Dear Carolyn: My mother-in-law has very unkind things to say about my ex-sister-in-law, and, as a woman, I deplore how my brother-in-law handled his divorce. I am really struggling with my relationship with her. I just don’t trust her. I can’t help but feel if I were in the ex-sister-in-law’s shoes, she would be talking about me in the same way.
I have maintained a respectful relationship with my mother-in-law, but I do not want to be close to her.
Carolyn says: That’s fair. Though it might help if you tack a “right now” onto your thoughts. “My mother-in-law has very unkind things to say right now.” “I just don’t trust her right now.” “I do not want to be close to her right now.”
Two reasons: (1) Divorce unhinges people; a son who is suffering, even a grown one, can certainly unhinge a mama bear. Maybe that’s too kind, maybe she’s terrible and her son’s worse and the divorce merely exposed it all, but it is possible she’s just reacting terribly (and imparted her terrible crisis skills to your brother-in-law?), which would allow for her to return to a gentler version of herself in due time.
(2) The best-case scenario for you, your spouse and your in-laws is for you all to be in each other’s lives for a very long time, yes? So, even when it’s entirely appropriate to question an in-law’s behavior or trustworthiness — as it appears here — it’s also pragmatic to look for reasons to forgive and forget anything that falls short of being terrible, emphasis on the forget.
I hope you also recognize the decency in standing up for your ex-sister-in-law, with gentle good nature. Such as: “Yikes, what do you say about me when I’m not here?! I’m never leaving the room again.” Warm hyperbole lets you clap back with mittens on. If she responds defensively, then stand firm on an unassailable point: “I understand your hard feelings — but I consider(ed) her a friend. This hurts.”
If she and your brother-in-law prove they’re truly terrible, vs. fleetingly so, then you can always drop the “right now” and make respectful distance your thing.
One more thought to file away as you process this difficult change: The kind of idle backstabbing you describe is bad, of course, but it also allows for a measure of detachment. Let’s say you become her next ex-daughter-in-law. Would it really matter at that point what she said about you? And even if she trashes you now in your absence — that’s her problem, isn’t it? (And wouldn’t it be lovely, in either case, if someone in the room at the time gently stood up for you?)
Certainly some trashings have consequences, especially from people in power and from those who aim and succeed at turning others against you. But experience tells me the average backstabber reliably comes out worse in the end than the backstabbee.
If the context of what you’ve known about her up till now supports it, then there might be grounds to see your mother-in-law as more an object of pity, even sympathy, than as a villain. If nothing else, it’s a disciplined exercise to view her with the kind of humanity that she herself has been unable to summon for her own ex-daughter-in-law.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at email@example.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.