Husband and I have been married a year and to make a long back-story short, I have found your responses re: “dealing with difficult people” immensely helpful for dealing with my MIL.
So here’s the current issue: while my in-laws have very few lasting friends, they do consider themselves close to my FIL’s cousin, Rick- and by extension, his wife, Rena. My FIL’s father died last summer and we took the time/days off work/expense for all pre and post funeral gatherings. Rick’s mother died a few months ago, and as we’re both fond of him PLUS knew it was important to my FIL, we made that funeral too.
Right now, Rena’s father is very close to death.
Unfortunately, my MIL has been using the status of dying people as an easy manipulation technique. She sends strings of texts “updating us” on the status of various aging people’s diagnoses, operations, etc. and it is hard not to engage with these texts because of the subject matter. While we know she doesn’t have empathetic or even sympathetic (unless towards herself) abilities, it similarly seems inappropriate here to focus on that. But this has become a pattern and she clearly assumes we will attend Rena’s father’s funeral. She has also started claiming she is close with several other people who also don’t have long to live. (FYI all of the people involved in this Q live 6-8 hours away.)
Is the “right thing” here to attend Rena’s father’s funeral?
We have a tight budget, are out of bereavement days, and were saving remaining vacation days for a belated honeymoon. My husband will now have to use up a few unpaid sick days to attend any other events during the work week. He is worried at prospect of no real sick days, plus thinks more absences will reflect negatively on him at work. But he is also HIGHLY nervous at idea of saying no to his mother.
Rena is also a difficult and unpredictable woman who often provokes/creates drama seemingly just for the hell of it.. MIL tends to encourage this/holds us responsible when we are Rena’s target because it supports MIL’s own goals- so we both expect her to pull the “hurting Rena” card if we try to miss this funeral.
Am I being a huge bitch? I have a bank of rage/resentment issues re being a doormat in abusive relationships in the past and so maybe my feelings here are from a knee-jerk negative response, which isn’t appropriate here because death is involved?
Would love to hear your thoughts on what we “should” do in this scenario, what we should do when the other claimed close ones die, and what any scripts could be.
Ragey (But Want to Retain Relationships)
There is so much Stuff going on with your Mother-In-Law around all of this, namely:
- She’s aging and afraid of failing health.
- She’s losing her friends.
- She’d like reassurance from her child(ren) that she won’t grow old alone. Since it sounds like she was not all that nice to them, she needs that reassurance more than most.
- Big Life Events like funerals have actual cultural and social expectations that people will drop everything to attend, so they make perfect opportunities for a manipulative person to test and display the dutifulness and loyalty of family members. See also every advice question instance of “BUT IT’S YOUR WEDDING” and “BUT IT’S CHRISTMAS” and/or “BUT WE ARE FAAAAAAMILY.”
- Death/illness has become a trump card over time to get her son to pay attention/visit/put on a suit/act the dutiful son part. Bonus: It happens publicly in a way that her friends can see. If she has narcissistic tendencies, don’t discount the ability to display y’all at these events as a highly motivating factor.
- She doesn’t have good tools or constructive ways for relating to her son or to you. She doesn’t know how to make a reasonable request, or a reasonable structure for communication. So in a time of anxiety and pain, all of the stuff that makes her hard to deal with is going to get worse.
You can’t solve death, or aging, or dysfunctional families, but you can carve out some boundaries for yourselves.
First, I would like you to give yourself and your husband permission to not decide about whether to go to the funeral until the poor man is gone. You’ve done this dance with your mother-in-law before, and you are correctly sensing the buildup of likely manipulation, but right now, in the moment, when the man is still breathing, give yourselves permission to say “we can’t really plan that right now.”
Most likely you will not go to the funeral, and it’s also okay to decide that for sure between you and your husband, but you don’t have to have that argument right now, with yourselves or with your Mother-In-Law. With a reasonable person, you could be clear and direct, so that she knows what to expect: “I know you’re trying to plan to house us, but I should let you know that we’re out of days off and we just can’t plan to make it this time, sorry.” That would be a kind way to handle this with a reasonable person. With an unreasonable person, and in an ambiguous situation when you don’t know when the event will actually happen, stalling is A-OK in my opinion.
Since your husband wants to keep lines of communication open with his mom, if he has not already done so I suggest instituting a brief weekly* phone call or Skype session or email thread or however he communicates best with her. All issues that come up during the week get saved for or routed to that call, i.e.,“Got your texts, let’s talk about it when we catch up Sunday.” Before and after the call, maybe he can schedule something involving self-care, like a bike ride or a furious video-gaming session where he gets to blow some shit up.
His mom is going to try to push against that boundary the way she does with all boundaries. He can respond once to a text barrage with: “Hey Ma, got your texts, that sounds really rough. Let’s talk more Sunday. Love you!” and then not respond further. You can route her to him and that call as well, i.e.”Got your texts, that sounds rough, hopefully you and Husband can talk more Sunday. Love you!” Setting up a predictable, reliable structure for when he will talk to his mom is kind to him and to himself. She won’t see it that way, especially at first, and he won’t be able to sell her on that idea in the abstract, but trust that over time it will actually lessen her anxiety to be able to count on that weekly conversation. It will make his life better and your life better as you consciously decide when and how much to engage. When the texts start coming in, he can respond and redirect her to the weekly call, and then over time you can both give yourselves permission to turn your phones off and not get on the roller-coaster of worry. If things get off track as his mom escalates things or as he picks up the habit of saying no to her, this gives your husband a structure he can return to.
There are also things you can do to be visibly caring to Rena and Rick from a distance. Send them a card. Speak the Language of Casseroles and send them a small gift certificate for delivery or takeout from a local place. “Rena, so sorry to hear about what you and your dad are going through. Please have dinner on us tonight.” Don’t mention the prospect of the upcoming funeral one way or another. You and your husband don’t have to like her to do a small act of kindness/performing Dutiful Family Friend at a sucky time like this. After her dad is gone, send another card. Rena, egged on by your mom, may notice that you’re not there, but she may be too numb and busy with all of the whirlwind around a funeral for it to be as big a deal then as it is looming for all of you right now.
Ok, we’ve got a plan for ongoing routine communication, we’ve got a plan for being kind to Rena, and we’ve got delaying tactics on the question of whether you are going to the funeral. Eventually, sadly, you and/or your husband will have to directly answer the question “are you coming or not.” The script is, “Sorry Mom, can’t make it this time.” Repeat as necessary. “Ok, but we can’t make it this time.” “I know it’s really sad, please give Rena our love, but we just can’t make it this time.” Your husband’s mom may try to bring up a hierarchy of how much you liked the dead people in question, or use the fact that you came last time to try to “prove” that you should come this time. He/you should not argue with the merits of whatever she says. You lose the more time you spend talking with her about this, and it’s not a negotiation. “We were so glad we were able to come last time, but this time we just can’t make it.” Try not to get into reasons why, as reasons help explain things to reasonable people, but they act as bait for a point-by-point argument for unreasonable people. If you must give reasons, you and your husband should blame everything on work. “We just can’t get the time off, so sorry, please give Rena our best wishes and of course we’ll send her a note ourselves.” Oh, also, don’t get into how many vacation and sick days, exactly, you have or why exactly work won’t let you go. “We can’t get time off from work right now, so sorry.”
It’s hard not to feel like an asshole when you are planning a fight with a relative over some poor man’s death, but your mother-in-law is really putting y’all in an impossible situation. Be clear and consistent and let the rest go, including those looming funerals of people you don’t know.
*Or monthly, or every 2 weeks, or whatever routine that can be done predictably and reliably.