How can I create a healthy relationship with my soon-to-be stepmother?
January 5, 2014 8:52 AM   Subscribe

My dad is getting married to a woman with whom he's had a very tumultuous, difficult relationship. They are moving across the country together, and I'm scared. Lots more details inside.

My dad has been in an off-and-on again relationship with L for four years. Early on, there were several seismic fights between them that affected the whole family. In one, she opened my dad's email without permission, found a message I'd sent to him, and ended up reading something that (long story) she held against my mom. From that point on, his previously amicable relationship with my mom was over. In another, she got angry with my cousin for rearranging my dad's kitchen cabinets while she was visiting. From then on, my cousins' annual visit to my dad's, which has been a tradition since I was a child, has been hugely fraught with tension. I can provide details of the fights, if necessary, but the point is that they were the kinds of inexplicable, over-the-top explosions that have us all, in my dad's words, walking on eggshells around her.

In addition to the fights, day-to-day interactions with L are, for lack of a better word, difficult. She is casually degrading and disdainful of my dad in a way that is hard to watch. She also has a way of jabbing at you, verbally, in a way that is difficult to address in the moment but that, by the end of an hour of conversation, leave you feeling bruised and miserable. Two areas of "contention" are who is in control of my dad's house (as evidenced by the bizarre cabinet fight) and money. It's hard to explain, but it's like we're involved in a turf war with my dad as the prize. If, for example, I bring up staying with my dad over the holidays, she hints that it's because we want to save money on a hotel and that we're taking advantage of my dad by coming to his house. My dad is a big gift giver, no matter how much we tell him to dial it back, and I can tell L hates when he gives us expensive presents. I found myself, this Christmas, spending way more than I could afford on my presents for them as an attempt to "prove" that I wasn't trying to exploit my dad by getting gifts from him. In retrospect, that sounds insane, and it kind of is. The whole situation is exhausting, confusing, and upsetting. She never says anything to us directly - it's always subtle hints and insinuations, or -worse - if we really upset her, she'll turn around and take it out on my dad. Not surprisingly, it is slowly driving a wedge between my dad and the rest of the family. Every visit becomes about not setting off L, or managing her moods if she's angry. As a result, visits have become shorter and shorter, and we see him less and less.

My dad knows the relationship isn't healthy. He and L have broken up four or five times, and in that time, we've had frank conversations where I've told him straight out that their relationship didn't seem good for him, and he agreed. But then, a month later, they were back together. My dad's explanation for all of this is that L has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, but that she's a good person 'underneath.' I buried the lede on that because I'm not quite sure how useful it is as an explanation (I think it's a kind of fuzzy, gendered diagnosis), but there you go.

My dad and L talked about getting married within six months of meeting. This plan was interrupted when he discovered that she'd had several short term marriages she hadn't told him about. Now, though, they are planning to move across the country together. Today, my dad called and told me they are getting married, once she signs a pre-nup. It was a strange conversation. He sounded miserable about it, but he said it wouldn't be fair to ask her to move with him without getting married, which in a way I understand. In any event, I think this just formalizes what I've known to be true for a while: my dad has made the choice to be in this relationship, and there is nothing any of us can do about it.

I am pretty sure L thinks of us kids as the enemy right now, as competitors for both my dad's money and affection. I want that to stop. I truly do not care about any of the material stuff and I've tried to think of a way to convey that to her - or say it straight out - but I've been stuck. For my dad's sake, we've always done our best to avoid making her angry, but now that they've moved, the only way to see my dad will be to stay at their home, which she will hate. She's already hinted that we won't be welcome to stay in the house for more than a day or so. We need to go against her on this, right, or else we'll never end up seeing my dad? I worry about him being isolated and about her convincing him that he has no one to rely on but her.

Should I try and talk about any of this stuff directly? If so, how? I feel like, especially now that she's part of the family, we need to stop white knuckling it through the visits and bring at least some of these tensions out in the open, so that they can be resolved...but I'm scared of the repercussions for my relationship with my dad if it explodes into a big fight. Basically, I want to call a truce with L. I am worried for my dad. I want to stay close to him, and so I want to have the healthiest possible relationship with L that I can.

Can you tell me what I should do?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
First of all, it takes two to tango and your Dad enjoys the dance.

There's a book you might want to read called Stop Walking on Eggshells, that may help you understand BPD and how to deal with people who have it.

Basically, stop engaging with her. It's a losing battle.

If she says something hurtful, call her out on it. "Lisa, that's a hurtful statement." Or simply, "HARSH!"

Don't buy into the money thing. That's her problem. If your Dad wants to buy you stuff, graciously accept.

Your Dad has signed up to be in this relationship. He's an adult and it's his decision to make. If she starts in on him while you are there, feel free to contradict her. "Lisa, that's a really disrespectful thing to say to my father. I wish you wouldn't put him down in front of me."

If L really does have BPD, you can't win on her battleground, you just can't. It's a mental illness and the only thing you really can do is emphasize your boundaries and not put up with her shit.

As for your cousin, rearranging cabinets is a pretty bizarre thing to do in someone else's home. I'd flip MY lid if someone did it in my house.

If L says something like, "You're just staying here because you don't want to pay for a hotel room," a good response would be, "You're right. We like to visit often and a hotel would make that a very expensive proposition for us. I love my father and want to see him as often as possible, accepting his and your hospitality makes it possible for us. You're certainly welcome to visit us in return. That's how our family works."

I would buy the book, and one for your Dad. I would say to him, "I know that you love L and that you will be making a life together. I know she has BPD and that it makes her difficult to deal with and frankly, downright mean. I love you and I want to have a relationship with you, and to that end I'm telling you that I won't allow L to be mean and nasty with me or my husband. I'm not going to make allowances that impede upon my comfort and security with my family. I want to insure that no matter what, that you and I will always have a close relationship, even if it means that you'll be visiting us alone. I love you."

Then never bring it up again. Ever. Continue to reinforce your boundaries, and always have an exit plan if things go south.

This isn't easy, but you need to model a healthy response to her bullshit so that your Dad can learn from you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:10 AM on January 5, 2014 [27 favorites]

Stop trying to please her, it ain't gonna happen. However, that does not mean you have to stoop to her level either. In all her dealings with her, make it so that you will recollect them with your head held high. Stay peaceful and calm (fake it, damnit!). If she gets tense, that's her problem. She's angry you are there or that you exist? Also her problem. Remain calm and friendly. Do not allow her to see that her hurtful words affect you. She likes having that power over you. Don't give it to her, or least pretend that it doesn't exist. Eventually, hopefully, she'll see that she's the only one unhappy about your presence/existence and will back off.
posted by Neekee at 9:10 AM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think the healthiest relationship you could muster at this stage of the relationship is "avoid verbal communication when possible." The ball is in her court to stop being a negative nancy, not yours.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:12 AM on January 5, 2014

It is going to be impossible to have a relationship with her. Sooner or later she will explode at you too: when the time arrives walk out after telling her she is not free to yell at you. It is very important in cases of mental illness, to set clear and well defined limits of what will be tolerated, and yelling is not acceptable.

Continue to have a relationship with your dad: phone calls and visits, but don't stay with them. You will need your space. Good luck
posted by francesca too at 9:14 AM on January 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yes, you should go visit your father. Tell him you want to see him. Before buying tickets, ask him if those dates are all rights, and go.
posted by Neekee at 9:16 AM on January 5, 2014

Best answer: So I can relate to your situation on a lot of level after 20 years with my own stepmother. What I've learned:

- Your father will always have to symbolically put her above anyone else and especially you. Just let it happen. There is nothing you can do to make her feel more secure or that you aren't actually in competition with her. She's in a competition with you and she always will be. Just accept this fact and ignore it to the best of your ability.

- There is no middle ground as far as visits and gifts. In her eyes, your father will always spend too much money on you and too much time. You will always be a spoiled brat who is using your father. Trying to compensate or even things out by giving equally extravagant gifts or staying in a hotel will do nothing. So just ignore her and continue on as you normally would. The only thing I do is thank both my father and stepmother for any gifts I receive (even though I know my father gave me whatever he did over her extreme objections). I pay lip service to her and therefore she feels superior and benevolent and that seems to help at least a little.

- I predict that if you try to confront these issues with L it will massively backfire on you. It will only serve to shine light on L's atrocious behavior and she will find ways to punish you for it and make your father further distance himself from you to once again "prove" his allegiance/love to her.

Remember that your father knows his soon to be wife is crazy and that you are not. So while it isn't right, he knows that he can bend to her manipulative ways and then behind her back go to you and tell you he's really sorry, but this is just the way it has to be because you know, stepmom be crazy and that you'll be understanding and sympathetic because you are not crazy.

Bottom line, keep the peace to the extent that it is reasonable. Always be polite and civil, even when she isn't. I try to conduct myself like I'm straight out of a Miss Manners book. Constantly asking if there is anything I can do to help, paying her neutral compliments, and asking about her family and garden. Accept the fact that your relationship with your father is going to be different and increasingly limited. Ignore her or make your father deal with her when all else fails.
posted by whoaali at 9:21 AM on January 5, 2014 [17 favorites]

The fact that he wants her to sign a prenup tells me your dad isn't totally clueless. The fact that he wants her to sign a prenup makes me wonder if they will really get married, because it is entirely possible she will not want to sign it.

I wouldn't walk on eggshells around this woman. And I certainly would never stand for watching her insult your dad in front of you. She is going to try to freeze you out no matter what you do so you might as well set your boundaries now.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:31 AM on January 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

All this petty drama about who emailed what to who and who rearranged cabinets when?

Stop getting all wrapped up in that. Let it go. Stop letting the petty whims of this woman affect your lives so deeply.

Same for the casually dismissive comments. These types of conflicts are a two-way street. Stop reading everything as a passive-aggressive dig against you. Stop altering your behavior based on what you think she'll think. Stop deciding that you are ENEMIES over this stuff. You say none of it "matters", but the wheels are already turning in your head. You have to stop letting her get to you like this.

That said, there's a lot in your question that would give me pause, too. I mean, whatever you think of a parent's partner, you want them to be good to your parent. The whole "several short term marriages" thing freaks me out, too. I'm sure it's just that she's too unlikeable/unstable to deal with long term (witness their on-and-off status) and nothing more insidious, but still.

At the end of the day, though. There's nothing you can do. Your dad has made the decision to have this woman in his life.
posted by Sara C. at 9:32 AM on January 5, 2014

Best answer: (As someone who knows a Borderline Personality Disordered biological mother very well...)

You can't control L's behavior. You can't talk with her about it. Part of BPD is manipulation of those around them, but also themselves. She thinks she is completely 100% justified in her anger, and convinces herself and others of that.

Have a relationship with your dad. Be frank with him and say "If L does X (yelling, fighting, jabbing, etc), I'm not participating." Then hold to that.

If L starts a fight or makes a jab, say "I'm sorry L, please don't speak to me like that or I will have to leave." And the DO IT! (Like Ruthless Bunny said.)

Be sure to tell your dad you love him, but can't won't be spoken to like that. Don't make it about "it's L or us." Just make it about the fact that you love him, but you also have to love yourself and not put up with that crap.

I totally understand how difficult this is. I cut off my biological mother of all contact when I was about 16. Luckily my parents were divorced and I lived with my dad, but I can't image having to be around someone like that again in the situation you're in. It's tough and sticky, but you have to make boundaries and follow them. Try not to be mad at your dad, and understand the relationship is probably really tough for him too having his GF and kids fighting, but arguing with him about it won't change his mind. He has to change his own relationship by himself.

And from what I read, this DOES sound like BPD, although I'm not a doctor, etc. Your dad probably likes the highs or mania states. Often people with BPD have moments where they are extremely loving and make their partners feel 'on top of the world' followed by the behaviors you're seeing. I'm guessing when the nasty behaviors get too much, and they break up, she comes back to him in a manipulative state and gets him back by acting like her 'true self underneath.' But that's total speculation, just based on my experience. Memail me if wish.
posted by Crystalinne at 9:41 AM on January 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Talk to your Dad. Don't say, "hey Dad, your girlfriend is a bitch," because he already knows that deep down-- and he knows how you feel about her, too. No doubt you discussed it at during one of their many break ups.

Instead say, "Hey Dad, you know I love you right? You know we all support you, and us kids are here for you, whatever you and L need?" Basically, if she's trying to turn your Dad against you, and isolate him from you, you need to be there. And you kinda need to give her no ammo for her fights. Which basically means, sucking it up, dismissing the crazy, and being as awesome as you can be, both to her and him. She will probably try and find things to fight about, but they will fizzle quickly if you don't engage.

This basically means that you can't treat your Dad like you used to, though. Like, the person you grew up with, and know so well, is not the same person, really. And that kinda sucks, but it's true. It's a little like when my brother got married. His wife can be trying. They don't even like each other most times. But they're a unit now, albeit a dysfunctional one. I can't tell him familial things that to me seem innocuous, like, gossip about my mother-- that she's dating again for example-- because he tells her, and she jumps on that knowledge and uses it as fodder against us or to be nosy or mean. So I treat them as a unit; I don't tell him, send him, or share anything that I wouldn't be comfortable sharing with her. After a while, you get a feel for what kind of info they cling to, and you know what not to mention. I also make sure my side of the family is on the same page regarding what we do and don't disclose to them. Your father is the same, right now they're an extension of each other, so you kind of need to treat any family info as such. So no more emails with anything possibly sensitive.

You don't have to outright declare a truce with her either, or discuss the tension with her. For one thing, she's never going to agree to a truce, maybe partly because it would be admitting you were at war. But you can discuss it with your Dad somewhat "We know you love L, and we all want you to know we respect your decision regarding your relationship and we don't want to fight with her, because we care for you. It's really important to us that we get to see you and we all get along." Then declare the truce in your mind, and act accordingly. Try and pretend that there is no tension. This doesn't mean placating her if she starts something, but it does mean not getting into it, either.

Maybe she is bipolar, maybe she isn't. I don't think this changes the way you need to interact. I guess what I'm saying is just keep killing her with kindness. Fake it. Fake it until no one can tell the difference. It'll be hard, but just think of it as a ncessary evil, to keep your Dad in your life. Just keep taking the high road. If she's as toxic as you say, soon she'll be at the bottom of the hill and you'll be at the top.

It sounds really trying. Good luck with it.
posted by Dimes at 10:27 AM on January 5, 2014 [8 favorites]

It's those kind of little strategies for soothing her and smoothing out the relationship that I feel like I need help with.

My mother has BPD. While my father was alive after I left home and I wanted to still be part of their life however tangentially I managed my mother primarily by never contradicting her ludicrous view of herself as the perpetual brave victim of bad people and tolerating in turn her mawkish sentimentality and inexplicable rages. But even that didn't always work because her narrative often dictated that I was the bad person. And when you are the bad person in a BPD person's narrative, trying to soothe her is seen as any number of bad things. It can be condescension, or a plot, or sarcasm.

So I think what you need to do is to appease her on the one hand by agreeing with her, and on the other hand be determined to not allow her behavior to determine your relationship with your father. Ultimately, however, all of this is up to your father. If he lets her control his relationships then you are at her mercy just as he is.

Here are the main ways I manage my mother. I always agree with her. If my mother said the sky was rainbow striped and she was the king of Spain I would nod without a blink.

I manage the volume and type of information I give her and anyone with whom she speaks. You need to compose from this point on every email that you send your father as if she were going to read it and assign the worst possible construction to the contents. Assume if you call she will be on the extension listening if it's not a cell phone. Since your father has apparently decided to take the 'she has a good heart' approach, you will have to buy into this narrative with him, too. You can't complain about her to him. You may both know how outrageous it is to be forced to behave this way, always managing what you say to your father based on what she will think, but it should always be unspoken. To her and to your father, she should always be spoken of as being perfectly reasonable and justified in everything.

In terms of what you tell them both, you don't want to give them any more than you have to, because they use it as a club. But if you give them too little, they imagine things and it's always worse that way. You need to pay attention to the types of stories she tells about other people so you can construct a narrative about your life that will be just a little pathetic so she can feel that she is in control, but not so pathetic she can decide you are a threat. Based on that story about the presents, I'd say you need to tell your father, if you're determined on appeasement, that he cannot give you any presents that she does not suggest herself. If that means you don't get any presents, that is what it will take.

You need to treat her like she is the most important person in your father's house. Every interaction with him needs to be managed with regard to how it will affect her. You need to be very obvious about considering her as the most important person in their house and as much as possible you need to consult her about any interaction with your father. That way she will feel that she is being given the importance she deserves.

She will eventually find some reason to cast you as the villain in some drama she's imagined. When it happens, you will need to cry and apologize for having done whatever it is. You are so sorry for having hurt her, but you didn't mean it. If you grovel effectively enough and quickly enough, she might forgive you and only mention your offense once every other conversation for years.

Constant appeasement and unhesitatingly accepting her view of everything that happens. It's exhausting in person but if you manage most of it over the phone and through email it's almost bearable.
posted by winna at 10:38 AM on January 5, 2014 [9 favorites]

Since you want concrete suggestions, I'll add in some other things that have had positive results over the years:

- In addition to gifts, constantly thanking her for just about everything. Often, multiple times.

- I usually get my stepmother very thoughtful gifts that touch upon an interest that she has or is from a store I know she likes. I've never actually done this (because part of me hates every minute of doing stuff like this, but it works), but if I really wanted to do it up, I would not only get her a gift, but I would pick out a thoughtful Hallmark card and include a nice personal note in it. I know she would love that type of over the top gesture. You should already be planning your over the top Wedding present (that should be entirely geared towards her, not your father) and should certainly include a very thoughtful card about how happy you are for them and how wonderful she has been to you. I realize you are going to die a little bit inside when you do this, but I think it'll be pretty effective. Same with the wedding toast, just remember it's HER big day.

- Be aware that expressing minor personal preferences that are different to hers will likely be interpreted by her as a harsh personal rejection so limit these as much as possible. Like the same movies as her, the same food, etc... If she offers you anything, you should take it. I don't always follow my own advice in this regard, but I find that when I do it really helps. So she's suddenly into unsalted raw almonds and she offers you some? mmmm these ARE so much better than those unhealthy Christmas cookies. Same when ordering food at a restaurant. My stepmother basically hates anything, but the blandest of foods and gets bizarrely agitated when me and my dad order anything (even though it's for ourselves and we always also get what she wants) that she doesn't like. I realize it's because loving specific foods is something me and my father bond over and that's why it upsets her. You have to decide your own tolerance in this area. I generally do what I want, but I'll throw her a bone if the trip is going really horribly and deny myself whatever I'd rather be eating and get whatever beige bland overcooked food she suggests.

If I were to give you a formula for making my stepmother happy, I would say constant (and enthusiastic) deference to her preferences + lots of bland compliments and unoffensive small talk that focuses on her +lots of gestures that show you respect her position as woman of the house and the undisputed #1 person in your father's life

Basically, pretend like you are a charity project that has been hoisted upon her and constantly give thanks to her for her generosity of spirit in allowing you to stick around.

I 100% admit I'm doing a lot of projecting here and all of this may or may not be relevant to you, but I think if you are able to understand her general perspective and insecurities you will be able to find a path forward to creating a fragile peace that will allow you to maintain a relationship with your father.

On preview, everything winna said. My stepmother doesn't quite demand that level of subservience, but I think she would revel in all of it.
posted by whoaali at 10:43 AM on January 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

I do want to add that I think it is absolutely horrifying and terrible to behave in the way I've outlined and no one should live like that. But you asked for strategies for how to deal with her and those are the only ways that worked for me.

Personally, I don't speak to my mother now that my dad is dead unless she calls at least eight times and threatens to come to my home three states away to speak to me.

Good luck.
posted by winna at 10:44 AM on January 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Be aware that expressing minor personal preferences that are different to hers will likely be interpreted by her as a harsh personal rejection so limit these as much as possible. Like the same movies as her, the same food, etc...

Seconding this. I have a relative who's probably on the NPD spectrum, and I have learned over the years that this is extremely important. Differences in taste (music, food, movies, fashion, celebrities, books, etc.) between most adults are generally of little to no consequence. But to someone with a personality disorder, their tastes are a hyper-manifestation of their identity (which, being fragile and unstable at its core, they must protect at ALL COSTS), so differences in tastes are perceived as personal attacks, which will then be turned around into a defensive attack on you.

If you like something she doesn't like, be totally silent about it. I know, it's totally bizarre and stupid to have to pretend you don't like jazz, or Indian food, or Jennifer Lawrence's haircut, or the French, or whatever it is she happens to hate. But the life of someone like this is defined by extreme black and white thinking, in which everything -- and I mean everything -- is either ABSOLUTELY GOOD or COMPLETELY EVIL. Nothing is neutral. They are incapable of handling nuance or ambiguity. The idea that you could like something she dislikes and still be a decent human being is literally unthinkable to your future stepmother. "Conform, shut up, or die."
posted by scody at 11:02 AM on January 5, 2014 [15 favorites]

Best answer: Someone I am very close to has BPD. Not a significant other, but probably the best friend I have, at this point. I have made conscious choices to put up with some of her behavior because, well, she's important to me. But also because there are very few people who aren't actively antagonizing her who are permanently people she has a problem with. It's always difficult and it can be exhausting and this is certainly not to say you MUST do anything in particular, but I have found that patience and not holding past behavior that was due to mental illness against someone goes a long way towards maintaining a relationship. At least, when you don't have to live with the person.

Basically, your dad's maintaining his relationship is his problem. Purely looking at your relationship with L: Be charitable. Be kind. Don't put up with abuse, don't be a doormat, but the way I've generally learned to think of it is that this person is in a great deal of emotional pain and pain makes people difficult to deal with. It seems to generally go over well when you acknowledge that small things hurt that person more than they hurt you, and that you don't want to hurt them, and that you are going to continue making an effort not to hurt them but will probably continue to make small mistakes because you are human.

Like: Imagine having such arthritis that just getting out of bed at a normal speed makes your joints scream, and then someone bumps into you. That's why the fights end up being about petty stuff, because the petty stuff hurts in ways it shouldn't. My personal experience suggests that it goes a long way to not necessarily apologize for things that aren't your fault, but just to acknowledge that the situation turned hurtful and that their feelings are still there and need to be dealt with even if it's not really reasonable. Just making that effort, I'd say that about 3/4 of the time things are totally fine, and the other 1/4 is rough but tolerable.

And get a hotel when you go visit, so that both you and she can back off and get some space if things get strained.
posted by Sequence at 11:09 AM on January 5, 2014

Oh, of course, the corollary to "be silent about what you like if she dislikes it" is "explicitly agree with what she likes, even if you dislike it." If she wants to see a movie you don't want to see, you have to go see it anyway and find something pleasant to say about it afterwards. (Unless she winds up hating the movie, in which case you have to agree that it was terrible, but not in any way that would imply she is to blame for having made the choice to go see a terrible movie.)
posted by scody at 11:11 AM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, you're going to have to bite back a lot of crap and headaches and total bullshit and random acts of unsettling aggression if you want to continue being a part of your dad's life, unfortunately. My mom's (unmarried, thank christ) partner was a bigoted racist viciously nasty assbag who was directly abusive to me for 15 years and I had little to no relationship with my mom as a result.

Don't feel bad if you have times where you just cannot cope with it anymore. Don't blame yourself or call yourself weak/stupid/uncaring/etc because you have to stay home/go far away from them on one holiday one year. Sometimes you will need a break from it and it's no kind of shameful behavior to take a breather.
posted by elizardbits at 11:26 AM on January 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Why do you want to learn to tolerate someone with BPD?

"Dad. Your relationship with L has been unhealthy for all of us. I realize she has BPD, but that means it's on her to do the work to try and relate to us in emotionally stable and mature ways.

What does her doctor say about this?

Moving or getting married to L with her condition I untreated (and unmonitored?) is not the right choice if you truly love this woman and want what's best.

I can only be involved if L is under treatmeant and we can speak honestly about conflicts if/when they arise, otherwise, I'll need to keep a safe distance away from you and L until such time as she's ready for treatment."

After that, you should refuse to get involved until/unless L gets help.

Or y'know, engage in all the dramaz that is BPD.*

My mom is BPD, it ripped my family apart. Two things (a) catering to L's illness won't help her get better and I strongly urge you not to go there or participate , and (b) your father is an adult and he's separate from you - honor his choice and grok it.

Please don't support this illness by pretending or walking on eggshells. Support treatment, keep yourself out of danger. Good luck.

posted by jbenben at 11:35 AM on January 5, 2014 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Sorry, one more thing. If there is any preference that you and future stepmom share, make the most of this connection. Do you both like cats? Both like to knit? Both like gardening? Bring these topics up in conversation (and use them as ways to change the subject in conversations that are going nowhere fast). Give gifts centered around these things. This isn't going to make you two best friends, but it may remove some of her perception of you as a threat. (Just be careful not to look insincere, or to look like you're trying to eclipse her in any way. You may both like to garden, but her garden is better. It just is.)
posted by scody at 11:45 AM on January 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

scody's last comment is exactly what I was talking about when I said to be just a little pathetic. Whatever you do, you are always not as good at it as she is, but be careful not to overdo it. And if you do anything better than she does, never mention it or if someone else does, deprecate it like crazy.

Normally I am all for saying dump your family if you have to put up with this kind of thing, but since you specifically asked for advice on how to work within her insanity that is the approach I have taken with my advice. If you've never had to deal with someone who has BPD on a personal level, OP, you may think we're exaggerating, but we're really not. It is an enormous draining mess of work with no reward. But if your dad is set on this woman and you want a relationship with your dad based on appeasing her, you are in a very difficult position. If he's cutting people out of his life over her whims, taking a firm stance on her terrible behavior will mean he will cut you out of his life, too.
posted by winna at 11:52 AM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

How can I create a healthy relationship with my soon-to-be stepmother?

Others have provided excellent and detailed answers implying the simple answer I'll give you, but I'll spell it out explicitly: You can't create a healthy relationship of the sort you envision with someone who has untreated and unmanaged BPD. You can minimize the drama through some of the strategies others have given you but that is not a healthy relationship. But if she marries your dad she is going to see you as a threat and that will create a dynamic which will require constant care and attention from you for it not to turn into a drama explosion.

The healthiest relationship you can probably manage is to make it clear to your dad that you will not tolerate drama from your stepmother and then enforce that rule. If she causes drama, leave. Do not engage her. Ever. That's the best you can do.
posted by Justinian at 12:07 PM on January 5, 2014 [7 favorites]

you sound exceptionally decent, kind, and generous about all this. Whether or not your approach "works" with her (and it probably will at least most of the time) your father will surely appreciate it, and your own head will be a great place to inhabit.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:01 PM on January 5, 2014 [14 favorites]

Another thing you need to prepare for: when she inevitably tries to draw you into her drama about other members of the family. E.g., trying to force you to stop talking to or seeing your cousin. Realize that you actually are going to have to draw boundaries at some point, and you may not be able to mollify forever.

And be prepared for none of your approaches to work. But it's great that you love your dad enough to try.

And don't be afraid to throw in the towel. If this is causing you too much difficulty, it's fine to give up for a while -- even years. You don't have to make any huge deal about formally cutting them off; just bow out. I will say that the BPD stepmother in my life has actually improved over time. Not quite sure why, but she is much easier to deal with now. It did take decades, though.
posted by yarly at 5:06 PM on January 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

or maybe a lunch with just the two of us.

I wouldn't. Not the one on one thing.
I'm possibly being paranoid that you might fall into new best friend zone. Dangerous?
Or, only do things very much in public?

It'd probably be better if you somehow became 'supportive wallflower person'.
Any positive feeling for you, can just as easily switch to the EXACT SAME STRENGTH of negative feeling.

So, if she's cordial with someone, if the 'bad' switch gets flicked, they become a slight annoyance.
If she's best friends with someone, then that flicks into enemies, from the perspective of the bpd person, it's like the closer someone is, the more they have to hurt you if they've gone 'darkside'. And it's not a disagreement, it's cheesy movie style 'darkside'.
There is no disagreements, just bitter betrayal, vengeful vendettas, and occasionally tearful dramatic reconciliation (especially if you are a romantic partner).

The closer the relationship you have, the more of this comes out. BPD is a disorder of close/intimate relationships. If you aren't close, you can miss/escape a lot of it.

Being a bit boring can keep you further under the radar too.
posted by Elysum at 8:03 PM on January 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

Nthing yarly & Elysum......

- Be prepared for none of your strategies to work and/or backfire -- you are GRAVELY underestimating the paranoia factor of BPD, especially because your role is a competitor/daughter.

- Better to not get intimate . BPD really rears its ugliness when people are close. Boundaries and distance are your friend.


I'm gonna reiterate that you stay fair, but distant.

You're not helping her be healthy if you relax your boundaries. She has a tough fight that I'm not convinced she's facing honestly, and she'll never get any sort of well or healthy if her illness is indulged.

You have to be your most mature self, no more and no less, to help her. Model good behavior, don't get sucked into the drama.

Best to you.
posted by jbenben at 8:42 PM on January 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

« Older Let's turn this garden up to eleven!   |   How to make Thunderbird mark all new messages as... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.