When Your Partner Takes Your MIL’s Side
I’ve been trying to manage some very tough family dynamics for the past few years and would love to get some advice from you.
I’m married with a husband and a 26-month old daughter. Things between me and my husband have been tense on and off since my daughter was born. A huge part of our issues is our relationship with my husband’s family. He feels like he doesn’t see his family enough and they aren’t involved enough in our lives, particularly with our daughter (who they are completely obsessed with – she’s their only grandchild). We live in Chicago (where my parents and 3 siblings also live, we’re all very close), they live in LA. We see them 1-3 times a year but the visits are always very high-conflict.
Usually on these visits, my husband gets mad at me for something I do, and he makes a big show of it in front of his parents by yelling at me in front of them, or moving his stuff into a different bedroom of his parents’ house separate from me. My in-laws had a very high-conflict marriage, they separated 3-4 times over the course of their marriage, twice because of problems with their own respective parents/in-laws. My husband has one sister and they don’t have much of a relationship – they speak once every few months and tend to fight/disagree a lot.
The last time I saw my in-laws during a visit at their home, my MIL criticized our parenting (my daughter had a screaming tantrum in the car after a day at the beach and my MIL yelled at my husband saying that we do not know how to keep her on a schedule and plan around her) and I responded by saying that my daughter had a nap earlier in the day and sometimes she just hates sitting in her carseat and has tantrums over it (she and my husband claim I yelled at her, I really don’t think I did, I just asserted/defended myself). My husband got mad at me for “yelling at” his mom as well.
That evening, after I had dinner with my in-laws I went upstairs and talked on the phone with his cousin for an hour or maybe two. After that, my husband got very angry with me for not spending time with his family on the last night of our visit. After my husband took me aside to chastise me for this, I went to his mother to offer an apology. My apology was met with “why don’t you know how to behave?” She was very upset that her daughter had come to dinner and left after waiting for me to come downstairs for a long time.
Stunned, I offered to sit down and hash out what her issues were with me. Over the course of the next 1.5 hours, my mother-in-law unleashed years of pent up frustration towards me. She told me that she doesn’t think I know how to behave or how to act around in-laws. She said that I should have my mom teach me how to behave because my mom has a nice way of talking to people and making them feel special. She said that I’ve never behaved properly around in-laws, in the 6+ years we’ve been married. She told me that the way I speak is far too aggressive, and my marriage doesn’t work because there are two men in it (i.e., I am like a man). She added that I probably hurt my mom a lot with my behavior but my mom probably doesn’t tell me because I’m her daughter. She told me that she noticed since I had my daughter, I spend to much time taking care of her. Conversely, when she was a young mother she used to put her kids to sleep so that she could go spend time with her own in-laws. She said that she thinks I have “a little bit of postpartum depression.” She told me that a woman should treat her husband the way “a call girl acts” and should never criticize him.
During this conversation, I started to tear up and cry and she told me to stop crying because I cry too much and I shouldn’t cry because men really do not like it when women cry. She also said that if she were me and my husband, she would have said that one of us should have quit our jobs when our daughter was born in order to take care of her and our marriage. I responded and told her that in actuality, my career (I have a demanding career) took a huge hit since my daughter was born. Her response was “that’s good, I am very happy to hear that. Your job should suffer because your marriage is more important.” She also stressed that I am very disrespectful for not calling her “mom” or some variation thereof (I call her “Auntie”).
It’s been 9 months since my visit to my in-laws. Every time I tried to talk to my husband about it, it became a big fight. He essentially told me that he doesn’t want to hear me talk about his mom partially because I distort the things she says. My husband tells me a visit to his parents is long overdue, and his mom recently yelled at him for not visiting them often. Obviously, I have no desire to visit them. I have no desire to expose my daughter to their environment and the toxic nature my marriage takes around them. I feel like I walk on eggshells in my home because anytime my husband’s family comes up, it’s very tense.
I really don’t know what to do. I can’t stay married and avoid seeing my in-laws and I can’t change them either. My husband’s feelings about his family are so complex and he is resistant to therapy to explore why.
Just a note – I’ve tried 3 different couples counselors and a relationship coach (at the cost of $500 for 45 minutes!) with my husband. My husband is somewhat resistant to therapy in general – I appreciate suggestions to go to counseling, but I’ve sort of been down that path a few times already. I myself have been in therapy since my daughter was born. When my daughter was born (via c-section), my husband and I had a huge fight in the hospital because he felt his family was left out and I was insensitive to that fact. I say fight, but it was really more him yelling at me (in my face) and making threats.
I absolutely know that this problem is bigger than just my in-laws. However, I could use some advice on how to manage this specific issue. Please help!
None of this is good. It all sounds very bad!
You have an awful and straight-up verbally abusive mother-in-law. But much worse is that you have a husband who appears to have learned more than a few tricks from her — a husband who takes the abuser’s side, who explodes and yells and gaslights (i.e. you “yell” and “distort”) and puts on big silly shows of conflict and “power” around his mom at your emotional expense.
I would absolutely refuse to ever visit his mother again — I am sorry but I am a grown-ass adult woman and you do not get to scream sexist, patriarchal bullshit at me at me for an hour and a half. That’s just…no. Dealbreaker. Relationship effectively over, and any reasonable person outside the twisted family dynamics your MIL has created should be able to see that and understand why. If your husband wants to visit, he can go without you, end of story.
Of course, that won’t be the end of the story, as I really, really do worry that your husband’s treatment of you will only deteriorate. And he’s already treating you terribly! I think you’ve tried to compartmentalize everything “bad” as “related to his mom and his family so if we can just fix that, everything will be fine.” Or “if we can just have a reasonable conversation about it, everything will be fine.” But your husband has proven to be pretty much incapable of having a reasonable conversation…or he honestly thinks yelling in your face for an hour IS a normal way to hash out conflict. (Gee, I wonder where he learned that?) I am very worried that this “walking on eggshells” feeling you describe will only grow to involve more and more topics and triggers that you can’t bring up for fear of another explosion of verbal abuse. And of course, there’s your daughter, who shouldn’t be exposed to any of this, either as a witness or a recipient.
Oh, honey, and let me be super clear here: What you are describing IS verbal abuse. Your MIL’s tirade, from top to bottom. And the way he talks to you (by just this letter’s count, at his parents’ house, at the hospital, in your OWN home) is NOT normal. And NOT okay. Even for a “big fight,” things should not involve threats and shaming and screaming. He might think it’s normal because it’s all he’s ever known (it’s just “high-conflict,” right?), which is why you hear so much about the cycle of abuse and how hard it can be for the victims to break free of — to either not repeat the abusive behaviors themselves, or to end up victimized as adults by another abusive partner. What’s worse is that he can’t even recognize his mother’s treatment of you for what it is, and he continues to take her side and defend her. And he’s giving you glimpses of that same treatment coming from him. (He probably grew up walking on eggshells too.)
You’ve tried counseling and therapy, but the problems aren’t yours alone to fix. If he’s resistant or unwilling, then yeah, that’s going to be a (pricey) dead end. I’m sorry. The good news is that his family doesn’t live next door or even in the next state, and he absolutely cannot put you on an airplane against your will. And you will not get on that plane willingly.
You mention being close to your parents and siblings. What about your therapist? Do they know? Do they REALLY know? Do they know it’s not just your “crazy” MIL who is mean and prone to verbal explosions? Do they know your husband picks fights and moves rooms while you’re there and never takes your side no matter how insane and cruel the conversation gets? Did they see what happened in the hospital? If not, I want you to talk to them. REALLY talk to them. Lean on them. Know that you are not wrong, or crazy, and that you have done NOTHING to deserve feeling or being treated this way. You are strong and smart and deserving of All The Respect, and none of this weird toxic onslaught of verbal abuse.