Posted by fxckfeelings on July 19, 2012Share This Post
If your relationship feels threatened by your partner’s attachment to a difficult, intrusive parent, you may well feel that you have to fight for his/her time and loyalty, but going to war over an in-law is like getting involved in a land war in Asia; a classic blunder, per “The Princess Bride.” Instead, remember that, while a partnership requires a mutual commitment of time and energy, it also must leave room for work, exercise, and time with friends the one party doesn’t like. So draw up a schedule that minimizes three-way togetherness and maximizes stiff-upper-lip politeness and the repression of negative feeling. It might occasionally be painful, but of course, life is pain, and anyone who says differently is selling something.
My partner and I are both in our 60s with difficult marriages behind us. We have separate homes dozens of miles apart but meet often, share many interests, have a healthy sex life and enjoy meals out, daytrips or just being together. His elderly mum lives some distance away and is socially awkward with a serious hoarding issue that escalated when her husband died. Part of her house is uninhabitable due to this, and she goes without hot water rather than let someone in to repair her broken boiler. We used to get on OK until last year when she started coming to stay with my partner on a frequent basis for visits of indeterminate length. She would be included in everything we did and be a real pain. I tried to be understanding but tension mounted and came to a head on her sixth visit of last year when, without discussion, she began getting into the front car seat with her son leaving me to take the back. He denied and defended her behavior and blamed me. I feel I am being cast in the same role as his ex-wife whom he also blamed for “being difficult” with his mother. Her needs were put first over the Christmas holiday and there was another furious row when she wanted to extend the visit and he felt guilty for saying no. To be fair he is now trying to set boundaries and consider my needs but she is about to arrive again. How do I protect the relationship and what is left of my sanity from her manipulations without looking like the bad guy?
While the mother-in-law-from-hell has been around since the dawn of time—they provided the motivation for a daughter-in-law fish to escape onto land and evolve into human kind—this mother-in-law has created problems for her son before. Just ask his “difficult” ex-wife.
That means your situation is twice as challenging, because you’re not only dealing with an extremely sensitive situation, you’re dealing with one that’s been a deal-breaker in the past.
The only way you can avoid falling into the traditional trap of becoming a bad guy is to figure out what you think is reasonable and acceptable, according to your own needs and standards, in terms of how much you’re willing to share his time with his mother, and under what circumstances. After all, you can never be a bad guy if you know you’re doing the right thing.
Begin with the idea that it’s good for your partner to have the time and energy for a romantic relationship and that his mother would agree, if only she could observe and understand what she was doing, which, sadly, she cannot. As his partner, you’re not fighting her for possession of her son, but for his right to carve out a life of his own while taking appropriate care of his mother. Having staked out your values, write down visitation guidelines that give your partner time for your relationship while also allowing for regular contact with mommy dearest, preferably while you aren’t around; one of the advantages of not cohabitating is there’s plenty of opportunity for her to come around while you’re away.
Sure, you dislike the woman, but your argument for allowing less visitation than what she’d prefer has nothing to do with you being hostile, needy, or jealous. The fact is, there isn’t enough time in the day for him to have two close partnerships, nor is there a woman in the world who’d be able take him and his mother as partnership two-fer, so you’re trying to find the best compromise. All you can do is offer him the best alternative and hope he sees that it’s a great deal.
Don’t let him portray your limit-setting proposal as advancing your selfishness versus his commitment to his mother. You want him to be good to his mother while having an opportunity for a separate partnership, and you oppose guilt that makes him feel totally responsible for his mother’s happiness, because it will prevent him from living a life of his own.
Give it your best shot, and, if he doesn’t get it, you’ll know it wasn’t your anger or neediness that pushed him away, just the boundless guilt and blindness his mother inspires. Offer a better way with firmness, good thinking, and no emotional blackmail, and if he can’t take it, that just means he’s not for you (or due to evolve any time soon).
“I would hate to lose my partner to his needy mother, but there’s no value in our spending time as a threesome and I can give him and me a clear opportunity to spend time together as a couple. I hope he’ll find the strength to do just that but, if he can’t, it’s better to know now.”
I hate my father-in-law and have a hard time not telling him off. My husband tells me to be polite and stay away from him at family functions, which he nevertheless wants me to attend, at least often enough so it won’t cause comment. But I can’t tell you how much I’m annoyed by his father’s overly friendly, gushy style and the way he gives all his money to his deadbeat younger son and nothing to us, because he says we don’t need it. My husband and I make an OK living and we’re not hard up, but my father-in-law’s style and unfair behavior stick in my brain and I can’t stop thinking or talking about him. I think I should tell my father-in-law exactly what I think of him and why, because he deserves it and because it bothers me so much. My husband doesn’t agree and wants me to shut up about him (and to him). What do you think?
It’s honest of you to realize that you’re obsessed with your father-in-law not because he’s an evil person who does bad things, but because you can’t help yourself; your obsession is more like an allergy than a feud. You wish you could untangle your feelings and get him out of your head, but the sad news is that it’s often impossible.
Airing your obsessions gives you relief, but feeds the devil; the more you talk about him, the more you need to talk about him. The result is more arguments with your husband and a greater danger you’ll be rude to your father-in-law, which will mean more arguments with your husband.
You can try talking out your obsession with a shrink instead, but be prepared for the possibility that it won’t work. That takes you to plan B, i.e., living with an obsession that won’t go away unless you get a new husband.
Thinking in terms of long-term benefits, figure out how much you should let yourself share your obsession or show negative feelings towards your father-in-law with your husband. Then draw up your own rules for self-restraint and prepare to manage those urges, beginning with what you’re already doing; staying away from your father-in-law except for necessary family events, then keeping it polite, brief, and superficial, with your attitude in check.
When the inner devil expresses outrage about your father-in-law’s unfair gift-giving, remind yourself that you have no right to his money, you were not appointed by God to punish obnoxious personalities, and attacking him would turn you into a jerk. Assure yourself that you’re putting up with your father-in-law for good reasons; if your marriage is worth it, which you seem to feel it is, give yourself credit for your self-control. You’re not a victim, you’re just managing an uncontrollable condition for the sake of a good marriage, and you’re doing it well.
Check out the possibility that medication—a mental Zyrtec, if you will—might reduce the intensity of your psychic pain. It turns out that some obsessions become less painful under the influence of a high dose serotonin reuptake inhibitor, which is a fairly low risk category of medication. If you think it’s worth it, try one for a few weeks and see if it helps.
On the other hand, don’t get obsessed about getting rid of your obsession. Instead, give yourself credit for living with it as a necessary sacrifice; because you value your marriage and your control over nasty behavior, not because you haven’t yet figured out the perfect murder.
“I’m tortured by angry thoughts about my father-in-law, but I’m determined not to let him take over my mind, marriage, or morals. I’ll do whatever it takes to keep those thoughts from controlling my life.”
More advice from Dr. Lastname