My mother-in-law blames me!

Dear Lisa,

My husband and I have been married a little over a year now, and we live in BC. His mother lives in Saskatchewan, and we visit for long periods of time in the summer to help out on their farm. I have heard her refer to me more than once as ‘princess’ or ‘high-maintenance’ behind my back. I believe she feels this way because I am not as Type A as she is. She is constantly going, from the second she wakes up, she prides herself in having lists going, and things getting accomplished around her. I am much more calm, slow and steady. I value my work and my well-being along the way.

My husband, on the other hand, is a lot like his mom – type A, doesn’t really notice if he’s eaten, or even taken a break until he collapses at the end of the day. Often, this results in him getting sick, or hurting himself. At the beginning of our relationship I tried to change him – I told him to slow down and stop doing so much. Now I just try and remind him the best I can about self care, without nagging, because I have learned over time that he is the one who has to make the changes.

This would all be fine, except last week, when we visited for her birthday, she took me aside and told me that she believes that I’m running him into the ground, and if I would do more for myself, that he wouldn’t be getting so sick, or hurting himself, trying to make a life for someone (me) who isn’t participating fully.

I didn’t even know what to say! Luckily my husband came around the corner at that moment and needed some help loading the truck. How do I deal with her blame without causing waves?

–Princess Slave Driver ( ♀ Kelowna)


Dear Princess Slave Driver,

The stereotype of the mother-in-law is a stereotype for a reason, and often the relationship between the two most important women in a man’s life is challenging. Ideally, your husband would have been able to be present when your mother-in-law confronted you, but at least his return gives you a chance to consider your options.

My guess is that she shares a lot of intense qualities with your husband, and perhaps feels as though she was made to be so ‘A type’ because there was some gap she needed to fill in the family (maybe her husband wasn’t very reliable, so she felt like she had the brunt of the responsibility raising a family?); or she feels guilty on some level for passing her tenancies onto her son. If this is the case, she might be projecting these feelings onto you. Regardless of the psychoanalytic assumptions, the bottom line is that blame is our way of releasing ourselves from responsibility for our actions. Sadly, your mother in law is making her son the victim by taking the responsibility away from her son, by blaming you. Clearly, responsibility is big for her… so you will have to be careful about creating the impression that you aren’t willing to take responsibility for your actions.

In response, I suggest that you be proactive and seek her out on this matter to resolve it. Clearly, you care about the damage that burned bridges between you can do to your family, and the best way to show it is to make sure that she feels that you heard her and want to clear it up. If you are able to sit down with her with an authentic desire to understand her side, and listen closely to what she is saying, she may return the favor and listen to your side. Make your attempts to get him to be more conscious of his health clear. Then, if you have the opportunity, get her to tell you again what it is you are doing, and she might be able to hear herself say things that aren’t exactly true.

From my own experience, I know that family dynamics sometimes require some mediation training. It might be beneficial take a Compassionate Listening (Pacific North West) or Non-Violent Communication course before sitting down with her, so that you are able to be clear and stand up for yourself in a non-confrontational way.

Do follow up in the comments if the situation doesn’t go as you hope, contrary to the mother-in-law stereotype, there is a way for you both to have a rich and fulfilling relationship. It takes time for to work out the dance as the two most influential woman in both of your favorite man’s life!

Above all, remain open, understanding and calm!

– Lisa



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