#655: Visits With Highly Difficult People

Hi Captain,

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.“*

And then?

Liam Neeson from Clash of the Titans: Release The Kraken!
You can survive the FEELINGSKRAKEN, I promise.


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 escapability flexibility.
  • 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.

Admiral Ackbar saying "It's A Trap"Giving reasons to unreasonable, difficult, manipulative people is like giving them ammunition for the fight they want to have with you about your boundaries and how you should not really have them. 

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:

  1. 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.
  2. They can refuse to come or cancel your visit.
  3. 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.

Admiral Ackbar Meme: "He knows when shit's a trap." 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.

159 thoughts on “#655: Visits With Highly Difficult People

  1. Why is the LW having to deal with this issue? Why doesn’t Husband just go see his parents by himself? They don’t need to show at all if Suzie had to wash her hair or not; all they know is she didn’t get on that plane. They’re not going to stop bitching either way, no matter what topics are available to them, so it’s really on him to decide whether or not he wants to continue this because faaaaaaaamily, and the LW shouldn’t have to deal with it at all unless she’s really okay with suffering to help him deal with it.

    Furthermore, why is *he* putting up with this? If the Mother In Law From Hell is the kind of difficult person who wrecks everything, why is he letting this happen? It’s not the LW’s job to stand up to her. It’s Husband’s job. And I think Husband needs to start considering that maybe he doesn’t want to go to these soul-sucking events where everyone babies his abusive, demanding mother for the entire holiday. Just go see LW’s parents. They’re better people, apparently.

    Maybe I’m a jerk, but I figure when I marry Boyfriend, I am *not* marrying his family. I do not have to put up with his asshole brother if I don’t want to (which is legit, he has an asshole brother). If Asshole Brother is going to be at a holiday party, Boyfriend can go by himself. He completely understands that I want nothing to do with Asshole Brother and he doesn’t want to force me to deal with said brother’s crap. I know Boyfriend’s parents frown on this, but I frankly value my sanity more than the slight boost in reputation accompanied by “oh no, not another 3 hours of Asshole Brother whining about every single little thing and trying to punch Boyfriend in the face when the slightest thing doesn’t go his way.” I know people try to consider their spouse’s family, they want it to be One Big Group between the two families…but really, do you *want* to graft Mother In Law From Hell or Asshole Brother into your family? “But you have to associate with them because traditioooooon and faaaaaaamily” is not a hard and fast rule in life.

    You’ve been a big advocate of cutting off abusive and extremely taxing and irrational people in the past, when they show themselves to be unreasonable and showing no signs of changing despite best efforts. I think this is one of those times. Lop Mother In Law off the holiday schedule and stop dreading those holiday times.

    1. I think the situation you describe with your BF’s Asshole Brother is fundamentally different from the situation with the LW’s MIL just because in this case we’re talking about a parental relationship. Obviously I don’t know the details of your BF’s relationship with his brother, but generally speaking a relationship between siblings is (approximately) a relationship between equals, whereas the relationship between a parent and child has a huge power differential that often remains even once the child is an adult. LW’s husband was presumably raised by the Highly Difficult mother and still has all the memories of childhood under her rule, so it might take a lot longer for him to get to the “fuck this I’m outta here” stage than it did for your boyfriend. Just my 2 cents (though I do say this as someone with a Highly Difficult mother of my own.)

      1. Agreed. I also have Highly Difficult mother, and the only reason I was able to reach the “Fuck Its” during my early 20’s was because I spent a lot of time with my far-more-reasonable aunt and grandfather growing up, and that literally everybody else in the family hates her bad behaviour and has called her out multiple times. If LW’s BF has been surrounded by a family who is willing to bend over backwards to accommodate his mother’s wants and temper tantrums, and nobody has really expressed any sentiment other than, “But what can we do?” or, “That’s just the way it is”, then he’ll take a little longer to reach that point.

        Good luck though LW, and I wish you and BF the strength and patience to deal with her continued (and likely continuing) bullshit.

        1. It was a real turning point for me to realize that I reacted to my grandmother’s bullshit differently than my dad and aunt did because I have more DISTANCE from her – she’s not my MOTHER, after all. I worked out a modified version of the “Silk Ring Theory” (dumping out, comfort in) and did all of my processing via my mom (who’s also distant from her) rather than subjecting my dad to all my Complicated!Feelings about borderline emotional abuse and so forth. Helped tremendously.

        2. This, exactly! My MIL was also a Highly Difficult Person who, in addition to sewing all manner of neuroses and insecurities within my lovely, wonderful partner, created a toxic environment for me within the family (including consistently “forgetting” for over a decade that I don’t eat meat, never making a reasonable space for me to sleep in their home while still refusing to “let” us stay at a hotel, and actively trying, with the help of my partner’s siblings, to get my partner to break up with me).

          I think the reaction of the rest of the family to this kind of behavior is key. In my case, as with LW, the rest of the family had either drunk MIL’s Kool-Aid or was sufficiently warped/codependent to always take her side. For us, I’m sad to say, what eventually fixed everything was MIL’s untimely death. After enduring the funeral at which everyone talked about what a kind and wonderful person MIL had been (!!!), things instantly got so much better. It was like a spell had been lifted, and all these people who had previously treated me absolutely horridly suddenly became mostly reasonable. Our relationships have been pleasant and improving ever since.

          Hang in there, LW! I’m certainly not wishing your MIL’s death or anything like it, but just…. yes. I understand what a tough spot you’re in and how impossible things can feel when it seems the whole family has been dragooned into enabling a toxic person’s reign of terror.

    2. If both LW and Husband were equally eager to snip the Difficult MIL off at the root, I’d say sure, go for it. But there are a bunch of things which make it not as simple to cut off family, either one’s own or one’s partner’s, as it is to cut off other individuals who aren’t good for a person.

      First of all, even difficult people who have been part of Partner’s life since before Partner can remember are not always people Partner will *want* to drop on a complete and permanent basis. We tend to love people to whom we became attached as an infant, even if they aren’t objectively worthy of love. Furthermore, since various *other* people in Partner’s family (his father, any siblings, aunts and uncles, or whatever) probably also love the Difficult Mom even though they know that she is Difficult, and since at least Husband’s father appears (from the implications in the letter) to still live with Difficult Mom, dumping DM might well perforce require dumping Not So Difficult Dad, and that can feel even worse.

      So it’s Husband’s choice whether he wants to dump his own family, and he may not. If he doesn’t, he may well still get tied up in emotional knots when DM is going to be in the same building as he is. In that situation, I don’t think I’d feel right abandoning my knotted-up Husband when he might need my support. Yes, if all else failed, I COULD leave him to deal with her on his own, and go do my own thing for the duration; and if in your family that doesn’t bother Boyfriend, then coolness! You’ve got a system which works for you. But that doesn’t mean it will work for every other family which contains a Difficult Mom, or Asshole Brother, or whatever.

      Family loyalties get complicated. DM’s spouse or other kids may feel they have an obligation to support DM (even if maybe only to cover their own asses); Husband may feel he has an obligation both to protect LW from his mom and to do what he conceives of as his duty to his mother, at least to the extent of not simply pruning her off of the family tree. LW may feel she has an obligation to Husband to stick close to him when he’s going to be under stress, and give him cuddles and talk him down from his tree when he needs it. Both LW and Husband may feel they have obligations to Not So Difficult Dad, or other family members.

      Sometimes, cutting people off from one’s social circle is the best, sanest, safest thing one can do for oneself. Sometimes, that comes with more baggage than one wants to deal with, and the best option is a less permanent, more complicated solution for a more complicated problem. Since family members are often attached both to oneself and to each other on a level which is difficult to sever without doing damage to everyone involved (self and Partner included), sometimes there isn’t a great solution, and a survivable one is the best you can make work.

      1. I have a hunch that as soon as the letter writer’s husband stands up to Difficult Mum, that they will see a different side to “Not so difficult dad”. I’ll call it now that he will do anything to get his kids back in line and stop DM bitching in his ear. He will pull out the big guns and give them a very hard time. The man is an enabler to DM’s bad behaviour and as long as it is not directed at him, he is happy and will want his kids in line to shield him from the worst of her behavour. At the very least he will use phrases like “You know how she is…” With the implication that LW and LW’s husband should just lie flatter and take all the dog do that she dishes out.
        It won’t be pretty and LW’/ husband may have to face up to the fact that his dad is not the man he thought he was, which can be really tough.

        1. This so much. I’d moved back closer to them and I had a bit of a shock when I started laying boundries out with my mother and my dad started heaping on the guilt trips. It evened itself out eventually, once they realized I wasn’t going to take any rubbish. It also helped that my maternal grandmother at the same time started living a lot closer, so my mum got a healthy dose of self awareness around that stuff.

        2. Not necessarily. Sometimes the dad is being bullied / hen pecked / whatever by the mother, and while he meekly goes along with a lot of it, is kind enough not to inflict it on the child by proxy.

          Speaking from experience.

    3. Generally, I agree, but it sounds like LW is trying to work something out for now. In some ways, it’s her husband’s choice to cut them off, since their HIS family, and if he’s just not ready yet, then he’s not ready yet. Sometimes this is also a good way to carefully DRIFT away, instead of abruptly cutting someone off. You’re right, but this is a way to deal with it until the family either grows the fuck up or the husband is ready for a bigger change, I think. LW can influence a certain amount and I get the feeling that LW doesn’t want to just straight up go the route of “I will not visit them and they are not welcome to visit us either” since the latter portion of that can cause a LOT of conflict.

    4. Aurora, uh, yes…you’re not wrong. But arriving at that place is very very difficult when it’s your parent (and forcing someone you love to jump on that grenade is also very difficult). For one thing if you grow up with it you think it’s normal. Then you realise it’s bad, but only a little bit bad, I mean it’s not *abuse* bad. Then (hopefully) you realise it *is* abuse bad, but not like, *serious* abuse you wouldn’t equate yourself with people who were beaten or starved I mean that’s ridiculous and diminishes *real* abuse. Then, hopefully, finally, you realise it was legitimately awful (even though it wasn’t physical) and maybe you need to get that out of your life and also somehow reprogram your brain. And then you discover that even when you know what’s going on, can name it, have tactics for dealing with it, you *still* fall into bad habits.

      So, yes, you have described a reasonable way to deal with this, but it’s not by any means easy to implement. :-/

      1. Thank you for this one!
        Sometimes, growing up, the shoes scenario would be #1, and sometimes it would be #2 and there was no way at all to know which one it was going to be (and as a kid, being perfect all the time (whatever that means) obviously didn’t happen).

        And when a full-on flip-out was going on + I was hearing about every bad thing I’d done over the past month/year/ever, I also got to hear about how mush worse (really, objectively) my mom’s childhood and family-of-horror was.
        It took many, many years (thanks to CA for some if it!) to realize that “not as bad as where she came from” / “the best she could” didn’t mean that the environment that I grew up in wasn’t bad and damaging (and NOT normal).

        Even to this day, I have to be gentle with myself for not being perfect every time even when I know what’s going on, can name it, have tactics for dealing with it, I *still* fall into bad habits sometimes.

    5. It took me until my mother threw me out of the house on Christmas break because of an argument between her and my sister (I still don’t fully understand wtf happened). But I officially reached the “Fuck Its” and told my dad in no uncertain terms that if mom EVER tried anything like that again, I would cut her off entirely. Permanently. Since then, she has been much better, though she still pushes my boundaries every now and then. However, I have been following the Captain’s advice (state and reinforce the boundary, ignore/leave if they don’t stop, reset and go back to “normal” when she behaves again). She is always very well-behaved around company, though I always tell my boyfriend that if he does not want to come with me, he does not have to.

      The LW’s husband just has not reached this point that I and other posters have yet. He is overcoming YEARS of brainwashing and automatic responses that she trained him into. It will likely take him one big event where she really goes over the line (like my mom did with me) for him to finally put his foot down and start breaking these childhood patterns. I was lucky that my cousin was there and witnessed the event – she helped me really understand how fucked up the whole situation was and that I could choose not to be involved anymore if I wanted to. If I had not spent the night talking with her, I may have fallen back into the pattern of Mom’s outburst/my apology/she continues on like she did nothing wrong/I’m on edge for weeks or months.

      I know it is super frustrating to watch. My sister is still stuck in the cycle and I could scream every time mom does the same thing to her that she has done to me; the worst part is knowing that there is nothing I can really do except be there for my sister.

      I can completely understand why you avoid events with Asshole Brother. I think you are right that the LW’s husband has to buffer her better or really allow her to stay away from the MIL, like your boyfriend does for you and his brother. It is not LW’s job nor her fight – it is his. Speaking from experience though, it really helps to have the support from your partner.

    6. This is one of those “it depends” things. I don’t see my husband’s family as my family, but I do feel a responsibility to help provide emotional support for him where possible. Which in the case of a Highly Difficult Mother he can’t easily get away from right now would mean that I go with him on visits so that he has at least one sane person there he can vent to/solicit soothing cuddles from when nobody’s looking. It doesn’t mean I try to fix their relationship or confront his mother or take one her emotional baggage or respond favorably to her tantrums or what-have-you, and I get a say in setting boundaries I can live with, but this is one of those areas where being a partnership means that sometimes I meet him partway.

      Obviously individual circumstances vary. If he can handle them on his own, he might as well. And if coping with them is unreasonably difficult for me, he might have to either cut them off or handle them on his own whether that’s ideal or not. But if it’s a situation where he can’t or won’t cut them off AND it’s really tough for him on his own (especially if me not being there makes that even worse) AND I can handle being around them, it’s just kind of unpleasant…then I’ll go.

    7. well when me and my husband got married my husband said if my asshole brother was going to be high at the wedding around our neices and nephews then he didnt get to come. i put it in a slightly less assholeish manner but my brother didnt come and we had a great time with out him. in fact ive been married almost a year and havent seen asshat brother in almost 3

  2. I’m not sure why staying in a hotel when you visit them is harder than putting them in a hotel when they visit you. You fly/drive/pogo-stick to their city, you have/rent a car, check in, and show up at in-laws for specified events. If you put them up in a hotel, you have that awkward moment of actually getting them to go to that hotel — and getting them out of your house when you’ve had enough for the day.

    We started staying in a motel/hotel when visiting either side’s parents once we had kids simply because it was easier to manage the kids if we an environment we controlled when the kids got tired or unmanageable. Didn’t require any consultation with anyone (except for the motel’s reservation line, of course.)

    1. I don’t think it’s easier logistically, I think it’s an easier SELL if you have to pick one or the other to really fight for. It’s an opinion, not objective truth, and you make great points.

      1. I think it would be easier to explain putting Self in a hotel in Difficult Family’s city than putting them in a hotel in my city, because it can be easier to leave than to make someone leave – walking out the door, even if they’re mid-sentence forever, is a little more doable than propelling them out the door and shutting it in their faces.

        But, I can deal with my mom’s horrible house of hoarder-ing for a couple of days more easily than I can deal with her getting her tendrils all up in everything I own, at my place.

        I guess which is more feasible depends in the particular ways your Difficult Family violates boundaries. Either way, best of luck to the LW, and to everyone with difficult families!

        1. Oh god yes, the tendrils all getting into everything. My mother travels with a mini-hoard and when she last visited me she covered literally every surface in my three bedroom house with it despite having an entire empty room at her disposal. So yeah… visiting them is somewhat easier. Slightly.

        2. I was thinking the exact same thing. Plus that horrible thing of feeling uncomfortable & ill-at-ease in your own home, which should be your sanctuary.

        3. When mine stayed, we made sure her room was lovely (like a hotel room – which I do for all guests) with TV, digital radio, drinks facilities Inc. Tea & Wine, biscuits, towels, spares of anything you might forget, books, etc…

          And then at 10pm each night we said “right! Hubby & I need some alone time. You’ll find everything you need in your room! Have a nice night!” sorry, couldn’t budge on that as “it unsettles the dog to break his routine”, “hubby needs to sort out his things for work in the morning” and other reasons.

          Later, she told me she felt she was being shepherded. Guess what? She was! Made the stay much more survivable. She hasn’t asked to stay again since 😉

      2. The one bit I feel is kind of missing is how to initiate a visit of them to you then get them into a hotel. It’s far easier to stay in a hotel when we’re visiting them (they invite us, we agree dates, book a hotel and present it as a fait accompli), if we invite them how do you say “Oh and by the way you need to stay in a hotel but we’re paying”.

        1. “We’re so glad you’re coming! By the way, we’re completely swamped and the house is a wreck, so we just booked you a room at a hotel rather than make you work around our mess. No, no, don’t even THINK about trying to help us pick up — we’re so busy that we’re just leaving it until we get a break. We’d much rather spend time with you doing FUN stuff, not cleaning house.”

          1. Oh, this is PERFECT.

            We have a great excuse, BTW: If anybody bigger than a child stays the night, somebody has to sleep on an air mattress directly on the way to the only bathroom. Small houses FTW!

    2. Yeah, as someone who comes from a similar family to this – not as awful, but definitely difficult – staying in a hotel is a rejection of hospitality, and sending them to one is a rejection of *them.* Either way, it’s a minefield, but I’d be a little more comfortable telling my parents that I’ll be staying the night elsewhere than telling my parents I’ve found them elsewhere to sleep. YMMV, of course.

  3. OMG, the shoes thing, it’s like you were there for my childhood/early adulthood. I stopped reading there for a bit and went and grabbed my husband to read it, too, because this is something he does not get, why I am always justifying what I decide to do/not do/eat/etc.

    1. I love that part. My wife and I had very different childhoods (both pretty shitty, but in different ways), and her tendency to over-explain everything has been driving me up the proverbial walls for the 10 years we have known each other. (Partly because in *my* shitty childhood, the best survival strategy was to say as little as possible about anything, which I will admit also frustrates her.) Then I read the shoes thing, and went, “….Oh.” I think it’s going to help a lot. I may still find it incredibly frustrating, but I’ll be able to handle that frustration better.

  4. LW, where is your husband in all this? These are his relatives and it’s his job to handle them, not yours. Also, you do not need to supply an excuse for choosing not to visit someone. Just don’t visit them, and let your husband tell them whatever he likes! Likewise, you do not have to apologize for staying in a hotel room, or for refusing uninvited would-be slumber party guests. Your first assessment of the situation was correct. It’s time to lay down the law. Insist on staying in a hotel room when visiting them. And get your husband on board and have him inform them that when they visit you, they’ll have to stay in a hotel room or find alternative lodging as well. They may whine and cry and plead and bargain. This is fine, as long as your husband is capable of memorizing the phrase “No, that doesn’t work for us” and is ready to do his best broken record impression. The bottom line is, they can stay in a hotel room and visit you, or they can stay home. Period. (Even in the worst case scenario, where they come to visit anyway and refuse to book a hotel and try to force your hand, you can always refuse to answer the door. No matter which way you slice it, you and your husband have all the power in this situation. You only have to be willing to exercise it!)

  5. I’m just requoting for truth here – well, truth AND beauty:

    “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?”

    Which is really the main thing, when dealing with someone like the spouse’s manipulative parent: the ruining is not YOUR fault, not at all. Like the proverbial wind – you cannot make it change direction, but you can change the tack you take.

    Much food for thought, given that adding family to such interaction-dynamic equations turns the problem into something much trickier than people from outside can often imagine.

    1. I wondered about that, though, based on my own experience with the spouse’s Difficult Parents.

      Yes, I can remind him what’s real — but it’s like his mind contains both Reality and Parent Reality at the same time.

      “Remember the last time we stayed with them? How everything was lovely for four days and after that there was a great explosion every day until we left? So don’t you think a four-day trip would be a good idea?”

      “Yes, you’re right. But they’re so far away, and we’re keeping their grandchild from them, and they miss us so much! Maybe five days. Seven. Ten. Twelve.”

      1. Ain’t it grand when somebody does such a great job of installing buttons in somebody else that they push themselves? I haven’t heard from or about my main emotional abuser for almost 20 years and I still have to tell her to shut up almost every day.

  6. A handy acronym I learned a while ago, while trying to figure out how to deal with our two sets of difficult parents: JADE. This stands for Justify, Argue, Defend, Explain — i.e. things you DON’T do with people who disrespect boundaries. They will try to get you to do them, but it’s always a trick because there will never be a reason that’s good enough.

    So, the best (by which I mean, the most sanity-preserving) response is just “I don’t want to do x.” Why? “Because I don’t like it.” Why? “I just don’t. I can’t control what makes me happy or unhappy.” It can be tough to stick to at first though because they will try very, very hard to get a reason out of you that they can tear down. We sometimes talk about our imaginary friend Jade to remind each other during tough conversations not to do it.

    Another tactic Mr Mew started using recently, that he’s been having some success with, is to just agree with whatever reason they then invent when you refuse to supply one, e.g.

    MIL: Why don’t you ever call me?
    Mr Mew: I don’t like phone calls.
    MIL: But I love phone calls, and I love hearing your voice.
    Mr Mew: Well, I don’t like phone calls.
    MIL: Why not?
    Mr Mew: I just don’t.
    MIL: If you were a good son, you’d call me.
    Mr Mew: [silence.]
    MIL: You’re a terrible son.
    Mr Mew: Yes, I am a terrible son. I’m sorry.

    YMMV of course. I can imagine some people really going off the rails, but sometimes it’s works because there’s not really any place that conversation can go afterwards.

    1. Agreeing with people in this kind of situation is *the single most powerful tactic* I have ever found, bar none. They expect you to argue and be offended. To just agree with whatever horrible thing they say about you (in my case it’s stuff like “You’re going to hell!” “Probably.”) totally shocks whoever is trying to manipulate you. Demonstrating that you don’t care whether or not they think you’re terrible; you’re going to keep on doing you no matter what, is super, super powerful. And it feels GREAT.

      1. I was once in a space where I swear the other person was *trying* to get me to punch her, and followed me around for twenty minutes calling me a poseur. My saying, “Yeah, okay” and then striking up a conversation with someone else just about caused her to explode.

        1. “FIGHT ME!”
          “Nah, not worth it.”

          I’ve been in a few situations where I’ve just said, “I’m not having this fight. If that means you win, fine, you win. I don’t care.” It’s a lot of fun watching them deflate like a Patriots football.

    2. Yep. All of your explanations, justifications, etc. are weaknesses in the surface of your boundary that they will try to exploit to tear it down. Don’t offer them. And if you let them see that something they threw at you had an effect, they will keep attacking that point to tear down the boundary. Make the outside of your boundary teflon. If you show them that nothing sticks, there’s less mess to clean up later.

  7. 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?

    Holy crap, this resonated so strongly with me! This IS my mother, who is in no way difficult or manipulative herself, but who grew up with a difficult and manipulative mother whose shtick was a combo breaker of Nothing You Do Is Ever Good Enough and Everything Is Always Your Fault, with an extra oldest child damage in the form of Your Siblings’ Bad Behaviour Is Also Your Fault. As a result, my mother gets incredibly defensive if you ask her even an innocuous question about random crap that’s really nothing to do with her. She immediately tries to verbally distance herself from the issue as much as possible, because (presumably) in her head it’s the start of an accusation/interrogation session. So it goes like:

    “Have you seen my scarf?”
    “No, why would I have seen your scarf? I haven’t touched your scarf, I don’t even know which scarf you’re talking about…”
    “It’s the yellow one I got from…”
    “Well I’ve never seen a yellow scarf in this house, I didn’t even know you owned a yellow scarf. Have you asked your sister if she’s seen it? She’d have far more interest in a yellow scarf than me, she probably took it out with her this morning…”
    “Mum, I’m not saying someone took it, I just can’t find it!”
    “Well, it’s nothing to do with me, it’s your responsibility to know where your own things are, I keep telling that you should leave them in the same place when you come in…”
    “Never mind, it was on the back of this chair.”
    “Well I didn’t put it there, I don’t go at your things if I see them lying around, but if I did, I’d hang them up in the hall where they belong…”

    And on and on. Of course, when I was a self-absorbed teenager, I thought this behaviour was just my mum being a pain. Then I stayed with my grandmother for a week by myself. I came home a shaking furious mess because she’d spent the entire week subtly undermining me, taking jabs at everything from my appearance to my academic record to my music preferences to my table manners. As I was crying about with my dad in the car on the way home, all he said was “Yeah. Imagine growing up with that all day every day.” That’s when the full extent of what my mum had gone through actually hit me.

    1. Jedi Hugs to your mum by proxy. And to you, because that sounds like a really, really difficult childhood. At least you were well-adjusted enough to realise that your grandmother was being mean, instead of wondering whether she was right or accepting her word as gospel.

    2. Holy crap, are we long-lost cousins? That sounds exactly like my maternal grandmother. She picked one person to dote on in each category (daughter, grandson, granddaughter), and everyone else in that category was subject to being pecked to death by ducks. I had the misfortune to have briefly been one of her favorites, until there was a new favorite granddaughter. So I got to take the express bus from Can Do No Wrongville to Why Is Everything About You So Terrible City.

    3. Thank-you for this. This makes my Mum always needing to find a reason for anything anyone does (her, me, tv characters, other drivers) make much more sense. She got the You Exist Because Your Sibling Is Dead instead, but everything else…ya.

      Seriously, thank-you.

  8. “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.”

    …I feel like this is the most profound and accurate thing I have read in months. It’s kind of freaking me out to be honest. I swear to God my mom would have said every word in quote 2) without batting an eye. And then denied it an hour later. This explains so much. I think I’m going to go take a walk and think about this.

    1. Yeah, hit me between the eyes too. Simple comments and questions can be a big deal in my head. So, I have done a bunch of work, and some days I can hear the first question and not add the rest of the stream, but somedays those tapes won’t stop playing. Takes work, takes time, hoping it keeps getting better (it is better now than it was.) and the work was worth it to have those tapes shut up most of the time.

    2. I think the thing that I find the hardest to process/get solid in my head is that NOT everyone feels like that. Like, people can just put their shit away? And it’s not a big deal? And they’re not angsting and weird and over-justifying about it? HUH. THAT SOUNDS WAY BETTER THAN MY WAY.

      1. LOL yes, that way is better. I’ve mostly managed to cut off the actual external expression of my justifications, but sadly the tape still plays inside my head and I internally squirm around wondering what horrible things they must think of me because they had to ask me to do a thing and I didn’t just do it without being asked and oh god… Perhaps shutting off the interns voice is the next step? :-/

          1. I like it! Like, the brainweasels and jerkbrain voices/tapes are interns of past abusers/Difficult People…. >.<

          2. The time where this has shown up for me repeatedly is not mess, actually. It’s when I’m dating new partners and I drop something in their kitchen and my instinct is to absolutely freeze, 100% certain I’m going to be yelled at for being so clumsy and careless and JESUS CHRIST and wasteful and all that crap. And then they just don’t, they just shrug and they’re like “are you OK to clean that up?” or “do you want a hand to clean that up?”. It’s SO DISCONCERTING and yet also SO GREAT not to get a yelling reaction.

      2. This might also be a mental health thing. I knew I’m feeling much better than I used to when we forgot to switch the freezer back on after defrosting. We put All The Foodz back, and… the next day, we discovered this, ate what we could and tossed the rest. And I had a good cry about it and felt absolutely rotten for five minutes, and then I got over it, because shit happens.
        A couple of years ago, I would have carried this for *months*.

        So it can be done, even really deeply ingrained patterns that are part of your personality; you can get to the stage of feeling the emotion and then letting it move through you and letting it go.

        And that’s awesome. Even though we lost a lot of dinners, learning this was worth it.

    3. I printed this section off and am going to give it to my fiance when I get home. It explains me better than I’ve ever been able to explain myself.

    4. YES. I literally almost started crying on the spot when I read this part. Just like a punch to the gut – and the sudden understanding of why so many of my conflicts with my husband seem to come out of nowhere, when I rationally know that he hasn’t asked or said anything unkind or unreasonable. Yet I’m an emotional, terrified wreck of shame as if he had just slandered my character. This might make a HUGE difference in the way I process these things now…

      The most frustrating part of my relationship with my mother wasn’t even just the interactions described above – it’s that any attempt to reframe the situation realistically, or to call her on her manipulation or abuse, resulted in her getting tearful and martyring herself – “You’re right, I’m a TERRIBLE mother. You deserve so much better. Sorry I even TRY.” and then shutting down and refusing to have any kind of meaningful discourse.

      I’ve learned as an adult that my relationship with her is wonderful as long as we see each other about once a month and stick to positive, surface-level discussions.

      1. “The most frustrating part of my relationship with my mother wasn’t even just the interactions described above – it’s that any attempt to reframe the situation realistically, or to call her on her manipulation or abuse, resulted in her getting tearful and martyring herself – “You’re right, I’m a TERRIBLE mother. You deserve so much better. Sorry I even TRY.” and then shutting down and refusing to have any kind of meaningful discourse.”

        Yes, THIS. Add in the rest of my family then ganging up on me to apologize to my (now tearful) mother, even though she started the entire interaction. Repeat about 100 times, and you have now described my entire childhood in a nutshell.

        The thing that I still don’t really understand is that as far as I can tell my mom legitimately isn’t TRYING to be scheming or manipulative, yet somehow these conflicts inevitably end with her as the person being comforted or apologized to (even though she started it). It’s like she somehow magically ends up as the queen of martyr-land without even realizing how she got there. It drives me nuts.

    5. Holy crap, yes. This whole section was so true it gave me chills. I’m definitely showing it to my husband later. I read it and I was suddenly at the center of a massive dolly zoom (2:00-2:06; I couldn’t find a clip of just the shot I wanted) while the world rearranged itself around me.

    6. Therapy cut off the second half of the script for me quite cleanly, but until now I didn’t realize where my habit of over-explaining everything to death came from. This makes too perfect sense.

      I remember first watching Nurse Jackie — her life’s a mess and she’s hardly a role model, but she never once explains herself if she doesn’t have to and I was completely blown away by how much I *wanted* that. I get to do what I reasoned out in my own head and I don’t have to justify myself to anyone, in minute detail, lest they misunderstand me and the vaguely feeling of Something Bad Will Happen comes to fruition.

  9. All the feels and sympathy, LW! I thought I’d sleep-written and sent this in. You’re not alone.

    For my next visit, a big holiday where we’ve stayed at MIL’s house previously, we’re gonna do the hotel thing. It’s the first time and I’m prepped and ready but my SO will probably flail a bit*. I’m gonna show this to him. You often get the tip to reherse difficult talks and I think it could work wonders here. Especially if your SO doesn’t have a lot of XP in standing up for themselves. It’s almost… not like lying, but the impulse really is to explain yourself and it almost never works. It’s just wasted work. Better to use the excellent scrips up top.

    So yeah, not a lot of advice, but a bunch of Jedi Hugs.

    * he got a bit “but what will my mom think” and I was all “do you remember what Christmas was like?” and then he was “fair enough”

  10. I married a man with an Alice for a mom. I have reasonable parents. It took me YEARS to learn that normal approaches Will Never Work with them. In our case, my husband’s way of dealing with the 21 years he lived with her was to tune her out (and to tune her mother out, too), so he did that when we visited, too. Only problem? Both of the, were verbally aggressive with me and I had no way to deal with it, because in my family, we err on the side of nice and “if you do not have anything kind to,say, don’t say anything”.

    So after a decade or so, we were doing couples counseling, and we eventually got around to “I don’t like how your mother and grandmother treat me badly in front of you and you just sit there and ignore it”. And then he and the counselor had a weeks long disucssion about his family culture while I sat there and finally learned what his childhood had been like and how it was showing up in our relationship. Eye-opening, to say the least.

    Eventually, the counselor asked him, “So next time you visit, how do you plan to deal with how they treat Sorcha?” And he said, Well, I will wait until they attack and then I will confront them. About everything.” And suddenly, I was Done with them. So I said, “No, you are not using me that way. If you want to confront them do it. But what you are talking about right now is using me like they use baby goats in tiger hunts, where they stake them down to the ground so they cannot get away and use them as bait for the tiger. I will not be used as bait.”

    So, the next trip, he went alone and he stayed in a hotel. I was amazed. When they asked where I was, he said, “I decided to come alone this time.” When they threw a fit about how they have this giant house with lots of beds and there was a convention in Toronto that week so there were no hotel rooms and he had to stay 20 miles away (true story), he said,”Yea, that is true, but I think this will work better.” And it did.

    After that trip, his mom tried the “I love you but I don’t like who you grew up to be” ploy and he said, “Well, that being the case, let’s limit our contact”. She’s been trying to change that decision for 15 years now, but since she won’t stop saying how much she does not like him, he hasn’t budged. He’s sad about how little relarionship they have, but he doesn’t want to put his head back into the meatgrinder, either.

    In the 26 years we have been together, I have managed to achieve some level of clarity. She won’t change. She doesn’t want to change, even though she admits that her behavior has driven her son away. And no matter how much I wish it were different, treating her like a rational human being does not work. Don’t get trapped trying to justify these changes. Just make them, and let his family accept them or not.

    And don’t be surprised when she attacks your family of origin as part of her attempt to get things back to “normal”. The bullshit his mother pulled when my mother died was unbelievable. The hardest part for the partner who grew up in a reasonably functional family is letting go of the belief that these people can be reached. They cannot, and you just hurt yourself and your partner who grew up with them if you keep trying. Draw your boundaries. Stick to them kindly, civilly, and without explanation.

    I advise you to insist on staying at a hotel when you visit them. They will get used to it. As for when they visit you, what we do is let them stay two nights at our house, then we go together on a trip where we stay in hotels along the way. Canadian Rockies, Gulf Islands, Olympic Penninsula, Oregon Coast, Okanagon, Palouse — all places we have visited with them. The trips give up topics of conversation, everyone has a hotel room at night, and we spend a lot of time wandering around in scenic areas where it’s entirely possible to walk away if the conversation goes south. She sometimes whines about this, but I happen to know that she also brags to her acquaintances back home about the cool places we take them.

    I am so grateful to that couples counselor who helped us get to a place where we just do what we have to do, and our Alice gets to see us more when she behaves, and less when she doesn’t, and we don’t explain or apologize for any of it.

    1. ~The hardest part for the partner who grew up in a reasonably functional family is letting go of the belief that these people can be reached.~

      Speaking from the perspective of another Alice Jr here (about the only inaccuracy in the Captain’s shoes-rant above was the lack of profanity), this is a hard realization to come to even when you grow up in the environment. ‘This person does not have the capacity to be sane and trustworthy any more than a volcano has the capacity to not roast you alive’ is not the default mindset – if you, yourself, are sane, you start out thinking there has to be something you can DO, a way to BRING sanity to this situation.

      I vividly remember reading, of all things, a comedy article, which noted that threatening suicide was classified as domestic abuse by the Marine Corp. I was boggled. Like…it’s not just something that makes *me* feel horrible and scared because I’m an oversensitive baby? This is genuinely and legally an abusive and terroristic thing to do to your family? Wow.

      At least in my case, the stages went:
      1. I love my mother, no matter how much she scares me.
      2. I love my mother, and also I hate my mother, and I am a terrible person because WHO HATES THEIR MOTHER?
      3. …okay, yeah, I’m allowed to hate her, because she is an abusive emotional terrorist, but the fact that I suck it up and make nice with her anyway means I’m WEAK and I don’t DESERVE better treatment.

      It took a while before I quit helping her rake me over the coals, and realized that I’m allowed to feel how I feel and to do what I need to to survive.

      At the current equilibrium, I’ve sadly lost all vestiges of love, respect, or even liking for her. I also play the devoted and concerned daughter who never brings up her spells when they’re not happening or fights back when they are.

      I can’t cut her out of my life because A) Logistics and B) Extended family. Reason B will never not be true. She will also never be different than she is. It’s a sucky reality of life, and acknowledging that it will never be better freed up a lot of mental energy I was spending on trying to MAKE it better.

      1. “I can’t cut her out of my life because A) Logistics and B) Extended family. Reason B will never not be true.”

        Yeah. I have a lot of siblings, and for a long time I didn’t cut my father off because I knew it would mean damage to my relationships with them. I think, if he hadn’t made my children targets, I would have put up with it even longer. I don’t think a lot of people realize how cutting off a single person can affect entire webs of relationships. If any of my sibs had still been minors at the time, or my parents still married, or my grandfather still alive, I would not have been able to cut contact — I would have shielded my kids, but not cut him off myself. I would have lost too much.

    2. Thank you. I’m married -30 years to a great guy from The Toxic Family From Hell. We are going through some major crap with his father at the moment in the wake of his mother’s death. Your comment, plus the Captain’s awesome advice, give me hope.

  11. My mother is generally reasonable but has her moments. Hers are primarily forgetting that I am no longer a child but a 27 year old. At some point I got sick of all the “you are so rude and mean” comments and sideways snark, so I told her “yes, I am a bad daughter and a bad person.” and I said it with such a flat affect that there wasn’t much she could do about it. At this point I was getting married and had a lot of friends, so her whole “You are a failure socially and therefore you should listen to me” schtick fell flat. Since then things have gotten much better, to be perfectly honest. Once I started acting like “I can walk away from this conversation at any time,” she started treating me like an adult and not like a child.

    But, my mom doesn’t act like Alice. Just like a mom who forgot that 20 years have passed.

    1. I remember when my mother reached the Fuckits with her mom. I was 7 or so? My granny had been taking really, vicious, manipulative jabs at her all day on the first day of what was supposed to be a long weekend visit. At the end of the day, my mother had had enough and said that if my granny couldn’t be nice to her she would leave. This erupted into an argument, and my granny came up with the gem, “I’m your mother. You have to love me.” I could practically hear something in my mother snap, and she said, very calmly, “No, I don’t.” Then she gathered up our stuff and we drove the 2 hours home. She didn’t speak to my granny for a month. When she did finally start speaking to her again, my granny behaved much better. She was never a nice or kind person or even comfortable to be around, but she was never again as bad as she was the day my mom let her know that her relationship with us was not guaranteed.

  12. My mom is something of a stealth Alice. In family, she’s a nightmare of hurt feelings and manipulation. When anyone else is around, she behaves perfectly normally. Very few tantrums, thank god, but she is the black hole of victimhood – the woman who managed to make my revelation of molestation all about her hurt feelings.

    Over the years, we’ve mostly dealt with her by moving and staying far, far away. Also by getting a dog, to which she is highly allergic, thereby necessitating a hotel room for her when she does visit.

    Otoh, for our visits to her, I pretty much have to visit with husband or not at all. I know CA is a fan of people dealing with their own parents, but the couple of times I’ve visited without him have been utter nightmares. (Seriously, ended up locked in the house for nearly six weeks once, where I needed cooperation from a parent even to go walk around the block, because all the house locks were double-sided deadbolts, and I had no key.) He’s a real person to her, while I am an accessory, so he is allowed to claim my time and attention, whereas if he is not there, every second is supposed to belong to her. It also means that she moderates her behavior somewhat, because she’s concerned about what he thinks of her. Fortunately, the husband is on board with this.

    1. ::JAWDROP::

      Oh my god. I honestly think that qualifies as kidnapping or forced imprisonment. SIX WEEKS?!?!?!

      1. Hard to believe myself at this distance, but yeah. I was staying with them while my husband looked for a place to live where his new job was. I was pregnant with a toddler, so I couldn’t hang out in people’s living rooms the way he was, plus I was trying to spare my awesome in-laws the burden of so long a guest, since they were chronically broke (and so were we at that point). My parents basically behaved as if I were sixteen again. If I wanted to do anything other than chase my toddler, I needed their permission and cooperation, and since all doors were key-operated from both sides, I couldn’t even get out of the house, short of breaking a window. By the time I left, my blood pressure was running at stroke levels, and I was lying to my ob/gyn about it, because I was dead certain that it was living with my parents, and not pre-eclampsia. (I was right, 2 days after I finally left, my BP was normal.)

        Mom finally agreed to drive me up to our new place when my due date got so close that she was risking having me go into labor and having to deal with a toddler by herself. She cut it close – I had son #2 three days after I arrived at the new house.

        Now I have a key to their house, even though I had to lie to their contractor to get a copy, and I refuse to visit without my husband and a rental car.

        1. That house sounds like a death-trap. It’s good you have a key now, but that’s not enough. You’ll never find your key quickly enough in case of a fire or other emergency that requires evacuation. Personally I would not feel comfortable sleeping in that house, or having anyone I love sleeping in it.


        2. Dude, a sixteen-year-old can leave the house. Hell, when I was six I was allowed to go into the backyard without asking permission. They were literally putting your life at risk in a fire to satisfy their need to control. I hope you never ever leave your children alone with them, because that is scary.

          1. Before I was six my dad had gone all over the house with me showing me how to open different windows from the inside, made me take out things like mosquito screens while he watched, showed me which porch roofs could be accessed from the inside, and made me demonstrate unlocking or opening both the front and back doors. He considered it essential that I be able to get out of the house without help in case of a fire. This when I was maybe four, maybe five. Certainly not sixteen!

      2. I just need to underscore this. It sounds like you’ve got a good support system set up with your partner, Tapetum, but in case you ever find yourself thinking “maybe they’re not so bad,” please know that it’s really, appallingly Not Okay for them to treat you that way.

    2. nope, nope nope. Not being able to leave the house means you’re a prisoner, not a visitor. Holy shit. How did they think this is reasonable behavior?

      1. Well -Mom doesn’t keep spare keys because they’re a security hazard. And demanding one of my own would mean that I didn’t trust her to meet my needs and let me out when I needed. Don’t I trust my own mother? (Not as far as I can throw her.) I had the same problem as a teenager – I didn’t get a house key of my own until I was 16, and she accidentally locked me out for three hours, in Rochester, in February. After which our neighbors talked to Dad, and he gave me a key over her protests.

        She considers me a tremendously irresponsible adult because I barely ever lock the house. For some mysterious reason I have a horror of being locked up or locked out.

        1. Besides the fact that you’re literally being locked up as a prisoner, this is incredibly dangerous. What if there was a fire? I have always been taught that an absolute rule of double-sided dead bolts is that you must ALWAYS leave the key inside the lock when you’re home, so you’re not trapped in case of a fire (or carbon monoxide or any other reason you’d need to evacuate). I’m not sure if installing double sided dead-bolts on the fire exits is even legal in many jurisdictions.

        2. Does she still do this? Because, as described, keeping a person locked inside the house — adult offspring or not — is beyond simply unreasonable or “difficult.” It’s abusive, dangerous, and illegal.

          1. Agreed. Spare keys to double-sided deadbolts are only a security risk when you don’t want people ESCAPING your home.

          2. Well, she would, but when they moved to a new house, it came with a separate apartment that visitors now stay in, to which they have to have the key. Also, none of us kids visit them more than once a year (and it’s been three since the last time I went). Having them come here is stressful, but comes without the added attempts to return me to the control level they had during my childhood. She does follow me around locking all my doors, windows, and the car behind me, which is annoying, but at least I have the keys to everything.

            Logically, I know that my parents behavior was abusive, but I have hard time feeling it. I’ve started seeing a therapist recently, and we keep having these moments where I relate some or another anecdote of my childhood that seems normal to me, and she just sits there for a second looking appalled before she responds.

        3. I realize that attempting to rationally respond to someone like this is futile, but I can’t help it.
          [D]emanding one of my own would mean that I didn’t trust her to meet my needs and let me out when I needed. Don’t I trust my own mother?
          Yeah, but – doesn’t she, like, also sometimes leave the house? If not, surely she must at least occasionally sleep and use the bathroom. What were you supposed to do during those instances?

          1. That was how I ended up locked out for three hours in winter as a kid – she went shopping, and forgot when I was due home from school. I was evidently supposed to wait on the porch or in the garage until she got back. Instead after about 40 or so minutes, I decided I was freezing and this was ridiculous, and I tapped on our neighbors door and asked if I could wait in their kitchen. She was upset, primarily because their inquiry meant that Dad insisted I be allowed to have a key.

            The great irony is that since I dog sat for them when they would take vacations, I had a key to their house – but not to my own.

        4. WTF? Spare keys are only a “security hazard” when they’re kept in “secret places” outside of one’s home….NOT when they’re given to trusted family members and friends.

        5. She expected you to trust her when she clearly didn’t trust you. That is an evil, evil thing to do to a kid.

        6. Um, wow. I am in Rochester, in February, right now. That is a serious, serious thing.

  13. It’s so hard to get past the belief that a fellow human being must, at some level, be amenable to comprehending a fair argument! I sure as heck think I’m open to reasonable argument, assuming the other person has some tact and doesn’t choose to confront me in the middle of a fight or anything. But maybe I’m not…?
    My benighted parent isn’t too terrible, but manages to undermine all of his relationships by being just enough of an asshole that few people stay close to him. I used to think if only I were clever and tactful enough I could get through to him, and sort of excise the assholery from his good side.
    But his ability to forget some of the outrageous things he’s done makes it impossible for him to accept that it’s him, not other people, who are to blame for his loneliness.
    I think the Captain’s advice sounds great. But hotels are so expensive! I can’t help feeling that I’d resent my dad’s visits even more if he were costing me $100/night. I suppose I’m like the Letter Writer’s husband’s family in this knee-jerk reaction against paying for hotels. 🙂

    1. Try it once. Treat it as an experiment to see if it’s worth the cost to you. (Also, you can use online deals to get decent hotels rooms for very little money if you are willing to spend time on it.) It’s reasonable to resent spending the money more than you resent the suffering of having him in the house, but it’s also true that for some people, the cost is worth it. You can try and see, and then go from there. For me, it’s not worth it for one or two nights, but if the visit is going to be longer, it is worth it.

    2. You don’t get the $100 a night one with free breakfast and wifi and nice sheets. You put them in a motel 6, super 8, or econo lodge. It’s still going to cost you money but not of the $100 a night variety.

  14. One thing that was extremely helpful to me (thank you therapy!) was that you want to avoid “should”-ing yourself.

    You /should/ have a happy relationship with your MIL (but you don’t). Your MIL /should/ behave like a decent human to you (but she doesn’t). You might have a lot of expectations from your amazing parents about how things /should/ work with rational and nice people.

    Let go of the “shoulds” and focus on what is happening and take it from there. You will probably never get some or even most of the “shoulds” that you desire from your MIL (and deserve!). The Captain’s advice is spot-on – it will be a trial. But, on a personal success story note, I followed the advice for Alice with my mom (and “Will I ever be good enough?” – quick answer is “no, no you will not”), and while there has been some Very Dramatic Pushback, I had breakfast with her this Saturday without crying or feeling like a terrible person, and didn’t get coerced into a million extra errands that I didn’t want to do. It felt like winning the lottery – just having a normal breakfast with my parents – and put me in a great mood all day (“I had breakfast! Without crying! Or being guilted into something! WOO!”). Once you realize that you are the one who actually has the power, things become much easier. Best of luck to you!!

    1. A more experienced friend once told me “I will not ‘should’ on myself today.” And for me, that’s been a powerful phrase.

  15. Just commenting to highlight THIS: “Communicating that you can live with a parent’s displeasure but not their mistreatment is powerful stuff.”

    My mother is my Difficult Person, and it took me nearly 40 years to figure out what boundaries are and how they work. The first time I told her that I was going to stay at my sister’s house instead of hers when I visited, I got a lot of push-back; same when I refused to answer probing questions about my then-boyfriend. Then, on my next visit, she threw a massive “you hate me, I knew it! Apologize for everything you’ve ever done to me in your entire life!” tantrum over a trivial comment. For the first time ever I grabbed my stuff and walked out the door. She was utterly shocked! The next day she actually apologized (well, pseudo-apologized, but that’s still a first for her). Best of all, there have been exactly 0 tantrums in the 3.5 years since (usually there’s at least 1/annual visit). Ok she pretty much ignores me now, and goes even more out of her way to make it clear how much she prefers my sister (who still plays along), but it’s still so much more pleasant. It really is freeing to know you don’t have to play along.

    Standing up to the FEELINGSTEMPEST is so hard the first time through, especially when you’ve been raised to tiptoe on eggshells around your Difficult Person. But boundaries can be powerful medicine for people who aren’t used to being faced with them. I hope they work as well for you and your husband, good luck!

    1. Yes, I second this. This is my experience as well.
      It was amazing to me that the world did not collapse when I finally set my own boundaries. The first time was the hardest. It was such a powerful discovery – I released the FEELINGSKRAKEN and I survived, and my life is not only as good but a bit better because at least I stood up for myself.

    2. I N’th this as well. The whole post is golden, but this sentence is really echoing around in important ways for me. Along with the phrase “selective memory.” Oh, is that what my dad has? Wow, that explains SO MUCH!

      1. I’d even go as far as calling it “voluntary selective memory”. In fact, it’s impossible to know if they’re doing it on purpose, how much they observe what they’re doing, but “forgetting” unpleasant stuff is very common for unpleasant people.

  16. LW, I don’t think you need to worry about “evenness”, but you do need to worry about kindness – not to your awful mother-in-law, but to your husband.

    This is, after all, his mother who he apparently doesn’t hate? You absolutely have the right to set boundaries and be up front about his mom’s conduct, but – if the message you are sending with that is “God, your mom is SUCH A BITCH, unlike MY mom, who is AWESOME”, or if the tape your husband is running in his head in response to your saying. “Hey, let’s go for a hotel this time” is to agree just because he is afraid off rocking the boat WITH YOU, that is not healthy. As the Captain says, people raised in households where their views don’t matter rarely morph into Healthy Assertive Person the second they move out,

    I’m not saying that you ARE doing these things, LW, only that you probably want to take a calm look at how you and your husband are negotiating boundaries to make sure you guys are not falling into a dynamic that his parents installed in his head.

    1. I have to disagree with this advice somewhat. Yes, it is always important to be kind to your spouse, but in a situation like this, I don’t think that sending the message “God, your mom is SUCH A BITCH” qualifies as unkind (leaving aside the issue of the gendered insult). It’s just a fact. If LW’s husband is a decent guy, he will recognize that his mom is hurting LW and counteract it, by agreeing with LW’s boundaries, presenting a united front with her when his mom inevitably tests them, and enforcing the consequences for her boundary violations. Period. His mom’s bad behavior does not have to reflect on him at all (unless it does – say, because he is enabling her treatment of his wife through his passivity. I consider this highly likely, because I have never in my life seen an in-law problem that wasn’t, at its root, a husband/wife problem in disguise.)

      I can see how someone who is an enmeshed adult child of parents like this, who still sees their parents’ disapproval as TWTITW as the Captain put it, might interpret his spouse putting her foot down in the way you described, but that doesn’t necessarily make the spouse’s actions unhealthy. The pattern I more often see is that the adult child knows that his spouse can be reasoned with while his parents cannot, and so he puts all kinds of pressure on his spouse to keep her from rocking the boat, because he knows if she does he’s in for a world of verbal abuse from his parents, whereas if he stops her from rocking the boat, nothing happens to him because his spouse is not an emotional abuser. This sets up a dynamic where the adult child is effectively using the spouse as a kind of human shield against his parents’ disapproval and constantly throws her and her concerns under the bus because it’s the path of least resistance for him. This kind of dynamic CANNOT be fixed unless the spouse starts agitating for change, which necessitates making the adult child’s sabotaging of her attempts at boundary setting a lot less comfortable for him. If this is the situation the LW is in, she should worry less about how she’s treating her husband, and way more about how her husband is treating her.

      1. This is a very wise point. I have lived this dynamic. And my spouse, whose mother was the abusive person, refused to work with me to change it. His mother’s behaviour was awful and unpredictable and difficult, but it was my husband’s refusal to have my back that was the major issue. Our relationship barely survived and we’ve never resolved what happened with his family – we just moved far far away to escape.

      2. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
        Your superb, awesome, brilliant words about being used as a shield by one’s partner have got me dancing round my kitchen yelling “Yay! Someone GETS it,”at my poor cat.
        This is what my husband has done to me for 30 years. I have had to deal with the hell that is his family, in a country 12000 miles from my own folks, for more than half my life, whilst he hid behind me, dodging all the bullets. I have developed a chronic health problem and am currently being abused by his horrible father, but he has finally woken up and taken my part. Not, I might add, because of any pleas on my part, but because one of their latest shitstorms has actually spattered him and he now sees how ghastly they are.
        Bless you!

        1. Yes. Unfortunately, for every big bad abusive in-law terrorizing a new addition to the family, there is always a spouse who allows the abuse to happen and sanctions it through his/her (lack of) actions. As terrible as these in-laws can be, it is the enabling spouse who is the major problem, because the in-laws wouldn’t be able to do shit if the spouse would just grow a spine and prioritize their partner’s needs over their mommy and daddy’s wants. I understand that these enabling spouses are often the victims of emotional and verbal abuse themselves (although sometimes it’s the opposite, and they were their parents’ “golden child”) and have been programmed to be codependent and obey their parents at all costs, but I have limited sympathy for them when they choose, as grown-ups, to effectively supply their parents with shiny new distracting victims and join in with the minimizing and gaslighting as needed to keep the new victims in line. It is an ugly dynamic and at that point, I consider them a co-abuser and would advise treating them as such. I am so sorry that your husband has been using you as his human shield in this way. Is there any way you can refuse to see them anymore and also refuse to let your husband make you deal with all the fallout they’ll dish out as a result of your choice?

          1. Thank you for replying to my comment with yet more wise words. I plan on showing all this to my husband when he gets home later as it sums up my life and his behaviour so succinctly.
            Shortly before Christmas, I made the decision to call time on my marriage. This completely pulled the rug out from under his feet, but I stayed firm and prepared for life by myself. He went back to his father. What happened next was the Giant Family Effluent Pipe of Crap (I’m a dairy farmer, excuse the metaphor ) got turned full bore on him, when he was expecting support from them.
            We are patching things up now (30 years and two kids is a lot to throw away and he is otherwise a wonderful guy ). He finally seems to be on Team Me. Yay! I think we’ll get through it with a bit of time, honesty and care.
            Many thanks for your kindness and understanding. God bless you.

          2. “I have limited sympathy for them when they choose, as grown-ups, to effectively supply their parents with shiny new distracting victims and join in with the minimizing and gaslighting as needed to keep the new victims in line. It is an ugly dynamic and at that point, I consider them a co-abuser and would advise treating them as such.”
            Oh man – that’s it exactly. It’s taken me many years and a whole lot of work to recognise this and to allow myself to see that my husband was passing on the emotional abuse to me. Acknowledging that you’ve been in an emotionally abusive relationship is tremendously difficult, especially when your spouse presents themselves as the victim. I still doubt myself around this sometimes, so thank you for laying it out so clearly.

          3. Agreed on all points, but want to suggest that the “golden child” or “chosen child” is also the victim of emotional abuse. It is not acceptance that golden children receive, as they’re part of the same system of dysfunction, just cast in a different role. They only remain chosen as long as they play that role well. Some continue to throughout their lives, allow others to be scapegoated, or become abusers themselves. Others refuse at some point, once they realize that they’ve never been allowed to differentiate and develop authentic selves. In doing so, they lose that chosen status and approval. Which, again, was not true love and acceptance, because it only came from adhering to the rigid, often implicit, role dictated by the parent/s. Which surprise, surprise, often included the requirement to almost worship, and certainly never disagree with or depart from the wishes/views/choices of, the parent/s.

            Not like I would know anything about it…

          4. This is mostly a reply to Leiala, but this is as close as the nesting will let me get.

            Leiala,that’s a really great point. When my sister and I were young I was the “golden child” and all that meant to me was that I woke up every morning wondering if this was the day mom would start hitting me too. Obviously my sister had it worse, but spending my entire childhood terrified that I would somehow mess up and my mom would point her abuse at me too sucked.

            @The Other Kat

            I have limited sympathy for them when they choose, as grown-ups, to effectively supply their parents with shiny new distracting victims and join in with the minimizing and gaslighting as needed to keep the new victims in line.

            I think that’s also an excellent point. It’s sad when people feel trapped in the family dynamics they grew up with, but if your partner isn’t on team you, it doesn’t fucking matter why, they need to step up or get left behind.

            In case it’s meaningful to anyone, you absolutely have my permission to give up on a partner who won’t stand up for you. I trust you, and I believe that you did everything you could to make it work. You are not a bad person if you believe someone when they show you that they are only on team you when it’s easy. Please, look after you.

      3. This is exactly the dynamic I experienced relative to my partner’s ex, who is the MIssing Stair of the community. When we were first dating, my partner was constantly throwing me under the bus and telling me that maybe I shouldn’t attend that party because ex wouldn’t be there. Because if I went, then partner would have to endure the vitriolic phone calls from ex about it, and it was just easier (for hir) to avoid that by excluding me instead. WTF? And other community members tended to follow the same approach–oh no, we don’t need your help, thanks, we’ve got it covered (because ex will be there too and we can’t have both of you, can we?). That shit didn’t stop until I started agitating, pointing out that it was not okay for me to bear the cost of this shit, and generally making a big stink about it. Everybody involved would assure me that the problem wasn’t with me (no duh), and that it wasn’t that she didn’t like me personally, it’s just that I was involved with partner. When I started discussing the definition of bigotry and how it applies (I belong to the class of people dating ex, even though that class consisted of 1 person, and membership in that group was apparently sufficient to discriminate against me, and for everyone to cooperate with it–yikes!). Once I started having those conversations with my partner in the community (in year 3 of dating, mind you), then finally that shit started to settle. During all of this, the ex was perfectly pleasant to me when we met. So I never had any direct experience with her having a problem with me–it was only by third-party reports that I even knew there was a problem. Which everyone decided was my problem to fix or something.

  17. There is no “fair” when it comes to you how you treat each partner’s family. Relatives’ behavior dictate how much information/leeway/trust you give them.

    For instance, my husband’s sister is emotionally unstable and has a history of illegal/dangerous behavior. She does not get to visit our home, babysit or visit our children unsupervised or have access to us on social media.

    MY sister is emotionally stable and does not have a history of illegal/dangerous behavior. She IS allowed to visit our home, babysit and visit our children unsupervised and have access to us on social media.

    Does it hurt Sister in law that she is not allowed to contact us or see our children without us closely watching her every move? Yes. Does it make things uncomfortable with DH’s parents, who don’t see why these boundaries are necessary? Yes. Does SIL mention how unfair it is that my sister has unfettered access to our lives while she is limited? Yes. Is it absolutely necessary due to her past behavior? YES.

    We’re always saying that you teach people how to treat you. Well, that works both ways. People teach you how much they can be trusted and how close you should let them get.

    So basically, you need to sit down with your husband and say, “Look, this is not about ‘fair.’ This is not about your family vs. my family. This about me feeling comfortable in my home when your parents visit. And me feeling comfortable when we visit your parents. In either situation, I need space to retreat to, where I can relax and recharge and not have to worry about filtering my behavior. That means NOT sharing living space with your parents. I know that you’re worried about hurting your mom’s feelings and your family doesn’t like hotels, but this is what I NEED to be happy and comfortable. How do we go about making that happen?”

    1. Agreed. Granted, it can’t *hurt* to take this opportunity to make sure your husband does indeed view your parents’ visits as rainbows-and-unicorns time – as many in this thread have noted, children of emotional abusers are masters at seeming okay with things when they aren’t. Maybe being on company manners when (even reasonable) extended family visit is stressful for him too. But as long as that’s not the case, being split-down-the-middle ‘fair’ to his folks and yours isn’t the issue – what works for *your* little family unit is the issue.

    2. That’s the difference between a child’s definition of fair and an adult’s. To a child (or childish adult), “fair” means something between “everyone gets exactly the same” and “I get exactly what I want.” As an adult, adjusting the rules you have for different people based on their behavior is perfectly fair. The rules aren’t arbitrary. You don’t limit your SIL’s access because you think her hair is silly or some other random reason. Her limited access is the result of how she has behaved toward you in the past multiple times and the level of adulting she has demonstrated in her life. In the adult world, it would be the height of unfairness to limit your sister based on your SIL’s actions or subjecting your family to your SIL’s bullshit despite her behavior because you want to have a relationship with your own sister. It is about “fair.” Fair to YOU.

  18. Wow, Captain, the “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.” bit hit so close to home for me. My dad once told me if I kept my apartment I paid for so messy, I would never get a man to date me. This is, of course, after years of teaching me how to keep things clean by yelling at me about how awful I was at not making a mess everywhere I went.

    Anyway, sorry to derail, but to the LW, the whole thing where you remind your partner that the way his mother is, is not normal or okay and that he gets to be wigged out because of *her* rather than wigging out because he’s a terrible son, that is so, so useful and important. I cannot tell you how much damage my partner has helped me see and undo, and I am so much more happy and in control and feel like less of a failure as a result. So keep reminding him.

  19. The idea of pre-ruined holidays, phew. That has honestly pulled so much weight off my shoulders. Because that’s exactly what it is — any holiday with my family is pre-ruined, because that behaviour now spans multiple generations. I spend all my time before holidays and birthdays and such twisted up into knots and… I don’t need to be, because it doesn’t matter what I do, it will never be good enough.

    I mean hell, I’m laid up with a broken ankle and buried under several feet of snow in the middle of nowhere, and my brother’s texting me whining that I’m so close and he never sees me and by the way can I babysit his kids… and he’s the one with a car (and mobility). He’s never visited me a day in his life. And yet I get pushback on how I’m somehow failing my familial duties (yes, those words were used, and not even by him!) by having a broken ankle and not being able to walk 30min to the nearest bus stop for a 3-transfer route, when he is a 10min drive away. Logic doesn’t matter, reasons don’t matter, because these are not reasonable people.

    The shoes were also really revelatory for me. I’ve been fascinated with this paper towel commercial on TV, because it involves kids and juice and spills and neither parent screams at the kids for the spills and it is not a 10-minute-long breakdown of every failing that 6-year-old has because they accidentally spilled juice. They just clean up the spill in 2 seconds and keep talking about paper towels and the kids keep smiling with their friends and… being kids.

    I don’t… I’ve never seen that. Not when I was growing up, not with my brother’s family. Is it possible that in some other dimension, juice could just be… juice? Every time I see this commercial I feel like I’m watching Discovery Channel about a different species or something. Every time I brace for the yelling, and for wanting to defend the kids and… they don’t need defending. Because it really is just juice and they really are just kids.

    So, yeah, LW — I hear you on visiting and how friggin damaging it is to try to deal with Unreasonable People. My method was to move so far away visiting was prohibitively expensive and somehow being incredibly busy for about 7 years, but even then emergencies were manufactured, so. I don’t know what else you can do, but I hope you’re able to find support and strength in doing it.

    1. Oh holy crap trundlebear. So indescribably unimpressed by your brother and parents from that story. -_-

      Also, that is super sad about the ad, but I can understand it. My parent’s bullshit was a little different but WOW that feeling of “hang on, real people have parents who don’t make sure they know they’re terrible people??” is surreal.

      1. Oh good grief, it gets better — I just found out that he’s asking me to watch the kids because my sister, who lives next door, is now charging him as she’s done 4 years of babysitting for free and isn’t able to schedule her life around theirs anymore. She’s charging him less than $5 an hour (for three kids under the age of 5), it’s not exactly a lot, but it’s enough to make him pause and consider before insisting she watch the kids… well now he doesn’t want to pay her anymore because he DESERVES free babysitting, so they want me to pick up all of her “shifts”.

        My sister and I spent a good portion of today together and intend to spend the next week or two suddenly very busy, now that I know it’s not a case of her schedule conflicting so much as them _not wanting to pay her $20 for a whole day of babysitting_. I think we’d all be a little more understanding if they hadn’t just upgraded their ipads at christmas (while she lives on a fixed income AND is going to school).

        Gosh I am a grumpy bear. I mentioned this post and my thoughts to her (and that ad) and we had a slow, quiet “Sometimes, most of the times, it’s just juice, but you wouldn’t know that in our family” because my nephew gets screamed at the way my brother did. By his dad AND grandpa. Because the solution to poor motor skills in toddlers is to scream at them, of course.

        1. Grumpy? I think not. More like justifiable indignant at the entitlement your brother’s showing without the slightest inkling of just how wrong he is for doing it.

        2. Hi! So…I have a thought for you that is couched in terms of a story.

          I had a couple of friends who decided to have a baby. And they went around talking to all their friends before they got pregnant about how important community was to them and how much they wanted all their friends to be part of their child’s life and how they wanted us all to be very involved because “it takes a village”. And so they had a baby. And then another baby. Their friends are all busy people; we had jobs, engrossing hobbies, were in school, etc. It turned out–and this came out very slowly, first as passive-aggressive social media postings and eventually as actual words–that when they had *said* “community is important, it takes a village”, what they *meant* was “we want free babysitting on the regular because we want to carry on with our own lifestyle and hobbies, few of which are compatible with small children”. When people weren’t willing to do constant free babysitting, we were magically terrible friends who had lied to them. The woman of this couple actually said to me “we only had kids because our friends all said they’d be there for us, and everyone abandoned us”. Oh, and this was with fuel costs around 3$/gallon, and they lived way outside town, making it expensive in terms of both time and money even if one wanted to give them a break by watching their colicky baby for a few hours.

          I was blown away by the whole thing when I stopped to think about it, because seriously, who acts like that.

          Now–if someone were telling you that they wanted you to do the stuff your brother wants you to do and were not faaaaaaaamily, how would you respond? 🙂 Because even if he weren’t otherwise very rude and abusive toward you, which it sounds like he is, this is kind of a huge request. I’m actually no longer friends with those people from my story.

    2. Yeah, the juice thing. I keep thinking “Where’s the yelling, hitting, shaming? What strange, brave new world is this?” Sigh. I’m 50 years removed from that and it still gets me.

    3. That reminds me of a scene from Mad Men when Don first started seeing Megan. They’re at a diner with the kids and Sally spills a milkshake and everyone freezes, waiting for the blow-up. Megan just smiles and starts cleaning it up, and says something like, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a milkshake.” It’s a great illustration of how dysfunctional families create warped expectations of behavior from others.

      1. Yeah, I had a moment like that when my stepson was a tween. I was sitting on the sofa and had a glass of wine, and he was telling me some story that had him really animated with lots of hand flails. Inevitably, he managed to bump my hand mid flail, causing me to drop the glass. I just said, “Whoops!” and hopped up to get some paper towels. I ended up appalled by how freaked out he was. He started babbling a mixture of apology and self-flagellation about being “so clumsy all the time.” He really wasn’t having the “Hey, it’s OK” that I started with, but I think it finally sunk in that he wasn’t in trouble when I pointed out that he was growing really fast at his age. I said, “Dude, your arms are getting longer at random intervals. OF COURSE you’re clumsy right now. How could you not be?”

        Needless to say, his mom was…something else.

  20. Hey LW. Here’s a weird story from New Years which it’s possible I’m telling partly to vent, but there is also a point and hopefully it’s illustrative. While visiting me my mum wanted to go and see the fireworks in the city centre, and I didn’t because crowds are not my thing. So I told her I would bow out. But Family Must Do Everything Together. So when I announced I was going out to ride my bike around and find a good hill from which to watch fireworks my parents had to come along and we would all find a place to watch the fireworks together (no more bike ride for me, which honestly was part of my plan to remain sane). Then while we were roaming around a hilly park she got more and more cross. In the way she does where she says everything is fine but sulks and mutters and gives you the cold shoulder. Eventually we were heading home, and I found the sullen anger thing so upsetting I insisted she should go into the city for the fireworks, that she shouldn’t let my lack of interest stop her. And she absolutely cracked it – why was I changing the plan? I had dragged them around in the sun for hours! She had agreed to my plan! She was really depressed and this wasn’t fair!! (I had specifically asked them not to come with me, but hey, the past is whatever she wants it to be)

    So we all went home. But only after we completed the plan of going to another cool place I’d suggested (earlier before the tantrum) we visit while we were out. Because if myself or my dad suggested going home because she wasn’t feeling great she would flip out. See, my mother does this amazing line in manipulation through martyrdom. She can make you feel like the meanest person in the world while you tie yourself in knots trying to placate her and give her what she wants. So finally when we got home I was 100% done and I had a genius brainwave! I would say I was feeling sick, and they should go out without me! I’m so smart!

    It almost worked. They actually walked down to the tram stop to head into town. I sat down with a plate of cheese and chocolate and turned on the latest episode of Lost Girl and breathed a huge sigh. And then they came back. Because she wasn’t comfortable leaving me alone when I felt sick. And because she is the Queen of Martyrs. Then, for the rest of the evening, we had to spend all the time together, and during this together time she pouted and sulked and was sullen and hated every movie I put on and gave me the most amazing cold shoulder in the history of cold shoulders literally ignoring me when I spoke. All I could think of was the times she’s told me she’s thought of killing herself and I was so stressed out my hands were shaking and I came very close to actually throwing up. And all through this my father encouraged me to give her what she wanted, to ignore her when she acted like I was the most hateful person she’d ever met (who she also had sacrificed so much for, look she’d even given up New Years eve fireworks on the banks of the Yarra for me!)

    And that wasn’t a terribly extreme visit.

    And here’s my actual point (there is one I promise)! Just release the kraken. The kraken is actually already released. She brings the kraken. Clever plans *don’t work*. I technically know this. I just forgot because I got all caught up in not upsetting her further, in feeling like a horrible person. A horrible person who’s crime, in hindsight, was…trying to bow out of a fireworks viewing. And by crying sick instead of just saying I needed some sodding time alone to myself I set myself up for the massive martyr trip. Because people like this are absolutely *compelled* to punish you if you don’t perfectly align your behaviour to their plans (often without being asked or given any clue really as to what’s required). And tricks and clever excuses just leave them further openings to pretend to be nice while grinding you into a fine paste that’s shaking and might possibly vomit even though you’re a 37 year old woman who technically knows exactly what’s going on.

    The *only* way to protect yourself is to straight up ask for what you need even if that will make the difficult person go absolutely nuts. The tantrum will happen anyway. The holiday is already ruined.

    I have so much sympathy for your husband LW, but also know it is very hard to see your way out of this when you’ve been trained to it from birth. You might need to set firm boundaries with him too, about what you will and won’t deal with from his mother. Jedi hugs for both of you.

    1. Yes. The tantrum will happen anyway, the holiday is already ruined… and the worst thing you can do by asking for what you want is…. make things better for you by setting a boundary or two. Go for it.

  21. I’ve found it extremely important to have an escape route for when we visit the parental units. We always take a hotel now, and usually we only stay for a day with then, sleep in the hotel, then visit friends in the area the next day and go home again. The feeling alone that we *can* escape whenever we see the need has taken a load off my shoulders. And I also think it has made my parents more docile. Because they are not stupid. They know if they bring on a fight we might stand up and leave with a polite excuse that we are tired and withdrawing. We couldn’t do that if we were staying with them.

    I’m a bit luckier than LW because my parents started to get a hotel room rather than bunk on our couch. “To make it easier for us.” They can hardly deny us to do the same.

    The most feared question for me would be: “But when you are visiting the in-laws, you stay with them, don’t you?” and vice versa “but when the in-laws are visiting you, they stay with you, right?” I am training myself to NOT answer that question. Because it’s only an excuse for a fight.

    In fact I am training myself to not answer some questions in general. There is no rule except a social one that you have to answer when someone invades your privacy and asks to explain yourself. But it’s SOOOO hard to shed that life-long training.

  22. I’m not defending the mother-in-law here or anything, but there’s a couple of things that jump out at me:

    The LW wants to do things that would send signals that MIL is not entirely welcome. The MIL is not totally wrong to feel hurt by that.

    Your post makes it sound like it’s completely unreasonable to be hurt by an obvious sign that someone doesn’t really like you or want you around. Having a tantrum about it is not the right thing to do, but it’s not wrong to be hurt by that.

    1. It’s not wrong or unreasonable to be hurt by that, so, from the post:

      “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.”

      Being hurt is one thing, and it’s a real thing. Being Alice is another. If someone said to you, “We can’t wait for you to come, we made this hotel reservation though,” you might be hurt by it, but would you be tantrum-hurt by it?

      I’ve had to tell my folks once upon a time, “Please get a hotel room, I can’t host you” (and I couldn’t pay, either), and they were hurt and made lots of barbed comments the first time, but after that everything was fine. Partly it was “tiny apartment.” Partly it was “the last time you came to a place I live in you criticized and picked at literally everything, including opening drawers in my kitchen and asking why I had arranged them the way I did, so, NOPE.” Sometimes the choices really are “Be hurt/annoyed, but come see me” or “Don’t come!”

    2. Perhaps the point to remember is that we’re talking about manipulative tantrum-having arseholes who very likely emotionally abuse their immediate family. And the lesson there is that is OK to hurt the feelings of someone who is like that in order to protect yourself, because this person doesn’t give a damn about hurting *your* feelings and relies on the social contract to keep you from ever really calling them out on that or protecting yourself.

      People like this hold you hostage with their hurt feelings, and while no one is suggesting you set out to hurt them, the only way to get what you need and to escape the trap is to just accept that you will do your thing and they will be hurt and that’s OK.

      Obviously the ideal solution is to just cut such people out of your life, but sometimes we can’t do that or aren’t ready to do that or don’t want to lose our entire family.

  23. This is a huge amount of effort for someone you don’t actually want to see. My boyfriend’s mom is pretty uncool to be around in a few different ways. After a while of trying to make my relationship with her work, we decided I’d see her once a year, at Christmas. I felt that I owed my boyfriend that much, even if I didn’t owe her anything.

    So one Christmas we go out to dinner together. Among other things, she keeps bringing up my dead pets until I cry and ‘jokingly’ threatens to hit my sister. I was absolutely furious, and absolutely stunned that she couldn’t act civil for the one night a year we saw each other. I wrote a long post venting to my internet friends, and someone commented ‘wow, what a jerk, I hope you don’t have to see her again.’ And that’s when I realized that was an option.

    Boyfriend still sees her as often as he wants. It didn’t disrupt his relationship with her. She sulked about it a lot and said some pretty shitty things about me, but he handled it in his own way, and now things are about as good between them as they used to be.

    You don’t have to put up with unacceptable behavior from your boyfriend’s family, and you don’t have to memorize a book of dog training tips to try to minimize the damage they do to your life. It’s okay to not get on that plane or to be somewhere else when/if they stay in your home.

  24. oh my goodness, The Shoes Conversation! that’s it!
    sometimes it has an Act 2: “what’s with the crocodile tears? all i did was ask you to pick up your shoes, which you should have known to do anyway without having to be asked. why are you always so emotional whenever i ask you to pitch in and help out a little around the house? i’m not asking for the world, just for you to pick up your shoes like you’re supposed to without making a scene about it. how did you end up so spoiled that you won’t help your parents around the house?”

    1. That and “oh toughen up a little”. Because it’s totally inappropriate for a child to start crying when their parent picks on them, amiright?

        1. It is possible that that phrase is the reason none of my siblings or I have spanked our children. And certainly not with a spatula or shoe.

    2. The thing about the shoes conversation is–actual good parents? TEACH their kids how to clean up. Actual good parents realize that kids don’t have the executive function to know when and how to clean, so they help structure and scaffold. They set up the environment with things like rules and natural cleaning times, like “Your stuff has to be put away before you watch TV” or “We have company coming so the living room should be clean.’ If there are problems with this, they set up weekly chore rosters and daily task lists, they have family clean-up times, they work with their children to make sure they know all the steps. That way the child knows the expectations and tasks instead of random, “6 days of the week your shoes can be anywhere and it’s okay, on the 7th it’s Tirade Time.”. They know that they’re home after school watching TV, so their shoes and backpack should be put away in the coat nook, or that it’s their own room and it’s not a family cleanup day so it’s okay if it’s a bit messy.

      I know that from a dysfunctional perspective that sounds kind of robotic and Stepford-ish, but I swear it’s true. Bad parents scream because they didn’t do the necessary work as adults to set their kids up for success. Everything is chaotic and unpredictable and unexpectedly a crisis because of their lack of planning, organization, and guidance.

      1. I’m thinking a lot about your comment. I originally was going to disagree but the more I’m thinking about it…the lack of guidance and consistent expectations is a common feature in this sort of situation.

        My mother was a stay-at-home mom my whole childhood, and did everything by herself. Unless she decided one day that she was sick of “doing everything for me” and the I had to do chores, but I wasn’t doing them well enough/fast enough/the right way so forget it and she was the martyr. But with accidental things it was the same way. If my students spill something in my preschool class, I will help them clean it (because they’re three) but they’re also expected to get up and get paper towels to help clean it. When I spilled a glass of milk at 3, 7, 15…she would clean it, and then yell at me for cleaning it. It took me wayyyy longer than it should have to say, “STOP, I spilled it, I will do it, you don’t have to.” Because she expected to have to do anything, any mistake was more work for her. And I’m still really guilty of the over-explain action when BF asks me to do something I forgot (and he is as well, because his parents are expert guilt trippers). We’ve had so many ridiculous arguments because of this and are only now starting to figure it out after 18 months of living together.

        On a side note, I would love to stay in a hotel when visiting both of our parents, not because they’re overly difficult but because they both are still adamant about us sleeping in separate bedrooms (and in BF’s family’s case, I’m on the 1st floor and he’s in the basement, with his father on the couch in between us…). But they both live in very small towns and hotels would be so expensive so we just deal with it for now. Definitely not the worst thing they could do, and visits are pretty nice otherwise…

      2. I found the arbitrariness hardest to deal with: things would be fine at one point, not at another, and it was always unclear to me what I was supposed to do – turned out I was supposed to think and feel and want specific things, not to do them. Possibly if I had felt that way there would have been logic in the demands, but I could never see it.
        One of the side effects, amusingly, is that I am the only one in my family able to do a cold shoulder without a side dish of martyr, and no one in my family can cope with that. It has been immensely helpful when creating distance from the dysfunctional circus acts that are major holidays.

      3. And good parents also realize that no one remembers to put their shoes away 100% of the time, so forgetting to do so is not cause for screaming and shouting and recriminations. A gentle reminder, and perhaps some logical consequences (on the order of ‘since you haven’t put your stuff away, we’re going to have clean-up time instead of watching that TV show’) but no emotional tantrum.

      4. Wait… what?

        (Wow…. It’s no wonder I suck at cleaning! I was never actually taught how/when to do it! (also, it’s ever ok for kids to have messy rooms? what?) Mind. Blown.)

        1. Yup. Cleaning is a set of skills that aren’t always intuitive–there are the skills like knowing how and when to clean, as well as the more practical things like ‘how to get x stain out of y surface’. I was explicitly taught a lot of the practical things, more than most people, so I can fold fitted sheets and scald dishcloths and polish silver, but I got shoes-conversation more when it came to when to clean and why. (I have ADHD, so that stuff is hard for me and nobody knew I had it when I was a kid.)

          I had to explicitly negotiate for messy room days with my parents, because I liked a lot of arts and crafts that, when I was in the middle of them, made the room look like something had exploded. So it’d have to be, “I’m doing one of those cardboard cut-out castles, so everything’s going to be messy for a few days because it’s too much work to put everything away at night,” or, “My clothes are everywhere because I’m deciding on outfits for camp, so it’s not fair to yell at me about it.” Mess has an actual purpose, and its own time and place.

    3. Ow. Just… Ow. The original shoe situation in the first post resonated, but this sounds like my dad *verbatim* from when I was a child. Or a teen.

      It took me a long time to realize how emotionally abusive he was. Things like the shoe situation, expecting me to know what he wanted without asking first. Punishing me for not wanting to go shopping with him or having an anxiety attack. Lecturing me for hours on how ungrateful and selfish I am when I didn’t want to trade a slice of my personal pizza(mushroom, my favorite) for one of his and my mom’s supreme(which I don’t even like much). I was 15. It took a friend telling me that wasn’t reasonable behavior on my dad’s part for me to stop feeling guilty for being selfish, because I internalized that shit.

      He also gave me a lecture on rolling with the punches and on how I shouldn’t let myself look so sad(at home) because it made me unpleasant to be around.. Three days after I was diagnosed with clinical depression at age 17. He also repeatedly denigrated those who seek mental health help, through therapy or medication.

      He told me over and over that if I let myself cry or show negative emotions in front of people, they would avoid me.

      Now he’s better. He treats me like an adult. He’s supportive of my mental health care, asking after my meds and advising me to talk to my psychiatrist about things. He’s softened a lot. Possibly more helpfully, he lives 100 miles away, and I live in a city he dislikes visiting. I see him for at most 3 days at a time.

      But I’ll always be affected by how he treated me. I have an anxiety reaction to cleaning(as he had a habit of ignoring messes for she’s, then flying suddenly into a rage and ordering me to clean, presiding over the work in a dictatorial and pessimistic fashion), to remodeling(he decided to blitz remodel the house just after I graduated high school… What a nightmare), putting up Christmas lights (how dare I not know where he wanted me to hold up those lights!), and of course, criticism. I totally do the over-explaining thing mentioned here. I’m working on healing from all this crap, and I really am not sure how I feel about the guy. I love him as my dad, but I hate him for how he treated me, but… It’s complicated.
      At least he’s decent at the holidays

      1. My take: number one, you’re allowed to mourn your father. No, not the shoes-raging one, the emotionally supportive father who would sooner walk through fire than watch his child cower from him in fear. He may have never existed, any more than that kind of mother existed for me, but you still deserved him, and you’re allowed to be sad and even angry that he was never there.

        Number two: I mentioned upthread that I’ll never be able to cease contact with my mother entirely. But at least when the living situation isn’t so fraught, I’ll be able to see her at events with the awareness that ‘If she behaves badly in front of witnesses, I can remove myself with a clean conscience’.

        At that point, make no mistake, I’ll still be angry at her. I’ll still harbor dreams of somehow finally *making* her realize the extent to which she hurt me and exactly how fucked-up her behavior was. And if I spent every moment in her company seething internally with hatred while her past tantrums replayed on a loop in my head, she would deserve that.

        But *I* wouldn’t. At that point, every moment I spend angry at her will be a moment I’m forcing unhappiness on myself, and there’s already been plenty of that.

        So – you have every right to feel how you feel. And if he slips back into acting shitty, you have every right to reduce your contact by whatever extent you see fit. But when he’s being friendly/civil, I’d just respond to that at face value as you would friendliness/civility from any other not-too-close acquaintance.

        1. You made me tear up a little. Thank you for your compassion and understanding. Generally, I do treat him like a not too close acquaintance, but it hurts that I didn’t get the non-shoes-raging dad.
          It does help living elsewhere. It helps knowing I can walk out his door with my stuff, jump in my car, and leave for the Fuck-Its if he starts acting shitty. I truly hope your living situation improves quickly too, so you don’t have to deal with this crap so often. *Jedi hugs, if they are wanted*

          1. Thanks – it’s something to work towards, and stories like yours give me hope that such parents ease up when they know you have the power to walk away.

  25. Phew, this is so timely. I’ve been dating a man for about 10 months whose parents are both like this (dad is a little better than mom, but bf occasionally tells me dad stories that get my hackles up). I’ve met his mom once, she was a complete [UNPRINTABLE WORD] 95% of the time, and apparently I’ve now been determined to be SOOOOOOOOOO OPINIONATED because I made a joke about how I thought he was cuter now than in a high school photo she showed me. So yeah, assuming things continue to go well with my guy, this will be very relevant at some point in the future.

  26. Dear LW:

    My mother is probably an Alice, and my father had some awful qualities too.

    So, I’m kind of in your fiancé’s position.

    You see, I love my mother. I don’t always like her, but I do love her. I don’t want to cut her off. And, I won’t.

    If I married again and she was abysmal with my spouse (she probably would be) I would expect my spouse to avoid her.

    That’s what my SIL does (about my mother) when she can. Because the fact is, unloading your awful parents (whom you love!) is difficult under any circumstances. Even more difficult when you live in the same city.

    My brother’s parents in law stay in his and SIL’s home when they are in town. It’s crowded but it’s the best solution as their English is negligible and my SIL sees them rarely.

    None the less, it’s hard on him.

    Anyway, what I am getting at is that your best bet is to stay in hotels but see them as infrequently as possible.

    She will be hurt (my mother is hurt that she and SIL don’t get along). She will blame you. That’s not your issue or even your problem.

    Your issue is surviving with sanity and affection for your fiancé intact.

    And about the hotels – I think the reason it’s easier to sell putting them up in one (assuming you can pay) is that you can paint your own home as impossible because Reasons.

    On the other hand, it’s easier to arrange staying in a hotel in their home town: “Great! We’ve made reservations at Hotel X, see you on Day!”

    Good luck LW, and Jedi hugs of you want them

  27. The pre-ruined concept is soooo freeing, once you really internalize it. My parents pre-ruin *everything*, but now that I get it, my expectations are zero and my emotions don’t get caught up in their outlandish shit show. And the thing about this kind of horribly difficult person is that there is nothing more terrifying to them than the possibility of no contact at all. And so they really can be trained to somewhat moderate their behavior once they realize that you really truly are willing to have no contact with them rather than tolerate their outrageous behavior.

  28. Sorry a bit late to the post, and mainly about me and not the LW, but I am totally the person who works themselves into knots of guilt after being asked by roomates to do something. My mother thankfully wasn’t abusive like the shoe incident but used to make me feel incredibly guilty to the point of me pleading and crying for forgiveness while she ignored me.

    She wanted me to do things without being asked and (and I think ideally before she herself saw that they needed to be done). I would hear her start to wash the dishes or something and offer to do it and she would say, no, it’s too late now, I’m already doing it, you should have done it before (as in before she noticed that they needed to be done). My mother has health problems so cleaning can cause her a lot of pain so she would be wincing from the pain doing the chore and I would be asking her to please let me do it and she would be saying that its too late, all the while wincing in pain and I would feel so terrible because my mother was in so much pain and it was all my fault because I was such a horrible daughter. I would keep saying sorry over and over again and she would completely ignore me. And I wonder why I have such problems with guilt!!

    She also definitely has selective memory and would deny that anything like that ever happened. She said the other day that she always apologised to me when she was wrong when I was younger and I nearly laughed. She literally never apologised. When we used to get into fights when I was a teenager (they were generally over stuff like above or something where we were both in the wrong), they used to tear me up inside (but I don’t think they used to bother her that much) so I would go apologise to get the fight over with and she would just say thank you. Every single time.

    We have a goodish relationship now though which is mainly down to me detaching. We’re still in contact and get on well but I don’t rise to the bait any more.

  29. For not visiting, or letting your spouse visit alone, the personal time off blackout (where your company refuses all PTO requests because of an all-hands-on-deck situation/deliverable) is an excellent tactic depending on your industry. They don’t have to know that the blackout is specifically for you, specifically to make you not have to visit. (Likewise a great period to work “mandatory overtime” is when these people are visiting. That way, your job gets to be the bad guy.)

    1. Heh – right up until they rearrange the entire holiday so that you can make it after all, and they will pay for the tickets, and they were really hoping to see you, and you can come straight after work, and we will do it a week later. And now you can’t just bail because they’ve gone to all that effort. And when you go they can throw all that effort in your face and make you feel guilty for causing so much bother, especially if they want to get their way about something else. And gosh you can hardly complain about their behaviour after all that effort!

      The Captain is correct. “I won’t be coming this year.” Don’t argue. Don’t explain. It’s not a problem for them to solve, it’s a fact.

  30. “It’s not a problem for them to solve, it’s a fact.”


    Every detail you add to “I’m sorry, I won’t be there” is a hook they can snag on and try to unravel your whole Sweater of Regretful Nonattendance. And they will, detail by detail, until you’ve spent so much time defending every aspect of your decision that you might as well just get the damn trip over with because it’ll be faster and less painful. And then they win — which is all they REALLY cared about in the first place, showing that they have the power to make you change your plans because they have FEELZ.

    Don’t give them anything to latch onto. “I just won’t be there.”

  31. I don’t really have anything to add to the situation at hand. But some of your descriptions of Unreasonable Person behaviour (in this as well as MANY other posts, I guess, but the thought struck me just now) remind me so much of my grandmother. I’m reasonably insulated from the drama, since I live a 10-hour train/plane journey away, and anyway it’s mostly about my uncle and his new partner. “New” partner as in “of 7 years”, that is, as grandma still hasn’t got over the fact that he separated from his first wife 8 years ago, just to give a little flavour. In any case, I won’t go into any more detail – since the one that’s mostly exposed to the fallout from said uncle-related drama is my mum (who is a lovely person and I have no issues with her*) it’s not really a problem for me. Otherwise I’d write my own letter with all the details. Maybe I should encourage my mum to do that, actually…
    tl;dr Captain’s descriptions of how unreasonable people operate are spot on.

    *except maybe for the time when she was shocked and uncomfortable after I told her I was taking antidepressants, because Oh Noes Evil Big Pharma!, but she got over it pretty quickly, apologised profusely and told me that it was my choice to make and she’d support me no matter what. Yay, I guess.

  32. If you have grown up in a dysfunctional family, it’s very easy to believe that you can’t make things better, but you can make them worse. So your husband may have a difficult time getting from the emotional immediacy of “Oh god don’t make it worse!” to an objective perspective of “Maybe this whole situation can change or I can leave it.” That’s a really big paradigm shift, so I hope you can be patient with your hubby while he works through it (or if he backslides).

    Here are my most useful tips from dealing with my own Alice (my mom):

    – Consider whether you would accept the behavior from someone else like a friend or coworker. Decide what your minimum standards are. Probably you will accept worse behavior from her but think about what is absolutely not acceptable, and agree on that in advance.

    – Consider treating levels of contact as something to be earned or lost via behavior. If she leaves a meanspirited voicemail, respond with an email. If she sends a nice email (or at least, nice for her!) respond with a phone call. If she can’t do nice phone calls, don’t visit. Obviously this will depend on your husband’s willingness to rock the boat if the standard is lots of contact. But this really, really worked for me.

    ​- Use simple positive reinforcement like you would with a pet or small child.​ Ignore the behavior you don’t want, reward the behavior you do. Even if she is SLIGHTLY less negative/manipulative/awful than usual, if the tantrum has less volume, if the criticisms are less sharp, reward that. Some of the other commenters will probably disagree with me on this. My experience is that reinforcing the 5% change makes a 20% change more likely. When she’s regular awful, ignore it as best you can. If she’s worse than regular, disengage. For more on positive reinforcement I recommend the book _Don’t Shoot the Dog_ by Karen Pryor.

    – When you think you’re hearing her voice out of his mouth, try saying what my therapist said to me, which is “Wow, that sounds like the Voice of Mom to me. Do you think that might be the Voice of Mom?” Protip – you can limit contact with the mom in the flesh, but the mom in his brain will be harder to get rid of. She’s. Always. There.

    Here are some more scripts for your toolkit:

    – “Maybe,” “We’ll see,” “We’ll get back to you on that.” “We might be able to, we’ll let you know, we’ll check.” Make this your default first answer for ANYTHING she asks for. Now, if your Smother is anything like mine, she will hear those as yeses – but that is not within your control. And if you DO say yes in a moment of weakness, she will hold it over your head until the end of time. So start with maybe every time. You can always change it to a yes later once you’ve thought about it.

    ​- Along the same lines, something that worked for me as well was also to not agree to *anything* during a visit even if it seemed fine. Because I’d come back home, regain my sanity and then go “OMG, why did I say I would time my flight with theirs so we could spend TWELVE HOURS ON A PLANE TOGETHER?” (Waiting until the tickets sold out for that flight to buy mine was the only thing that saved me.) Head back up to “Maybe,” “We’ll check,” “We’ll get back to you.”

    – My other best line in this​ ​​wa​s “I don’t think so.” Now, if you say “no” and s​he can say “yes.” If you say “I can’t” and ​she can​ say “Yes you can.” Even if you say “I don’t want to” s​he can​ say “But we all want you to, don’t you want us to be happy?” and​ ​all​​ ​that goes To Infinity (And Beyond!). But if you say “I don’t think so,” even the crazies will have a hard time telling you that you DO think so. “I don’t think I can make it.” “I don’t think I can promise that right now.” “I don’t think that’s my color.” It’s endlessly adaptable.

    ​Hang in there, LW. You’re both being really brave, and based on my experience, there is a chance – not a huge chance, but a chance – that her behavior will get better. Even if it doesn’t, there’s a much bigger chance that you can learn to cope some of the time and limit contact the rest of the time. Have faith in your relationship, the space the two of you make where she doesn’t get to hang out. Don’t give up.​

  33. I apologize for using the word crazies in my above comment. That was insensitive. I was not trying to refer to people with mental illness but it was an inappropriate word choice. Please substitute “even the most passive-agressive people” up there.

    1. (I don’t have much to add, since I am late to this thread and everyone else has already written out everything I might say in a brilliant and thoughtful way, but I wanted to say: Thank you.)

  34. “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.” ”

    Thank you so much for this. I grew up with #2. I now have issues such as repeating myself when I’ve already been heard (what? Decent people listen, care & process?) and justifying my requests or actions unnecessarily. Recently I apologised to my husband for the constant self-justifying & said I didn’t know why I did it. He said it came from being brought up by my mother. Kaching! The penny, she drops!

    Of course this post is not about me, but I have experience, so some advice for the OP: watch out for power struggles. Last time I visited my mother, she tried every excuse to change the plan possible, wrapping them up in reasonable sounding things. In your case, it’s staying at a hotel. In my case we were just passing through and I’d offered to meet for dinner at a restaurant in town, our treat. Of course that sounded lovely, but then the excuses to change plan started. All wrapped up in being better for *me* (isn’t she kind?) The excuses came thicker and faster as the event drew near and when we were one minute away from meeting I got a “Call me urgently!” request. Why? The restaurant’s disabled toilet was out of order, so we had to go to hers. Thing is, I can’t get my wheelchair in the door of her house, and she doesn’t have a toilet I can use either!

    So OP, be prepared for the excuse-alanche to gather speed as she realises she has lost control and you really ARE going to the hotel.

    However, once the meal started, my mother smiled, and afterwards told me she’d actually enjoyed it! And she didn’t berate me while we ate – which of course was the reason I’d ensured we met in public. Have meetings and events with your family in public as much as you possibly can. It strips out a lot of the more ridiculous behaviour. Go straight to the venue & meet them there, rather than meeting at theirs and going on together. And have a timetable – a reason you need to leave after 3 hours, somewhere to go on to – because the whole thing is more bearable if you know there is a time limit. Even if you have to do the whole thing again the next day.

    Huge good wishes.

  35. Hi LW,
    You have all my sympathies. I have had similar experiences with a family member and it is, for me, a big source of anxiety. Good luck, stay strong and remember, if you go through the very uncomfortable bit of setting the boundaries it does get easier.

    “Giving reasons to unreasonable, difficult, manipulative people is like giving them ammunition for the fight they want to have with you about your boundaries and how you should not really have them.”
    I have to say Captain this is just beautiful and something I am going to try to remember! I’ve needed this kind of reminder more than once.

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