Hi, Carolyn: After 15 years of working hard to build a good relationship with difficult in-laws — because it was important to my husband — I thought we had gotten to a pretty good place.
After hitting some tough personal times, and after a perceived slight on my part, my mother-in-law is now giving me AND my husband the cold shoulder. It was part misunderstanding, part overstepping on their part — in my opinion — but I didn’t react well.
My husband is unhappy about it. He doesn’t blame me but thinks realistically that, given his mother’s personality, if we want to make up, then I have to be more contrite about what happened.
But I’m just mad that YEARS of being faultlessly good to them doesn’t even earn me one mulligan. They are aware of the tough stuff I’m going through. If it were up to me, I’d just ignore their bad attitude and let them get over it in their own time.
I also think it will be hard on my part to trust them again. Thoughts?
Dear Mad: My first thought is that you shouldn’t trust them again, since they just proved whatever trust you thought you’d accrued was misplaced. Trust them to be themselves, and that’s it.
But that’s getting ahead of things.
This is really two issues: one of your in-laws, and one of your husband.
The in-law issue is relatively straightforward. They are difficult people and part of that difficulty is an emphasis not on the full arc of your shared history, but on what the universe has done for them lately.
That means if things between you eventually thaw, by whatever means, then you’d be wise not to treat your relationship with them as anything but transactional. You love your husband so you are nice to them, and you are nice to them so they are nice to you, renewably ever after.
If it helps, it’s obviously not just you; they’re icing out their own son over this recent misstep, right? Not even his, but yours? That means his entire lifetime wasn’t worth one mulligan. Try curling up at night with that little dose of reality.
The husband issue is more complicated, in part because whatever degree of victim you are of his parents’ emotional shortcomings, he is multiple times that. If I read your lines and between them correctly, he was raised at the mercy of his mother’s overbearing personality. His not blaming you says he’s wriggled out of her grip admirably well – but his wanting you to appease her with contrition beyond your contrition also says part of him remains in her fist.
He will need your help with this, because it isn’t just about your emotional health. It’s also about his health, and about your marriage’s. There are three separate interests here to serve.
That means the best solutions will honor all three.
So start, please, by talking to your husband not just about the current misunderstanding but also about the bigger picture of dealing with his parents. You’ve worked this for 15 years. You’ve done so gladly and for him, but that’s a long time and this latest tiff says you’ve banked virtually no goodwill as a result.
Then acknowledge he’s got an even bigger grievance with them than you do, given how harshly they’ve punished him for something he didn’t even do.
Then propose the following: You will not grovel. You were contrite about your poor reaction (and apologized, yes?), so you will let that suffice; piling on extra contrition would be insincere anyway. You will leave it to his parents to come back around when they’re ready. When they do, you will greet them with the same kind effort you have always shown them. You will do this for him and for always and you will not do so grudgingly. However, you will also not do it with any illusions or expectations that they will embrace you for who you are.
And you will support him in whatever other way he needs you to. Show him you are the immediate family member who listens to and respects him — who will hear him out vs. lashing out. Who won’t punish him for his frailties.
In return, ask him for his blessing: He understands you’re doing this with the full knowledge his parents don’t embrace you so much as they tolerate you, and so you will occasionally need him to shield you or back you up. If he can’t or won’t do that, if he doesn’t see that as productive “given his mother’s personality,” then he can back you fully when you opt out of a visit with her.
A little for him, a little for you, a little for your marriage: a rational arrangement between the people who matter most — which his parents can take or leave.
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