My mother-in-law, my mother-in-law, my mother-in-law!

I would like to see a very bad thing happen to my mother-in-law.

Published January 31, 2006 11:35AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

My eight-year marriage has been to the perfect husband (12 years older), and has produced the perfect child. We are both emotionally and professionally fulfilled scientists. Our marriage is perfect, except for one thing -- my mother-in-law. I want her to die. Violently. Now. And I want her to see it coming.

My husband had a childhood the Cleavers would envy. Born to uneducated parents, he and his sister were loved and had an idyllic, sunny existence. I, however, was horribly abused by highly educated parents, hit, kicked and told I was hideous, worthless and unlovable. I still love and forgive my parents, and keep in touch. Despite the terrible upbringing, I succeeded academically -- as did my husband -- and we found happiness in a safe, loving, mature relationship; we have never spanked or abused our child. Nevertheless, I wonder if my past colors the way I feel about my mother-in-law.

First, my mother-in-law initially irritated me with little things, like insisting that we invite 80 of her out-of-state friends (whom we didn't know) to our tiny wedding -- we didn't. Then the irritations became rudeness. For example, once during a work commute, news of a school shooting was broadcast on my radio. I phoned our home, where she was visiting, to ask her to turn on the TV and tell me what was going on. She knew my mom was a teacher in the school mentioned in the report, but she refused to go to the TV, saying that my father-in-law was watching something else. I had to wait until I got home an hour later to see the news myself. My mother was not shot, but people my family knew were killed.

Later, three days after my C-section, she and my father-in-law arrived, expecting a full Thanksgiving dinner to be hosted by me, tired and in pain. During this time, I got no sleep, could not bond with my child and had to be the maid, cook and entertainer.

Next, she visited uninvited on my first Mother's Day and took over, stealing my special day, insisting that attention be lavished on her. Often, when asked to pass my baby to me so that I could rock/feed/talk to her, she got upset or would simply ignore me. Many times she refused to hand my child to me at all. She persistently devalues me by asking me a question, getting an answer and then immediately asking my husband the same question in front of me. This is the routine even though he always gives her the same answer. She gets very upset when I disagree with her son, whom she worships. When I realistically portray his work (excellent but not flawless) she says I am jealous. She tells her friends he is getting the Nobel Peace Prize. (She means Nobel Prize for Science, but correcting her is hazardous.) She addresses our Christmas cards to Dr. and Mrs., although she knows I am a Ph.D., and she has been often corrected by my husband. She told everyone that we named our daughter after her, and when I told her that this wasn't true (it isn't), she became angry at me. Traditionally, when her feelings are hurt (by me, see instances above) she cries at mealtimes or gatherings, making everyone uncomfortable. And so on ... the petty list is long.

For the record, I am kind to her, honest and diplomatic, but when I speak the truth instead of pretending to be the sycophantic little woman who had no identity until I met her son, I am treated with derision and hostility. I am kind and fair to her even though it is difficult: She has a fourth-grade education, reads nothing, is witless and is terminally incurious about everything! I have never heard of a mother-in-law like this. She is not senile, and her family still insists that she is the most perfect little old lady. Also for the record, my usually perfect husband takes no stance and my father-in-law sides with her. How do I cope?

Invisible Daughter-in-Law

Dear Invisible Daughter-in-Law,

I would venture to say, amateur pretend psychologist that I am, that yes, your childhood very likely has something to do with your feelings toward your mother-in-law. I would also say that the thing about mothers-in-law is that you cannot get rid of them and you cannot change them. So in spite of the litany of behaviors you cite, your only recourse is to change yourself.

Not that there's anything wrong with you. Nor that there's not plenty wrong with your mother-in-law. Clearly, the one who has things wrong with her is the mother-in-law. Nonetheless, universal law of pop psychology: You're the one who has to change. And, rather perverse though it is to say, once you do this, you may end up (incredibly as it seems now) feeling profoundly grateful to your mother-in-law -- not as a person so much as a catalyst, an agent of change. You know, the way we're grateful to the anvil that falls on our car: It could have killed us, but actually we get the insurance money and get to buy a new car! Traumatic events direct our attention to inescapable facts and we go, Hey, gotta do something now. And in a weird way, then we're glad it happened ...

I promise you, given the right training, it is possible to endure such slights with happy equanimity. (Not that I do not recognize the satisfaction to be gained from harming her in some way. I do. It's just not going to help very much.)

In support of my first contention, i.e. that yes indeed your childhood has something to do with why this is affecting you so profoundly, may I direct the jury's attention to the language you use in speaking of your feelings. You say, and I quote (this is not so hard to do, as it's up there in black and white): "I want her to die. Violently. Now. And I want her to see it coming."

What those words say to me is this: You function in the professional world as a scientist, skilled in the old observe, hypothesize, test via experiment scenario. But in your emotional life you are not a scientist. You are, rather, a person trained in abuse. When you feel you are being abused, you react as you have been taught, as you learned in your household, by envisioning a scenario of harm.

Harm = protection in the mind of the abused. This is not a good axiom. It is in fact usually not true; it is only true in those rare scenarios in which we are literally being held captive in a barn, like on television, in which we actually have to distract, disable or maim our captors in order to escape -- throw acid in their eyes or light their pants on fire. In social situations where no physical violence is going to solve anything, the scenario of vengeful harm is pointless. Even if you could harm her verbally in a very subtle yet satisfying way, it would not solve your problem. Your problem is that you are hurt deeply -- more deeply than necessary -- by her thoughtlessness. You cannot change her thoughtlessness, so you must change how you respond to it. (I recognize, yes, how bad she is; again, consider the axiom: You can't change her.) You probably know that throwing a hot pot of coffee at her or stabbing her with a kitchen knife is not going to help. But because you are the product of an abusive household, those are the scenarios that arise in your mind: I'd like her to die painfully. I'd like her to see it coming.

Wouldn't that make up for a history of childhood abuse?

No, it wouldn't. You would still be trapped by your childhood, reacting to perceived slights with an outsize fantasy of violence and harm. You would still feel anxious and unsafe. You would still repeat those behaviors. In fact, you would have to escalate those behaviors as they failed to alleviate your anxiety and fear, and this is the kind of thing that leads eventually to yellow crime scene tape and felonious charges.

I'm also guessing, amateur psychologist that I am, that while you have gone to school and learned a whole new language with which to decode physical phenomena (do you work with the stars? with rocks? what kind of science do you do?), you have not been retrained emotionally. That is one of the best descriptions I have heard of psychotherapy -- that it is emotional relearning.

It's not going to fix your mother-in-law. But the idea is to learn some basic facts and some basic techniques for dealing with automatic hormonal and neurological responses to emotional stimuli.

In the same way that science has axioms, the emotional life has axioms as well: Can't change other people. Have to change ourselves. Feelings aren't facts. Don't have to act on feelings. Stuff like that. Sure, if overly repeated they sound stupid -- as would certain scientific facts -- like if a scientist walked around saying, "Well, you know, the Earth revolves around the sun!" you'd find that person kind of dull-witted. They are true, but not all that interesting or witty to repeat in conversation. They're just the firmament on which we stand.

People don't get educated about these axioms, though. Like you can go through college for a liberal arts degree and fail to be educated about science. And you can go through college in science and fail to learn these philosophical and psychological maxims. Could it be that's partly because lots of academics had subtly abusive childhoods? (Hey, back off. Just wondering. In a mode of level-headed, unbiased curiosity is all.)

So, anyway, having observed, having isolated the problem, I hypothesize: I think you can be helped by psychotherapy.

Please test this hypothesis experimentally and report the results.

While I do not want to bias the experiment, I nevertheless hope that the experiment validates the hypothesis.

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