Carolyn Hax: Stepmother-in-law is rude — when no one else can see it

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: My stepmother-in-law is very rude to me, but only when she’s alone with me. For example, when my husband and children were in the other room and I was with her and the rest of her family, she told a story about how stupid my mom was for not knowing what a Caprese salad was, while everybody else laughed. My partner doesn’t seem to think she’s being rude, just clueless. She has also told me they’re never going to visit us, because I have my parents. I’m sad my kids can’t have a relationship with their grandfather because she interferes so much.

I can’t stomach even seeing them anymore, and it’s causing a big rift in the family. She’s making me feel as if I’m crazy, because she only says things to me when my partner is out of sight. I don’t know what to do or think anymore, so I completely avoid them.

There’s a lot more to it than this, obviously. Please help. I don’t want to give this horrible woman any more power than she already has over me.

Feeling Crazy: She sounds like a gaslighter. Two steps for dealing with those, besides healthy avoidance:

1. Stand up for yourself. She’s doing this to overpower you, and you’re not “crazy.”

Let’s say she meant to tell a perfectly harmless story. Even then — since when are you not entitled to your own opinion about it? “If I hear you correctly, you’re laughing at my mom behind her back and in front of me.” Or however you’d describe it. Paraphrase, then wait. Let her either admit it or explain herself otherwise. This tells her she’s not getting away with her [stuff].

2. Ask “your” people to stand up for you. Your husband’s, “Oh, she’s just clueless,” doesn’t fly. Please tell him this. Calmly explain that you tried to look at it his way, in hopes he was correct, and came to your own conclusion that his stepmother is not only being rude, but also choosing her moments to be rude for the purpose of escaping others’ detection.

And if he reiterates his disagreement, then spell out to him that he is choosing to invalidate the judgment and perceptions of the person he married and lives with, and perhaps he’d like to take a moment to weigh further what you have witnessed directly — out of his presence. And whether he really means to say that what you have witnessed directly out of his presence didn’t actually happen.

I’m sorry he didn’t back you up right away, for all these reasons.

When you and your husband work this out between you, then you can work on the problem of access to Grandpa.

  • How you know she’s rude and not clueless: She doesn’t do it in front of your spouse. Don’t ask how I know this.
  • Rather than waste your energy wondering, “Am I wrong about this?” try sitting with the statement, “I AM being gaslighted.” Give yourself the opportunity to trust your self-protective instincts. It’s a rush of power that can free you to say no more loudly and effectively than you ever thought you could.
  • If the husband won’t start believing her and stepping up, I would definitely advise couples counseling. If it were me, it would make me wonder what else my husband won’t believe me on in future.
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