#247: Marrying into a family with awful boundary issues, or, secrets of dealing with Highly Difficult People

Hey Cap,

I’m a 25 year old woman, in a great relationship and planning to get married this summer. I have what I think is a fairly classic piece of awkward that I nevertheless can’t figure out what to do about: I am about to acquire an awful mother in law – I’ll call her Alice.

Alice pushes my and Fiance boundaries in a lot of unpleasant, guilt-trippy ways, but the worst is that when she’s upset she throws tantrums. I know it sounds kind of silly to be so bothered by an adult behaving so ridiculously, but they really are scary – she will stare me down, crying furiously with her eyes still wide open (I didn’t even know that was physically possible) while telling me that she has only ever wanted me to love her. I don’t think she’s going to hit me, but they leave me seriously shaken, and all the stuff about how she wanted my love came WAY too early in my relationship with her son. The worst part is that pretty much anything can set her off. This summer I saw her flip out when Fiance suggested alternative rules for a card game, and then looked it up online to see what the official version was. She actually claimed that her rules should be good enough for him and it was disrespectful of him to look for a different authority on card game rules. This was evidence that he didn’t appreciate all the things she’d taught him as a child. SERIOUSLY.

For a long time, I would get angry when she did this kind of thing, and then Fiance would get angry at me for being angry because he wanted to appease her and then stuff the incident down the memory hole to get some peace. It’s really the only issue we’ve repeatedly fought about. But recently, after some extra-egregious wedding-related tantrums, he has started working on taking control of his own relationship with Alice. He’s stopped doing whatever will appease her. He’s going to therapy, and even had some sessions with his whole family mediated by their therapist. He’s agreed to some boundaries we as a couple can have with Alice, like presenting our big decisions as joint endeavors (i.e, “Letter Writer and I haven’t decided where we’re going to live next year,” as opposed to “LW wants to live in X neighborhood but I like Y better”). Because I’ve already spent years trying to convince him that her behavior was unacceptable, I’m trying to stay out of how he reconstructs their relationship. I feel like I’ve already been kind of meddlesome and I don’t want to replace Alice in the role of emotionally controlling person in his life. But at the same time I love him and hate to see him mistreated. And I’m not really looking forward to decades of awful Christmases.

So my question for you and your readers: Now that Fiance is fixing his relationship with Alice, how do I, as a somewhat peripheral character in what I think is an abusive situation, mitigate the unpleasantness of it all for myself, without screwing up his attempts to help himself? I do want to support Fiance. He loves Alice and is working hard to make some semblance of a good relationship with her, and he says that I will nuke his efforts if I didn’t at least show up to the allotted number of holidays and act pleasant. On the other hand, I’m wary of the idea that I’m just going to have to put up with her to make everyone’s life easier, because it’s one of her and the rest of the family’s favorite guilt trips to lay on me: Total lack of boundaries is “just how this family is” and now that I’m marrying into them I have to learn to roll with it. Am I insulting their family by saying I find Alice intrusive?! etc. etc.

I want to set my own boundaries but I can’t seem to make them stick. I try to call Alice out on her boundary pushing in the moment, but every expression of unhappiness with Alice’s behavior becomes the seed of a new guilt trip about our inability to love and appreciate her. At this point I can’t think of anything I could say or do that would break through what seems to be an incredibly strong wall of delusion and make her understand what would make our relationship workable, even just to the minimum standard of my not minding being around her. Recently, Fiance has been trying too, and it’s been ambivalently maybe better – I think it’s too soon to tell.

Other background: Fiance dad and sister are usually really nice to me, until Alice gets upset. When Alice pitches a fit, they fall in with her victimhood language and blame me or Fiance for hurting her. His sister once suggested that perhaps the reason I didn’t want to tell Alice all my innermost feelings and follow all of her advice is that I am a cold, damaged person who is incapable of relating to female role models (WTF). So I don’t particularly trust them, and I don’t know how to handle the niceness in a nice way without making myself vulnerable to the inevitable toxicity.

If it matters, I think Alice is like this in other parts of her life as well – She’s made some pretty implausible claims about people at work conspiring against her, and I know she’s stormed out of some meetings and burned some professional bridges. She also likes to talk about how the whole rest of their extended family has wronged her, from petty arguments to being abused as a child. Which, honestly, I don’t even care if it’s true or not, I’m sick of hearing about it like there’s a limited supply of victimhood in the world and she’s cornered the market because she’s the Bond villain of emotions, and no one can be upset at her because there’s no victimhood left for us.

And thank you so much for your amazing column!


Warning: Capacity for Dealing with this Bullshit Greatly Diminished

Dear Diminished Capacity:

First, I think you and your fiance would benefit from reading Dr. Karyl McBride’s Will I Ever Be Good Enough? and/or The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists.

Moderation Note: We are still not in the business of diagnosing strangers’ personality defects through the internet, so if you comment with any kind of “Yeah, sounds like x disorder” I am going to delete it and put you on “all your comments must be moderated from now on” probation. I am suggesting these books because they might help LW see the dynamic where one person’s emotions (and the threat of her displeasure) rule the entire family, and they offer guidelines for dealing with highly difficult people (whether or not there is any kind of diagnosable thing at play). Knowing (or surmising) a person’s diagnosis does not get you a gold star, because really, only behaviors matter.  Clear? Clear./Moderation Note

Here are some underlying principles that might help you in dealing with Alice.

You cannot control Alice’s behavior. You cannot predict Alice’s behavior. You cannot prevent Alice’s behavior. Alice is gonna do what Alice is gonna do, which is cry and shower displeasure and guilt on her family, who will cheerfully pass it onto you, because that’s how they roll.

Alice is going to throw tantrums and be shitty NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO. I think that is helpful to know. Keep reminding yourself. Alice will find ways to be shitty and intrusive, because she is a shitty intrusive control freak who needs to make everything about her and who will projectile vomit blame all over everyone.

Also, Alice is not going to get better. She is not going to have a sudden revelation of self-awareness and stop this stuff. She may mellow with age and time, but she is always going to be somewhat like this.

Here’s what’s powerful about realizing this:  Once a person shows that they don’t give a shit about the social contract and have no shame about throwing adult temper tantrums in public, it kind of frees you from giving a shit about what they think of you. They hold the threat of their tantrum (displeasure, guilt trip, sulk, whatever) over the family if they don’t get what they want, but you have the power to say “Huh” and not really even acknowledge that it affects you. Or you have the power to say “It really freaks me out when you cry and yell at me over what seem like minor things and makes me not want to be around you” to Alice or “It really freaks me out when Alice crys and yells at me over something minor and you all treat me like it’s my fault and not something very strange that she is doing” to his family. You have more power, because you have more self-control and are not shitty tantrum titty-baby. Permanently offended people lose power because it eventually becomes absurd and hilarious for them to be that offended all the time, and someone who insists “You don’t love me enough!” at every turn is living in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When Alice throws a tantrum, she wants you to inventory your behavior and wonder what you’ve done to upset her, and she wants you to walk on eggshells and be worried about upsetting her and to actively try not to upset her (Secret: This will always be a mysterious, moving target and you will never figure out how to prevent upsetting her).  Her family wants this too – it’s like they are afraid she’ll turn green and  bust out into nothing but purple shorts and wreck the secret flying Avengers lair dining room. Once you figure out “Oh wait, what did I do to cause this…NOTHING, because Alice reacts like this to EVERYTHING” you are free of running that little guilt-game on yourself. Alice, like Hulk, is always angry.

One way to reset the relationship with someone like Alice is to stare unblinkingly at them while they do their thing, and stay very calm. Once they pause for breath, say something like “What I’m hearing is that you’re very upset about x. How would you like me to handle x in the future?” in a very even tone of voice, as if the tantrum has never happened. Keep pushing for them to suggest what your next step should be. As long as they stay in the realm of vague “But I just wanted you to have read my mind and for it to have been magically better, in the past tense, which you can’t undo or control right now” stuff, you can’t really do anything about it.

I mean, dude, I hate the “non-apology apology” of “I’m sorry you feel that way” as much as anyone, but it was made for people like Alice. You can keep repeating “I’m very sorry to have upset you. Can you give me your best case scenario for what you want in the future?” until she gives up (probably in a huff, but who cares?) or actually spells something out, which people like Alice are TERRIBLE at doing which is why they have to rule everyone with tantrums. If she does manage to articulate a positive outcome,  you evaluate it and either say “Thanks for telling me, I’m pretty sure I can agree to x from now on” or you say “Thanks for telling me, I’m sorry, that’s not negotiable for me.

You and your fiance are already doing the right stuff – therapy, mediated counseling, boundary-setting and enforcing – and it will take a while for things to be actually reset.

Now, it sucks that the rest of the family are making this all your fault, when really Alice is the one out of line. So it takes some extra strength on your part (and your fiance’s part) to remind yourself “She would find something to be unhappy about because her baseline is unhappy” and “She is a grownup who can choose how she reacts – she is choosing the kind of relationship she wants to have with me, and if it’s going to be riddled with fighting and conflict, that’s not all my fault” when a grown-ass woman is giving you the water-eye.

The other thing you can do is limit your exposure to Alice. Negotiate certain things with your fiance, like:

  • Which holidays will you spend with his family vs. your family vs. just the two of you? He is responsible for communicating that plan to her. I’m sure her expectations about all of that are…unrealistic.
  • He is the one who picks out gifts and negotiates family stuff, makes and takes phone calls, remembers birthdays. It’s not your job just because you’re a lady.
  • Maybe agree on a time limit for visits, something like 3 hours maximum.
  • Maybe agree that he goes on solo visits sometimes. You will go to 30-50% of family events, and he will do the rest solo while you go to your family/play water polo/read books in blessed silence. He will give them vague excuses like “She wanted to come, but she had a thing. Next time!” Alice will say, “It’s because she doesn’t like me. I KNEW IT!” and your fiance can say “I’m sure that’s not true, but we can totally ruin this visit by talking about it if you want” and change the subject.
  • Maybe agree on a way to handle tantrums. If she gets very upset about something and takes it out on you, both of you try using your words “Sorry, Alice. What would you like us to do next time?/How do you want to handle x?” for a bit. If it gets worse, or she does it again, he is the one to say “Mom, I can’t talk to you when you’re this upset. We’re going to go now, I’ll call you soon,” and GTFO of there.
  • If his family insults you in front of him, he needs to be the one to say “Hey, that’s out of line. Apologize, or we’re leaving.” If he can’t do that? I’m sorry: DON’T MARRY HIM.
  • Your mantra for Alice is “Sorry, you should talk to Fiance directly about that.” Your mantra for Dad and sister is “Sorry, you should talk to Alice/Fiance directly about that.
  • Set up a joint email address for family to use to reach both of you, but really, only he checks it. Change your cell # and get a Google Voice number that forwards to a box that only he checks. In other words, don’t be their first point of contact. He’s the one with a sucky family, he’s the one who has to be the buffer.

The other things you can do are:




If Alice is nice to you, respond in kind (but do not trust. Do not trust, ever). Here are some mantras that are your friend:

  • Thanks, I’ll think about what you said.”
  • “Thanks for telling me that. I’ll think about your suggestion.”
  • “Thanks, I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
  • “I’ll look into that and see if it will work for me.”

You WILL think about her suggestion before you reject it, right? So don’t give her the satisfaction of picking a fight with you by rejecting her “helpful” suggestions in the moment. Reject them later, at your convenience.

If Alice is nasty to you, say “I’m sorry to have upset you“, ask for her best case scenario, punt it to fiance (who will soon be husband), and use “You’ll have to excuse me” or “We should change the subject now” or “I’m sorry, that just won’t work for me,” liberally. You can do the best by your fiance and by yourself by not holding grudges and treating each new interaction like you expect it to go just fine until it doesn’t. This is a lot of effort, but works really well with the Alices of the world, because it freaks them out. They expect there to be a lot of tension and rehashing of old fights, and when you’re all “Hey, Alice, nice to see you, that’s a great color on you, by the way, I tried your advice about the thing and it really worked, thanks!” it’s like psychological warfare. Think of it as nice gaslighting that you do for everyone’s good.

She’s always going to be exhausting, though she may mellow with time. You will never be able to let down your guard around her. Can you live with that? What’s the plan for when she’s really old and wants to come live with you? Or when you have kids and she wants to advise you on how to parent them? Encourage your fiance to stick with therapy and back him up/thank him when he bears the brunt of her displeasure.

58 thoughts on “#247: Marrying into a family with awful boundary issues, or, secrets of dealing with Highly Difficult People

  1. I’m so sorry you’re going through this, LW. Your description of Alice reminds me of my own mother, and the Alice’s of this world can be very difficult to deal with. CA has given *loads* of excellent advice here.

    You need to keep an emotional distance from the Alice’s of this world – but never, ever let them know you’re doing it. Be nice when they’re being nice, but don’t start to trust and expect niceness from them, because that rug can be pulled out from underneath you at anytime. Something as minor as wanting less mayonnaise in the potato salad, or not giving enough gifts at Christmas (even though she received 2-3x as many gifts as anyone else) can instigate World War III, as you’ve already seen.

    One thing that has helped me is to view people like this as children who can’t help it. It makes it easier to maintain that emotional distance, and keep from getting drawn into the Drama when she throws a tantrum. Bonus: they really don’t like it when you don’t let yourself get drawn into the drama. Doesn’t mean they’ll stop doing it, but at least their behavior is not being rewarded, and it can become a bit of a game for you, in a strange way. Just how long can I maintain a poker face this time? Can I beat my last record?

    Another warning I’ll give you: be prepared for Major Drama on and around your wedding day, and any other day when you and/or your fiance are the center of attention instead of her (e.g., birth of a child, anniversary, etc.). That’s just how people like this roll. In my case, my mother was unable to attend my wedding due to health issues, but she still tried to ruin it for me: the one and only thing she ever said about my wedding was that it was too bad I looked so fat in my wedding photos. Seriously. Hopefully Alice won’t be that bad, but be prepared for drama. As with the last post, I’d try to assign someone on Team You to keep an eye on her, if at all possible.

    Best of luck, and I do hope that your fiance is able to fully be on Team You. Give him some time – it’s difficult to stand up to mothers like this, and it can take a lot of therapy to learn the necessary skills. From what you’ve said he’s doing everything right in seeking out therapy and working with you to present everything to the family as joint decisions (great idea, btw). But if he caves sometimes, don’t write him off too quickly…it can take a long time to break a lifetime of training and gaslighting. Try to be patient, if you can; from the sounds of it he’s putting you first and making a good faith effort to change the way he relates to his family, but he may slip sometimes.

    1. YES on the wedding day and other special events. my mother refused to come (which was definitely for the best) and then tried to convince me she was missing the best day of her life because i didn’t want her there. my stepmother threatened not to attend because, among other reasons: one of her friends wasn’t invited to the rehearsal dinner, she wasn’t going to walk me down the aisle (though she WAS walking down the aisle–just not attached to me), and my little brother wasn’t in the wedding party (also walking down the aisle! just not standing on the stage!).

      i’d also suggest watching out for: throwing parties “for you” (birthdays, engagement parties, baby showers) that are nothing that you’d ever want. when you reject ideas, suggest alternatives, or are anything other than ecstatic about an embarrassing event full of strangers, you will be labeled ungrateful and your in-laws will wonder why you just don’t accept something you don’t want just to make her happy. hooray!

    2. One thing that has helped me is to view people like this as children who can’t help it.

      I second this advice. It’s helped me, not only to keep from getting sucked into the tantrum or fit of temper but also to get less angry. It doesn’t matter how much or how little control the person has – and sometimes they have little control – just seeing them as behaving immaturely can help you be less angry, less hurt, have fewer expectations of them than you would from a more mature adult, and not take things personally. Frankly she’d be doing this to anyone your fiance marries (I’m saying this because something she might do is bring up old girlfriends of his and say how wonderful they were and how they were always so nice and would have treated her with so much more respect… which is nonsense. She would have subjected them to the same behavior. Then again, she might also say those old girlfriends were out to get her too, so who knows). I also think the Captain’s advice of being nice and polite, while not confusing this for real emotional closeness, is excellent. As long as you do this naturally and simply, without rubbing her nose in it (like “ha ha, I’m the mature one here!”) it’ll almost definitely be a useful tactic when applied consistently over time and it will be more difficult for her and others in the family to paint you as the “bad guy.”

      It’s good to hear that your fiance is taking steps towards making boundaries. It will likely be a difficult process, because he grew up with an appeaser mindset as a way of coping with his mother. One thing to ask yourself is whether he’d believe his mother over you. Meaning, that if she trash-talks you behind your back, for example repeatedly making the claim that you’re trying to come between him and his family, who will he believe? It might be a good idea to tell him point-blank – just in a calm, matter-of-fact way – that you have no intention of coming between him and his family and that you and him will work together as a team to deal with each issue to make sure you can enjoy good times together with his family with minimal drama. Again, you are the soul of reasonableness, and show that you’re aware and sympathetic without consenting to be treated like a punching bag.

  2. Wow, this sounds like a nightmare to deal with! LW, you have my sympathy and all my ability to root for you. The above advice sounds like a great way to deal with unreasonable argumentative people. My dad definitely can be one of those sometimes, and I remember one of the clearer turning points in our relationship was when I started to go into arguments with these kinds of responses. Complete derailment.

    It was wonderful.

    Nothing like calmly responding to this kind of argument concerning my 8 year-old brother:

    Dad: “We kicked out of of the house and cut you off financially because you’re traumatizing your little brother by not spending enough time with him when you get back from college! He knows that this means that you HATE him because we made sure to mention it to him!” *puts little brother on the phone and coaches him to ask why I don’t love him anymore and made Dad angry*

    Me: “I’m sorry that I haven’t been spending enough time at your house, Dad. What would you like me to do?”

    Dad: “Spend more time at my house!”

    Me: “So, I should come back home then?”

    Dad: “Yes, why aren’t you here?”

    BOOM, not cut off financially anymore and have my room back.

    1. So this is my very first post here ever ever and I could not hit Reply fast enough to tell you that this is genius.

      Uh, yeah. Content-free post, sorry, CA.

  3. LW, and Captain – thank you, both of you, LW for your honesty and vulnerability, and Captain for your marvelous, marvelous advice. I have a mother-in-law who’s basically this, and LW, this part of your letter really stood out to me:

    She also likes to talk about how the whole rest of their extended family has wronged her, from petty arguments to being abused as a child. Which, honestly, I don’t even care if it’s true or not, I’m sick of hearing about it like there’s a limited supply of victimhood in the world and she’s cornered the market because she’s the Bond villain of emotions, and no one can be upset at her because there’s no victimhood left for us.

    My mother-in-law does that too. She will say the shittiest things, and when someone calls her on it, she will say that she is entitled to her feelings, and no one gets to tell her what she can or can’t feel about something, and cries a little and almost apologizes, but then brings up the fact that she was abused when she was younger. And you’re exactly right – it’s a tantrum, and it’s gross, because by making it about her abuse it makes it very, very difficult to hold any sort of line. No one wants to re-victimize her, you know? Or be insensitive to her history, or downplay the abuse, or whatever.

    I don’t have any additional advice to offer, just commiseration, and hope that things will work out for the best with you and your fiance.

    1. I don’t know if it’s any help, but as a person with a remarkably shitty childhood I can say with confidence that having been abused is not a get-out-of-being-a-jerk free card. It’s sad that she was abused, but that doesn’t magically make it okay for her to say awful things to people and then throw tantrums when they call her out on it. It’s her choice not to get therapy. I’m not saying it’s easy to find a therapist, pay for one, and do the emotional heavy lifting (it was really, really scary for me), but it is possible. She’s the one who’d rather hurt everyone around her than do that.

      In short, you’re not a bad person for pointing it out when someone’s behavior is not okay.

      1. “I don’t know if it’s any help, but as a person with a remarkably shitty childhood I can say with confidence that having been abused is not a get-out-of-being-a-jerk free card.” Ditto on this. Partly because, there just aren’t any get-out-of-being-a-jerk-free cards, but mostly because, almost all abusers have been abused themselves at some point. That’s where they learned the behavior was ok in the first place. If you give people GOOBAJF cards for being abused in the past, you will never get to tell any abuser that their behavior isn’t ok, which is obviously total crap.

  4. I have nothing to add to the Captain’s excellent advice except for an observation which may help to lighten your own internal mood. People like this always remind me of Ada Doom and “something nasty in the wood shed”. If you haven’t read the hilarious Cold Comfort Farm, then go do it right away because Ada is like the ur-form of exactly this type of controlling and manipulative woman. Dealing with the Alices in my life became so much easier when I recognized they were Ada and now any interactions with them are accompanied by my brain amusing itself by replaying “I saw something nasty in the woodshed”.

    1. Oh wow. I have a few Ada Dooms in my life too, and this is just wonderful. Thank you.

    2. ‘Yeah, but did it see YOU, baby?’….sorry, couldn’t resist!!

          1. And the movie! Why does the internet not provide me with a pithy clip of that scene!?

          2. Sorry, obviously didn’t realize it was a reference because I haven’t read the book or seen the movie. I’ll say 2 hail Marys and watch the movie in penance, ok?

          3. Actually, Cap, it’s pretty icky in the book/movie too. However, I found the whole movie worth it. Watch for the lingerie collection!

        1. If I ever see Ian McKellan in real life, it will take every scrap of willpower not to shout “There’ll be no butter in hell!” at him.

  5. One thing that I’ve learned about dealing with this kind of adult really resonates with what the Captain said about her tantrums breaking the social contract. When an adult behaves like this, it is shocking and upsetting and disruptive, and those who have to live with it bend over backwards to keep it from happening. People hate seeing a family member cry and scream and pitch a fit, and they will leap to appease her. This is great for Alice, because everyone ends up giving her fantastic amounts of attention and apologies, and end up behaving exactly the way she wants them to (deliberately behaving to please her/not antagonize her, but also in constant fear that she will Go Off at any moment.) This kind of appeasing behavior really does get locked in.

    The problem here (well, one of the problems) is that all of the power is being handed to Alice. All of the power. And it’s being handed over as a reward for behaving badly. In fact, I’m betting that Alice will throw random tantrums when she wants another shitload of power. She wants the reassurance that she is, indeed, the center of the universe, and why shouldn’t she throw a tantrum? It makes her feel amazing! Everybody does exactly what she wants! The definition of winning!

    But if you remove her ability to manipulate your emotions, she doesn’t have any power at all. Remind yourself that she’s the one acting weird here, not you. She’s the one acting like a toddler.

    Modelling good behavior when confronted with Alice will actually begin to feel good after a while. I know that it sounds weird now, and her behavior makes you feel angry and frustrated and probably disproportionately annoyed at your Fiance’s responsive behavior, but you have to understand that all of these feelings just fuel Alice. When you feel annoyed at Fiance for bowing to his mother’s whims, it’s because you’re witnessing him cheating – he is encouraging her to break the social contract by rewarding her. The frustration will never really go away, but as the two of you develop into a united team that refuses to hand over your power. Simple actions like smiling calmly, sitting back, raising your eyebrows, and perhaps talking quietly to each other removes the fuel from the fire. It may also change the family dynamic after a while, though I wouldn’t count on it. Alice’s behavior forces the people involved to become very manipulative, because Alice’s moods and emotions run the family, so in order to take control of their own feelings and days they have to try to control Alice. You may never have a pleasant adult relationship with your fiance’s sister, but it isn’t required of you. Smile, sit back, and look dreamily at your gorgeous Fiance. All storms blow over.

  6. I laughed a bit when I read this letter because I, too, have had a bizarre aggressive explosion from my mother-in-law about the rules of a card game! Is it… something that difficult MILs just really really care about??
    Anyway, you are definitely not alone, LW, which is obvious I guess but can really make you feel more sane when you are dealing with these laughably-silly-but-also-really-unpleasant scenarios. And I really cosign what the Captain said – your partner has gotta be able to be on your team with this. Even though it can be so hard, that sort of support is just really non-negotiable in a relationship.
    Best of luck!

    1. I’ve been present at a bizarre agressive game explosion too! It was dominoes, I think, but it was a looong time ago. Shouting and shovng and storming out and all sorts.

    2. My MIL said apologetically to me once that ‘we’re just not a gaming family…’ Between FIL and the three sons, any kind of game would always end in shouting and slamming of doors (and possibly crying on MIL’s part). I think I’ve managed to entice my husband into playing cards once. Now I’ve just resigned to the fact that if I want to play something other than computer games, I will have to turn to my own family.

  7. To the LW: I think you’ve gotten some really lovely advice so far, and I can’t really improve on most of it. I do want to say that I had a mother much like Alice, and she was just . . . she was the most impossible person I have ever had to deal with for any length of time, and I know exactly how trying it is. I have a lot of sympathy for your fiance, because I’ve been in his shoes as the one with the dysfunctional family and the one toxic family member that poisons everything.

    I don’t like recommending books as enthusiastically as I am about to, but I’m going to do it this time, because, having been in a similar situation, I think this could genuinely help you and your husband deal with her conversationally.

    The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense by Susette Hayden-Elgin (I’m talking the original, with that title, though the other books, focused on different aspects of the issue, are also wonderful) is the single most helpful thing to ever happen to my relationship with my mother.

    It is basically exactly what it sounds like; it’s about setting conversational boundaries and keeping yourself on your verbal feet. It’s not about aggressive communication or “getting the better” of someone else or manipulating them. It’s about how to have difficult interactions without causing harm, or worsening the harm that has already been done. It is about how to avoid being manipulated and caught in those conversational traps of “If you really loved me . . .” and “Well, it’s obvious that you don’t really care about. . . .”

    It is incredibly useful, incredibly wise, and incredibly sympathetic. After reading it a few times and practicing the techniques I was able to deal with my mother’s sniping, guilt-tripping, and undermining much better. It never got easy, you have to pay attention to what you are saying very carefully and that can be exhausting, but she quit being able to actually wound me, and I was able to avoid having fights. And as the number of not-entirely-negative interactions between us built, it became easier to handle her. It was never fun and happiness and light, but it helped so much, when nothing else really had. Especially because I’d been raised in that family, and had terrible communication skills.

    A lot of the stuff people are recommending in comments are variations of techniques Susette discusses in the book. So if you are looking not just for what to do but actual scripts for how to do it, check this book out of the library, or buy it, and the two of you can read it and talk about it together. It’s short, simple, and really just kind of cool. And it works. Even on really difficult people.

    I really, really hope you can get a handle on this, and I wish you the best of luck, both of you. It is a hard thing to deal with, and it is also good that you are working on this now, and not just letting it continue unchallenged.

    1. I second this book recommendation heartily. Haden-Elgin is a fantastic writer and a great lady.

      1. Yesss. I used to follow her on livejournal, and when I saw The Gentle Art of Self-Defence at Work on a library shelf the other day I actually squeaked out loud and said, “Suzette!”

        1. Fourthing this. The book will teach you how to recognize common abusers’ verbal traps and evade them without causing more damage to yourself or innocent bystanders.

    2. This book is wonderful. I read it several times and absorbed everything that I thought I could get, and then I passed it on to someone who needed it more than I ever had.

  8. This may be colored by my no-boundaries in-laws, but NOW is the time to set boundaries with your future husband about how much misery you are willing to put up with at holidays. I have come to absolutely hate all major holidays, because I spent the first several years of our relationship avoiding the issue (Yay workaholic families, “I have to work” trumps all family expectations) and then after we had a child I lost that ability and we had to fight our way through his expectation that I would go to all holidays and be on eggshells around his family so as not to break any (unspoken, unadmitted-to, but very real) rules of behavior and make his mom freak out.

    I know it’s #1 on the list of things to figure out now, but it’s the one that’s between you & your husband, instead of “how you can handle Alice”, so it’s easy to forget. But your relationship with him is more important than your relationship to her, and setting out mutual expectations – how much family time will you put in on days that are important to you as well as them, and how he will back you up on this agreement in the future even if she tantrums or guilts him – will help with that.

    p.s. my partner will never have my back vs. his mom. I wish I’d known that going in, but I’m not sure it’s a dealbreaker even if I had known. We went to therapy and it didn’t fix that issue, but it did let me know that even though it feels like terrible disrespect to me, it is the opposite – he is convinced they are just incapable of basic human behavior and since I am a good person with manners and people skills it’s fair to expect me to cope with them. It’s NOT fair, but it’s exactly his level of self-protectiveness vs. them as well.

    1. Cannot agree with this more. As toxic and unpleasant as dealing with miserable in-laws can be, if you can present a united front it’s a million times more livable than the stress of feeling like you’re always being unfairly put second to your partner’s miserable family.

  9. Wow. Good luck navigating the in-laws. It’s great that your fiance is doing his best to address the situation. However, he has a lifetime of conditioning to overcome, and it will be very easy for him to fall back into those well-worn grooves when returned to the family environment. Because of this, it can be very helpful to explicitly go over your joint strategy for handling his family as part of the travel checklist, along with packing luggage or whatever. And having that strategy and list of available scripts is so very helpful.

    My family dynamics are different, but for the first time, my querido and I sat down and developed a plan for handling my mom and stepfather during their 4-day visit to in case of one of their toxic battles. For the first time, I wasn’t filled with dread and anxiety about how to cope with their toxic relationship. And discussing our options, and what situations we would or would not agree to up front, definitely helped.

  10. I just wanted to say that it is awesome that you are sticking up for yourself and encouraging your fiance to do the same. It’s not easy to be the “whistle blower” or the person who points out when things are wrong. There is always pressure to not rock the boat, to just tolerate the way things are because it is how things are.

  11. This is all great advice. I have only a book to recommend. Feeling Good by Dr. David Burns. It is a cognitive therapy book and it has a lot of information on how to deal with this. I feel for you. My MIL is not evil like that but she has no boundaries. And she treats my husband like hes 11 and then criticizes him for acting immature. But shes just stupid not mean.

  12. Letter Writer here!

    Thanks Captain and everyone for all the great replies!

    I am passing on these book recs to my fiance and I think he’ll be really interested – he has been looking into books that might help. He is really trying to make this right and be supportive, we just don’t always know what to do.

    It really helps just to have people acknowledge that I’m right in feeling like this is a huge deal. Thanks for sharing about the board games especially! Sometimes I feel weird telling people, because things like that are so bizarre I feel like people will assume I’m exaggerating.

    And I really love this:

    “They expect there to be a lot of tension and rehashing of old fights, and when you’re all “Hey, Alice, nice to see you, that’s a great color on you, by the way, I tried your advice about the thing and it really worked, thanks!” it’s like psychological warfare. Think of it as nice gaslighting that you do for everyone’s good.”

    Because I try to do that already, but I was worried it was sort of implying that I’d forgotten how awful she’d been in the past, and that all was forgiven because I’m now being nice. But that is probably crazy because A) I don’t actually want to be in a lifelong rudeness vendetta and B) it’s impossible to imply things to her except what she implies to herself.

    I’m going to talk to the fiance about having a plan for kids. I’m becoming convinced we need a plan for how to handle that before we even start trying to have them.

    Thanks everyone again!

    1. I’m going to talk to the fiance about having a plan for kids. I’m becoming convinced we need a plan for how to handle that before we even start trying to have them.

      This is DEFINITELY something I would recommend talking about way, way in advance. One of the disagreements I get into regularly with my partner is about the amount of time our children spend with his parents, and it’s – it’s no fun, and an ugly strain on our relationship, one I would not wish on anyone. And the kids are young, yet, but it’s only a matter of time before they pick up on the conflict.

      Please, please have that talk sooner rather than later. I don’t mean to sound all doom and gloom, and I’m sure things will work themselves out no matter what, but I will bet dollars to donuts that it will be easier to have a plan in advance.

    2. Just by telling your fiance right now “that behavior from your mother is unacceptable” is a really good ground for future kid stuff – it makes a precedent for when you’re going to have to say “that is an unacceptable way to behave to/around my child” in the future.

    3. In fact, picturing his/your (as yet imaginary) kids being on the receiving end of this sort of absurdity may actually help focus and motivate your fiance when his determination to forge better patterns with his mother (and her backup chorus) is flagging. There have been things in my/my husband’s life that were really not ok, but we put up with them — until we had kids and were like, “that is not what we want for our kids.” So be made choices to make their lives better, and got to go along for the ride. The best thing you can do to protect your kids against toxic, emotionally abusive granny is to learn to stick up for yourselves before they’re ever born.

    4. I’m so glad the board-games-bonding occurred! Why are people so weird/hilarious?! This has really put a smile on my face 🙂

    5. Being nice to her is refusing to take on the role she’s assigned you (unkind, ungrateful villin). She may eventually figure out something new to cast you as (insincere fake-nice talking smack when she’s out of earshot?) but you’ll figure out how to dodge that one when the time comes. Right now you’re just approaching the situation with the way you want it to go–if you walk in nice and she goes all feral cat on you, it’s pretty obvious who instigated that one. You’re doing what you can to have a pleasant day.

  13. I am biased here, but your story hit a nerve with me, LW.

    My ex-husband had a dad who was controlling and invasive and he made me feel awful. Every time I was with him. However, said Dad owned a house at my spouse’s childhood location-of-choice. When I was there, I was treated badly – sworn at for changing a channel, etc.

    I discussed this with my spouse, and he agreed his dad was out of line. Many times. And how we’d resolve it. Both in therapy and in conversation. Yet, after this, his dad continued to belittle me and make me feel awful. Eventually, since I didn’t like his dad, the spouse went to his childhood house alone on holiday. Multiple times (over multiple years). Eventually, I got sick of “dad is better than you”, and left. I am now muchly happier without him. I wish I’d known before this that I was in an argument I’d never win.

    My point is that sometimes you won’t change your loved ones. They may not agree with you and may tell you you’re unreasonable, etc, but a lot of the time they will be the same. To be honest, if push had come to shove, you have to ask yourself what you’ll do. Is your love worth the pain (because she won’t get better) or will it be too much for you (no judgement – I left someone for this”.

    Best wishes! I feel your pain!

  14. LW,

    Good luck to you. I thought I’d pass along some advice from a divorced friend whose marriage was ruined by a MIL like this. Her number one priority for a new man: dead mother. Just saying don’t expect things will get better no matter what you do.

  15. I know a couple who are in a bit of a mentorship role for me and my wife (they are a bit older and had kids younger, so they’ve been through a lot) and the woman in the couple has an in-law who behaves this way. She taught me a great technique for dealing with tantrum-throwers:

    Me: [Pause thoughtfully for two and one-half seconds exactly]: You may be right.

    The pause gives gravity and finality to your apparent capitulation. Longer than 2.5 seconds and, of course, the tantrum-thrower will catch her breath and start in again. It’s One One Thousand, Two One Thousand, Three One “You may be right.”

    The best thing about this is you can share this technique with others, such that it becomes kind of a code – when you say it the tantrum-thrower thinks you’ve capitulated but the folks in the know (your fiancee, I hope) know you’re using your technique and can chuckle with you about it later.

    Good luck with this very difficult person, and I hope you and your fiancee get it worked out to your satisfaction!

  16. LW, your description of Alice reminds me a lot of what my parents have said about my paternal grandmother. She mellowed out a lot once she had a grandchild (me) to spoil, but it never really Got Better completely. Since my dad’s coping mechanism was to join the military and try not to get stationed anywhere near where Grammy lived, I was insulated from a lot of the ugliness in his family for a long time. It was an interesting process, growing up enough to become aware of when Grammy, who I loved, was behaving badly and hurting her family and seeing the damage she’d caused to my dad and his siblings.

    From what I’ve been able to gather, my mom (she of the saint-like patience and devious social skills) managed to cope with the MILs by a) distance, b) kind of steering Grammy, using a lot of the techniques CA and other commenters have suggested. Grammy loved Mom from the start, and Mom loves Grammy, but she is a black belt in the art of Politely Not Taking Anyone’s Crap. Mom was able to calmly redirect her moods before they became tantrums thanks to this. …Mom’s a first-grade teacher, so apparently she was born for this. 😉

    But again, it probably helped a lot that we only saw her once a year if that. You really can’t do that dance constantly without exhausting yourself.

  17. I also had a very difficult mother-in-law, and I heavily relied on the Captain’s advice of limiting my exposure to her. When she visited us, gosh, I just couldn’t get that whole week off of work, what a shame! When my husband went home for holidays, somehow we could never quite afford both plane tickets (this was safe because she didn’t like me enough to offer to pay), or I simply had to be with my own family to meet [Relative]’s new baby, or whatever.

    Anyway, I highly recommend that approach. BUT — be aware that it may lead to an increase in Alice shit-talking you to Fiance while you’re not around, and make clear to him what your preferences are for how he handles that and whether he tells you about it. That’s something I really wish I had addressed sooner with my husband — if you’re sure she’s doing it and he acts like she isn’t, it can get a little gaslight-y.

  18. LW — the one thing you are so so right about — you getting mad at your MIL AT your finace is not productive. I learned this from an ex-relationship: when I got angry at people who were treating my SO badly, and shared that anger with him? He had no space to get angry at the people who were treating him badly because he was defending them to me. So managing your own expectations and anger, with the amazing advice you’ve gotten here, will be an incredible step forward.

    You don’t mention that you’ve been to your fiance’s therapist with him. Some couples counseling focusing on setting your boundaries as a couple might be a great pre-wedding plan for you.

    Good luck! I hope you find a way to break this really unhealthy cycle.

  19. this is possibly my favorite ever QA post. both my mother and stepmother have a history of similar behaviors (one of them is even named “alice”), and i have had a LOT of success (in my adulthood, after moving far away) employing strategies similar to those described here.

    i’d just like to add one more suggestion that comes from my work with very angry, easily threatened, tantrum-throwing children: offer FINITE choices.

    after you’ve calmly and unblinkingly weathered a hissy fit, you might try mildly suggesting two choices you’re willing to accept. “i’m sorry you don’t like the way i’m loading the dishwasher. however, this is the way i do it. i am happy to continue loading the dishwasher this way OR i can go back to the living room and let you finish the way you’d like it done.”

    the trick is, these are the ONLY two options and they are BOTH okay. any hysterical alternative suggestions (“i’ll teach you,” etc.) are met with a calm, “i can’t do that. i can continue loading the dishwasher or let you handle it, though.” after a limited number of inappropriate answers, make the decision for her: “it sounds like you need a break; i’ll be in the living room!”

    it sounds super condescending (because it is), but it’s worked really well for me with both children and childish adults.

    good luck to you and a million jedi hugs!

  20. I have a narcissistic mother in law as well, who always makes everything about her and says horrible things about everyone. She also drinks. Luckily, my spouse (the oldest child) doesn’t put up with that nor does he get himself enmeshed with her drama. Her other two kids aren’t so lucky: her systematic destroying of their self-esteem has rendered them anxiety-ridden and unable to fully function as adults.

    LW,I don’t really have much to add to the great advice here, but just want to say how awesome it is that your SO is going to therapy! In my experience, people like my mother in law poo-poo therapy because she doesn’t want anyone from the outside to tell her kids just how dysfunctional she really is! If your SO had the same bias planted there by his family, it’s a monumental thing to overcome. I’m trying to get my own brother and sister in law to see the benefits of therapy but it’s taking a lot of convincing due to their mother’s programming. Best of luck to you!

  21. “I’m sure that’s not true, but we can totally ruin this visit by talking about it if you want” = Medicine for many ills. As is much of what Captain Awesome has to say.
    Also, I strongly second the book recommendation of Karyl McBride, and look forward myself to that new Oz recommend! Whatever Alice’s “diagnosis” (if being an asshole is even a disease), I feel that the strategies in that book are super valuable for many many situations.
    Keep up the good fight and remember people do love you, feel loved by you, and are on Team You!

  22. Good luck. I’m glad your husband is supportive and trying to get a handle on this too. Going it alone would be horrible.

    My sister in law had a mom and a sister who were manipulative and horrible to her. They would make things her fault, or keep her in the dark about important family things. She heard about her grandmother’s passing from a cousin. After the grandmother had been in the hospital for over a week.

    My brother and sister in law ended up moving half a continent away, and though I missed them and my niece, I KNOW that it was better for her.

  23. His sister once suggested that perhaps the reason I didn’t want to tell Alice all my innermost feelings and follow all of her advice is that I am a cold, damaged person who is incapable of relating to female role models (WTF).

    AAAAGH this drives me nuts when people do it. I’ve seen it on more than one occasion. IME it comes from people who are kind of damaged and focused on their victimhood, and comes across as, “I am a good person who fixes people! I am your savior! If this does not match reality, it is not because *I* am in any way imperfect–but man, are YOU fucked up!”

    On one level, how nice of Alice to wish she could give people love and support… but NO POINTS AT ALL for saying people MUST accept and like it. There is a lot to be said for advice of the, “This has worked in my experience but YMMV” variety.

    I’m sure one can go head-to-head and say “your advice stinks and you are horrible”, but in my experience, more CA-ish tactics really help. “Yeah, I really appreciate that [Alice] wants to help. She cares a lot about her family.” [Silence in which you do not spill your guts.] “Yes, she gave me some very helpful advice about [minor thing]. Her input is one of the things I take into consideration when I make a decision.” [Read: one of many, many more things.] It implies that I do see the person’s intentions, and frankly see nothing wrong with my level of appreciation or listening.

  24. I started out with a MIL that had no boundaries in the beginning of our marriage and waged war on me with the sword of “But I’m just doing this (really intrusive thing) because I LOVE you!” cue me going apeshit and calling husband to let him know JUST HOW CRAZY YOUR MOTHER IS while he was deployed (yeah, I know…bad on me). Anytime I complained to husband or sister that behavior was not okay, they too said that’s just how she shows she LOVES you. I finally had a come to Jesus meeting with her and laid out what I would accept and what was off limits with the support of husband at which point she bombed me with the fact that she never wanted husband to marry me and did not like me at all and then recounted all of my (perceived) wrongs ever committed. But y’all, I used my words and just kept saying XYZ are not okay and this is how I will handle it from now on. This led to a very tense-for-every-one-else 6 months where she didn’t speak to me…*hooray*…this covered Thanksgiving, Christmas and the birth of our baby but she wasn’t doing XYZ anymore. Radio silence finally gradually ended and she started back with the manipulation and it was just shut down sweetly by me, “Remember we talked about this, and its not okay for you to do this.” At first her efforts consisted of pointing out loudly what she was allowed/not allowed to do to EVERYONE and I would just change the subject, but slowly, once she saw that it wasn’t going to be a fight with me and no engagement would occur, she just began adhering to the boundaries laid out. This happened 7 years ago and it was a slow process, but in it I also realized that during that time of emotional terrorism I was so unwilling to give on anything even if it was completely reasonable because I felt I couldn’t give even an inch or we would be back in the depths of hell again. We now have a better relationship because of the expectations I gave her and the flexibility on my part once I saw long term growth and effort from her. My relationship with my MIL is the most genuine and pleasant in the family because I don’t walk around coddling her bad behavior. It resolves a lot of the clenched teeth during visit and then pot/door slamming/screaming once ended because I have dealt with it at the moment. I know that is is very unusual to have it resolve so much in my favor, but I wanted to encourage LW that it’s possible that Alice will never change, but it’s also possible that she might.

    1. Thanks for this story! Speaking up/enforcing boundaries doesn’t always work, but it’s the only thing that really has a chance of working.

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