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Last week’s column featured a letter from a young woman, barely married for three years, who has been plagued by the less-than-adoring shenanigans of her mother-in-law. From the time she first met with her future in-laws, her mother-in-law’s unkind comments and churlish demeanor have deeply pained and troubled this daughter-in-law. On a favorable note, the author has been fortunate to have supportive role models in her own parents and a doting husband with whom she seems to enjoy a stable marital relationship. The young husband and wife are now expectant parents, and she is nervous about their future, as she cannot tolerate going to her in-laws and being exposed to her mother-in-law’s “sour attitude and shoddy treatment” She adds, “Most of all, I can’t stand how she affects my feelings about my marriage.” − and signs herself, “I had hoped to be a dutiful daughter-in-law”
To start with, your primary obligation is to be dutiful to your spouse. And considering the notably positive aspect of your life, which you glossed over in the first paragraph of your letter − “I have been blessed with a great husband who displays fine midos, is extremely caring and respects me tremendously…” − this should prove to be a most gratifying undertaking. There is not much better a young wife can wish for than to have a caring and understanding mate. Your mother-in-law may have come along in the package deal, but face reality: you don’t live with her − and you can (and should under the circumstances) maintain a respectful distance.
The incidents you’ve described (the published letter was an abridged version of your original that contained much more detail) leads one to suspect that your mother-in-law has gone through some rough patches in her life. This is not said to justify her cantankerousness in any way, but you would do well to accept the fact that you will not change her. The best thing you can do for yourself is to tune her out. By not allowing your mother-in-law’s barbs and snubs to get to you, you will in effect be disarming her. For when she senses that she no longer succeeds in getting under your skin, she may well give up trying to hurt you.
“Why would she want to hurt me?” you wonder. The reasons could be many and complicated but have really nothing to do with you personally. She may be resentful of your youth, of the attention her son is lavishing on you and of having lost him to you. While she should be enjoying the benefits of having gained a daughter, her insecurities seem to stand in the way of letting her reap a most rewarding phase in life.
It is important for you to realize that your mother-in-law’s exasperating behavior is not a reflection of any wrongdoing on your part. According to your own words, other members in her family have also been subjected to her nastiness. One way to ease your anxiety is by making your visits to your in-laws infrequent and your stays brief. It is incumbent upon your husband to visit his parents, yet you mustn’t always accompany him. Of course this does not refer to overnight stays (without you).
By all means, be in touch − call your mother-in-law to wish her a good Shabbos, a good Yom Tov, etc. But steer clear of long-winded conversations, and always be gracious. Difficult as it may be, try your utmost not to react to provocation; better in such instance to simply end the discussion on a civil note: the doorbell rang; the tub is overflowing; you just remembered a last-minute errand. Perpetuating an unpleasant exchange may give rise to your blood pressure, to flippancy and to strained future dialogue − not to mention a handy excuse on her part to further assault you.
Most disturbing and puzzling of your sentiments is your closing remark, “I can’t stand how she affects my feelings about my marriage.” How are your “feelings” about your marriage being affected? Are you less attracted to your husband because you don’t care much for his mother? This would be an unfair tit-for-tat. Is your relationship with your mother-in-law causing arguments to arise between you and your husband? She can wield only as much power over you as you grant her − and you can strip her of that power by letting her comments and attitude go right over your head.
As an alternative to wasting precious time brooding about your relationship with your mother-in-law, consider taking up activities that will occupy your senses in productive and fulfilling ways. Concentrate your energies on the wondrous coming event and on all that Hashem has blessed you with. Be grateful for your terrific parents, for your wonderful husband and when things get you down, take Tehillim in hand and beseech G-d to give you the strength of heart and mind to have a positive outlook.
With apologies, and applause, to all the truly wonderful mothers-in-law who strive and succeed in forging close and loving relationships with their daughters-in-law, if it is of any consolation, mother-in-law woes are hardly uncommon. Even the Gemara makes reference to a tradition of friction in mother-in-law relations and affirms that a mother-in-law is generally loathe to see all that she has entrusted to her son being bestowed upon his wife. The daughter-in-law thus mirrors the feelings of her mother-in-law − for we are taught, “one’s heart reflects the other’s heart”
Resolve to begin a new chapter in your life − by donning an imaginary rain slicker and picturing in your mind’s eye the venomous drops of your mother-in-law’s put-downs sliding right off your coat’s repellant surface. The future is only as bleak as you project it to be.
Smile, and the whole world − maybe even your mother-in-law − will smile with you.