In-law anxiety

I'm engaged, but I think my future mother-in-law may ruin my life. What should I do?

Published November 7, 2003 8:35PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

A recently married friend of mine told me that getting a mother-in-law is like pulling a rabbit out of a hat -- either it is fluffy and sweet or rabid and foaming at the mouth. I've now put my hand in the hat and I think I may need a rabies shot.

I am engaged to a great guy I've been with for nearly seven years. I've always known his mother was a bit manipulative, from stories about how she and her adult sisters feuded over various social missteps over the years. There is always at least one person not talking to another. She has often snubbed me around the holidays, and she has photos of everyone else in the family on the wall but me. I am a kind person if a little reserved. I've never done anything against her, but I have been the first loving, successful relationship her son has had, which I think causes insecurity in her. She will often tell me that he tells her everything or that her house is "home" to him, etc. I blow these comments off.

We're planning our wedding and I am no longer a peripheral character to be minimized, but a real threat to her power. I am not handing over the reins to her on choices to be made about the affair, as my future sister-in-law did. I'm a designer and really having a ball with it. My fiancé, says that she is just jealous and that I should feel sorry for her rather than resent her. I think she is childish and malicious. My fiancé says he is disappointed in her and wanted to call her and let her have it. I asked him not to. I don't want a feud. I don't want to be pulled into the messy family politics. I just want things to be copacetic, friendly.

My way has always been to be kind and to be distant, but these things still occur. I know I am going to be interacting with her for the long haul, and I need to figure out how to do it without causing myself further stress and without feeling walked on. I've been waking up thinking about this. What to do?

Stressed-out Bride

Dear Stressed-out Bride,

Let us start with the facts. You are engaged to be married. Congratulations! You have been with your boyfriend for seven years and you have decided to try to stay together for the remainder of your lives. You have decided to join his family. Congratulations!

But here is a dark note: It sounds to me like you do not like his mother. And you seem to think that his mother does not like you. In fact, you seem to be battling with her, at least in your own mind, over who is most important in the son's life. If you were not battling with her, it would not matter to you in the least that she says he tells her everything, or that she says her house is home to him. You would shrug off those comments as the loving and prideful, if slightly possessive, remarks of a mother. Yet you seem to take them as some kind of affront.

In the planning of the wedding, you talk of being a threat to her power, and this seems to please you. You are "having a ball." While actively trying to thwart her, you say you just want things to be copacetic, friendly. You want to triumph, you want your own way, you want to be recognized as more important to the boy than his mother, yet you want to achieve these things while remaining kind and distant, not feeling stressed out or walked over.

Well, these sound like troubling, hostile and contradictory wishes, and you simply cannot have it all these different ways. If you aspire to appear kind and distant at the same time you are battling for what you want, you will be forced to take secret actions to undermine others; this is what is known as covert hostility, and it has a corrosive effect on families. It requires battling parties to be labeled as right and wrong; it pits contradictory narratives against each other; it forces loving members to choose sides against each other. In doing so, it tears families apart.

So I think, in your approach to entering this family, and in planning the wedding, you are in the wrong. I think you should abandon your own agenda and replace it with an agenda whose goal is harmony in the family. The purpose of the wedding is to bring to families together in harmony. The way you achieve harmony is by gracefully accepting the wishes of others. Where necessary, you can negotiate and compromise. But harmony, not victory, is the goal.

If there are elements of her plan for the wedding that you disagree with strongly, it's your duty to tell her directly, to her face. Tell her your opinion. You have the right to be heard. Then try to arrive at a compromise.

It sounds as if it has not yet clearly been spelled out who has the final word on various aspects of the wedding plans. This really should have been spelled out already, but I understand that weddings are not controlled by statutory authority; they are always to some extent collaborations. In this case, you need to concentrate on figuring out who has the authority for what, because you are starting from a bad place already, in which there is ample mistrust and personal ambition.

After you are married, you must realize that it is not necessary for you to like everyone in his family, or for everyone in his family to like you. It is easier for families to gather amiably on the holidays if everyone has at least a passing appreciation of each other, but it is not necessary. All that is necessary is for you to behave with a modicum of decency. This is required of you no matter how others treat you. It doesn't matter if you think his mother doesn't treat you well. You must still treat her well.

So while I understand what you say about your feelings, and I empathize with the pain you are in, I cannot fix your feelings. All I can tell you is that if you give in to your feelings of resentment, if you take secret pleasure in thwarting the efforts of others, you are going to make it that much harder to get along with them in the future. So I would advise you to be as saintly as you possibly can be throughout the planning of the wedding. Where possible, give in. Concentrate more on joining the family amiably than on having a perfect wedding.

If none of this is to your liking, perhaps you should reconsider getting married. It is going to be the same way after you are married, only worse. You are not always going to be pleased; at times, you will feel as though others view you as a servant, or an object. You are going to become your husband's wife. You will not always be the center of attention. Not everyone will think you are as clever as you believe yourself to be.

As to your future mother-in-law, you have to stop struggling to control her behavior. That doesn't mean you're going to be comfortable around her. She may genuinely dislike you. She may see through your kind but distant mien, behind which lies an air of superiority; she may see through your belief that you're the best thing that ever happened to her son, that you are taking him away to an environment so much more refined, and better designed, than the one she raised him in. Just because people are manipulative doesn't mean they're not perceptive. Even if his mother doesn't consciously know why she doesn't like you, she probably senses that you don't respect her and it galls her.

So try to find some things about her you genuinely like and respect. Don't be afraid to disagree with her, but choose your disagreements wisely, and be willing to give in. Otherwise, if you do become her daughter-in-law, you'll be in torment the rest of your days.

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By Cary Tennis

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