Q. I have a terrible relationship with my mother-in-law and I don't have a clue how to make it better. The woman hates me. I think she's angry because my husband married me instead of a family friend she adored. She is constantly finding ways to pull us apart, and she's made it clear that I'm not welcome in her house. We have a 4-year-old daughter, and when my husband takes her to visit his family, I stay home. So far, my daughter is too young to put all the pieces together. What do I say when she starts asking why I'm not going with them to visit?
Joann Paley Galst, Ph.D., an individual and couples therapist in New York City, answers:
A: You're right to be concerned. Children are very perceptive and do pick up on tension within families, even if it is not directly expressed. However, they don't know the causes of the tension, and because of their inherent egocentrism, they tend to blame themselves. Often, they think: "My bad behavior has caused all these problems among the grownups."
As you've discovered, secret feelings are almost impossible to keep secret. An undercurrent of whispers, facial gestures, body language, overheard bits of conversation, or hesitant and evasive answers to questions combine to drive children to come up with their own explanation, which in many cases can be more disturbing than the reality. To ensure that your daughter has a happy, healthy relationship with members of her family, you should try to settle your disputes if possible.
That said, you're in a tough position. Cease-fires can't occur unless all parties sign on. Since it sounds as if your problems have been going on a long time, it may take awhile to repair the damage. Yes, she's been horrible to you, but can you try to understand her as a person, with her own anxieties, fears, and emotional baggage? If you can, you might be more open to seeing what, if anything, you may have done or be doing to exacerbate tensions. If you recognize that you have hurt her in the past, apologize and try to clear the air.
If you've made all the reparations you can, then it's time for your husband to step in. In fact, he can be pivotal in healing the breach. It's his job to stand up for you when his mother criticizes or insults you. He needs to explain to her, in private, that you are his choice and that if she loves him she at least needs to respect his choice of a wife. If tensions do eventually ease, you should try to set up a three-way meeting to talk about what has gone wrong and why. Consider consulting a clergyman or family therapist, who can help all of you decipher patterns in the way you are acting and reacting to each other, and, in time, perhaps heal wounds.
However, if after all your efforts, you still feel unwelcome in your mother-in-law's home, avoid open warfare for your daughter's sake. Accept the fact that you may never be able to change her view of you but that your child should have the opportunity to develop her own relationship with her grandmother. To that end, encourage your daughter to visit and allow her to love her grandmother. Of course, pretending that you like someone you detest will come across as disingenuous and will be confusing to your child. Instead, tell her that you and your mother-in-law have a tough time getting along, but she loves her very much — and you're glad she has a good relationship with her. Be open in answering her questions, but spare her the dirty details and don't use her inquiries as an opportunity to vent your anger. Needless to say, you should be careful not to use your daughter as a pawn in any ongoing battles: Don't ask her to convey messages to your mother-in-law and don't pump her for information about what she may have said about you during her visits. On the other hand, if she hears something that makes her uncomfortable, then you and your husband must step in and tell your mother-in-law that your daughter will not be allowed to spend time with her if that continues.