Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: My mother-in-law has zero respect for boundaries. On a recent visit, she told us we were raising our newborn child incorrectly, criticized our marriage, told my wife that her personality was awful, and brought up things that she was mad about that my wife had done as a child.
When we challenge her statements, she turns into a guilt martyr and says we don’t want a relationship with her, and she brings up her own awful childhood. At what point is it appropriate to agree with her and cut ties?
When she says any of these things – that you’re raising your kid wrong, that your marriage stinks, that your wife is awful, (BEG ITAL)anything(END ITAL) along these lines, be completely clear: “I will not tolerate your saying things like that about me/us/my wife.” It’s not just a lack of boundaries, it’s emotional abuse, and it’s so important for witnesses to step in.
This part you need to discuss in advance with your wife, but an important element of drawing a line on the abuse is enforcement. As partners and co-parents, please empower each other to say to her, when she doesn’t back down on her abuse, “This visit/conversation is over.” And to follow through on it by showing her the door/changing the subject/leaving her home.
Let her wail till she’s blue about her awful childhood. This is all you give her: “I’m sorry about your awful childhood. No one deserves to be treated as you were. That’s why we’re drawing the line with you now. Unkindness is not welcome.” No negotiating.
As necessary, encourage your wife to keep her distance from Mom for a period of time (depending on how often you all typically see her – think in terms of skipping a couple of regular visits) to let her know you are serious.
If/when she humbles herself to approach you, or if you’re both game to try again, then set up another visit. Repeat steps as needed until your mother-in-law gets the message that hostility will gain her nothing but an empty room.
Of course, she might never get the message, in which case the only option might be to cut the tie.
If this were your parent, you would be able to take the interim step of visiting solo to keep your wife and kids out of her reach, since protecting them would be paramount.
But as the spouse, the road is tougher. You can make the suggestions to your wife that I did; you can stand up for your family at every opportunity, though your wife gets the last word on the pack-up-and-leave/kick-her-out decision (sell it well, it’s important); you can urge your wife to cut the tie either temporarily or permanently, depending on the damage her mother is doing.
You can also start refusing to be present for these visits, but that’s problematic given that your wife is likely Victim Zero of her mom’s hostility. To opt out is to stand up for yourself, which is indeed necessary sometimes, but your wife might need you to stand up for her more than you need to protect yourself.
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