Dr. Terri Apter Archives
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||My question for Dr.
I have been married for over 20 years and have three sons.
My mother-in law is a truly cruel and mean spirited person who is
mentally ill. She has been confined in a mental hospital in
the past, so trying to talk or reason with her about her behavior
is not an option. She is very hurtful to the entire family.
She tends to try to play one family member against another, for example,
saying horrid things to my kids about me or my husband. One
of my children is handicapped. My MIL's psychiatrist called
me a few years ago and stated that my MIL was particularly obsessed
with him, and he would not recommend that I allow her to be alone
with him. This obsession has continued, and she will say wicked
things to my other children about him, and she says over and over
that he should be "put in a home", often stating this in front of
him. He is only mildly handicapped, and understands what she
is saying. He is basically just frightened of her. My
middle child internalizes everything, and never says a word.
He just gets "sick", his stomach hurts, he doesn't sleep or eat when
they visit. My oldest child, who is in college right now, is
just angry at them. He loves his parents and siblings, and their
comments just anger him and bring out his protective "big brother"
My husband seems to just take whatever they dish out. I get
the impression from him that he just wants their approval and love
(which he never seems to get) so badly that he is willing to tolerate
just about anything. Recently he had a telephone conversation
with her, and as usual, was very upset afterwards about cruel things
that she had said. I found myself instantly very angry (at him).
It was an unexpected emotion, but with a lot of reflection I realized
that I am just at the end of my rope with this situation. I
can't deal with the emotional fallout that she causes. I don't
want to be part of this anymore. I think telling my husband
that I want his mom out of our lives would be very hurtful to him,
but I am not willing to cope with the harm she causes my children
and me (and him too).
What do I do? How do I resolve this situation? How do
I end the torment?
Dr Apter's reply:
You can protect your children from your in-laws without making your
husband cut himself off from them. I suggest that you take time
to explain to him how upsetting you and your children find visits
from his parents. Try to focus on how you feel, rather than
on their faults. Ask for his help in solving the problem (though
his asking you just to put up with them is not a solution).
You could tell him that you know he loves them, and you want him to
honor his love for them, but that you feel he should find some way
of carrying out most of the visiting and communication with them on
||My question for Dr.
My husband & I have 4 girls, 2 are mine and 2 are his.
My MIL also has 6 other grandchildren. My problem is that my
MIL favors my husband's oldest daughter over all the other grandkids,
even his other daughter. She will buy her presents for no reason,
something she doesn't do for any of the others, and when she is buying
Christmas or Easter outfits, my husband's oldest daughter gets to
pick out everybody's outfit, and they are expected to like it and
wear it no matter what. Because of this, my oldest stepdaughter
acts like a spoiled little princess, expecting everyone to do what
she wants and give her everything. How do we keep the other
children, especially the three living in the same house, from growing
to hate Grandma and my oldest step daughter?
Dr Apter's reply:
Parents tend to be very careful about showing favoritism to children,
but grandparents often indulge their bias. Perhaps you could
explain to your in-laws that you want all your children to view them
as their grandparents and that you would like their help in this.
Explain that it appears to you, and to your children, that they sometimes
favor the older girl. Assure them that you believe they love
all the children, but that their special love for the older girl interferes
with the family dynamics. They might deny it,
and take offence, but it is worth a try.
||My question for Dr.
We live in Australia. My now, Husband, was involved in a
traumatic accident at work a month ago. He was trapped by a
road roller at work. He has undergone several operations and
skin grafting. The entire time that he was incapacitated in
the hospital, my soon to be MIL constantly interfered and undermined
my relationship with him, and completely disregarded our requests
that no one visit him in the hospital until he had time to deal with
the accident himself. She phoned everyone she knew, even people
he had not had any contact with in a year or so. When we demanded
that she then phone everyone back and tell them that he was not ready
for visitors, she then proceeded to tell everyone that he was just
not coping with the accident, and that the fact that he didn't want
to see anyone was because he was in denial and falling apart.
Not that HE just needed some time to accept his injuries and spend
some time adjusting. The entire time he was in hospital, she
would sit at his side, and even remain in the room when we needed
to kiss and cuddle. We had no time to ourselves, and it got
so bad that the nurses on the ward had to intervene and tell her and
his father that they weren't helping his recovery by constantly being
there. Thank God for those nurses and their diplomacy.
Needless to say, this did not go down well with the MIL, as this was
"her son" and "no nurse was going to tell her when she could and couldn't
see her son, and that she would take the matter further".
Eventually, my then fiancé, told both of his parents that we needed
time together, to which they took offence, but they did leave us alone
(for about 10 minutes). As he was totally incapacitated, even
when he had to pee, they wouldn't leave the room. At one stage
he asked them to leave, so he could go to the toilet, they left for
a few minutes. When they returned, we were trying to cover him
up with some underpants. They went into a scene of "nothing
we haven't seen before, etc." I told them that it was about
dignity, and that he was now a man and had some pride left.
He was transferred to a hospital about two hours away. Upon
arrival, my fiancé asked his mother to leave us alone, to which she
took offence. Cutting a very long story short, she vocalized
her disgust at how selfish we were to want to be alone, and that he
was her son, and that she had looked after him all his life and didn't
want to "pass the torch" on to me. We didn't hear from her for
a few days, and then she re-appeared as if nothing had happened.
When my fiancé was finally "released" from the hospital, we eloped,
to her absolute disgust. She has now disowned her son, left
her husband, (because of all of the hurt we have caused her) and she
doesn't want anything to do with any of us. She is so controlling.
I could write for days about the emotional blackmail she uses on her
two sons and husband. We are so happy, and just want them to
accept our decision. We understand that she's hurt because she
wasn't involved, but this is also a woman who calls me by his ex-girlfriend's
name and tells me she thought that the ex would have been her daughter
in law. MIL had never congratulated me or discussed our engagement
or what our wedding plans were. She just assumed that we would
get married the way she hoped.
Dr Apter's reply:
Your parents-in-law were under enormous stress when their son
was injured, and some people would say that they should be forgiven
everything. People can't be reasonable and considerate when
their child is hurt. But their subsequent behavior puts things
in a different light. Their attachment to their son is so possessive
that it may ultimately be destructive. Perhaps you could prevent
that by taking the first step. You could say that you are sorry
that what you did hurt them (that's different from apologizing for
what you did). You could explain how important it was for you
both at the time to stake out your claim on your own future.
They may want to rant on at you for a while, and tell you how disappointed
and hurt they were. I suggest you listen patiently, and keep
repeating yourself if necessary. At the same time, continue
to protect the boundaries you have already drawn.
||My question for Dr.
HELP! My marriage is suffering from my MIL, and I'm not
sure what to do about this!! I have been married for 4 years
... my second ... his first. It has been a constant nagging
nightmare with his mother! She calls constantly. When
we're not there she leaves messages like ... "you didn't tell
me you were going anywhere!" This man is in his early 30's.
She whines when we go to visit family - besides her, including his
father (they're divorced). My husband had to go work on the
east coast for 8 months, and I stayed @ home with our 2 kids.
During that time he went to visit her every other weekend (he was
very close to her house). Of course, she would always lament
to him, when he came to visit, about never getting to see the grandchildren
(of course she only called when he was @ home visiting us for a weekend).
Then she got upset when I called him there because "I was interrupting
her time with him".
Numerous episodes like this have gone on over the years, and recently
it exploded. We had a phone conversation where we pretty much
aired how we felt. Now, she refuses to call him at home, and
has been e-mailing him @ work, constantly. When a relative died,
she had his sister call to tell him!
I think it has started to affect our marriage. He seems upset
about the strain between us. But this has been building up for
4 years, and I am sick and tired of her!
Dr Apter's reply:
Your mother-in-law seems to view her relationship with her son as
an all-or-nothing affair. She seems to reject him and cut him
off when he tries to set reasonable boundaries. I suggest that
you express sympathy for your husband's position. You could
tell him that you know how upset he is by the breach with his mother.
Encourage him to think of ways of mending the relationship.
He could tell her that he misses the contact she had with the family.
He could tell her that he wants to find a balance between being a
married couple, and being a good son. Of course, keeping that
balance may be difficult.
||My question for Dr.
I hope I am not wasting your time when so many people here seem
to have really awful in-laws, but I would like some advice for a newlywed
on how to get things right, first off. My in-laws are not horrid
at all. They are really quite nice. However, even though
my mother and mil were born in the same year and grew up in the same
city, it is like our families are from different worlds. Some
things I just grin and bear, like being told basically any meal other
than roast beef is "ethnic", and consequently dubious (I barely ever
ate meat and three veg as a kid), or being introduced to her friends
as "Mr. and Mrs. Thing" (I have called my parents' friends by their
first names at least since I was a teenager, and many all my life!),
or having her still commenting nearly a year on (not nastily) that
our wedding was "small and casual" when it was a sit-down four course
meal for 80 in a top restaurant with white dress, cake, speeches,
etc. (My parents catered their own reception in my Dad's flat!).
Other things however seem to go to the heart of what I believe about
families, and I am worried if I don't get this right, now, it will
cause huge problems in the long term, especially if we have kids.
As an example, I did not change my name when I married. MIL
knows this, and knows that I had good reasons (which I do not want
to expand on here, not that I need a reason, especially when I had
my husband's complete support!). However, she frequently asks
me whether I am "used to being 'Mrs. X' yet". Do I give up saying,
"No, because I have not changed my name and no-one calls me that,"
and just make something up? Or, do I keep telling her?
She also thinks this is very unusual and novel, even though only one
of the married women in my workplace (of 7) changed their names.
She addresses mail to my mother to "Mrs. (Dad's Initial). Surname",
which my mother has always loathed, and actually campaigned against
when I was at school. Do I tell MIL to use Mum's own initial,
and if she really has to call me by my husband's surname at all, to
at least use my initial, or just Mr. and Mrs.? (I am actually
Ms., but that's another one I am happy to let go!) Similarly,
she constantly says that "in her day" women just did not have jobs
after they married. Do I keep saying that my mother (who was
born in the same year) always had a career, as did all my aunts (and
for that matter, both my grandmothers, for the most part). When
she says it must have been so interesting growing up in a family where
my Dad "helped out with the cooking" do I bother to point out that
he (and I) hates her saying this, because he, in fact, did most of
the cooking. It was never assumed to be my mother's job, or
for others to just "help" with, and because my mother had an extremely
demanding paid job of her own? (Incidentally, I am actually
probably more conservative in this regard than my parents. I
think my mil knows that I actually do most, by far, of the cooking
in our house, especially during the week, so it is not a case of her
little boy not being cared for!). Another issue is that, although
she is nice to me, she is quite nasty to my husband. She says
she is just "teasing," but I have actually never heard her
say anything nice to, or about, him. Worse, she seems to think
that all women should band together against all men, so she tries
to draw me and my mother into this picking on my husband (and my FIL!).
I am not going to b*tch about my husband to anyone, especially his
mother, but she seems to get hurt when I won't join in. Lastly,
my mil wears a lot of perfume and hairspray, which is quite strongly
scented. Unfortunately I have quite bad allergies, and one of
her products (not sure which) sets off my asthma and other allergies.
This is aggravated by the fact she lives in an old house with a lot
of other triggers (I hasten to add she keeps it very clean, but it
is still a problem). It is getting to the point where, if she
kisses me, I have to gasp for air straight after! How on earth
do I bring this up with her? I am sorry this is so long, but
I would really appreciate any tips you can give me. I really
want to get this right the first time, for all our sakes! Thank
you very much.
Dr Apter's reply:
The problems you have are really at the crux of the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law
problem. Two people are both well-meaning, but the relationship
is still impossible. Your mother-in-law refuses to respect your
way of doing things. She uses her views as a template for what's
right and what's "normal". In spite of all the research I've
done on in-law relationships, I still don't fully understand why so
many women, as mothers-in-law, are rigid in their assumption about
a daughter-in-law's lifestyle. So I don't have any easy tips.
You will simply have to keep repeating that you are not "Mrs. X".
(You could do so gently, with a smile, perhaps even touching her arm.)
You can also explain that you have allergies. Perhaps you could
say how much you like being able to greet her with a hug and kiss,
but that her perfume or hairspray makes this difficult. Your
task isn't easy, but if she really is well-meaning, it won't be impossible.