I need some help regarding my prospective mother-in-law's involvement in our lives.
posted by smockpuppet to Human Relations (24 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Partner and I are a heterosexual couple in our late 20s (me) and early 30s (him). We own a house together, and we both see marriage and children in our near future. When I first met him his parents were living in another town, but a while after his father's death a few years ago, his mother moved back to our town to be closer to family and friends (she has a sister nearby as well as Partner and some aunts/uncles). Partner is an only child and he and his mother are very close, which I appreciate is not a bad thing, in and of itself. However, I feel that she lacks boundaries, that she views Partner as some sort of surrogate husband figure, and that her practical and emotional demands on him as a result are causing problems for us.
I know this is something I really need to talk to Partner about, and we have discussed my feelings on this a few times already. Where I'm having trouble, and where I need help here, is deciding what's reasonable to ask for/expect in this situation. I don't think that all families should behave exactly like mine, and I know nobody's perfect, but there's got to be a line between "harmless quirks it's best to just suck up and deal with" and "boundary issues it's best to deal with before they cause problems."
So, the things that bug me:
1) She sees Partner as her primary source of emotional support. If she's had a tough day, she'll call him to talk through it; if she needs some encouragement about something, it's him she'll turn to. This extends to, eg, calling him up upset because she's just visited a friend's young grandchild and it reminded her of how lonely she felt looking after Partner when his father was travelling for work, or calling him up in tears because an article in the newspaper reminded her of how Partner's father's illness and she "just wanted a shoulder to cry on", etc.
I've never lost a spouse and can't imagine how painful it must be. Likewise, I appreciate that even though she's got a vibrant social life full of friends and hobbies and volunteering (and she really has), she can still feel lonely, and still feel that Partner is the best person to share her memories of his father and their family life with. But it bothers me that her automatic reaction to feeling bad seems to be to turn to Partner and expect him to fix it, especially when it's something related to his father's death. If it upsets him he talks to me about it later, but won't ever express any feelings like that to her, on the grounds that it'll just worry and upset her further. This has caused him some significant stress and tears in the past, which she is, presumably, totally unaware of.
2) Likewise, she wants Partner to provide a great deal of practical support, even when she honestly doesn't seem to need it. She won't make any financial or household decisions without running them by Partner first, even before talking to her financial adviser; she regularly asks Partner to deal with all her utility bills, and come over to her new house to help out with minor tasks like changing lightbulbs. I assumed at first that these were things her husband always took care of, but Partner says not, and he's puzzled by what seems like an abrupt and significant lack of confidence about dealing with things herself. Often these requests come with unfairly self-deprecating statements along the lines of "I just don't have the brains for this, I'll never understand it," which bothers me because she's a smart and capable woman recently retired from a very demanding job, and certainly not lacking in brains.
Partner has firmly put his foot down about some of this. (She no longer makes plans for him to come and help Uncle So-and-so turf her lawn without asking him first, for example.) He doesn't want her to feel dependent on him, and thinks she would be happier if she was confident enough to deal with stuff by herself, but is unsure of how to achieve that other than repeated "Ma, I have no idea about car insurance, I'm not the person to ask about this" reminders (which he does, which she ignores).
3) Providing that support can be quite time-consuming. Which is one of the issues where I'm having trouble working out a reasonableness boundary. On the one hand, it's unfair and controlling to say 'Your mother may only call you once a week!'; on the other, she currently phones every day and if there's no landline answer, has no qualms about calling his phone and expecting him to chat for twenty minutes, no matter where he is or what we're doing. We see her once or twice a week, and what used to be a regular arrangement to meet at our favourite restaurant on a weeknight has turned more and more into us spending half the weekend at her house (see 2). We both work long hours in the week, and I do find myself getting somewhat resentful of this.
4) In my less charitable moments, she seems quite manipulative/controlling - albeit unintentionally, I think - when it comes to getting what she wants. The lack of confidence in dealing with minor household tasks means that she gets to see a great deal of Partner, without ever outright saying 'Hey, I'd like to see you this weekend'. The reputation she has for getting easily stressed and worried means that people, Partner included, don't ever trouble her with things that would worry her, so she doesn't need to deal with them. Our time with her is always scheduled by her, because she gets anxious if she's not the one making the plans and therefore plans things out in meticulous detail weeks in advance. She puts herself down a lot to Partner in a way that means not helping her would be agreeing with that - "oh, you shouldn't have to deal with my phone calls when I'm upset, you have better things to do than listen to how pathetic I am". And so on.
5) I feel like a third wheel sometimes. If we meet for drinks and dinner, she sits next to Partner in the restaurant unless I can nip in there first; if we walk there together, she almost always takes his arm (because the ice/mud/paths are slippy, because otherwise he walks too slowly, because "it looks smart", I've heard all of these) and I walk off to the side a bit, feeling quietly awkward. And even when it's not that bad, I quite often feel overwhelmed in a way it's difficult to articulate - although I don't feel unwelcome, it feels as if she's welcomed me into a minor supporting role she's already carved out within a family she runs. She expects to be involved in, or at least informed of and regularly kept up to date with, everything we do.
I feel like it's going to be really, really tough to ask Partner to prioritise my wants and preferences above things she presents as needs. When she calls up distraught and in tears because a water-pipe's burst and the plumber can't make it for half an hour and she doesn't feel comfortable asking the neighbours to help turn the water off ("but you don't need to come and help, I'm sure you have more important things to be doing!") - well, I might think it's totally unreasonable for him to drop everything and rush over there, but on the other hand she is genuinely upset and distressed, and if it was one of my parents upset I'd want to help too. Phone calls every day? Well, it bugs me, but it's not like it's harming me or stopping me from doing anything, either. Really, each individual thing isn't so bad; it's just the cumulative effects of all of them making me feel tense and uncomfortable. But how do you address that cumulative effect without pointing to all the little things? Especially with a very non-confrontational partner...
The bright side is that when she's not doing all this, we get along fine. Ironically, we've had some great conversations and times together when Partner's not been with us, too.
So. How do I go about deciding on and enforcing some reasonable boundaries? Has anyone dealt with a similar parent or parent-in-law, and found anything that helped? Or am I letting myself in for a lifetime of pain and frustration?