#926: How to deal with a well-meaning but controlling mother-in-law?

Hi,

Me and my husband have been together for a bit less than seven years now. I have never really liked my mother-in-law and my husband doesn’t really like her company either. Also, everyone who has met her and I’ve talked about this agrees with me. She is exhausting to be around: she talks literally all the time about things only she is interested in. It’s also impossible to concentrate on anything if she is around: she will come and interrupt us with something else. I can spend about a day in her presence, after which I will be totally exhausted and sleep for a day.

What bothers me even more is that she wants to control and micromanage everything in our life. For example, me and my husband are attending the pre-Christmas party of the company that I work for, and my mother-in-law obsesses about it. She has bought my husband a suit (he could afford it himself) and she calls me often to say that I need to put my hair up for the occasion. I don’t really care and don’t know how to do it but she keeps pushing. She also gives us a lot of cleaning tips and buys a lot of cleaning utensils (that are not the ones I prefer, for ethical reasons) for us. She also always starts to clean our apartment when she visits. These are just examples, she has an opinion on every little thing in our lives.

The problem is that she never listens to anything we say. Especially for me, it is hard to confront her because she does get hurt easily. And I know she means well by everything she does. But even when we talk about these things quite straight (and my husband even harshly) to her, it doesn’t change her behavior. It will maybe work for a few weeks but then she will continue the controlling behavior.

Another problem is that because it’s not pleasant to be around her, we spend a lot more time with my mother. Even though both mothers live equally far away, we visit my mother a lot more often. It just isn’t as big an investment of energy from us to visit my mother. My husband agrees with me on this but I still feel guilty about it. My mother-in-law isn’t evil, I just personally don’t enjoy being in contact with her.

How can I reach a more peaceful existence with my mother-in-law? Should I feel guilty about visiting my mum more often? Is it ever possible to get through to her that we want to make our own decisions?

Thanks in advance,
An introvert who isn’t a native English speaker 🙂

Hello Introvert!

Should I feel guilty about visiting my mum more often?

Nope! It’s okay to like your mom better and to like spending time with her more than you do with your mother-in-law. The extra piece of good news is your husband isn’t dragging you or pressuring you to spend more time with your mother-in-law. This is a good problem to have, so do what you can to stop feeling guilty!

Is it ever possible to get through to her that we want to make our own decisions?

Maybe someday, but probably not in a “we talk about it and work things out like rational adults” way that you hope, and probably not anytime soon.

How can I reach a more peaceful existence with my mother-in-law? 

 

You can change how you interact with her and hope that she will adapt over time. Here are some processes that might work.

Schedule a weekly check-in with her. Your husband should set up a short weekly phone call (or Skype session or what have you) with his mom at the same time every week. He should be the one to initiate the call – “I’ll call you on Sunday at our usual time.” If he has to miss it for some reason, or will run late, he should let her know in advance with a text. “Won’t be around at the usual time, can we do it at X time instead?” You can hop on the calls (or not) for a few minutes at the end if you want.

Why this works:

  • It re-focuses communication between mother and son, makes it less your problem.
  • Routines are reassuring. Knowing they’ll talk at a set time each week might relieve some of his mom’s anxiety about how often they are in contact and will relieve his and your anxiety about how often you have to deal with her.
  • It gives an opportunity to create positive regular communication patterns that might replace old patterns.

How to make it work:

  • Your husband announce the plan as a positive way to keep in touch, not as a negative or strategic response to her behavior. “Mom, how would it be if we talked every Sunday afternoon around 4 pm? I’d love to be able to catch up with you more consistently.
  • If she balks, do it anyway. “I understand, we don’t always know our plans in advance, but I’ll try to call you then anyway. If you can’t talk, we’ll just try again next week or find a time that does work!
  •  If she tends to call or text a lot every day or during the week, over time you can both redirect everything to that weekly call. Don’t leave communications from her hanging completely, but be perfunctory in your answers and save discussions for the weekly call. “Sorry I couldn’t pick up, I was driving. Let’s talk about it Sunday!” “This isn’t a good time, but I’ll catch up with you Sunday.” “Can’t talk now, but when (Husband) talks to you on Sunday have him give me the details!
  • Husband should schedule some kind of relaxing ritual or a treat for himself after the weekly call with mom, like, now it’s time to take the dog for a run or play a favorite video game or read. Something to look forward to and defuse tension.
  • She will not like this in the short-term, but if you both redirect her (i.e. enforce the boundaries) consistently, she’ll very likely adjust to the routine over the long-term.

“Thanks for the advice!” Unwanted advice (like the constant stressing about your hair) is intrusive and annoying. One of the fastest ways to get past something like that is to say “Thanks! I’ll think about it!” and then change the subject to something else. You will think about it before styling your hair however you want and possibly cursing her under your breath, so it’s not a lie to say you will!

You’re a reasonable person, so your instinct is to say “Hey, I appreciate that the hair advice is kindly-meant, but it’s not really your business how I wear it and your constant references to it are stressing me out.” A reasonable person would hear that and think, wow, I probably did overstep the line. I’ll apologize and I’ll make more of an effort to stop doing that.

With your mother-in-law, asking her (reasonably) to step off probably won’t work, so the best strategy for you is the one of least resistance. If she’s expecting an argument (and therefore a chance to remind you of how she perceives her role in your life and a reason to feel aggrieved and righteous), saying “Thanks, I’ll think about it! How is your holiday baking coming?” stops her in her tracks.

This works for all kinds of opinions. See also:

  • “Okay.”
  • “Maybe!”
  • “You might be right about that.”
  • “Interesting. We’ll think about it.”
  • “You’ve given us a lot of food for thought.”

You want to make it very boring for her to heap advice or opinions on you, in other words.

Return or donate unwanted gifts. Your husband should ask her once not to buy you stuff you don’t want (like cleaning supplies), and then let it drop. If she keeps doing it, donate the stuff or return it to the store without guilt or comment. If she notices and/or asks you where it is, be honest. “We didn’t have space to store it/We can’t use that kind/We already have our favorite version of ____, so we gave it to someone who could put it to use. Thanks again!” If she tries a guilt trip, remind her that you asked her not to buy you things without checking first and you hate to see things go to waste. If having it given away bugs her enough, she’ll stop doing it eventually.

Engage her positively with three “safe” topics.  I suggest:

  • One TV show or author or other pop culture thing you both like.
  • One hobby or interest (doesn’t have to be a shared one) that she likes talking about- “How’s the garden planning going? Got your seed catalogs yet?
  • A topic where she is the acknowledged expert. Family history can be a great one for this.”What was (Husband’s) favorite food as a kid? What was it like when you first started working? How did you meet Husband’s dad? Are there any pictures of you going to parties when you were young? What were the hairstyles like? Did you have a favorite dress? Did you wear ridiculous platform shoes back in the 1970s? What was it like the first time you voted?

(P.S. If you’ve never understood why people follow sports and talk about them all the time, try thinking of them as a fairly low-stakes, localized conversation topic that’s always changing a little tiny bit depending on the scores this week.)

She’s probably gonna clean your house when she visits for the rest of time. It is the way of parents. So, channel her energies with projects that you’d like done but don’t really want to do yourself, like, going through the spice rack looking for expired spices or installing shelves in the hall closet or sorting your sock drawers by occasion and color. Last time my folks visited I ended up with curtains hung in every room and lots of advice about bookshelf placement. My dad grumbled the entire time he hung the curtain rods but if we hadn’t found something for him to do he’d have found something for himself to do. Thank her profusely for working on channeled/requested projects – “We really appreciate your help with x project, Ma!” Try ignoring it or being pretty noncommittal when she goes off-schedule. “We didn’t need the sheets ironed, but suit yourself I guess.

Ditto for gifts like suits, probably. If it makes her feel good to give your husband stuff like a new suit, sometimes accepting the other person’s gift IS the gift. I’m not saying it’s fair, or right, just, choose your battles.

Keep your visits short. You’ve got about a day of tolerance before you collapse? Then I guess your visits last about a day, with a scheduled recovery day! Make sure some of that day is budgeted for engaging with her attentively and think about arranging some of that time to go to the movies or seeing a concert or theater – special, fun, togetherness outings that give you both a reprieve from talking and a safe topic of conversation afterward! Also, take turns hanging out with her so you both get some time to yourselves. Naps are great, as are baths, as are solo drives to pick up milk even if you don’t need more milk.

Press the re-set button often. You’re not going to change the dynamic in a single conversation or even in a single year. If you do this right, you will basically train her that:

  • She’ll get your husband’s & your focused attention at set, predictable intervals.
  • If she tries calling every day or multiple times a day or turning everything into a conflict, she’ll get less attention from y’all.
  • There’s really no point in giving you unwanted stuff – you won’t fight with her about it anymore, you’ll just give it away, every single time.
  • She can state opinions and give unwanted advice if she wants to, but your answers to all that will be very boring. “Thanks!”
  • If she engages positively with you, you’ll do your best to give her your full attention and talk to her about things she’s interested in and make her feel welcome.
  • You value her assistance and advice in certain areas and you value the family history that she knows and the way you raised the person you love.
  • If an interaction goes south or a visit goes badly, you’ll try to reset and start fresh with the next one. Let go of grudges or expectations and try again.

Give her (and yourselves) time to implement this. 

Good luck!

173 comments
  1. Dia said:

    Oh gosh, please don’t feel guilty. Someone doesn’t have to be “evil” to be draining to be around, and people who are draining enough to require recovery days are very naturally going to be people we don’t feel like spending as much time with.

    I’m not sure if you’re experiencing guilt about talking to her, but if so: Maybe try to remember that if you set boundaries / ask for change and she is hurt by that, her hurt is not coming from the fact that you did anything wrong (because you didn’t!) but that she can’t handle these boundaries being set / requests for change, and that is her problem. Obviously remembering this won’t change the fact that she turns back to the behaviors after a while, and that’s really tough too.. sorry you’re having to deal with that (and all the rest).

    p.s. Kinda wondering who these parents are that clean your house every time they come over.. that just seems really weird to me. I have a kind of control issue with my stuff so I don’t think I’d be able to be as chill as the advice suggests to be.

    • jaynn said:

      To your PS–my MIL (though she listens better and has largely knocked it off). I always had some mixed feelings about it, because a) I’m a lousy housekeeper, and b) she has seemed to define herself in part around taking care of her family, but c) there’s a bit of implicit criticism in doing so and d) it’s a bit intrusive (like when we returned after having her cat-sit and had to relocate our copy of the Kama Sutra…)

      Fortunately while there is some dysfunction in DH’s family, he was able to talk her into laying off.

      • First time my MIL stayed at my house, I came downstairs to find her cleaning out my fridge *and* lecturing my husband on how to do it properly. I was horribly torn between “that’s really good of her to do a not particularly pleasant chore on our behalf, she’s really trying to be helpful, now I won’t have to do that” and “wow the shame how embarrassing I was totally planning to do that later what’s with her assuming we don’t know how to clean a flipping fridge and anyway why was she snooping in there in the first place since we’ve been making her anything she wants to eat and drink?”

        Then I realised she just wants everyone else’s life to be as efficient as her own and that’s why she is always trying to buy us horrible and expensive gadgets we don’t want or have room for.

    • DameB said:

      When I first got married, my mom would try to clean my house. This is funny because, yes, I am a terrible housekeeper, but I’m still *better than she is.* Because of that disparity, it was obviously not about the cleanliness. I figure it was what I like to call Displays of Domesticity Dominance. Who is the best housewife? It’s a sort of passive-aggressive traditionally feminine version of chest thumping that’s rampant among the women in my family on both sides. It turned every family visit into some sort of never ending competition, where the points are totaled over decades: For the Christmas party Thelma would have a hand-knitted Santa-themed TP cozy (10 points) but then Gail would make my father’s favorite, time-consuming breakfast pastry (15 points!). Because of this, Gail would get to host Easter. But when Easter arrived, Jeri would bring German Chocolate Cake, from scratch, which is like 25 points *and* totally showed up Robin’s store-bought cake (5 point deduction to Robin’s mother’s score plus another year until Robin could host *anything*), so Jeri would win the family reunion.

      So when my mom came in and cleaned, I interpreted it as she wanted to show she was still The Matriarch. It was a dominance display and at first I was fine with it because it showed that she regarded me as adult enough to play The Domestic Game. (Problems came later when I had to depose her. It was all very Game of Thrones, just with pie.)

      I basically never got her to stop. I pretty much stopped inviting her to my house. Instead, we go there because then we’re in control of when we leave. Also, it makes her think she’s winning The Domestic Game because we go to her.

      • DisorderedMess said:

        This is the best thing ever. Domestic Game of Thrones!

      • Lemon Zinger said:

        I love this!

      • Oort Cloud said:

        “Game of Thrones, just with pie”. Genius in a nutshell. ❤

      • Serin said:

        Problems came later when I had to depose her. It was all very Game of Thrones, just with pie.

        Just so you know, if I picked up a book and that was the blurb, I would read it AND go see the movie.

      • Oh, my gosh, my husband’s family is exactly like this. Thank you for the perfect vocabulary.

      • Proffie Galore said:

        This anthropologist lurves your analysis of Displays of Domesticity Dominance.

        I too would see “Game of Pies,” with a limited release at Thanksgiving to build word-of-social-network, followed by a wide release at Christmas. Let’s take a meeting.

        I see an ensemble cast with Amy Poehler (The Perfect One), Kate McKinnon (The Free Spirit), and Anna Kendrick (The Forever Little Sister) as the daughters. Tina Fey is the daughter-in-law navigating two Games of Pie. Various competing matriarchs and a competitive aunt: Jane Fonda, Jessica Walter, Kelly Bishop (Trix Gilmore), Tina Lifford (Renee on Parenthood), and Lucille Soong (Grandma Soong on Fresh off the Boat).

        And let’s cast some sweet, talented B-list eye candy too: Sam Elliot, Peter Krause, John Krasinski, John Cho, Michael B. Jordan and a hot girlfriend for Kate McK.

        Just in case anyone is considering making this happen: I relinquish all rights and consider it a Creative Commons CC0.

        • eacole72 said:

          They kind of made it, with Jane Fonda as the Matriarch and Tina Fey as the Oldest Daughter. It’s called This is Where I Leave You.

        • DameB said:

          Since I would be the Free Spirit, I 100 percent approve of Kate McKinnon playing me. My husband would approve, too, and would request that Drew Barrymore play the spouse.

          I keep writing fantasy novels. Maybe I should just write this one…

      • Katamari said:

        Game of Homes?

      • Temperance said:

        YEP. My MIL is a total packrat. Her house is regularly gross and full of junk. Yet she has no problem reorganizing my cabinets because she does it better.

      • Moments like this are when I wish Captain Awkard had a “THIS!” button!

      • THISSOMUCH.

        I think this is another side effect of women’s liberation; we don’t have to be confined to the one arena. This was one I have zero aptitude or interest in.

      • This thanksgiving I witnessed an epic Display of Domesticity Dominance, all performed through polite insisting. It involved MIL, grand-MIL, and my husband’s uncle’s MIL all competing to secure the title of ‘ONE WHO SERVES DESSERT.’ It ended in an uneasy truce, where all three ladies served pieces of two cakes with one serving implement….. As one who would rather let people cut cake buffet style, I surveyed the proceeding from the couch in wonderment.

    • BarlowGirl said:

      Yeah, honestly, I don’t know if I could do that O.o I like my privacy too much.

    • Malia76 said:

      Re: the p.s.

      Whenever my mother comes over I have to keep her too busy to clean because otherwise she triggers my OCD and then I’m flared up and no good to anyone.

      I have tried to stop her, but she resisted. She might be beginning to understand that there are things that I need control over to feel comfy and safe.

      Me: No! that’s the cat’s box! (as she collapses the toaster box)
      Her: They have plenty of toys.
      Me: (five minute explanation of the difference between toys and boxes for cats and pointing out my cats only fit toaster and banker boxes.)

  2. CF6 said:

    I want to print this whole thing out and hang it so I remember it or can share it – a lot. This is fantastic advice.

  3. Nopetopus Cowgirl said:

    If at all possible, see if there’s even a tiny thing to enjoy about her. My MIL lies constantly often saying truly mean or inappropriate things about people. (eg her friend’s daughter had a baby and was bottle feeding so MIL told everyone it was because she had HIV.)

    But i realized that she’s a wonderful storyteller. So as long as what she’s saying isn’t downright awful, I just listen and allow myself to be amused the way I might be if my child said a dinosaur had come to school. She can be quite funny sometimes too and l’ll say “Oh MIL no one can can tell a story like you!”

    Also I ask her for recipes and write down everything she says which makes her feel important and I get a good recipe out of it. It has made being in her company so much better.

    • That is such a great attitude to have, and such a nice response! I’m going to file that for future reference. Thank you!

    • twomoogles said:

      I do this in my life with somebody who is extremely negative, and is so bitter it can make my stomach twist when he rants about everything and everything. If I get him ranting about a movie I also hate or something where I agree with him, his rants are incredibly funny/biting. I just need to make sure to keep it on topics like media, not people I know and like. I can’t make him less negative but I can channel it to a place where I can handle hearing it.

      • AM said:

        This is my first comment on CA after so much lurking and I have to say… HOLY HELL!!!! I’ve been trying to figure out how to deal with my awesome brother’s negative rants, and this is perfect. I can get ranty too, so I felt guilty for being bothered, but sometimes I just can’t. I love this idea of giving him space to rant on things I hate too. Now if I can just get him to stop telling me every detail of movies, TV shows, books, and stand up comedy. Sometimes I say, “Ahh, don’t spoil it for me!” But then he gets pouty and says plot doesn’t matter anyway. -_-

        • JenniferP said:

          I anonymized it for ya.

  4. ks said:

    LW, your mother in law and my mother in law sound very much like the same person–nice enough, but very self centered and very unable to be by themselves without an audience and never, ever, ever shuts up. Ever. Except my mother in law is elderly and likes to come stay in my very small house with no extra bedrooms and only one bathroom for weeks at a time (she’s coming in January–happy new year to me).
    After almost 20 years of marriage to a man who I love, but who is prone to indulging his mother in every single thing she wants (because she’s old and he’s the only son and in their culture, the son’s mother does rule the place), I’ve found that the Captain is right about setting boundaries. Set them and enforce them early and often. However, choose your boundaries (and your battles) carefully, because it will be exhausting if you try to take your stand on every single thing that bothers you. Good luck.

  5. Turtle Candle said:

    This is a minor point, but I strongly second the advice to donate cleaning supplies that you won’t use. I had an aunt (sadly, now passed away) who in her last years suffered from severe dementia combined with delusions, and one of the things that she did was send, like, bulk packs of Windex and paper towels and Scrubbing Bubbles and and suchlike to our houses. I’m not sure why; I tried to stop it at the source (so she wouldn’t waste the money) but it was basically impossible for me to legally prevent her from buying and mailing them…. and as a weird side effect, I became one of the favorite people of a local women’s shelter, because lots and lots of women who have to rebuild their lives from scratch don’t have the cash for Windex or paper towels, you know? So bulk donations of those things were gratefully accepted.

    Apart from that: hang in there. This sounds so frustrating, and you have my sympathies.

    • Ess in Tee said:

      That is such a great idea! I used to work at a homeless shelter myself, and we loved getting donations of cleaning supplies. We had to go through a lot of them at the shelter due to stringent standards of cleanliness, and since we were chronically underfunded every spray bottle, roll of paper towels, and box of laundry detergent was deeply appreciated.

    • Laurel said:

      Not to mention animal shelters!! They love that kind of thing!

  6. Jen said:

    I’m going to mildly disagree on the cleaning bit. If someone cleans after I’ve asked them not to, then that’s a big boundary violation. Ditto for any projects. Other than that, I’d say Captain’s advice is pretty good.

    • Ess in Tee said:

      I agree. This is my space and I do not want someone else taking responsibility for it. I can’t speak for others, of course, but when someone starts cleaning up my home, especially when I’ve told them not to, feels like such a passive aggressive “well, since *you* aren’t interested in not living in filth, I guess *I’ll* have to deal with it.”

    • Clarry said:

      I agree. If someone came to my house and immediately started trashing it with by spilling grape juice all over everything, I’d tell them to stop, once, then would tell them that if I couldn’t trust them not to spill grape juice all over everything I wouldn’t invite them back. If someone came over to my house and immediately started rearranging and cleaning MY space to their liking, I would tell them to stop, once, then would tell them that if I couldn’t trust them to leave my things alone, I wouldn’t invite them back. When asked why they’re never invited over anymore, I’d say straightforwardly that it’s because they weren’t following the house rules. Trashing and cleaning are pretty much the same thing in this instance.

      A good overnight guest makes their own bed and cleans their own bathroom. A good guest for dinner picks up their own plate from dinner and offers to do the dishes. Someone who starts cleaning every time they visit isn’t being a good guest. She doesn’t mean well, and she isn’t just trying to help. When you add it to her sending you her brand of cleaning supplies and micromanaging everything else, she’s sending a clear message that she thinks you’re doing it wrong. If you put her in charge of doing something you want done, that will encourage her to move in and insult you more. I wouldn’t redirect this energy. I’d put an end to it. My scripts would look more like:

      Please put the bleach and rag down. I don’t want my kitchen counters cleaned. No, put them down. If I can’t trust you to leave my kitchen alone, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. Your visit is over. Until you can learn to leave my kitchen alone, I won’t ask you back in my home.

      Then when the whining begins (over the phone), you let her talk herself blue AND SAY NOTHING IN RETURN. No subject change, nothing, just 10 seconds of dead air before saying “Well, I have to go now.”

    • Rhoda said:

      Agree. The major boundary violation that finally led to me stopping any visits from my mother was when she came in and did my laundry when I was on vacation, ruining several hundred dollars worth of silk blouses and angora sweaters. I’d given the key to a younger sibling and was paying him to come in to care for my cats and she just took it and let herself in. She also “cleaned” her way and constantly criticized my cleaning. The irony being that she was not a good housekeeper herself and her own house was always dirty and untidy.

      • Clarry said:

        It’s important to note that even if your mother hadn’t ruined your silk blouses and angora sweaters, even if she’d gotten them properly dry cleaned, that was never the underlying problem. The problem was the huge, huge violation of every normal boundary there is. (Getting the key, going into your private closets, messing with your personal things.) It’s so easy to get sidetracked. I know I spent years getting sidetracked and that’s why I zero in on this every time I see it. (I remember the time my mother was at my apartment, saw library books she thought she’d return, returned them to the wrong library network’s drop box, and then didn’t understand what the problem was when she learned that I was able to straighten out the mess later. The libraries cooperate with one another, and while they prefer that you return books to the right place, are able to send them over to the right library at some expense.) I’m sorry your brother’s boundaries were violated to in that she stole the key from him.

      • That’s horrible. At least my mother-in-law was at HER house when she went through my suitcase, took every last one of my CLEAN clothes and washed them while I was out because she thought it was my dirty clothes pile. I had to cancel a night out that night because I had literally nothing to wear and had to sit around the house all evening in my husband’s t-shirt and running shorts because my clothes were all soaking wet.

        • Temperance said:

          What a horrendous violation, though. Ugh. My husband’s grandmother regularly rooted through our laundry, so we stopped visiting.

        • Clarry said:

          How horrible. The thing that gets me is that if these boundary violators were asked, they’d think the problem is that they got the cleaning wrong or that the mistake was in thinking the things in the suitcase were the dirty clothes. To their way of thinking, anyone can make a mistake and this was just an unfortunate one, even a little funny. They think of the mistakes they’ve made with their own laundry and don’t think this is all that different. (I have, on occasion, ruined an article of my own clothing in the wash.) They never get it that THIS WASN’T THEIR MISTAKE TO MAKE. Even if you explain it to them, they’ll keep thinking that something somehow went wrong (with the laundry) and that they have to be more careful in the future with the laundry.

          • I am pretty sure my husband’s father went to his death thinking that he had been the best host in the world to offer the large shower in the master bath to my then-boyfriend and me, saying, “Doris and I shower together all the time!” On my first visit to husband’s parents’ house. After I had asked that we not share a bedroom when we were there because it felt weird.

            He had a PhD in English from Michigan, but I don’t think the word “boundary” was in his vocabulary.

            (And no, Sly – my husband did not want to hear you reminisce about certain sexual practices you shared with Doris. No kid wants to hear what his parents do in bed, even when the kid is an adult.)

    • SarahTheEntwife said:

      Yeah, that seems to vary so much by person. If it’s a big boundary violation for you, absolutely put your foot down. For me, the implication that I can’t take care of my own house makes me uncomfortable, but at least this judgement comes with a clean house, so cleaners gonna clean and I’m fine with it.

      • Southernbelle said:

        My MIL once cleaned everything the baby touched including his kind of grubby high chair and I was like “fine, whatever, not like I had the time for that, also I don’t like you anyways, MIL, so I’m going to ignore it.” When I’m around someone who violates every boundary, it’s sometimes a choice between picking my arguments and never being around that person (which is currently my solution and it’s working VERY WELL.) I think the advice above is a very kind way to maintain a relationship with a very difficult person. (My solution of setting it on fire is… not for everyone.)

    • +1. I was actually pretty shocked to see “It is the way of parents.” No, no it isn’t, and my surviving parent and in-laws all know that they are not welcome to come over and clean, and if they start they are going to be asked to leave and not engaged with for weeks.

      (This is dramatically more effective with the one who lives on the other side of the country. It still gets enforced.)

      If you find a way to be comfortable with the cleaning, LW, it’s okay to let her clean! But you don’t have to accept that it can never be changed, ever and ever, amen.

    • MuddieMae said:

      It’s really variable – I don’t find it an enormous boundary violation, but I’ve never been subjected to a frequent cleaner-of-other-people’s-houses so I don’t have a lot of background or baggage here.

      That said, I don’t think the Captain’s suggestion is about the level of boundary violation at all. If the LW and LW’s husband were super comfortable setting and sticking to firm boundaries, they probably wouldn’t have written in. But it sounds like they aren’t super comfortable with that, so redirecting those urges is a useful strategy. It can be a useful strategy if they find the cleaning/projects to be mildly annoying or explosively boundary violating.

    • BarlowGirl said:

      Oh thank God it’s not just me. I LIVE with my mother and she doesn’t touch anything in my room.

  7. techiebabe said:

    I have huge issues with my mother being controlling – and I’d like to recommend a support forum to you. The place I’ve found that really helps me – with everything from practical advice, through to being able to rant and get empathy, is reddit.com/r/JUSTNOMIL (MIL being mother in law but it’s fine for people whose own mother is the problem too).

    [Yes, it’s on reddit. I’m well aware that – like with the wider Internet – some sections of reddit are hotbeds of misogyny etc., but Just No MIL is extremely well moderated and it is made utterly clear that this is a support space. It has helped me a lot.]

    LW, I just wanted to mention this in case you want ongoing support space, or somewhere to rant.

    It truly sucks to have someone try to micro manage you. My sympathies and best wishes. I hope you manage to have a peaceful Christmas time.

    • Renée said:

      There are some sections of reddit which are truly wonderful, supportive and all those other wonderful words.
      I have a few safe spaces of my own over there, even though as a whole, Reddit is a pile of stinking menzvomit.

      • devicat26 said:

        I just deleted my Reddit profile because I was having a lot of trouble with the… locals, I guess? I agree that there are some awesome people and worthy things on Reddit, I just got tired of people being sanctimonious assholes. Like, I would make pretty neutral comments and get lambasted by someone who didn’t like a word I said, or demanded ‘proof’ of a personal experience I had or … yeah.

        And then there was the time when I asked someone to please not call women ‘c*nts’ and got BLASTED on all sides and downvoted to hell and in the same day got a notice from a moderator that I wasn’t allowed to comment any more on a thread because I had quoted a man saying ‘b*tches be crazy’.

        Not going back there any time soon.

    • I would say that, as with anything, ymmv with /r/JUSTNOMIL . I found it a really weirdly hostile space, full of rage. It stressed me out so much just reading it that I never posted and stopped reading.

      I know a lot of people find it valuable, but it is not for everyone, so I wanted to put that caveat out there.

      • PizzaPartyPopup said:

        Honestly JUSTNOMIL really sucks as a support group anyway. It’s a subreddit full of women in what sound like really abusive relationships giving each other advice on how to “train” their husbands like they’re dogs instead of actually addressing the issues There’s even oft repeated advice about “rewarding” your husband for “standing up for you” with sex. It’s really messed up when you realize half the posters are dealing with far more than just their MILs sending stuff they don’t like through the mail, they’re actively harming their children, destroying their relationship or in some cases destroying their lives.

        A lot of the posters just sort of sit around and continue that and get angry when people come in and tell them no, it’s not normal and their husband is enabling abuse. Then everyone circles the wagons and start freaking out. It’s a really horribly insular and any actual advice (like GO SEE A THERAPIST) gets shot down.

    • Laurel said:

      Another good one along those lines is raisedbynarcissists. It’s very supportive, mostly women-run, and very validating to get on and read all the stories if that applies to you.

  8. Guava said:

    Re: the cleaning of your apartment. So I’m the one with the controlling mother, and we come from a yelling family, so that is often how I enforce boundaries with her. My SIL does not come from a yelling family, and when Mom visits her, the constant (and I mean CONSTANT) nitpicking about cleanliness and tidiness was really irritating and stressful for her.

    SIL has developed a strategy for these visits that she swears works really well for her:

    – Two days before Mom comes, SIL takes all of her unfolded laundry and stuff lying around the house and puts it in the room where their pets sleep. Mom wants nothing to do with this room, she never goes in there. Ta-da! House looks tidy.

    – Hours before Mom comes, SIL rearranges all of the vases and decorative plates and dried seed pod clusters sticking out of the vases. She makes them look disheveled and ugly. This translates into many hours of Mom’s time, spent rearranging vases and seed pod clusters.

    – In the event that Mom whips through the vase arranging portion of the obstacle course, SIL has a Backup Project in mind that she needs help with. Something like sewing curtains, or making a Halloween costume for the kids from scratch. A nice-to-have project that SIL doesn’t have time to do herself.

    She swears this strategy keeps Mom out of trouble when she visits their house. This strategy doesn’t work so well for me, because after one or two “I really don’t like this arrangement!” comments, I start snapping, but SIL retreats to a locked bathroom with her Kindle and says it buys her hours of peace of mind. Maybe this will help you, LW.

    • Anon, Goodnight said:

      Obstacle course. *snorfle* I now have the passive-aggressive MIL version of American Gladiators running through my brain.

      • Guava said:

        The really funny thing is, after every visit, Mom tries to guilt me about how much more appreciative SIL is because she lets her help her. That’s what is so masterful — Mom enjoys this.

    • ladybear said:

      Reminds me of the old myth of distracting vampires by throwing rice, they will feel compelled to stop and pick up every grain of rice giving you time to run away! Or hiding one of their socks, so they will feel compelled to stop everything and find it.

      Huh. Now I’m not sure if those are real vampire myths or Discworld vampire myths.

      • winter said:

        The throwing rice thing relates to the need to count it, which is why throwing salt is also recommended – that’s a real world myth. (Given that Pratchett usually referred to real-world superstitions and traditions, not surprising).

        • Guava said:

          These are fantastic analogies, and scarily appropriate.

      • BarlowGirl said:

        The counting one is real (hence why Count von Count is actually genius), but I’ve never heard the sock one.

        • Right now I have a lone teal blue sock, and although I am not a vampire, it really has ruined several hours of several days, because I keep thinking I have figured out where its mate is hiding. (I have been wrong each time.) The hunt has spread out to two different houses and a car. It WILL be found, but probably not any time soon, and probably will show up lurking static-cling-ily inside a t-shirt or something.

          Vampires probably have really nice hand-knitted silk yarn socks, and thus even more interest in finding a lost one. 😉

          • Nanani said:

            Every time I misplace a sock, it turns up inside another thing, like a pillowcase.
            Since I use one of those mesh bags for small items, I’m pretty sure the culprit is the cat.

          • Bunny Purler said:

            I am afraid the stray sock has probably turned into a wire coat-hanger by now. They’re the laval form of those creatures, but only one makes the transformation. Check your wardrobe… I bet you have wire coat-hangers, but you never buy any. This is where they come from.

            Also, the coat-hangers occasionally swarm, and that’s where shopping trolleys come from.

          • Neurite said:

            britpoptarts, depending on the type of laundry machine you use, there is the possibility that the laundry machine did, in fact, eat the sock:

          • BarlowGirl said:

            It’s probably the house hippo taking them.

        • winter_cherry said:

          Also knots, apparently – if someone was at risk of coming back as a vampire, the thing to do (if you didn’t want the mess and palaver of staking them) was to bury them with a net, or something else with lots of knots in it. The book I saw this in (I don’t have the reference any more, alas) said “Untying knots was apparently endlessly fascinating to the undead”. They couldn’t go out and spread their sinister contagion through the world until they had undone Every Last One.

          I hadn’t thought of this as something I could adapt to keep my sister out of my kitchen cupboards, but now you mention it…

      • Mothers-in-Law can be harder to distract than Vampires.
        Also, you’re raising your children wrong. And putting out the wrong healthy snacks. And using the wrong pasta sauce. Just thought you would WANT to know. Don’t you want the best for your family?

        #GNUTerryPratchett

      • Mothers in law are harder to distract than vampires, and don’t leave bric-a-brac that is handily twisted into a holy sign.

        #GNUTerryPratchett

    • lisakoby said:

      I love this…I can’t even tell you how smart I think your SIL is.

      • Guava said:

        She really is a smart cookie 🙂

    • Proffie Galore said:

      The SIL’s suggestions are great. May I add: my SIL always polished the copper bottoms of her pots and pans before my mom visited and hung them just above eye level (I.e., above the cluttered countertop and unwashed floor). My mom always praised her attention to detail!

  9. I’m calling shenanigans, largely because the MIL sounds precisely like my mom. I’m highly biased, I know, but I grow suspicious when someone is just tooooo sensitive to take any kind of criticism/hint/disagreement without falling apart, yet somehow not sensitive enough to show any understanding or care for anyone else’s feelings. I tend to wonder whether it’s a strategy, or a symptom of a personality disorder that is unlikely to go away and is not my job to manage.

    I have a terrible feeling that the scheduled phone call thing could backfire. There may be a very good reason why Husband isn’t doing something like that already. I know it would be a disaster if I tried anything like that with my mother. She’d constantly try to ‘little inch’ it, so 4pm becomes 3:55 becomes 3:50 etc. If I ever had to cancel it or reschedule it – or, god forbid, if I was running late one day and missed it without alerting her – it would become a national emergency. She would constantly use it to compare me unfavourably with her friends’ daughters (“they phone their moms twice a week, not once” etc.). Whatever it was we agreed to, she’d use that opportunity to complain that I’m not doing more (if I ring I should have written; if I write I should have visited; if I visited I should have moved back). She would also see it as a precedent, as a proof that I *owe* her my time and attention regardless of what she uses it for (soliloquies and diatribes).

    Pretty much the same would apply to all other adjustments. If I let my mom clean my kitchen sink, soon enough I’d find her in my knickers drawer; and she’d feel perfectly justified in everything she’s doing and be terribly, terribly hurt that I’m having a go at her, because I asked her to help me. She cannot be met half-way, or even a quarter of the way. Every concession with her establishes a precedent that binds me forever, and opens a floodgate. The only way to stop her doing something egregious is to stop her engaging in that kind of behaviour at all.

    I realised I’m super-uber-biased and probably also triggered right now, but I do wonder if MIL isn’t actually using LW to circumnavigate barriers her son had already put into place. My mom did that with my exes. Because they didn’t have the same history with her and only knew her superficially, and because she’s a better actress than me and the “poor little sensitive old lady” role is an easy sell, they fell for it. They thought that I was the one being unduly harsh because they had no idea that anything less that a direct, clear, LOUD ultimatum just doesn’t register with her. They thought I was constantly escalating over minor issues because they didn’t know that each and every argument was the re-hash of a pantomime we’d gone through hundreds of times before; my mother was just having another go at a subject because she thought she might win, this time, because she now had a supporter in my camp. My partners had to experience first-hand how far she can go when she’s left unchecked before they believed me, and then they were shocked and repulsed and very apologetic, but I still felt bloody awful about it. The whole thing sucked and it did a lot to undermine my relationships with my partners. And I’m not entirely sure if that was an accident, either.

    I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told “I feel bad for how you/we treat your mother” and my response was “yes, that’s how she wants you to feel”… and it just didn’t sink in, because she was so very plausible.

    I’m not saying that LW’s MIL is exactly like this, or even 50% like this. But I think the possibility should be considered.

    • stayce said:

      I’m sorry that happened to you. That sounds really tough. My mom is now pretty much that difficult to deal with, but for years I used the Captain’s scripts and methods successfully so long as I didn’t *tell* her that was what I was doing. I didn’t announce that I was only going to talk on the phone once a week, I just started doing it. When she complained that I never answered the phone any more, I cheerfully said I had to turn off my phone because of class/work/after school activity and that Sunday afternoon was really the only time I was reliably free. She wasn’t gracious about it and was snarky for years, but eventually the Sunday Afternoon Call was accepted as fait accompli. I know the one time I suggested that we get a hobby together (to redirect away from the unhealthy way we interacted) she focused on the idea that we were being ‘inauthentic’ and that I was managing her and refused to do it. In retrospect, I wonder if I had just started talking about ‘one shared interest we both like’ and directing the conversations that way whether it would have been more successful.
      It’s not clear whether the LW’s MIL is mean or just difficult, but if it’s the latter I think the Captain’s scripts can work. It sounds like LW’s husband is pretty clear-eyed about his mom, so hopefully the two of them can present a united front If it turns out that these behaviors are intentionally hurtful, at least the LW can feel totally guilt-free about having limited interactions.

      • kmcdonell said:

        Oh God yes, my mum complains about our interactions being inauthentic and not natural and I’m managing or controlling her etc. There’s really no other way to deal with her though, because if I don’t set firm boundaries she will try to control everything.

        IMO though it’s irrelevant whether OP’s MIL is “intentionally” hurting her though. If she can’t be redirected with reasonable requests then she’s either unwilling or incapable of considering other people’s feelings and the result is the same. So the strategy of dealing with her should be the same.

    • Your mom is my mom, apparently, or cloned from the same pod. And yes, ex-BFs and friends alike have had a difficult time catching Mom acting all NPD, abusive and otherwise unpleasant because she is on Company Manners when witnesses are about. Also, too, I didn’t enjoy (and still don’t) being told how I am such a horrible person to my poor ol’ mom (sometimes by my mother, even).

      So, yeah. This is a valid observation.

      • Charybdea said:

        Likewise. You seem to have met my MIL. She pulled the same Sad Old Lady Being Shut Out By Her Son thing without realizing that by the time we met, I had already heard all the stories about the stuff she does.

  10. BigDogLittleCat said:

    My strategy for dealing with people who Just Won’t Shut Up about any aspect of my life is to stop telling them anything on that subject.
    MIL drives me crazy re how to wear my hair to a party? MIL doesn’t hear about any future parties.
    If someone slips up and spills the beans, they have to deal with the result: “DH told you about my office holiday party? Oh dear, sounds like the dog is vomiting. Talk to DH while i go deal with that.”

    This won’t work for everything of course, but if there are topics on which she’s especially bothersome, what she doesn’t know can’t annoy you.

    • Clarry said:

      Yes! I now talk to my mother only about books and movies. Pretty much everything else is off limits. My only question is whether or not to explain why I don’t bring up anything else. For a long time, I didn’t explain my actions. I just stopped loaning her anything (she never returned my things), inviting her over (she criticized), meeting her anywhere (she came late and left me wondering if she’d ever show up), telling her anything personal (she blabbed to everyone she knew), etc. Not too long ago I relaxed my own rules and told her about a friend’s daughter’s difficulties with work. My mother began making fun of anyone who would do that sort of work (working with small children. The difficulty had to do with the administration and co-workers, not the children.) I stopped talking. Now when she asks about my friend and her kids, I answer “fine,” and don’t supply her with more juicy stories she can make fun of. I wonder about saying straight out loud “The last time I told you anything about her, you ridiculed her for working with children. Now I’m avoiding the subject.”

      • winter said:

        According to my experience with Difficult People that have crossed a certain Difficulty Threshold (i.e. your mother evidently), telling them the reason does not work. At best they sit in shocked silence because how dare you and proceed to act exactly as terrible as before. At worst, this becomes another reason why you are terrible and they’ll hold it over you forever.

        • Alli525 said:

          TRUTH.

        • winter nailed it. At some point, you will give up the urge to JADE anything to the Difficult Person and it will be a relief. I still struggle with it, but the less I JADE, the better things go. Keeping far away is also good.

          P.S. After giving me the silent treatment for most of a year, my Difficult Person wants to “have a talk” with me about our relationship. At first I was just curious enough to consider getting it over with, and then I told myself that I didn’t really care, it was the holiday season (e.g., already stressful), and I had been HAPPY while being left alone. There is nothing she can do during this “talk” that will go well for me. She isn’t going to pay me the money from the sale of the totaled car that was given to me, but which her insurance company covered. She isn’t going to offer to make any of my current burdens lighter. She isn’t going to apologize for giving me the silent treatment and/or being ugly when we did encounter each other at family events.

          For those reasons and many more, I am not interested in prolonging contact with my Difficult Mom, and JADE-ing would drag things out and not in a positive way.

          • Parse The Potatoes said:

            In case anybody else is wondering, ‘JADE’ stands for Justify, Argue, Defend, Explain.
            (I looked it up, because I hadn’t heard it before.)

        • Arabella Flynn said:

          Very occasionally, the shocked silence provides you some time to get away.

          Once upon a time, I was stuck staying with my parents for Reasons, and one of my dear friends rescued me by kidnapping me to “housesit” with her for a week. As I was leaving with her, my mother tried to stop me and ask (read: demand) for a phone number for where I was going. (I didn’t have a cell phone at the time. I was in my twenties. And I would have access to email while I was there.)

          “No,” I told her.

          “Why not?” she whined.

          “Because you’ll call it,” I explained.

          Her inability to find a rebuttal for that gave me just enough time to get in the damn car and flee.

          • winter said:

            That’s a beautiful reply.

        • Clarry said:

          Thanks. I guess I wonder for 2 reasons. First, she’s been so contrite, really acting like she’s sorry I don’t talk to her and like she wishes she knew how to fix it. At one point she even asked what my “rules” were. She seemed that baffled by normal boundaries.

          But more than that, it’s because I’ve gotten so much better at managing output. I should back up and explain what I mean. The way I figure it, dealing with Difficult People is a matter of managing input and managing output. If I know my mother will whine and complain if I tell her about a trip I have planned, I can manage input by not telling her about the trip. I can manage output by listening to her complaints, not letting them bother me, and having a great time on my trip anyway. Becoming quietly rattled (I didn’t show it) when she started making fun of my friend was letting down my guard. She hit a sore spot when usually she doesn’t.

          So I don’t think she’ll push harder if I explain, but I do see the value in leaving things the way they are without explaining anyway. Thanks for your answer.

          • winter said:

            I mean, if you want to give it a shot, go for it. I reached that conclusion by trying it myself. Can’t even say the results were wholly terrible because a time of beautiful silence followed 😉 Alas, the content I communicated were never acknowledged (or respected).

    • Helen Lambert said:

      Yep!

      My mother in law hears nothing at all about my life.

      But then apparently me saying that I was uncomfortable with having the details of my life shared with people I had never met, and learning intimate details about their lives also made me feel very comfortable, was enough to get me called “a bitter and twisted example of humanity”, and to get me blocked by my mother in law on Faceboook.

      It has improved my life immeasurably! 😀

      She’s a narcissist though.

      I don’t know why no one has mentioned it, but you know… MILs do not HAVE to come and be in your home. Ever. My MIL would not be welcome in my home. Well, perhaps for a cup of tea, or in an emergency. But I don’t want her having access to my space, I don’t want her criticisms, I don’t want her condescension, and I frankly don’t enjoy her company. Plus we don’t tend to wear clothes much in my home.

      I see her at funerals and weddings, and maybe every 5-7 Christmases or so. It’s good 😀

      *We live in different countries, and she always has a sob story about how poor she is and can’t come to visit. She owns her own home, she is in full-time employment, and has no dependants. So she’s significantly better off than most people I know!

    • MuddieMae said:

      Oh, dog vomit, the excuse that never stops giving. I used this excuse today when a morning job interview ran long.

  11. Acti said:

    I have in laws with the talk and cannot stop problem. It took some adjustment. I remember one occasion I was busting, and my BIL just kept talking. I told him point blank I was busting, and he kept talking. So I just walked away and went. I found he was not offended luckily.

    My MIL and her brother are both also badly afflicted, and unfortunately the solution is to be rude. When you are ready to end a phone call, you say goodbye and hang up, no matter what they are saying. In person you walk away. When they visit you, you walk away, but it is admittedly less effective. My MIL has learned, and does not talk extensively to me now when she rings, but it took years of rudeness on my part, and hasn’t really affected the in person talking.

    I find it is the solution principally because through observation I see that they do not appear able to stop it without a great deal of effort; my uncle in law cannot stop it at all.

    • crooked bird said:

      Ooooh, I used to know somebody like this. I did all the little verbal & physical cues, all the “I’m turning my body away a little, see I really meant that about needing to go” and he kept talking, and finally I just walked away saying a loud “Gotta go, bye” over his talking, and sure enough he wasn’t offended. (Which was awfully helpful to know, because I saw him twice a week at regular social things and I think I have Good Listener tattooed on my forehead, and people like that will home in on it every time.) I think it might be a Thing with this sort of person–the not getting offended part I mean. It’s hard for the rest of us to trust that, but I think it’s worth a try for anyone else who has this problem too.

      • MuddieMae said:

        My parents are normally very good with boundaries and being reasonable people and everything, but we all have a terrible case of Midwestern Goodbye Syndrome, in which I stand in my coat and boots and such next to the door with them and talk for another hour before leaving. No idea where it comes from, perhaps we are all too awkward to just make the break, or were afraid our ancestors would be eaten by bears and we would never see them again. Anywhoo, the point is once I mentioned it to them, I started making a deliberately awkward comment about it and then hustling myself to the door. It was a little weird at first, but now we’re champion quicker-goodbye people.

        • One of the problems with Midwestern Goodbye Syndrome (it’s even worse in some places further west) is that you can’t get these people to leave your space once you’ve invited them in. You can give them a firm ending time. You can hand them their coat and open the door. And they will stand there and talk at you nonstop for another two hours. Hustling them out the door because I “don’t want to let the cat/dog/ferret/anklebiter out *might* work, but what if they just stand there inside and refuse to walk out the door no matter what you say? I’ve seen it happen.

          The answer, of course, is that you can never invite the offender back into your space.

          And that is the solution for a lot of the rest of what we’re talking about on this thread as well. Don’t invite the offender into your space so that they can disrespect it and you. Meet them somewhere else if you really want to hang on to the relationship. Restaurants, parks, museums, whatever.

          I was able to tolerate contact with my father for a lot more years than I would have had I not hit upon never letting him into my home.

        • Raptor said:

          I’m not from the Midwest, but when visiting Grandma, my mom always got and started getting ready to go about half an hour before she actually intended to leave.

        • Kira said:

          Haha! This is a southern thing too. Coats on, purses on, but yet the conversation continues for like 2 more hours! I’ve learned that you just go sit down somewhere and play on your phone/read/zone out.

      • Paulina said:

        Some people won’t believe you actually have to go until you leave. You can try for a “we’re mutually agreeing that this is over, and then gracefully part” all you like, but they won’t go along with it. They make you be rude, but don’t take it particularly personally when you are. I’ve found I just have to steel myself to get past the social leash.

        It’s the same with them when I enforce any kind of boundaries; as long as I still act like I’m wanting them to agree, they’ll withhold that to see what they can get. Once I forge ahead unilaterally, then they get the message.

        • crooked bird said:

          This is actually a big principle of mine with young children (especially mine.) When it’s time to go, I say “Time to go, c’mon” and start walking, rather than stand there waiting for their approval.

          Of course, not to an extent that it’s dangerous (crowded sidewalk) or that they would feel abandoned (not even looking back as I get farther away)–but it’s a little, brisk, non-punitive demonstration that I’m in charge of our schedule just now. It makes sense that it also applies to demonstrating that you’re in charge of your life.

          • winter said:

            Agree. Proclaiming something (“We’re going/I have to go”) is different from demonstrating something (moving away while you say it). One is asking for approval and can therefore be side-tracked if the other person doesn’t give it, the other non-verbally communicates that you are in charge of what happens next.

    • Kitty said:

      Oh God. I had a housemate who would literally follow me from room to room, talking at me about whatever they were interested in, regardless of whether I showed any real interest. They didn’t seem to get any non-verbal social cues like not responding or making eye contact. I couldn’t figure out a way to say ‘stop doing this’ without me feeling anxious and them feeling hurt so in the end I moved out. 😄

      • walkingwhilefemale said:

        Did we have the same roommate? My “close talker” tried to follow me INTO THE BATHROOM when I had to pee, and then continued to talk at me through the closed door as I did my business.

    • I have a wonderful friend, and she would. never. get. off. the. phone. “I have to go,” “I really have to go,” etc. she’d just talk right through. (This was in ye olde days of landlines and teenaged girls monopolizing them.)

      Eventually I started giving her a one-minute warning (“Gotta go in a minute”) and then saying “OK talk to you later BYE” really fast and hanging up.

      She was never offended, or even bothered in the slightest. I think she, like your MIL, had problems stopping even when she knew she was supposed to.

    • Temperance said:

      That’s so good. I don’t know how to handle this, TBH. My MIL is a decent person but a nonstop talker. It sucks.

    • ranunculus said:

      I have a friend like this. He just talks and talks and talks, and it doesn’t bother him that nobody else is saying anything but “yeah”, “uhuh”, “right”. I can come right out and say “Paul. My bladder is about to burst”, and he still won’t stop. If I go away and come back, he picks up right where he left off, as if nothing had happened. He doesn’t notice when people just walk away when he’s talking at them. My husband handles him by saying “Paul. Fuck off” when it’s getting late, and he’s launching into another monologue. It’s become an in-joke with them, like bloke-ish banter.

      • Jadelyn said:

        One of my mother’s sisters is like that. I actually remember one time when Mom had been trying to get off the phone for half an hour solid and finally said, “Lynn, the house is on fire, I have to go deal with this right now.” and hung up.

        To the best of my knowledge, Lynn never commented about that incident later – and still won’t shut up until you basically have to hang up on her. On the other hand, she’s great for when I’m feeling socially exhausted, because I can get her started on a topic and then just let her run and I don’t have to do any of the conversational work, which is nice.

    • Jack V said:

      This, although I don’t think it’s rude. It’s rude to just hang up on someone. But when you’ve done:

      A: I need to wrap this up shortly.
      B: Blah blah blah
      A: OK, I really need to go now.
      B: Blah blah blah.
      A: OK, I’m sorry I can’t finish this, but I have to go. Great talking to you. See you soon. Goodbye.
      B: Blah blah blah.
      A: *click*

      I don’t think A owes B anything else. It LOOKS rude, because B is inadvertently or deliberately signalling “ok, you need to go, but there must be a bit of flexibility, this one thing is important I get in now”, and A is ignoring that. But A isn’t ignoring it the *first* time. A is ignoring it the *tenth* time when the first nine were completely false.

      I think *lots* of politeness falls into that category: it’s a useful norm, but only when someone else is following the norm too, it’s not a blanket requirement to be a doormat when someone else takes advantage of it. And it’s something people DO take advantage of, accidentally and deliberately (like, “making a fuss” is impolite, when it’s something that COULD be handled privately, but “making a fuss” is a GOOD THING if someone else is doing something wrong right now and won’t stop).

      In this case, maybe B is bad at social cues, or desperate for human contact. Or comes from a culture where people just keep talking until someone hangs up, and hanging up isn’t considered rude. Or B is wilfully oblivious or selfish and doesn’t care if that’s inconvenient for A.

      I’ve become a lot more ready to say, if I’ve said goodbye, and the other person continues talking, that’s their problem, not mine.

  12. Helbling said:

    Gosh, this is timely. Stuff with my mil has just hit the fan, after years of trying to use the tactics above just….didn’t work.

    Turn down gifts? She’d turn up with them on our doorstep. And not ones easy to trash or donate either, we’re talking pieces of furniture that were decades old. (Refuse collection won’t take something that large and our cars aren’t big enough to transport it ourselves). If we put our foot down, we’d get berated and insulted and sometimes yelled at. If we kicked her out of the house, we’d get long emails about how we’re awful people. If we avoided her and cut back on calling, she’d wait until we were somewhere it’s difficult to get away (car parks, she seems to like car parks) then ambush us and launch in.

    This holiday season was breaking point, and we’ve put our foot down in a permanent manner. Naturally, it has not gone well. We are not going to be spending Xmas with them. She has escalated to recruiting mutual acquaintances to pass us messages because she’s worked out we have her blocked online and on the phone. We are holding strong, but it’s really hard. My husband loves his mother, and would ideally like a relationship with her, but the truth of the matter is she just can’t handle it.

    Op, look, if you ever get to the point where you need to step back and take a break, or even, if you need to be done permanently, I am here to tell you it is not your fault, and you are more than entitled to step back from her ridiculous behaviour. Maybe if we’d done that earlier we’d not be in the situation we’re in now. But she’s going to be disappointed in you and complain that you aren’t enabling her controlling ways whether she’s getting 0% of what she wants or 90% of what she wants, so given that variable will not change, prioritise YOUR needs and desires, and at least one out of the two of you have some peace and grace about the situation.

    I offer you Jedi fist bumps of ‘welcome to the difficult daughter/son/partner-in-law club’, and the support that membership entitles you to.

    • DameB said:

      I offer you jedi fist bumps of support and hugs even if you want them. It’s so hard and you are so right to do it and I am with you in spirit!

    • MrsLokiofAsgard said:

      My mother-in-law was a fan of the nasty email and passing messages through other family members. My father-in-law was a fan of the ambush visit. I put up with it until I had kids of my own and then I began enforcing every boundary that I’d tried to put in place prior to my kids (don’t show up unannounced for a week long visit, don’t ignore me in my own home, don’t insult me in my own home, don’t tell my husband that he could have done better and then pass him the number of a woman you met who you think your be good for him…that kind of thing!). My in-laws hated the boundaries so much so that they refused to have contact with their son or grandchildren unless it was on their terms. Since their son didn’t like them and their grandchildren were babies you can guess how that turned out for them. Now our children are older and the in-laws are too and they want a relationship with the kids, but my kids don’t. My mother-in-law tried to guilt my daughter during a recent phone call. My daughter shut her down with “Nana, you didn’t want to see me when I was little because it was too much work for you to respect my mom and say nice things to and about her. What’s changed now? You’re trying to blame her right now. It’s not her fault you didn’t see me when I was little. It’s yours.”

      • golden peanut said:

        “don’t tell my husband that he could have done better and then pass him the number of a woman you met who you think your be good for him”

        O.o

      • CarpeFelis said:

        Your daughter is awesome!

        Like you, I hate it when someone ignores or insults me in my own home. It’s the easiest way for someone to get me to despise them, and the kind of offense it takes me about 10 years to get over (if ever).

    • hbc said:

      “But she’s going to be disappointed in you and complain that you aren’t enabling her controlling ways whether she’s getting 0% of what she wants or 90% of what she wants.”

      So true, and there’s no way to give these kind of people 100%. My MIL is nowhere near as awful as yours, but I distinctly remember her complaining that my sister-in-law’s in-laws (my husband’s sister’s husband’s parents) were taking a turn holding their new grandchild and they offered MIL a turn. In her mind, this was them acting like they could decide who gets to hold the baby, those selfish bastards!! Never mind that if they’d done something else (put the baby down, given her back to one of the parents, kept holding her), she would have blown a gasket over the implication that she shouldn’t get to hold the child.

      The only way to win with some people is to realize that you can’t make them happy, so you start doing what makes you least unhappy.

      • johann7 said:

        I rank the WarGames maxim (“the only winning move is not to play”) right up there with the First Rule of Holes.

        • The Hole Rule sounds vaguely familiar but I can’t place it.

          But if it doesn’t have something to do with not sticking anything you value all willy-nilly into a mysterious new hole of which you can’t see the bottom, I will be disappointed.

          • MuddieMae said:

            The first rule of holes is: when you’re in a hole, stop digging.

          • First Rule of Holes: If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

        • Dana said:

          The War Games Maxim has served me well.

  13. IrishEm said:

    I have an Auntie-in-law who is a bit like this and I’ve found that a complete derail of the conversation onto a topic that *I* adore is one of the best ways of shutting her down. We were at a hotel having dinner and just as she was winding up into a Major Discussion of so-and-so’s TERRIBLE BEHAVIOUR OMG (a relation-in-law of hers died suddenly of previously undiagnosed cancer and she and her sister were shocked at the “eccentric” untidy state of his home after death *eyeroll* CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO GODLINESS in her opinion, cancer or no) so while she was winding up her indignant speech I just launched into a talk about Salvatore Ferragamo and the shoes and scarves he designs, and didn’t let anyone get a word in edgeways until I was good and ready. Ultimate Subject Change FTW. Nobody could remember what she had been about to talk about and the conversation returned to a normal level. Sometimes a lecture on a total non-sequitur can just change the atmosphere, if there’s something that you love talking about, LW.

    • I love Ferragamo shoes! And the sizes are so true that I can buy them on eBay from I think estates of dead women who wore the shoes twice before they died.

  14. Rhoda said:

    Holy cow! Your mother could be the long-lost twin of mine, except that my mother is in her late 80s and probably older. Sorry, but there isn’t any way to detach from her without hurting her feelings, or seeming to. You can either do what you’re doing – spending a lot less time with her – or just let her blather on and on and on while you do something else. As for the cleaning supplies, well, you could donate them to the local food bank I suppose, if you can’t stop her giving them.
    People like this often use “hurt” as a way to make other people feel guilty for setting boundaries. Don’t give in or she’ll be even more controlling if and when you have kids. If you think she knows best now, just wait until she starts lecturing you on toilet training methods! Take your husband’s cue on dealing with her, he has years more experience of her than you do.

    • People like this often use “hurt” as a way too make other people feel guilty for setting boundaries.

      Just wanted to emphasize this.

      • Yes. The year my husband told his parents we were not spending Christmas with them – we were going to Spain on vacation, they told him he was a “bad son.” His father called and said my husband’s mother was threatening suicide, which made me furious. If that was true, then deal with it – get her in a 72-hour hold. If it’s not true, it’s mean and manipulative to share that kind of information.

        On Christmas day, we got an email from his mom saying “everything sucks and [she] get[s] despondent.”

  15. H.Regalis said:

    I’ve offered to cook and clean for friends when they’ve let me stay with them longterm (I’ve been traveling around a lot the last few years) and now I’m wondering if I’m a jerk. I say that beforehand “Thanks for letting me stay in your spare room. I can cook and clean for you guys to help out,” and I’ve never had people ask me not to, and I try to do stuff to be a good houseguest. Is that a jerk thing or is it only annoying if it’s someone who’s just visiting for the day vs. living with you?

    • DameB said:

      Offering is getting consent beforehand! You’re good, as long as you abide by what they answer.

    • Britta said:

      The issue with this letter is that the MIL is not being considerate at all – her cooking and cleaning is her imposing her ways on the LW, and not trying to go along with the LW’s ways in the LW’s home. So your offer is not a jerk thing at all! By asking you’re being considerate and by being considerate you’re being a good houseguest.

    • Saturnalia said:

      It’s only a jerk thing if they say no (or seem awkward or hesitant about it) and you steamroll your way through cleaning anyway. “Are you sure you don’t mind?” = probably OK to clean. “Please don’t bother yourself with it!” = probably don’t clean.

      Sometimes there is an accepted social dance of a couple “are you sure”s like when Midwest folks offer dessert, but if you aren’t hearing increased levels of frustration with each negative / neutral response to your guestly offers you’re probably doing just fine!

      I’d not accept that offer from my house guests, but I’d be very clear when I say “really, no thanks, you are my guest and I want you to relax.”

      • johann7 said:

        Seconding all of this, including the (exasperating-to-me, despite having grown up with them) Midwest Nice norms.

        • Dana said:

          I had a terrible time with the Midwest Nice norms. I married into a family that observed them scrupulously and I have tried to learn them, but mostly I find them passive aggressive and bewildering. But they are lovely people who mean well and I’m trying to learn their language. Failing, but trying.

          Thankfully they are all great at boundaries otherwise.

          (My own mom, on the other hand… but that’s another story.)

          • DameB said:

            If you’re ever in the position to do so, throw a Southern Belle and a Midwestern Norm into a situation where something needs to be done and someone needs to be in charge. It’s like a master class in soft power.

          • Well, the thing is, they may not be lovely people.

            Here’s the deal with the Midwest Norms: There are some basic codified rules. People may not know how to explain them thoroughly to you, but you can pick them up from observation, like offer a beverage X times before giving up, or say “I have to go now,” Y times.

            If you then tell someone, “I have to go now,” Y times and they just keep right on talking at you, time after time, it’s not Midwest Norms that’s happening, it’s passive aggression.

            And the way to deal with aggression is to end the incident IMMEDIATELY and go your separate ways — don’t worry about being polite enough in the face of an aggressor, just get the hell away and regroup.

    • By offering (and following through on your offer, if accepted), you’re being a good houseguest. In my opinion, you’re in the clear – as DameB said, offering before cooking/cleaning is getting consent, which is where LW’s MIL is failing horribly.

      If anything, the only thing I’d add to your script (which, to be clear, is great as-is!) is that you also mention what you can cook particularly well. “I can cook and clean for you guys to help out – I make a mean enchilada casserole!” It’ll give you a chance to show off your cooking skills, your hosts will know what to expect if they take you up on your cooking offer, and it comes across as a lot more personal by offering your specialty.

  16. MrsLokiofAsgard said:

    I agree with all of the advice apart from the “She’s probably gonna clean your house when she visits for the rest of time.” This is not okay. If I’ve told someone to not clean my house then I expect them to not clean my house. Period. The end. It’s MY house. I don’t care how someone thinks I should decorate or clean, it’s not their call to make. Can we make that an across the board piece of advice for everyone? Don’t go to someone’s home and try to re-decorate or clean their home! Obviously, if you are visiting, you should pick up after yourself but that’s it!!!!!!!

    • Nicholas C Kiddle said:

      I’d read that as “she’s going to clean your house whenever she visits, and the only viable way to avoid that is not to have her visit”. And that might be a good plan anyway. Go to hers instead, or meet in neutral venues like restaurants. Bonus: this also makes exfiltration easier when you’ve had enough.

      (I have had Problems with people who Insist On Cleaning my home and worse, expect me to act like they did me a favour, so I’m all in favour of the boundary you suggest. But realistically, some people, like the MIL, are never going to abide by that, so it’s best for LW to stick to things they can control, like redirecting the way the Captain suggests or keeping her out of the house altogether.)

      • Turtle Candle said:

        Yeah, I interpreted it the same way: not that the Captain thinks that “don’t clean my house” is an unreasonable boundary to set, but that someone who keeps doing it even when your husband has spoken to her harshly about it is just going to keep doing it as long as she has opportunity. (And might resort to sneak-cleaning. I’ve seen it happen….) If talking to her about it, even “harshly,” hasn’t worked, the choices become put up with it or don’t let her come to your house; there’s not much else you can do. I took “she’s clearly going to keep doing it” as a statement of apparent fact, not as a statement of relative acceptability.

        (There’s also the fact that everyone chooses what hill they want to die on differently. I don’t mind a bit if my dad decides to take it upon himself to rake the back yard, find it mildly annoying but tolerable if my mom starts tidying up my kitchen, but would set a Hard No And You Can’t Come Back If You Keep It Up to poking through the boxes in the garage–but someone else might be okay with the box-poking but have the tidying as a Hard No. To some extent it’s up to the LW to determine where the line of No More Hanging Out At My Place gets drawn, because it’s very personal.)

        • JenniferP said:

          Thanks, this was my intent!

  17. Britta said:

    I read an interview once with Michelle Gomez, the Scottish actor who was brought up on welfare, who is married to Jack Davenport, whose family is one of the most wealthy and prominent in the UK. The interviewer asked if she was intimidated when she met his family. I paraphrase only slightly when I say her reply was: of course not. I wasn’t shagging them, I was shagging Jack.

    Your MIL is fulfilling every cliche in the book by doing these petty, ridiculous things to divert your attention from the power that you have.

    My ex’s sister was only in our house a few times and when she was she spent a lot of time cleaning. It was the only way she could feel superior to me, the foreign, educated bitch of the wrong religion who’d stolen her brother. Whereas I thought it was hilarious that a woman whose kitchen was covered in dogshit, who left broken windows unrepaired for years and whose house so stank of smoke that even my underwear would reek after a few hours in there would have the nerve to complain about my housekeeping. Especially after I’d paid for her flights to come visit us! But how else could she get back at me?

    In addition to the Captain’s good advice, I suggest you try to figure out how you can reframe your MIL’s behaviors as amusing instead of annoying. Isn’t it hilarious she thinks you don’t know how to do your own hair! Isn’t it dumb she’d rather spend money on cleaning stuff instead of literally anything else! Isn’t it ridiculous that she’s so upset you’re going to a party without her she’s decided to control what you wear to the party instead! And then laugh, and let it go. (Your husband does not have to wear the suit to the party, you know….)

    It took me years to be able to do with my SIL, but I did it. I wish you luck too! But you’ll get there.

  18. Nanani said:

    To go back to a phrase from the archives of this blog: Intent Is Not Magic!

    Her meaning well literally does not change anything, it’s still not OK.
    You shouldn’t feel guilty, since the onus is on her to respect you and your boundaries.

    As for suggestions, maybe get a pet or plant she’s allergic to? Only if you would actually like a pet/plant in the first place, of course.
    *Note that this only works if she doesn’t have sublevels in Martyrdom and would carry on cleaning your house, against your wishes, through the sneezing fit brought on by dander and pollen.

    • TootsNYC said:

      I’m not even sure you can successfully argue that this MIL’s intent is well meant.

      I think it’s actually pretty self-focused, which isn’t very far away from “selfish.”

      She isn’t trying to help the OP and her husband. She’s trying to CONTROL them. She just tells herself that she means well, because that gives her plausible deniability.

      Of course, our OP didn’t ask, “what can you tell me that will ramp up my resentment and dislike of her.”

      She asked how to get to a good place, so she can cope.

      But I think the secret **is** in that realization–that this is all about MIL, and it’s not actually intended to be helpful.

      Knowing and “grokking” this means:
      1) the OP can be freed from the need to feel grateful
      2) the OP can stop trying to find some way to “logic” her MIL out of this
      3) the OP can stop caring about whether she hurts her MIL’s feelings (note that this doesn’t translate into being mean or nasty)
      4) the OP can basically detach a LOT more, so the boundary violations may not seem as important

      Know what she is, and why she’s doing what she’s doing. It’s not about you at all–it’s only about her, and her need to feel important, and her boredom with her own life, and the brain weasel that makes her talktalktalk and ignore other people.

      Basically, treat her as if she’s someone who has a mild mental problem and gets stuck in a loop. You don’t have to get in there with them, but you also treat them with some protective detachment and a large dose of charity.

  19. johann7 said:

    The problem is that she never listens to anything we say. Especially for me, it is hard to confront her because she does get hurt easily.

    The hurt isn’t necessarily or exactly feigned, but this is a classic manipulation technique. It’s a manipulation technique whether it’s consciously acknowledged or intended as one or not. You have to learn to be okay with letting her feel hurt when she’s behaving like a controlling jerk – it’s something she’s doing to herself, and you can’t manage her feelings about that (nor should you if you could – that’s on her, and a paid professional or at least a willing friend if she needs help processing).

    And I know she means well by everything she does.

    Maybe, in a narcissistic sort of way that can’t acknowledge that other people might have different opinions, desires, or worldviews than hers and doesn’t respect boundaries. This is one of those cases where you can give her the benefit of the doubt surrounding her intentions, but it doesn’t really mean much, because her behavior is still unacceptable irrespective of intent, becasue it’s harming other people, and she needs to modify it or stay away.

    But even when we talk about these things quite straight (and my husband even harshly) to her, it doesn’t change her behavior. It will maybe work for a few weeks but then she will continue the controlling behavior.

    As noted, she clearly has problems respecting boundaries. The next time you set/enforce a boundary, I suggest making the consequences clear – she has zero contact with you for a week or however long you think is necessary/appropriate – and then sticking to them. She needs to learn to respect boundaries if she wants to be able to interact with the two of you.

    The Captain has great suggestions for more conciliatory and enabling approaches; given that my job has become something where I’m doing this at work a lot, I don’t have the spoons to try to help other people who are acting like jerks feel better about being repudiated for their behavior in my own time, so I’m now more often going right to the “behave as though other people exist and are important or do not be around me” play. You seem like the sort of person to be drawn more to the former, LW, so by all means do try out CA’s suggested strategies. And also remember that you don’t actually have to interact with people who treat you badly, even if they share DNA with your husband; opting out is your trump card, and if you can keep that in mind, you might feel more empowered to enforce your boundaries during the time that you are (generously) opting to interact with your MIL.

    • mf said:

      “You have to learn to be okay with letting her feel hurt when she’s behaving like a controlling jerk – it’s something she’s doing to herself, and you can’t manage her feelings about that (nor should you if you could – that’s on her, and a paid professional or at least a willing friend if she needs help processing).”

      This x 1000. Just because someone is feeling hurt does NOT mean their hurt feelings are your fault. She is choosing to see your perfectly reasonable boundaries as an affront to her feelings. She’s choosing to interpret your boundaries as a sign that you don’t love her. Let her feel the way she needs to feel. As long as you are being reasonable and kind when setting boundaries, you are not responsible for her feelings.

    • BigdogLittlecat said:

      This.
      LW, remember whose feelings got “hurt” first and who hurt them. She is choosing to do things that make you unhappy. Her unhappy does not trump your unhappy just because she’s “sad” and you’re annoyed or angry or whatever. Being sad when confronted is manipulative because we’ve been inculcated with the idea that “sad” is an allowable emotion, but anger, frustration, etc are not. As if being sad is equal to being the victim. So someone does something that upsets you, you get angry at them, they get sad, and you end up apologizing for being angry. That’s bullshit. You don’t like being upset any more than she likes being sad, but she started it.

      Like the Captain says, it’s already uncomfortable, let *them* be the uncomfortable one.

    • Oh yeah.

      There is a brilliant series on Netflix called “Last Tango in Halifax”. At a couple of points in the series, one sweet old lady character decides suddenly to be an utter bitch to all and sundry with a huge dollop of bigotry thrown in. Both times she finds herself about to lose all of her most important relationships because of her appalling behavior. And both times she literally wails to one of her victims who is telling her to take a flying leap, “BUT I’M HEARTBROKEN.”

      She IS heartbroken. It’s real. She’s facing terrible losses. But she’s only facing terrible losses because she was an utter shit, and she hasn’t backed down and apologized yet.

      Think about that. She’s wailing about being heartbroken when she knows damn well she can get her most important relationships back, all better, by simply apologizing and stopping the appalling behavior.

      But she doesn’t wanna.

      So she wails about being heartbroken. She chooses to go on being heartbroken for a while, feeling all the terrible, real pain, because for the moment she likes that better than stopping being an utter piece of shit.

      She tries wailing about her very real heartbreak as a power trip — she can end the heartbreak quickly and easily by apologizing, but she would rather wail and see if that can get people to bend without her apologizing. Luckily, they all tell her to go take a flying leap and stop being such a bitch.

      And in the end, she does. She apologizes and behaves. But only because the people around her were smart enough not to fall for the very real aggression in her wailing about her very real heartbreak.

      The pain can be real, and terribly heartfelt, and still be a power trip and a tool of abuse and control.

  20. LadyDi said:

    I think you have some really good advice here. Only two things to add. First, I would highly recommend reading the book Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend as the book gives great advice on boundaries that are needed for a meddlesome, judgy and intrusive MIL like this one. Second, I too would not tolerate this woman cleaning my home. I dealt with this issue with my MIL for many years and she is now very, very low contact with me as a result and no longer allowed in my home. It is highly intrusive and disrespectful to come into another person’s home and clean it. How would this MIL feel if I came into her home, began going through her panty drawers looking for panties that needed some bleach in the crotch area, and put them in the laundry? Probably very intruded upon and disrespected. That is how it feels when someone cleans your home without your approval.

  21. AngtheSA said:

    This is my mom. She will call everyday to talk about nothing. She always calls when I am at work and leave passive aggressive vm about how she never hears from me even though we talk 1 or 2 times a week. And when she does come up to spend time with us it is emotionally draining, (not a full day but a few hours). Thank for asking this question OP, and know that others out there are just like you. We spend way more time with my father in law and sister in law because it is just so much easier to do and it is always pleasant. The guilt will eventually go away, it took me about a year after realizing it was a problem.

  22. mf said:

    Great advice from the Captain here. I’d add one more thing: Be very careful and strategic about what details of your life you share and WHEN you share them.

    For example: next year, don’t tell her about the office holiday party before it happens, because that provides her with the opportunity to micromanage your appearance (new suit, putting your hair up, etc.). Instead, tell her about the party AFTER it happens. Then, when she demands to know whether you put your hair up, you can just lie your face off. Or give an excuse (“I was going to put it up but Husband said he likes it down, so I did that instead.” or “I would’ve loved to put my hair but unfortunately I was running late and didn’t have the time. There’s always next time!”)

    Another idea: If your MIL is the type that still coddles her little baby boy, then use that to your advantage. Make it sound like you do things different FOR him because you’re SUCH A GOOD WIFE. (“Husband really prefers to do to clean the floors with a mop, so that’s why we don’t use a broom. But thanks for the tip! Maybe we’ll try that sometime.”)

  23. Ann said:

    I totally agree with all the people who would be insulted if a guest cleaned my house. The only person who stays at my place as a guest is my brother, who is okay with the mess (or at least doesn’t talk about it much). And when I stayed with him several months ago, he hadn’t been feeling well enough to clean beforehand so I made one offer to wash dishes or something to help out and then kept my mouth shut. At least for me it’s not just about respecting space, it’s about respecting that people have their own issues that can get in the way of cleaning, and you don’t do things that would make them feel worse about it.

    You might want to check out DWIL Nation for discussion of similar issues. I’ve been reading (without posting) for about six months and have learned a lot about enforcing boundaries and what I’m willing to tolerate from people.

  24. Boundary Stompee said:

    My former MIL was what I call a “boundary stomper.” If I ever attempted to have a boundary, that was considered being controlling. Even after my divorce she tried playing that game with me. After I divorced, I moved from the marital home to one of my very own…a place where my ex husband had never lived. Every once and a while, he would send his mother over to pick up our kid for visitation. Pick up was supposed to be curb-side, and my ex would call our son on the phone, and he would go out. I always tried to stay far far away whenever he was coming over, and our kid was old enough to be alone in the house. But instead of curbside pickup, my MIL would ring the bell, push her way in (even though my son would say that his mom wouldn’t be happy), and then she’d start rummaging around my drawers, giving an excuse like “I need some tape.” She’d even go into my bedroom and go through my drawers. Again, this was not a house she had ever been a guest in, or that her son had ever lived in. After several phone calls asking her not to enter my house when I wasn’t home, I finally had to send her a lawyer letter telling her that if she did it again, she’d be reported for trespass.

    She’s done so many things over the years, I could write a book. Fortunately, I have no contact with her anymore. I blocked her emails and phone calls and text messages, blocked her from FB, and everything else I could think of.

    • BigdogLittlecat said:

      Holy crap.

    • H.Regalis said:

      Ugh, how awful. That sounds like something my mother would do, or has done, I’m sure.

  25. I have a friend who has the weekly phone call scheduled for while he does laundry. The handy bonus there is that he has an exit strategy ready to go: “Oh, I need to go switch/retrieve the clothes now.”

  26. I'm Not Phyllis said:

    She sounds lonely. That’s not at all helpful, I’m sure, but something to think about. Doesn’t mean that you should allow her to violate your boundaries by any means, but it may help to know that it comes from that place.

    • Vicki said:

      If the LW’s mother-in-law is lonely, it may well be the result of talking constantly about things that nobody around her is interested in, ignoring what everyone else wants, and trying to micromanage other people’s lives, not the cause of those boundary violations.

      • Charybdea said:

        A few friends and I have a shorthand for this: “bad bids for play”. People can be lonely and really really want you to play with them and want togetherness, yet every strategy they have for soliciting that from people is manipulative, destructive, controlling, or high-handed.

        It’s super sad to watch on one level. On another level, if people consistently make bad bids…yeah. No one needs to eat that and smile.

        • crooked bird said:

          That’s a good phrasing, the “bad bids” thing. Also reminds me of a principle of mine, learned while working in a preschool. If you’re really trying to help someone who makes a lot of bad bids, ignore the bad bids as fully as you can afford to and reward their few good bids disproportionately or (assuming you’re a caregiver of some type for them or are willing to play that role) give them lots of positive attention up-front. It avoids the feedback loop of bad bids getting rewarded with negative attention.

          • crooked bird said:

            (Incidentally I’ve seen the Captain give basically this advice several times including this one, eg. “find a topic you *can* talk to her about,” & the weekly phone/skype thing.

      • Yep. My dad’s very sad that we don’t have a good relationship, but since he won’t stop doing or even acknowledge the things that are preventing us from having a good relationship, my awareness of his sadness doesn’t and can’t affect my actions or feelings toward him.

  27. H.Regalis said:

    The stuff the LW mentions made me think back to things my mother did when I was still on speaking terms with her. If I didn’t answer the phone, she would call multiple times (like 6-7x in one day) and a few times she even showed up at my job looking for me. Because I hadn’t called her in two days. I told her it wasn’t okay to do that and she said, “Well, I guess you’d better answer the phone when I call you then.” The most ridiculous time was when I didn’t call her for a week during finals so she called a locksmith, lied and said my apartment was hers and that she had lost her key, and was literally going to have someone take the hinges off my front door because I hadn’t called her back. She had called the guy, and he was going to come over at X o’clock, but she managed to track me down outside my apartment building at X-1 o’clock. I don’t have any advice to add, but this post just made me think of all that stuff.

    • BigdogLittlecat said:

      Holy crap, again.

    • Kitty said:

      What the actual fuck. That would earn an instant forever ban from my life if anyone did that to me. I’m sorry you had to deal with that.

    • mcbqe said:

      Sweet Valhalla, WHAT??? Mind blown. That’s just about call-the-police-worthy, mother or not.

  28. kmcdonell said:

    Sadly, the “thanks, I’ll think about it” trick *never* works with my mum. She sees anything other than immediate and total agreement as a rejection and a challenge to push even harder. >_<

    • DameB said:

      Nod. Mine takes “I’ll think about it” as a pinky promise to do everything she just proposed (plus like… fifteen things in her head that are related but never discussed). Then, when I don’t do the thing, it’s a BIG FIGHT! So I have to choose when I want the fight. I’m ok with that, it jsut took me a long time to realize that fights were inevitable.

      • BigdogLittlecat said:

        DameB, oh land, I’m taking a drink in sympathy re people who get ticked that you don’t do things they thought about but never mentioned. “I apologize, I’m not psychic.”

      • BarlowGirl said:

        Would saying “I’ll consider it” help instead? Or “we’ll see”? Something less committal?

        (If it wouldn’t, no worries just… yikes. Lots of yikes.)

    • Lalalalaura said:

      Or my MIL, who takes it as assent and then checks up and yells at my husband for not having done what he, in her eyes, committed to do. Or simply uses it as evidence that he’s unreliable and needs her to manage his life, because of all the things he said he’d do (ie was noncommittal about) that he didn’t do.

  29. Katamari said:

    Tons of sympathy for you LW. My mother is a bit similar in some ways (the cleaning! my god the endless cleaning!) and it has never helped to ask her not to do/buy things I don’t want. I just get a version of “but I’m heeeeeelping yoooooouuuu” and hurt feelings. This is a woman who is lovely and reasonable in every other way, but for some reason when “mothering” mode switches on she just goes into autopilot and can’t help herself.

  30. Twitchy said:

    If someone cleaned my house when they came over, I would no longer allow them in my house. It’s okay to set a line about that if it bothers you.

  31. Dear LW,

    I would be very tempted to withdraw. Give her to your husband, her son.

    Yes, so donate the cleaning products, and if your husband loves her, a weekly convo is nice. She’s not your mother though, and you’re not required to run interference.

    See her at her house – if and when you want to.
    Don’t see her at your house. Leave when she’s annoying.

    I know it’s hard to do. My mother did it with my paternal grandmother though, and I’ve done it with parents of SOs too.

    You needn’t feel guilty.

    All the Jedi hugs if you want them.

  32. Kmacky said:

    My MIL likes to give unsolicited advice. Sometimes it gets on my nerves but I’ve figured out that it doesn’t matter if I take her advice or not, she doesn’t get mad if I don’t… she just wants to tell me. I also have a close friend who is the same way.
    I think it’s their way of showing they care. It’s not trying to control, I don’t believe, because if you do something other than what they advised, they do not get mad or say I told you so.
    It’s just how some people express that they are interested in your life and care about you.

    • Jennifer said:

      “It’s just how some people express that they are interested in your life and care about you.”.

      Yes. Exactly. There are too many people making a big deal of this.

      • Lizards80 said:

        What is interesting is the difference between someone BEING interested (a feeling) and how they EXPRESS that interest (a(n) action(s)).

        The IMPACT of people’s expressions of interest can vary; some things may be mildly annoying but tolerable while others drain the energy or hurt those people they are ‘interested’ in. Their intention (to be controlling or not) doesn’t really matter. If I trip over your foot and break my leg, it doesn’t matter if you did it on purpose or accident – my leg is still broken. Your intention may determine whether we continue to be friends – but it doesn’t unbreak my leg. And if you keep doing it – even if it’s because you have narcolepsy and fall asleep with your bum leg sticking out and can’t help it – I’m still going to take action to keep myself safe from the impact of your actions.

        From these two posts it seems the people in your lives are, at worst, tolerable. That’s pretty sweet.

        However, people are allowed to feel differently about the ways others ‘express their interest’. They are also allowed to set boundaries around what they tolerate.

        For example, stalker can be very interested in my life but their expression of that interest is not welcome ever.

        My mom can be interested in my life and I’m not going to judge her for that. Her actions may or may not be welcome and I’m going to set boundaries around them – and I’m still not judging her for that; I’m saying that certain actions aren’t welcome. Saying ‘but she’s your mom/she means well/it’s just how she shows her concern’ works for me about some of her actions but definitely not others. There are some actions I’m not willing to tolerate no matter what the reason behind them, or who is the one doing them. There are other actions I tolerate because I want to maintain a semblance of a relationship with my mom.

  33. ranunculus said:

    LW, I can sympathize – I also had a (ex) wmbcmil. She would come round to the flat, and immediately start going through ironing baskets, or wiping skirting boards. She kept giving us stuff we had no use or room for. Ex and I both got grilled about our lives, and treated to advice and lectures on how we were Doing It Wrong. I was young and very stupid and probably didn’t handle it very well, and was grumpy and ungracious even when she was “helpful” in actually helpful ways – I thought it meant she believed we were incapable of living our own lives.
    A more grownup perspective tells me her annoying behaviour was more about her own anxieties than about any perceived deficiencies in me or my ex. We eventually reached a kind of rapprochement, and I ended up enjoying spending time with her more than my own mother, because, as bossy and overbearing as mil could be, she did have a kind heart, and was honest when something upset her – unlike the sly digs and passive-aggressive barbs I constantly got from Mummy. She also unclenched a lot after fil died, which confirmed my suspicion that she was really stressed and anxious about having to “service” his life and career – fil was a nice man, but rather selfish and thoughtless.
    My wmbcmil doesn’t sound nearly as bad as yours, LW – or as bad as those of others on here, yegods, kudos for surviving that, some of you. All I can say is that, as with any other bad behaviour by other people, it’s a reflection on THEIR problems and anxieties, not yours. Also that you can’t change how other people behave, only how you react. You’ve had some awesome awkward advice, and I wish you luck with it.

  34. quinalla said:

    I agree with the advice to try and channel controlling people’s thing into something you want done. It isn’t for everyone, but it something I do with my parents as they always want a project to help us with when they visit (they are finally slowing down a little now that they are getting older and the grand-kids are the best channel for their time now as we and they and the kids want to spend time together so win-win-win), so we’d just always have a project we wanted to do ready to go when they visited and if we got to it, great, if not, we’d just do it later. My Mom loves to paint, so we’d have paint and supplies ready to go and give her a heads up so she could bring her painting gear. For me, it was a way to let her show her love in a way that also worked for me.

    However, if something is a big deal for you, you don’t have to put up with it or try to channel it. Set boundaries wherever you need to. I’ve done that with my parents too. It’s awkward and hard, but worth it when it’s a battle worth fighting for me.

    As far as cleaning goes, there is a line between being a good guest (helping with the dishes, hanging up your dirty towels before you leave, maybe stripping the bed, etc.) and being a pest (reorganizing cabinets, doing laundry that isn’t your own without asking or being asked, etc.) There is some grey area, but the LW’s MIL is way, way over the line. I’ve had my Mom help with cleaning or laundry when I’ve had new babies or when I was laid up with a broken hip or occasionally doing spring cleaning (things like the baseboards you only do once a year if that) as a project, but yeah, I’d be uncomfortable with more than that. I would be furious if someone tried to reorganize anything in my house. I am very particular about how things are organized.

    My Mom is also a big gift giver. We finally last year convinced her to stop giving us kids and our spouses tons of gifts for Christmas and join our gift exchange. Before that, I would send her a long list of items I wanted cause I figured she’s going to spend the $$ anyway, she shouldn’t waste it on things I didn’t want. She still gets all our kids way too many presents, but at least she can afford it and if it is something that I don’t want at my house, I just tell her we’ll leave it at her house for the kids to play with when they are there. I also give her lists of things the kid actually need and want which she follows pretty well and this works well for both of us. I don’t get a bunch of stuff I’m going to turn around and donate and am able to get a lot of my kids clothes taken care of at Christmas/birthdays, she gets to give a bunch of gifts as that is one of the big ways she shows love. I’d prefer she back off on gifts and get them less, but it’s not a battle worth fighting for me. If you cant’ channel it though, then yes tell her you don’t use that type of cleaning stuff and she should stop buying it and if she does, donate it immediately. And tell her when she asks.

  35. Fiona the Lurker said:

    My mother used to come and visit me once a week and frequently made comments about my housekeeping. In the end I just let her get on with whatever she wanted to do, and usually sat and read or did something else – after all, she wanted to do it, I wasn’t going to stop her. Then one day she tried to guilt me into joining in, with the words “I don’t know what your father would say if he saw me working and you reading a magazine.” That was an easy one! “I know exactly what he’d say,” I told her. “He’d say ‘more fool you’!” (He would have, too – he was as fed up with her antics as I was.) That was the last time she tried to do my housework for me, thank goodness, but after they moved away she used to come and stay with me … and once even *brought her own sheets*! [I should add that I’m not massively untidy, but I do think there are other things in life than housework; my mother is of the generation that was actively encouraged not to care about anything else outside the home.]

    • BigdogLittlecat said:

      “More fool you” – made me laugh. Perfect way to make her see how preposterous her behavior was!

  36. And I know she means well by everything she does.

    Does she? How do you know? Someone who so determinedly refuses to acknowledge feedback from the people she supposedly “means well” towards is not acting in a way that would me me think she really does “mean well.”

    That’s what she is selling, but such behavior makes me not want to buy. And that is on her, 100%.

    At the very least, it would let me not feel guilty about using ANY of the excellent Captain’s scripts. It keeps our bad feelings in check, and that’s very good.

  37. I have a similar (but waaaaaay less intrusive) MIL. Here’s what helped me:

    1) Realize that this is about HER, not you. Her insecurities, her anxieties her need to be the queen of “Displays of Domesticity Dominance” (now my new favorite acronym)

    2) Acknowledge that her relationship with her son can be completely different from hers with you. In your letter you speak as if the boundaries that you set are for you as a couple. While you can (and should!) discuss this between yourselves, your hard limits can be completely different than those of your husband – as long as his lax-er limits don’t conflict with yours. E.g. he can discuss HIS company xmas party with his mother, but not yours, or, that you might have a ‘spontaneously urgent’ need to see a movie if she starts criticizing your choices. This will be an ongoing discussion, but it becomes SOOOOOO much easier when you don’t need to put up with behaviours that your husband tolerates, but drive you up a wall.

    3) If you can, figure out WHY your MIL does these things, and why it irks you so. Sometimes re-framing the issue helps. To me, my in-law’s behaviour is infantilizing, but for them, it’s a way of caring for their children. So, when my in-laws buy my husband clothing, I deliberately choose to let them do it without complaint (and smile) because I know that it makes them feel good – and consciously put it in the win column as it’s one less thing we have to do/afford. To me, it’s one thing if I ‘let’ it happen, but quite another if I CHOOSE to let it happen.
    I’m NOT saying that if you understand her motivation you have to woman up and take it, but it helps me pick my battles. If your mother in law does things like clean and cook and help domestically because 1)she still want to be in her son’s life, and that’s how she cares for him, scattering the rice for the vampiric MIL, and limiting the visits, is a good strategy to avoid an all out battle, If she’s doing it to 2) criticize and demean the other influence in his YOU, then FUCK THAT, and gird your loins.
    Note: If the issue IS #1, you still have the right to ban her from your house, but from your letter, it sounds as though you want a compromise, and not permission to flip the table and leave (which you DO have….).

    4) Acknowledge that interacting with MIL, no matter what, IS hard work, and give yourself recharge and recovery time after/during a visit. Hell, if we visit with my in-laws for longer than a day I make sure to schedule time to myself.

  38. DesertRose said:

    My brother and SIL had to do something similar with my late father. Dad was a generally horrible house guest (messy and didn’t clean up after himself like a decent house guest would, among other issues) and finally said something insulting to my SIL (I don’t know the exact content of the insult, but knowing Dad’s general tendencies, it was quite possibly sexually inappropriate), and my brother finally lost his (very long fused) temper and told Dad that he was no longer welcome in their home; he could come to the city and stay in a hotel and they’d go eat in restaurants and play golf and spend time together, but my brother was NOT going to put up with Dad insulting SIL in their own home.

    Dad died five years ago, having never returned to visit, because he could never stand being called on his bullshit. He never even met my youngest niece, who was born shortly after this whole thing went down (and Niece is now eighteen). But Brother is at peace with his decision near as I can tell (as well he should be, IMO).

    I went no contact with Dad when I was twelve (in 1988), tried to mend fences in the late 1990’s (to my detriment) and returned to no contact after that. The War Games maxim applies. With some people, the only way to win is just not to play.

  39. Leonine said:

    Not for nothing, but I’m a little uncomfortable when a comment about someone’s intrusive cleaning is followed up with snark about what a bad housekeeper she is. The state of your house is not her concern, and it’s not relevant to her behavior; the reverse is also true. Besides, Martha freakin’ Stewart would be just as wrong to tidy uninvited.

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