Dear Dr. Yael:
I am, Baruch Hashem, married with a few children. I have a good relationship with my parents and all of my siblings and siblings-in-law, but my relationship with my in-laws really pains me.
I try so hard to be loving and positive, but my mother-in-law always says something negative to me, causing me to get flustered and defensive. I try to never answer back, but this leaves me with a lot of unresolved anger. My father-in-law is more of a quiet person and we do not have much of a relationship.
I don’t know what to do anymore. This situation is causing friction in my marriage, since I am often feeling hurt and my husband does not want to get in the middle of my relationship with his mother. He feels that I should show derech eretz toward his parents, regardless of what they say. Despite agreeing with him, I cannot go on this way. I am so angry and hurt, and do not know how much longer I can hold in my feelings. Nothing changes when I become defensive.
Is there a way that I can change this negative cycle? I want to continue to try speaking to them with derech eretz and have a normal relationship. What can I do when my mother-in-law is being negative or critical?
A Frustrated Daughter-in-Law
Dear Frustrated Daughter-in-Law:
It is very difficult to act respectfully but be constantly criticized. One technique that has been consistently successful is responding positively when one speaks to you in a negative manner. For example, if your mother-in-law criticizes you, it may be a good idea to not respond; instead, you should smile at her and give her an unrelated compliment.
This worked like a charm when one of my clients tried it. Her mother-in-law came to her home and said, “Your house is too clean; it doesn’t even look like you have kids around. You probably never let them play and make a mess.” This client felt hurt because even though her mother-in-law’s comment was ridiculous (she had a healthy relationship with her children), she felt like her mother-in-law was telling her that she was not a good mother. Normally, this woman would become defensive, telling her mother-in-law how much she lets the children play – and then becoming flustered while citing different examples. This often backfired, as her mother-in-law usually had a rebuttal at the ready. We worked on calming techniques and on ways to respond differently.
It is extremely hard to respond positively in these situations. But if one can remain calm and gather the strength to respond in a positive fashion, the person will surely be impressed with the results. The next time this woman’s mother-in-law came over and made a similar type of comment, my client did not respond. Instead, she smiled at her mother-in-law and said, “I really like your dress. The color suits you.” Her mother-in-law, not prepared for the compliment and not knowing how to react, murmured a surprised thank you – and thus the negative conversation was over.
The two proceeded to talk about everyday things and surprisingly her mother-in-law did not find anything else to criticize. This occurred a few more times, with my client changing the topic every time by complimenting her mother-in-law or mentioning something positive about her.
It is difficult for others to be negative when you are complimenting them. Speaking calmly and positively can go a long way when faced with criticism.
I once treated a couple and the husband was very negative, criticizing his wife often. This made her feel very insecure and unloved. (Individuals are sometimes reared in a negative atmosphere and it is hard for them to change their perception and mode of thinking.) Even though the husband was striving to be less negative, he would sometimes find the one thing to criticize instead of the five things to compliment. In an attempt to help her husband become more positive, I worked with the wife to change the way she responded to him. She and I worked hard on building her self-esteem and remaining calm when feeling hurt or angry. We also practiced different complimentary sentiments she could use on her husband, even if not in the mood to do so.
Here’s what happened: On a Friday afternoon, her husband came home from work while she was still cooking for Shabbos. He saw a kitchen in turmoil. The first thing he said was, “Wow, this kitchen is a mess.” While not understanding why he couldn’t focus on the wonderful aromas coming from the kitchen and the beautiful dishes that she had prepared, she remembered what we had practiced. She smiled at her husband and said, “You must be starving, why don’t I cut you a piece of hot potato kugel?” Her husband, immediately realizing his error, apologized and complimented her for making the potato kugel. This woman turned a prospective argument into a positive marital moment. Her action took a lot of strength, and it resulted in something positive. She was able to get her point across without any yelling or criticism heaped on her.
Since you and your mother-in-law are not in joint therapy, you may not be as successful as the woman described above. However, you are likely to change the dynamic – for the better – in your relationship by adhering to this advice. Perhaps your mother-in-law will even begin to compliment you, as you are teaching her to behave differently. Hatzlachah with this technique. If, however, you do not see positive results, you should seek short-term professional help for guidance when faced with this difficult situation.
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