Mother-in-law troubles
September 12, 2011 3:55 AM   Subscribe

I need some help regarding my prospective mother-in-law's involvement in our lives.

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?
posted by smockpuppet to Human Relations (24 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
She expects to be involved in, or at least informed of and regularly kept up to date with, everything we do.

If your SO is allowing this, then frankly you need to decide whether this the relationship you want for the rest of your life. 'Cause if you think it's bad now, wait until there's wedding planning and children and she wants to run those things too. I'm completely serious here, she will undermine you at every point she can, 'causing you to resent your husband and possibly change your view of him.

That bitterness you're feeling now? It's only going to get worst unless things change. In order to change, you're looking at months, if not years long work in progress. It might be good training for having kids, i.e. enforcing boundaries.

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?

My reaction to this sort of thing is to be politely blunt with follow through, because it's the only thing that works, in my experience. A simple "No, that won't be possible." You don't have to offer an explanation or reason, though it may help to have a few stock ones. Something like "Oh, we just want to spend some time to ourselves", that sort of thing.

Your SO needs to back you up on this, 100% and not in the manner of he doesn't really want to, but feels obligated to do, but because he agrees with you. So talk to him, see how feels about all this and where he agrees. Decide, between the two of you, what your boundaries should be, then start enforcing them, with no quarter given.

You and he need to be ok with being talked about by her or having her upset with one or both you. If you get along with her fine when SO isn't around, then make regular plans to have lunch or do something with her, that way ya'll will have some positive time together, rather than being in a constant battle.

But overall, you need to to talk to your SO, real soon now and definitely before marriage or kids. He needs to agree that these are problems otherwise you're going to have constant black cloud in your life.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:27 AM on September 12, 2011 [11 favorites]

This is tough.

Perhaps you might pray that the mother remarries?

You should continue dialoging with your partner about this, but I see no good solution unless your partner gets a little more savvy with his mom while still making sure she gets the extra compassionate support she really seems to need as she gets older.

This doesn't seem likely to change longterm unless your partner draws those savvy-yet-compassionate boundaries I just touched upon. Do you think he can do that?

I too would and did have concerns about being put first before my MIL. I'm remarried now and much much happier in a different family dynamic.

This is tough. Keep talking it through with your partner.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 4:34 AM on September 12, 2011

Also, it almost sounds to me like the mom needs a trip to the doctor for a check up. Maybe she has fears about aging that can be addressed or allayed, or maybe she is starting to get a diagnosable illness that can be mitigated with treatment??

I dunno. Something in your post made me think maybe a trip to a doctor might be in order. IANAD, and all that.
posted by jbenben at 4:40 AM on September 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

You don't have mother in law trouble, you have partner trouble. He needs to be on board with you and put your relationship first, above that of his with his mother. And, of course, you need to effectively communicate your needs to him (maybe counseling would be a good and neutral way to achieve that if you cannot broach the issues on your own).

I think it must be pretty bad for you because you cannot even see what's reasonable and not anymore. Dropping everything to go shut off the water is actually pretty reasonable, but when taken with everything else even the reasonable becomes suspect. You have my sympathies.
posted by 6550 at 4:44 AM on September 12, 2011 [15 favorites]

I'm someone dealing with mother and boundary issues -- so can only speak from my point of view. I've not been the partner of someone whose mother has boundary issues but I wonder if I can offer some thoughts.

Firstly, this is your partner's issue to deal with, you can talk to him about it but not to his mother. It's then up to him to set clear boundaries with her vis a via his relationship with you and also his relationship with her.

The thing is if you've spent 99% of your life without those boundaries it's really hard to set them. Not only might the other person resist, they're likely to increase their intrusive behaviour because they feel afraid, hurt and threatened. I say this not to engender sympathy for your future MIL but to highlight what your Partner will be up against.

The other thing is his own feelings about his mother. He may be aware of the intrusiveness if her behaviour but still get drawn into the pattern because she's his mum and that's how it's always been. There's likely to be some ambivalence there for him.

So be aware that this boundary setting process is a long, hard slog (five years and counting for me and you wouldn't believe the words that passed between my mother and I last weekend!). It's also likely to be a bit of a tightrope walk for you between empathising with him and standing up for yourself. Ultimately, you only have control over your boundaries.

So not an answer as such but some things to think about. Hang in there... you sound a caring and thoughtful person.
posted by prettypretty at 4:46 AM on September 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Everyone's mother-in-law is special. I've had two and so I like to think about it like this:

You will end up hating your mother-in-law. No matter what you do, how much crap you put up with, however much Christian love you expend, you will end up in the same place. You will despise the woman like a disease. For she will NEVER STOP and never change. She will not listen to reason or plea. She will be the bane of your existence. Not just a thorn in your side, but the centurion's spear thrust unceasingly into your abdomen.

You will regret will be that you were ever nice to her, that you ever had a kind word for her, indeed ever imagined she was anything but evil. And then you will realize how much time you wasted not hating her right from the start and you'll be even more angry with yourself.

Or maybe she's really not all that bad and you'll get to like her.
posted by three blind mice at 5:08 AM on September 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

I need to check on my father-in-law; he was alive last I checked, but then again, my supposedly only-child wife has kept the existence of a brother from me all these years. What I mean to say is THIS WOMAN IS MY MOTHER-IN-LAW.

Except, because my father-in-law IS alive, the amount of things we do to help them around the house is extremely minimal and reasonable. But oh my God, the calls. I don't even look at caller ID any more. If the house phone rings, I just say "It's your mother."

I have primarily let my wife handle the boundary-setting. As a family with children, we've pretty much acknowledged that our "me" time together is shot to hell for now anyway. You have painted a potentially interesting picture of our future as empty-nesters, especially if my FIL should pass away first.

I think you do have to a) encourage your partner to do the boundary-setting insofar as the behavior affects him primarily. Now if she starts calling YOU, or asking YOU to do things, I think you can and should treat her like any other adult and not be excessively put upon. This is a strategy you should encourage your partner to undertake, too. If she "needs him to come over right away to replace a light bulb," he should say "I can be there Tuesday," or whenever.

YOU start planning your schedule meticulously weeks in advance. At least as far as she's concerned. And encourage your partner to do the same. You're dutifully falling in line; if he finds himself having to choose between spending time with her and you, he may gain some perspective. Some of this stuff is a judgement call as to how much time is reasonable, but it is definitely NOT okay to force people to dance to your tune.

Another thing that needs to happen is your partner needs to find this woman a handy(person?) and offer to call him or her (at her expense) to handle these home improvement chores.
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:09 AM on September 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

My point of view on this is different today than it was 3 years ago....because I've become more keenly aware of my own aging.

Ever see the episode of Mad Men where Don comes to his son's birthday party even though his ex, Betty, didn't want him to? She decides it's okay when he shows up. She tells her new husband, "it's okay, we have everything.". Right now, you have everything. You have a loving partner, and you have your youth. You have the anticipation of a full family life with children (if that's what you want).

She, on the other hand, is becoming irrelevant. She's losing the contact with family through death, and maturity. She doesn't have more children to act as a buffer.

You--you have everything.

So here's my advice---stop looking for more examples to support your theory that she's treating your husband like a partner. It'll turn even small requests into weighty "proof" of your theory and that's not really fair. Assume she is coming from a good place. Be content to find a few ways that your husband can create a buffer -- like not answering the phone every time she calls.

And then do something counter-intuitive. honor her. Call her up and make plans that are about her. Hug her longer when you say goodbye and tell her you love her. She might become more secure, carry the glow of your closeness long enough when she's alone that she needs to call you all less often.
posted by vitabellosi at 5:21 AM on September 12, 2011 [46 favorites]

I agree with the other commenters that this can only be solved by your Partner. Unfortunately, it sounds like he and his mom are pretty deeply enmeshed and it will be very difficult for Partner to set boundaries with her...especially with her penchant for guilt-tripping "selflessness" (i.e. "but you don't need to come and help, I'm sure you have more important things to be doing!").

You asked for what was reasonable so you can discuss it more with your Partner. Here is my opinion:

The emotional support she seeks is not really a healthy dynamic between a mother and son. She seems to be an emotional vampire who is seeking using the pity party to manipulate your Partner. Only he can put an end to this and should to the extent he is hurt by it and is seeking your commiseration. Perhaps you can set a boundary with him that says to the extent Partner is not willing to discuss his discomfort with the one causing it, you are not willing to continue to be the one he bitches about it to.

The practical support, especially given that she can do things herself, seems excessive too. Perhaps your Partner can set aside an hour a week where he helps her with things that she can't do (i.e. lifting heavy things) and to "teach" her how to do things she can on her own (i.e. change a light bill, pay the utility bills). He is enabling her learned helplessness and should put his foot down on these things too. You can set the boundary that you do not need to be there to help.

The control and manipulation is bad but is working as intended. She gets to set the schedule because your Partner does not want to hurt her in her "fragile" state. Again, your Partner needs to be able to say no to her schedule if it is too burdensome. And you need to be able to say no to your Partner when he agrees to her schedule. Perhaps if you stop being your Partner's constant support by spending half the weekend at her house, he will be more likely to want to spend less time over there and be willing to tell his mother no. Make your own plans and go out and have fun. If your Partner consistently chooses his mom's house over spending time with you having fun, you will see what your future looks like.

You are the third wheel...yuck. Partner needs to cut this out ASAP. My MIL is pretty wobbly and needs help walking and up and down stairs and either I or my husband will extend our arms out for her to lean on and provide balance. Short of that being the situation, your mother in law is acting really creepy and disrespectfully.

All that said, calling for help to turn the water off is entirely reasonable. But I completely understand why you might not be able to see it since she has cried wolf so many times before.

That is my two cents...but you need to discuss this with your Partner and see if he is willing to set boundaries with her. In the meantime, you have to set your own boundaries by not agreeing to be his lovely assistant as he magically changes light bulbs and pays bills for his mother.
posted by murrey at 5:26 AM on September 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

If your partner doesn't regard this situation as problematic then yes, you are setting yourself up for a lot of pain and frustration. You can and should tell him how you feel and what you need, but the boundaries between him and his mom are not yours to set. If the situation does bother him enough that he's willing to invest some time and effort into doing things differently, this book might give him some perspective and ideas about how to deal with it.

From here, it really doesn't sound like there's a bad guy in the situation - just some unhealthy ways of dealing with perfectly legitimate emotional challenges. Labels like "quite manipulative/controlling" aren't helpful. Virtually everyone tries to manipulate and control others into giving them what they want. The problem is with patterns of interaction between people, not one person's fundamental character.
posted by jon1270 at 5:43 AM on September 12, 2011

There's so much going on here... I'll try to take it in bits:

1. Death of someone who was an emotional fixture in your life (in your mil's case, her husband). Recently I had the sad opportunity of observing the reaction of my friend's eight year old daughter to her grandfather's death. She is a very independent, outgoing, jolly little girl - but in the aftermath of his death a few months ago she started pooping in her pants again (five years after completion of potty-training). A lot of other signs of self-infantilisation started appearing around the same time. However, what the real shocker was actually the grandmother's reaction, which probably heavily contributed to the girl's own troubles: she latched on to this kid as her emotional support, continuously saying things like "I am so alone now grandfather died", "it would be so much better if I were dead too", "grandad took care of everything, now he is gone I am just going to rot with noone to help me etc" (he had been actually pretty passive, and she was the fieldmarshal in that household, now she suddenly is this fragile maiden). So both of them are infantilised by the event, and the adult is dumping it all on the kid. Also, as you describe of your own mother-in-law, "promoting" the next-closest person into the role previously occupied by the husband, but with a difference - the husband that is being replaced is (one of) the ideal versions of husbandness, which allows her to be all girly and protected and spoiled and weak. It's almost like in the inevitable grief and feeling of loss there is mingled a gleefull determination to turn the event to some advantage, and obtain from an essentially helpless dependent-surrogate what no real-life partner could ever give you - your dream-version of Prince Charming from when you were 12.

Even though your partner is a 30 years old man, I think he has some things in common with my friend's 8 years old daughter (dependent, the love for his mum, an instinctive desire to protect his loved ones and be there for them, etc). Clearly, he is an adult and will have developed strategies to deal with things which are superior to a child's, but, unless he confronts this situation head-on, with full awareness of both his own boundaries and the areas where he is willing/capable of making concessions, the fall-out, I believe, will be great (and probably much harder to cope with than poop in pants, since it will most likely present much more insiduously). This as far as he is concerned; now with regard to you:

2. I know a few couples where the man has more or less voluntarily come to occupy main caregiver role in his mother's life (in one case, the mother's husband was still around, but rather absent), much to the detriment of their investment in the relationship with their spouse. The women in these relationships have stayed on, continuously berating the husbands and moaning and whining to everyone within hearing. Sometimes the complaints got loud enough that the husbands (very) temporarily introduced a shift in the dynamics, but then the situation would deteriorate again, and the wives ended up more and more bitter and contemptuous of the husbands. The husbands start to hide things from the wives (since after a while ANY investment into the mother becomes suspect and grounds for a fight, or sullenness and tension - at some point, even normal stuff comes to feed the dissatisfaction), and family occasions come to be dreaded and are often genuinly traumatic.

3. Everyone around the couple and especially the wives inevitably remove themselves after a while. Those who had no choice but to stick around (kids, other relatives etc) were badly affected. Especially kids - imagine permanently living in this maelstorm of emotions, where you love mum and dad, but they constantly hurt each other, and mum hates grandma, and grandma does all in her power to undermine ma, and dad colludes with grandma, is sort of weasely in front of ma who turns into a battle axe, dad is kind of fucked up though and possibly takes it out on you a bit, as might mum, just cause she is furious again, and everyone maipulates you more or less and treats you like a pawn, until your role in life seems to be to mediate between these adults, when you are not kicked about by them (or someone else with noone there to protect you, cause everyone is too busy fighting their own battles). This, by the way, does not describe what happens between nasty, fucked up individuals, but rather what happens to good people who come to live with a fucked up dynamics.

Your partner's father has died a while ago, so, even considering your mil's possible temporary infantilisation by the loss I mentioned under point 1. above, she should by now be well over it, and should really have developed some sort of independent life as a single woman with LOTS of different sources for emotional support. However, given that the strategy she has developed is fully (if grugingly) indulged by your partner, there is no need for her to emerge from the infantile stage (and, if you think of the way kids behave, why should she? She's getting what she wants, or thinks she wants - why rock that boat?). Even if this is tough for your partner to accept - and who wants to think of parents as dependents - he probably has to go boundary-building with her big time, patiently and respectfully, but very firmly, to manage to change how this river is flowing.

And you yourself, I strongly believe, have to go boundary-building with him, again, firmly, but taking his situation into consideration, in order to salvage the future of this relationship as a fulfilling rather than soul-destroying thing in your life. What else? Wait until your mil is hit by lightning?

One of the really interesting tools I've seen for illustrating similar situations to the people involved is this: have both you and your husband separately draw to big circles. One circle is for giving, the other for receiving. Draw into the giving circle proportionate slices representing all those people and situations your energy is given to, including yourself: your partner (presumably a large slice, since he is your partner and also needs and excess of energy due to his mother-related problems), your mil (who draws a lot on your energy even if you don't actually communicate with her, just through the pressure she brings onto your relationship, or by cutting your intimacy short), your job, any friends who might be going through a rough time themselves, you yourself, to the extent that you are consumed by anxiety, give yourself a hard time over things, push yourself too hard in whatever area, etc. The slices in your receiving circle ilustrate where you DRAW energy from: again, I assume this will have a slice from your partner (he is supporting you, you have wonderful moments of intimacy, do stuff together, whatnot), your mil (you have some great chats at times etc), job, if that is the case, friends, if the case, hobbies, you yourself (great self-talk, bubble-baths, you go to massages, whatever else you do to increase your own energy-levels), strangers, pets, whatnot.

These two circles should reflect how you feel NOW - noone HAS to be present, noone has to be included cause you had a wonderful conversation 5 years ago, noone has a pre-determined slice size. So, for instance, if you feel that you don't really receive anything from your mil now (and by now I don't necessarily mean today, but not 3 years ago either), then don;t draw a slice for her.

Get your partner to draw his own circles. Check your two own circles a couple of days later, see if you still feel the same; get him to do the same. There are a few things to pay attention to:

a. Are there things in your "giving" circle that do not appear in your "receiving" circle? If so, this is an enormous red flag and needs to be addressed. The aim is to eliminate this discrepancy, by either not giving in that direction any more, or else getting that person or situation to be present in your "receiving" circle in an appropriate way (which you decide).

b. Is your "receiving" circle full? If you cannot come up with enough slices to fill your circle, but your "giving" circle is full, you may be close to burn-out, emotional or otherwise. Attend to this immediatly, make your partner aware of this.

c. Is the "you yourself" slice in your receiving circle too small/non-existent? See to yourself as soon as possible, in whatever way you need.

d. Is your "you yourself" slice in the giving circle too big? What feeds into it? Anxiety? What about? Unfulfilled longings? The kind of stuff to which (even short term) therapy might be an answer?

e. Are your and your partner's slices in each others circles a decent size? This I personally ideally take to mean a big, if not the biggest, slice in the receiving circle, and a somewhat smaller slice in the giving circle (I say this because ideally what you get from a parner should FEEL more than what you feel you give them). If not, communicate.

As long as there is a measure of good will on all parts, I have seen this work quite well (not, without at times, lots of discussion). Once you and your partner have figured out what's what in your relationship and with regard to your mil, you might even try to bring this to her - but I'd say with respect to her this is more a last resort-type thing, to be used after your partner has already tried other boundary-building avenues.

Good luck!
posted by miorita at 5:56 AM on September 12, 2011 [12 favorites]

The problem here isn't the structure or frequency of your communication, it's the content.

I have a mother-in-law who calls every day, who is interested in every detail if everything we do, who we often spend half the weekend with. I don't come from such a high-communication family, so it was weird for me to begin with, but you know what? She's a lovely woman, and it's totally fine.

But it's only fine because she isn't making plans on our behalf, she isn't leaning on my husband for her emotional support, and my god she wouldn't dream of taking my logical place with my husband when we're out and about, which is what your third-wheel stuff sounds like. If she calls at a bad moment, we can say "Hey, we're sitting down for dinner/at the grocery store/finishing a movie, call back in an hour?" And no hurt feelings.

How long ago was your father-in-law's death? Because it sounds like your mother-in-law is dealing with some serious abandonment anxiety, and is clinging to your partner with everything she has as her sole defense against Being Alone in the World. I'm not sure how you could address this -- there's not a good way to get HER into therapy, is there? Your partner should lead off any boundary-setting conversation with "You know I love you very much, and I'll always be there for you," because that's what she's really after. Maybe he can just take up reminding her of that from time to time. And then... I guess if you're lucky, just hearing that often enough might help her relax a little bit.

I absolutely agree you should have no part of any boundary-setting conversation, because that's the fast track to becoming That Witch My Son Took Up With. But... yeah, don't have kids until you're completely comfortable that this is fixed.
posted by Andrhia at 6:04 AM on September 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

My MIL is not quite this attached, but a lot of this sounds very familiar. After my husband's father died she did learn on him for support in many of the same ways you mention. His father died 9 years ago - and she has never dated again (she was widowed at 55), formed a social circle other than former work colleagues or siblings, or taken on any hobbies. Her life now is bringing up her grandchildren (we don't have children) whom she babysits 3 days a week. My husband and his mother speak fortnightly on the phone with emails in between and the only reason it is this infrequent is because we now live on the other side of the planet. Every call is doom and gloom about all the negative things in her life.

You need to encourage her to form friendships, and take up hobbies now before this goes on any longer, and before you have children. She needs to build a life beyond her immediate family. Maybe sign up for a class, and see if she wants to join you. Then 'oops', you can't make it for a couple of weeks but you think she should still attend. See if she'd like to go on a trip with a group. Or join a book club. Perhaps in time she will rely on your partner less.
posted by wingless_angel at 6:09 AM on September 12, 2011

On rereading OP's post, I see that she has hobbies and friends etc, but I still think something you do in a class together could be helpful, rather than the monotony of weekend visits. And it may also help with the "I just don't have the brains for this, I'll never understand it," issue. My MIL says this all the time too. We talk a lot about her martyr mentality.
posted by wingless_angel at 6:13 AM on September 12, 2011

I lost my best friend/love of my life of 13 years this June and it was like my world turned upside down (I'm 37). The pain and grief is indescribable. I lost interest in my hobbies and sports. There are some days you want to crawl into a hole and never climb back out. Thank God there are friends and family to help give you a boost. That being said, I found comfort in being around family who felt my pain, but I didn't expect them to cater to my every whim and stop what they were doing and take care of me. At some point you have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and start living again.

Have you ever lost the love of your life? Have you ever had to deal with the emotions and depression that go along with that person dying? Losing someone that important to you can incapacitate a person. Please be patient and tolerant of your partner's mother. Put yourself in her shoes. Losing a partner is horrible and I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy, but she can't play the weakling forever. Being more independent will help her heart heal and show her that she doesn't need to rely on others. Being independent is empowering. You sound strong and healthy - maybe you can show her how to be.

Perhaps you can help bond with her by helping her find a new hobby to occupy her time -- so she won't need to rely on her son so much and so you won't be so resentful. Is there anything you can teach her or is there something she can teach you? Some sort of craft? Can you take a class/lesson or something together? Perhaps a cooking class? Does she have any interests? Find out what those are and help her remember what she liked so much about them.

Don't make your partner choose between his mother and you. It's not fair to him. She will always be his mother, but he can always get a new girlfriend/wife. Be understanding of your partner too - he lost his father. It's not an easy situation for anyone, but if you're planning on marrying this person, the mother will be a part of both your lives in some capacity. Best not make it awkward for the three of you and especially if there will be children. Ugh. Good luck.
posted by ATX Peanut at 6:51 AM on September 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

I don't have this experience with a MIL, I guess I'm lucky in that I have a really great MIL, I do however have experience with this with my own Mother. After my father died it took her a good 3 years or so to really come out of her clingy funk even then it was only really when I said to myself enough is enough and ever so slowly started disentangling myself from her life.
I had to do it for her as well as for me as she had stopped being a vibrant well read and traveled woman to someone who could barely make it shopping and back by herself.

I just slowly and gently stopped being available all the time, I couldn't drive her someplace for some made up reason so I would then carefully help her work out arranging her own transport. She needed repairs done I gave her the number of the local handy man and told her I'd pay for it. I still visited, I still called numerous times a week, I still make sure she is OK and managing OK, I just took more control over when they happened and how long the calls lasted. I slowly and gently started treating her like an adult.

I loved her dearly (and still do) I just needed a bit more space. It took maybe another 2 years for her to fully get independent again and 2 more years after that she is currently off traveling solo around Europe and the USA as a 70 yo, legally blind diabetic woman and having a ball.

Your partner is doing her no favours by encouraging her behaviour, I have no idea how old she is but if she's only in her 50's or 60's she still got too much life ahead of her to be treated like a child even if she want's it that way right now. Gently nudging her to independence would be best for everyone concerned. Of course that doesn't mean you cut her off cold turkey or have to be mean or ignore real concerns or even never help her again, it's just like getting a baby bird to fly, sometimes you have to give them a little nudge out the nest and be there to catch them if they fall.
posted by wwax at 6:54 AM on September 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

These are boundaries your partner has to set. You need to have a good sit down with him and let him know in no uncertain terms how much the cumulative effects are bothering you. You can come up with a plan of action together of things that you are comfortable with but he has to be the one to implement it.

If he's not willing or able then there is nothing else you can do. If you try to set the boundaries yourself you will be made the villain.
posted by TooFewShoes at 6:58 AM on September 12, 2011

Throughout your explanation, I see your mother-in-law has anxiety problems, self-esteem issues, passive-aggressive tendencies... and on top of all that, she's lost her husband.

Has she gone to therapy? Would she be open to the suggestion of therapy?

One thing that might help is if your husband realized that his current way of interacting with his mother isn't actually helping her. She sounds like she's not very happy, not at all -- it's good that she has a fairly active social life, but the clinginess and neediness just don't sound like attributes that a very happy person would have. So when he rushes out to help her with something she most definitely should be able to do on her own, or when he stays on the phone longer than is in any way appropriate because she keeps guilt-tripping him, all he's doing is reinforcing the very unhealthy habits she has. He's not helping her be a happy person; he's helping her remain a very unhappy person.

If your husband is as unhappy with this situation as you are, I think he should start to comment on her unhealthy attitudes/behaviors and suggest therapy. "Mother, what you just said about yourself isn't true, and if you really feel that way about yourself, I think you should talk to a therapist. I'd be happy to help you find one." -- "Mother, you are a smart and capable person, and I know you are able to do this on your own. It hurts me to see you doubt yourself so much, and I think a therapist could help you with that. Want me to find out what your insurance covers?"

It's not shutting the door on her. It's just not relenting to her "do this or I'M NOT IMPORTANT" narrative. It's a way for your husband to show he cares, to actively help her, but not let her problems dictate him.

Of course, this is the sort of thing only your husband can do. I think hearing fromhim that she might benefit from a therapist would be a lot different from if you said so. What you really need to do is talk to your husband and come up with a consensus. He has to be the real agent of change here.
posted by meese at 8:23 AM on September 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I respect that you are uncomfortable with the status quo, but frankly I don't think their relationship sounds terribly unusual or off-putting. The maintenance of my own mother is distributed across me and two siblings, but I bet if it was all added up it would amount to roughly the same burden shouldered by your husband.

When you are young and getting married and starting a family, you imagine that you are laying the track that ensures you will have love and support for the rest of your life. Sadly, things don't always work out that way. Your mother in law is very lucky to have a son who will help her with these things is still interested in socializing with her. She's probably keenly aware how many women like her -- even women with adult children -- don't have these things. And as nice as you may be to her, she is probably terrified at the possibility of a wedge coming between her and her son as he starts a family of his own. She feels threatened by you, and is trying to establish -- to both you and your partner -- that she and her needs aren't going away anytime soon.

You need to love this woman. On the occasions when she takes your husband's arm, you should try taking her other arm, and let her be in the middle. You need to accept her (and the care of her) as a long-term consideration of starting a family with your husband. The more genuinely you open your heart to her, the easier it will be to assert yourself during the times when she is asking too much. She will accept advice and criticism from you much more graciously if she truly believes that she's included in your overall concerns.
posted by hermitosis at 9:09 AM on September 12, 2011 [5 favorites]

Like prettypretty, I have this relationship with my mother. I am an only child and both her husband and her child at the same time. It is a bitch and god knows my exes were all super fucking fed up with me for not "setting boundaries." You know how sick I am of hearing about boundaries? I can yell NO all I like, but that doesn't stop mine from mowing me down like she's in a steamroller a lot of the time. We have the same fights over and over again because no matter how much I say no, nothing resolves or stops. I will be having these arguments when I'm 95 and she's 150 or whatever.

In some ways, Partner's mom is now his child--AND his wife. He can't abandon a child, can he? Think of the guilt and shame and "what an evil person I am" thoughts you would have if you abandoned a child, or told her, "No, I'm not going to do what you want." The shitty behavior escalates from there, and it becomes a question of, "am I willing to pay this price? Will I enjoy doing what I want today if I never hear the end of it about how I abandoned Mom while she was feeling down, and I'll hear about it until she dies?" And the "now you're my spouse" thing really sucks, but again, you feel like an evil asshole refusing her and leaving her to feel even shittier and lonelier.

I don't have any solutions for the problem other than to stay single, though, because god knows I can't have a mother/wife/child and an SO at the same time and while SO's can and will leave, she can't. But I just wanted to let you know exactly what you are up against emotionally: an entangled relationship that has been going on for 30+ years and she has no other outlet to cling on to unless she finds another man (and good luck there).

A friend of mine recommended this author for this kind of thing, and from the one book I've seen of hers, they sound good.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:12 AM on September 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

It has been my experience that the best thing that you can do for yourself is talk to your partner about setting up a "Mother's Special Day". Say for example every Sunday. On that day every week your partner can give his mother his full attention. The compromise is that the rest of the week will be devoted to his other responsibilities (work, you, etc).

I did this we did my partner's mother and it worked marvelously. The trick is that your partner has to be very strict about this, and he can't blame it on you when his mother questions the rule or attempt to see how far that she can bend it. He needs to inform her that he will be busy all week except Sunday and that is not up for negotiation.

If his mother calls for a reason other then a true emergency, then he politely tells her that they can discuss it on Sunday. If she needs a light bulb replaced then it will have to wait until Sunday, etc. When Sunday rolls around, I suggest that you leave him alone with his mother so that she has his full attention and you don't look like the "chaperone". Believe me when I say, though she may be very kind to you and possibly even enjoy your company, at this difficult point in her life she is not calling or coming over to see you, she wants to see her son but is willing to politely tolerate you for his sake.

I realize this goes against intuition to basically remove yourself from your future MIL's life and give up a day with your partner, but it is really a temporary arrangement that has long term benefits. If it works for you as it did for me, then in the first few months she will have a laundry list of chores for your partner to do on Sunday, in between complaints about how she wants more of his time then one day a week. Eventually (as long as your partner does not bend to the rule, or blame its existence on you) then she will realize that if she wants to have quality time with her son, then having him do a variety of chores is not the way. Why spend her precious few moments with her son having him change light bulbs when she could just do it herself during the week and do something fun like go to the park with him instead? That is a huge step, and is one that she needs to figure out on her own as she will most likely resent anyone trying to force that "advice" on her.

Eventually (for me it took about a year), she will begin gain independence. Once she is OK with her new single life (and hopefully proud of herself for it) then you can relax the restrictions and begin to reenter her life or see outside of her Special Day.

It bears repeating that most important aspect of this method is that your partner must insist at all costs that it is his decision to see her once a week. Otherwise, you risk your MIL seeing you as competition for her son's affections and hating you forever.

Also, he must be strict with this rule. That means getting his mother a cell phone for emergencies and politely guiding her to use it to get herself help. If she were to call him and say that she has a flat tire, for example, then he needs to say "Don't worry mom, I will call AAA and send them to you right away, where are you?" not "Ill be right over". She needs to realize that she can handle life's difficulties without her son as a crutch (this excludes moments where she truly needs your son's immediate assistance of course).
posted by Shouraku at 9:13 AM on September 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

I want to add a couple of things because I think my post last night might have been overly negative.

-- the overall goal of my post was to highlight what your partner might be up against in attempting to effect a change, should he choose to do so, not demonise future MIL. I think there is room for empathy for her but too -- she's obviously going through a hard time and coping in the way she knows best.
-- I ought also to give some credit to my mum -- our battles over the last five years haven't been her choice and in a way I am "doing this to her" but she has made changes and has tried to understand where I'm coming from even if she doesn't fully get it -- obviously we still clash. I point this out because if your partner is interested or able to make this change, it may not be fruitless -- it can work. Of course he can always choose to walk away but that's his choice alone.
posted by prettypretty at 4:02 PM on September 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Shouraku said something like what I was going to suggest. Ah, our relationship with my MIL is not entirely similar to yours--but she does end up asking Mr. G for a lot of help with things. Mr. G's dad has Alzeheimer's, and his mom is really busy with caring for him and with work... and also kind of mechanically inept sometimes. She's also taken on a lot of the things that Mr. G's dad used to do, so sometimes she just feels too overwhelmed to deal with even some of the simple household things she used to do.

The way it's worked for a few years is that he stops by her house once a week and does various household chores for her. She makes them dinner, they watch TV for a while, and then he comes home. He's happy to give her a hand and help her feel less overwhelmed by the world, and to spend some time with his mom. Now, I'm all for this because I love MIL too, and it's obvious to us how stressful her life has become. She's not needy and demanding, she's not overflowing boundaries, she's just way stressed.

So in your situation, well, it might help to do something similar: a regular visit where your partner helps her out with things and spends some time with her one-on-one. I don't know if it would help with the boundary invasions and the daily neediness. But if you set it up diplomatically and phrase things well, hey, maybe.

Why doesn't your partner just not answer the phone when she calls, if her calls are excessive/obstrusive?
posted by galadriel at 10:20 AM on September 13, 2011

Your MIL has made your partner her surrogate husband.
Perhaps you can take that as a tack with him, and try to work on how he can be her son again, instead of her proxy husband. Explaining it that way might even break through to her.... maybe.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 5:30 PM on August 11, 2012

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