MIL is a passive aggressive victim. Is there hope?

iVillage Member
Registered: 10-23-2013
MIL is a passive aggressive victim. Is there hope?
Wed, 10-23-2013 - 5:32pm

So I’ve been with DH for over 15 years now. We met in college when we were both 18. In the beginning, MIL didn’t speak to me or really acknowledge me. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. I thought that was just the way she was. As the years went by and this continued, it became more obvious that it was me. She would speak in a language that I don’t understand in group settings when everyone else spoke English. There’s just a pattern of behavior where while she doesn’t say anything outright mean, but she might say things to be helpful or out of concern like “oh, why are you breaking out like that?” or “oh, are you pregnant because you look like you’ve gained weight?”

Generally, we try to interact in a cordial manner. It’s a bit stressful for both DH and I when she visits because we never know whether it’s going to be a good visit or a bad visit. It’s not that she’s horrible or crazy or anything like that. It’s just that she’s a bit of a passive aggressive person and acts “sad” when she’s unhappy with something. And this unhappiness can be triggered by anything. For example, if we’re deciding where to go to dinner, we’ll ask her and she’ll say she has no preference. DH will ask me and I’ll suggest a few places. If DH says “let’s go to X because I know you’ve [meaning me] been craving that”…well, that sets off the sulking and the whole visit goes down the drain.

She doesn’t have a great relationship with DH either. They were never very close as she sent him away to live with relatives when he was very little. However, because of the “lost” time, she feels that she's the victim and she wants him (and me) to make things up to her now. When we were in college she would want to speak on the phone multiple times a day (and when they didn’t, there would be crying about how she is lonely and is he mad at her etc.). It’s impossible to communicate that he needs space because she takes it personally. He has since been able to draw some boundaries with her but it's always something that she feels he's not doing enough of.

What prompted this  post is that recently we told her that we were pregnant (4 months) for the first time and we thought (or hoped) she would react with happiness. There was no smile, no hugs, just a sulky face and “why didn’t you tell me sooner” (i.e. disappointment with us again). I really thought this time would be different. I tried to (finally) have a frank discussion with her because I want her to understand my perspective and hopefully we can move on. I asked her why she treats me differently from anyone else and told her that I felt that she didn’t even like me. She actually said that it was because other people are warm and friendly and that I am “cold”. I was stunned by this response. I was also upset because instead of taking accountability I feel like she's justified her behavior (and really believed it). I told her that our lack of closeness has much less to do with my personality and much more to do with how she never spoke to me for many years. I said that I thought that set the “tone” for how our relationship progressed. It seemed that she was surprised by what I was saying - I don't know, is it possible she thought I didn't notice her passive aggressive behavior? In any event, I think what I said did sink in a little as she said the reason for her behavior was because she was going through a tough time in her marriage as well.

I'm feeling both worried and hopeful after this conversation. Worried because I’m not sure if I was too open with my feelings and hopeful because she seemed to take some accountability for her actions. DH says he doesn’t think anything will change (because he thinks she’s a miserable person and misery loves company).

It makes me sad that we are stuck in this rut where we can’t move forward. It's not necessary for us to all feel so unhappy when we're around each other and it only benefits our child to be loved by more people. Am I being naïve by thinking that everything is going to be better with her when we have a baby? Is it possible for us to get out of this…or is it basically set in stone that she will never really give me her blessing/acceptance? How can I fix this? Thoughts would be appreciated. Thanks...

iVillage Member
Registered: 10-23-2001

deleted, double post. 



iVillage Member
Registered: 10-23-2001

Congratulatins and hugs! Whta you say about your MIL sounds a lot like my mother in law, DH (then boyfriend) and I dated about six months before I even met the woman, she was very cold and distant. She barely acknowledged me too and only absorbed what the event meant for her. It makes me sad - even to this day - that my husband and his siblings were raised like this. We have three kids now and I remember getting pg with our first, thinking/hoping things would change too. They haven't and I can't bank anymore on hopes that she'll change if just for our children. My kids are older, 16 14 and 10 and they are taught and shown to respect all family and that includes her. My only wish is that you remain or find the happiness for you and your upcoming family. Don't drive yourself nuts wishing something on her she might never become or change into.

I regret wasting a lot of time and effort hoping and hoping that my MIL would change and be more like my mother when our child was born, My mother passed away when my oldest was seven weeks old and she was esriously that doting/loving kind of woman all children and grandchildren deserve.  I've now accepted that MIL will NEVER be like my mother and that comparison shouldn't have even been made in the first place. Again, Congrats to you and your DH.



Community Leader
Registered: 08-25-2006

J said:

(((((I regret wasting a lot of time and effort hoping and hoping that my MIL would change and be more like my mother when our child was born))))

I think she really nailed it.  Focus on your R with DH and new baby.  It sounds like you do have compassion for your MIL, so just remember that we are all sick in your own way. 

Now, having compasion doesn't mean you have to lay down and let her run the mood of her visits.  You asked where she wanted to eat, she said she didn't have a preference, so there you go.  Her sulking will only affect the visit if you let it.  I also wonder if there is a bit of a cultural difference playing into this.

So unfortunately, I don't think having a baby is going to change the character of your MIL, but YOU and YOUR DH changing how you react to her may change how the R looks between all of you.

Hope that makes sense.  Good luck and don't stress over this!!  Every family is different, and that is okay.

Serenity CL making a second marriage work

iVillage Member
Registered: 11-28-1999

Congrats on the baby.  I think you & your DH should focus on this joyful occasion & not let your MIL get to you.  Try to ignore her p/a behavior if you can.  For ex, if she doesn't say anything about the restaurnat and then just sulks, well she had her chance to chime in, so pretend you don't even notice the sulking.  You tried to be open about your feelings and hopefully she will listen.  If she continues to upset everyone, then she will only be hurting herself because she will probably spend less time w/ her granchild cause you won't want to visit her.

iVillage Member
Registered: 10-23-2013

Thank you all for taking the time to read my post and replying. I'm hearing that I should readjust my expections, no expectations means no disappointment, right? DH has said similar things. In a way, it feels like we are failing somehow or being disingenous (by ignoring or pacifying her) but I think I understand. DH also says that I keep pulling him in to a place of "guilt" when he's come to peace with how his relationship with his M is. Of course I don't want to make him feel guilty or burdened but I worry that when she passes, he'll regret not having tried harder. I come from a close knit family such that we are very much a part of each other's lives. There's really no such thing as "boundaries". The focus is on helping each other and especially, helping your parents. It's hard to describe, but much of it centers around guilt. So I know that if I were DH, I wouldn't be ok with a distant relationship with M. However, I guess I'm not him. I get that rationally...

Here's to starting our new chapter and letting go of the things we cannot control. And yes, we are Very very VERY excited for the new baby! :)

iVillage Member
Registered: 02-25-2013

Since you have to see her so often, would it be possible for you all to attend some family counseling sessions? This would send a signal to her that you are taking this problem very serioiusly, and maybe an impartial third party can make her see that her behavior is unhealthy. Sometimes the only way to change someone's behavior is to change your own. How about reacting to her passive/agressive comments in a way you never have before. When she speaks in another language, in a friendly voice, ask that she speak in English because you'd like to be involved in the conversation. React to her insults with humor. If she mentions your weight, tell her you like your new curves and that your husband especially loves them, and then walk away with a sexy wiggle. If she mentions a breakout, tell her you're trying to re-live your teenage years. Maybe if she knows she can't get to you, she'll let up on you. Keeping her off guard by your change-up of reactions may make her nervous, and she'll know that you're the one in charge, not her. If she's negative around the baby, I'd pick the baby up and leave her presence, telling her that you will not let the baby be around such negativity. Hope things improve for you. Good luck.

iVillage Member
Registered: 11-28-1999

If you've ever read those articles in Ladies Home Journal that say "Can this marriage be saved?" they always go back to the family of origin of the couples and see how that makes them act as adults.  What you have to realize is that your DH's family is not your family.  My family is very close and we are together because we all enjoy each other's company, not out of guilt or obligation.  My 2nd DH's parents died young and he had 4 siblings and I thought it was so odd that they hardly ever saw each other--like maybe a few times a year on holidays was fine.  It wasn't that they didnt' get along, that was just fine with them.  They didn't celebrate each other's birthdays, send cards or anything.  Or my 1st DH's family was large.  He had 5 siblings and then a lot of cousins.  He had uncles & aunts who lived very near us--yet we never saw them--and he liked them.  I see my aunts & uncles much more often so that would be very strange to me not to visit an aunt--ever--who lived a mile from my house.  You just can't make him conform  to the way you think things should be.  He said he's already come to terms with the fact that he & his mom have this odd relationship so why should he feel guilty?  I think no matter what he or you do, you are not going to make her into a nice normal mom, so it's like beating your head against a wall.

iVillage Member
Registered: 09-16-2002

Here are some tips for dealing with a passive-aggressive MIL that might be helpful in your situation:

Confront Them With 'I' Statements - Confronting a passive-aggressive person is often the best defense. One reason people become passive-aggressive is fear of confrontation. If there is a chance of being confronted, she will likely stop the behavior, or at least stop it with you. However, confront her only using 'I' statements such as, 'I felt upset when you made that comment about my weight,' or 'When you were late for the party, I thought you did not want to come.' This prevents her from feeling attacked and playing the victim. Using 'I' statements can open the door for communication with your passive-aggressive in-law because it is non-threatening.

Act As If - A passive-aggressive person will often sigh, sulk or look angry; yet when asked if something is wrong, he will usually respond that he is fine. This can send relatives into a tailspin of worry, fretting over whether there was some accidental offense or secret tragedy. Instead of agonizing, just take what is said at face value. If your relative says he feels great, then act as if he feels great. If he is not okay, he can seek you out and let you know. Until then, accept what he tells you as the truth. It is not your job to read his mind or analyze his body language.

Don't Take It Personally - Passive-aggressiveness is often the result of being punished as a child for expressing negative feelings, or it can be due to an extreme fear of confrontation and loss of control. As unpleasant as she makes life for those around her, the passive-aggressive is also suffering. Don't take her actions personally. She most likely is unaware of what she is doing, as it is such an ingrained pattern.

Model the Behavior You Want to See - When you are spending time with your passive-aggressive in-law, be mindful of your own actions. Act with him the way you want him to behave with you. This will help set a precedent for your future interactions.

Figure Out What The Reward Is - Everything people do, they do for some kind of reward. If a behavior fails to bring the return, it will eventually desist. The passive-aggressive person is usually seeking to be gifted with making you feel badly. Therefore, keep smiling as if you are blissfully unaware of any ill will.

Take the Ball Out of Your Court - One thing passive-aggressive people will not do is make decisions. Instead, a passive-aggressive in-law will try to manipulate you into making the decision he wants. This way, he bears no responsibility if things go wrong and he retains the option to complain about your choice. Force your in-law to make choices, such as where to eat or when to get together.

Keep Your Temper - If you lose your temper with a passive-aggressive person, she will fall into the role of the victim. Because of her indirect way of communicating, she will be able to deny any responsibility for your behavior, making you the bad guy.

Use Parenting Skills - When all else fails, use the same skills you use when dealing with children. Praise the behavior you want to see again, be consistent in never giving in to the passive-aggressive tactics and ignore any undesirable conduct.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

.  -Albert Einstein

iVillage Member
Registered: 05-19-2008

Yes,  you are being naive.  You want to fix her and clearly years and years has not helped her to improve the type of person she is.  She gets something from this behavior and your DH is correct - she will not change.   She knows what she's doing on some deep level - but, it is clear that she is jealous of you and your relationship with her son.  She is very spoiled and self centered.  Clearly a mom who sends her child to be cared for by someone else - doesn't even care more about her child than her own personal needs.  So when I say you are naive - what I mean is that there is no way that she's going to make an effort to change for you or for grand kids - not if she could even make the effort for her own son.  

He understands that and I think you have to also.  Wanting to have a grandparent in the life of your child is a great thing.  But, you have to be willing to except that it may not happen.  Or, the relationship will never be what you had dreamed and / or hoped.  Maybe the way you maintain the relationship is by having zero expectations of her.  Stop worrying about her sulking and not getting her way.  Honestly, if you go there and take her to dinner - enjoy yourself.  If she's miserable then she's miserable.  Do not allow her to bring you down or stop you from having a great time with your spouse and later with your children.  

I find that if you really try to ignore a so called temper tantrum, it is very easy to do.  Your mil has always gotten the desired attention by behaving this way so I promise you that she'll not ever change quickly if she changes at all.  What will help her is to stop catering to her completely.  Invite her over - she comes, she doesn't oh well.  Take her to dinner, she sulks - she doesn't who cares.  Buy her a gift - she likes it, she doesn't - who cares.  You are at a gathering and she is there - she talks to you - she doesn't - oh well her loss.

Really, that is the key to dealing with people like this.  Accept that she is who she is and will never change and then you must change to be happy in spite of her ways.

iVillage Member
Registered: 10-23-2001
Totally great tips itchick. Save.