In the first year of our marriage, my mother-in-law hovered and thought she needed daily contact with us. She felt it was her right to know all of our personal affairs. After that first year, my husband and I moved away from our extended families for work purposes. We were actually looking forward to moving to start a new career and to being self-sufficient and away from her nosey intrusions. As soon as we moved, she started telling family members and friends lies about me. It didn’t take long for things to become quite tense when we visited. We had no idea why we were being shunned by people we knew and loved our whole lives. Our move happened over thirty years ago.
My mother-in-law passed away five years ago. My father in law is still living and he told my husband that there were several instances his wife had told him of things I had supposedly said to set his wife off over the years and that there were letters I had written that were hateful. My husband asked to see those letters and of course they are non-existent. I am heart broken to think that one person could have disliked me so much that she lied and convinced people of things I never did. My father in law is 85 years old and he refuses to talk to me even though I have begged for a few minutes of his time to have him tell me what I am supposedly guilty of. Family members on that side love my children but they treat me horribly. Will I ever get the satisfaction of knowing they know the truth and feel bad?
It’s too bad your mother-in-law missed out on building a relationship with you over the years. Instead, she chose a life of smallness and retaliation to your healthy need for space. I’m sorry to hear of your painful discovery as you wonder what could have been in all of these relationships. However, you don’t have to let her emotionally immature response hold you or your relationships hostage any longer.
It is natural to take inventory of your thirty years of relationships to try and determine who needs to hear the truth about you and your intentions. I believe this will be a complete waste of your time and energy.
If you feel inclined to approach specific individuals from your hometown, be clear about your motives. Do you want to form a relationship with them? Do you want to clear your name? What will change if they know your side of the story? In most cases, these interactions will only create a loyalty split between you and your mother-in-law. Most people put the deceased on a pedestal and tend to sanitize their flaws out of respect. You’ll be fighting against that dynamic in virtually every attempt to clear up the past.
Instead, I want you to look around you and take inventory of all of the people who know and love the real you. I’m certain you have lots of friends and loved ones who didn’t have access to your mother-in-law’s stories about you. Don’t let this unorganized fear convince you that you’re in harm’s way. The reality is that her efforts to undermine you haven’t prevented you from having meaningful connections with others.
This is an important time to surrender something of which you have no control. I once heard that when a snake bites you, you could either chase after it or stop and suck out the venom. This is a good time to draw close to your husband, friends, and loved ones who know and love the real you. As painful as it is to realize how misrepresented you have been all of these years, please realize that you’ve been able to build a life in spite of attempts to tear you down.
Part of your surrender is to fill that space with love for yourself and your mother-in-law. She obviously had serious emotional problems that prevented her from supporting her son and his wife. Now that you are older and wiser, you have the perspective to recognize that she was a troubled woman. I encourage you to try sending her your love as you begin to surrender the hurt.
Dr. Wendy Ulrich taught the following about forgiving those who can’t restore what they’ve taken from us:
“How will we get back what we lost if we simply forgive? How can this be fair? In most cases, and certainly in the case of serious wrongdoing, those who have injured or robbed us are not in a position to restore what they have taken. They cannot make full restitution for our lost peace of mind, self-esteem, or sense of well-being. They cannot give us back lost trust, hope, or safety. They cannot restore our lost options or heal our worldview. So if the people who hurt us cannot restore these things to us, how can we ever get back what we lost?
As we grant mercy, we gain the right to reclaim our lost blessings from Jesus Christ himself. When we forgive others, Christ assumes their debt to us, and we can then look to him for the healing, peace, security, hope, trust, well-being, and self-image he alone can restore. He is willing to take this debt if we are willing to release the original debtor to him to deal with on his terms and with his infinite wisdom and perspective on all the factors involved in their choices. “We allow Jesus to deal as he sees fit with those who owed us, for now the debt is between him and them alone. We get out of the middle.”
Seen in this light, forgiving others their debts is not simply pretending nobody owes us, which would not be just. It is rather a process of turning to Christ for the things we have lost, rather than turning to those who cannot restore our losses anyway.”[i]
Marianne Williamson said, “Something amazing happens when we surrender and just love. We melt into another world, a realm of power already within us. The world changes when we change. The world softens when we soften. The world loves us when we choose to love the world.”[ii]
Don’t let this discovery allow you to become bitter and resentful. You’ll risk depriving your own loved ones of the joy and peace they count on from you. There is nothing you need to do with this discovery, as you lived a healthy life the whole time you were being slandered. You don’t want to finish your own life trying to chase something you’ll never catch.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic and currently serves as the primary chorister. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[i] Ulrich, Wendy. “The Temple Experience.” CFI, An Imprint of Cedar Fort, Inc., 2012
[ii] Marianne Williamson “A Return to Love”