life for themselves. These changes could range from finding a new boyfriend to, at least, putting a little more of their energy into their own lives and enjoyment.
The fact remains, sometimes you have to fight your way out of things that are interfering with your life to get to a better place for everyone involved. Letting go of childhood-adolescent needs for love now in adulthood is a big part of this change. The gift you’ll get for the effort you’ve put in to change is ultimately a better marriage and a happier mother-in-law (maybe). Dr. T. Jordan
Hi Dr Jordan,
Where is your his or her mother inclusive language, I just left a screwed up relationship where my ex partner valued his mother more than me, I am the mother of his two children. I was disliked by her as I refused to be bullied, she is a narcissitic individual as well as her son, he attempted to control me financially, socially and psychologically tormented me throughout the three years of living with him. I won’t call it a relationship because as you would know narcissistic individuals leave the other party wondering what is happenning throughout the time you are with them. Maybe there isn’t much evidence of the male partner’s mother interferring because this type of situation becomes abusive towards the woman, who leaves and the story stays focused on the abuse rather than the unhealthy relationship between mother and son. This is my second adult relationship where the mother in law in prominent in the relationship difficulties and both were abusive on different levels. Reading your other blogs I am thinking this relates to my own distant relationship with my mother and my need to seek a mother figure. Further consideration leads me to remember being devastated at the funeral of a boyfriends mother, I had lost the opportunity of a mother figure in my life.
Thank you EJ. You’ve reminded me that the issue of the ‘toxic mother-in-law’ is not complete. I have a post to write about a woman’s experience of her son’s wife or lover. In my experience, ‘narcissistic’ mother-in-laws are extremely possessive of their sons and aren’t about to let them go easily. That of course includes when they get married. I tend to think of this as a maturation issue on the part of the son now husband. In my experience the rule goes like this: if a son has not left his mother emotionally, he will have trouble committing emotionally in a marriage. His mother’s influence and control in his life and his marriage (competition and negative feelings toward his wife) is proof of this difficulty separating. I appreciate your insight about your own “need to seek a mother figure.” Looking for what we didn’t get in relationships with older adults, like a husband’s mother or father, is human and common. Unfortunately, it often ends in disappointment. Especially as you point out, if our spouse’s parent is narcissistic. At this point in my life I tend to think that healthy grieving of the loss of parenting love now as an adult has a better outcome than finding another adult to substitute. By grieving I mean acknowledging the feelings to ourselves that we suffered a loss, practicing letting-go, and looking inside ourselves for the ‘resources’ we have as an individual to make our life full and loving. Then the search for what we didn’t get diminishes and taking good care of oneself and loving others in healthy relationships takes over. Thank you for your thoughts and reminder. Dr. J.