Skip to main content

The question

My partner and I are in our early 30s and moved away from the town where his mother lives to my home town. She visits three or four times a year for several days. My issue is she seems to have zero respect for either of us. Privately, and at joint family dinners, she will rudely point to perceived character flaws (lack of willpower) and problems (his weight) that she has with my partner, which are completely unacceptable to me and, frankly, make my blood boil. She'll attempt to assert her will over whether he's in good enough shape for a planned cycle or hike, whether we're working hard enough and how much exercise our recently postoperative dog should be getting. After numerous battles, my partner has sought counselling and has come to the conclusion that he cannot change her and does not want to kick her out of his life. I worry about this negativity and lack of respect with regard to such future considerations as parenting choices, finances, where we buy a house etc. So, my question is: Do I have to shut up and deal with her rudeness for 20 days a year or is there a constructive way to show her that her commentary is unappreciated and straining her relationship with both of us?

The answer

One's first instinct is to say: what a pill, tell her off etc.

But let us not forget: She is a mother. They have a special place in the pantheon, thus get cut a little extra slack.

Mothers, I have it on good authority, and know from personal experience, never stop worrying about their kids – long after their kids are kids at all.

It follows they continue to wrestle with the urge to give unsolicited advice, long past the point where the recipient is in the mood to receive it.

I sound a little snarky there, but don't mean to. I just want you to bear in mind, before you proceed, that your mother-in-law has been giving your husband advice and steering him away from disaster and harm since he was in diapers.

Sometimes dozens of times a day. Sometimes dozens of times an hour: "Don't touch that! That's not food! Don't hit your brother with your truck. Don't stick that in the electric socket. If you do that again, Rufus will bite you" etc.

It's hard to turn off, even through adulthood and middle age – and beyond. My own mother has to bite her lip a lot, about similar issues – weight, exercise, health, etc. – and sometimes just can't stand it any more and will blurt out advice.

I push back. She'll say something like: "You know, Dave, one of the worst things about high blood pressure is it can lead to macular degeneration." Me: "Mom! Keep those types of comments to yourself!"

(That one haunted me for years, after I looked up "macular degeneration" on the Internet. Here's the other thing: Sometimes they have a point. Worth remembering.)

I think you need to forget counselling, forget staying silent and take action. Push back – gently, but firmly, and here's the important thing: every single time.

Oh, yeah: You're not going to get results with just one conversation with your mother-in-law. This is going to be a war of attrition – a polite one, but a war of attrition nonetheless.

I've always said: "We train people how to treat us." Train her to treat you well.

Be kind, compassionate, always keeping in mind on some level she is a mother and can't help herself. But push back when she comments, every time.

Example: She drops some questionsult like: "Are you sure you're in good enough shape to go for a bike ride?" Answer: "Ha ha, you should let us worry about these type of things, [her name here]. We're old enough!"

Another thing I always say: "You can blame things on your parents until you're about 28. After that, it's your life."

The corollary is: The mother has to let go around that age, let the "child" make his/her mistakes. Make that exquisitely clear to her by pushing back (gently) to every single piece of unsolicited advice and rude questionsult, whether it be about you, your husband or your dog, until she finally gets the message.

Because you're right. If you don't turn this around, wait till you have kids! She'll turn into a whirling dervish of unsolicited advice.

Be patient, but firm and implacable. She'll get the message eventually. It could take years. It will almost certainly be a pain in the butt for all concerned. But it'll be better for everyone.

Are you in a sticky situation? Send your dilemmas to damage@globeandmail.com. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.