Group Therapy is a relationship advice column that asks readers to contribute their wisdom. Each week, we offer a problem for you to weigh in on, then publish the most lively responses, with a final word on the matter delivered by our columnist, Lynn Coady.
A reader writes: I have lived with my common-law husband for 26 years and his mother has never approved of me. She is class-conscious and very aware of the fact that my father worked in a factory while her late husband was a successful professional. I have tolerated her dismissive attitude over the years, but the latest demonstration is too much. She's now in her 80s, living in a retirement home out of town. When my partner returned from a visit, he told me his mother had cut me out of a photograph of us that I gave her years ago. At the time, she appeared to like the photo very much. Now only his half is displayed, in a frame that also has a photo of his siblings and his brother-in-law. My partner agrees this is over the top and says he'll have a word with her. I appreciate his support, but I think I should speak to her myself. Any advice?
Don't expect him to step up
Honey, your partner has already dropped the ball regarding "having a word" with his mother. He should have spoken up when he saw the mutilated picture. You don't tell us whether he has defended you against his mother's jibes in the past; I suspect the answer is "not so much," particularly if you aren't present. That being said, you have been living with the son of this snob for 26 years. Your best approach is to consider the source and be thankful that Mom's retirement home is out of town.
- Ann Sullivan, Peterborough, Ont.
Consider his feelings too
So you don't like your mother-in-law, what else is new? Sure, she's probably much worse than Jane Fonda, but you're also almost certainly no Jennifer Lopez. When deciding whether or not to have a confrontational talk with someone, I tend to ask myself an important question: "Who is going to benefit?" If speaking to her is only going to make you feel better, then perhaps you're being a bit selfish. Instead of thinking of her as an enemy, realize that in the end you both have the same goal. You both want what's right for your husband. Try to take into account how your husband must feel always being stuck in the middle, and take what your monster-in-law says in stride. At this point, I think it's safe to say he doesn't take much of what his mother says to heart anyway.
- Adi Berk, Thornhill, Ont.
Tell her how you feel
I note that your partner just returned from a visit to his mother, and that he went there alone. She may have cut you out of the picture because she feels that you have done the same to her. Likely the years of having to tolerate her dismissive attitude has led to this behaviour on your part. The only way for things to get any better is for you to put yourself back into her life. Like any relationship, it requires effort in order to work. You, not your partner, should talk to her. Tell her how hurt you are, and bring her another picture.
- Craig Cherrie, Toronto
The final word
Your letter reminded me of apartment hunting in Toronto's Little Italy a while back, when an elderly, undershirted gentleman allowed me into his home to view the upstairs suite. Once I discovered there was no door separating the rental from the landlord's living space, ("I won't give you any trouble!" he assured me), the decision made itself, but still he insisted on showing me his array of family photographs in the living room. It was quite a gallery - weddings, birthdays, christenings. Most striking was the fact that every single photograph had been defaced by a marker, blacking out family members who had at some point, I assume, fallen short of Grandpa's expectations.
Did I think to myself, What a jerk! Was I outraged on behalf of the eradicated family? No. As an outsider surveying this tableau of familial acrimony, my only thought was: How sad. (Well, also kind of funny.)
No doubt, the besmirched individuals would've been appalled at the sight of their blackened silhouettes on Nonno's wall. How could they not take it personally? But take it from an objective third party: What your mother-in-law did to your photo is the act of a child - of someone who feels powerless, petulant and left out. Again: How sad.
Ann is correct that your husband should've spoken up about the mangled photo, but he was likely too surprised to know how to react. Now that it's had time to sink in, however, neither of you should let it go. "Who is going to benefit?" asks Adi. I say it's not a question of benefit, but of standing firm against an act of passive aggression.
I agree with Craig that you should make your feelings known, but you and your husband must do this together. I'm not talking about some kind of finger-wagging shame session, but simply acknowledging that your mother-in-law has fired a salvo. Let her know you felt it, and while you won't be firing back, you refuse to duck and cover. This is what grownups do, and it's a lot more respectful than displaying your hostility on the wall as though it were a commendation from the mayor.
Lynn Coady is the award-winning author of the novels Strange Heaven and Mean Boy , with another one currently in the oven.
Click to answer next week's question or submit a dilemma of your own
Next week's question: A reader writes: After a difficult couple of years with my wife, I thought we were on the road to recovery. The fault was mine, but after her mother moved out, we had counselling a couple of times and I believed I could mend fences. But she's given up. I feel that if we tried we could find happiness again. Can you help?