Do You Have Mother-in Law Problems?

The secret to how I resolved one of my life's biggest conflicts.

Posted Mar 27, 2018

I got a big surprise when I got married.

What I hadn’t quite realized, was that, by adding a wife, I was also adding a mother-in-law. It was pretty obvious afterwards, but somehow, I hadn’t quite thought my way through to it beforehand.

But there it was. Now I had a mother-in-law. And her name was Ethel.

Popular folktales and anecdotes are filled with stories about mothers-in-law. And their role is

free-no attribution
Source: free-no attribution

almost always the same. They are the villains that complicate everyone else’s life:

They meddle, they take sides, they complain, they cause arguments, they constantly compare the new spouse to the wonderful, glamorous, successful person their child could have married. And in countless other ways, mothers-in-law just cause trouble.

Luckily, my mother-in-law Ethel didn’t do any of those things.      

In fact, she was truly a wonderful mother-in-law! She was very encouraging and supportive, and very affirming in my relationship with Sally. She was really great to me.

But there was a problem…

She talked constantly.

At first it didn’t bother me. In fact, at the very beginning, I didn’t even notice it. But then, before long, that’s all I noticed. And it drove me crazy! Ethel talked constantly, and it always seemed to be about nothing.

I talked to Sally about it and she totally understood and sympathized with my situation. But she had grown up with Ethel’s constant talking and had developed strategies for tuning Ethel out when she needed to. So, she acknowledged that Ethel talked constantly, but it didn’t bother her. 

It did bother me though. It was driving me nuts!

I was in a real bind in the situation. First of all, Ethel was older at that point and had had this speech style for decades, and almost certainly couldn’t change. She had been this way all of Sally’s life!

Secondly, there was no way I could mention the subject to Ethel that wouldn’t be very hurtful to her. I knew that, and so I was stuck. I was going nuts and there wasn’t anything I could do about it.

And it was starting to be a problem in my marriage. Sally was very close to her parents and wanted to spend time with them periodically. Especially for holiday get-togethers. But I became more and more resistant. So, the whole situation was making me very angry and frustrated.

At one point, in desperation, I made sort of an informal study of the mechanics of conversation.  How does it work? What happens when it doesn’t work? What are the underlying principles that guide communication? I was trying to look under the hood of verbal communication. And I discovered something very interesting.

I discovered that almost all conversation is point oriented. Here’s what I mean by that: when people communicate or exchange comments, they are almost always moving toward making some kind of point. It may be a trivial point, like whether it’s going to rain tomorrow. Or whether the Dodgers are going to win their next game. But it’s some kind of point. And then when that point is made, they move on to the next point. Much of conversation is point oriented. I never realized that before.

But when I looked at Ethel’s communication pattern, I realized something very interesting: she never actually came to a point! She’d get close, and she’d make it look like she was about to make a point, but then, just before she did, she’d dart off in some other direction. Ethel never made a point!

That explained why I was getting so angry and frustrated. We live in a culture where the unconscious expectation is that conversations will move along from making one point to another point. So that’s why I was getting so upset with Ethel. I had unconscious expectations that she would make a point. But she never did.

So now I understood why I was getting so angry and irritated with Ethel. But my huge problem was that I didn’t know what to do about it.

Time passed in a dark cloud of frustration.

Then I saw a movie.

It was a British movie titled, “The Wrong Box,” with Michael Caine. It was a very funny comedy, in the great tradition of British comedies that stretches back to the fifties. Like those wonderful comedies starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. I loved it!

A pivotal character in the movie was an old man played by Ralph Richardson. This character wandered through pretty much every scene of the movie, oblivious to the real events going on around him, and talking constantly (about nothing). He was incredibly funny. I loved this character!

Then I realized something with a sudden start: He was doing all the same things that Ethel does!  They were really the same kind of character!

And then I thought: If Ethel were in the movie, I’d think she was the neatest person in the world.  Wow, how lucky can you get? My mother-in-law is a great comic character in a very funny movie!

And then I thought:“Okay, then she is!”

She is that funny character in the movie!

From that moment on, everything changed.

Once I made that shift and imagined Ethel in the movie, I saw her in a completely different light. I saw her now, not as my maddening mother-in-law who was driving me nuts, but as a delightfully funny character in a wonderfully funny movie. Now I was free to enjoy Ethel, and I did.

Ethel lived another twenty years after that, and she and I were great pals the whole time. People would sometimes say to me, “You know, Ethel sure does talk a lot. Doesn’t she ever bother you?”

And I would say, “Oh goodness no. Ethel and I are great friends.”

And, of course, at that point we were!

I have thought about this episode many times since then and realize that it is an example of a powerful and profound truth. That truth is that we have a very limited ability to change other people, but we have a vastly greater ability to change ourselves.

This is very counterintuitive. We always want to change that other person, because it’s what they’re doing that’s driving us nuts. But that’s not the way it works. We almost certainly can’t get them to change, but we can change ourselves if we’re willing to. All we need to do is find some angle, like the movie, to make it work.

I have shared this story and this principle with many of my mediation and counseling clients, and they have experienced great success with it.

So my mother-in-law story had a very happy ending. I couldn’t change her, and I didn’t even try.  But I could change myself.

And that made all the difference.

© 2018 David Evans