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Save this Marriage

Caught in the Middle

Caught in the Middle

Conflict Between My Wife and My Mother


Dear Tzippora,

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.

Tzippora Price, M.Sc. is a marital and family therapist working in private practice in Ramat Beit Shemesh. She is also an acclaimed mental health journalist, and has been writing articles to increase community awareness of mental health issues for the past 14 years. She is the author of two parenting books, Mother In Progress, and Mother In Action, and a psycho-educational novel Into the Whirlwind. She can be contacted via email.
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Discussion (14)
June 26, 2014
Tell them to fight until one of them dies
Sometimes when anger can no longer be contained, even after numerous times of telling both of them about our feelings, the best way is to just leave it to them and ask them to fight until someone dies. If not, please think about the children who will grow up and learn from us.
January 10, 2014
Always stick with the Wife
Gentlemen, your mum has/had a partner. Your mum is/was number one for her husband. When you marry, you are a husband first and a son second.
Think about it: when you jeopardize your marriage by siding with your mum, your children suffer in a broken family! How is that natural?
Also, gentlemen, please realize that women are much more cunning and sly than men. They are covert in their aggression. Give your wife the benefit of the doubt when she stands up to your jealous mom.
If you desire a divorce, keep siding with your mum. Maybe she will share your bed with you when your wife is no longer in the picture.
March 10, 2013
Practical Experience
The author's advice is appreciated and wise but perhaps lacks the practical experience of someone who has lived through this. Especially as the closing lines point towards the husband/son sliding back to his own ways when usually it is insecurities of both mother and wife that create conflict and need to be addressed, the son needs to be educated but his behavior is not the fault.

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!
New York
November 7, 2012
In the same boat!
I feel your pain. I am in the same boat and have been for the past 7 years. I am in a relationship with an only son. His mother has been a thorn in my side since day 1. When I first started coming around, mind you he is 32 years old and lived with his parents until he was 32 years old, he just moved out, and that is sick in itself because I've been on my own for the past 10 years and I'm a 27 year old woman. Anyways, when I first started coming around, his mother was calling me by his ex girlfriends name. She did that twice and insisted it was a mistake. I knew, it wasn't. We've since had the cops involved here pretty recently and we both stooped pretty low and harassed eachother with phone calls and other stuff. This lady is 65 by the way. The age of my Grandmother. I believe it also all boils down to jealousy because I was hounding my boyfriend to sever the ties of being a Mama's boy, to becoming a real MAN. To this day, I still can't stand her....
November 2, 2012
hope the cycle stops
Really terrible dynamics. I hope I will not be a monster-in-law in time. I always here from my mother-in-law that she wants to be the best MIL. She claims she is trying hard to be one, and though she gave us a lot of good things, she controls most of our major decisions. She even said she knows how it feels to be controlled by an in-law because she experienced that before, but she keeps on forcing us to take up her plan. She thinks her plan is the best for us. We need to do this, we have to postpone that. She takes pride that she is not like other parents who just let go of their children and let them live their lives separately. But when there are heated discussions, she bawls at us and says that this is her house, and so on. My husband asks me to just finish up with the original timeplan and after that we can decide on our own. I'm just counting on that time. Though she may have a good plan for us, especially for his son, I also want to plan my own life, together with my husband.
June 28, 2012
My mother, on the other hand, played her role as a mother, very concern about my wife's health and all...but my wife is weird, she can be mean to her when she wanted to, she can be nasty to my mum. My mum is old, I promised myself to take care of her until the end but my wife's attitude to her is worrying me. I nearly spark an arguement but thinking about my children, I step back, My mum is innocent, because I know it. I think my wife is istill immature. I dont think she accepts I am doing the same to her mum what she does to my mum. I caught in the middle all the time. My wife doesnt seem to realise that she gets old one day and can be subjected to similar treatment..haha.
Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
November 26, 2010
controlling mothers
For some reason many mothers try to keep control over their sons. It is pretty sick. I try very hard not to interfere with my sons relationships. I respect the women that he chooses to spend time with. As long as I feel he is being treated well then I am happy. Isn't that what we all wish for our children. We bring them up then hope they choose a person who is nice to them and is willing to take care of them. Some mothers are so nasty to their daughters in law, it is all because they are jealous.
bedford, ma
October 14, 2010
Conflict Part 2
I have a similar situation, but it's closer to the one written by "conflict". My wife and mother have recently gotten into an argument, but I believe my wife is the wrong one in this scenario. When I tried addressing it with her, she accused me of not being a good partner, because I took my mother's side over hers. Except I believe my wife was wrong to have talked to my mother in this manner. I believe she not only disrespected my mother, but she disrespected me by talking to my family that way, and was therefore not being a good partner to me. Now my mother doesn't even want to come around anymore or see my wife because of the way she was talked to. How do you handle this?
Fayetteville, GA
March 2, 2010
My wife and mom have never gotten along very well. In truth, my wife doesn't get along with very many women at all. She takes everything personal. This does not mesh well at all with my mom who is very carefree and flipant. Lately, my mom has really been trying hard to make things good, but my wife is just "done". She won't even try. Last Sunday, my mom asked how she and our new daughter were doing and my wife wouldn't even look her in the eye and gave vague answers. I am so frustrated.
February 10, 2010
a pancake has two sides
Your story reads exactly the same as mine, with one major exception. My daughter-in-law does the very same things and treats me the same way your mother-in-law is described as behaving! So much is written and discussed about your situation, but very little if any is devoted to the "other side of the pancake!"
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Tzippora Price, M.Sc. is a marital and family therapist working in private practice in Ramat Beit Shemesh. She is also an acclaimed mental health journalist, and has been writing articles to increase community awareness of mental health issues for the past 14 years. She is the author of two parenting books, Mother In Progress, and Mother In Action, and a psycho-educational novel Into the Whirlwind. She can be contacted via email.
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