My situation is simple but awful. My mother really really hates my husband, Mike*. She says he’s lazy and stupid and selfish and all kinds of other things that just aren't true. He’s not perfect but no one is. She certainly isn’t. But she goes after him constantly, every conversation and every visit. Mike tries to be easygoing but she’s a champion button pusher. Eventually she gets his goat and he reacts and that’s just more fuel for her fire. She's not a bad person but she’s the worst to him. What do I do? Because this sucks a lot.
Dear Brave Correspondent,
Argh. There are few things that make me absolutely beside myself with upset and worry like having two people I like in conflict with each other. I am not averse to conflict, and yelling people don’t really bother me much, but when I feel like my most important boats are in danger of colliding? I’m an absolute wreck. This kind of situation, where two key people in my universe were in open conflict with each other, would leave me lying face down on the sidewalk. You have all my sympathy.
In addition to a lot of sympathy, I also have quite a few questions. Because you don’t mention even considering cutting off ties with your mother, or limiting contact with her in order to protect your husband from her, and in my experience that’s... unusual. Typically, when a family member seems to be aggressing irrationally toward a person’s partner they rapidly reach a point of All Done. Then they write to ask me a) whether to cut the offender mostly/entirely out of their life or b) how to do that with minimal all-family fallout.
Since you haven't, my curiosity is even higher than usual (which, let me tell you, is saying something). Not just that, but your story isn’t about getting your coats and skedaddling when she starts on Mike, only after he loses his cool. Is there, perhaps, some part of you that knows your mother is right about something? I have seen it happen one or twice or a million times that a friend or family member will raise objections about a partner they just have a really bad feeling about. They might not be clear about what the problem is, or why they feel uncomfortable about this person, so they just kind of...complain about everything and see what sticks? It’s an unscientific and illogical method. But as we know from basically every other column: no logical argument is going to trump an emotional one. People’s feelings matter way more to them than facts. The bigger the feelings, the less weight the facts will have. My concern, to be frank, is that your mother might be seeing something about your husband that makes her uneasy in a way she doesn't have evidence for.
From there, I have to ask: is she generally a good judge of character? Sometimes people take against someone for highly personal (aka petty) reasons, like that their car is a mess or they don’t put their napkin in their lap. Which, listen, we all have our little things we can’t stand (I, for example, am the enemy of the polo shirt). Is your mother good at knowing what her pet peeves are? Is she likely to completely discount someone as a worthwhile human if they have a tongue piercing or went to a state school? Is her complaint racist or xenophobic? Because if it’s something like that that’s making her act out, you may need to just sit her down and first ask her to please detail all of her objections, and listen to them to be sure that they’re what you expect. Ask questions to make sure you understand them, etcetera. Draw her out. And then, when you feel like you completely grasp her collection of idiosyncratic and minor complaints, tell her that he’s your guy and enough is enough.
The truth is, Brave Correspondent, that not every mother likes her son-in-law but also this pattern of behavior amounts to a campaign against him and I think you need to step back for a minute to figure out why. It’s completely possible that the answer is “because she’s unfairly prejudiced against him,” and then you can require, in good conscience, that she stop it Or Else.
However. Maybe she is a good judge of character and you do generally trust her opinion, and therefore this is actually worrisome to you on some level, which is why you have not yet told her to stick her complaints where the sun doesn’t shine. Maybe there’s something about him that is also bothering you a little? Are you, actually, carrying him more than you feel good about and exhausting yourself while he coasts? Are there chunks of time or money he can’t or won’t account for that are causing you concern? Do you find yourself making excuses for him to your mother when you see or talk to her? Is there something there?
Because, listen, it’s reasonable that he’s not perfect. As you correctly note, no one is. But parents are often protective of their children. It’s a habit we get into when they’re small, and we have to be their external risk management engine. Typically, parents eventually manage - some more gracefully than others - to yield the risk-management portfolio to the child, piece by piece. By the time you’re getting married, that’s pretty much all you. And yet, we still want to protect our children. Is this that?
(There’s also the possibility that she feels displaced by him in your affections and wants your attention back. That’s an aggravating and fairly narcissistic possibility, but it totally exists. Were you two super-close before Mike came on the scene? Is this, in some part, about her wanting more from you? How is your mom’s mental health, generally? If she has relied on you as her primary friend/confidante and now you’re much less available to her, that’s something she may be reacting to, as well.)
The key thing here, Brave Correspondent, is figuring out whether a) she needs to own her behavior and make changes or b) there’s something about Mike that you’re not in a place (physically, emotionally, spiritually, or in some other way) to see. If she’s making a big deal about not much, it may be time to dial back on hanging out with her until she can behave herself better, and be prepared to pack up and go at the first salvo and not when Mike finally succumbs to the needling and blows his stack. But if you have an inkling that something actually is amiss, maybe it’s time to ask around a little to your close people. Offer an hour of total amnesty and see whether people who feel less free to say anything to you might feel the same way when encouraged to share. Not everyone’s mother has their best interests at heart, but yours might. Figure that out, and you’ll know which way to go here.
love and courage,
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