Saturday 22 October 2016

Dear Mary: How do I survive Christmas with a mother-in-law who obviously doesn't like me?

Published 23/11/2015 | 02:30

Mother-in-law difficulty.
Mother-in-law difficulty.

Relationship counsellor and psychosexual therapist Mary O'Conor offers relationship advice in her weekly column.

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Question: We got married earlier this year and are going to spend our first Christmas together. We are going to spend Christmas with my husband's family and stay for almost a week and I'm already dreading it.

The problem is my mother-in-law. She has made it very obvious that she doesn't like me and would have much preferred him to marry his previous girlfriend, although she was the one to break it off. My mother-in-law barely acknowledged me after the wedding ceremony and never congratulated me. Then she arranged a family trip on the one week when she knew I wasn't available because I had given her my dates and as a result I couldn't go, although my husband did. In all honesty I was a bit relieved but it only put off facing up to her.

Now the problem is that she and my husband are very close and so I find it hard to ask him to back me up when she is nasty to me. He is aware of the problem and says that once I spend some more time with her we will get to like each other. Have you any suggestions for me to deal with her and not cause a row.

Mary replies: It is such a shame that so many people dread Christmas. It is supposed to be a time of joy and celebration where we get to spend quality time with our families, but instead it often becomes a source of stress and unhappiness. Every year in the counselling room the subject comes up well in advance of the holidays as people try to find solutions. What a pity that your first Christmas together is already making you anxious.

I appreciate that you feel in a delicate situation because of the closeness of your husband to his mother. However, the dynamic for him has changed as you are now his number one family and his mother is part of his family of origin. This is not to suggest that he does anything to disrupt his relationship with her, but you have to be sure that he backs you up if there are problems. For instance, regarding the family trip he should have reminded her that the week she chose was not possible for you as a couple because she already knew that you were not free. Instead he could be accused of colluding with her in squeezing you out of the trip.

Try to forget that you were not her number one choice and that she didn't congratulate you. There is nothing you can do about either of those things. Instead have a conversation with your husband in advance and ask that he try to see things from your point of view, and that you don't want to feel that it is you all alone against her. Emphasise that you are more than willing and indeed hopeful of getting on well with her, but if at any time he hears her saying something to you that he knows will upset you then he will have to intervene and let her see that he is on your side and that he is not allowing her to be mean to you. It is imperative that this happens so that your own relationship is not damaged.

A week is a long time for even close family to be together without a break, so make sure that you arrange to get out of the house frequently either just for a walk or to visit friends if you have any in the vicinity. A trip to the cinema is another good way of passing a few hours and coming back refreshed. You should also ensure that you offer to help with cooking or chores. Even clearing off the table after a meal is a help to the often hard-working hostess on whom the burden of entertaining seems to fall. You will then show your mother-in-law that you are doing your bit for family harmony and let's hope she follows your lead.

I'm in a rut, and leading a very lonely life

Question: I find myself in a complete rut and I just don't know how to get out of it. I'm a single female in my early thirties who spent most of my twenties focussing on my career. This involved living abroad at intervals for career advancement and having periods where work definitely did take over my life but I was happy to put the effort in to build my career. I did have a few relationships during this time but they didn't work out.

I'm now in a better place career-wise and starting to reap the rewards of my efforts and I finally have the time to consider a social life. However, I find myself in a situation where college friends and work friends and acquaintances have moved on to a different life stage and are in long-term relationships, engaged, married and having children. Suddenly, a lunchtime coffee is as much as they can spare of their time, rather than a social gathering on a Friday or Saturday night, which is now reserved for boyfriends or spouses. I just feel so alone and I end up dreading my weekends and lying to people about what I got up to as I don't want to admit that I sat in all weekend yet again by myself or went to the gym to get out of the house.

I live in a shared apartment but for some reason we do not socialise together despite my efforts to suggest this. It's just a very lonely existence and I don't know how to change it. To outsiders I come across as a very happy and sociable person, I'm in good shape and wouldn't be short of male attention. However, I am deeply unhappy about my situation and cannot really get out there and meet people as I've nobody I can call on to go out with. Some coupled friends that I have confided in have suggested that if I had a boyfriend of my own this wouldn't bother me, and I am online dating to rectify this. I always liked to have a big social circle and have generally been very independent when in relationships so I still crave the company of a group of girlfriends as well. However, the thought of meeting new people is so daunting and I don't even know how to go about it. I feel everyone is so preoccupied with their relationships that I am a burden, and I've given so much to my career that I almost forget what my interests and hobbies even are!

I would really value any advice as to how to change my situation as I am sure I am not the only 30-something that feels this way.

Mary replies: You certainly are not the only person in their 30s to be feeling as you do. Any time a letter such as yours is printed I get a lot of letters and emails from people who are in a similar situation. Well done on all that you have achieved in relation to your career. You certainly were single-minded in your pursuit of it and while it came at a certain price you should be happy with your success.

However, while you were doing this, your friends were getting on with their lives and moving on to the next phase which involves partners, husbands and children. And please try to see it like this - you will certainly not be a burden to your girlfriends but they are simply at a different stage in their lives.

You don't seem to have a problem in meeting guys to date - you are taking care of this with internet dating. But what you miss is having a circle of girlfriends with whom you can go out and do things. It will take time for you to build up a new circle and in the meantime you should continue to keep in touch with your old friends - an occasional phone call or email is all it will take - because there will be a stage when they will have more time to devote to friends as their lives progress, and old friends are worth nurturing.

But there is certainly room in your life for new friends and you can do this in a couple of ways. One is to resume your hobbies or sports and get to know some new people that way. Or perhaps this is the time to take up a new sport like golf - there are all sorts of wonderful offers available right now for new golfers to join an established club - or tennis, or salsa dancing, whatever it is that takes your fancy.

The other option is to join whatever group of Meetup that appeals to you. If you don't know about it, has branches all over Ireland and caters for all sorts of groups - theatre, pub, singles, music, films - the list goes on and on and there will surely be a group that will suit you. I have heard from quite a few people who have enjoyed these groups, where everybody is in the same boat, going along on their own to begin with in order to meet new people with interests in common.

I agree with you that weekends are the times when one especially feels quite alone as other people are involved with their families or loved ones, and it is often a nice feeling to get back to work on Monday. But I think you should be honest with people when they ask what you were doing for the weekend - there is no point in being economical with the truth - the very person you are speaking with may be the one who will think of you next time they are going someplace and feel that you might fit in perfectly. What I'm saying is that it is sometimes not a great idea to be seen as totally self-contained and capable - people respond more to even a little vulnerability than to superwoman.

You can contact Mary O’Conor anonymously by visiting or email her at or write c/o 27-32 Talbot Street, Dublin 1. All correspondence will be treated in confidence. Mary O’Conor regrets that she is unable to answer any questions privately.

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