Q I have been married to a Frenchman for ten years. From the get-go, I have had a huge problem with my mother-in-law who was disappointed that her son married a Yankee and has never tried to hide her disdain for me and for my country. Whatever I do or say comes under her critical scrutiny – how I dress myself and the kids, how I set the table, how I speak French, my choice of au pairs, the children’s schooling… Both my father-in-law and my husband kow-tow to her as I see it, and neither of them steps up to the plate for me. My relationship with the latter has suffered as a result. I’m at the end of my rope and am hoping for some tips for dealing with her.A Though my preference is definitely for giving my readers ideas which will help them negotiate and resolve conflicts, I believe that in this case, you are up against someone with serious personal problems. Your mother-in-law sounds like a very unhappy woman who compensates for a lack of self-esteem and sense of powerlessness by bullying everyone around her. She probably frightened her son into submission at a very young age, and though he would apparently rather keep on good terms with her than risk a break by choosing sides with you, his marrying you despite her disapproval shows a certain amount of courage.
Unfortunately, I do not believe that she has any interest in getting along with you, especially since she can keep her son in her orbit the way things are, so my advice is to concentrate on protecting yourself from her. This means putting very firm boundaries around yourself.
See her as little as possible. Invite her only on formal occasions when other people outside your nuclear family are present. Refuse invitations from her except under the same circumstances. Filter her calls to you and cut phone conversations as short as possible. Think of her as a “case” – someone almost depersonalized who has absolutely no connection to you. Concentrate on that idea as a way of creating a layer of insulation around yourself, which she cannot penetrate.
When she makes one of her intrusive or unpleasant remarks, do not even try to counter it, but rather bend to it Tai Chi style solely as a strategy to avoid competing for the last word, thus inviting further hurt. Be alert for the ways by which she hooks you in to a discussion which will give her the opening she is looking for to needle you. For instance, if you are reminiscing about a past event, she might seize the opportunity to connect it with an incident during which you displeased her. Parry the attempt with a neutral, non-committal comment rather than defending yourself. By refusing to engage, you will render her game less interesting to her.
You have already ascertained that your husband is not a willing advocate for you. Like many adults who had highly critical parents, he may still harbor the hope of getting unconditional love from them, and taking up the cudgel for you would make that impossible. Asking him for that puts him between Scylla and Charybdis and, as you observed, creates conflict in your couple. A better strategy is for you to enlist his support for your need to stay safe from his mother through distancing, while leaving things open for him – and your children – to stay in touch with her as needed.
Jill Bourdais is a psychotherapist practicing in Paris both privately and in a hospital setting. A specialist in couple/family problems, she organizes workshops dealing with improving relationship skills and building self-esteem.