This Post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.
Most people can source the horrible step mother back to the Brothers Grimm 's "Cinderella" but few can recall from whence the monstrous mother-in-law spawned. Surely not Jane Fonda's role as Viola Fields in 2005's Monster-in-law? Oh please, people, let's give the history of relationships a little more credit. I don't think there's an original story for this bias. Moreover, I do not believe there needs to be one.
For people in the know (married, I mean), who do not get along with their in-laws, there is usually the same recurring theme: "The mother-in-law seems to have an issue with the wife. The symptoms include overstepping boundaries, making snide remarks, and passive/aggressive behavior (which essentially, works for pretty awful screen writing). I personally believe that these women see their son's wives as "the other woman" or sort of "replacement" for needing their mom. These sort of mothers-in-law need to feel needed and when their sons marry, that need diminishes and tension ensues."
Let's get down to brass tacks and nails. Aside from the discomfort factor, what other problems does a fire breathing mother-in-law cause? She can, intentionally or not, drive the couple apart. Now, what do semi functioning people do when the mother-in-law becomes more monster than mother? Here are some of the more typical reactions: they make passive aggressive jokes about how life would be so much better if their MIL's lived far away, they give in to her every whim in the hopes that she will fall in love with them eventually (she never will), or they cut her off completely.
None of the above will do. People who are aware that there is a better way to understand that it is of paramount importance to have a parental figure in one's life; the emptiness left by the disrespect one feels for his or her parents can never be substituted by a spouse. No woman or man should delude themselves into thinking they can cover up an oozing wound with a troop of band aids. So, when the in-laws are acting out, the child-in-law has an obligation to ignore the voice asking, "Why is this happening to me?" and to replace it with "What would be the win-win response?"
Some of the best attitudes result from having a good sense of humor. Mother-in-law jokes are the rare exception. To some, they never get old. To most, however, usually the parents-in-laws, and not so surprisingly, the daughters-in-law (who will, after all, be mothers-in-law themselves someday), these jokes are just plain offensive.
If hurling vicious humor at the offending party is out of the question, what other approaches might be sufficient for marital harmony? Setting healthy boundaries is a good start. Chances are, if your MIL is being mean it's because she is feeling threatened. No shockers there so be sympathetic. You can show her she still plays a major factor in her son's life (I leave it to you as the married woman to carve out the HOW in your individual lives). Next, don't wait for your MIL to start showing care and affection, get the ball rolling yourself. Give her reasons to like you: seek out her advice, invite her over for the odd shabbos (Sabbath), spend time alone together (i.e. without your spouse). Not only will any of the above bring you closer, it will indirectly improve your marriages as well. The process is a humbling experience, I am sure, but she's worth it. Your marriage is worth it. You're worth it.