Oh captain, my captain!
I have been with my partner for 5 years and our families get on well. For the past year we have been living in his parents house, but up until about two weeks ago his parents were living abroad and we were looking after the house while trying to save money. Now we’ve found a home and are moving in very shortly.
My partner says his parents love me and for the most part they have been great to us, helping give us a head start in our adult lives.
There is however, one point where me and his mother really butt heads; she was raised in a predominantly catholic country with anti-choice laws and is anti-choice/pro-life, I am pro-choice and work for an abortion provider.
We have gotten into some hot debates about this before (all initiated by her) and I have purposely dodged the subject and not bought into it when this subject has come up. When I first started working where I work I told my partner not to tell her where I work, and was perfectly prepared to never tell her as I was worried about her reaction, somehow she figured out where I worked and hasn’t made an issue of it though(until tonight).
But just a couple of hours before writing this email we had a pretty bad one.
It started with us having a nice chat about general topics including family. She bought her pro-life views up a couple of times and I either ignored it or moved us to a slightly different subject because I could feel the topic moving in that direction and desperately didn’t want it to. At one point she said ‘we wont get into a debate again’. Guess what happened.
She accused me of having no emotion about the issue, of not having the facts, of misunderstanding the women I’m trying to help, of not providing the sort of help they really need, of buying into propaganda, of being passive aggressive, continually interrupted me, firing questions while not answering mine, raising her voice, continually said “your lot” and “you people”, insinuated that the post-partum depression my friend suffered from was due to an abortion she had 10 years earlier, telling me she’s done her research on the issue and knows what she’s talking about whereas I haven’t (ironically when I suggested asking one of our nurses a question on development on her behalf she said that they would just tell me what I wanted to hear) and basically just telling me she’s right, I’m bad at my job and don’t know what I’m talking about.
She at one point pointed out that I was “getting nervous” because I was being faced with “the facts” I told her I don’t like confrontation and she insisted this wasn’t a confrontation. (Actually the reason I was shaking is the outside door right next to me was open and I find it noteworthy that she didn’t back off despite noticing nervousness in me).
At another point I said, somewhat lightheartedly hoping to salvage the conversation, “you said we weren’t going to have a debate” and she accused me of back pedaling because I was being faced with questions I couldn’t answer.
It ended after a particularly hot point in the argument where she refused to accept the answer I gave, she went quiet for a moment and it seemed to end so I said “can I go to bed now I have work tomorrow” and she said “there you go, passive aggressive, you lot are always so persecuted aren’t you, I wasn’t keeping you here love” and left the room.
I think in many ways my possible-future-MIL is a tremendous woman and I respect her very much. But I don’t ever want to have this sort of conversation with her again. I am fine with accepting that we will never agree on this issue, i’m not the sort of person who needs everyone to agree with me. I do not like confrontation and up to a certain point someone having a different stance on an issue is something I can deal with just fine. But tonight it felt like she hates me. Once I got upstairs I felt angry, sick and kind of like I was going to cry. It felt like sheer contempt. I have an anxiety disorder which doesn’t help the whole confrontation thing and I feel like i cant bare going downstairs tomorrow. Because I was raised to respect my elders and she’s possibly-my-future-MIL i’m sorta scared of her (p.s. this is the same woman who told me if I got pregnant with ‘her grandchild’ she would “let” me have an abortion or put it up for adoption) and don’t know how to/want to bring this issue up with her.
Do you have any scripts/survival tactics for my situation?
Not up for a debate
Dear Not Up For A Debate,
You do important work, thank you for what you do.
I think you did a good job trying to avoid engaging with this topic when you knew your partner’s mom and you so hotly disagree.
If there’s an upside to be had here, look at it this way: Even if the conversation made you anxious and upset, even if it was under duress, you’ve heard your future MIL out once on this topic, and you’re not obligated to ever do it again.You don’t have to out-debate her or “win” the argument in her mind in order to hold your beliefs. You don’t have to offer fact for fact or counter her insults or personal attacks, though you are certainly within rights to say, “I heard you out, now hear me out” and present your case for why you believe as you do if & when you have the energy & desire to do so. You can also say, “I heard you out when you brought this up before, there’s no need to have this discussion again. I completely disagree, I have my reasons for it that are just as good as your reasons, I have feelings that are not up for debate or critique by you. My work is not up for debate, I’m not interested in convincing you, and I’m ending this conversation.”
- “My work isn’t up for discussion.”
- “You can believe as you like. So can I.“
- “I don’t accept your arguments.”
- “You are not the decider of what my feelings are.“
- “This isn’t a debate I can have with you.”
- “Respectfully, I disagree. Time for a subject change.“
- “Let’s pick this up another day.“
And then, you leave the conversation. If necessary, you leave the room. If she follows you out of the room, leave the building.
This is VERY hard to do. You’re “disrespecting your elder.” It feels like you’re the one escalating the conflict when you enforce a boundary, especially if you are a younger and/or female-presenting person, and the world backs up that message every chance it can get. It will go against everything you’ve been raised to do – be grateful, be respectful, listen, engage, argue reasonably. You’re in her house (ugh) and maybe putting your living situation in jeopardy (though it looks like plans are in place for you to no longer be under her roof, which is great timing here). The first time you say, “I’m sorry, (Name), I love you very much, but I’m not having this conversation with you ever again” and then leave the room, it is going to feel like the world is ending.
The world won’t end, though. It won’t. She will be upset and angry and have a bunch of tirade saved up that she wants to tell you about and no place to put it, but she is an adult who has survived this long on the earth and she will deal with it somehow. She just will. You don’t have to manage her feelings about it, and you are allowed to defend yourself and preserve your own dignity.
To help the world feel a little less like it’s ending, try this:
Make sure your partner is on the same page and will back you up. Better yet, tell your partner how he can back you up (nobody really gets training in this). “If your mom comes at me with this again, I need to be able to leave the room, even if it looks ‘rude’ and I need you to back me up – tell her to back off, remind her my job isn’t up for debate/ remind her that it’s not ‘rude’ to try to change the subject/ agree to enforce a no religion-no politics rule at the dinner table/ ask her directly not to start in on me/ remind her that all adults get to have their own views on topics, even very contentious topics, and that I have my own reasons for believing as I do.” If your partner can come in strongly on your side and you can present a united front, it might go a long way toward shutting down future ambushes. Future M-I-L might be much more willing to pick a fight with you than to potentially alienate her son.
When she is the kind person you love and admire, tell her so. Bond over the safe topics that you have in common. Be polite, kind, considerate, loving. Give her positive attention and reinforcement.
When/if she makes passive-aggressive comments & barbs to try to draw you into another “debate,” resist. Change the subject once. Change the subject twice. The third time, be explicit about it. “Did you see there, when I changed the subject? I did that on purpose, since I’m enjoying spending time with you and I want to keep doing that.” If she won’t take your olive branch, as I said before, LEAVE the conversation. “Okay, good night!” Tomorrow is another day. No subject change = no attention from you. Remind yourself that by continually bringing this up when she knows that you hate talking about it with her, she is choosing the kinds of interactions she wants to have with you.
If you have a counselor or therapist treating your anxiety disorder, or a good friend who is willing, practice scripts and confrontations with that person. Do your coworkers also have to handle situations like this? You’ll be more relaxed if you have a safe environment to talk all this out in. The ability to handle conflict directly is a skill that you can work on over time.
Give it all lots of time, patience, and love both for her and for yourself. You do important work that you believe in. Your morals and feelings are just as important as anyone else’s – they aren’t second-best to hers, and you don’t deserve to have her harangue you about them.
By the way, your reproductive choices are 100% your own. If she can’t be trusted to support them, she can’t be trusted to know about them. “I won’t let you have an abortion or give a baby up for adoption…” = she can say that all she likes, but it’s bullshit, she has no power or control there, and you don’t owe her information about any of it if she’s made it clear that she doesn’t think that you really get a choice.
MODERATOR NOTE: This blog is a 100% pro-choice space, and a person’s right to choose reproductive healthcare is not up for debate in this comments section, ever. If you don’t personally believe in abortion, a) don’t have one, b) post about those feelings on your website, because I don’t want to know.