My wife and my mother don't get along. Both of them complain to me about the other one. I'm caught in the middle. I try not to see them both together, but when I do, I am so tense I feel like I am balancing on a high wire. The thing is I want my kids to have a relationship with my parents, their grandparents, and I don't want the tension between my wife and my mother to take that away from them. What can I do?
Caught in the Middle
Dear Caught in the Middle,
What you are describing is a classic relationship triangle, and your position as "confidant" to two people who don't get along is not a healthy one for you or for them. For a start, you need to explain to both your mother and your wife that you love both of them, and it causes you great pain and heartache to hear complaints about the other one. While you don't expect them to become friends, what you require of them is a basic level of civility in their dealings with one another, and the ability to get along at family gatherings for the sake of you and the children.
However, once you have established this baseline, you need to realize that the mitzvah of Honoring your Parents does not require you to jeopardize your marriage. Jewish Law is sensitive to the realities of real life. In a situation where a mother-in-law is actually cruel or insulting to her daughter-in-law, the husband's priority is to protect his wife and their marital relationship, (see Ramah Yoreh Deah Chapter 240 Paragraph 25 from Maharik 167).
Your wife needs to be assured of your loyalty to her and the family you have created together. If your wife is ever insulted by your mother in front of you, you need to make it immediately clear to your mother, as respectfully as possible, that you cannot allow her to continue to treat your wife in this way. As a very last resort, if your mother continues to demean your wife, be prepared to leave, or to ask her to leave your home, in order to show her that you are serious. While this sounds extreme, once is usually sufficient to demonstrate your commitment to your wife.
While you are no longer prepared to hear a barrage of complaints from either of them, if your wife has something short and specific she needs to tell you, specifically something that can be modified to allow her to feel more comfortable at family gatherings, you should be prepared to listen. Perhaps a gathering in your own home is preferable to a gathering at their home. Or perhaps a restaurant, as neutral ground, is less pressure on her than having them over.
You may have noticed that while you defined the problem as being between your mother and your wife, you are the one who will be changing your own behavior in the suggestions above. This is the nature of triangles. When one member of the system begins to alter his position, the others are forced to modify their own positions as well. Until now, your willingness to "walk the high" wire was maintaining the status quo.
Good luck getting out of the middle. Your family will only be stronger for it. Don't get discouraged if you initially feel yourself slipping back into your old ways. Change always takes time and persistence.
More often then not, the fault lies on the wife. The mother may be scared about loosing her place in the family and may ''act out.'' The solution is to explain this to the wife and reassure son/husband commitment to both. If the wife is unreasonable, uninterested in attempts to get along with mother -- then it is the wife's commitment to son that is at question not the husband's commitment to wife!
Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
Las Vegas, Nevada