My daughter-in-law is a wonderful young woman, but we do not see eye to eye on anything.
The trouble started soon after she and my son became engaged. Before the engagement, she acted like she wanted to be my new best friend or for me to be her “surrogate mom.” As soon as she had a ring, the switch flipped! She found fault with everything I said or did, and had my son call me and correct me for her, to the point of asking me to change my outward appearance and mode of clothing to suit her idea of how I should behave. According to her, via my son, I didn’t dress appropriately for my age, 50ish. So now I buy my clothes two sizes too big, and have sworn off glitter, rhinestones, and sequins, even though I love sparkly clothing. I have also toned down my otherwise sedate makeup routine.
She and my son have two babies, and recently they brought up an issue their daughter was having with feeding. After I made a suggestion, she immediately consulted the internet and told my son that I was wrong and that I was giving them harmful information. She then posted on Facebook about people (me?) who give unhelpful baby advice. When we are with them, she complains about my son nonstop: He doesn’t help enough; he doesn’t change enough diapers; everything that he does do, he does wrong, even when we are sitting there watching him make bottles, cook, clean the kitchen, and take care of their daughter. (Maybe he behaves differently when we aren’t there, but I know he cooks most of the time, and puts their daughter to bed most evenings, because he tells me what he cooks, and FaceTimes us before bedtime several nights a week.) She also makes derogatory Facebook posts about my son quite often. The most recent was “Who is your worst kid? My mother-in-law’s son.”
The only times she speaks to me or texts or mentions me on Facebook are when she is complaining about me, when she is asking me to purchase something or give them money for something, or when she is asking us to babysit. I am beginning to have very harsh feelings toward her. I’ve prayed, I’ve asked my husband to intervene, I’ve “turned the other cheek” more times than I can count. Please give me tools for coping and letting go of my harsh feelings so that I can show my daughter-in-law the love and respect she deserves as a mother, daughter-in-law, and my son’s spouse.
I can understand why your daughter-in-law’s behavior has made the warm feelings you were hoping to have in this relationship difficult to muster. It sounds like you believe that if you could just find a way to let go of your “harsh feelings,” you would be able to access the love and respect you feel she deserves. I want to suggest, however, that you might find the path to a less fraught relationship if you instead focus on responding in a way that creates a healthier dynamic between you while also making space for how you truly feel.
Before we get to what those responses would look like, consider that your daughter-in-law’s behavior probably isn’t personal. Often a daughter-in-law who acts out—whether that’s by creating family factions, attempting to turn her spouse against that spouse’s mother, using grandchildren as leverage, being consistently critical, or exhibiting controlling behavior—is doing so because of her own childhood history, and although knowing this doesn’t make the behavior less upsetting, it can make the anguish feel less sharp.
For instance, a daughter-in-law who is hostile toward her mother-in-law might have competed for her mother’s attention as a child, and now sees her mother-in-law as yet another competitor—this time, for her own husband’s love. A daughter-in-law who felt rejected by her parents might feel envious of her husband’s close relationship with his and try to sabotage their closeness so she doesn’t have to face her envy. A woman who grew up with a critical parent might grow into a critical adult. The fact is that the person your son marries just might come with maladaptive personality traits that she is unaware of or uninterested in addressing.
You say that before the engagement, your daughter-in-law viewed you as a “surrogate mom.” If she carries a sense of maternal absence that she hasn’t worked through—perhaps her mom is deceased, or alive but not emotionally present—you can expect that she will project onto you the various unresolved feelings she has toward her mother. A perceived slight might result in an all-out attack. A well-intentioned suggestion becomes an act of “doing harm.” A sense of not getting enough help from her husband turns into abandonment rage, directed not just at her husband but also at his mother. A mother-in-law’s clothing choices become an emotional trigger. Hopefully, having this context will help you feel less injured by her behavior and perhaps even have some compassion for her, both of which will lower the emotional intensity of your interactions.
So let’s take a closer look at the dynamic in the family. Your daughter-in-law has been acting like a bully with her constant complaints that she ratchets up to public insults online, and she has even gone so far as to persuade her husband to confront you about your wardrobe. Bullies generally hold power, just as your daughter-in-law does here, by making everyone around them afraid. For example, if you or your husband tell her how inappropriate this is, she might play the victim, claiming that you’re somehow attacking her. If you say something to your son, you’ll be putting him in the middle. And even if he stands up to her, he risks her retribution, which could make his married life even more difficult than it already might be.
As a result, the best approach is to avoid a power struggle and take on the role of what I suspect your daughter-in-law deeply craves: a kind, loving mother figure who can serve as a healthy model for her. When your son first brought up the way you dress, for instance, you might have approached him and his wife together (to avoid a game of telephone) and said, “Jane, I hear you’re not a fan of my clothing style. That’s okay, because I embrace the fact that people express themselves in different ways. I would never change my clothing to please someone else, just as I hope that you’d feel free to express your style in any way you like. I know you’re a kind person who’s coming from a good place, so thank you for looking out for me. I’m touched by how much you care. But I do enjoy my sparkly clothes a great deal, and I’ll continue to wear them while also admiring your own beautiful sense of style.” Note that there’s no edge in the delivery. Your knowledge of the hurt little girl in her that’s acting out will help you approach her in a loving way, as you would any child who alienates people when what she really craves is love and connection. Then you wear what you like, and if she continues to criticize, each time just smile warmly and say, “To each her own. I think you look lovely, by the way.” (You can still have this conversation now and go back to dressing as you please.)
Similarly, when she complains to you about your son, you can say, “I remember how incredibly hard it was having young children, and I’m so sorry you’re feeling overwhelmed and alone in this, but I love you both and the last thing I want to do is interfere in your marriage. If you want to talk with someone who can be a lot more helpful than I can, I know that many young couples find it useful to talk with a marriage counselor about how they can work together as new parents. I care about your well-being, and I think you’re a terrific mom, and many parents benefit from getting support during this really hard time.” If you say this every time she complains to you about your son, eventually she will stop. (If they do go to counseling, the Facebook insults will likely drop off too, because she’ll be getting the validation she seeks, along with practice communicating her needs directly to her husband, not airing them in public.)
Above all, what you want to convey to her is that you hear her, while still protecting yourself. You’ve learned that she isn’t interested in your input and might use it against you, so stop offering advice unless it’s explicitly requested with the words “What should I do?” When she complains about you, you might try moving the conversation into solving the problem together: “I can see how upset this made you. Thank you for letting me know. Let’s figure out how this might go differently next time.” When she asks for babysitting or money beyond what you feel is reasonable, you can say, also in a warm tone, “I’m so sorry, but we aren’t able to help with this right now.” (You do not have to give a reason. Just stop talking and let her fill the silence. Don’t be rattled if she’s cold or rude as a result. Just continue being consistently warm and loving because, again, that’s what she’s wanting far more than anything else she’s asking for.) You might also make an effort to extend invitations to her—a shopping trip, a lunch, a spa coupon so she can relax for a couple of hours—as well as look for ways to compliment her so that she feels more seen, loved, and cared for.
Finally, while you’re gently and lovingly setting boundaries and modeling healthy communication, give yourself permission to grieve the relationship you hoped to have with your daughter-in-law. Underneath those “harsh feelings” is sadness for the loss of the kind of relationship you had imagined with the person your son would marry. It’s possible that your daughter-in-law will eventually respond by changing her behavior, but even if she doesn’t, you will be doing everything you can to take care of yourself by showing up kindly and authentically while also keeping your eye on the prize—avoiding stepping into the quicksand, and creating the best possible conditions for a pleasant long-term relationship with your son and grandchildren.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.