3 April 2023 |
Dear Aunt Sevvy,
My problem is probably as old as the world, but I don’t know how to handle it.
My mother-in-law absolutely dotes on her son. She fawns over him and compliments him. She tolerates me, but little digs (possibly she’s not even aware of them) aren’t uncommon. “You look so thin,” she’ll say to him. “Stop over at the house this week and I’ll make you that homemade potato soup and cornbread that I know you love.” Or, “My goodness, your shirt is wrinkled. You never used to wear wrinkled shirts. Would you like me to iron your shirts for you?”
Everyone else seems to adore her, and she’s very popular in church and the family. It’s only with me that she displays this behavior about her son—who, I should add, is well-fed and adequately cared for. (I also work as a full-time nurse—she never had to work away from home.)
My husband says, “Just ignore her when she says those things.” Sorry, it’s not that easy.
Signed: A little angry
This problem can best be solved with the help of your husband. He should stand up for you. If he is not willing to confront his mother when she displays that kind of behavior, you can try to help him see how important this is to you, and how hurtful those comments are. I hope you can convince him to be on your side—which means he speaks up on your behalf when she says things about how she has to care for him because his wife doesn’t.
But sometimes mama’s boys can’t hear that. If he won’t listen, it may be time for some boundary setting of your own.
Boundary setting is not about controlling someone else’s behavior, or giving an ultimatum. It is not a negotiation. Above all, it’s not about making a scene. It is about stating clearly what you need, and what you will do if you do not get what you need from the other person.
Start by calmly talking to your mother-in-law about the hurtful comments. State clearly the things she’s said that are hurtful, and ask her to stop. You must be clear that you care about her and want to spend time with her, but it is important that you are respected and appreciated. Calm, insistent repetition, without raising your voice or arguing, is the key here.
It’s not unlikely she will say, “Oh, I never meant that!” Or, “You’re just too sensitive!” But again, this is not an argument or a negotiation. You will merely state again that these are comments you cannot abide, and if she is not capable of treating you with respect, you will respectfully choose not to be in her presence.
Once you have set the boundary, you must follow through. If there is an additional offense of this sort, you can remind her gently that you will leave if she crosses your boundary again. And if she does, then leave—without making a scene, I emphasize again.
Boundary setting can be hard. Your husband may be frustrated with you. Your mother-in-law may not get it at all, because self-insight is difficult.
But you cannot control her response. The only person you can control is you. That is the point of boundary setting: making clear what you need, and then controlling the only person you are able to control—yourself.
Again, boundary setting will be much more effective if you can get your husband to understand and support you. It will be even more effective if he makes your boundary his boundary as well.
The best-case scenario would be if your mother-in-law is open to listening to you when you talk to her about your concerns. The worst? That you will have to absent yourself from her company more than your husband would prefer.
Aunt Sevvy adds her prayers for healthy boundary setting.
You can write to Aunt Sevvy at DearAuntSevvy@gmail.com. Please keep questions or comments short. What you send us at this address won’t necessarily be, but could be, published—without identifying the writer. Aunt Sevvy writes her own column, and her opinions are not necessarily those of Adventist Today’s editors.