Dealing with a mother-in-law who encourages secret-keeping
Sunday, February 11, 2018
Q My in-laws live out of state, and visit about once every six to eight weeks for long weekends.
Before their most recent visit, my mother-in-law asked my husband to buy weed gummies for his sister, who is dealing with a chronic illness, because it is legal here. She plans to carry them with her on the plane back to their home state.
My mother-in-law, when asking my husband to do this, said he didn’t have to tell me if he didn’t want to. My husband responded saying of course he was going to tell me.
I find her suggestion that her son lie to his wife offensive and divisive. She has always been manipulative, and it has always put a strain on our relationship. I often get upset with things she says. Unlike in years past, I have recently taken the approach of letting her comments roll off my back because I don’t think she’s worth the worry. However, I feel like this is an attack on my marriage and my family. We don’t keep secrets and I don’t want her to encourage our young children to keep secrets.
Am I overreacting because of our history, or is this worth addressing? — Colorado
A It was an attack on your marriage that your husband cleanly and swiftly put to a stop. Yay!
His simple rebuff was not merely a one-skirmish victory. It told your mother-in-law with two words — “of course” — that she’s the outlier in encouraging secrets, and it told both you and your mother-in-law that he has your back (not hers). Those both carry forward.
It also says your husband is still being transparent with you about his conversations with his mom, which is arguably the most significant point. Nothing says more clearly that you are your husband’s priority.
Such transparency also is the biggest thing you stand to lose by reacting, again, to your mother-in-law.
At present, your husband feels he can share with you what he talks about with his mom. If you continue to behave as you did “in years past,” getting upset and feeding and feeling the strain, then at some point he might decide it’s easier just to keep this or that exchange to himself — not the right thing to do, but a common one, and much worse for your marriage than Gummygate.
Deep breaths. Deep rolling off back. Your openness with your husband is the source of encouragement your children will witness the most.
Q My mother-in-law has many, many wonderful traits, but also a tendency to keep secrets while letting you know there is a secret being kept. For example, an aunt is struggling with her relationship to her teenage kid. My mother-in-law says, “Well, I can’t tell you about it, but Teen did something really bad.” The implication is that the listener should take her word on this and come to the same opinion she has.
Without the information, my input is likely to be more, “That sounds hard for all involved.” For one thing, I often doubt her interpretations of events and I am skeptical of her sense of scale, which might be a separate issue — she discusses one cousin’s drug addiction as if it’s identical to another’s sneaking out to meet friends for a movie — but I also am not sure how to deal with information I don’t actually have!
I think having these secrets makes her feel powerful, and I don’t think I’m entitled to know everything, but then when she and the family discuss things and expect me to have an opinion, I’m at a loss. Any ideas? — In-Law
A It can be awkward when people discuss things around you that you only partly understand.
In this case it’s also ironic. Your mother-in-law’s attempts to exercise power — I agree that’s what she’s doing — are exactly what render her silly and inconsequential.
Fortunately for you, her using secrets as leverage is so transparent that she can only do so much damage beyond the awkwardness.
I offer this more as reassurance than advice because you’ve got this figured out already. “That sounds hard for all involved” is the perfect response; it’s empathetic, yet it feeds her not a crumb of interest in learning the secret. Plus, you remain mindful, it seems, of her “many, many wonderful traits.”
That combination of kindness and calm denies her the power she seeks. A secret that you express zero interest in knowing has exactly zero value.
Emotional power-players are more dangerous when they’re covert, and working to persuade you of one thing while they actively work toward another — yet they too can be foiled by empathy and restraint.
As for the awkwardness of “deal[ing] with information I don’t actually have” and people who “expect me to have an opinion,” you need only to close the circle of impermeability. “I don’t know enough about this to have an opinion, but it does sound hard for all involved.” Think of it as drawing a merciful blank.
Email Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.
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