Dear Dr. Yael,
Firstly, thank you for all that you do. You have no idea what it feels like to have someone to write to, and when I see just how much you’ve helped so many, you are truly a gift to the Jewish people!
I would like to ask you a mother-in-law question. My mother-in-law and I have had our ‘problems’ from 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. I had actually ‘come down to earth’ years before, but she couldn’t see that I had changed, so she viewed me seven years after marriage as she had when I was first married. We finally went to see a Rabbi in our city to intermediate and he seemed to be able to get through to her that people actually change. He seemed to help us get to a different level of relationship.
Over the years, her main complaint about me is that I don’t tell her anything. I know that that is quite unusual for a woman to not be forthcoming with news and events in one’s life, but I was a pretty clueless person when it came to relationships in general and was never good at making small talk with someone that I didn’t connect with on a deep level. What I mean to say 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 the bits of news like 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 is invited to.
I have improved a lot, telling her more news and more information about her son. With all of my efforts, I don’t think that my relationship with my mother-in-law has improved much at all, and the following may be the reason.
My mother-in-law lost her mother in her very early teens. I don’t think she ever worked out her immense pain that came from her family never telling the children that she was sick. She never got to say goodbye. In addition, although my father-in-law is a big ba’al tzadakah,, he is far from being a good husband. He is actually very self-centered and she even became physically sick at one point when she was a young woman, due to the emotional void she had from him. I think my mother-in-law is jealous of the relationship I have with her son.
To say that she’s unhappy is an understatement; she is a wound up ball of nerves. She smokes and pops lots of pills.
So my question is, given all of her background, I’ve worked hard at being compassionate when she often makes stinging, hurtful remarks (during about half of our conversations). She does it to me and to her son as well. Once I had a talk with her and it literally felt like I was getting beaten up by her verbal blows. She is angry and bitter. So 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 roll my eyes and force myself to do it. But when she says those 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 growing and taking the pain that I have to do.
Any suggestions or words of encouragement?
Thanks for your precious time!
Thank you for your letter. Unfortunately, many people have very negative relationships with their mother-in-law. It is for this reason that the Gemara says that a mother-in-law can not be a witness against her daughter-in-law. Through this we realize that this relationship is a challenging relationship.
In life we all receive different nisyonos to help us grow. It appears that this is one of your challenges [nisyonos]. Perhaps you can limit your conversations with your mother-in-law to polite well-wishing short exchanges? Wishing her well when you see her and calling her for brief conversations which entail giving her brochos and good wishes. How does your husband handle her negativity? Does he feel that you need to speak to her often? What about writing her texts? Can you send her cards or texts instead of calling as often?
I question whether you must call her often and bear the pain of her hurtful remarks. Perhaps it is better that you buy her gifts, send her texts often, and show your concern in other ways, while limiting your verbal interaction. Certainly you should try to treat your mother-in-law with derech eretz, but I think that you should consult with your Rav 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 you sound like a special person in your attempt to treat your mother-in-law properly. Perhaps sending material gifts, cards and showering your mother-in-law with affection without having direct contact may be more meaningful to her and will shield you from her negativity and criticisms.
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 actually appear to temporarily feel better about themselves. Please remember that you can only do so much in a relationship. If you are trying your best to be a good daughter-in-law and continue to do so, you are doing your part. 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, so that you don’t take it to heart as much. Lastly, remember, you always need to have derech eretz for your mother-in-law, but you do not need to be her best friend; thus, if you have to maintain your distance somewhat in order to have a good relationship with her, then do so. Hatzlocha in this challenging relationship and I hope that these ideas will be helpful to you!