Dear Ms Peirano,
my mother-in-law has toxic behaviors that my wife is increasingly suffering from. The behavior referred to includes derogatory and insulting remarks made towards family members, self-righteousness, self-pity, jealousy, craving for recognition, etc. It seems to have always been like this and the family has apparently come to terms with it and accepted it over time. Since I've been spared these behaviors so far, I've always managed to smile at those things and think my part about it.
However, our first child is now at an age when my wife has unpleasant memories from her own childhood, so that we now sit on the sofa almost every evening and I have to comfort her. She is also pregnant and I am concerned that the situation will also affect her and our second baby's health. Also, our first child is now starting to notice this negative atmosphere and what my mother-in-law is saying when we are there. My wife no longer goes to her parents' without me.
My wife had a psychological consultation for the first time last week and we hope that she will get a therapy place in the future. Actually, family therapy is probably needed, but in addition to the physical distance (two hours by car, fortunately), my mother-in-law's victim attitude speaks against it. I don't think it's realistic to get them to do something like that.
The logical step would be to severely limit or break off contact until the other side moves and improvement is in sight. However, as mentioned before, I doubt such a thing will happen. Another argument against breaking off contact is that my wife has many friendships in her home country, which she naturally wants to cultivate and live with. In addition, my father-in-law is a kind-hearted person with a sunny disposition (who can obviously differentiate very well internally), my wife has two siblings on site and my wife's 96-year-old grandmother also lives in the same house, with whom we naturally keep in touch also don't want to break off and don't want to deprive them of their relationship with their nephew and (great) grandson.
The alternative would be for me to bang on the table, address the whole situation and even talk about it and make it clear that this situation is no longer bearable for us and that we will no longer pretend that this is normal in the future . However, this entails a risk, as I am tearing down bridges behind us and, in the worst case, it will be difficult or impossible for us to maintain contact with my family-in-law and friends in the foreseeable future.
You probably hear it from my lines, especially my wife, but I too actually want a good, carefree relationship with my parents-in-law and I hate the thoughts that my mother-in-law's behavior forces me to think about and how much time and nerves it all costs, but unfortunately that's the situation now.
Our second child is due to be born in a few weeks and I really don't want to be in the situation of withholding part of the family from their newest member and uninviting people at such a wonderful moment.
I hope you have some food for thought for me to incorporate into my considerations.
Thanks very much
Dear Constantine G,
it is always frightening how a single person can cause great mental damage in his environment. My therapeutic work is often about healing and working through the injuries that a parent or partner has caused or usually continues to cause. And most of the time these problems radiate into the environment and burden the partner (in this case you) and the circle of friends - like a stone that you throw into the water draws large circles.
If your wife, as the person directly affected, would write to me, I would recommend that you seek therapy as soon as possible. It sounds like she is suffering so badly from her situation with her mother right now because her own child (is it actually a girl?) is coming of age when your wife was hurt by her mother herself. This touches on her wife's old, unconscious childhood experiences (and hurts) without her knowing exactly what happened and how to deal with them.
I work as a behavioral therapist and love coach in private practice in Hamburg-Blankenese and St. Pauli. In my PhD, I researched the connection between relationship personality and happiness in love and then wrote two books about love.
Information about my therapeutic work can be found at www.julia-peirano.info.
Do you have questions, problems or lovesickness? Please write to me (maximum one A4 page). I would like to point out that inquiries and answers can be published anonymously on stern.de.
This is confusing and painful and should be worked through within the framework of trusting psychotherapy (behavioural therapy or therapy based on depth psychology).
Since your wife does not yet have a place in therapy and it is difficult to find one, it might be possible to get a place at a family counseling center (government or church) on an interim basis so that she can relieve the pressure she is under. Or you try to get some cancellations from established therapists and try to get a therapy place quickly with an urgency code, which could then also be with therapists without health insurance approval.
I dealt with your wife first because she is the one who suffers the most from contact with the mother-in-law. But understandably you want to have food for thought yourself to look at the situation differently and understand what you can do. I hear from you a great desire to find a solution. Like cutting back on contact, banging on the table, confronting your mother-in-law. And you think through those reactions and then you come to the conclusion that none of them should happen because there are good reasons not to.
In any case, I advise you not to resolve the conflict with your in-laws on behalf of your wife or to confront them. Through her experience with her parents-in-law and siblings, your wife senses where boundaries and taboos are, how one is or could be punished for breaking these boundaries.
Difficult people like your mother-in-law are often masters of manipulation. They wield power, forge alliances, withdraw offended, speak ill of disgraced people.
I am afraid that your wife (and therefore you too) would not be helped if you rashly broke the taboo, because then there could also be a break with your father, siblings and grandmother. However, a strong demarcation from the family should always be well prepared, otherwise the collateral damage is too great. And the victim would be your wife again and indirectly you too.
However, I can give you a few practical tips to better distance yourself from the conflict with the mother-in-law.
The situation with the mother-in-law will remain difficult for the time being. Experience has shown that it takes a lot of time to recognize the problem (maybe this is a narcissistic personality disorder?) and to feel the hurt. This demands a lot of strength from the person concerned.
I'm just saying this to convey to you that such demarcation processes are lengthy. You are already doing a great deal by supporting and listening to your wife. But I don't think a quick solution to the situation is likely right now. Therefore, the most important thing is to set boundaries and otherwise practice acceptance.
We therapists like the good old serenity prayer that many grandmothers have on their walls:
Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
I hope I've given you a way that you can handle.
Kind regards and all the best to you and your family