How do I fit into my fiancee's cluttered house
September 15, 2008 9:08 AM   Subscribe

My fiancee and her family have too much stuff. How do I deal with this?

My Fiancee grew up in a family that seems to have orgasmic levels of pleasure from having stuff. My soon to be Mother-in-law thinks a room is empty unless there is very tall dark heavy furniture covering every inch of wall space. not only this, but they have stacks and stack of useless crap that they "may need one day." Stuff that is useful [for something that no one in the house will ever do again]. They collect crap and palce it precariously. (I'm a big guy. I'm kind of clumsy. my soon to be MIL has yelled at me on more than one occasion for knocking over her precariously placed piles, because frankly, I can't fit in the house like this)

My fiance is not as bad as her parents. She may not like to live as spartan a life as I would, but she isn't awful. BUT, she is afraid of her mother who keeps giving her crap and telling her that she NEEDS it. I'm going to be mocing into my fiancee's house when we get married in a couple of months, but there is already no room for what little stuff I do have, let alone room to move around. Some times I even need to walk around to a different room just to get back to the same room I'm in. I just don't fit. (I also LOVE wide open spaces.)

I really think I could convince my fiancee to get rid of some of the excess furniture, except that her mother gave it to her and she would be WAY to afraid of the reprocussions. What should I do?

(BTW, I also have a completely different style and taste from my future MIL in every single imaginable way.)
posted by warriorengineer to Human Relations (42 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I've had to learn to offer stuff back to my MIL, with the caveat that it will be donated to charity otherwise, because we don't have space/use for it at the present time and it would be too expensive to keep in storage.
posted by acoutu at 9:15 AM on September 15, 2008

I'm going to be mocing into my fiancee's house when we get married in a couple of months, but there is already no room for what little stuff I do have, let alone room to move around.

I take it this is not your fiancee's mother's house. If your fiancee is afraid to get rid of the furniture, try to consolidate it in one area or room. I am a minimalist and I sympathize with you and I think you might be able to keep your sanity by designating a room or rooms to be kept as spartan as possible. Fill the room or rooms only with things you or the both of you will use and try to carve out as big a space as possible.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:15 AM on September 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Start by renting a storage unit.

Agree with your fiancee that you need to live in a clearer, less cluttered space. Because you know she doesn't want to get rid of the gifts her mother gave her, the things you're agreeing to clear out will go in the storage area.

That's step one. (If you can afford it, having a professional organizer work with you on this would be very helpful, and it would also give a third-party professional sanction to your decluttered lifestyle.)

Okay, step two is making an announcement to the family that no gifts of furniture, glassware, whatever it is that bugs you will be welcome for the next year, because you're trying to keep a clear house. The two of you should make this announcement together.

There will be some fallout and angst following this announcement, but STAND FIRM. If you and your fiancee need to meet with a couples counselor to work on handling this, this is something that most couples counselors do REALLY WELL with.

Now step three: the hardest step--ENFORCEMENT. You and your fiancee may need to do a Good Cop/Bad Cop on this. The thing is to refuse all gifts of stuff. "No, thank you, we appreciate the thought, but we have a year-long moratorium on stuff." "No, really, please give it to someone else who would appreciate it." "No, the thought is lovely, but our no-stuff policy is absolutely firm."

Your fiancee will probably have more trouble with this than you do. Be ready to literally haul stuff back to your in-laws' if necessary. This is where having hired the professional organizer can pay off: instead of your fiancee saying "My fiance doesn't like having stuff," she can say "The organization plan for which we paid $XXX doesn't allow for this stuff."

Step four is re-evaluation. After a year without clutter, my guess is that your wife will have seen the light. Then you can start selling/regifting/Freecycling the things in the storage unit.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:21 AM on September 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

First, you have to see how "on-board" your fiancee is with the way you feel. Is she willing to get rid of a lot of the "stuff" at least even if the furniture is problematic for the moment?

Second, since it is hard to get rid of things you must immediately stop the flow of items into the house. You have the convenient excuse of this being a transitional time, figuring out how to reorg the house now that you are moving in, etc.

Then work on reducing/throwing out/donating anything your fiancee feels comfortable parting with. Try and be ruthless here.

Gadget's idea of consolidating the excess stuff into one room is a good one, if possible. Maybe you can refinish the basement. However, you are ultimately fighting a losing battle unless you can convince your fiancee to present a united front and say "no more" to future items. You two have a long life ahead of you - if you start out being afraid of things like furniture disposal, it is not going to get any easier.
posted by mikepop at 9:22 AM on September 15, 2008

It's a good idea to establish, very early on, who the boss is terms of your marriage vs inlaws. Doesn't mean you have to be nasty or loudly put your foot down, but it will literally save you years of headaches if you do this up front.

Talk to the mother-in-law and explain that while you appreciate the gifts, some of them will have to be moved to the basement or storage. By apologetic is you like and take all the blame, but really, you grew up in a different household and need your space so you and your wife have agreed to certain things about the house you two will be living in (yeah, you're moving into her house, but you're getting married so it's yours now too). Be polite, but firm and work what goes where with your wife, not the mother-in-law. Do not, under any circumstances back down. If you do, you will be miserable and this will affect the marriage over time.

Your wife being afraid of her mother is a separate issue and should be addressed as so.

"No, really, please give it to someone else who would appreciate it."

Do not say this, as it'll be perceived as insulting.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:33 AM on September 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

You need a room that's only for your stuff. You should be able to arrange it however you like, even if it's just empty. See if you and she can make this happen. Make it clear that it's very important to you to have this space. Reassure her that if you have it, you'll stop nagging her about her stuff.

The rest of the house will be a compromise, and by that I mean realistically that you'll be compromising more than she will, because it's already furnished "her way". Do not go around throwing out things that are important to her. Do not try to change her. You will have to accept that she's different. SHE will also have to accept that YOU are different.

In every relationship people need private space and time. In a whole house you should be able to find some space for you.
posted by fritley at 9:37 AM on September 15, 2008

"No, really, please give it to someone else who would appreciate it."

Do not say this, as it'll be perceived as insulting.

Note that that's the third level of an escalating "No" conversation. And it's meant to be a little bit tendentious, because the other person is being disrespectful in not listening to the first "No thank you" and "No, thank you...year-long moratorium on stuff."

Eventually the OP may have to get to "I SAID NO STUFF! NO STUFF, DID YOU HEAR ME!"

Stuff is like booze. Stuffaholics are constantly trying to force stuff on others. Sometimes you have to push back.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:41 AM on September 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

There are two issues here: your (singular) relationship with your fiancee, and your (plural) relationship with her family.

When you move in with the fiancee, is that a long-term or short-term arrangement? That is, are you going to be looking for a new place together soon? If so, I'd say stick it out for now with the explicit understanding that there will be some changes made. If not, you're going to have to make clear that you need a little room to swing your apelike arms around. It's also an opportunity for the two of you to start fresh, literally clean house and remake it in a style that is mutually agreeable. Your fiancee may appreciate this logic, or she may still be reluctant to get rid of stuff her family gave her. But especially since you are moving into her place, you've got a right to make it feel like it's your home too.

WRT the family, you're going to need to get tough with them and let them know that you don't need the stuff, you don't want the stuff, a surplus of stuff does not make you happy, and any stuff the give to you immediately will be given back or given to charity. I've been through this with my own family and with my ex's family. There were some hurt feelings with the ex's family, but they got over it.
posted by adamrice at 9:42 AM on September 15, 2008

On preview I see that some of the advice (especially Sidhedevil's) is about how to put your foot down and change her. "Agree with her that [exactly what you want] ... STAND FIRM ... ENFORCEMENT ... your wife will have seen the light"

If you think you need to do this, don't move in with her (or marry her) until you see how that goes. I think it's crap advice.
posted by fritley at 9:43 AM on September 15, 2008

Find an apartment.
posted by Zambrano at 9:46 AM on September 15, 2008

Here's a good idea from today's Get Rich Slowly: Simplify Your Life with a Stuff Replacement Fund.
posted by TurkishGolds at 10:04 AM on September 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Her folks are probably hoarders. It's a compulsive thing. You, on your own, are never going to get them to see reason.

Your fiancee may or may not have this problem, but it sounds like she has a problem separating herself from growing up with it-- especially if her mom is as judgmental about the stuff issue as you make her sound. There are a lot of resources on the Net for kids of parents who are hoarders or live in squalor-- maybe looking around for some of those would help her realize that she doesn't need to be afraid of her mother's problem?

Good luck.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:07 AM on September 15, 2008

I really think I could convince my fiancee to get rid of some of the excess furniture, except that her mother gave it to her and she would be WAY to afraid of the reprocussions. What should I do?

People have offered good advice for handling stuff once you've both decided that's how you want to handle things -- but it's not clear you've had serious conversations about "excess furniture." Does she see the furniture as "excess"? Does she understand your physical (and emotional) need for a bit more space? Is she interested and willing to work towards a compromise position you both can agree on?

Is this move into her house permanent or temporary? Have you discussed the possibility of clearing out one room to have for yourself, or small changes that would make it physically easier for you to live (and move) there?

I would not move in with her until you've had these discussions and have a clear understanding of what areas are open to compromise.
posted by canine epigram at 10:15 AM on September 15, 2008

I come from a family just like your fiancee (neighbors have called the fire marshal - dad's an OCD hoarder/mom loves Tuesday Morning).

My husband is of the mindset that there are a maximum of 3 things on any surface (two magazines and a coaster/a lamp and a decorative item/napkin holder, salt and pepper shaker).

We have lived together for nearly 10 years. Mostly over these years I learned that stuff is not going to make me feel secure. Having a safe home and a secure financial plan, some money in savings and a husband who listens when I have an issue with something makes me feel far more secure than rooms piled with crap.

What I'm saying is a lot of my stuff was psychological and for a while there, I really "needed" to hold on to the crap even though I knew I wanted to live in a more serene environment.

ALSO!!! I told my mom, "Instead of giving us things, put the money you would have spent into a fund for helping us to landscape our yard." So much more helpful -- and the tchotchkes stopped coming.

Feel free to email me if you have any questions...I have a wealth of opinion and suggestions about this issue. Good luck.
posted by Sophie1 at 10:17 AM on September 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

One problem with this is that you're moving into her house. It would be a whole lot easier if, for both of you, if you were both moving into a new space post-wedding rather than you moving into her space . . . and wanting to change it.

I think you need to have a frank conversation with her about stuff and space. Ideally, if you were moving into a new house you could have a room that she could make as packed as she wanted, then together set boundries for the other rooms- e.g. "We only need a sofa and an armchair as well as the coffee table in there".

I second the idea of the storage unit, but really, all this is kind of moot until she is on your side about the stuff issue. If she doesn't concur, then you're not going to be able to be effective (or effect change) on this issue. Once she concurs, it gets a lot easier.

My Grandma compulsively goes to garage sales and buys tons of stuff, which she unloads on us every weekend. My family thanks her for each gift, but 99% of it goes straight out the back door to the Goodwill box. If she asks where the ____ is, we say, "Oh, we really enjoyed looking at it, but we just couldn't find room for it in our home, so we've passed it on."

This seems to work alright. Moreover, for the bigger stuff she thinks we should have ("heirlooms" like a couch she bought in the 70's) we agree with alacrity to accept it (because she has WAAAAY too much stuff in her house) but always with the proviso that if we don't have room for it at some point in the future we will donate it to Goodwill. If she really doesn't want it to go to Goodwill, she can have it back, but those are the two options.

Once you two are in accord, agree to take the stuff MIL wants to unload on you, but always with that proviso. "Gee, MIL, we probably COULD use an extra badminton set and twenty extra racquets. But space is tight right now- if we discover we don't have more room for it, we will have to take it to Goodwill."

Stand firm.
posted by arnicae at 10:18 AM on September 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

There is such a illness called OCD and hoarding is a component. This may apply in this case? The other fact is that you don't own the property ( unless I don't have all the info) so you may just be SOL.
posted by GoodJob! at 10:20 AM on September 15, 2008

On preview I see that some of the advice (especially Sidhedevil's) is about how to put your foot down and change her.

The impression that I got was that she wants to change, but that her mom forces the stuff on her and she doesn't know how to say "No." My advice was predicated on that understanding.

But you make a good point--it's probably best for the two of them to figure out in advance where they each stand on this. Couples counseling is a really good venue for this: two or three sessions of a mediated conversation with a professional would be a wise investment if at all possible.

The thing is that this really, really needs to be taken seriously. I know two couples who have gotten/are getting divorced where the main issue is the "stuff". I think that "stuff" probably comes right after money, sex, and children as a marriage-breaker.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:25 AM on September 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding what Fairytale of Los Angeles said. I'd be willing to bet money that they're hoarders. You might want to check some previous AskMeFi threads:

Help For Compulsive Hoarding

Drowning in the Sea of Stuff

Help the Son and Daughter-In-Law of a Compulsive Hoarder

I Don't Wanna Go Down to the Basement

How Can I Help My Mom Clean Up Her House?

That's for the stuff. The problem of your fiancee's fear of her mother is a whole other mess. And frankly, it'd be a very good idea for the two of you to talk about that--maybe even with a couple's counselor--before you walk down the aisle. Otherwise you're going to find yourself more married to your mother-in-law than your wife.
posted by magstheaxe at 10:33 AM on September 15, 2008 [4 favorites]

There is lots of advice, above, about laying down the law and setting strict boundaries. I would advice compassion and compromise and a long-term view.

I can relate to your problem.
I have been married for 10 years. When we married, I moved into my husband's house. He had a lot of old stuff from his beloved grandmother, who was an antiques dealer and loved garage sales. I had some old "antiques" from my family. For the first couple years, our worst fights were about the stuff. He loved me, but he was irrationally protective of his stuff and his turf.

It was very hard for my husband to consider letting go of his grandmother's stuff. In my experience, when you get married you form a new family unit, separate from your childhood families. But forming this new unit takes time. It happens over years, and some family members may try to manipulate the process. The furniture and stuff is very symbolic of the family bonds. Your fiancee may need time to re-work those bonds.

Here is my advice -- thru the lens of 20/20 hindsight:
It would be much better if she sheds some of the stuff on her own, by her own choice. Ask her the followiing:
Does she understand your need for space?
Is she willing to make some compromises about the stuff? What kind of compromises?
Before you move in, identify a room just for you, and a room just for her. And the remaining rooms will be for compromise...
Is she willing to "lay down the law" about accepting more stuff from her family. If she's not ready, when can you re-visit the issue. Maybe in 6 months or a year?

You might think this sounds wussy, but if you show your willingness to understand and compromise, she may follow suit.

Talk out these issues before you start moving yourself in. IMPORTANT: when you talk about turf and furniture, have your talk on neutral ground. A restaurant, or walk in the park. Try not to discuss these issues in front of her family.

I like the suggestion of hiring a professional organizer. (I have a hunch the MIL would criticize this move :-)

One thing that really helps is to pick out a few pieces of her family furniture that you genuinely like (or can tolerate) and to tell your spouse how much you like those items. Bonus points if you also tell the MIL. It helps if they know you like some of the stuff... it's just the high volume of stuff that bothers you.
In negotiation, it's very powerful to say "I really like those end tables from your mother, but the lamps are a bit ornate. Why don't we go thrift-shopping and find some lamps that we both like."

A storage locker might be a good idea, but it can get very expensive long term. Over these past 10 years my husband has paid $7,000 to store a bunch of his old stuff in a locker 1,500 miles away. $7k is far more than the stuff is worth! But that $7,000 has bought us peace.

I like the idea of giving stuff back to the MIL -- as long as your tone is completely grateful and respectful. "You are so nice to us, but we just don't have room for all this generousity. Would you like to have this furniture back? Or we can sell or donate the chair. We could use the sale money for our vacation fund and consider the vacation a gift from you. Or perhaps you'd like us to donate the money to charity" This sends the message that you like their generousity, but would prefer money...
posted by valannc at 10:42 AM on September 15, 2008

Right -- you've got a lot of different advice thrown at you, I'm going to try to put mine in order.

1. Make sure that you and your fiancee are in agreement about how much stuff you need. Are you POSITIVE that she doesn't want to hang on to things? How much would SHE feel comfortable with if her mother wasn't in the picture? Make sure you know what you both as a couple feel comfortable with first.

2. Only when you have done that -- THEN take on how to handle your living situation. The house you're moving into -- is that a temporary or a permanent arrangement? Will you have an apartment set up for you, or is it just "y'all can crash in the guest room a few months" kind of thing? If they're doing a whole "we want to set up a room for you both that will be your private apartment," then you can come to a concensus with your mother in law about how to handle this - but if they're just letting you crash in the guest room for a couple months, you may just want to suck it up, because -- yeah, it's not to your taste, but it is their house.

3. When you set up your own house, then you and your fiancee can set up a united front to head off your mother in law when she starts heading out to the furniture store and say, "you know, we're really grateful that you want to do this for us. But we've been reading those style magazines, and -- you know, we kind of thought it'd be fun to pick things out ourselves. Can we all three go together? say, you could even be the tiebreaker if your daughter and I can't agree on something, haha..." She gets to be the showering-with-gifts mom but you get to define the context.

4. After that -- I'm doubting that she's wacky enough to get you an entire dinner table set for Christmas or anything, so this may all just be an initial "setting up my baby's house" urge and it'll die down to dishes and smaller things. Which also clutters, but is also easier to hide in the basement for a couple years until everyone forgets about it and you can get rid of it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:51 AM on September 15, 2008

My grandparents believed in the theory that lots of furniture made them SUCCESSES. That's how you tell who's successful, see. Successful people have lots of Ethan Allen. That my mom didn't agree with their furniture-centric views, pointing out that we had a very comfortable life and spend money on other things, etc., didn't keep the tsk tsking from affecting my mom. So with this, I remind you that family dynamics with parents are emotional and complicated and aren't always really about the literal thing, ya know?

You and your fiancee have to agree on what you want in your (yours and hers) home. Really agree. Not "agree for now because I'll change his/her mind later." You're both probably going to have to compromise a lot, and you'll likely have to accept that your fiance really does like and want some of this stuff that you can't stand. But after you come to your decisions, you should have a situation in which you and she are honestly telling your in-laws that awww, we appreciate the offer of [thing] but WE simply can't use [thing] in our home.

You've already made decisions as a couple, obviously -- you're getting married. But this is harder -- decisions you'll make as a couple about her relationship with her parents, that have nothing to do with your relationship with your parents.

Don't give a ton of excuses, and especially don't use each other as excuses to soften the blow (oh, I'd love to take this giant stack of old magazines and gardening catalogues, Mom, but warriorengineer would just have a fit.) That way lies madness and resentment for everyone.
posted by desuetude at 10:53 AM on September 15, 2008

I am/have been in your shoes. The first step is to have a sit-down with your fiancé so you can adequately explain what you'd like and she can do the same. Work towards a compromise that you can both live with and be happy with. Do this before your wedding.

Once you've figured out how much crap stuff you want in your house, work out a flowchart for conversations with in-laws. Here's the one my sweetheart and I use:

1) Thank you very much for the offer, but we really don't have the room.
2) No, really. We appreciate the thought, but we don't want it. I'm sure you know someone who could use it more than we could.
3) No. Thank you, but no.

I'm not being funny here. We've had to do #4 in the past week.
posted by lekvar at 11:23 AM on September 15, 2008

You almost certainly are going to get more than you expected as wedding gifts.
I'm helping a family member deal with 15 years of clutter after a death in the family. We have filled two 10 yard dumpsters already. They just weren't able to deal with the clutter until a life changing event.

I'm always against the storage unit idea (unless it is to preserve your marriage). It's never cost effective and nature abhors a vacuum. Everyone I know who has gotten a storage unit ends up filling up their house again and are not paying hundreds a month to store crap.

I like the 1 in, 2 out rule. If something comes in the house, 2 things go out.
Also, the idea of if someone snuck in your house in the middle of the night and stole a particular item, if you would never notice that is was gone, get rid of it.

Combining households is a great time to get rid of things. Everyone expects you to since you will end up with 2 can openers, etc.. Get your own room is great advice from others in the thread.

Great time for a yard sale / craigslist. You will be amazed what lengths people will do to pick up something when advertised for free on craigslist. I have gotten rid of old magazines and broken AC adapters. Easier than taking them down to the trash.

I find once you get in the mindset to get rid of stuff you can really clear out a lot of things. Getting over that first hump is what takes forever.

If you don't even know you have something because it is buried under tons of crap, do you even really have it?
posted by bottlebrushtree at 11:46 AM on September 15, 2008

I am the child of a hoarder and it sounds like your fiancee is one as well. My boyfriend has no frame of reference for how I grew up (and quite frankly, I'd prefer that he never has to develop one) and so my (lack of) housekeeping makes him a little crazy.

I think that seeing a therapist would be very helpful for your fiancee, to help her deal with her fear of her mother. People who grew up like we did have a lot of fear, ranging from fear of being discovered by "outsiders" to fear that our parents love "stuff" more than they love us.

No matter how many ways you think of to stop the flow of stuff, she's still going to be afraid, and that is no way to live.
posted by crankylex at 11:58 AM on September 15, 2008

Response by poster: OK, time to expand on what I've said:

1. The house is pretty permanent. We'll be living there for at least 5 years. (after that, we'd like to build a new house on the same lot, thus moving is pretty much out)

2. We (my fiancée and I) don't really need a professional organizer. Things are organized (save maybe some excess clothes, but that is really a completely separate issue), but there are just too many of them.

3. My stuff amounts to a rather small closet of clothes (90% work clothes at that), a desk and laptop (which have already been moved in), a TV and entertainment stand (also moved in), a coffee table (on loan to my dad's office at the moment), a small book case worth of book (no actual book case though), a large hiking pack, and a bike. That's it.

4. It isn't that she doesn't want to get rid of "gifts." She is AFRAID of her mother, because...

5. Her mother doesn't grasp that her opinion isn't fact. i.e. her mother will state, with absolute certainty, such things as, "it is better to keep your clothes in an armour than a closet" or "Don't order fried chicken, pork chops are better."

6. We can't afford a storage unit, and don't have a basement (We live in New Orleans). We can't even keep anything in the garage because of the humidity. That and the garage is prone to flooding. Do that many people really have basements? I thought they were only predominant in the Rocky Mountains.

7. My fiancée does agree with me. She doesn’t need to be changed in that regard; she just isn't as extreme as I. see # 3. We have discussed this and she does understand my need for more space, but in her efforts to protect herself from the furry her mother would unleash upon her, she says such things as, "just bear with it for now until we find another place or until we can build a bigger house." (Which I know her mother would immediately want to fill to the brim with furniture that I abhor).

8. Her mother is nuts. She’ll buy furniture, and sneak in when she know we aren’t there, rearrange the room and put her item in the location she sees as “the only location anyone would ever want that item.” [for me, that location is the dumpster :) ]
posted by warriorengineer at 12:02 PM on September 15, 2008

4 & 5: Does your wife want to have the battle over furniture or over the design of her new house? Or over the way she raises future children? I vote furniture.

8: Change the locks. Alternately, get a terrier.
posted by mikepop at 12:18 PM on September 15, 2008

(I forgot) 7: Build a smaller house. Now you have to get rid of stuff.
posted by mikepop at 12:20 PM on September 15, 2008

Oh. I see - this is a mother/daughter relationship issue.

Here is what I did: I learned (the very, very, very hard way) that I am an adult and my mother's opinions were NEVER going to change. Ever. If I wanted my mother to stop calling me 10 times a day or buying me globe notepads or asking me if I wanted more bread, I was going to have to stop being afraid of her.

What is your fiancee afraid of losing if she crosses her mother? It was entirely a safety issue for me and once I realized that I have a safe home with my husband (physically and emotionally) I was able to really not give a crap what my mother thought. Therefore, when she gave me something I didn't need and I got up the ovaries to tell her "No." her response went from hurt (1st time), to guilt (2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th) and eventually she stopped engaging in the behaviors that weren't getting her anywhere.

I'm assuming here that her mother genuinely loves her but it all sounds like a familiar lack of respect to me.
posted by Sophie1 at 12:24 PM on September 15, 2008

Do that many people really have basements?

They were common in Baltimore when I was growing up.

She’ll buy furniture, and sneak in when she know we aren’t there

Is this a matter of it being a family house and she feels Either way, change the locks and do not, under any circumstances give her a key.

Look, I'm from NO and have dealt with the grand, controlling relatives who live down the street, that believe they are the matriarch or patriarch of the family. Put your foot down, firmly and repeatedly, but politely. Outside of this issue, behave like a reasonable family member and enjoy their company as best you can, but do not give an inch on this.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:06 PM on September 15, 2008

5. Her mother doesn't grasp that her opinion isn't fact. i.e. her mother will state, with absolute certainty, such things as, "it is better to keep your clothes in an armour than a closet" or "Don't order fried chicken, pork chops are better."

Nod. Smile. Thank her for her opinion. Be very very civil and gracious. And do what you like anyway. This technique has set me free with sundry relatives. (It got less intimidating after the world didn't end the first time I tried it.)

but in her efforts to protect herself from the furry her mother would unleash upon her, she says such things as, "just bear with it for now until we find another place or until we can build a bigger house." (Which I know her mother would immediately want to fill to the brim with furniture that I abhor).

Your fiancee does understand that this sort of bargaining will never work and never end, right? She's being smothered by her mother's stuff and now you're going to be smothered, too. Is she afraid that her mom will disown her? Is she just nonconfrontational? Based on what you've said here, I'm agreeing with counseling for your fiancee. Not because she's sick or broken or any of the stigmas that get attached to therapy, but to help her figure out what she really wants and get to a place where she can speak as an adult to her mom.

8. Her mother is nuts. She’ll buy furniture, and sneak in when she know we aren’t there, rearrange the room and put her item in the location she sees as “the only location anyone would ever want that item.” [for me, that location is the dumpster :) ]

Mom needs to not have a key to the house. Your upcoming marriage and you moving in is the perfect opportunity to change things and make a break. It's your home too, and you two are starting out together, and she needs to respect this. Okay, I know you're shaking your head sadly and thinking that this will never work because of the crazy, but this is the best chance you've got to start establishing the precedent and take a chance to win a few little tiny battles. (My dad doesn't have a key to my house. He starts The Key Argument every other time that I see him. I love my folks, but my dad doesn't understand boundaries.)
posted by desuetude at 1:06 PM on September 15, 2008

...she feels it belongs to her also? Either way...
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:07 PM on September 15, 2008

(Oh, and basements are common all through the mid-Atlantic area. New England, too. In fact, it seems to me that basements are common anyplace where they're possible -- obviously not where it's swampy or beachy.)
posted by desuetude at 1:08 PM on September 15, 2008

Thanks for posting the additional info. This looks like a very challenging situation. Your fiancee needs help setting boundaries. You have to be careful not to get too enmeshed in the mother-daughter strife.

I think a good therapist would be very helpful. At the very least, your fiance needs a therapist to help her set boundaries.

Is there any way you can move far away from your in-laws? Seriously.

It sounds like your MIL has a key to your fiancee's house. Before you are married, consider changing the locks. You two must have your privacy.

Wishing you much happiness!
posted by valannc at 1:12 PM on September 15, 2008

This isn't about "stuff" at all. The stuff is a symptom. This is about communication between you and your fiance, and about her mother's desire to control her, and by proxy, control you once you two are married. If you can't sort out these issues before you're married, it's going to be a very miserable marriage, in my opinion.

You and your wife need to be a team. You need to be on the same page when dealing with her family, your family, and the world in general. If she backs down to her mother's demands, you're going to be very unhappy. If she can't carve out her own life independent of her mother, then you have to accept that you're not just marrying her - you're marrying her mother as well, and that a LOT of what the mother wants will be forced upon you.

I seriously recommend counseling before the wedding. You guys have some big issues to work out before you get hitched.
posted by Kangaroo at 1:15 PM on September 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

She’ll buy furniture, and sneak in when she know we aren’t there

Why does she have a key?
posted by oaf at 1:27 PM on September 15, 2008

Is her mother going out and buying new/used furniture, or is she transferring furniture from her house to yours? If she is buying new stuff, your daughter needs to say that she what she really wants/needs is X (help with the car payment, a new iPod, etc). If mom insists, daughter can say that she is going to sell the furniture to help with the car payment.

Her mother doesn't grasp that her opinion isn't fact. i.e. her mother will state, with absolute certainty, such things as, "it is better to keep your clothes in an armour than a closet" or "Don't order fried chicken, pork chops are better."

This is why she's afraid of her mother? Does not compute. This is not fury. This is narcissism. The response to this, which I've had to use very, very often with my own mother, is "I appreciate your opinion, but I'm going to have pork chops." Even if the response is OMG HOW DARE YOU EAT PORK CHOPS IN FRONT OF ME I AM YOUR MOTHER AND I KNOW BEST, after a few times of your fiancée not reacting to this AT ALL, mom will calm down. Mom expects her to immediately back down, and since that's what daughter does, mom thinks her opinion IS fact. Daughter has given her no indication that it's not. Daughter needs to accept her responsibility in this. Your job, as fiancé and life partner, is to support her fully in this. Encourage her to speak up at every turn. Do not do this with any judgment of Mom or Fianceé. Rather, tell fiancée that you hate to see her unhappy, and you know she'd be happier if she just stood up to Mom.

Our issues were different, but with my fiancé's help I have become much more assertive with my mother, and it's made a huge difference in both relationships.
posted by desjardins at 1:41 PM on September 15, 2008

Before you are married, consider changing the locks. You two must have your privacy.

The first time she catches you having sex (on her furniture!) is the best time to ask for the key back.
posted by desjardins at 1:44 PM on September 15, 2008

Read this thread, which has some similar issues.

A Mother-in-law who would come into your home and rearrange when you are not home is going to transgress other boundaries, as well. So you need to be tough and stay tough, or she'll drive you away. Be as cheerful as possible while saying,
"Oh Gosh, you are so thoughtful, but we really prefer it this way."
"It's so kind of you to think of us, but if we find we don't have room for it, can we drop it off at your house or at Goodwill?"

Be prepared for all-out war, as this woman does not like to be told No. She will understand, rightly, that you are not going to be controlled and manipulated by her, and will do everything she can to win. This was my mother. It took many years before she could hear me say No without mounting a full-court press. To gain my freedom, I moved 1,000 miles away, and didn't have a phone for a year. Over time, we built a better, healthier relationship. She behaved towards my brother-in-law the way this woman behaves towards you. No accommodation, lots of criticism.

The part about being cheerful is very important, especially for your fiancee, as she needs to learn that it's okay to say No, but does not want the inevitable conflict. The more sweetly you say No, the more obvious the M-I-L's manipulation is.
posted by theora55 at 2:52 PM on September 15, 2008

>> The more sweetly you say No, the more obvious the M-I-L's manipulation is.

Exactly. It is very important to be respectful and nice to your MIL. Just keep repeating your boundary statements, politely. Don't let her bait you. If she gets loud, walk away.

If you show disrespect, you may put your wife in a situation where she feels she has to answer for you, or worse, protect MIL from you.
posted by valannc at 4:22 PM on September 15, 2008

I don't want to be harsh, but here's the thing: I told my girlfriend that I wanted to ask her to marry me, but I couldn't be married to someone who smoked. She tried to quit, but failed, and then tried again and succeeded. Once we knew it stuck, we got engaged.

This issue with her mother may be something she feels she can change "later", but ultimately it's conflicting with your own needs and wants, which are just as valid as hers. If you go in thinking you'll put up with something you hate for now and it'll get better later, the only thing you're likely to get later is a divorce.

Getting married is a big step, and on many levels a sacrifice by both persons. It's not unreasonable to ask for a sacrifice to be made up front, to show the commitment you each have for each other. However, active sacrifices (like "stop smoking" and "get rid of this clutter") are what I'm talking about, because once they're done, they're done, and a relapse is a new issue to work on. Passive sacrifices, like "just put up with it for now until later" come with a sales pitch of false hope, and you won't be in a position to push back on it later, because who knows when "later" really is?

Now there's no reason it can't be done in two steps, just to help her adjust; rent a storage space and move everything possible to it. Some people need to sleep together before they can get married, to see if they're compatible -- in your case, you need to remove the clutter before you can get married, to see if she can cope with it. If not, great; move the stuff back in and either cancel the wedding or see if you can learn to live with it. If so, even better -- big garage sale, and give the rest to charity. At the end of the day, it's your responsibility to yourself to stick up for yourself on this, and not take the lazy "later we'll fix it" approach.

Or at least, please do not have children until it's all been wrangled out.
posted by davejay at 4:35 PM on September 15, 2008

Here's how I would do it, not sure what the dynamic is between you, your woman, and the mother-in-law. I would have you and your woman agree that you are the "official decorator" or whatever, that the common front to the M-I-L is that you are the boss about how the house gets laid out. (this doesn't need to be your true private dynamic, you are just the official point man for foreign policy)

So now, M-I-L has to come to you about new crap. If she tries to manipulate her daughter, she can just say "talk to warriorengineer, he is in charge of that". M-I-L and you are a completely new dynamic, and you won't have all the backstory your woman has with M-I-L. M-I-L can't manipulate you, and you don't feel bad telling her clear "no". Be absolutely honest and candid with her about your feelings about living in a crap-free home, and that you won't be accepting any new crap, and that you'll be giving the bulk of the old crap away.

Problem solved.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:03 PM on September 15, 2008

Do that many people really have basements?

Grew up in WA, have lived throughout the west and New England. Basements very common everywhere.

Honestly, the first step is the daughter (your fiancee) deciding there is something about this situation she wants to change. If she's willing to let it ride, you will change absolutely nothing. Once she has decided she wants change, get the key back/change the locks and go from there. Tell your MIL you're having an Engagement Cleaning Party, let her pick through everything you've decided to jettison to see if she wants it back.

Make it clear this isn't an opportunity to persuade you as to the value of each piece- her options are to take it home with her or have it delivered that day or have it sold at a garage sale, on craigslist, or go to Goodwill.
posted by arnicae at 6:09 PM on September 15, 2008

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