The Loyalty Dilema: Caught Between the Wife and the Mother

Dear male readers (all seven of you.  Hint hint, please tag your husband and share this article.),

Let’s talk about a little dilemma that I too-often hear about in couples therapy:  Your wife is pissed because you won’t tell your overbearing/judgmental mother to lay-off, and your mother uses her own powerful persuasion techniques (withholding approval? a silent stare of judgment?  A knowing eye-brow lift?) to coerce you into submission.  You are a man-sandwich, and you need to decide which of the two women in your life is the bread, and which is the crust.

Between the wife and the mother: The most undelicious of sandwiches.

A man caught between a wife and a mother: The most undelicious of sandwiches.

Here’s what you already know. 

1) If your mom hasn’t cut the cord, it’s time for you to do it.  Someone needs to set a boundary with your mother, and that person is you (not your wife).  A boundary (or a limit) is a very SPECIFIC request, followed by a very SPECIFIC consequence if this request is not respected.

There are ways to set limits respectfully:

“I appreciate that you are trying to help, but I feel controlled and judged when you keep telling me what my baby’s nap schedule should be.  Please accept that this is my way of doing things, or I will have to limit our times together to lunches outside of the house.”

“I know you really are trying to be protective of me, and it’s hard for you to see that I have so much loyalty and love for Sara now, but I need you to refrain from making any negative comments about my wife.  If it continues, I will need to protect her by limiting our interactions to short weekly phone calls.”

“Hey, it’s great that you want to visit, but we really need you to ask permission before you drop by, and respect our privacy if we say it isn’t a good time.  If you can’t do that, then next time you drop by when we’re busy, we aren’t going to open the door.”

2) You tend to be a more passive/avoidant/people-pleaser type of guy, so this is hard for you. (People who are not passive/avoidant/people-pleaser types don’t find themselves in this situation, because they tell their mothers to pound sand from the moment she attempts to pick out floral arrangements for their wedding.)

You may have already reflected on this topic enough to realize that you adopted an avoidant/passive relationship style as a coping strategy to avoid the wrath (or quiet disapproval) of a certain type of mother. But, and I cannot stress this enough, your mother no longer has any “real” power in your life, and your mother-pleasing survival strategy is no longer necessary.

Of course, I must acknowledge that there are definite benefits to being the guy that errs on the side of non-confrontation (maybe the fact that you refrain from setting ablaze quietly put up with your wife’s mountain of useless throw-pillows is part of the reason that your more-type-A wife fell in love with you.) However, every once in a while, during times when your wife needs your protection, you will have to be confrontational, and drop the outdated survival strategy of laying low and aquiescing.  This is one of those times.

3) It won’t feel good.  In order to be confrontational, you will likely need to tolerate on onslaught of potential disapproval, anger, and guilt-trips from your mother.  Take a look at this article for more information about parents who have not gotten the memo that their children are adults whose perspectives and needs should be respected.

Here’s what you don’t know:

1) How much this kills your wife.  If you search the far, far corners of your mind, after you remove the cobwebs and the dust, you may discover that, truly, you don’t really  know what your wife is so bent out of shape about.  If your mother set your house on fire or something, you might understand your wife’s sentiment.  But the too-many phone calls and rude comments and pushy parenting advice don’t quite strike you, if you’re honest with yourself, as “worth” angering your mother.  This is, in part, because you are legitimately a more passive person than your wife.  And that works out fine is almost any context. (Any context that does not call on your abilities to protect your wife.) When they operate with empathy, type-A people and a type B/C people often complement each other’s mindsets quite well.

Your disconnect from your wife’s perspective may also be a survival technique. You may fear rejection from what has been, as a child, your actual source of survival (Read:  Your MOTHER).  You may have grown up, knowing not to anger mother, or she would emotionally cut you off and reject you, so you have learned to abandon all reason and alternative perspectives in favor of walking on eggshells to please mom.

Your empathy disconnect may also be in-part because your wife assumes you should automatically understand and doesn’t explain herself, and/or you have not called sufficiently on your own powers of empathy.

Let me tell you a little bit about how your wife feels (and then ask her yourself, and remember to empathize, or put yourself in her shoes, as she talks.):  I am willing to bet this has a medium-amount to do with your mother’s behavior, and a whole whole bunch to do with your casual reaction to it.  I am quite certain your wife could tolerate a stranger on the street making a passive-aggressive statement about her cooking and trying to squeeze herself into family plans.  Sure, she would feel weirdly controlled and undermined, but she would probably roll her eyes and move on from the aforementioned crazy stranger.

However, because it is your mother doing the pushy/controlling/judgmental behavior, she needs to know that YOU are in HER corner.  Your non-action, no doubt, triggers your wife’s feelings of being misunderstood, invalidated, not protected, insecurity about her marriage, betrayal, not being considered, being overlooked, and many other emotions.  And, if your wife is already especially sensitive to any of these emotions (due to family-of-origin or dynamics from your relationship?), your non-action is especially raw for her.

2) You will lose your marriage if you don’t take this seriously and set the limit.  Or, if your wife remains married to you, the resentment your wife has for you will bubble-up and explode at random moments throughout the rest. of. your. life.  Oh, and also, your wife will, in the far corners of her mind, after she’s brushed away the cobwebs and dust, eventually begin to view you as weak and ineffective.  Sorry, even if you have the sweetest, most understanding wife on the planet, nothing will prevent this process from occurring.  Don’t emasculate yourself in your wife’s eyes by failing to rise to the important occasion of protecting your wife.

3) You CAN tolerate your mother’s dissatisfaction/disapproval.  You can.  You might even feel more empowered, capable, and generally confident for having tolerated the disapproving, angry, and guilting storm.

4) You aren’t doing anything wrong.  You may feel an obligation to care-for or walk-on-eggshells to accommodate your mother’s feelings.  She may have a pattern of snide, condescending comments or passive-aggressive statements of disapproval (silent treatment, facial expressions, failing to attend events that are important to you, “punishing” behaviors, etc.) But guess what?  That dynamic is unfair to you and completely inappropriate for a parent to instill in a child.  If you are respectful and civil as you issue your limits, you are not doing anything that would incur psychological punishment from a reasonable person.  If your mother has an extremely difficult time with hearing constructive feedback in relationships and honoring others’ perspectives, she may even have some elements of a personality disorder (Google: “narcissistic mother” and “Borderline mother”).

Okay, men who are caught in nature’s absolute worst kind of sandwich, I hope that gives you some things to consider. Best of luck as you do what you need to do for the sake of your marriage and your family.

Angelica Shiels Psy.D.

Check out On the Yellow Couch on Facebook for more information on kids, couples, and psychology.

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2 thoughts on “The Loyalty Dilema: Caught Between the Wife and the Mother

  1. I think this is wholly unfair on men. The article feeds the perception that all mother’s in law are pushy and manipulative control freaks. I wonder how many of the same victims of this behaviour your write about become the protagonists in later life? The real issue here is why women feel they are in competition with their Mother-in-law for their husbands love, or attention. These are completely different types of relationships. The stress and pain felt by the person in the middle has been overlooked in this article. You are forcing men to make a choice they don’t have to make. Why not focus on the relationship between the two women in this triangle? Why not write and article about how both should behave towards each other? This issue has driven me to the point where some days I wish I just didn’t exist. My problem is real, and made worse by your assumption that if I don’t upset my own parents I am week and ineffective? It doesn’t feel like that, but I see what you are trying to do: tell a man he isn’t a real man, etc. I doubt anyone will find this comment, but I’m sure this sentiment is shared amongst many men, and who knows – perhaps amongst some women who are being asked to choose between upsetting their husbands and their own parents?

    • Thanks for reading. I wasn’t talking about the scenario in which the wife has anxious attachment, is manipulative, or is unreasonably smothering/possessive to the detriment of the husband’s relationships (with his mother and otherwise). I was writing about the scenario where the mother is overstepping (as evidenced by second paragraph), in which case I maintain my position. And even if this sad dynamic is also due to the wife “behaving badly” due to her own issues, her husband’s validation and empathy is a powerfully necessary component to the wife’s changing. I know it sucks. But I do think I am pretty even-handed in telling everyone (parents, spouses, makes, females, etc.) to validate and empathize even if your gut is that the other person is acting unreasonably. I write about this a lot and would not only suggest this to the husband but -obviously- the wife and mother in law as well. I didn’t overlook the pain, but I’m not going to omit it just because it is painful. Again, thanks for reading.

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