Dear Annie: My mother-in-law always has to be the center of attention. She insists on buying expensive things and believes she’s always right even when you have proof that she isn’t. If you don’t agree with her, she gets nasty. My wife is the polar opposite -- she doesn’t care about material things and spends her free time volunteering at the soup kitchen.
The problem is, my wife is terrified of making her mom angry. The whole family walks on eggshells around Mom and meekly takes whatever garbage she shells out. I’ve watched this in silence for five years.
We moved 800 miles away, but yesterday, my wife called and made a joke about Mom turning 60. The next day, her sister called to say Mom was angry. Then she got similar calls from her brother and an aunt. Later, I got an e-mail from Mom telling me my wife was sick and needed to be placed in a mental hospital. She even e-mailed my wife’s best friend. When my wife called her mother to ask what this was all about, she got the standard, “You know what you did!” By the end of the call, my wife was in tears.
My father-in-law told me it was best not to upset Mom because she’s had two heart attacks and stress could kill her. Each of her three children is in therapy because of the damage she inflicted on them as children. When we have kids, I don’t want her near them.
I think it’s time for my wife to sever all ties. I’m sick of the way she is treated, but my wife feels too guilty to do it. Am I right to insist she drop the toxic Mama for her own sake?
Dear Philly: Mama may be toxic (she sounds like an abusive bully), but you should not be pressuring your wife to sever ties. That is up to her. And it could involve ties with the entire family, not just Mom. Your job is to be supportive of her decision, whatever it is, and to help her deal with the fallout. Your wife needs to find better ways to handle her mother, or learn how to live with an estrangement without letting it tear her to pieces. Since she is already in therapy, suggest she ask her counselor to work on this particular issue.