Sending money to mother-in-law

Must we accede to my wife's mother's demand to send her dollars every month?

By Cary Tennis
Published July 16, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I am an officer in the U.S. Army, and my wife is from South America and is a stay-at-home mom. Ever since we have been married, my mother-in-law has regularly pressured my wife about her responsibility for sending a "monthly contribution." This situation is further complicated by the fact that my wife's sister, also married to an American, is employed and does send money every month to her mom. There have been numerous occasions when my mother-in-law has belittled, badgered and berated my wife on the phone when discussing my wife's supposed responsibility for sending some money every month.

My wife has had a conflicted relationship with her mother since childhood, and her sister who sends money monthly has always been her mother's "favorite" and this dynamic is also frequently at work when the subject of financial support comes up between my wife and her mother. My mother-in-law plays my wife's sister's "good deeds" off against her, and this makes my wife feel even more miserable and unhappy about constantly being harassed to financially assist her mother.

My mother-in-law is a widow who owns a three-level home in a major South American city and all four of my wife's siblings ranging in age from 17 through 44, plus three grandchildren, excepting my wife and her sister, live there with her. She does not work; her older children who live with her do work and contribute small amounts of their monthly earnings to help pay for utilities and other expenses. Before my father-in-law passed away, my wife's family had a very comfortable middle-class standard of living. He earned a very generous salary and was successful in many income- and profit-generating endeavors apart from his well-paying job. Unfortunately, when he died a few years ago very shortly after being diagnosed with extremely advanced heart disease, the family finances were compromised.

My father-in-law did not leave his family destitute. My mother-in-law owns several income-producing rental properties throughout the city. My wife and our family live on post, in government housing. Part of my confusion about our need to be sending a monthly stipend to my mother-in-law concerns this last detail. I am wondering to myself, Why, if my mother-in-law owns income-producing rental properties, does she need for us to send her money from the United States every month?

I have never asked my mother-in-law or any of my brothers- or sisters-in-law about her monthly or annual income, monthly or annual expenses or anything that pertains to her financial situation or needs. I can recall one or two occasions when my wife's sister's husband innocently inquired about something of a financial nature with her and the blowback was so intense you'd have thought he was asking her for Colonel Sanders' secret recipe! I do not ask, and do not wish to know anything about her financial situation or means; however, it is apparently quite OK for her to inquire of my wife just about any detail you can imagine pertaining to my own financial history and means, up to and including my monthly income, annual income and our weekly and monthly expenses.

I want to be a good husband and son-in-law and help out and be supportive whenever we can, but the continuing insistence that we are somehow obligated to send money to my mother-in-law every month is really becoming a sore point with me. It appears that my mother-in-law believes that because I earn a decent income, we should somehow have more than enough money lying around to be able to send a couple hundred dollars a month to her for whatever unnamed expenses or needs she might have.

The other issue that bothers me about this situation is that on the occasions when we have sent money to her for various "emergencies" that have arisen, she often exaggerates the level of need in order to squeeze more money out of us. Additionally, many times she has not used the money we have sent to pay for whatever intended services or emergency needed to be paid for, but instead has used it for completely different and unknown purposes.

I do not know what to do or how best to respond to these seemingly endless requests -- sometimes more like demands -- for money from my mother-in-law. How can I address this behavior in a way that honors and respects my mother-in-law, but also informs her that continuing to ask for or expect that my wife and I can or will regularly send money to her for unspecified expenses is inappropriate?

I would appreciate any advice you are able to share that could be helpful to resolve this situation.

Thank you.


Dear Pinched,

I think it would be best if you abandon the idea of getting your mother-in-law to understand your position. Her demands may seem unreasonable but focusing on that is not going to help.

Sure, it's about money. But it is about money as emotional and cultural currency. It is about tribute and history and duty. It is about customs so deep they feel like blood. She has grown up in a traditional family in which women must struggle for status and power. Finally, after a traumatic loss, she has become the matriarch. She feels entitled to demand tribute. She probably doesn't even realize that there might be an alternative view, that people might view her demands as unreasonable.

If you are going to resist her demands, do not argue the principle of it. Let's try to be aware, as Americans, and, for you, in particular, as a military man, that our practical, rational ideas, our reasonable approaches, do not seem always reasonable to others. Rather, acknowledge her position, but tell her that for one reason or another, you cannot send money this month. If you feel that on principle it is wrong to lie then do not lie. If, however, a little white lie in this instance does not seem so bad to you, then tell her that you cannot send her much, if anything, because you must put money aside in savings to protect her daughter if anything should happen to you. Given her own experience, she may see the wisdom of that.

Or she may not. She may think you're just trying to get out of your obligation. The point is not to argue the principle of the thing, but grant her the position she has attained. Show respect for how she has held the family together. Centuries of custom are behind her.

It might not seem fair in terms of dollars and cents. And it may make no sense on a balance sheet. But, as I say, that's not what it's really about. It's about a woman in a traditional culture who has ascended to the position of head of the family and is doing her best to keep it together after the tragic loss of a husband and father.

Cary Tennis

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