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In-Law's Favoritism Creates Conflict

Dear Dr. Dave and Dr. Dee,

I have had ongoing problems with my husband's mother for 11 years. My husband has two kids from a previous marriage, and I have three children from a previous marriage. We don't call the kids, "yours" or "mine"; they are "ours," and we treat them equally. My side of the family treats all our kids equally.

However, my mother-in-law constantly comes between our family. She refuses to accept my children and has made it known that she is not their grandmother. She is always making remarks that are hurtful to my children and me. A few times, my husband has said something to his family and it helps, but only for a little while. My husband tells me to just ignore it. His mother keeps us torn up constantly! His mother calls our home 3 to 6 times a day. If she can't get through she comes over.


About To Give Up

Dear About To Give Up,

People who treat family members unequally or who have "favorites" are intentionally creating conflicts. Your mother-in-law's refusal to accept your children, especially when you and your husband have made it clear that the children are "ours" not "his" and "hers", shows her lack of respect not only for you, but also for her son.

First, realize that your mother-in-law has a problem, and that it is HER problem. If she treats you in this manner, she has treated others this way as well. She has very likely treated her own children unequally, choosing favorites over one another.

Your husband's lack of support and ignoring you is probably his coping mechanisms for having been brought up in a dysfunctional environment. He may not even realize that he grew up in such an environment. Often people who are born and raised in a dysfunctional environment learn to cope by tuning out or ignoring the abuser (his mother's mental abuse). In addition, while growing up, he has learned to build a wall around his emotions so that this dysfunctional behavior has a tough time penetrating. He has had a lifetime to learn to cope with HER problem. Give your husband some credit as he does treat all the kids equally, in spite of his upbringing.

On the other hand, you are relatively new to this dysfunctional behavior. Also, since your side of the family does not take sides and treats everyone equally, it increases your sensitivity to the problem.

Here are some ways to cope with the situation: Section targeting

1) Your mother-in-law's behavior toward you and your children should not be ignored, especially because it involves your children. Your husband must support you and the children. This does not mean he doesn't love his mother, nor does it mean he is taking sides. He is simply requesting that they show respect for you and all the children (and himself).

2) Spend as little time with your mother-in-law as possible. If your mother-in-law calls all the time, screen your phone calls with an answering machine. If she drops by uninvited, don't answer the door. If the door is answered then let your husband entertain his mother. You and the children need to keep busy with other activities when she is around, but acknowledge her presence, smile, be pleasant, then leave to run errands. At family gatherings, spend time with other people.

3) The hurtful comments must not be ignored when they occur. When a comment is made, your husband needs to say in a laughing tone, "Now, Mom, you know better" or "Well that wasn't very nice" or "Why would you say something like that?" If he is not around, then you or the children (if you are not around) need to comment back, always in a very pleasant and humorous tone. If you act insulted or reply in a mean tone, she will be able to use that against you. Do not give her any ammunition. After your comment, leave the room graciously or turn your attention to someone else.

4) If "your" children are not welcome to attend functions given by his side of the family, but "his" children are invited, then no one in your family goes. You are a family unit, and must stand together. Be nice about not attending, have your husband say that since not all are welcome, then all must decline the invitation, and leave it at that.

5) Your children probably already dislike Grandma, which is very understandable, and they are justified. However, help them learn to cope and get along for the brief encounters that they will have. This will be an invaluable lesson later in life, as they learn to interact with a variety of personalities. Always listen empathetically to your children's feelings, and tell them you understand how hurt they are. Help them understand that Grandma is "different" and that her behavior and words are not acceptable in your family. But, everyone must try to get along with her.

Remember that Grandma wants conflict, and if she doesn't get if from you, she will turn her attention elsewhere. It would be very beneficial for you, your husband, and the kids to see a family counselor in order to get guidance and support in this matter.