Print   |   Back
June 04, 2015
The Real Issue
Elderly Mother-in-Law Disses Dead Dad
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


My parents and my husband’s parents lived in the same ward for twenty years. My husband and I lived overseas, but when we visited we could feel tension between the two couples — especially between my father and my mother-in-law.

In public, they were painfully polite to each other, but they clearly harbored deep, negative feelings about each other. Still, they never told us why they disliked each other, or any details of the rift.

Now, my mother-in-law is the only one of our parents still living. She is over ninety years old, and she regularly makes snide, under-handed comments about my father. I have ignored these digs until now, but it makes me feel disloyal to my father.

I would appreciate some clarity on how to handle this touchy in-law situation. What do you suggest?


It is perfectly appropriate for you to ask your mother-in-law not to speak ill of your late father. There is no rule of etiquette that requires you to listen without comment to a person — even an old person — insult your family.

The next time your mother-in-law makes an inappropriate comment about your father or any other member of your family, you can say, calmly and firmly: “Nona, please don’t talk about my father that way.” If you like a little drama, you can add, “He was not perfect, but he was my father.”

She will probably murmur something conciliatory, which you should acknowledge with a nod before changing the subject. If a response is required, you can say simply, “Thank you for saying that.”

If, however, she snaps, “Well, if you knew the whole story you wouldn’t say that,” you should resist the urge to snap back. Instead, remain calm and say, “I don’t want to know what happened. He was my father, and I don’t appreciate those comments.”

Another approach would be for your husband to ask his mother to stop. In the moment he could say, simply, “Mom.” Or, “Mom, I don’t like you to talk that way about Karen’s dad. I know you didn’t get along — and I don’t want to know why — but he was always good to me.”

The fact that your mother-in-law is over ninety years old does not matter with respect to the problem of what to say: you could follow this script with a person of any age. Also, you would be calm and respectful no matter who you were talking to, young or old.

But her age might be an issue you consider in other ways. For example, it seems that your mother-in-law refrained from openly insulting your father for twenty years despite her obvious dislike of him; she has only let loose now.

This change in her behavior might lead you to wonder if her younger self would disapprove of her current actions, which might lead you to be less offended by her behavior than you would have been years ago.

You might also, because of her age, resolve to respond to repeated digs with more patience than you would muster for a younger person. But although her age might cause you to treat her with especial tolerance, I don’t think it should stop you from asking her not to say negative things about your late father.

Part of the above script includes a avowal that you do not want to know what happened between your parents and your in-laws.

But suppose that is not true. Suppose you have always wondered about the rift and are hoping to winkle it out of your mother-in-law — or are hoping that she will blurt it out. Let us consider whether this is a good idea. On balance, I’m not sure it is, for three reasons.

One, telling the story is likely to intensify your mother-in-law’s old hurts, not soothe them. Your mother-in-law has demonstrated a vivid dislike of your father, even now, after he has died. It is unlikely that telling you the story of their relationship will change her mind about him or make her feel better.

And it is unlikely that you will have a perspective or a piece of information that will change her mind after all these years.

Similarly, hearing the full story will not make you feel any better about the long-time tension between your parents and your in-laws. It seems more likely to spread the hurt feelings to you.

It is unreasonable for you to expect a story that fully vindicates your father. And if you don’t like hearing your mother-in-law’s snide remarks about him, you will like even less the full story of why she feels that way.

Also, if you truly want to discourage your mother-in-law from making cutting remarks about your father, your complete lack of interest in their history is probably your most effective tool.

Two, memories change with time. If your mother-in-law spilled the beans about why she disliked your father so intensely, you would be getting only her memory of the relationship, not the full picture. You still would not know what really happened or why their relationship was never repaired.

You would not get your father’s point of view, your mother’s point of view, or your father-in-law’s point of view, all of which were deliberately concealed from you during those people’s lifetimes.

In fact, the only thing I think you can know with certainty is that none of your four parents thought their feud had anything to do with you or your husband, and that none of them thought you should know why there was bad blood between the two couples.

Three, what you are likely to discover will probably reflect badly on everyone. No matter what their dispute was about, it was between the four of them — it was not between any of them and you.

With that in mind, can any good come from knowing, for example, that a more-than-twenty-year hostility began when your father intentionally humiliated your mother-in-law by serving, against her express wishes, peanuts at your wedding instead of almonds? Neither the original slight nor its augmentation over the years speaks well of either couple.

The tension could have arisen from pure personal dislike, a petty argument or a misunderstanding. Years of animosity over such things would be sad. But there might have been a serious wrong committed: dishonest business dealings, physical assault, unpaid debts or slanderous gossip.

But even if a serious wrong was committed, it was more than twenty years ago and three of the four people involved are now dead: What is the remedy? What could be done, at this point, to make anyone whole?

Finally, your predicament may seem like it’s straight out of a novel written for ladies’ book clubs: Karen returns to her hometown in Maine after decades of living abroad. She has always known that her parents and her in-laws didn’t get along, but only now that her parents are dead has her mother-in-law begun to open up about the bad blood that has poisoned the family for decades.

Will Karen finally learn the secret that haunted their lives? And what will happen when she uncovers the truth?

Unfortunately, this is real life, not a summer beach read. And as the likelihood of a shocking secret, a dramatic revelation, a search for truth and a satisfying resolution seems remote, I suggest you tread lightly.

Copyright © 2024 by Cyndie Swindlehurst Printed from