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Carolyn Hax: Handling mother-in-law’s veiled — and gendered — critiques

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Dear Carolyn: What is the best way to handle passive-aggressive comments? My mother-in-law is constantly making them to me, especially when my husband is not around. A quick sampling: “You’re eating ANOTHER cookie?” “I can’t believe you considered sending your child out trick-or-treating when it’s raining!” “There sure are a lot of dirty dishes in your sink. Do you ever have a bug problem?” “That skirt is so short. I wish I had your confidence to wear clothes like that at your age.”

I address them in the moment with as much compassion and patience as I can handle. The problem is that she is moving to our area, and I can’t handle these comments on a regular basis.

— Sorry, Not Sorry

Sorry, Not Sorry: Actually, you can, because you have to — you can’t make her disappear, and you can’t make yourself disappear without consequences to your marriage. Unless your husband has your back, of course, which he apparently doesn’t, which is an answer unto itself; why else note that she takes her shots “when my husband isn’t around.”

But first things first. Your own attitude is a power source you always control, so always use it to your advantage: You can handle these comments. You can handle your mother-in-law. Why? Pick one based on your preferred kindness level — because you’re way more emotionally competent than you credit yourself for being, or because she’s too emotionally stunted to warrant the power you’ve granted her. Both work.

Once you have your attitude on straight, shape your replies. Short version: If you take every point of her oblique criticisms as a compliment — unless and until she finally spits out what she really means — then our work is done here. “Hell yes, another cookie. Want one?” “Less competition, more candy.” (Alternate: “It’s just rain.”) “No, the bugs are too well-fed to complain.” (Okay, that’s a little snotty: “We’re not worried,” will do.) “Thanks! But give yourself credit, you always look great.”

These may sound aggressive all bunched together. However, spaced out at the normal intervals of her veiled … observations, each response will have a softer yet more significant impact: showing her you intend to eat, nurture, dress and live on your own terms, thankyouverymuch.

Which brings us to what your mother-in-law “can’t handle”: Someone who can’t live on her own terms, carpe cookie — someone who can’t even trust her own standing to say what she actually means — is actually more to be pitied than loathed. Your mother-in-law sounds so knotted up in all the notions of what a woman, especially a mother, is “supposed” to be, based on whatever societal nonsense she was fed to keep her in check while she was coming of age, that she can’t even declare a simple opinion … to the point of hiding it from her own son when she tries. Forget how annoying it is — it’s freaking tragic.

Look at the sample replies through that lens now. Yes to more cookies, yes to the rain, yes to postponing housework sometimes, yes to showing some leg.

That’s a world I can get behind, and if it’s yours, then own it. Maybe her oblique criticisms really are compliments, in the form of envy. Maybe instead of shackling you she’ll be inspired by your upbeat example to free herself.

Or you will be. Her sideswipes may continue, in which case honesty and living on your own terms and all that good stuff demand that you be able to express a simple opinion, too: “That sounds to me like a veiled criticism. Is that how you meant it?” If that’s her game, then name it, and make sure she plays it alone.