She Said He Said: Caught between husband and his mom
She Said, He Said
Dear Jeff and Lori:
My husband has always had a very close relationship with his mother. When his father passed away last year, he strongly advocated for his mom to move near us with the expectation that she would help with our two elementary school aged children. After she settled in I noticed just how much medication she takes on a daily basis for pain, anxiety and sleep. She also has no reservations about having a glass of wine or two with dinner, and sometimes lunch. I told my husband I don’t want her in charge of the kids, as she doesn’t always seem fully present. He continues to minimize her use, saying it’s all physician prescribed and highlighting how difficult the loss of her husband has been. I think he’s afraid of hurting her. We’re arguing constantly and in the meantime, I keep creating plans and excuses to keep the kids from being in her care. I can’t keep going on like this. Please help.
Lori and Jeff: In-law relationships can be some of the most challenging dynamics to navigate. Loyalties, choosing sides, long-standing patterns and roles are all elements that can create tension, conflict and resentment. Developing a deeper awareness of these underlying factors can help make these difficult situations much more manageable.
Lori: You’re absolutely right to set a line, but that line needs to be laid with empathy, care and compassion. First and foremost, the safety of your children has to be a priority over your mother-in-law’s feelings. She may have a wonderful relationship with your kids, but if there’s an emergency and she’s not firing on all cylinders, the cost could be catastrophic. Having worked in child protection in my past, I can assure you your safety concerns are valid. Furthermore, if something were to happen, you and your husband may also be considered negligent for appointing your MIL as a primary caregiver knowing her current condition.
The key here is to be direct. Tiptoeing around the issue will only lead to more conflicts and trust issues down the line. Be very clear about what your concerns are and what you would need to feel comfortable with your MIL watching the kids. If your husband is worried about hurting his mother’s feelings, then you need to take responsibility for being the bearer of bad news to her. Be compassionate in acknowledging how much she has been through, and that you support her in taking care of herself, including taking prescribed medication. But also be clear that medication and alcohol use prohibit her from being able to be the sole supervisor for the kids. Then lovingly assure as best as you can that fostering her relationship with them will continue to be a top priority for you.
Jeff: For most people, the relationship with their mother is the primary bond they experience for the first fifteen or twenty years of their lives. The degree to which and when they separate and individuate depends on many different factors and circumstances. For boys, this process can be rather abrupt and is often very complicated, as the close bond with their mothers becomes less appropriate and socially acceptable than for girls. As boys become men, they tend not to get as close to anyone else—even best friends—until they commit to a partnered relationship. When this does happen, the dynamic can get even more complicated, as he becomes wedged in between the two primary relationships in his life, his partner and his mother. He has to learn to navigate this confusing and risky landscape by trying to please both while still maintaining his identity in each connection. This creates a triangulation dynamic with him at the focal point, trying to balance the emotional needs of each relationship.
In your case, it sounds like your husband hasn’t quite figured out this delicate balance between you and his mom and, in general, could be given some slack and encouragement as he learns a more effective way. If the safety of your kids is a concern, however, he will need to accelerate this process and set better boundaries with his mom while supporting you in preemptive damage control. Be aware that his mother may be subconsciously flipping the focal point of the triangulation around, pitting you and your husband against each other. You will need to stay true to your values and concerns and make sure your voice is heard.
Jeff and Lori: The MIL/DIL relationship is often very complicated and needs to be navigated with both awareness and compassion. Don’t downplay the importance of setting boundaries for the safety of your kids or the delicate nature of this situation. But be conscious to separate the person from the undesired behaviors. Make sure she knows that you see her and appreciate who she is as a person, mother and grandmother, and be clear about the specific actions that (perhaps at no fault of her own) are, for the time being, in conflict with what the children need.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Visit http://www.aspenrelationshipcoaching.com/blog-1 for all previous She Said, He Said columns.