Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Mother's Love Turned Upside Down

My mother-in-law inevitably makes me cry. Though it was a blog post, a tribute to a mother lost to Alzheimer's, that just set me off, I realize that at least some of these tears belong to my mother-in-law.
Not in a sappy, gee-I'm-lucky-to-have-such-a-wonderful-mother-in-law way. But in a how-does-she-always-manage-to-find-my-Achillees-heel-and-stick-in-the-knife? kinda way.
I've spent my entire marriage trying to figure this woman out. For years, my husband defended her unkind gestures, her cutting remarks. She lived through the Depression, I was told. She lost her father as a child. She was an immigrant with a language barrier. And on and on and on.
And I, to a certain extent, bought it. I excused her and shouldered the blame myself. I was too sensitive, I've been told my entire life. And I believed it.
Thing is, I don't buy it anymore. I'm starting to see that the problem isn't MY sensitivity, it's everyone else's INsensitivity. Admittedly, my response to these people is my problem. But I refuse to believe that the answer is for me to become less sensitive.
Still, when I'm weeping in frustration because yet another family holiday passed during which my mother-in-law managed to find fault with me, the meal I cooked, my children, my home, my hair and my pets. I take bizarre comfort (and some amusement) in the fact that she also finds fault with her daughter, her daughter's family ("too many boys"), her son (my  husband) and her other son. Oh yeah, and her nephew. I'm sure you get the picture. The woman is a walking talking toxic dumping machine.
I looked at my husband after she left. We had been to a funeral last week for a friend's daughter who committed suicide, after suffering depression that simply wouldn't lift. "How," I asked him, "did [our friend's daughter] kill herself...and you didn't?" It was an honest question. I can barely manage 24 hours with his mother without wanting to kill (a) her or (b) myself (though I'm leaning toward (a)!)
I don't know how I would have survived her (s)mothering. While  my own mother was a raging alcoholic, she was – if you could understand her slurred words – a really nice person. A bit sloppy when drunk. A bit embarrassing. But I always knew I was loved, even if that love didn't exactly look like the type of homemade-brownies-and-hand-sewn-clothes love I would have preferred.
My husband, on the other hand, knew absolutely that love depended on performance. If he made her look good (good grades, nice friends, acceptable girlfriends, presence in church, decent haircut, etc. etc.), he was loved. If, however, he pursued interests, friends, girls, goals that did not meet with her approval, it was made abundantly clear that love would be rescinded.
The result? A man who became a master at hiding who he was. Who never learned how to experience love or trust love. Who used sex with strangers as a way to manage feelings of anger, resentment an anxiety.
Am I blaming her for my husband's infidelity? Of course not. He's a grown man who made choices.
I am, however, blaming her for laying the groundwork for a lifetime of unhealthy coping. For creating a childhood environment so toxic that love became currency. And for costing us a small fortune in therapy fees to undo much of her damage.
Oh yeah – and I'm blaming her for ruining my Easter weekend.


  1. Elle, I know you are finding new posts from me on these older columns because I am trying to wrap up some loose ends in my own relationship (and successfully I will add) and have found so so much strength and hope on your blog. More here than any other website and even books. I am so thankful that despite the lack of comments in many of your posts, you kept writing. I feel like I have found a treasure chest of hope every time I read something, often many many posts a day (it took me a long time to find your first post,, but it is COMPLETLY worth it) . my husband was raised in a family much like your husbands, this woman, his mother laid a foundation of fear, judgement, blame and worse. He had no safe place to ever turn. No wonder he never let me know who he really was even when I thought he was the most HONEST man I had ever known. I accepted his wild single days, hell I participated in his wild single days. When I got attached, I knew he did not want a relationship or marriage, He was having much too much fun! without and ultimatum or drama, I told him I had to let him go as we were, in the end, looking for different things long term. But when he told me that he wanted to give them all up for me, I believed him, and for 13 years he did not act out. But when he did? Whoa nelly..the lost year from hell. Like you, I don't blame his mother (or I try not to..I really try not to) but she taught him how to hide his secrets well, which is why I was FLOORED when I found his fake email/facebook/twitter accounts AND dating sites profiles, craigs list ads and worse. Did I know something was up? Yes, he was drinking and escalating, which he tried to hide, and that is what I thought brought on the distance. But no, leading a double life is very time consuming and he cut me right out of one of them while treating me as kindly as he ALWAYS had. He has issues, but being a jerk had never been one of them...or at least I thought.

    There are days I would LOVE to tell his mother, but why give her the satisfaction? Not in the fact that she raised a cheater, but now she would actually have another thing to berate him about, I'm sure she would find a way to blame me too. Thanks Elle.

    1. I was soooo tempted in those early days to tell her about her son, the sex addict. I could taste the satisfaction. But, like you, I realized that she would simply wound him further. She wouldn't take any responsibility for how she raised him with so much shame and guilt. And, you're right, she'd likely have found a way to blame me.
      Now, as she's growing much older and more frail, and my husband is feeling far more forgiving of her, I'm able to allow him that without having to insert my two cents. She's his mother. While I would wish for each of them to be able to have a candid, honest relationship, they never will.
      Thanks for your kind words re. this site. I get enormous pleasure from knowing that it helps. Infidelity is the most lonely, excruciating thing I ever went through. If this site can alleviate even a tiny bit of that, then my time/energy is well spent.


  2. I just found BWC and I need to express how grateful I am. I read this post even though I am not sure how much it relates to where I am (will have to let it soak in), but I wanted to let you know that reading the comments exchange between the two of you has somehow made me feel very safe this morning. Rare these days.
    I know my friends might hold me the same way if they knew where I am at. They don't really, and likely won't, so thank you both in 2014 from a woman in the future.

    1. Anonymous,
      I'm so glad you found us...and thank-you for such a kind note. I'm sorry that you needed to look for us. I don't know your story (I hope you'll share when you're ready) but I do hope you might consider confiding in one of your friends, if you believe she's capable of just holding your pain.
      Betrayal is agony and it can help to know that we have people witnessing it and loving us through it.



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