My mother-in-law is hypercritical of my husband in front of us both. My husband is understandably upset by this and I have to admit it’s starting to get to me as well. Is it in my place to say something? Or does it need to come from him?
Being unfairly criticized by anyone (a boss, a partner, a friend) is upsetting no matter what the circumstances. Throw into the mix being an adult child who is being criticized in front of his partner, and you have a situation that will, not surprisingly, trigger a range of negative emotions, including embarrassment, shame, sadness and anger.
In-law relationships can be one of the most sensitive relationships to navigate around. No matter how close you are with your in-laws, the reality is most people need to approach potential difficulties with their partner’s family even more gently than they would with their own.
Recognizing that your mother-in-law is being hypercritical is an important first step. If you haven’t already done so, let your husband know you are aware that her behaviour is unfair and inappropriate, and that it upsets you. You may want to tell him that you can understand how uncomfortable it may make him feel, and reassure him that your opinion of him is not affected in any way by what she says.
Encourage and support your husband to talk directly to his mother. You may want to try to understand what gets in the way of him expressing to her how hurtful her behaviour is. Is he worried he may hurt her feelings? Has he just tolerated her behaviour most of his life? Is he not sure what exactly to say to her? You could help your husband brainstorm ways to address his mother’s behaviour toward him (ideally without you present, as this may make it more likely that she is responsive to his feedback).
If your husband finds it difficult (or ineffective) to talk to his mother, you may want to (only with your husband’s permission) have a one-on-one conversation with her, explaining to her how upsetting her behaviour is to him.
Finally, if despite both of your best efforts her behaviour isn’t changing (which it may not) you could try to minimize her comments. When she starts to criticize your husband, try changing the topic (you may try this gently, or be more blatant about it if her criticisms are highly inappropriate). Or, counterbalance what she is saying with positive things about your husband – so if she is criticizing his parenting behaviour, you could give examples of how he is a wonderful father.
Dr. John Gottman’s The Relationship Cure is an excellent book that provides useful strategies to repair and strengthen a range of relationships in our lives. The book helps us understand the unhelpful patterns that we can get into in our important relationships, and provides useful strategies for approaching our key relationships in helpful ways.