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:
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:
CHOOSE YOUR BATTLES.
GIVE IT TIME.
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.