Carolyn Hax: Mother-in-law is terrifying — and visiting soon


Adapted from an online discussion.

Hi Carolyn: My new mother-in-law scares me. She’s rude, and she yells at everyone. Every conversation with her is either negative or aggressive. She also loves to give unsolicited advice. Attempts to install a boundary with her resulted in her taking it out on my spouse indirectly, causing us many problems (i.e., threatening to cut off his inheritance).

Before meeting her, I had been warned by my spouse that she could be a bit of a bully. Most of her family had cut her off because of her rude behavior, and she cut off the rest. I thought this had nothing to do with me and that I could get along with her. I was wrong. She yells a lot to get her way. (Not at me, but she yells at her husband, my spouse, the waiters, my neighbors, etc.) One time, she attempted to yell at me, but my spouse stopped her, and we removed ourselves from the situation. (This wasn’t the end of the story.)

My spouse appreciates her, because she helps him with some aspects of his business. They are very close.

I sometimes wish I could talk to her normally without this fear. When she’s in a good mood, I can see a glimpse of kindness, but when she wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, I just want to run and hide.

I realize it is not personal. I realize also that she means well sometimes, but her delivery is way off. But I also hate seeing her abuse others. I have been abused and have volunteered in the past to help victims of domestic violence, and speaking up for people is part of who I was. Seeing me put this part away and become so scared of her bullying is frankly traumatizing.

My spouse is encouraging me to minimize interactions with her. But she’s coming to visit us soon, and I am physically ill from fear. What can I change in my behavior to help me accept her as she is? How can I reconcile my desire to stand up to abuse (“Please, Mom, don’t yell at the waitress because there’s no Diet Coke, she’s just doing her job”) with the need to just ignore and let her do whatever she wants to do? How do I stop being afraid?

Destabilized by Fear: Holy crackers.

Develop a joint plan with your husband, stat, for managing your relationships with this highly destructive person. In marriage counseling if he resists, and in counseling solo if he resists going with you.

Put financial planning on the schedule, too, so you can imagine a future without her blood money.

Good for him for standing up for you and encouraging you to limit your exposure — that is no small thing — but his obligations to you, to himself, to unsuspecting restaurant staff and, ultimately, to her demand more from him. They’re close, and she’s ill. I’d like to see him get individual counseling to find out whether and how he can help his mom without enabling her — or biding his time till he’s paid.

· Cancel the visit. Seriously, no excuses, no yeahbuts. “It’s just not a good time.” And counseling in which your husband commits to setting and defending boundaries. Otherwise, this is your life, now and forever.

· Leave every time your mother-in-law yells. If you are in the same room, you leave. Same house? Go to a friend’s or a hotel.

I have done this when my mother-in-law lectures me. It is slowly filtering into her brain that I won’t be lectured or yelled at.

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