(Question has been modified for space and clarity.)
My in-laws hate me. Family and friends are constantly telling me what they’re saying about me — and they say some awful (and untrue) things.
My mother-in-law will be polite to my face, and my father-in-law usually ignores me — unless I say something he doesn’t agree with. Then he barks at me like I’m an idiot. He also called me a fat c**t (I’m not overweight) at a party and has told people I’m going to divorce my husband just to collect child support. That’s how bad it gets.
They frequently make comments about what they think is wrong with our house, how we spend our money and how we raise our kids. It’s frustrating. I try not to let it bother me, but it does.
I deal with them for my husband’s sake, and I usually only go to their house to drop our children off once or twice a week. I would never use the kids against them.
If I confronted them, I’m pretty sure they will deny what they’ve said. But even if they were to stop acting this way, how do I move past all this knowing how they feel?
— Farmergirl; Cornell, MI
The in-law relationship can be one of the most challenging relationships there is.
Even in the best situations, it’s still an arranged marriage. And when the two sides fall out of favor, it forces everyone to coexist within a bubble of discomfort and discontent.
You know this as well as anyone. In the face of outright nastiness, you’ve sat quietly, keeping the peace, all in the name of family.
But while your approach is commendable, it’s likely unsustainable. You can’t put up with this forever. And why would you want to?
If you’re not careful, you could end up losing yourself, and in a worst-case scenario, your marriage, because of it.
To prevent that from happening, below are five steps you can take to improve the status quo.
Though it has a reputation of passive politeness, taking the high road doesn’t have to mean stifling your voice and swallowing this abuse…
1. Look in the Mirror
Based on your description of them, your in-laws are not nice people. At least, they have a blind spot to basic decency when it comes to you.
Not only have they resorted to despicable name-calling, they have questioned your character as a wife and mother. It’d be hard for them to sink much lower.
That said, when faced with disharmony, you first have to look at yourself. Don’t point fingers until you’ve pointed your thumb.
Are you responsible for any of the disdain your in-laws feel? Have you said certain things or behaved in certain ways that have instigated this ill will? Are there changes you can make to improve the relationship?
Solutions start with self-reflection.
We know your side of the story. But if someone were to ask your in-laws, what would theirs be?
2. Silence the Outsiders
I’m split on the “I thought you should know…” crowd.
These are the people who, upon hearing gossip, run to the object/victim of that gossip to inform them of the slander. They justify their actions by prefacing, “I thought you should know…”
On one hand, their hearts are in the right place. Someone close to them is being maligned/belittled/disparaged, and they want to protect them.
On the other, their motivation isn’t always altruistic. Sometimes it’s Schadenfreude. Sometimes they want to tattle, or they’re looking to feel better about themselves, or they’re craving the ego boost of knowing something someone else doesn’t.
I can’t speak to where your friends and family fall on this spectrum. But at this point, they’ve served their purpose. You know your in-laws dislike you, and you don’t need to be reminded. Each new report is nothing more than piling on.
Thank these informants for their service, but notify them their briefings are no longer needed. It’s time to find out how blissful ignorance can be.
3. Lower Your Expectations
Bear with me while I seemingly veer off topic…
I am a huge Texas Longhorns football fan.
In 2008, UT went 12–1, placed second in their conference and finished №3 in the rankings.
In 2009, they went 13–1, won their conference, played for the national title and finished №2 in the polls.
As a fan, the 2008 team was infinitely more enjoyable to follow, despite the fact that they won fewer games and championships and ended the season with a lower ranking.
Not much was expected of the 2008 team. But they got on a roll and reached the top of the rankings before a late-season, last-second loss to Texas Tech. (I can’t hyperlink it…it’s still too painful.)
Conversely, much was expected of the 2009 team. Despite winning their first 13 games, they seldom performed up to expectations, making the season feel like a disappointment, even when they won.
Expectations drive everything. They shape how we feel. They define what is good and bad, and they determine if we’re satisfied or saddened.
When it comes to your in-laws, lowering your expectations is a way to protect yourself, to maintain an even keel. You’ll no longer have to worry about what they say or do, because you’ll already be braced for it. Nothing will catch you off guard, which will make the disrespect easier to tolerate.
If you go into every encounter expecting the worst, you can do no worse than getting exactly what you expected.
4. Talk to Your Husband
You mentioned you’re not ruffling feathers for your husband’s sake. But what is he doing for you?
My mother always taught me that once I got married, my wife needed to be the most important person in my life. Even more important than she and my dad.
I’m not into ranking those I care about. And I’m not saying your husband has to always side with you over his parents.
What I am saying is he shouldn’t be sitting this one out. He needs to be your advocate. He needs to stand up for you and do whatever he can to make things better for you.
His parents might not be willing to change anything for you (more on this in a minute), but they might be willing to do it for him. And he owes it to you to find out.
5. Stand Up for Yourself
While your husband can serve as an intermediary, the issues here are between you and your mother- and father-in-law — meaning it’s the three of you who have to solve them.
And you’re right…odds are slim that a confrontation will result in a 180-degree behavioral shift. Maybe they’ll surprise you, but they might be too far gone.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t stand up for yourself.
You asked how you could coexist with your in-laws now that you know how they feel about you? This is how.
For the duration of your marriage, you’ve been shut up and beaten down, and made to feel unwelcome in your own family.
But if you can find the courage to confront your in-laws, you can reclaim your standing — and your self-respect.
Be kind, and be gracious. But make it clear how you feel, how you’ve been hurt and how you’d like to change things going forward.
This is your chance to put the past in the past, so you can enjoy a more hospitable present and future.