Q: My mother-in-law really has my husband under her thumb. How can I get her to back off without hurting either of their feelings?
A: We often hear this in a counseling session, and often it's a situation where the husband is caring for her mother who has been widowed or divorced. The husband is trying to be there for his mother. So every time his wife complains, he feels threatened and angry because he's just trying to do what he feels is right. The problem is, sometimes his mother can be a bit overbearing. She may call at all hours and expect her son to come right over to take care of the tasks. She may expect him to do all the yard work – not taking into account that he has his own yard work to do. There are plenty of ways that the controlling nature of a parent can play out. Sometimes it is a wife who is controlled by her mother.
We offer a few suggestions for stopping a parent from controlling your marriage. There may be other siblings who can help – and there may not be. In any case, you and your spouse need to be mature enough to set some boundaries with the controlling parent, but it doesn't need to happen overnight. For example, it would not be wise for a husband to suddenly stop spending lots of time connecting with his mother. It's a process. If there are siblings, encourage your husband to start with the one or two siblings with whom he's close and they may be inclined to help and share the burden in an honoring way. Even if they live far away, there are ways they can help. One sibling can make a call to the teenager down the street to mow the mother’s lawn and can send a check once a month to pay for the work. Another sibling or relative can be sure to check in with the aging mother by phone or email every few days. That takes some of the emotional burden off your husband. He needs his siblings to understand that he is trying to take care of his marriage and his children – and that helping his mother so much is making his home life difficult. Discuss how other siblings can pick up some of the responsibility.
If your husband has no siblings, consider, with your husband's blessing and cooperation, contacting other relatives or his mother's neighbors for assistance, or asking people at her church to help. By taking steps like this, your husband can feel his mother is being taken care of, and he can concentrate on his responsibilities at home and at work.
You don't want to dishonor your husband when he’s seeking to honor his mother, so you need to make sure he understands that. Instead, you want him to be able to set healthy boundaries.
This post is an excerpt from our book, The Great Marriage Q&A Book.