Adapted from a recent online discussion.
'Jokes' about her husband are mom's way of controlling her
Springfield, Mass.: My mom is constantly criticizing my husband for not being as helpful and warm as my brother-in-law, "John." John helps her out with repairs, remembered her birthday and brought homemade dessert to Christmas dinner. My husband "George" is, in my mom's words, "just a little sketchy." (Based on the fact that he is moderately shy and has a child from a previous relationship.) John and George are so different, it's like comparing apples and oranges. She's hurting my feelings, and making me feel more and more defensive of George and less connected to her. But how do you tell your mother to back off? Particularly when she's entitled to her opinion?
Carolyn: Wow. Do you have other indications that your mom is verbally or emotionally abusive? Two reasons: One, the behavior you're describing is shockingly rude. Even grownups on the obtuse end of the spectrum find a way to put a wan smile on their faces and say, "George is . . . quiet, isn't he?" Which is awful in its own right, but it's an I-recognize-boundaries awful. And, you're not responding as if your mother's "constant" criticism is a stunning neglect of boundaries. You're wondering if it's even okay to protest. So, I realize this is a broad and difficult question, but, what's the history here?
Springfield Again: I would certainly not describe my mom as abusive or even unusually critical. She has never been like this about me and my sister, for instance. She is kind of protective, though. She didn't like that I was dating someone with a child, which I think drove a wedge between her and George from the get-go. But mostly I think she doesn't know what the mother-in-law/son-in-law relationship is supposed to look like, so she's choosing the one she likes better as the model against which to measure this one.
I don't need her to adore my husband, just to be nice to him and not "accidentally" rub it in his face that she appreciates John so much more.
Oh, and I don't know that she's displayed a "stunning neglect of boundaries." She never calls George sketchy to his face. She does, however, make little jokes: "John's already fixed my door frame, George, so just let me know when you're ready to do the windows!"
Carolyn: I'm talking about her boundaries with you. The way she's denigrating your choice — arguably the biggest choice you've ever made, saying more about you than anything you've ever done — is flat-out unconscionable. Yet you are twisting yourself to rationalize for her.
Here's your approach: "Mom, do you realize what your constant criticism of George is saying to and about me? If you have something to say to me, say it now. Otherwise, I'll expect you to treat us both with respect." And if she doesn't, you no longer subject yourself, and especially not George, to her thinly veiled hostility.
Anonymous: For Springfield: You say your mom is protective. I knew a man like that once. He was so protective that he didn't want me to see my friends, have a job or go anywhere without him. Often, "protective" actually means "really, really controlling." Especially when the person being protected is an adult.
Carolyn: Ding ding ding. Thanks.