How should I respond to my spouse's mother when she expresses disapproval of my parenting style and speaks to me disrespectfully in front of my husband and our children? I've put up with this kind of treatment for years, but I think I've reached my limit. What can I do?
Before addressing your question directly, it's important to set the stage with a fundamental biblical principle. Genesis 2:24 says that "a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife." Jesus repeats this command in Matthew 19:4-6 and Mark 10:6-8. In this context, the word "cleave" refers to the establishment of a "one-flesh" union between husband and wife. It means that when a couple marries, they are supposed to found a new family unit, distinct and separate from their families of origin. They are further required to grant this new family unit priority over the old. If they cannot do this, their marriage will not be successful.
The scriptural principle is clear. Your mother-in-law has no right to treat you with disdain and disrespect. According to the Bible, your husband has a responsibility to you and to your children to step up to the plate and defend you. If he's afraid to take this step or simply doesn't want to rock the boat, we suggest you talk to him about it. Make a date with him – dinner at a restaurant, perhaps – and tell him you have some important things to discuss away from the kids. Lovingly and patiently explain that you've had it with your mother-in-law's mean-spirited attacks and criticism. Tell him that it's time for both of you to start setting some firm boundaries with her. Explain that you can't do this alone and that you are counting on his support.
Since this is your mother-in-law and not your mother, it's crucial that you and your husband agree on a course of action. The two of you should sit down with his mom and let her know that things are going to be different in your relationship from this point forward. Your husband should take the lead in this conversation. He should tell his mother that her constant sniping at you hurts him deeply and that he is no longer willing to accept it. He should make it clear that unless she can make a sincere effort to change her attitude and behavior, she will no longer be welcome in your home.
Given her past record, it's likely that your mother-in-law will react in anger. She may play the martyr in an attempt to make you and your husband feel guilty for confronting her. Stand your ground and refuse to be manipulated. Unless she is prepared to admit her faults and make some significant changes, you may also want to consider limiting her access to your children. It can't possibly be in their best interest to spend much time with a woman who is so hostile and demeaning. Perhaps her desire to see her grandchildren will motivate her to examine her actions and attitudes more carefully.
In the event that your husband can't find the courage to back you up, we suggest you seek the assistance of an experienced family therapist. Among other things, that will show him that you're in earnest about dealing with this issue. Call our Counseling department to get started. After discussing the situation with you over the phone, our counselors will be happy to provide you with referrals to licensed family counselors in your area.