I was re-reading post #247 about highly difficult people (they will not change!) which I have found very helpful and I have a question. I have a highly difficult person in my life (my Mother-In-Law) who blessedly lives very far away (yay!). So most of the time I live my life like she doesn’t exist. Until…there is a visit. It seems like a lot of your advice is try to be nice, and when shitty people get shitty, leave. You also advise for the offspring of the highly difficult person to do around 50% of the visits alone. But what do you do when visiting involves an airplane flight. I feel like “Suzie couldn’t come because she had to wash her hair” won’t fly.
Also what do you do when you are staying in their house or they are in yours, for like multiple days? I think you are probably going to say hotels, but hotels are like a huge deal for my husband’s family. They don’t do them (I know crazy right). They would rather sleep on the world’s most uncomfortable sofa bed than pay for a hotel. Do I lay down the law and say we are staying in a hotel when we visit? What about when she comes to us? I am all about boundaries and keep setting them in relation to her as time/need arise and my husband is mostly on-board with these. He still suffers from a bit of the ‘don’t rock the boat’ syndrome. And staying in a hotel would like capsize it.
The other piece that I’m not sure is relevant is my parents happen to be Amazingly Wonderful People and we love when they come visit and they do stay with us and it is all rainbows and unicorns. So I am asking then to treat our Moms in very different fashions (I know they are different people duh, but I feel a need for evenness – get over it right?).
I guess I’m looking for either a magical solution to multi-day visits of awfulness or permission/encouragement to rock the boat and let it sink??
The Ship is Going Down Anyway
The ship IS going down anyway, so talk to your husband so he’s not blindsided and you both have some scripts ready to go, and go ahead and rock that boat! PERMISSION GRANTED.
If your husband’s mom is anything like “Alice” (if you haven’t read that post, dear readers, take a moment to do it first, because I am writing this in the context of that and treating the Mother-In-Law in the letter as similar to “Alice” as described in that letter), she has set him up to believe and react and feel as if her displeasure and disappointment are The Worst Things In The World. It is really hard to fight that dynamic even with all of the love and common sense and all of the support and reality checks from therapists, friends, and kind internet strangers in the world. Your husband has already survived The Worst Thing In The World more than once if he grew up in that house with her, but it’s hard to get him to see it that way since he is so conditioned to respond to her a certain way.
I assume you’ve considered stuff like “make visits much shorter” or “send husband to visit them solo sometimes” or “their visit just so happens to coincide with you going to see your folks, so enjoy this special time with your son!” so I’ll jump to your proposed solution of hotels. If you have the hotel money to throw at this problem, that will make it easier on you by far, so I hope you do. Then you and your husband to say, “We can’t wait to see you, so we’ve made a reservation for you at X hotel, on us!” the next time they visit. And the next time you plan a visit there, you can go ahead and make the reservation at a nearby hotel for yourselves. “Don’t worry about putting us up, we’re gonna stay at X hotel.“*
The FEELINGSKRAKEN can take many forms:
- “Whyyyyyyyyyy don’t you want us to stay with you?”/“Whyyyyyyyyyyy don’t you want to stay with us?”
- “But we always stay with you!”/“But you always stay with us!”
- “But we’re a faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamily, family don’t put family in hotels!”
- “Don’t you love us?”
- “Don’t you really want to see us?”
- “You don’t really even want us to come. If you did, you wouldn’t act this way.”
- “What kind of son did I raise who won’t let his own mother in his house?”
Your scripts to respond are:
- When they are planning a visit to you,”We wanted to try this out and see how it works. Our treat!“
- When you are planning a visit to them,”Ma, we’re very excited to see you, but we want to try this out for now.” Oh, also, rent a car if you can, for maximum
- Them: “You’re wasting your money!” You: “Don’t worry about it, we’re happy to do it!”
- When they typecast you (don’t you love us, what kind of a son won’t even let his parents sleep on his couch, I bet this is all LW’s idea, my son would never betray me this way, oh, are we fancy hotel people now? etc.), don’t argue. “Ma, sorry you see it that way. We’ll see you on X day, I love you. Gotta go!” The longer you argue, the more it seems like a negotiation. Treat it like a done deal, keep presenting it as a favor you are doing them and a totally positive thing, change the subject when possible, and hang up when not possible.
You are for sure challenging the family culture, and even non-difficult family members can be forgiven for having an initial emotional reaction to a change like this coming out of nowhere, so brace yourself. The host-guest relationship, and the concept that family are always welcome in each other’s homes, etc. is very primal, fraught stuff and I can see why opening the possibility that your in-laws are not so welcome or that you don’t want to stay with them IS and WILL affect the security they feel in the relationship and the closeness you all share. I know that in some cultures asking someone to stay outside the family home would be absolutely unthinkable, tantamount to cutting them off completely.
It’s a lot, I know. Try to keep this in mind as you communicate with them around this:
If anything is shredding the closeness that a family is supposed to share, it is your Mother-In-Law’s behavior. The elephant in the room is that you aren’t supposed to talk about what a giant asshole baby she is and you’re all supposed to behave as if that’s not so. “Look, we got you this hotel room!” is an attempt to preserve your sanity, but it’s also about helping her save as much face as possible. Hold onto that.
Giving reasons to logical, reasonable people is a good way to make the case for your decisions.
People raised by unreasonable, difficult, manipulative people have a tendency to over-justify things because their “but that’s what I want” or “but I think that’s the best decision for me” never counted for anything when they grew up. In their house it was, “Cinderella, MAYBE you can go to the ball IF do this list of impossible things!” “Rapunzel, why do you think you are smart and capable enough to make it out there alone? Better stay here, where it’s safe.” “Snow White, how dare you try to eclipse me?” “Miller’s Daughter, you are so special, you can do anything you put your mind to! Now I’ve set you up with this impossible task that will justify my ego and investment in you!” “DonkeySkin, don’t you know that you belong to me?”
Even as adults, they tend to throw a weird laundry list of reasons at others in a conflict, even when the conflict in question is not a particularly difficult one. The behavior looks incredibly strange to reasonable, kind, not-manipulative people, like, jeez, I just asked you if you would pick up your stuff from the common areas before I have people over tomorrow, Roommate, so why are you apologizing and explaining why you haven’t yet in paragraph-long sentences? Are you…is that…crying? It only makes sense when you realize that some people grew up in a house where there no “simple” requests and every conflict became a reason to pick apart who they were as a person. It’s the difference between 1) “Can you please take your shoes upstairs?” and 2) “What kind of person leaves their shoes everywhere? :kicks shoes across the floor, scattering them: What did I do to deserve such a messy, lazy kid? Are you going to be this lazy forever? I shudder to think at the future pigsty you’ll make everyone put up with. I feel sorry for whoever has to live with you in the future.” Adult survivors hear the first question from a non-abusive person and emotionally process it as a prelude to the second stream of verbal abuse. Nobody has to even be abusing them for it to happen, so well-integrated are the tapes in their heads. This is one of the big things survivors work on in therapy: How to figure out reasonable reactions to reasonable conflicts and not automatically take on all of the subtext of childhood in every difficult situation and how to stop playing those tapes, or at least recognize when they are playing.
If your husband communicates a plan to stay in a hotel/ask his parents to stay in a hotel, and they push back, his instinct is going to be to give a lot of reasons why it has to be this way (even made up reasons), and I predict based on experience that commenters will have many suggestions of this ilk – “Just tell them you can’t because of [actual reason], or [well-crafted airtight lie]” which is kind but not actually helpful here. If you grew up in a home with reasonable people, all of this emotional work will seem crazy and ridiculous to you, and that’s good for you, because you are lucky! You can “just ____!” and it will work, because you’ve never had to move to the Fuck Its just to survive.
If his parents were reasonable, after perhaps an initial harummmphhh and grumblegrumblegrumble around altered expectations, reasons would work. Letter Writer, you and husband have enough history to know that they are not reasonable. As tempting as it is to come up with a complex renovation project every time they visit you or to throw anything that could be construed as a guest bed into the alley, I’m going to beg you for your own sakes 1) not to lie (not because you necessarily owe them truth, but because it diminishes you and gives them more ammunition if the lie is discovered) and 2) not to over-justify or try to find that perfect airtight reason for why a hotel is better. His mom won’t see your reasons as a logical case for why your will should be done, because she doesn’t accept that your will or her son’s will even counts. If my instincts are right, she will only use your reasons to try to poke holes in your story because she comes in with the assumption that you are lying/deliberately trying to exclude her/secretly hate her, etc. from the get go. Highly Difficult People (like “Alice”, in that old question) also have terrible tapes that play in their heads, and they also have outsized reactions based on fears and history, so his mom will hear “We made you this hotel reservation that we’re paying for” and immediately leap to “MY SON AND HIS TERRIBLE WIFE HATE ME AND I WILL NEVER SEE HIM AGAIN, AND NOW I HAVE PROOF” and react on that emotional level. You can have compassion for it, but you can’t prevent it or fix it or make her mind a better place to be. Only therapy and working on her own self with time can do that.
Your reasons are:
- “We thought we’d try it out and see.”
- “We thought we’d have a more relaxing vacation if we stayed in a hotel.”
- “We want to see you very much, but we function a little better when we have some privacy.”
Your in-laws have a few ways they can try to take back the power in this situation:
- They can Be Very Disappointed and pick fights about it a lot and drop a lot of shitty comments, or throw tantrums and say terrible things or do whatever behavior that made you read #247 and nod your head in recognition, to create as much friction as possible in the hopes that you’ll relent.
- They can refuse to come or cancel your visit.
- They can try to enlist others in the family to harangue you (which your Mother-In-Law is probably an expert at).
#1 seems to be the status quo with visits now, so, let them? Only this time, you can get a little distance from them at night, so the visits automatically get better…for you. If they go for #2, that affects them as much as it affects you. You can say “Well, we’ll miss you a lot, but that’s your decision” and let them stew about it as long as they’d like, which is not easy on husband but it will show you aren’t kidding and encourage them to take you seriously in future discussions. Communicating that you can live with a parent’s displeasure but not their mistreatment is powerful stuff. #3 is probably well-worn territory by now, especially if your husband has siblings, and it can be met with “I know Mom is upset, but we decided that it’s best for us this way” and the siblings can make a choice about how much they want to keep making it their business. If they are under her spell they will call you selfish and blame you for setting her off and ruining [Planned Event or Big Holiday Of Your Culture], with everyone all spun up and working so very, very hard to avoid the prospect of a tantrum from a grown-ass woman.
The thing is, if your Mother-In-Law is like “Alice“, she “ruins” holidays/visits/special occasions/casual lunches all the fucking time. She ruins it for everyone, with tantrums, with the threat of tantrums, with veiled barbs, flared nostrils, poking everyone’s sensitive spots, or pitting everyone against each other, or weird paranoia that turns everything into something about her, whatever her schtick is. She’s ruining holidays that haven’t even happened yet, as you strategize how to deal with her. She has probably ruined every occasion that your husband can remember. So if she pulls out the “But you are ruining Christmas with your request for us to sleep in a different building at night at your expense!” it is actually laughable. Of course Christmas is ruined, you’re all spending it with the shitshow that is her! That’s where you come in, as his spouse. You can’t manage the relationship with her for him, but you can help remind him what’s real, and remind him that these visits are pre-ruined, so why not ruin them in a way that advantages you for a change? Having his folks at a little distance is going to make them more bearable for you, make sure you all get more sleep, make sure you get a break from them, so that you can put on your game face and be more patient in dealing with them and get more pleasure out of what there is to be enjoyed.
I understand why you are concerned about fairness and the perception of fairness if you keep allowing your parents to stay with you while asking your husband’s to stay in a hotel. Probably a first order of business is to check in with your husband to make sure a) that his views of their visits are as rosy as yours and b) ask point blank if he would like them to stay in a hotel sometimes, too. If they don’t, it’s tricky, because if your Mother-In-Law asks “Why do we have to sleep in a hotel but the LW’s parents get to stay with you?” there is no good answer that isn’t some version of “Well, they behave much better than you do.” In other words, this is also a trap, a trap where you attempt to get an adult with so little self-awareness that she might throw tantrums, an adult who in all probability has a HIGHLY selective memory, to be accountable for her behavior. Ruh-roh. If your husband gets drawn into listing all of the crappy things his mom did on her last visit(s), she will either blissfully not remember them and accuse him of exaggerating, or break down sobbing about what a terrible parent she is and he will end up comforting her for said crappy behavior and apologizing to her. Fun! He will not get acknowledgement, an apology, or better behavior for his trouble. So, this might be advanced level stuff that you roll out slowly, over time, or your you and your husband may need to steel yourselves with repeating “I don’t have a good reason, but I know that your visits work better for us when we do it this way.” + “LW’s parents’ visits are not really up for discussion” approximately one million times. If that sounds like the grown-up version of “Just because Timmy’s parents let him jump off of bridges doesn’t mean I have to let you do it,” and “Because I’m your parent and I said so” you are correct.
If I could tell you one comforting thing, it’s that the first time will be the worst time. She will try to test every boundary. The second time you may still get some bullshit. But by the third time they visit you, I predict staying elsewhere will become the new normal, especially since sleeping in a hotel is more comfortable than sharing the Lumpy Couch of Grudging Hospitality. If enough time passes, it’s possible that her selective memory will do its work and it will all start to seem like her idea.
*FYI, I think the hotel will be an easier sell when you host them than when they sell you (it’s controlling how you offer hospitality vs. rejecting their hospitality), so if you need to split the difference, push harder for the hotels when they visit you and give way on the other. If possible, make sure you have a rental car so that you can get around and diffuse “ugh it’s so much trouble to come pick you up” jibber jabber. And find some other way to carve out some alone time for yourself – lunch with an old friend in their city, a work project that you need to make some headway on, a sudden commitment to solo walks/jogging/bike rides, etc.