As soon as I got to know my mother-in-law and sister-in-law, I realized there was something weird going on. My husband, Rafi, has one older sister. She lives two blocks away from her mother. Rafi’s father died when Rafi was a teenager and I’m sure that is part of the explanation for the story I’m about to tell you.
My sister-in-law Susie and her mother are best friends. I suppose that is a nice thing, though I was raised to view my mother as my mother and my friends as my friends; both roles were important parts of my life but not the same. But what is much more disturbing is that Susie tells her mother what to do all the time, and my mother-in-law listens. It seems to me that she is actually afraid of not listening to her daughter and therefore jumps when her daughter says to jump. It also seems to me that it’s important to Susie that her mother have very little to do with us. It’s like she is possessive of her mother. As if a mother can’t be a mother to more than one child!
If this didn’t directly affect my life, that would be OK. But it does in a very big way. My mother-in-law barely knows my children. She rarely comes to visit and spends most of her “grandmother” time with Susie’s children. Though I don’t particularly care for my mother-in-law’s personality—she’s always been cold and self-centered—I am still in love with the concept of family. Even if it’s not fun to be together, I’m always trying to create the Norman Rockwell portrait of one big happy family. I seem to never learn as I try and try to create something nice and normal. I’m always inviting and always being rejected.
After 25 years of being neglected and turned down when I invite my mother-in-law for a Shabbos or yom tov, I’ve finally had it. Maybe I’m a slow learner, but once I finally get it, I’m done. What happened recently was that Susie was going away for a Shabbos, so my mother-in-law asked if she could come to us for Shabbos. I was thrilled. My friends didn’t understand how I could possibly be thrilled, but, again, I was still hoping that this time would be different … better. I worked hard all week, shopping and cooking. I wanted it to be a beautiful Shabbos with great food. Late Friday afternoon my mother-in-law called and told us that Susie wasn’t feeling well and wasn’t going away for Shabbos, so she wasn’t coming. Susie wanted her home.
This wasn’t the first time that something like this has happened. There have been many times when my mother-in-law agreed to spend time with us, just to cancel at the last minute because Susie told her not to come. Somehow, though, this last time really put me over the edge. Something inside of me finally broke and I told Rafi that I was finished. I was feeling so hurt that I decided it’s time to finally get real, take care of myself, and recognize that my mother-in-law will only bring me pain and it’s time to stop setting myself up for that.
Yesterday, my mother-in-law called and had some reason why it made sense for her to come to us for the weekend, some personal agenda she had that made coming out to the Five Towns practical. I told Rafi that I wasn’t ready to have her until I was allowed to tell my mother-in-law just how much pain she and Susie have caused me over the years and how they have made my children and me feel like second-class citizens.
Rafi said that I was not allowed to tell my mother-in-law the truth and that if I felt I couldn’t have her this Shabbos, I should lie and tell her that I’ve been exposed to someone with COVID and it’s not safe! And this is where we are presently holding. I will not lie. Not for Rafi and not for anyone. I have so much pent-up anger that I feel I have to finally let it out and tell my mother-in-law how badly she has treated us all these years and how wrong it’s been.
Rafi and I are at an impasse. Despite how badly his mother has treated him as well, somehow Rafi doesn’t even seem to notice or care and he remains very protective and defensive of his mother. He knows his sister never liked him but isn’t insightful enough to see how Susie has used their mother to hurt him.
Should I lie to make Rafi happy? Should I ignore Rafi’s request and finally let my mother-in-law know how I feel about her, Susie, and her treatment of us? This is becoming a huge issue for us and I need some guidance.
Like your friends, I give you a tremendous amount of credit for hanging in there for so many years and continuously trying to engage your mother-in-law and create something out of nothing. You sound like a very determined individual who doesn’t give up easily or quickly. Most people would, after a few rejections, get the message and move on.
Being as determined as you are is a very powerful attribute than can often be quite helpful in life. When others have thrown in the towel, given up, walked away, whatever the subject matter, you are probably the last person standing, and I’m sure you can think of many instances during which it served you well. You are strong and committed.
However, when it comes to changing other people’s personalities, or intervening in other people’s relationships, it’s usually an uphill battle that ultimately fails. As you’ve seen for yourself, Susie and your mother-in-law seem to have forged some kind of enmeshed, perhaps co-dependent, relationship that sounds to me unreasonable and unhealthy. With so little information, one can only speculate as to why this strange relationship has evolved the way it has. As you mentioned, your mother-in-law’s husband died young, and possibly Susie stepped into his shoes in a way that left her mother feeling dependent and needy of her daughter’s approval, and, perhaps, on some level, it was a survival mechanism. In some ways, your mother-in-law may even be frightened of her daughter’s disapproval.
Why Susie dislikes Rafi is a mystery to me. Why she uses her mother as a pawn to punish Rafi and his family is also a mystery. It is probably true that your mother-in-law is fearful of not following Susie’s demands every step of the way, and as strange and unhealthy as that sounds, I don’t expect that dynamic will change anytime soon.
Regarding you and Rafi, there has to be a middle ground to meet where you both feel comfortable and heard. I don’t think Rafi has the right to ask you to lie, nor do I advocate lying in general. That’s no answer. I do understand your strong need to finally let it rip, telling your mother-in-law how she’s made you feel all these years and how angry you are at her. But, ultimately, what will you accomplish? Surely, you don’t really believe that by telling her your side of the story you will change anything in this triangle of her, Susie, and you? Yes, it will feel cathartic for the moment, which is a good thing. But I don’t think it will ultimately change anything and can only cause that much more separation within your family.
If you need to vent—and you definitely should get your pent-up feelings out there—find the right place to do it. It doesn’t sound as though Rafi is able to be the recipient of your feelings right now. His innate loyalty to his mother and inability to see her in a negative light is in direct conflict with your experiences. Therefore, take this conversation to a friend or two or to a therapist. Those are the places where you are sure to be heard and validated.
In the meantime, I should hope that you and Rafi can compromise, with you telling your mother-in-law that this Shabbos doesn’t work for you—no explanations needed. No lies, anger, or excuses. Hopefully, with time, your anger will resolve itself, you will finally accept the reality of Rafi’s family’s dysfunction, stop having unrealistic expectations from your mother-in-law and Susie, and ultimately feel comfortable enough agreeing to have her come by, knowing full well that she may cancel at any moment, in the blink of an eye.
This story was set in stone long before you entered the family. It’s not a great story, but it’s Rafi’s story, and you will be happiest if you can acknowledge it—without trying to edit it.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther is presently offering phone, Zoom, and FaceTime sessions. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295. Read more of Esther Mann’s articles at 5TJT.com.