– By Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D.
My father-in-law died this past spring at 87, and my 85-year-old mother-in-law moved in with us a few weeks after his death. My husband and I agreed that it initially made sense for her to move in since we were her closest relatives and she has health issues and needs assistance. After about six months it is pure agony, and I need her to move out. She has tapped our marriage out emotionally and financially. She’s demanding, mean, stingy and is combative with my teenage children. She’s also done a great job of wedging herself between my husband and me, and she always wants her way. I’ve tried to tell my husband how upset I am with his mother, but he defends her every time. We’re fighting horribly and our kids are really upset. I am even entertaining the idea of moving out with the kids. Your help is needed now.
– Unhappy in Loudoun County
You agreed to take your mother-in-law in because you knew that it was the right thing to do, but I get it, living with her over the past six months has been very difficult for you. But beyond your mother-in-law “wedging herself” into your family’s life, I’m not sure what she’s done exactly, that should cause you to become so upset that you would leave the family home with your kids in tow.
Even if I were to agree with you that your mother-in-law has a complicated or off-putting personality and that her presence has created very real problems for your family, she’s still your mother-in-law, and I think you need put your upset into full context. You’re not angry about a bad restaurant that you don’t want to return to again; rather you’re angry about your aging and ailing mother-in-law who recently lost her life partner – she’s your husband’s mother, your children’s grandmother, and those relationships need to matter more to you than how right you are or how wrong she is.
I offer the following recommendations. First, I think you need to do some soul searching to figure out why your mother-in-law has upset you so much. In my opinion, you wouldn’t be so angry if you didn’t care; behind anger is hurt and behind hurt is love, so what are you so hurt by? Once you’ve gained some insight into your anger and emotional triggers, it’s my hope that you will be in a better position to make the changes within yourself that you need to make to correct things. Second, no matter how difficult your mother-in-law is, I think you should grant her some leeway in her conduct. Again, she’s elderly and ill, she’s lost her life partner, and she’s your husband’s mother and your children’s grandmother. I encourage you to think of some ways to practice kindness and compassion in relation to her. Third, overreacting or underreacting to your mother-in-law will only serve to make things worse. I think you need to bring your concerns to your husband so that the two of you can communicate better and work together more closely in getting control of your home again. Let your husband know how you feel, so that, as a couple, you can come up with some ideas for how to successfully manage and support your mother-in-law in your home … without compromising your relationship.
My wife complains about her weight all of the time, and it’s driving me crazy. Four kids and 15 years later into our wonderful marriage and I guess she could lose a few pounds, but I think she’s beautiful and I’m very attracted to her for who she is and how she looks. I’m no Brad Pitt at 53 and 30 pounds overweight myself, but she also doesn’t seem to want to hear that either. I tell her over and over again how beautiful she is, but she doesn’t hear me and instead all that she does is tell me how fat she is and she then gets angry with me. I’ve also tried to support her by bringing up stories I hear about on the radio or TV with weight loss in the news, but she tells me that I am “insensitive and mean” when I do that. I’m in the worst sort of Catch 22 with this because if I say nothing when she brings up her weight she gets upset, but if I say something I am still in the dog house. Got any advice?
– Unhappy in Loudoun County
Based on what you’ve written, it seems that your wife has real body image issues that have significantly impacted her self-esteem. If this is true, she likely has a negative and distorted voice within her that perpetuates her bad feelings and keeps her stuck when she thinks about her body. Know that challenging that voice then will take time, effort and patience on your part.
The first thing you should do is relentlessly reinforce the message to your wife that she is attractive and that you adore, desire, cherish and love her. You might also want to tell her how much it pains you to hear her speak so poorly about herself when she has been, and always will be, the woman of your dreams. Since you both have some pounds to shed, I also recommend coming up with a wellness plan that the two of you can follow together – going for walks, planning and preparing healthy meals together, buying her and you exercise watches to track your daily wellness goals, joining a gym, taking some ball room dance classes, training for a 5K run or walk, are just a few ways that you and your wife can begin to get control over your weight and health.
Again, body image struggles can be tough to defeat, so remember to be patient as you listen to what your wife says about herself, and keep an affirming and loving dialogue going at all times.
Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice. He has been featured on CNN Nightly News, Good Morning America and several other outlets. He can be reached at 703-723-2999 and is located at 44095 Pipeline Plaza, Suite 240, Ashburn.