My wife is very critical of my family. She is especially mean to my mother--openly criticizing her to other people and behaving quite rudely when my parents come to visit. I am the first to admit that my family can be challenging but I am starting to feel like I need to do something before this comes between us.
Having a family. Most of the lucky ones among us have one. They have shaped us, for better or for worse, and we have them until death takes one of us.
There is no place for rudeness toward anyone you are related to. You have to talk together about what she's done you consider rude, and rudeness has to stop. Terrible modeling for the children.
Does she even know she is being rude? Are their cultural differences between you? Does she agree she's rude?
A cardinal rule of systems thinking is that this issue, your wife’s unhappiness with your family, is one for you to handle and soon.
If you haven’t already, sit down and talk to your wife about your wife’s issues, especially with your mother. If you are very familiar with those issues, what actions have you taken? What actions does she want you to take?
If you’ve ever privately agreed with your family about your wife’s flaws, don’t do that anymore.
Without knowing the nature of her issues, I’ll offer a few common ones:
“Your mother insults my (cooking, parenting, looks, dress, housecleaning skills, how I care for you etc.) and I want her to stop.” And she's retaliating by being rude.
Whether you think what your mother is saying is actually “that bad,” you need to talk to your mother alone and directly. You’ve left it to your wife to handle and you haven’t liked the results.
If you are just hoping to get your wife to stop complaining to anyone, it isn’t likely to happen. But you can ask her to direct her concerns to you, and then be the mediator with your mother. And you can ask her to stop insulting your mother to anyone who will listen.
A complaint and request for change isn’t the same as attacking and criticizing.
It is one thing to say: “Tom, it really hurt my feelings when your mother said the cake I baked was dry. Look, I was the only one to offer to bake her a cake for her birthday and she didn’t even thank me.”
That is different than: “Your mother is just horrible and ungrateful. I am going to tell her off the next time I see her.” You can tell her that insults (“horrible” and “ungrateful”) are displays of contempt and are hurtful to you, because you are from that family, and you love your mother. But if she wants particular behavior change from your mother, you will go to bat for her.
Then, sir, speak directly to your mother. Let her know that your wife went out of her way to bake that cake and felt criticized and unappreciated. She is sensitive about your mother’s bad opinions and could she be a bit more reserved about the “helpful tips” and more generous with the praise.
If you are in that situation, after that talk, talk up the cooking, and try to bring your mom into the praise. If she simply refuses, it is time to end the event early and later let your mom know why. Few mothers can’t learn to behave once they understand the stakes.
If you don’t want to do that because it would “put you in the middle” and you “don’t want to take sides,” you already have. And you’ve chosen the wrong one.
You’ve admitted that your family can be challenging. But you can, indeed ask them to put on their best behavior around your wife, or both of you will simply stay away. That is something no one, especially your mother, will want if there are children.
Get your wife to be specific about the changes she wants to see, and then go to bat for her. And help her to understand how important it is to you for her to feel comfortable around your parents. Go out of your way to see that she is.
Then she should respond by talking to you more gently about your family, and appreciate that all of us have personality flaws, and your family is no different. Nevertheless, you love them, and are hurt by true criticism toward them. Let her know that you are on her side to help them stop the behavior that upsets her.
Want your questions answered?
Send us your questions about relationships, sex, intimacy, and couples therapy. If selected, we will post your question (and Dr. K's response) without identifying information. Simply fill out this form to contact us.