Dear Dr. Yael,
Firstly, thank you for all that you do. It is wonderful to have someone positive and helpful to turn to.
I would like to ask you a mother-in-law-related question. My mother-in-law and I have had our “problems” since the beginning of our marriage. I was going through my birth pangs of becoming observant when we first got married and she rightly thought that I had a “holier than thou” attitude. It took time for me to come down to earth, but once I did, she just couldn’t see it. Seven years into our marriage, she was still seeing me as I had been years before. My husband and I went to speak with a rav and he agreed to speak with her. She acknowledged that I had changed and there was definitely an improvement in our relationship.
Over the years, her main complaint about me is that I don’t tell her anything. I know it is quite unusual for a woman not to be forthcoming with news and events in her family’s life, but I was pretty clueless about relationships and never very good at making small talk – especially with someone I can’t connect with on a deep level. What I mean is that I tell my closest friends everything because it comes up in conversation, but I’ve had to work hard at telling everybody else news like that my parents are coming to visit, or we are going away for a few days, or even when the kids have a performance that family are invited to.
I have gotten better at filling my mother-in-law in on what is going on in our lives, however, with all of my efforts, our relationship has not improved as much as I would have liked and I think I know why.
My mother-in-law lost her mother when she was in her very early teens. She and her siblings did not know that their mother was sick and, therefore, never got to say goodbye. I think it’s something she never got over.
In addition, while my father-in-law is a tremendous baal tzedakah, he is not exactly a good husband and is very distant. At one point, the emotional void between them caused her to become physically ill. To say that she’s unhappy is an understatement; she is a wound-up ball of nerves. She smokes and pops lots of pills.
That is why I think she has a hard time seeing the close relationship I have with her son.
I try to be compassionate, even though she spends half our conversations making stinging, hurtful remarks – to my husband as well.
How can I get myself to call her a few times a week? Every time I think about having to make “that” phone call, I get anxious. When she says hurtful things, I don’t want to call her or have anything to do with her. I know Hashem chooses our in-laws for a reason, but sometimes I just get tired of all of the trying.
Any suggestions or words of encouragement?
I am sorry to say that you are not alone in your pain. Unfortunately, many women have very negative relationships with their mother-in-law. It is for this reason that the Gemara says that a mother-in-law cannot be a witness against her daughter-in-law. The relationship is a challenging one, as you have obviously experienced.
The nisyonos we find ourselves in are there to help us grow. It appears that this relationship is one of your nisyonos. Perhaps you can limit your conversations with your mother-in-law to polite well-wishing short exchanges? During your brief conversations, give her your news, along with brachos and good wishes.
You haven’t said how your husband handles her negativity. Does he feel that you need to speak to her often? If he doesn’t, maybe pull back and let him be the one who makes the calls.
Another idea is writing her letters or cards, thereby limiting your verbal interactions with her.
While you should always treat her with derech eretz, I think that you should consult with your rav as to whether you need to speak to her on the phone often and for a lengthy amount of time.
Baruch Hashem you have a loving husband and it sounds like you are a special person. It is important for you to remember that people who are very critical and say painful things generally do so to one-up themselves. This criticism emanates from their own deep insecurity. By putting the other person down, they appear to temporarily feel better about themselves. One of my favorite sayings is, “Don’t mind the mind that belittles you – he is trying to cut you down to his own size.” Try to keep this in mind when your mother-in-law makes painful remarks. Hatzlocha!