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My mother-in-law's backbiting has me in a bind

The question

Recently, my sister-in-law was expressing her regret about how unpleasant our mother-in-law is to me, and I said: "Oh, don't worry about it. She says mean things about everybody." So my sister-in-law asked me if I had ever heard my mother-in-law say negative things about her and her husband. I tried to pass it off lightly, saying things like, "it means nothing," "it's just part of her negative style," "she's possessive of her sons, you know that." It was clear that my sister-in-law felt deeply wounded. I'd like to apologize to her for my tactlessness, but I fear it will reopen the conversation about what my mother-in-law has said. In truth, I haven't heard her say one good thing about my sister-in-law in 10 years, but as I said, she's like that about everyone. Should I apologize? Should I leave it alone?

The answer

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First of all, I wouldn't beat yourself up too much about it.

It was inevitable that you and your sister-in-law would eventually have that conversation.

Anyone who knows someone full of relentless critical energy is bound to have the following conversation sooner or later, with a mutual friend or family member:

You: "Whew, that Critica sure is hard on people, isn't she? Ha-ha-ha, I wouldn't be surprised if she's even got a few choice things to say about me."

(Long pause.) Mutual friend/family member: "Uh, well, actually…"

And it's always such a shock, isn't it? I, for example, would love to believe that when I leave the room, people (the women, mainly: they're the ones I have yearned to impress since about the age of 14) turn to each other and say: "Dave's a hell of a guy, isn't he?"

"He's handsome, witty, stylish. His buttocks are sublime. I'm very attracted to him."

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"Me too. I curse the fact he's married."

"So do I."

But I'm under no such illusions. Time has brought me the following piece of wisdom, if no other: I'm so very far from perfect, I'm sure I provide an easy target for whatever verbal throwing-daggers and ninja-stars those around me choose to aim at my back.

But with an omni-negative über-critic like your mother-in-law, it's not even personal. It's a simple syllogism of the all-men-are-mortal-Socrates-is-a-man-therefore-Socrates-is-mortal variety: "She routinely rips everyone she knows a new one. You are someone she knows. Therefore, she routinely rips you a new one."

And that's all you need say to your sister-in-law. Intone the above syllogism to her, and urge her to ignore/tune out whatever nastiness your mother-in-law utters - as you do.

Don't go into the details. I certainly understand the burning urge to know what anyone might have to say about you - to "see ourselves as others see us." But, pace Robbie Burns, it's an unhealthy impulse. It's better just to be yourself, the best version of you that you can muster, and let the nattering masses chatter.

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At the risk of sounding psychoanalytical, though, I'll tell you what may really be gnawing at your conscience and tickling your guilty bone: Do you defend your sister-in-law when your mother-in-law criticizes her? If so, congratulations and keep it up. If not, maybe it's time to think about switching gears.

It's easy to chime in and agree when someone is criticizing someone else. But it's also not that hard to gently, but firmly, beg to differ.

Your mother-in-law: "I wouldn't feed that lasagna [insert your sister-in-law's name here]made to [insert your mother-in-law's dog's name here] She's hopeless in the kitchen."

You: "Actually, I liked it. I think her culinary skills are really coming along."

Not confrontational: just gentle yet firm. And do it every time. Eventually, like a dog that yaps and nips, your mother-in-law may become trained out of her potshot-taking ways.

It may also have the side benefit of brightening up her world view a bit. Personally, whenever I encounter someone radiating such intense critical energy my impulse, after the sting from their zingers wears off, is to feel compassion. Something didn't work out for that person, or they're working out something that happened to them a long time ago. (Though I do also want to say, "Hey, we're only human down here and doing our best!")

Within the context of gently but firmly bitch-slapping back all her nasty remarks, show her your compassion.

Maybe if you show her yours, she'll eventually show the world hers.

David Eddie is the author of Chump Change and Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad. Damage Control, the book, was released in March.


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