By Allison Keating
Q: I have just spent the most infuriating Christmas with my mother-in-law. We had my husband’s parents and brother over for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and not only did she pass remarks on how I raise my children and how my tree looked “very stylish but not very festive”, she brought her own stuffing, pudding and gravy, even though I made it clear that I didn’t need anything.
And before you say she may have been trying to help, she just brought enough for herself and her husband because he can “only eat food with really good ingredients”. My husband thinks the whole thing is hilarious, as does his brother, and in a way I agree. I get great mileage telling my friends about her, but it is coming to the stage where I can’t be in the same room as her. How can I get my husband to stop treating his parents as the deciders of how we spend holidays and to stand up for me?
Allison replies: When the Christmas experience feels like a grind, it can leave a mark that is memorable — and not in a good way. Mother-in-law jokes play out stereotypically across our screens on TV, as they are so common due to the relatability factor, However, they do nothing to change the underlying issues, and as the quick laugh fades, the hurt does not. This is often at the cost of a good relationship between the two women, her son and your husband and the children.
There’s a whole lot of psychology involved in this complicated relationship. There are power struggles, feelings of judgment, identity and role frustration and a feeling of irrelevance which can lead to over-stepping the mark.
For all those reasons it can easily become a fractious relationship and a common experience between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, which when you think about it from both sides, you can appreciate why this is.
Even though all of it makes sense, what’s more important is that you can create boundaries that will preserve or at least manage expectations so as not to cause any major rifts in this tricky triangulation.
Humour can really help the sting, and I’m glad you can chat with your friends to get the much-needed support you require. When things are farcical such as bringing enough stuffing, pudding, and gravy just for themselves, laughter will follow and after this give yourself the space to process how the experience was for you.
You can laugh but it still hurts, and it can only feel personal when someone comments on something like your tree as it is so specific to your personal taste.
I know some people may say to take no notice of it, but it’s the continuity of pointed comments over the years that can foster and fester, which ultimately damages the relationship. Comments on how you cook, decorate and parent are as personal as it gets.
When something infuriates, it gets under your skin. This normally takes time and is built on a litany of comments, tension, and unspoken words. The frustration of ‘keeping mum’ and swallowing down what you’d really like to say is exhausting. Often offset by past grievances and with Christmas as another catalyst, it is the perfect storm to set it all off as you well know.
Leaving the parts you can laugh at aside, it’s the unsolicited advice on your parenting and how you spend your important days such as Christmas, Easter and holidays that need a new response plan.
It is a difficult dynamic for you, your husband, and your mother-in-law. There are opposing forces, status and role difficulties. When you are at home by yourself, you will do things your way and it will feel like a boundary is being crossed when you are being told how she has always done it. Unsolicited advice feels like it comes from a place of superiority, and it can be hard not to take it as criticism.
A response that is useful in creating a healthier boundary (that will be pushed against many times) is, ‘Thank you, that’s an interesting point of view’.
Stepping back from this, it can be helpful to see her intention, no matter how infuriating. It may be her wish to help, even when it doesn’t feel like that. Try to see it from her perspective and then graciously say thank you and move on.
The next step is a big talk with your husband. Explain how you feel and why. Keep it non-personal about his mum but be clear that you have reached your limit. Let your husband know that you would like to make decisions together first about how to spend holiday time.
Ask him what his concerns and see how it is for him. Figuring out and working on making plans yourselves first is a huge step in any relationship and not one that everyone does.
Family traditions can leave people on an unconscious autopilot of ‘but this is how we always do it’. However, see this conversation as an opportunity to create your own new traditions and not as another argument.
Be direct and calmly explain your need for him to stand up for you, even if everyone is sniggering at what is going on. You are asking him to show his respect, love and admiration for you in front of his mum, which also clearly adds to the message of what is and isn’t acceptable.