Relationship Advice

Etched In Stone

bride with older woman

I have been married 12 years to a very loving man. When I met his mom, she asked if she could be like a "real mom" instead of a typical mother-in-law. My own mother passed away a month before, and I thought she was an extraordinary woman for asking this. I accepted wholeheartedly.

My husband and I have taken some business risks and are very good with our finances, but not all risks pan out. When we get in a tough place financially, she jumps in and "solves the problem." At first I thought this was amazing, then I thought maybe if she didn't jump to the rescue, her son would rise up and be proactive.

This woman has criticized my parenting because it is not exactly what she would do. She is very clever at implying things. If I say, "Did you mean this or that?" she denies meaning anything hurtful. My husband is convinced that I do not "get her." The problem is, as a woman, I think I get her just fine.

Now I hate going to her home and spending time with her. When my husband is not around, she is biting in her words and implies a lot of hurtful things, but when I ask her to clarify, she says, "Really, Hollyann, are we going there again?" Like I am crazy for constantly misunderstanding her motives and intentions.

She is married to her former marriage counselor, which does not help. In her mind everything he says is gospel. It is like trying to hold a slippery fish. In the past few months I've made excuses, but that will not work forever. I do not want to be around her or even talk to her.

I am committed to finding answers that work for both my husband and kids, and myself, since I am unable to control my world and move away.


Hollyann, linguists say that language is polysemous, which is a big word that means language can convey more than one meaning at a time. When your mother-in-law offered to be a real mom to you, you took it as an offer of love, protection, and assistance. But what she may have meant is, "I will be the parent. You will be the child."

Linguist Deborah Tannen has spent her lifetime analyzing conversation. In one story Tannen tells, a high-ranking woman is talking with two people when a woman of lower rank enters the room. The high-ranking woman interrupts herself to compliment the newcomer on her clothes. On the surface, the topic is clothes. Below the surface, though, the higher-ranking woman is asserting her right to judge an inferior.

In the beginning you and your mother-in-law had the relationship of stranger to stranger, which is a barrier. When it became a mother/daughter relationship, it became the relationship of a person of greater rank to a person of lesser rank, at least in her eyes. Accepting financial gifts reinforced that.

Your mother-in-law is happy with the superior position. Asking her to change is like asking a Wall Street banker to give back his hundred-million-dollar bonus. Put yourself in her place. Why would she think you have the right to change her? What's in it for her?

We can't make her nice anymore than we can make you mean. Until some line of no-return is crossed, things will remain the same. You have three options: limit contact, imagine yourself an actress and play a part, or be honest in every exchange. You might even tell her, like the child in a blended family, "You're not my mother."

Once you stop thinking you can alter her, then you can decide what you will do. The real villainy lies in someone telling you that you can change her, because when their technique fails, you will feel you failed.

Wayne & Tamara