She Said, He Said: Working through that MIL-DIL relationship with boundaries
December 25, 2017
Dear Jeff and Lori,
My husband and I recently moved to the valley with our young child. We used to live near my mother-in-law and she was very supportive and engaged with us. Since we moved, her expectations of how much she should be able to visit and call are becoming overwhelming. My husband agrees, but isn't willing to set boundaries with her. He says he doesn't want to hurt her feelings and I think he's avoiding conflict with her. When I set boundaries with her, she complains to my husband about me. My husband and I rarely fought before this situation, but now we're in a constant battle. How do I convince him to stand up to her?
Dear Desperate DIL,
Lori and Jeff: Perhaps it's not a matter of convincing at all.
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Ambivalence, as you're describing in your husband, is rarely about lack of conviction. Rather, it often stems from being torn between two powerful forces existing in opposition. Don't worry, we're not suggesting you diminish your power, but we do recommend being more curious about what those two forces actually are. For starters, do you know with certainty that your husband is 100 percent in alignment with what your expected boundaries of MIL are? Is it possible he hasn't been assertive with her because he in fact has a wider range of acceptance for her behavior?
If you and your husband do hold the same expectations and desired boundaries with MIL, but his emotional vulnerability with her is creating the ambivalence, "convincing" is still futile. You can convince the brain, but not the heart, and he already knows, logically, what the answer is. If emotion and logic are his competing forces, the best solution lies in empowering your partnership with him.
Jeff: The relationship between an adult son and his mother can be quite complex. Gender differences and cultural expectations often determine that boys will separate and individuate from their mothers earlier and more dramatically than girls will. As a result, boys don't have to work as hard to set boundaries with their mothers and have less practice in doing so. When it comes time for your husband to negotiate boundaries as an adult, he may not yet have the tools to accomplish the task.
Asking your husband to "stand up" to his mother is asking him to break a pattern of interaction that may have been established years ago and gone on undisturbed for good reason until now. Not that a relationship in which one person feels unable to speak their truth is a good thing, but that, for whatever reasons, it has worked as well as they've wanted it to work. You may have to consider the perceived cost for your husband to set stronger boundaries with his mother. It's certainly not an unreasonable request, but it might just be that it has far deeper emotional consequences than you've anticipated.
Lori: You and your husband clearly have strengths to build upon. Relocating together and surviving co-parenting of a newborn are no small feats. How have you worked together to make big decisions and overcome challenges together in the past? I hear loud and clear that this situation feels different, and has rocked your marriage like none other. However, the nature of your question suggests you have fallen into a trap of mental triangulation, and it's pitting you against your husband. How can you use your past experiences of success to keep a sense "we," and recognize it's not even a "we against her." Your biggest challenge in this dynamic is how much love there is in this family. When humans love deeply, we become increasingly vulnerable to fear of loss. I suspect deep down you feel you're losing a battle in trying to capture your husband's heart allegiance. But the whole war is rooted in perception.
Lori and Jeff: According to Cambridge University psychologist Terri Apter, 3 out of 4 couples "experience significant conflict with their in-laws," with the relationship between MIL and DIL having the most challenges. At the end of the day, it's each of your responsibilities to set the boundaries with your respective families but that doesn't mean that you can't support each other in doing so. We fully agree he needs to work on upholding the boundaries you've agreed upon, but pressuring, convincing and coercing aren't going to empower him. A little compassion, however, may go a long way. While your husband works to find his footing, you may need to continue to advocate your own needs with MIL, and access support in letting go of her reactions.
Lori and Jeff are couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Coaching. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.