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Question

My mother-in-law wants to come to my house for Christmas. My mother-in-law is a difficult person and has been very rude to me throughout my marriage. Every time I see her I get insulted and demeaned.

The past two times we went to her house she was even more openly rude to me. One time even telling my children that I made a bad choice by not coming to her house last year for Christmas. Demeaning me to my children definitely crossed a line for me.

Usually when we have to see her I put on a brave face and remind myself I’m a good person that is valued. This year, I am struggling with a pretty intense bout of depression and anxiety. The thoughts of having to deal with her at my house for Christmas is crippling me and keeping me up at night.

When I try to explain to my husband that I am really struggling he is upset because he hates being put between me and his mom. And just tells me not to worry. But, if it is causing me panic attacks and keeping me up at night. I should have the right to say she can’t come this year. What do I do? 

Answer

Even though you are struggling with poor treatment from your mother-in-law and you have a timely question about how you should handle her upcoming visit, I think it’s important to first address the breakdown in your marriage. Your husband is having difficulty seeing the impact that this harmful relationship is having on you. Unfortunately, this can be more painful than the impact of your mother-in-law. Her interactions with you, though hurtful, are infrequent. On the other hand, your husband’s indifference to your struggle is still there long after she’s gone and needs to be addressed if you’re going to have peace in your marriage and home.

It’s worth it to do everything you can to help your husband care about your pain so you can get the comfort and support you need. I’ll suggest some ways you can help him understand the impact this is having on you. I’ll also discuss what you can do if he continues to minimize this situation and leaves you alone in your panic and anxiety. Either way, you don’t have to continue living with the anxiety and depression that has overcome you in the face of this stressful visit.

While you don’t need your husband’s permission to protect yourself from being mistreated by another person, I think it’s wise to do everything you can to help him understand what this is like for you. It’s also important for you to understand what this is like for him as well. He’s clearly having a strong reaction to this situation and feels powerless. It’s likely that this is a familiar feeling for him in dealing with his mom’s treatment of him and others. His coping strategies are well-developed over the years and it’s going to be difficult to immediately pivot with a new response without some understanding and support on your end.

When you bring this up with him again, validate that you see how trapped he feels. Let him know that you can see how difficult this is for him. See if you can find out what is so upsetting to him. You may learn something about your husband’s relationship to his mom in these conversations. You may learn that he’s terrified to confront her, to set boundaries with her, to disappoint her. You may learn that he thinks you’re the problem and that his mom is fine. What’s matters most is that you get underneath the anger he’s feeling and understand how you can unite together to decide the best solution. You’re both suffering from this situation and you can draw together to offer each other support. It’s obvious that you’re hurting and you’ve put words to it. He may not know how to talk about it or feel like it’s worth talking about. Let him know it’s worth it to you and hopefully he’ll open up more solutions that you both can feel good about.

You wondered if you have the right to keep her from visiting. Yes, of course! You can put yourself on repeat mode and make it absolutely clear that you don’t want her in your home over the holidays. You can suggest another arrangement if your husband wants to see his mother. Your voice matters and you have the right to tell him that you have an equal say in that decision.

If he refuses to talk about this further, then please know you can still protect yourself from further mistreatment. No one, including family members, has a right to berate, criticize, or demean you. If your husband insists on having her in your home for Christmas and invites her without your consent, then you have to make some tough decisions about what you will and won’t do. Setting boundaries like this requires tremendous courage and vulnerability, but I promise that when you take charge of your own safety, you will find peace. If your mother-in-law and your husband aren’t willing to do what it takes to create a respectful and supportive family environment, you can still choose how and where you’ll spend your time when she’s in your home.

Your mental health is nonnegotiable, so it’s much better for you to be proactive and set boundaries about what you will and won’t attend than end up having a more extreme reaction that might do further damage to you or your children. Protect your sanity and peace by giving yourself permission to leave, speak up, or any other option that preserves your dignity and self-respect. You can’t expect anyone else to take care of your emotional stability. Even though we hope our loved ones will support our emotional peace and security, if they won’t do it, you can. Check out my favorite boundaries book for women by Dr. Julie Hanks, “The Assertiveness Guide for Women” for ideas on how to begin clarifying what you need in this situation.

 

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at geoff@lovingmarriage.com

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.geoffsteurer.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. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:
Website: www.lovingmarriage.com
Twitter: @geoffsteurer
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT