#1126: “My Mother-In-Law won’t stop ‘helpfully’ commenting on my new Sister-In-Law’s body. Does she think we’re bonding?”

Hello!

I had a kid about two years ago, and as a result have developed a much closer relationship to my mother-in-law. (I’ve been married to her son for eleven years now.) In many ways, this is great! She is a smart, serious, get-shit-done kind of person who was the first woman to do some cool civic stuff in her home city, and I have a lot of respect for her along multiple vectors. But. She is so goddamn judgmental. This has lately been directed at “Relena,” my soon-to-be-sister-in-law, who has some health issues and isn’t super skinny, as my MIL and I both are.

While staying in my home for the past week, MIL has suggested that maybe Relena’s constellation of health issues are because of her weight, that she can’t adequately manage her own diet (by which I mean what food she feeds herself, not a weight-loss plan), that exercise would fix her pain, and, most egregiously, that maybe she has made up her issues for attention because she resents the time her parents spend caring for her younger sister, who has Down syndrome. (I was so sincerely shocked by that one that it took me a moment to pull my thoughts together, and by the time I did my husband was already shooting it down with extreme prejudice.)(Captain Awkward note: WHAT. THE. HELL.)

My husband and I dispute these things point by point, as they happen, and often, in the moment, she’ll listen. When we say sentences like, “well, she’s had surgery for complications due to her rheumatoid arthritis, I think walking for long periods definitely hurts her” or “I think she naps so much because severe fatigue is one of her symptoms, not because she’s lazy” she seems to really hear what we’re saying–it’s like a lightbulb goes off, and you can kind of see her going “oh, of course.” But then Relena will do one thing my MIL doesn’t like (say, eat chicken nuggets instead of salad for lunch, or decline to go on an outing with us that involves lots of physical activity) and she’s got it backwards again: maybe Relena’s in pain because she doesn’t exercise? Maybe her health issues are caused by [trendy current thing that’s almost certainly already been explored by her and her doctor]? Some-long-sentence-that’s-basically-the-equivalent-of-but-is-Relena-trying-though? As if she could “try” her way out of an autoimmune condition she’s been battling since her mid-20s. MIL never says these things to Relena’s face, though I’m sure Relena’s aware of her disapproval. I think all of this is exacerbated by the fact that she doesn’t like it when her son “neglects” to exercise, or eats a diet that’s more frozen pizza than greens and salmon, or would rather play video games than take a nature walk, and she still kind of hoped that he would someday marry a woman who would inspire him to suddenly be the person she always wanted him to. But weirdly, instead he’s choosing to marry someone who likes him how he is and shares his interests???

Is there a better way we can shut this shit down? My MIL already knows that my husband and I don’t agree with her, and she’s taken to preceding her remarks with “not to be negative, but” or, after we’ve offered (a relatively gentle!!!) correction, “I wish people wouldn’t think I was that way, I don’t mean to be.” [With “that way” usually meaning judgmental or mean-spirited, WHICH WHAT SHE’S SAYING IS.] I’m very intimidated by my MIL, and our closer and more positive relationship is a relatively new and fragile thing, but the idea of building it on the blocks of criticizing Relena grosses me the fuck out. My husband usually handles her pretty well when he’s present, but when it’s just me I tend to disagree once and then ignore her until she stops. When it’s just she and I especially, there’s some weird forced teaming with the subtext of us as thin/active/socially acceptable, and Relena as not. I feel like I’m being too passive in Relena’s defense. I’d love it if anybody could rec some books on invisible and/or chronic illnesses written specifically at people like my MIL. I’d also like a script for “please stop talking to me about Relena’s body and health, the way you fixate on her choices and her physical appearance is unkind and what you say is usually untrue*, and BTW you make me trust you less with my son every time this happens, because someday he will also make choices and possibly own a body that you ain’t gonna like.”

Thank you,
Zechs
(he/him, but my MIL definitely thinks I’m her increasingly butch daughter-in-law and that’s unlikely to change lol)

*once she suggested to Relena that she start a food diary and somehow that had never come up with her doctor and it turned out to be helpful and now anytime MIL has a concern trolly suggestion it’s back to, “well you never know, after all it’s a good thing I gave her the idea of a food diary.”

PS: My husband and I are already trying to change the culture of group hang-outs away from “long walk and a picnic in the arboretum” and more to “let’s see a movie” so it’s not just always Relena having to opt out.

Hi there, Zechs,

Rheumatoid arthritis is no joke! Does your Mother-In-Law just not get what a debilitating illness that can be? I mean, clearly not. But…no joke! Ow!

I think you and your spouse have done all the point-by-point refuting of your MIL’s concern-trolling about Relena’s body and health that you ever need to do and it’s time now to switch to a) pointing out how weird it is that she keep talking about Relena’s body at all b) mantras & platitudes that acknowledge what she said but don’t give it more attention or traction.

Like, “Isn’t it weird that we always end up talking about Relena and her body? I don’t know about you, but I feel creepy doing that. Let’s change the subject!” 

Or your script: “Please stop talking to me about Relena’s body and health, the way you fixate on her choices and her physical appearance is unkind and what you say is usually untrue.” 

The script that will simultaneously address her gross behavior AND the grandkid trust thing:

  • “We’re trying to teach [small child] that we only say kind things about people’s bodies, so I’m having to rethink a lot of what I say. It’s hard to break old habits, but let’s practice!” 

See also:

  • :Shrug: “Relena is the boss of Relena, so, I don’t have any comment about that.” + a subject change
  • “I’m sure Relena knows what’s best for Relena, it’s not really my business.” + a subject change
  • “You know, when I was new to the family I worried about ever fitting in, but look at us know, gossiping away! You and Relena will figure it out.” 
  • “When you and Relena get together do you talk about me like this? Awkward! Let’s not!”
  • “I’m not Relena or her doctor, so, who cares what I think?” + a subject change
  • “I don’t want to fix Relena, I just want to get to know her. I’m sure if she wants more help from us she can ask for it.” 
  • “Relena’s the expert on Relena.” 
  • “I’m happy to adjust plans so that Relena can join us more easily! I’ll still go for walks with you when we visit.”
  • “We’ve gotten this weird habit of discussing Relena and her body when she’s not around- can we not do that? It makes me so uncomfortable. Let’s change the subject!” 
  • “MIL, why are you so obsessed with Relena and her body? It’s so weird that we keep talking about this!”
  • “If you want a good relationship with Relena, I think you’re gonna just have to let this go.” 
  • MIL! What will it take to get you to let this go?”
  • Best done in coordination with your spouse, try both saying “Nope!” and then physically cover your ears and walk away when she starts talking about it, especially the “Not to be negative, but…” stuff. “La la la you’re being weird about Relena again I’m not listening” 
  • In answer to “I wish people didn’t think of me that way, I don’t want to be that way” try “Then stop being that way! Let’s talk about anything else!” 

Like, shut it all down muuuuuuuuuch quicker now. I think you and your spouse did good work by trying to educate her and refute her misconceptions on the merits, but that also meant that the family as a whole indulged Relena’s Body as a topic of conversation for too long. Remove this indulgence right quick, and when your MIL huffily says “I’m ONLY trying to HELP!” say “Sure! But it makes me uncomfortable to talk about people’s bodies like that. It makes me feel like I’m back in junior high, when I’d much rather know what cool stuff you’re working on or catch up on what books you’re reading. From what I’ve seen of Relena I think she’s just wonderful, and I really don’t like talking about her when she’s not around.” 

Be ready with your Three Safe Topics For Engaging Difficult People You See A Lot. You’ve got golden ones – the grandkid & how the grandkid differs or compares to what your spouse was like at that age can keep everybody going for a while – and make those subject changes stick. If she won’t take the sweet gift of the subject change from you, cut the conversation short and be elsewhere: Time for a nap, a milk run, a wee, + whatever survival and avoidance strategies you used for the first 11 years of hanging with this woman. Maybe even time to lose your temper, selectively, if she won’t let it drop, like, “MIL! What is your obsession with this topic? It’s gross!” (Maybe she should be intimidated by you for a change?)

Your relationship with your MIL got closer when you had a child. This happens a lot in families, and it must feel good to be able to relax there a little bit. But let’s not forget: a) There’s a reason y’all didn’t bond before, and I don’t think the problem was you b) You have something she wants now (access to the grandkid) that you didn’t have before. Get ready for a temporarily chill in your relationship with your MIL if you set boundaries or won’t indulge her fixation on Relena & her body. It’s okay. You survived “chilly” before, and this is not about you auditioning for her approval or acceptance into the family. She has choices about how she treats people, and if she has anxieties about her son’s upcoming marriage she can also tell a friend, her pastor, her therapist, her diary, her subReddit, etc. It doesn’t have to be you. If there are consequences to her weird behavior, like you wanting to be around her less, that might mean that her grandkid will be around less. She’ll figure that out and thaw accordingly.

Interestingly, the relationship also got closer when there was an “outsider” to pick on. Like if MIL plays her cards right she can complain to you about Relena’s body and simultaneously complain to Relena about your unwillingness to model traditional femininity and play the two of you off each other for decades! Remember that by policing Relena’s body, she’s also policing you by reminding you of what her disapproval looks like. You do not have to play this game. In your shoes I’d be making friends with Relena and making sure that this divide-and-conquer strategy can never, ever work on the two of you.

I don’t have book recommendationss of exactly what you’re looking for but this short guide for families of people with invisible illnesses covers a lot of bases. I know one thing that comes up a lot in discussions is that people in the disabled or chronically ill person’s life have to get used to the idea that Now is the New Normal, as in:

  • Yes, I will probably always have to take some kind of medication..
  • Yes, this is as fast as I can comfortably walk now…
  • Yes, I can sometimes do x activity but I will pay for it later with y so sometimes I don’t want to even if I technically can and sometimes I will push myself even though it’s a bad idea (and I am the only boss of when that is)…
  • Thanks for planning all these cool activities for us. I can probably do about 30% of them, so, which are the ones that are most important & meaningful to you so I can make sure to do those?
  • Yes, this was actually a pretty good day for someone with my condition…
  • Yes, sometimes I have bad days, it’s just a bad day, not the end of the world…
  • Yes there is a whole buncha motivational literature out there about “pushing past one’s limits!” but I do better when I respect my limits…
  • Yes they are doing new studies all the time but that does’t mean that I want my relatives to keep Googling Random Shit For A Cure, there is no actual prize for compiling the most Reader’s Digest clippings…
  • Yes I need help sometimes but I’d rather be the boss of that and be the one to ask…
  • Hey did you know that thin people also get diagnosed with XYZ condition and eat “junk” food sometimes…
  • Hey not every meal I eat has to be optimized for MAXIMUM HEALTH (or whatever we’ve decided that looks like this month) sometimes I just need some calories in me so I don’t collapse…
  • Also I don’t give a shit about your random health problems why are you telling me this can’t we just talk about TV and books…
  • Also please don’t tell your Facebook friends about my diagnoses, that’s my info to disclose or not…
  • Also, that’s why I have doctors, so I don’t have to get my medical care from your Facebook friend’s cousin’s coworker who saw Ferris at 31 Flavors last night…
  • I’m just sick, why do I gotta be inspiring, too?
  • Can we talk about literally anything else.
  • Yoga: I’ve heard of it, thanks.
  • Only tall bar-stool chairs or narrow booths mean I probably can’t go there, so, scout for low, comfortable chairs, preferably without arms, please?
  • You know what would be cool? If I could count on health care being available and affordable for me, so instead of sending me 10,000 juice fasts and yoga positions please work on that? Thanks!
  • Hey my life is just gonna be LIKE this for the forseeable future and I’m not doing it AT you or ABOUT YOU and it isn’t a PUNISHMENT for not living perfectly up until now and yes the same thing could happen to you and that’s scary but that’s also not my problem so please go work out your feelings somewhere else and come back when you’re ready to just hang out with me…

You know, stuff like that. Translated for your MIL, “Relena is the boss of Relena, she already has a mom and friends and doctors and I’m sure she’ll let you know if she wants help. If you want a good relationship with her you’re really, really gonna have to just cool it with the body talk and let her take the lead.” 

Readers, any good books or sites for family of people with chronic illness you’d recommend?

276 comments
  1. there is no actual prize for compiling the most Reader’s Digest clippings…

    You had to say that, didn’t you.

    • Copying permission given to anyone who needs it.

      • JenniferP said:

        ilu

    • Slow Gin Lizz said:

      Oh, man, if my grandmother were still with us I’d give this to her with the blank filled in with “driving in snow”. This is genius.

      Grandma never did seem to understand that the more she sent me, the less likely I was to read them and pay attention to them. They drove me bananas.

      • Thanksforallthefish said:

        bahahaha driving in snow! My Grandma would win the award for “every typo circled in red from local paper” which isn’t really as terrible because she wasn’t forcing them at anyone (save maybe the newspaper) but yeah…practically crying over this certificate!

        • Roxy said:

          Oh man, that sounds soothing and like fun. Circling every typo in red. Purely for my own eyes and my own benefit, not to be mailed anywhere or lorded over anyone. That sounds….calming. I am a weirdo but sounds to me like your grandma’s got it going on. I’ll take a leaf from her book!

          • Thanksforallthefish said:

            She knew how to make her own fun that’s for sure. Never liked cooking, loved quilting, loathed typos of all sorts, collected so many antiques, house looked like a museum.

          • Amphelise said:

            I once, as the music coordinator for a primary school, got sent a pamphlet by a company that organised overseas trips for school bands and choirs. It was *so* badly written that some of it was actually incomprehensible, and… I couldn’t help myself. I blacked out the school’s name and address, red-penned every single error, and mailed it back to the company with an anonymous letter explaining that I would never, ever buy such complex and safety-critical services from an organisation incapable of making sure that their pamphlet contained complete sentences.

            They probably just binned it, but it made me feel better!

      • onamission5 said:

        When my mom was trying to get us to move closer she used to send me clippings from the local, fairly conservative paper, very few of which discussed what a nice place [town] was to live for people like ourselves or in general. I think she thought she was rebutting my arguments against moving to [town] since I’d already laid out my case, but I couldn’t convince her that damn near everything she saw as a positive, our family experienced or would experience as a negative. /tangent

        • The Awe Ritual said:

          OT, but I think “needing to send along articles” is, like, an epigenetic thing, once your physiology decides your kids are grown, your brain decides it NEEDS to send articles. I didn’t believe it until it happened to me. Fortunately for me, my daughter, and our relationship, Pinterest is a thing: instead of constantly bombarding her with links, I created a board of “Thought [daughter] ought to see,” and let her peruse it at her leisure, or not. Channeling that worked out well for me: that board now has a truly mind-boggling (to me) number of followers, including a few actual-factual celebrities. Shrugs. It was not so much imposing my opinions on her as saying, “I am never able to see a thing without thinking, ‘Can this be helpful to Daughter? Is this something that Daughter can use?’ Daughter, you are loved, special, and important and you deserve good things.”

          But sod that useless body-shaming and normative politics with Astroturf, because nothing will grow there and it is a place we cannot ever play, otherwise.

          • onamission5 said:

            I have not once in my life mailed my 27 year old something from the paper she didn’t ask for. That’s what email forwards are for! (J/K, J/K, J/K so hard)

            The pinterest board you created sounds lovely and thoughtful with genuine respect for boundaries tbh. Way to redirect yourself into something productive and enjoyable, parent-person! My mom’s articles were.. not that. More like, I’d tell her about [kid] being bullied in school as a reason we did want to move from where we were living but not back home where experience told me was just as bad, she’d send me an article about a local-to-her back home school shooting in which it blamed bullying and bullied people. I’m like, so what you’re telling me is that if we move [kid] to [town] we can expect she’ll be pegged as a potential school shooter? Is that really what message you meant to send in order to convince me to move there?

            And yes, sod the lot of it.

          • Kacienna said:

            This site often makes me realize how lucky I am with the people in my life, and today I’m specifically realizing how lucky I am that my dad emails science articles (recent discovery of bread ~4000 years older than previously known!) and my mom emails anti-Trump memes 🙂

          • Kitty said:

            OMG this is genius. I wish my mum would do that with her relentless real estate “tips”, so I could look over it at my leisure and not feel pressured by all these articles in the mail!

          • I just sent my grown daughter a link to this particular article. Does that count? And where’s my certificate? 😉

      • eleanordew said:

        I’m jealous. My grandmother mailed me obituaries.

        • Pam said:

          I love obituaries.

      • Please send them ALL to me. Or if she is still with us please give her my email address.

    • the one who got away said:

      My mom recently emailed all of my sisters a news article about a fatal stabbing at a particular ice cream shop in my hometown. I haven’t lived there for more than a decade so I guess that’s why I didn’t get it. But one of my sisters lives 2.5 hours away and did get the article. So they were like, Mom, why’d you send this to us? and she’s like WE’VE BEEN THERE BEFORE IT’S NOT SAFE NOW and the one who lives 2.5 hours away was like well, I don’t live there anymore and also I went there three times and never got stabbed so I feel like I’m probably in the clear and Mom was all WELL MAY THE ODDS BE EVER IN YOUR FAVOR THEN and dropped the subject entirely.

  2. Dear LW,

    I think the Captain is correct in encouraging you and your husband to shut down your mother-in-law.

    In addition to the Captain’s scripts I offer:
    – Wow.
    – Let’s not talk about bodies.
    – No diet talk please.

    Good luck.

    • Also may I introduce “WHAT THE ACTUAL F. Why would you ever say something like that” about some of her more extreme comments.

      • Funnyletter Who Hates Jokes said:

        Yeah I was wondering if maybe her son’s scripts should expand to include “WHAT THE FUCK MA, that is a super fucked up thing to say, why would you even say that to us?”

        I dunno that I’d be comfortable pulling that out on my in-laws but my own parents? Heck yeah.

      • popesuburban said:

        Yeah, I mean, honestly, I don’t think I’d be able to hear something like the line about Relena’s younger sister without blurting out, “OH MY GOD WHAT?!” Not even to be clever or to make a point, but because questions come out of my mouth on their own when I am that confused. Although everything that followed, if the statement wasn’t immediately retracted, would in fact be voluntary, and incredibly direct. Picking on multiple people with health issues, while also casting aspersion on their whole family, is weapons-grade asshattery, and should not be tolerated.

        • Guildenstern said:

          I once involuntarily laugh-snorted a loud, derisive “what!? no!” of utter confusion in response to an awful claim one of my co-workers made in a conversation I wasn’t even part of. It came out like a reflex, rather than something I would ever plan to say, but it was definitely one of the best responses I’ve ever made to this person. I think this one reflexive response helped me realize how useful it can be to use that initial feeling of shock and confusion. I’m the sort of person who in the past has spent too much time trying to figuring out the best way to respond, and then getting frozen and not responding at all. I now sometimes find that if I can just respond to gross conversations immediately with some short interjection of shock or confusion, and that feeling is clear in my tone of voice, that can help me enter the conversation in order to set the boundary or try to educate, rather than just sitting clammed up in the corner hoping for the situation to end.

    • MsM said:

      +10000 on the “Wow.” Letting them stew in their own awkwardness until you deign to stop staring at them like they just let out a particularly nasty fart and change the subject is remarkably effective.

    • The flat “Wow.” is the actual best. It’s great for people like me (like most of us?) who can’t think of a great comeback in the moment, especially if the horribleness just said out loud is particularly racist/sexist/body-shaming/can’t-believe-you-just-said-that-with-your-actual-human-mouth awful. A++, can recommend.

      • April Driesslein said:

        I am also a fan of, “You really believe that, huh?”

        • Personal Best In Consecutive Days Lived said:

          This is fantastic for many situations!

    • Cyberwulf said:

      This is better coming from LW’s husband, but what about “Ma, if you keep going on about Relena like this, Brother *will* pick up on it. And you’re the one he’ll be angry with, not her.”

    • Mary said:

      I quite like the idea of responding mildly with, “I like Relena. I think she’s great.” Seeif you can force your mil onto the defensive, so she’s to go, “oh, I think Relena’s great too! I’m not saying she isn’t, I just think she should *blah blah healthcakes.” You: “she is great, isn’t she? She really makes me laugh. Did you hear her talking about xyz the other day?” A combination of the Captain’s patented “make this conversation boring and unrewarding”, but also forcing your mil to recognise that her criticisms of Relena are being heard as criticisms and that you’re overtly on Relena’s side.

      • azaleasinbloom said:

        I really like this strategy

        • EchoFlower said:

          Me too!

      • I’d like to thank you for this comment, Mary.

        This kind of suggestion, which is powerfully effective while being positive instead of combative, is a big part of why I keep coming back here. My natural tendency leans much more toward the “What the FUCK is wrong with you why would you SAY that?” approach to shutting down awful lines of conversation. While that can certainly be effective—and I do think there’s a time and place for it—I’m always grateful to learn techniques from the school of the compassionate redirect that allow me to be less and less reliant on the violent shutdown.

  3. Dr. J said:

    Yep. It is not your job to line-by-line negate every argument MIL has about Relena and her supposed concern for Relena’s health. REGARDLESS of Relena’s health or health conditions, Relena is the boss of her body. She gets to decide what it does. She gets to decide what she eats. She is the decider. Instead of trying to explain for Relena, shut this down as an acceptable topic of conversation.
    You may likely run into “BUT WHAT ABOUT HEALTH!” as one of the unfortunate things in this argument. This assumes that 1. MIL knows anything about how to improve health, specifically Relena’s health, which is untrue and 2. That by looking at/talking to/sizing up Relena, she and tell how healthy she is. “Health” concern trolling from others is often a way of conveying “your body does not look like a socially acceptable body to me” or “you do not look/seem healthy to me.” There are healthy and unhealthy bodies at many many sizes that exist beyond what we consider socially acceptable. As a person who sometimes treats eating disorders, I have found the Health at Every Size Movement to be very helpful. This movement is body inclusive and embraces the notion that all bodies are good bodies and that there are many reasons, including ability status, why a body might look the way it does. And even if she is not healthy by your MIL’s definition, it is none of her business.

    An excerpt about Health at Every Size(https://www.sizediversityandhealth.org/content.asp?id=76) :
    “The Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) affirms a holistic definition of health, which cannot be characterized as simply the absence of physical or mental illness, limitation, or disease. Rather, health exists on a continuum that varies with time and circumstance for each individual. Health should be conceived as a resource or capacity available to all regardless of health condition or ability level, and not as an outcome or objective of living. Pursuing health is neither a moral imperative nor an individual obligation, and health status should never be used to judge, oppress, or determine the value of an individual. “

    • the815 said:

      **Yep. It is not your job to line-by-line negate every argument MIL has about Relena and her supposed concern for Relena’s health.**

      Yes. I also vote for the blanket shutdown rather than the line by line refutation. I mean, good on you for saying something if you fight every line, but don’t exhaust yourself. So much better to just not participate.

      I guess this is one of those things where you have to decide how willing and able the other person is to actually hear your point of view. Will your emotional labor actually make a difference in how they view the world or do you just wanna stop them from hurling their b.s. at you? In this LW’s case – yeah, pretty much door #2.

  4. I'm A Little Teapot said:

    So, I think this kinda comes through, but to make it crystal clear: your MIL is being actively nasty and toxic as regards your SIL. This isn’t “she’s a good person who is annoying here”, this is “welp, she’s showing me a piece of who she is underneath, and it’s kinda rotten”. Is all of her rotten? Probably not, people are complicated. But in this situation, with this person, she’s showing you who she is and you HAVE to believe her. I have family like your MIL, and while you’re not on the receiving end of her nasty, believe me, it’s bad. This WILL cause Relena a lot of stress and emotional pain. This has the potential to do significant damage to the wider family relationships.

    What to do? Well, in my family, it sure would have been nice if the siblings had treated the outcast like a human being who was worthy of kindness and inclusion, despite what their mother was doing. Sounds like you’re doing that, kudos and keep it up. The other piece that would have been nice is if the siblings had done more to shut down the nasty. My aunt and uncle, to my knowledge, never said anything like “hey, mom, we love you, but you’re being pretty nasty towards Sibley’s mom. You need to cut it out, because we don’t want to see that, we don’t want our kids to see it, and if you continue, we’ll have to cut back on seeing you.” And then followed through. So instead, now I, as an adult, do not have a relationship with ANY of that family, because they chose to go along with treating my parents badly. Don’t go down that path.

    • EllenS said:

      Tiny but important amendment: “… you’re not on the receiving end of her nasty” YET or TO YOUR FACE.

      People are who they are and they do what they do until they take the initiative to change. Cheaters cheat, liars lie, gossipers gossip, and judgers judge.

      If they do it with you, they’ll do it to you.

  5. Crone said:

    https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/ was very helpful to me in handling my own depression. But MIL isn’t entitled to an education when all she’s trying to do is defend her own POV — that’s like POC being responsible for working with Caucasian Suburban Me until I understand my white privilege.

    When my mother mentioned that DS1’s GF is heavier than me, I promptly said “It would be rude of me to even consider that, and I don’t even think about it, much less say anything.” Followed by “I made the kids cookies, do you want one?”

    • Crone said:

      And yikes, I wasn’t trying to be flippant about cookies as a follow-up to comment about weight — I meant it as a random change-the-subject sentence. My apologies!!! “How about those Mets?”

      • JenniferP said:

        Cookies are delicious!

        • Ann Larimer said:

          So are the Mets, if you cook ’em right.

          I’ll go to my room.

          • I 100% for years and years had a button that read: We love serving tourists. I like mine well done.

          • DesertRose said:

            @sistercoyote, I live in Florida. The (mostly) joking hostility towards tourists is pretty near a requirement for residence in this state. 😀

            [Content note: Mention of biting insect.]

            One of the less offensive bumper stickers you’ll see around here has a drawing of a mosquito and the text, “Send more Yankees. They are delicious.”

          • @DesertRose, I will just observe that at the time I purchased that button I was working in Anaheim.

            😉

    • The spoon theory is fantastic! Spoons became a permanent part of my vocabulary when I read about it, years ago.

    • Your link goes to a page which says the (c) date for ‘spoons’ is 2018 – but I know I’ve read it years ago.
      Does anyone know the start date?

      • Dara said:

        Some people just update the copyright date on their site to the current year instead of having a range. The original start year is on their downloadable .pdf of the article, though. “© 2003 by Christine Miserandino Butyoudontlooksick.com”

      • I don’t know the start date but if you google “spoon theory story” it should pop up 🙂

        • Crone said:

          🙂 I almost posted the Wikipedia link instead of the one I used! But, yeah, I ran into it years ago when someone on a mom’s forum referenced it when talking about her own chronic disease.

    • nnn said:

      The weird thing about her mentioning that DS1’s GF is heavier than you is that when you compare any two people in the world, one of them is going to be heavier than the other. (Unless they’re the exact same weight.) That is so mindblowingly unremarkable!

      • whingedrinking said:

        See also “All our employees are above average”. 😛

    • minakelly said:

      Off topic, but one of my favourite things about learning Swedish was discovering the phrase “orkar du?” which translates pretty comfortably as “do you have the spoons?” because orkar can refer to physical, mental or emotional energy (or stomach space, apparently!)

      • Convallaria majalis said:

        Uh, sorry, a quick OT reply:

        Yay, minakelly, I am so happy to hear that I am not the only Swedish speaker here. As far as I know all of our Scandinavian languages have verbs which support the spoon theory; Norwegian resembles Swedish in many ways – and also Finnish (which, as a language, has completely different roots) has a word which means “to have energy or strength to do something”: “jaksaa” – though there are apparently slight differences in nuances in dialects which I have found out through the hard way. “att orka” is indeed a very handy verb and I wish every language would have one like it.

        Unfortunately, Google Translate does not seem to grasp these meanings quite so well, at least not yet. It keeps translating “orkar du” (“do you have the energy”?) to “kan du” (“can you”) for Swedish, Finnish and Norwegian.

        I am not a native English speaker so now I wonder if English has any words with a similar meaning?

        • C said:

          I’d use “are you up to doing X?” for that. Closely related, but with slightly different nuances, is “do you feel up to doing X?” The latter comes with the added implication that the person is/was ill or injured in some way. If I said “I’m not up to cooking tonight”, that could just be because I’m tired.

          And then there’s “up for doing X”, which simply means “want to”. (E.g. there was an ad campaign — I think for beer? — whose slogan was “Up for Anything”.)

          • C said:

            (Addendum: the context here is that I’m an able-bodied person who doesn’t have “spoons”, so if I’m tired, I really am just tired. Sorry for not making that clear before.)

    • Personal Best In Consecutive Days Lived said:

      The Spoon Theory is very helpful!

  6. Cassandra said:

    There’s a lot of good stuff here. I suspect the “we’re teaching The Kid we only say kind things about other peoples’ bodies” etc will be an especially effective tactic.Your mother-in-law sounds a LOT like mine (including the exhausting mix of admirable/cool and fixated on irritating things like weight and the relative virtuousness of various hobbies). Sometimes when mine says baffling/unkind/prejudiced things we have some success appealing to her vanity in a “well of course YOU’re not one of those TACKY people who gossips, especially about something as frivolous as APPEARANCE” vein. Maybe not phrased quite like that, or that obviously, but that’s the basic idea. Of course it’s harder to redirect when she’s decided she’s intervening for someone’s “health”, but the Captain provided some excellent starting points for that. Just holding fast and resisting the forced-teaming will be very helpful, I think.

    I hope as she gets to know Relena better, the weirdness fades.

  7. I might write a clear, direct, not-hostile (even though deserved) email, and then if she doesn’t listen, point back to what you said? This has worked for me in the past.

    Frankly I could be better at this with my own mother. My stepdad and my sister have gained weight in the last several years, and she occasionally vents to me about her worries about their health (not that this makes it okay – for the record, my sister is doing juuuust fine, but my stepdad does have health issues and sleep apnea, which I am, again, not blaming on his physical changes). I never engage or respond and she just moves on. I suspect she says this stuff to me because I lost a bunch of weight in my 20s training for marathons so she sees me as a like-minded person, but also I think she just likes to talk, because if I told her off she’d just tell her sisters (because I’ve told her off before on other issues; my mom and aunts just like to gossip).

    My wife has arthritic issues, but people would always been aflutter trying to ask why she opted out of events until I said, she wants to come but sometimes she has trouble.

    • Uh, “would always be” not “been.”

      And yes, before people ask, I should push back harder on my mother. I am working on my boundaries over time and trying.

      • JenniferP said:

        The thing with parent-child stuff is, it takes time, you don’t have to be perfect.

        • Yeah. Hard to accept that but very true.

        • Nopetopus Cowgirl said:

          This is a helpful thing to remember. You don’t have to be perfect. Also, if you have an ongoing relationship, there are going to be many more opportunities to try a new strategy if your initial one wasn’t effective or left you feeling uneasy.

      • Spicy Onion said:

        Funny thing about sleep apnea. All the things you see about it all say “the majority is weight” and it is really not so. For lots of us its terrible sinus issues. You know why so many people with sleep apnea are overweight? Because they arent effing sleeping!!! Lol like dont sleep for 2 years and then tell me if you can “work out” or hell drive a car and stay awake? Btw CPAP machines hep but they are not a cure.

        And that whole taking to parents thing? I’m quite happy being traped at acceptance. Like that’s the way this person is and I cant control that so cue the coping skills of limited contact and walking away!

        • Funnyletter Who Hates Jokes said:

          I’m fat. I have sleep apnea. My dad is super duper thin and has sleep apnea because his airway is tiny and dreadful. I inherited his airway except mine’s worse because no one will take my tonsils out and they’re evil.

          I’m sure being fat isn’t making it any BETTER but I have evidence that indicates not being fat would not fix the problem.

          • sanderling said:

            My airway is 2/3 the width it should be. I most certainly have problems with exercise – and with sleeping – and with all the body repair work that goes on while sleeping.

        • Sleep apnea has been proven to cause weight gain.

          Interestingly enough, the only study stating that being fat (over what weight?) caused sleep apnea was as faked as Wakefield’s study.

        • ktjp said:

          Yes! People always assume I have apnea because I’m fat and I snore, when in fact, I’ve been tested (more than once, because I’m trans and my doctor mentioned that taking testosterone can be correlated with developing apnea in a lot of his patients) and literally my only problem is my stupid sinuses. And then it’s like, guess what else causes weight gain? Not sleeping enough and the resultant superstress. I can literally tell you how well I slept the night before based purely on what I want to eat for breakfast, because when I’m exhausted, surprise surprise, all I want is sugar and carbs to help keep me awake that day.

          Literally almost all my health problems can be traced back to my lifelong insomnia, and yet people fixate on my weight. drives me batty.

        • MissLynn said:

          My BIL got a cpap a few years ago. He’s also lost a bunch of weight recently. My MIL repeatedly commented on how it was too bad his sleep apnea hadn’t gone away, cause she definitely thought that was why he developed it in the first place.

  8. FrolickingElf said:

    The situation your Monster-in-Law has set up is straight from the toxic-family play-book: triangulation. She is also bullying you, projecting her own insecurities on you, and clearly disrespecting your boundaries by continuing this toxic, disrespectful behaviour.

    Your MIL is escalating the little comments, pushing it a bit further each time, until they are full-out judgements… and this is quickly escalating to emotional abuse. How do I know? I am Relena. I have a chronic illness, and it has become a great fodder to my dysfunctional family… and those a**holes just have to keep pushing… every single time they push just a wee bit further… My weight, how sensitive I am, the ‘weird’ things I have to eat on my liver-cleansing diet, all while they eat huge plates of junk food and drink/smoke/toke in front of me (recently one narc started putting junk food on my plate and blowing smoke in my face – I have gone no-contact). I totally get it LW, and the whispers behind my back used to stress me out, and we both know… Relena is getting the gist of the animosity and disdain being thrown her way for just not-being-good-enough in MIL’s eyes.

    Here are a few books that I’ve really enjoyed and think you’d like, they all have elements of dealing with chronic illness and/or chronic stress (which can become illness):
    “Be The Cause: Healing Human Disconnect” by Dr. Judy Rosenberg (She has a YouTube talk-show called “Dr. Judy WTF”)
    “Growing Yourself Up: How to bring your best to all of life’s relationships” by Jenny Brown
    “Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day” by Anne Katherine M.A.
    “You Can Lead A Horse To Water But You Can’t Make ‘Em Cha Cha: Why Some People Stay in Abuse and Some Don’t” by Kris Godinez (She has a YouTube channel called “We Need to Talk with Kris Godinez”)

    The comment your MIL made about Relena’s weight being a ploy for attention because her sibling has Down’s… and the fact that she just doesn’t “get” chronic illnesses… is a HUGE RED FLAG to me… been there. OMG, my hands were shaking with RAGE just reading your letter dear LW. You know who just doesn’t “get” chronic illness? Narcissists. Vapid Narcs can’t “see” chronic illness as anything other than a weakness, a weakness to exploit for narcissistic supply, an excuse to gaslight, shame, blame, project, and triangulate – and she wants YOU and your partner on HER side… And clearly won’t stop until you give in.

    Your MIL can’t seem to mentally connect physical symptoms with chosen behaviours, because diet and exercise alone will not appease the chronic illness that is inside us. Your Monster-in-Law (and she is a MONSTER) can’t even fake empathy (Brene Brown has a great video on sympathy vs. empathy on YouTube), and your MIL is only pretending to LISTEN to keep the conversation going… to keep the triangulation going. Good or bad, you are talking about what SHE wants to talk about… but MIL does not actually truly acknowledge your views, or change her opinion to reflect truth or reality… these gaslighting tactics are STRAIGHT from the vapid narcissist’s handbook. In the moment, she is mirroring you, nodding along and regurgitating what you say… but later on… her mask falls off with ONE mis-step… like Relena eating nuggets.

    “still kind of hoped that he would someday marry a woman who would inspire him to suddenly be the person she always wanted him to.”
    – Trigger Warning – THIS IS A HUGE RED F-ING FLAG of the creepy “son-husband” dynamic of narcissists… Google it – it’s actually a thing, it’s under “enmeshment” and “covert emotional incest.”

    “closer and more positive relationship is a relatively new and fragile thing” ANOTHER RED FLAG – real relationships aren’t fragile, and walking on eggshells is a hallmark of the narcissist. She’s showing you, emphatically, and repeatedly, that you could easily become the black-sheep and the target for her smear campaign. Narc have “roles” that people must play: black-sheep, golden child, scapegoat, mascot, lost child, etc.

    Clap my hands and raise the roof of love and adoration for Captain’s Advice! Which I quickly nommed into my brain-nugget for future use against my Narcs. All you can do with a narcissist, is NOT feed their ego-monster. And if that affects your tenuous relationship… that is on her. NOT YOU. Shut down this toxic behaviour and continue building a one-on-on relationship with Relana (MIL will HATE that). MIL will resist, she’ll push back, and she’ll get angry… which MAY put you in the hot seat, and you may very well become the target. But then you’ll know she really is just another vapid narcissist Monster-in-Law who cares more about who her son-husband marries, and less about the quality of the people in her life.

    Shout-out to all the people here who are dealing with dysfunctional family dynamics – your comments are part of my journey to healing!

    • I'm A Little Teapot said:

      you a redditor? justnofamily and the related subs.

      • birdmommy said:

        r/raisedbynarcissists is a really good community too.

        • FrolickingElf said:

          Excellent suggestions – added to my list! Thanks so much!

        • Kitty said:

          RBN can be awesome for support and advice, though I found reading a lot of posts at a time can actually increase my stress and anxiety, so I’ve had to take a break from it occasionally.

          • halfmanhalfshark said:

            SAME. Yesterday I thought it would be cool to read a bunch of RBN posts and then watch the two available episodes of Sharp Objects and that was a misjudgment.

    • Lumen said:

      I agree with a lot of what was written above.

      Triangulating: red flag
      Wanting him to have married a nice skinny woman (like her): red flag
      Relationship that only appeared when you had something she wanted: red flag
      Fragile relationship: red flag

      From your letter, Zechs, it sounds like you and your spouse are actually handling this really well already, but it is so easy for someone who creates these toxic interactions to suck even the most well-adjusted person in. And I’m not saying that your MIL is a terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad, completely irredeemable person because I do not know her. But this behavior seems a lot deeper than creepy obsession over someone’s body.

      I hope you and your family can continue to protect each other and present a united front that whatever your MIL’s issues are, We Don’t Talk About Others That Way. No, No Matter How You ‘Really Meant It’. No, Not Even In Private. No. We As A Family Do Not Do This.

    • Lumen said:

      Oh, forgot to mention: thinking that someone would ‘make up’ chronic pain to get attention away from their sister with Down’s is… a huge, huge red flag. You know who thinks that would happen? Someone who would do that themselves.

    • Aurora S said:

      I think that sometimes we fall into the trap of calling people narcissists on this page—perhaps we have an unusually high percentage of the commentariat that has had to deal with narcissists in some area of their lives (I have!)—but we need to stop reflexively making the NPD armchair diagnosis.

      • FrolickingElf said:

        I absolutely agree about not defaulting to NPD diagnosis as a catch-all term, Aurora. None of us here on this page can diagnose a personality disorder, but seeking out terms, definitions, and labels helped me go “AHA” and then I gobbled up all the books I mentioned, and now learning to implement boundaries (as an adult), with people who are “stuck” in immature or toxic patterns of behaviour. Just the term “narcissism” helped me put a label on their behaviour, without actually labelling/judging the person. If the term narcissist isn’t an ideal term, then toxic, immature, bully, or whatever label you choose to use… the outcome is still the same. MIL doesn’t respect or adhere to boundaries, and isn’t changing her behaviour even when pressed with logic, reason, and push-back from her loved ones.

        Narcissism in and of itself is on a spectrum, and everyone possesses narcissistic traits (or echoist/codependent traits at the opposite end). Ross Rosenberg has a great book that discusses how healthy narcissism is paramount to healthy relationships and success. Lisa A. Ramono, Meredith Miller from Inner Integration, the Spartan LifeCoach, are just another handful of resources out there for LW to check-out that all deal with this type of boundary-bully, but also living in your truth.

        I think we can both agree that boundaries are the key here, and LW and her partner are already doing a fantastic job of stating their boundaries, so now it’s the hard work of implementing them – firmly and compassionately…. I am still learning that bit too – how to keep those firm, compassionate boundaries in place with people who are so used to just walking all over people.

      • JenniferP said:

        It’s a very fine line and Frolicking Elf is skirting it very closely.

        There is a site policy against diagnosing people with narcissistic personality disorder (or any condition) through the internet. We simply can’t know if the MIL in the letter is any kind of a narcissist. Instead, we can look at the specific behaviors and how to deal with them.

        I do think that people who have had to deal with narcissists – esp. those of us who have been parented by people with those tendencies – have had to become expert Jedi Master boundary-setters and sometimes that experience and insight is useful even when the term may not apply (or we have no way of knowing). Most people with actual NPD never get diagnosed or treated – it gets dx’d in absentia when their partners/family/victims seek help, like, when I brought a partially filled-out checklist about it to a therapist’s appointment where we were discussing a relative and the therapist said “can I write on this?” and went ahead and checked off all the ones I’d left blank.

        So sometimes I feel torn, like, we definitely can’t say that the MIL in this situation has NPD! and let’s not increase stigma for people with NPD!, but if we know something about this particular set of dynamics, we can actually recognize patterns and how to resist and disengage emotionally. So when it comes to narcissistic behaviors and patterns and how those patterns show up in letters, I’m always sort of ping-ponging between “we don’t diagnose people on this site” and also “let’s not gaslight the people who have reason to recognize patterns and behaviors here, because they actually know how to stop this and sometimes naming it is the key.”

        I hate making everything about US Politics right now (sorry everyone) but I think about this all the time, like, we definitely can’t diagnose the US president with a personality disorder and questioning his mental health just increases stigma, but if you’ve ever had to deal with narcissists or gaslighting before, you know EXACTLY what is up. Exactly. The country and the world are being collectively abused. So (I don’t have this list) I think it would be useful to develop a checklist for abusive behaviors like gaslighting that narcissists do that’s separate from a diagnosis of the disorder (which should be about caring for and treating and helping the person with the Dx).

        I’ll continue to not allow diagnoses, but I initially let this comment through because this part:

        Your MIL can’t seem to mentally connect physical symptoms with chosen behaviours, because diet and exercise alone will not appease the chronic illness that is inside us. Your Monster-in-Law (and she is a MONSTER) can’t even fake empathy (Brene Brown has a great video on sympathy vs. empathy on YouTube), and your MIL is only pretending to LISTEN to keep the conversation going… to keep the triangulation going. Good or bad, you are talking about what SHE wants to talk about… but MIL does not actually truly acknowledge your views, or change her opinion to reflect truth or reality… these gaslighting tactics are STRAIGHT from the vapid narcissist’s handbook. In the moment, she is mirroring you, nodding along and regurgitating what you say… but later on… her mask falls off with ONE mis-step… like Relena eating nuggets.

        “closer and more positive relationship is a relatively new and fragile thing” ANOTHER RED FLAG – real relationships aren’t fragile, and walking on eggshells is a hallmark of the narcissist. She’s showing you, emphatically, and repeatedly, that you could easily become the black-sheep and the target for her smear campaign. Narc have “roles” that people must play: black-sheep, golden child, scapegoat, mascot, lost child, etc.

        Was kinda spot on and might give the LW some language to name what’s happening or to research further. I mean, I think there’s a reason the LW has been like “I don’t fuck with this person” for the past 11 years? If we change “Narcissist” to “Emotional Abuser” does it make it better, even though it’s a particular flavor of emotional abuse? Like, can we talk to a victim about experiencing “narcissistic abuse” without necessarily hanging a diagnosis on anyone? (This is a real question, I am asking).

        It’s complicated. I think the way people talk about this in other forums isn’t necessarily the same exact way to talk about it here (This Ain’t Reddit = Captain Awkward Dot Com tagline) but some of the insight stands and those other forums might be valuable.

        If nothing else this is a good reminder of the importance of having the “no diagnoses” rule and a good reminder of why everyone’s so tempted to break it all the time.

        • Captain, thank you for being so thoughtful about this and being open about your thought process with us. It takes more time than just a black-white, following-or-breaking-rules style of moderation and I really appreciate that.

          I think part of the stigma is that people who have non-NPD illnesses are dismissed or misdiagnosed with NPD in a way that is harmful to them, because it’s easier to say, “this person has an incurable personality disorder so there’s nothing more I can do, I wash my hands of them,” versus “this person has sevre ADHD or PTSD or borderline, each of which are treatable, but the treatment is complex and takes a long time, and sometimes there will be regression and they will never be completely mentally well.”

          The thing is, boundaries are allowed even if someone has a treatable illness or even no illness. Boundaries are a good thing. So, hopefully by everyone learning to be better at boundaries, there will ultimately be less pressure to “armchair diagnose” people as narcissistic since it doesn’t matter regarding setting boundaries.

          • JenniferP said:

            Thank you. I just want to be honest, sometimes in my posts I am like, 100%, describing boundary-setting tactics that I personally learned about and tested in the context of narcissistic abuse but without trying to ascribe a label to the person who is doing the abusive behaviors, and I can see how people who come here from various narcissistic abuse survivor communities would look at that and think “But just name it already! It’s so liberating!” And one of the things I think is very true when you start looking into narcissistic abuse and how it works is that it finally helps people understand, “Look, there is literally no rational, compassionate, ethical, airtight case you could make that would convince this person, don’t even try, just start enforcing your boundaries – reasons are for reasonable people, narcissists basically only respond to power and attention, use that.” I mean, how many letters do we have that are like “I was reasonable and kind and used language that would convince anybody, why is this person still mistreating me? Am I not explaining it right?”

            I think one good reason to keep and enforce the “no diagnoses” rule here is that diagnoses are about the patient, about helping that person, about explaining that person’s patterns to themselves. When someone is cruel and abusive, it’s awful to try to tell their target “well, they can’t really help it, they have x diagnosis, it’s not really their fault” and what you’re describing is just the flip side – we don’t like this person’s behavior so we’re giving it a label that isn’t about helping them or treating them, it’s about putting them down. So I think we keep fighting the good fight there!

            The good news is that the techniques – and knowing your own needs and boundaries and ethics – work even if you never get an explanation for why the problem is happening. “Could be narcissism, could be demon possession, if you don’t like these conversations, here’s how you shut them down and get your needs met.” That’s what I’m trying to do.

          • Emma9 said:

            ~The good news is that the techniques – and knowing your own needs and boundaries and ethics – work even if you never get an explanation for why the problem is happening. “Could be narcissism, could be demon possession, if you don’t like these conversations, here’s how you shut them down and get your needs met.” That’s what I’m trying to do.~

            Good summation. I know I first came across the ‘get off my foot’ shorthand through this website, and it’s very applicable here.

          • Anne On said:

            This is such a great side discussion! I like the idea of naming the problem. Using “emotional abuser” accomplishes the same goal without the problematic armchair-diagnosis of NPD. Besides, the coping techniques are the same no matter the reason for the emotional abuse.

          • “When someone is cruel and abusive, it’s awful to try to tell their target “well, they can’t really help it, they have x diagnosis, it’s not really their fault”’

            Yeah, and when said target internalizes that, it can keep them from setting necessary boundaries. At least it did for me, because I felt a lot of false guilt for advocating for myself, even if what I wanted or felt was reasonable. When my therapist set a boundary with respect to my migraines, it really sunk in that it was actually okay for me to do the same with others, illness or no.

          • Aurora S said:

            If we wanna circle this back around, the narcissist in my family is my father, so I got to experience all the games firsthand. I also have an ‘invisible’ disability in which every decision I make daily has to be made with it in mind. It’s difficult to treat, constantly humming in the background and an expensive fact of life. I am aware of what is most likely to trigger an episode, but sometimes you can do everything “right” and it happens anyway. And there will be people who have ALL THE FEELS about that.

            Some of the most fucked up ableist bullshit I’ve had to deal with from others has actually come from the non-narcissist friends and/or family members who have managed to make it all about themselves in a way that a narcissist might. They were just being complete assholes about it without being totally aware of their behavior. The good news about that is that a relatively normal person who’s just being an asshole about something can likely be persuaded to stop if they actually legitimately give a shit about you. Sometimes it takes constant broken record-style drilling, sometimes it takes a perceived (or actual) authority to back you up in order for them to finally get it. And sometimes, despite your best efforts, they will double down, get defensive, insist that they “have your best interests in mind”, and you have to decide whether or not your relationship with them is worth the price of their haranguing.

            It’s true that the boundary-setting techniques for curbing specific nosy, annoying, manipulating, or controlling behavior is pretty much the same for dealing with narcissists and non-narcissists alike. And that’s probably the better focus of an advice column because we’re being presented with a single email about specific problematic behaviors and interactions between people who are anonymous strangers (to us).

            Dealing with narcissists and abusers is different in that the behavior is malevolent and has an added element of taking the letter writer’s safety into account. Abuse is not always easy for people to recognize (especially gaslighting and the psychological variety!), and we’re not always presented with enough information to decide whether or not this is a pattern that transcends the particular problem at hand. Those of us raised by or having had close relationships with narcissists do come to the point where we recognize the tricks from a mile away, and say to ourselves, “Yup…I know that game…and that game…and that game…”, while it may not be applicable or helpful to go down that rabbit hole if the offender isn’t a narcissist. A lot of times it’s pervasive, toxic “self help” culture that reinforces privilege.

            Anyway, with regard to Cheeto Benito: we literally have decades of information on past behavior (motherfucker thrives off of attention and cannot step out of the spotlight for one second) and the last two years + have been a constant barrage of all-Trump all the time, with the consequent gaslighting, lying, manipulating, abusive, attention-seeking behavior of a narcissist making itself very apparent. I feel pretty comfortable in my skin coming to the conclusion that this goes above and beyond garden-variety assholery and that he’s a predatory, abusive narcissist.

        • Drew said:

          I think there’s a distinction between “this person is exhibiting narcissistic behaviors, and here’s how I dealt with something similar in my life” and “this person has NPD.” The specific diagnosis might affect how you deal with that person generally (“more in sorrow than in anger”), but specific strategies for dealing with individual narcissistic episodes are likely to be more helpful in the moment.

          Identifying behavior without generalizing them to a statement about the person behind them can be a very useful strategy. Ask me how I know (please do not ask me).

        • I think part of it is just needing to… for lack of a better term, read the room. Maybe in this space, “emotional abuser” is a better term, even if the traits are the same. In other spaces “narcissist” is used more loosely, but not everyone is going to be aware of those spaces.

          Maybe we need a CA term? Like with Darth Vader Boyfriend? Something that better describes the traits and behaviours a person may have without being a diagnosis?

          • JenniferP said:

            Thanks! Different communities do have different rules, and that’s ok.

        • Purps said:

          I REALLY appreciate this, as this is something that I’ve wondered about for a while – specifically about the fact that diagnosing someone in absentia IS sometimes a necessary step to naming and understanding the impact of their behavior on your life. It has to happen. It can also be a tool of abuse against someone who’s struggling! It’s complex.

          • Purps said:

            Okay I have more thoughts. As I’ve said here before, I have received therapy specifically geared to people who have Some Traits Of BPD. I also have Some Traits of bpd. It’s scary and it’s hard but I don’t think I’m a bad or abusive person just because I have symptoms of a disease. I also am not as profoundly affected as some good people who are doing their best, and I’m not laboring under a formal and stigmatized diagnosis. But the label has been used to shut me down before for sure.

            I also have several people in my life who have been abused by people with Some Traits of BPD. Books like Stop Walking on Eggshells (which are hellreads if you’re the one who’s got the probs) have helped them out of actively very dangerous situations. Their need to label those behaviors as a systematic thing with a name was not academic.

            No one set of language can serve everyone. It’s hard. That’s all I’ve got.

      • MarsClover said:

        Agreed. In addition to the armchair-diagnosis concerns, I have two main problems with throwing around the term narcissist:

        1) It is so overused it seems to have become a buzzword or some sort of catch-all. I can no longer tell whether someone is using it in a precise sense (referring to NPD, either diagnosed or suspected) or for something more nebulous (referring to garden-variety assholes???).

        2) Not all abusive people are narcissists! It annoys me to see narcissistic and abusive conflated, because I think it leads people to ask “Is so-and-so a narcissist?” when they really should be focused on “Is this abuse?” We can never know for sure what is going on inside someone else’s head, but we can recognize abusive behaviours and react accordingly. Like, if you hear the hoof beats of an angry Equus bearing down fast behind you, you don’t need to dither over whether it’s a zebra or a horse before getting yourself to safety. And if it does manage to trample you, you need medical attention regardless of whether it had stripes.

        For the record, my mother is verbally and emotionally abusive, but she is definitely not a narcissist. She abuses others because it benefits her and she feels entitled to do it. Reading Lundy Bancroft’s book Why Does He Do That? helped me figure her out. The boundary-setting advice and emotional support I have found on this site and the RaisedByNarcissists subreddit have also been great.

        • FrolickingElf said:

          When I clicked “send” on my original post, I instantly had a Hargrid-esque moment of “I shouldn’t have done that, I. should. not. have. said. that.” I even had a momentary emotional flashback of shame and guilt for breaking the diagnosis rule (which I wholeheartedly agree with and support). If I could, I would edit my original post and change from “narcissist” to “traits-of” or some variation thereof. I’ll freely admit that I got carried away with my book/website suggestions because I’ve been were LW is, I’ve been were Relana is, and I’ve also been the one that has to tell other family members “hey… this treatment is not-cool/abusive/toxic/gross” and then feel the wrath of people rallying around the person – who is causing all this drama. And MIL is just creating drama.

          I am finding that some other sites focus on abuser-shaming, a bit of victim-shaming, and then if those don’t work – society-shaming… And the core of this site seems to be: taking personal responsibility for how you react internally, how you choose to act externally.

          I was surprised, delighted, validated, and otherwise comforted by everyone’s comments – the Captain Awkward community is very special to me, and even after all my research/reading/trauma-therapy, is STILL my first place to “click” when I need a dose of boundary-setting goodness (with a healthy dose of sarcasm, memes, and gifs that fuel my nerd-dom, and remind me we’re all in this together). You are all beautiful, amazing people, and even if only digitally… you are my chosen tribe, and the reason I started standing up to my emotional abusers/bullies/etc. in the first place.

          I think it’s also important to note that a narcissist may not have personality disorder per se. On the codependent/narcissist spectrum, someone who has a few narcissist traits may be “more” narcissistic than someone who exhibits more codependent traits, but neither may not have a full-on personality disorder. To circle back to Aurora S’s comment about shying away from NPD diagnosis, her comment was on point for me: “they were just being complete assholes about it without being totally aware of their behavior.” I think this point rings true, if someone KNOWS they are being an asshole, and you tell them… then they have the opportunity to correct the behaviour. If, like Aurora said, they double-down or even shame YOU for speaking up… then that is indicative of a lack of respect in a relationship (my real name is Dawn, so I find the Aurora/Dawn similarity to be wholeheartedly enjoyable – as if we were named to be the “light” that shines on these behaviours).

          And to my great relief – no one in this forum attacked me personally, or otherwise shamed me for breaking the rules, or even called me out for clearly having still-raw-issues with my emotional abusers (which I agree is a term we should add to the CA dictionary)… you were all compassionate, offering intelligent insight, and kept to the Captain’s overarching theme of focusing on setting boundaries to thwart negative behaviours.

          “Can we talk to a victim about experiencing “narcissistic abuse” without necessarily hanging a diagnosis on anyone? (This is a real question, I am asking).” I think this thread proved it, yes we can Captain. I for one am truly humbled and grateful at the direction this thread took, and how the truly empathetic tone of each contributor didn’t “attack” me for talking about narcissists, but really focused on the point – no one can diagnose, but I think we can all learn a bit about how to deal with those that possess toxic or abusive personality traits… if only to show compassion and support to those of us who are dealing with it at home. We may not experience it personally, but we all know someone else who has.

          • cathy said:

            “Could be narcissism, could be demon possession, if you don’t like these conversations, here’s how you shut them down and get your needs met.”

            Can I just say one thing? I know this was not a totally serious comment, but even so, it may well be narcissism; it isn’t demon possession.

            I have DID; what used to be termed multiple personality disorder, until it was realised that we don’t have multiple personalities but rather one personality fragmented into pieces (from child abuse). I was in church one day when the gospel reading was about a man possessed of many demons. (see below.) At the prayers the reader said this; ‘Bearing in mind our gospel reading for today, we pray for all who are mentally ill.’

            That was 2 years ago in June. I left that church, incredibly confused and hurt, and I have never returned. The Vicar tried to tell me it was about 2,000 years ago. I said no, it is about today; about me being in church and my situation (and others) being identified with demon possession.

            A simple enough test is to consider; would we say this of heart disease or cancer or a broken leg? If not, why say it about mental health conditions?

            https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+8%3A26-39&version=NIV

          • JenniferP said:

            For sure, demon possession isn’t real, it was meant as a hyperbole example of things that aren’t real.

            DEMON POSSESSION IS NOT REAL.

            It could never actually be that.

            I’m so sorry, cathy, what a hellchurch.

          • MarsClover said:

            I’m really glad you did make your initial post, FrolickingElf! Your point that MIL waves multiple red flags cannot be overstated. I think you are right on the money in saying her behaviour reflects something much deeper and nastier in her character. I even agree with monster as a descriptor. I guess I’m just fence-sitting and nit-picking over what kind of monster she is :/

        • Agreed, especially on 1). The naming and description of certain behaviors can be useful, but I do feel like it’s been a bit of a catch-all with some survivor support blogs in saying that certain things *will* happen to victims/survivors of narcissistic abuse (vs. “may happen to them”), and that can lead to some unnecessary worry, like “did my abuser really have a replacement?” or “am I a target for a smear campaign?” I worried about that for a long while because the behaviors my abuser exhibited did mainly fit into the narcissist category, even if I wouldn’t diagnose him. But they would also fit into the *abuser* category, too, so it’s hard to tell. The only things I really know are that he was super selfish and his behavior was damaging.

          I feel like it’s really important to know that there are different kinds of abusers even within the emotional abuse category.

        • There was a time in the spaces of the internet I frequented where bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder were treated exactly the same way. Like, “obviously abuse happened, the perpetrator had NPD.” Then a lot of awesome collective awareness spread into those parts of the internet I was hanging out in, and it was no longer OK to talk about people that way.

          I’m pretty uncomfortable with how narcissism has just slid in as a functional replacement.

  9. Jane said:

    Honestly, LW, good on you for laying a good groundwork with your MIL here. The fact that you’ve already been pushing back pretty hard is going to make pushing back more easier on you (especially because your spouse has got your back! Excellent!)

    One thing that I will mention that is so completely dependent on the exact parameters of your spouse and his brother’s relationship with their mom that it may be totally useless: my mom is ALSO a thin person who is super critical about people’s bodies (others and also her own!) She also has a granddaughter! Who she loves with all the fiery intensity that a grandma can muster. And she has me, her sort-of daughter who she’s very close to and whose opinion she does value.

    Once, upon hearing her talk shit about her own body, I said something along the lines of:

    Hey, I know that you don’t feel great about [xyz body feature], but hearing you criticize yourself all the time really hurt me as a little kid. I really hope that [granddaughter/niece] can grow up feeling good about her body, and it’s hard to do that when all you hear is your mom or grandma talking about how ugly her body is.

    In my mom’s case, that’s a pretty big criticism, because she has a lot of anxiety about whether she was a Good Parent (TM) to me and my brother, as well as some mangled trauma about being tormented for being a chubby kid, which is why I tread very carefully! LW, I think you’re already on the right track by pointing out the pain this kind of attitude could cause your child, but it’s also possible that your spouse might want to have a serious conversation with his mom about what pain has already been caused.

    I think a script which conveys:

    ONE, that this attitude and way of talking *has already caused* harm to people she loves, and
    TWO, that it *still has the potential* to cause harm to people she loves

    can, depending on the exact personality of the MIL involved and her exact relationship with her kids, cause her to really reassess. Not to be depressingly obvious, but I think many women are far more motivated by the emotional well-being of their grandkids and kids than they are by their children-in-law (she says with a sigh, looking at her own family).

    To be clear: you and your spouse know your MIL far better than I do, and if she would respond to this sort of thing in a cruel or manipulative way, definitely do *not* be vulnerable with her! And even if you do have this bigger conversation, 100% continue to shut her down With A Quickness when she brings up Relena’s weight/diet/habits. But I know that my mom, who is also weirdly insistent on making comments similar to the ones you described, does value my opinion and care deeply about being a loving grandma. If I can make it clear to her how serious I think an issue is, she will try to take stuff on board.

    • ONE, that this attitude and way of talking *has already caused* harm to people she loves, and
      TWO, that it *still has the potential* to cause harm to people she loves

      and…
      THREE that a change of this attitude, or even faking it with silence until it’s real, will tell the people she loves that she is safe(er) to be around.

  10. Terri said:

    Good for you. My husband and his family are pretty effortlessly skinny. I was fat and very sick (amazing how those were connected) for much of our married life and it was soooo haaaard on them. They gossiped but didn’t understand/stick up for me.

    Even now when I explain exactly what was happening, they don’t understand. It’s all willpower in their minds. I might have been sick, but I just wasn’t really trying, and now I am. (!) (People, I had a baby and got a bachelor’s degree WHILE I WAS SICK LIKE THIS. But remember, being fat is because I’m lazy and lack willpower.) My heart goes out to Relena! She is obviously dealing with some of the same attitudes. It’s good she has you in her corner. She sounds like a supportive partner for your brother.

    Plus one million for the suggestion of building a great relationship with Relena now and not letting MIL sabotage that with her forced teaming. Also, it can be super-hard to speak up to your MIL in the moment–sometimes it helps me to imagine her saying what she’s saying *directly to the person’s face.* Then it’s even more obvious how intrusive and concern-trolling and rude it is, and it’s a little easier to speak up in the moment.

  11. thisgenlioness said:

    I don’t have anything productive to add, just support for Zechs (I see what you did there).

    This was a useful read for me, too, as my mother, who is generally a fairly kind person, has a terribly judgmental streak when it comes to policing other people’s bodies, and I haven’t been very successful at getting her to stop. I will definitely try some of these responses.

    • Alli525 said:

      My mother is the same way. When my older cousin was married to a woman who was, yes, fat, it’s ALL my mother could talk about. I was in my mid or late teens, and all I could say in response to “she would just be so much prettier if she lost weight” (on repeat x1000) was “But she’s pretty now! She looks like Snow White with her dark hair and red lips and fair skin!” To which my mother replied “yeah because she’s trying too hard to draw attention away from her body.” I think I just walked away.

      Some people are just insecure and desperate to deflect attention away from themselves by any means necessary. (Mother also did not appreciate it when, while watching a beauty pageant, she made a comment about all the plastic surgery those women must have had, and I snarked “well you had a facelift 2 years ago, so maybe you don’t get to judge other people for the same choice.”)

      • Snickerdoodle said:

        BAHAHAHA. “Jealous they wouldn’t let you compete, hmm?”

  12. Oh man, here I was merrily reading along when all of a sudden it applies to me. (Dang, this happens a lot.) I have no MIL but I do have an “invisible illness” and am SO TIRED of explaining. Thank you for a new list of responses. In return, I offer this:
    You know how Al-Anon helps family members of people with addictions? There are forums & groups for loved ones of people who struggle with almost anything — conditions or situations that are relatively common, like RA, and those less so, like mine (thanks, Internet!)

    An alternative or supplement to handing the MIL a book might be sending her a link to a discussion forum like this, where she can “I don’t mean to be mean but” to her heart’s content, and get RA-splained by a moderator…
    just be sure to check it out yourself first.
    Thank you.

    • I wish I wish something like this would work for my family. My “invisible illness” has recently escalated (we got the tumor out of my head so it didn’t crush my optic nerve and blind me, but it’s caused all sorts of hormonal fallout) and my family cannot cope. Unfortunately, my family is also dysfunctional to the point that I recently had to say to my mother “The fact that I need accommodation is not a commentary on me as a person nor you as my parent” and while it didn’t change the underlying attitude it did shut her up on the subject.

      Also, fistbump rare invisible illness sufferers if it won’t cause you pain.

  13. lauren said:

    I once had a MIL who did not respect my body, its limits, how it looks, or any chronic illnesses with which I was dealing at the time. She was vocal about it. It was so, so hurtful and I didn’t feel empowered to do much about it because I wanted her to Like Me. As with Relena, she made a few suggestions that proved helpful (I always tried everything I could – so she would Like Me) so then it was open season on all feedback. She would even give me Backhanded Compliment Gifts – like teeth whitening for the wedding! Workout classes that she knew I didn’t attend or enjoy and couldn’t do! Foods that I was anaphylactic allergic to all over my kitchen because You Have To Try Almond Milk! The nine. As you identified, LW, it was 100% about her body anxieties around her son, but I was an easier target.

    She never, ever changed, and that wasn’t a realistic goal. But what did matter is that when I was swimming around in this awkward soup of a situation that was hanging out with Former Partner’s family, feeling all kinds of bad, I had people I could count on to be nice to me and to do some of the work around advocating for me. As you get to know her, if she’s comfortable, find out more about her accessibility needs one-on-one. Be open to statements like the one above (okay, low, comfy chairs are what you need? I am gonna be your ally in making sure that’s available wherever we go together).

    It is hard to say, “I can’t do that,” all the time and to explain why, particularly if everyone in the group (or at least the most enthusiastic or influential members) are very set on doing that thing. It’s alienating to always stay behind. It’s exhausting to explain your needs over and over again to a skeptical audience. You can be another voice pushing in the direction of Relena-friendly spaces. And btw, you don’t need to make it about, “Relena can’t,” – you can just make it about, “this would be fun to do together” or “I’d rather do something we can all enjoy.”

    Engage her in the conversation. She may be looking for a lifeline of someone to talk to when she’s feeling judged or shut out. If you sense she needs a break, give her an out (“oh, it’s about time for Child’s nap. Anyone wanna tag along and get out of the sun for a bit?”). This is not to say you need to get into the business of anticipating her needs or treating her like she’s broken or projecting limitations on her that she might not have. It just means that 20% of the time, there can be another friendly, kind person who’s pushing for the things you know she needs so she can take a break.

    Changing your MIL is maybe not a realistic goal. I have nothing to add to the suggestions above; I do think that’s the best shot. But you certainly CAN improve Relena’s experience of this family in a big way. I know this wasn’t so much your question, but you seem like someone who’s compassionate and well-positioned to pull something like this off, and I know from experience I felt the most imaginable gratitude when others did the same for me.

    • Roxy said:

      This is very perceptive and useful!

  14. I only listen to the goats said:

    LW, I just want to say that you’re awesome for trying to shut down your MIL, for suggesting activities that make it easier for Relena to join in, and for asking for help that allows you to do more emotional labor in this situation. The Captain’s scripts are really great, and I hope they’re useful to you. At the end of the day, though, your MIL’s gonna MIL, so make sure that you also take care of _you_ and that you seek out a relationship with Relena that’s independent of your MIL’s BS.

    Also: I once had a therapist attempt to convince me that I was making up a host of neurological symptoms because I subconsciously felt that my parents loved my brother with Down Syndrome more than they did me. Turns out I had cancer, but…yeah, no, sentences like that are never okay.

    • JenniferP said:

      Is Letter Writer’s MIL a therapist, I wonder…

    • I’m sorry, and hope you’re doing all right. Someone once told me I lost a baby because I had not wanted the pregnancy. The chromosomal defects were caused by me not wanting the pregnancy? Riiiiiiiiiiight.

      • JenniferP said:

        Oh. My. God.

        Why do people have to say such horrible things.

        • Lumen said:

          The desperate desire to believe that we have ultimate control over everything in our lives.

          Or just being a nasty person.

          • Roxy said:

            Yep, this. That’s what I chalk it up to when people say horrific things to me that could be summarized with, “You didn’t believe / want / wish / try / engage in the law of attraction / pray enough or for the right things.”

            It’s a cruel and desperate psychological need to believe we really do have ultimate control over everything in our lives. That chaos really can be kept at bay by good planning, good grooming, meditation, and a relationship with god. And people who do these things are, or should be, untouchable.

            It’s totemic or fetishistic. It’s low grade tribal folk religion. Sure there is cause and effect in this world. But not everything is cause and effect.
            It’s willfully childish and naive to the point of malice to think so. And it has nothing accurate to say about the incipient chaos and impersonal cruelties that happen every day, every where, to completely undeserving people.

          • Agree with Roxy–the LoA being touted by some spiritual folks is why I don’t interact as much in the community, because it’s so cruel to tell that to people who are suffering. Sometimes bad things just happen, and there’s no rhyme or reason to it.

          • Thursday Next said:

            Yep, it starts from a place of helplessness (“how can something like X happen?”) but can get warped by sanctimony (“x didn’t happen to me, therefore I’m doing all the virtuous things to keep it from happening, and that other person clearly did not do all those things”) and, more innocently, cluelessness over what to say to someone who has had a bad thing happen.

            I only listen to the goats, I’m so sorry that your therapist pulled this with you. I hope you’ve gotten appropriate treatment and are doing better.

          • Totally agree with this: I think a lot of tone deaf and hurtful comments come from unconsciously coming up with ways that the situation could never happen to THEM. Well articulated

        • Kaos said:

          Because people are bad. Cats, dogs, gold fish…all better choices.

      • Wow.

        I’m so sorry that happened

        • Thanks. As others have said, there’s this desire to find reasons and blame someone or something. Plus bad science out there, and people who award themselves medical degrees from the University of Magical Thinking. And they do subsidiary courses in Tactless and Boundary-Busting Comments.

      • MamaCheshire said:

        When I had a scare that caused me to think I lost FirstKid, Mister Cheshire called his parents, sobbing.

        “What would Cheshire want to go and do a thing like that for??” was Monster-in-Law’s response. Because I was a dirty liberal hippie commie (and probably a terrorist apparently, which is a WHOLE other story) and therefore if I lost a pregnancy I must have done it on purpose or I’d be “pro-life” like she was.

        I just. WHY DO PEOPLE EVEN.

        • Thursday Next said:

          F*@! that! So many bees in that story, but how the hell did she think she was helping her *distraught son* by saying that? What kind of parent does that?

          (I mean, my mom responded to my autoimmune illness diagnosis by telling me I’d lost a lot of hair, so I guess I have some inkling about the kind of parent who responds to their child’s distress inappropriately.)

        • That’s horrible.

        • Ivy_Saurus said:

          What?
          No, seriously. What?? Crikey, that sounds like out of a bad movie or something. Jedi hugs for you, friend. ❤

      • CommanderBanana said:

        Yes and looking at rabbits while pregnant will cause your baby to have a cleft palate!!

        JFC this is not the fucking Middle Ages and that person is a horrible person. May their kitchen always be infested with ants.

        • crooked bird said:

          Just wanted to say I LOVE “may their kitchen always be infested with ants.” It seems like I keep seeing “they should die in a fire” around the internet lately and it makes my shoulders go up around my ears because I’ve seen a house fire. Like, people, there’s a line somewhere.

          Ants, though. Ants I can get behind!

      • crooked bird said:

        That is the literal worst, I am so sorry, I had a miscarriage too and I present as a nice lady and all but if someone had said that to me I’m honestly completely not sure what I would have said or done.

        My in-laws spent three full minutes on the phone emphasizing to me (I wasn’t arguing) that there had to be a reason, that for sure definitely there was a reason. (In the religious sense of it’s all for the best, I’m religious too but what? What the f is this? Why is it so important to you people?)

    • Nopetopus Cowgirl said:

      OMG. What an awful experience on top of an awful experience. Some people really believe that *every* somatic problem is the manifestation of psychic trauma or conflict. Unfortunately people who espouse these beliefs often feel free to share them when we are already ill and vulnerable. Of course emotional stress does take a toll on the body, but this reductive approach where someone decides for you specifically which event or issue caused which illness is seriously mean, arrogant and ignorant AF. And then of course there are the helpful people —like LW’s MIL and this therapist— with zero medical expertise who just decide when someone is imagining their symptoms.

  15. YesVirginia said:

    So, something that helps with my mom, who is also belittling and an ass about my hub’s weight (or my weight, or depression or the color I chose to paint my walls), when she starts the “not to be negative, but” IMMEDIATELY jump in with “THEN DON’T.” (I even put a hand up in the “stop” motion.) And then she tries to concern, “Well, I’m just” and a “NOPE!” from me with the hand, or some variation works. I learned this from my therapist. “Please stop” is also good, as well as “No, I’m not listening to this.” Physically moving away if she doesn’t stop is good.

    She complains that I only talk about “cats and food” to her and we don’t have “real discussions.” That’s because she’s really a meanie. You don’t have to put up with it. (By the way, she might freeze you out (who knows with the grandbabe?) or she might double down. You can make rules, though, and thanks for understanding how terrible it is for Relena.)

    • Oooh, this is a really good idea and I like it.

      • For years my father and I talked about baseball and cats and occasionally his grandkids (but not my sister) and it sucked, but it also preserved our relationship until we both came to understand each other’s boundaries better/the tension between us became less immediate and ongoing. There are still topics we don’t touch with each other, but there are now more things we talk about than things we don’t.

        LW: It’s okay to have a relationship with someone that’s very strictly limited as to what you will and won’t talk about with them. If you care about preserving the relationship and they care about preserving the relationship, sometimes the best thing is to get them to recognize that that’s the only way through.

        • Sorry, this comment was meant to be further up the thread.

    • Sounds like my mum. The complaint that you don’t have “real discussions” no doubt being an attempt to provoke an argument. I must remember those tactics!

    • isabeausuro said:

      > She complains that I only talk about “cats and food” to her and we don’t have “real discussions.”

      Lolsob.

      When my parents were divorcing, and for years afterwards, I refused to talk to my mom, or rather let her talk to me, about a) the divorce, b) how horrible and mean my dad was, or c) his new girlfriend once he started dating. Mind you, I didn’t talk to my dad about my mom either, but he didn’t want to. My mom … really really did.

      She complained that she was only “allowed” to talk about the weather. Which … there are plenty of things! She was just so consumed by the divorce that she couldn’t see anything else.

    • moss said:

      I will try this next time I talk to my mom! (this weekend)… she was commenting on my tween son’s body the other day and as I got more exasperated she started saying , “I’m not trying to be critical!” So I will try “Then don’t be!”. Thanks for the suggestion.

      • l'train said:

        So often when someone says “I’m not trying to be [negative/critical/insert bad thing here],” I’m desperately tempted to say, “trying or not, you are succeeding.”

        It’s something my parents used on me as a kid (when I wasn’t trying to be mean/bratty/a pest), and it’s certainly a conversation stopper. Not the most tactical or kind line, to be sure, but might be worth having in your back pocket all the same.

  16. PrairieChick said:

    Your and others’ comments are very helpful. In my situation, it’s a “narc” DIL who tries to create drama. Staying out of triangulation is a skill that I am getting better at, as is maintaining a pleasant and polite distance from her. .

    One book that I find super-helpful is “F*ck Feelings: one shrink’s practical advice for managing all life’s impossible problems” by Michael I. Bennett, MD and Sarah Bennett. The chapters on fairness, communication and assholes are especially helpful to me. Sarah Bennett, Michael’s daughter, spent years writing sketch comedy; so the book is leavened with laugh-inducing quips. “The only book that can actually teach you how to change how others think is a lobotomy manual.”

    A second valuable tool is use of the acronym :THANK. Explanation: Is it TRUE? Is it HELPFUL? Is it APPROPRIATE? Is it NECESSARY? Is it KIND? Not only for evaluating my and others’ behaviors, but also for teaching children, this is golden.

    Hugs, if people want them, for all those struggling with dysfunctional family relationships. The good news is that we can create other, mutually supportive relationships among friends and neighbors.

  17. Thank you, Captain, for your reminder about limits. I have autism and constantly try to learn and memorize social rules. I had learned about pushing past one’s limits and thought it was an obligation for me to do so to please others/be a good girl. My wife pointed out to me that behavior ends up in meltdowns. No fun for her or for me. Now I am learning to respect my limits. I didn’t even think I had limits because I am able-bodied and physically healthy.

  18. Dark Emu said:

    I agree that the most important part is to keep shutting her down when she starts even getting close to the topic of Relena’s health. Also the fact that you are trying to find more things to do as a family that Relena can participate in is wonderful! As someone with an autoimmune disease knowing that my close friends and family are willing to plan events with me in mind (without guilt-tripping me!) really makes me feel better about my situation. Honestly if the relationship with the Monster-in-Law falls apart at least you’ll still have a good relationship with your sister-in-law to work on and grow!

  19. Amy said:

    LW, it’s good that you recognize that your MIL has sorted you and her into the ‘good, thin people’ club while relegating Relena to the ‘not thin, not-so-good people’ club. It’s such a common dynamic that it can be hard to even see it (the whole “do fish know they’re wet?” dilemma).

    Since you do recognize it, though, and you are on the privileged side of it…I think you do have an obligation to be more active in shutting it down. Debating your MIL through her unkind thoughts every time she mentions them is a good start…but it still treats them as a legitimate position worthy of debate. It gives the impression that maybe she’s wrong THIS time about THIS specific comment…but next time, her next thought could be right. We don’t debate things that have no merit, after all.

    I’d like to encourage you to shut down the conversation topic without indulging her this way. Instead of explaining why she’s wrong, you could say “MIL, we’ve talked about this before. Relena’s health issues are legitimate and I’m tired of hearing you talk about them like she’s somehow bringing them on herself. It’s not a kind or empathetic attitude, and I don’t want Kid exposed to it. Please don’t bring up this topic again.” Or, if that’s too long, you could say something like “Seriously? Not this again! Lay off already!” Or just give her a massive side-eye and change the topic.

    It will feel rude at first. That’s OK. She’s bringing the rude by being so judgmental about Relena’s body, health, diet, and exercise habits. It’s OK–more than OK, it’s actively beneficial–to respond to unacceptable behavior harshly. That’s how people learn that it’s actually unacceptable.

  20. Spruce said:

    Mother-in-law, I’m more interested in what we can compassionately do to help Relena with her chronic illness than judge her for something she cannot control. Repeat as necessary.

    • Cassandra said:

      I’m not sure MIL wouldn’t just double down on her stance that her (creepy bullying) IS helping, though. She probably has herself convinced she’s Just Trying To Help. “And the food diary—that was helpful! I’m helpful!” I’d think maintaining the boundary that Relena’s health/body just aren’t our business might yield better results

      • Michelle said:

        Agreed. If Relena wants help from her about-to-be in-laws, she can ask for it. “I’m sure she knows what’s best for her” strikes me as a better line to repeat eternally.

        • “I’m sure she knows what’s best for her”

          I like that!

  21. Miss Wordilicious said:

    It’s actually amazing how many people do imagine you have issues because of a sibling with special needs. My sister also has Down’s syndrome and people are constantly trying to apologise to me when I tell them and feeling sorry for me and tilting their head and going ‘aww’. I basically pre-empt it now as much as I can by jumping in with ‘no need to say sorry, she’s my favourite person in the world’, even though I can tell they don’t really believe it. Certainly not as offensive as what LW’s MIL has said, but it’s definitely an attitude to varying extents.

    • Lumen said:

      Someone going “Awwww, I’m so sorry!” about Down’s is such a signal that they’ve never had a meaningful interaction with someone with Down’s.

      • Miss Wordilicious said:

        I mean, it hasn’t always been plain sailing, but then that could be true of many children/siblings. And it’s just not a judgement a stranger should make anyway, I feel!

        • Lumen said:

          There are so many assumptions being made about your sister, your family, you and your history… based on ONE FACT. One fact about one person is never the whole story of a life or a relationship or a family.

          I think even when people are genuinely well-meaning, they don’t realize they’re making all those assumptions/judgements. Like if you responded with a blank ‘Why are you sorry?’ I think there would be a fair bit of stammering.

          (Granted sometimes, as with body-shaming and disability-doubting and poverty-sneering, they’re completely aware that they’re making assumptions but they have rationalized it as ‘okay’ because they read this thing on Facebook that proved without a doubt that blah blah blibbidy blah.)

          • Feminist BI-tch said:

            Agreed. Not sure if this is helpful, but people say the same when they learn that my sister has type 1 diabetes and I just… Look at them like they said something really unexpected and I am just now considering this new perspective. Like yeah, sure I’d rather she didn’t have diabetes, but at the same time, my sister is amazing and so badass that it’s just ridiculous to think anyone would consider her with just pity, and actually, that’s insulting, too. And to insinuate that siblings of people with Down’s would be jealous / act out because of that is REALLY insulting to them, too.

    • Thursday Next said:

      Miss Wordilicious, I’m so interested in what you’ve written. I’m coming at it from a different perspective, as a parent. Among my friends who are parents of special needs children, there’s definitely a lot of anxiety about helping their children have an experience that isn’t overwhelmed by having a sibling with special needs. And there’s external pressure to try to achieve this as well, from a variety of sources, including from people who have no special needs experience who assume that having a sibling with special needs is The Worst.

      My situation is a bit different from theirs, in that both of my children have special needs. But one has more profound needs and will always need guardianship and extensive support, while the older one will be able to be legally independent as an adult. Sometimes when my older child is upset over his sibling, it’s hard to know what’s because of her disability, what’s because of my attention to her disability, what’s due to general sibling relationship behavior, and what’s due to my older child’s disability. (Interestingly, my younger child is very accommodating of her older brother’s needs, and is pretty chill when he needs attention. Where is the cognitive functioning question that will give her points for that?)

      All of this is to say, damn, it’s hard! I am going to try to find ways of connecting to some adults with special needs siblings, to see if they can share some of their experiences from growing up, and talk about parenting approaches.

      Apologies for the off-topic rambling.

      • Miss Wordilicious said:

        Your situation is of course very different from mine but I can understand why you (and your friends) might feel that way. For one thing, ‘special needs’ is a very wide spectrum and there must be extremely difficult situations for siblings all over the world. I certainly don’t think my experience fits all! But as a general approach I would say mostly siblings of people with special needs are fine. My mother worried about exactly that too (and was very glad she had my brother after, because she thought it would give me ‘company’) but I wasn’t even 2 years when my sister was born so I honestly don’t know any different. Sure there’s times when I was growing up when I occasionally was sad we couldn’t do X or Y like Other Family, but that wasn’t often. My sister is brilliant and I’d never have swapped her for anything.

        Actually I am her legal guardian now she’s an adult and not living at home any more (after my mother of course) so I’m fully invested in making sure she’s always cared for. I was just at a check-up for her last week with her support worker actually!

        I am now more off-topic, I think! But I’d be happy to chat to you further about this if you feel it would be useful. The one thing I did wish I had was more (any) friends in the same situation, just so I had someone on the same level.

  22. Amy said:

    Separate from how you handle your mother-in-law, I would also really encourage you to reach out to Relena and build your own relationship with her. She’s likely very aware of your mother-in-law’s attitude towards her; I know that as a fat woman, it’s not hard to tell when someone has Thoughts about my body, even if they’re not saying them to my face, and I bet people with chronic illness develop a similar radar. That’s got to be a pretty awful attitude to deal with when she’s trying to become part of the family.

    You can do things to help improve that situation. If she lives nearby, get lunch together, or invite her and BIL over for dinner or drinks, or go to a movie. If she’s not so close, maybe you and your husband can set up a weekly or every-other-week facetime with her and BIL, just to chat and share funny stories about your kid/their nephew and generally be family-like. The more you develop your own relationships outside of MIL’s presence, the less influence MIL’s attitude (which may or may not change, regardless of what you do to shut her down) will have over Relena’s experience of your family.

    • Mind is a mental health resource, and while that is a type of invisible illness it sounds like MIL specifically needs to be better at understanding invisible physical illnesses for Relena’s purposes.

      • spd said:

        As an invisibly physiologically ill person, I second staying away from resources about mental illness.

        There’s nothing wrong with them; they’re probably great for the intended purpose! But people with invisible illness almost universally spend a lot of time convincing doctors, bystanders, and loved ones that no, this is a physiological problem that isn’t caused by a mental heath issue, and we’re pretty sensitive to noticing when people are treating our physiological symptaims like they’re ACTUALLY psychological.

        Which is harmful for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with bias against mental illness (which isn’t totally different from physiological illness), such as it making it difficult to get appropriate care, etc. (often, diagnosis is delayed by YEARS because patients can wait that long to find a doctor who doesn’t just advise the patient to get talk therapy).

        So I’d really caution anyone against deciding that resources for mental illness are appropriate for autoimmune patients. They might TOTALLY be, or they might make recommendations that are really inappropriate and upsetting for the person you’re trying to be kind to.

  23. onamission5 said:

    LW, I wonder if it’s possible you might be able to get past MIL’s defensive block, the one where she rests to default mode every time a situation where she’s called on her shit has passed, using social prohibitions against gossip. IME, esp. of USian folks of a certain generation, invocation of One Does Not Gossip is something can trigger a shame response in regards to having broken the rules of social decorum in a way that reasonably explaining facts over and over does not. It might not have any effect at all of course and you’re the best judge of whether it would be a useful strategy, but I’ve had some success using it in the past.

    • JenniferP said:

      Yes, and I would add to this, if the MIL sees herself as any kind of feminist, you can add “Look at us gossiping about each other’s looks and bodies – let’s not be bad Feminists!” to the mix.

      • Zechs said:

        Gosh, I wish. She likes to say, “I didn’t WANT to be the first female [insert civic position here], but there was no one else for the job!” She grew up in a rural Catholic farm community, and while she’ll jump on board occasionally (she voted for Clinton last election, probably the first time she’s ever voted against a Republican in her life), for the most part she side-eyes “feminism” pretty hard.

      • Totally stealing this to use with my Relative that identifies as a feminist but joyfully slut-shames other ladies.

  24. Personally, and thinking on a conversation with my own mother about my cousin, I would take this “we” language RIGHT out of it. “We” are not talking behind her back, just YOU are. I am bitchy enough to point it out, tho, and certainly WANT to snap people out of things by being blunt about it.

    • JenniferP said:

      Legit. I see the “we” language as reverse-weaponized-forced-teaming, like, oh, are you trying to include me in your little games? Great, I’ll include you in my not giving a fuck.

      • Fair enough. I just feel like, depending on the listener, she might see it as acceptance of responsibility for the conversations. but who knows!

  25. like, this is so close to my speed: “MIL, why are you so obsessed with Relena and her body? It’s so weird that we [YOU] keep talking about this!” Go all regina george on her! XD

    • Drew said:

      “Has Relena ASKED for your help? No? Then she probably doesn’t need or want it.”

      • I think that should come from Zechs’ husband.

  26. Kaos said:

    I have so many thoughts about this but my autoimmune disorder(S) come with constant fatigue and I need a nap. Yes, that *is* plural.

  27. sofar said:

    My MIL is from a culture/family where it is a norm to talk constant shit about people’s weight. Like, among my husband’s uncle’s last words were “My, has so-and-so gotten fat” the second she left the hospital room.

    When my MIL started talking with me about people’s weight after parties, I was blindsided. My husband sighed and said, “She’s trying to bond with you. You’re part of the club now.”

    LW you need to be brief and blunt. With my MiL subject changes didn’t work, saying things like, “well she had a baby a month ago…” didn’t work. I finally settled on “I would be so heartbroken if I found out people I love were talking about my weight. So I’m not going to do that to others.” Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. If your MiL continues to push it, alternate between that response and stony silence. My MiL eventually sighed in a “You’re no fun” way and gave up. And she hasn’t tried to talk about weight with me since because I am no fun.

    • Purps said:

      You know, I just realized that I’m from a very similar background (I mean, US Midwestern). I decided that I just had to say “I don’t like to talk about people’s weight” over and over and over.

  28. Yolanda B. Cool said:

    Zechs, the Captain has offered some amazing advice and insight, and I agree with the commenters below that your MIL is being toxic and triangulating.

    I do wonder if part of what’s driving MIL’s toxic behavior is the fact that her son has chosen a wife that she feels is very different from her, and different from her values, and if it feels to MIL like she’s being rejected. (I may be projecting here, because my husband’s first wife is very different from me, with values that I don’t endorse. I occaisionally wrestle with brain weasels that want some kind of reassurance, because it seems so alien that Person We Love could be really close to Person We Are Nothing Like and Do Not Understand.)

    That said, MIL’s behavior is still gross and toxic and those brain weasels (hers, mine, and anyone else’s) do not need to be let loose to thrive and multiply.

    You and your husband have done a great job pushing back against MIL’s toxic behavior. I wonder if you might see some additional success in redirecting the conversation to Relena’s positive attributes: “I don’t really know about Relena’s health, MIL. She does seem to be a very kind person who makes Brother happy.” “Yeah, I don’t know about that, MIL. But, gosh, weren’t Brother and Relena cute together today? They really care about each other!”

    MIL will likely find a conversation about how happy Relena makes Brother very boring, but also perhaps reassuring. (She will never admit this.) And whether she stops banging on about Relena’s Health because she’s not being actively rewarded with attention and agreement, or because her brain weasels have calmed down, a win is still a win.

    Also, Zechs, Relena is really lucky to have compassionate people in her life, and you’re setting a great example for your son. Keep on being awesome!

  29. IrishEm said:

    I remember having great success walking into the living room where Awful Auntie had launched into her monologue of Awfulness about X person or Y family and I just went “Wow, what do you say about me when I’m not around? I Mean, really, if you’re saying that about them, I can’t believe you don’t do the same behind My back!” She could have won the Giro D’Italia in reverse she backpedalled so much XD

    • IrishEm said:

      Also, I recommend TheMighty.com for invisible illness resources. I’ve only just discovered it recently, but much of it is written and curated by ppl with invisible illnesses like myself and it is wonderful. Not sure if it’s more of a Relena-resource or a MiL-resource, though.

      Also, can able people please stop telling me that I WANT to have fibromyalgia? I’ve “tainted the investigation” in police terms, apparently, because I’ve picked a name for what my symptoms add up to, rather than let a doctor figure it out. I’ve lived the fibro life for more than 10years, so I think I’m allowed to say what’s wrong with me, even if docs won’t back me up. 😡 Sorry for off-topic rant but it keeps happening, and I’m ready to scream.

      • Kaos said:

        Oh! It took forever to get actually diagnosed. Ten years ago I have a pulmonary blood clot that exploded and landed me in the hospital for a couple of months. I was literally in a coma for most of that time. It took forever to even reconstruct anything from the time immediately preceding the incident and a good couple of years until I could be left alone more than a few minutes without a safety babysitter (husband, son, niece, friends, etc.).

        The one good thing that came from it was being hooked up with the world’s best rheumatologist. Seriously I would follow that guy to the ends of the earth if he moved his practice. He diagnosed in pretty short order: Fibro, Lupus, and Sjögren’s Syndrome.

        Finally!!! I had answers to so many symptoms. There were/are other things, but the autoimmune issues are so misunderstood by everyone apparently. I mean if I just “tried” to do X I probably could despite the RA symptoms I get from doing X…the RA symptoms that last a week or more because of five minutes activity.

        Sorry I digress…

        The thing is that I was like 22/23 when I first noticed symptoms. I was diagnosed at 45. I guess I really wasn’t just “lazy” or “unmotivated” or “stubborn? or…or…or all those years. Imagine…

        • IrishEm said:

          Oh, gods that sucks! I guess yoga/pilates/kale/unicorn piss/powdered dragon scales/whatever wasn’t a magic fix-it for you, then? Shocking. I am so shocked and surprised. Not.

          You know what would be awesome? Having ppl believe you when you talk about your symptoms and not try to gaslight you into thinking there’s something wrong with your perfectly healthy self (which, really? There’s nothing wrong but there’s something wrong???? How does that even work????) I’m glad Relena has her diagnosis, hopefully her MIL will learn that it’s none of her business to manage. All I need is the same *sigh*

      • Saraquill said:

        That happened with me and seizures. During the 11 years it took for me to get a diagnosis, I called my symptoms that as it was the term that fit best.

        As it turns out, I have a seizure disorder that doesn’t appear much on medical websites. The wikipedia page didn’t even exist until after my diagnosis.

      • crooked bird said:

        More power to you for being in charge and informed about your health, I say.

  30. Another possibility is to socialize with the brother-in-law and Relena, without the mother-in-law.

    That’ll minimize the lousy stuff LW and his husband have to hear and shut down.

    • Roxy said:

      Yes, this. It’s admirable to try for group activities that are less exclusionary in nature. But hey, maybe it’s a mixed blessing for Relena when she gets to bow out of the arboretum picnics. Maybe she’s sort of just fine with that.

      Not being able to get out of going to the movies with a MIL she must know secretly or not-so-secretly despises her may not give her the warm fuzzies of feeling included that the LW is aiming for.

      Perhaps also try to aim for more couples time with Relena and BIL, sans MIL. In addition to more inclusive activities when MIL is around.

      • Zechs said:

        Haha, Roxy, I almost wrote in my PS “but not all the time because I’m sure sometimes she enjoys opting out (WHO WOULDN’T) and I don’t want to take that out of the mix.” But my letter was already so long!

        We do, to a certain extent, socialize with BIL and Relena. To be honest, hanging out with Relena can be a little trying. She was raised in an intensely conservative religious community that her parents have since left, and between that and spending a lot of time caring for her little sister, she missed out on a lot of pretty common experiences and socialization. The first time she came to dinner with a group of mutual friends (mutual to us and my brother-in-law, I should say), she had too much to drink and turned to one of our friends and said, “So, you’re black! I have so many questions.” Which shut the entire table down with shock while our friend took a long drink, gave her the world’s thinnest smile, and said, “Well, I might answer some of them.” Her fiancé back-pedaled and they left the evening early and our friend told us she reached out later to apologize, but we don’t always include her in our normal socializing because that’s kind of a lot to ask our POC/queer friends to put up with, though her awkward commentary is pretty all-inclusive. We do just-us-couples-socializing, but she’s engaged in some similar not-malicious-but-definitely-not-comfortable conversation about my gender, and to be honest I’m about 50/50 on whether she’ll out me to my MIL or others, not out of hostility, but just out of saying things out loud that I think other people might leave as thoughts. While I honestly think her intentions are good, it can be kind of exhausting to roll with her unless I’ve mentally prepped myself for it. I go back and forth on whether we should reach out more because she’s coming from a hard place and could probably use additional support, or whether it’s condescending and weird that I don’t think she can manage her own social relationships and feel the need to throw myself into the mix. So!

        • What you’ve written reads to me as though you don’t much like or approve of Relena yourself. If that’s the case, I take back the suggestion that you socialize more with her. (She sounds difficult.)

        • JenniferP said:

          You don’t have to become best friends with Relena just ’cause your MIL’s a jerk. I’d just say, have your own lines of communication open with her so MIL is not the only conduit for knowing her, and keep right on shutting your MIL down about her.

          I’d also say…you and your MIL are not that close, and it’s okay to not really want to hang out with her much. There’s a reason you didn’t fuck with her for years, don’t feel safe coming out to her, and find her newfound attempts at bonding to be suspect.

        • Nanani said:

          You can absolutely set a hard boundary of “I am not here for body judgement!” even if you and Relena never become particularly close friends, or even see each other much outside of family gathering.

          Plus if (when) MiL moves on to another target, the boundary will be pre-made.

          • storyranger said:

            Bonus; if, as you continue on with your transition, MIL is tempted to move on to you as a target, establishing now that you’re a very very boring person to try and talk about other people’s bodies with may help MIL keep her nasty comments to herself.

            (Gender queer pal here who wishes they’d set that boundary much, much harder with their parents because now every time I feel femme and dress accordingly and then go back to my regular masc accouterments I’m met with “oh dear I thought you were finally over this phase you looked so pretty.”)

  31. so Cap here is setting you up with some great scripts.
    But basically yeah it’s shut it down and refuse to discuss. Debating doesn’t work. Refuting doesn’t work. This is not someone trying to learn or educate themselves. This is someone wanting to feel smart and your SIL’s body is the medium through which they do it. If you go through and refute their points one by one, they’ve gotten to say their stuff, they’ve gotten to control the conversation and by taking the time to do that you’ve made it look like their stuff has merit. Debating something gives it an air of legitimacy.

    Combined with people don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to weight loss (hey I lost a significant amount of weight once, by not knowing I was diabetic and being extremely unhealthy) but act like they are experts….. sorry getting into soapbox territory here. TLDR: STFU about someone’s weight. period. I personally don’t even want to be complemented for losing weight, just leave me alone.

    Anyways back on topic. Don’t debate, Don’t refute. Refuse to discuss. Build a boundary. Make it clear this behaviour is unacceptable, leave, yell, swear. Do whatever it takes. I had to use those tactics on my own mom when she wouldn’t back off about my weight and she was sour for a bit but we get along a lot better now.

    • JenniferP said:

      Good point – I redacted the specific amount of weight per the site policies.

      • oh, sorry, will keep that in mind for the future.

  32. Tara S. said:

    I have this issue with my Grandmother, sort of. I live with her, but most days she provides free childcare for my uncle’s kids who live 5 minutes away. She talks a lot about her opinions on how my aunt and uncle parent their children. Most often, she criticizes how much time my aunt will stay cooped up in her room, instead of being down with the kids. My aunt is celiac and has diagnosed depression, and works as a therapist for the county’s family services. Frankly, imo it’s a perfect storm for needing a lot of time shut away. My mother and I try to remind my Grandma of this gently all the time, but I’ve started to just think of myself as a kind of filter. If she’s going to say these things, I’d rather she say them to me than to my aunt or uncle (she would never say stuff like that to my cousins). But these days I mostly just hmm or don’t respond when she makes those kinds of comments.

  33. I just want to say how “I wish people didn’t think of me that way, I don’t want to be that way,” repeated over and over, comes across like an excuse and a refusal to change. Especially the first part, which sounds like “I’m not *trying* to be mean to you.”

    I’d probably let it slide the first few times, but the “I wish people didn’t think of me that way” in response to being called out, after a while, leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Could be firsthand experience as a recipient of similar comments, though.

    • Drew said:

      “I wish people didn’t think of me that way.”
      “Stop being that way, then.”

      • DesertRose said:

        This!

        If you don’t want people to think of you (general, although also specifically MIL in this letter) as a person who says rude, unkind things, then maybe stop saying rude, unkind things?

    • My mom does this but without the “think/wish” part, which I never quite know how to respond to. She won’t say, “I don’t want people to think that of me” she will say, “I’m the kind of person who…” or “It is important to me to…” but her behavior will have just been the opposite. I will ask her not to do something and she’ll insist that wasn’t what she meant/was doing with this as her defense. I don’t want to get sucked into a conversation about what ‘kind of person she is.’

      Anyone have any snappy comebacks?

      I think the most success I had was when I just said, “I don’t want to get into a debate about what kind of person you are.”

      • isabeausuro said:

        Not snappy, but maybe something like “Oh, of course you’re not X, it’s just that (thing you did) looks Xish from the outside.” Similar to the “I’m not calling you a racist, I’m saying that you said something racist” distinction.

        That or “People aren’t mind readers, mom. If someone steps on your foot, it hurts, yeah? And it’s going to hurt whether or not they meant to do it.” Basically the intent-isn’t-magic thing.

        • Oooh, that sounds kind yet firm, and I like it.

          spacelanguage, I sympathize; my abuser pulled the “I want you to know that I’m not trying to be mean to you, why would I be mean to you” and IDK if it was gaslighting, but it definitely made me wonder if I was overreacting, with a nice helping of guilt. Something like, “I don’t think you’re trying to be mean, but that’s how it felt to me” like isabeausuro suggested sounds real good.

      • DesertRose said:

        “If you want to be the kind of person who [does whatever behavior], then [do that behavior].”

        “If [X] is important to you, then act like [X] is important.”

        Or even, “Actions speak louder than words.” It’s cliche as fuck, but as with a lot of cliches, there’s truth in it.

    • crooked bird said:

      I’ve been trying to figure out what one could actually say to this… I wonder if a question could work. Maybe a nice, concerned look, as if she just raised a problem and asked you for advice, and then, “I can see that. That would be unpleasant, to have people thinking of you that way. What do you think you could do, to prevent that?”

      I don’t know. Maybe there’s no way to not make it sound sarcastic.

      • FWIW, I think so long as you sounded concerned, that might mitigate any sarcasm. Especially since the script also validates feelings of the party in question being upset that they’re being perceived that way.

  34. GreenDoor said:

    After 11 years, you have more than established yourself as a Member of This Family which entitles you to all the privileges being a member of a family entails. Including raising your voice, telling someone off, walking off, and taking a side in a disagreement. RElish it. Your MIL needs some telling off. I was the good daughter-in-law until I had my first kid. Then I found my voice. It’s my JOB to speak up and put my foot down when it’s in the best interest of my kid. Pointing out the values you’re trying to instill in your child or what a bad example she’s being is a great point to throw out there when you need to.

    And I totally agree with Captain that you might want to get closer to Relena. If both of you are a united front and supportive of each other, it’ll make it that much harder for her to use anything about either one of you she doesn’t like against you and harder for her to use one of you to gang up on the other.

  35. tabbykat said:

    My mom used to comment on my friend’s weight every single time I saw her. I finally said, in a tone, mom you say the same exact thing every time I see her, would you stop? She said do I say that every time? I guess I didn’t realize that…

    She hasn’t mentioned it since. I don’t think LW’s situation is as easy, but I do think it’s better to shut it down than engage. MIL likes this discussion, better not to have it.

  36. Uptown Transcriber said:

    In the late 1990s or early aughts, I was with my best friend and her *dear* mother at a coffee shop. Friend decided to get a piece of cake, I declined, and HDM declined by saying “We girls are watching our figures.” I’d been included in that we, unwittingly, and immediately said “I didn’t say any such thing, I just don’t want cake.”

    Of course, she wasn’t my MIL, and I rarely saw her, but I wanted no part of her criticism of my BF.

    • I recently said, “or maybe I just wanted a fucking salad?!” to my mother quite loudly in the middle of a deli near where she lives.

      She has had food and body image issues my entire life and at this point they’re pretty entrenched. I can’t stop her thinking that stuff to herself, but I can and will stop her from getting it on me or anyone else I’m with.

      I’ve made it clear to her that I WILL make it awkward and embarrass her in public when she makes judgmental comments about food in front of me, even when she thinks they’re compliments

  37. Hey Anonnynonny said:

    LW, I think I would consider carefully the ‘closeness’ of the relationship with your MiL given that she doesn’t know you’re really her son-in-law rather than her DIL, and the Captain is very right that the thawing of your relationship with this woman coincided when you had something she wanted – access to your child.

    Your MIL might be a powerhouse of a woman in other areas of her life but she wasn’t warm to you before your loins made her a Granny, there is a reason you haven’t told her your identity, and she’s a bitch to Relena! Perhaps consider she isn’t a nice person and leave your partner to negotiate the relationship with his mother and you have fewer solo dates with her.

  38. Emily said:

    Congrats on your transition LW! I think captain is right in that she’s probably discussing your body with others just as much as she’s discussing relena’s with you. This is about her insecurities- it kills her that women can be fat and/or unfeminine and still be valued and respected because she has placed so much of her own value in her thin, feminine body.

    I try to take the positive reinforcement approach with both animals and difficult people- not only do we want to discourage the bad behavior by ignoring it/making it uncomfortable, but we also want to encourage positive behavior. Is there something she does really well that isn’t body related? Can you make sure you compliment her a lot on that? Is there parenting advice you can ask of her that doesn’t have anything to do with physical health? Can you keep asking for her wisdom in those areas? Can you not only make the negative behaviors awkward, but the positive behaviors more pleasant? Can you manipulate the conversation to fill up the time with positive things you know she would love to talk about, so there’s no time for relena’s body?

  39. Snickerdoodle said:

    I like the broken record of “Please don’t comment on my food choices.” I discovered that one at my last job, where a coworker had to comment on everything anybody ever ate. He would walk past my desk and see me eating fruit or something and comment “Eatin’ healthy, huh?!” every. single. time. Other foods caused other comments. I don’t know why he cared. I was the one eating it, and I barely even cared. I resorted to frantically shoveling down whatever was left or just hiding my food when I saw him coming, or waiting until he left to eat. It was ridiculous, but not giving him anything to work with did stop the comments. Then I got tired of how absurd it all was and started doing the broken record thing. He HATED it, but it worked. So when you can’t avoid the mother-in-law, try saying “Please don’t comment on Relena’s food choices/weight/whatever” repeatedly until she shuts up.

    Anyway, I also like the idea of socializing with Relena without the mother-in-law. Relena needs to know she has a Team Relena.

  40. Harpy with a harp said:

    We have gone no contact with them now, but all of the inappropriate commentary from MIL about Relena’s body and her medical condition reminds me a lot of the stuff that my father in law and his girlfriend used to say about my husband’s weight, his ADHD issues, and my daughter’s autism spectrum issues, as well as my FIL’s constant negativity about why my husband’s career choices. Being around them and the constant inappropriate comments and more subtle but still hurtful and undermining stuff was so stressful that I actually ended up talking to a counselor about how to handle being around them back when I was still in contact with them.

    Her advice was that people with these kind of toxic personality traits often really like to talk about themselves, so whenever they’d start in on something unkind, change the subject to something about them. It was not very direct (I’ve got pretty severe PTSD and just can’t manage much confrontation at all) but it did put a stop to a lot of the inappropriate comments, at least when they were around me. This tactic didn’t work for my husband because he’d just shut down like he was mentally elsewhere whenever they started with this behavior, if I wasn’t there to stop it. But if you’re able to stay in the moment and be present when they start in with their crap, this did work pretty well to shut it down.

    Jedi hugs if you want them, I know toxic in laws who do this kind of thing are so very tough to deal with and I’m sorry that you and Relena are having to deal with this and its great that you are being an ally to her.

    • Harpy with a harp said:

      Another thing about my toxic in laws who behaved like this – once in awhile, my husband would attempt to discuss their behavior with them after they said or did something particularly inappropriate. And then they’d stop doing or saying that particular inappropriate thing – only to then do or say something completely new and way out of line on the next visit. Almost like this weird kind of revenge thing, at least that’s what it felt like.

      So it wouldn’t hurt to be prepared for that kind of thing, I’m sorry to say.

      Eventually it all just got to be too hard, and we decided the only option for our nuclear family’s mental health was to go completely no contact.

  41. Sometimes these kinds of things are easier to shut down when it isn’t in the moment. When you have that awkward, “We need to talk” about something completely out of the blue. It makes it seem a lot more serious and in my experience is more likely to not lead to a repeat.

    So I wouldn’t wait until she does it again. I’d approach her in conjunction with your husband (whose job this really is) and have a little mini-intervention talk. Not as a response, but as a separate more memorable this was so important we had this uncomfortable conversation thing.

    • Kitty said:

      If MIL is anything like my mother, this unfortunately might have the opposite effect. She’ll just brush off any broader talk about her behaviour with “why are you bringing up all this stuff that happened in the PAST, stop hauling me over the coals for things in the PAST!” Even if “the past” is literally yesterday. 😑
      But calling her out in the moment and making an ultimatum of “stop that right now or I am leaving and you won’t get to see me” had a much stronger effect on her behaviour.

      • If one way isnt working, try the other!

    • I believe that LW’s husband should initiate any “We need to talk” conversations with MIL. His mother, his to manage.

  42. Clever Name Pending said:

    One branch of my in-laws are… not good about my disability. I can’t do lots of sun/heat/walking/any drinking, while their ideal outings are things like going to an outdoor beer festival on a sunny day. Before I got sick I was down for all that! Now I can’t be. Luckily my husband handles that and they’re smart enough to not say outright that my disability is just me being lazy to me face, but I also know which of them I can count on to have my back. Knowing there are some of them who I can trust to be safe makes those visits a lot easier on me.

    So what I’m saying is, you probably can’t make your MiL be less gross and ableist, but you can make yourself a safe person for Relina, and that’s worth a lot.

  43. azurelunatic said:

    Like others have said, it’s possibly past time to try to change her heart directly (you’ve tried, she keeps doing the same things) and double down on her behavior, with legitimate parameters.

    One thing I found super useful when moderating a chat group was, “We don’t do that here.” People who were behaving unacceptably in chat got all kinds of indignant and defensive (and disinclined to change) when we challenged their attitudes, but breaking it down to behavior in this specific context made it much more clear. My buddy’s jerk friend had all sorts of arguments about why he wasn’t a sexist (he was) but he finally left after he was told that the sexist menstruation joke was not acceptable here. Because I guess he wasn’t willing to stay in a space where he was required to put in the effort to leave the sexist jokes out of his repertoire.

    You (and your husband) are the boss of your house. And the boss of what people get to say in your presence (though your options for enforcing that depend heavily on context), and definitely the boss of what people say/do around your child. (You are also the boss of how much time and intimacy you give to someone who is holding crappy opinions and doing crappy things which are outside your authority to enforce.)

    • I’m very fond of, “we don’t talk like that about people around here,” because it works well as a household boundary around how we consider it acceptable to talk about other people in our space AND about how we consider it’s acceptable to talk about ourselves.

      Me: [negative self talk]
      Spouse: we don’t talk like that around here
      Me: [excuse]
      Spouse: what would you say if I said that about myself?
      Me, sullenly: we don’t talk like that around here…

  44. Clover said:

    This is kind of a nuclear option and it won’t work for everyone, but it’s something that worked on my mother, who sounds a lot like MIL in this letter.

    My mother used to always, always, literally every single time we passed a certain low-income housing development, make comments about the inhabitants: fat, lazy, worthless, etc. I had asked her before to please cool it with these comments, but it hadn’t seemed to make any difference. So one day I was driving and she was the passenger, and when she started in I pulled the car over.

    “What are you doing?” she asked.

    “I’m stopping so you can get out and tell these people what you think about them. I’m sure when you explain all the things that are wrong with them, they’ll be grateful for your feedback and eager to change.”

    She was embarrassed and abashed, and nearly begged me to drive the damned car away as quickly as possible. She didn’t apologize exactly, but she hasn’t done it since.

    I’ve used similar tactics when she starts in on my sister (I pull out my phone and say, “Let’s call her so you can tell her directly, instead of just telling me”). I’ve also used this approach to shut down workplace gossip (“Let me page him. I’m sure he won’t mind cutting short his lunch break to get your advice about dressing better”).

    • Chris said:

      This is EXCELLENT. So may people who are critical are fine with criticizing others behind their backs but cowards when they think they might have to do it face-to-face. This seems like a great way to immediately shut someone down when they start criticizing someone who is not there to defend themselves.

    • Kitty said:

      This is a great idea for shutting down triangulating bullshit behind people’s backs!

      I wish my mother could be influenced by this approach. Sadly she has no problem criticising people to their faces. >_<

    • Oh my word do I love this story. This is a tactic I am filing away for future use.

    • Alas, I suspect that Zech’s MIL might take the suggestion seriously and believe that he’ll back her up.

  45. Chris said:

    I think all of the scripts and strategies offered are excellent and really useful. At this point, I’d also just really try to limit the interactions you and your husband have with your mother-in-law, and let her know why. She seems pretty firmly entrenched in her behavior, and even if you use a good script in response, being around her must be annoying and exhausting. A few or several months with very limited contact with you or her grandson would really drive the point home that she needs to stop the criticizing of Relena if she wants to have a good (or any) relationship with other family members.

  46. Angela said:

    Captain, spot on advice. I don’t know if anyone else has commented as such, but I think we’re living in a very toxic time where people have taken in the idea that any perceived “negative” (illness, money issues, etc.) just HAS to be a result of a character flaw and not systemic prejudice or plain bad luck. Of course, people make choices, but hovering over someone and chastising their food choices or playing Judge Judy over every perceived wrong turn is gross. I could spin off my axis on this, but bottom line is that picking on a person because of illness shouldn’t be a topic of conversation AND it’ s poor strategy for increasing connection between you and a third person.

    • tabbykat said:

      This is SO TRUE about all health issues—the pressure to heal yourself with diet, exercise, and so on and so forth, as if such a thing is always possible.

  47. Emma9 said:

    I really like the first script re: ‘Kiddo is reaching the age where they would start to absorb bodytalk, and as a result *I* (and/or husband-and-I) am making an effort to cut this out. It’s harder than I would have thought! So please support me/us in this project!’ You’re not making it about her, you’re requesting her help on your own journey of self-improvement! Hard to argue with that!

    It returns the forced-teaming to sender, acknoweleges that poking our damn noses out of other peoples’ health business is an impulse we all occasionally feel, yet conveys that it’s an impulse you feel it’s important to learn to resist. And the ‘this is what you need to do to make me feel like I can trust you around your grandchild’ implication doesn’t hurt either.

    Re: ‘But I was RIGHT about the food diary, ergo what if I shut up and as a result she doesn’t hear about something that could help her!’, ehhhhhh. Something like ‘Even if that’s the case, gossiping about your next great idea behind Relena’s back accomplishes jack diddly squat’ is true, and maybe derails her in the moment, but does sound like tacit approval to go bombard Relena with said suggestion…then again, I highly doubt MIL wouldn’t end up doing so anyway. (Maybe there’s a way you can slip Relena some classic CA lines like ‘Thanks, I’ll think about it!’? Maybe in the context of telling about a time MIL was concern-trolly at you about [random topic]?)

    • Emma9 said:

      argh. ‘INTO other peoples’ health business’.

    • azurelunatic said:

      If it’s time for rude responses, I like “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.”

  48. nnn said:

    Another strategy for derailing repeated and unwanted discussion topics: make it into a drinking game.

    Whenever MIL brings up Relana’s health, you catch your partner’s eye and say “DRINK!” to each other, then take a drink of whatever’s handy (even if it’s water).

    • Kitty said:

      I love this!

  49. Kitty said:

    Wow, that MIL sounds exhausting, I’m sorry LW.

    I think maybe the reason she KEEPS ON going on about this is the same reason many people look down on poor folks: the Just World hypothesis. To them, the idea that such financial misfortune or illness could happen to anyone, even them, is terrifying. So they need to somehow make it that person’s “fault”, to convince themselves that it could never happen to them because they’re “better”.

    Which is an utterly shitty way to look at the world and other people. But might help understanding why she is acting this way; that it is 100% about her own anxieties and nothing to do with Relena whatsoever.

  50. EllenS said:

    I guarantee that when your MIL is with Relena, she tries to force-team her into talking about you, LW. Guar-an-tee.

    Probably about the “increasing butchness” you mentioned, or else about all the ways you are parenting your child wrong.

    People who use gossip and judgement as a bonding exercise, use it with everyone.

  51. Bean said:

    Long time reader, first time commenter! This particular letter touched me because I have Rheumatoid Arthritis and I’m fat. In fact, I am so much fatter since I was when I received my diagnosis, years ago. Part of this was relinquishing some of my active life style when learning to accept my limitations. Another part of it was (and is) the medications I have taken to prevent the damage it causes or feel relief (you guys, steroids are THE WORST).

    This initial weight gain was pretty hard on me, because I was always on the heavy side, and I have a thin mom that frequently says things very similar to MIL, above. When I started therapy to help deal with some of the associated depression, I was recommended a book that CHANGED. MY. LIFE. It was called Health at Every Size (HAES), by Linda Bacon (which I think someone linked in the comments above). Upon finishing it, I asked my mom to read it.

    The good news was that she did lay off on my weight for the first time in my whole twenty-something-year-old(-at-the-time) life. The bad news was she doubled down on suggesting treatments for RA that she found on the internet (all of those Readers Digest clippings!). I then used two little scripts my therapist gave to me, that were incredibly effective, albeit a little aggressive. They were:

    -What makes you an expert?
    -I will take your medical advice after you get your medical degree.

    I suspect these would be best coming from Relena, herself, who might not actually be aware of the criticism she’s been subject to. However, I feel they could be modified to suit LW, as someone standing up for Relena.

    To be honest, it took some time, but my mom and I got through this BS, and she’s stopped using my body as a tool to hurt me. Giving her resources on RA and HAES to EDUCATE HERSELF did wonders. I hope it can help for MIL too!

    • BigDogLittleCat said:

      You’re awesome. Way to take control of your own life.
      I hope you’re able to manage the RA as well as you did your mother.

  52. watchthetoes said:

    My apologies if this has already been said, but the MIL annoyed me so much I had to write before reading any of the comments. But the fact that the writer and husband have to bring up R’s chronic illness in order for MIL to cool it on the fat shaming is obnoxious.

    People absolutely should be understanding of other’s chronic pain, illness and disabilities and make plans, etc., that they can be included in and generally be decent to them. But having to bring up someone’s illness when defending their size is harmful because it puts people in the category of “good fattie” (aka your fat because of a health condition (which I know does happen) and therefore it acceptable though still unpleasant that you’re fat) and “bad fattie” (you “brought it upon yourself” by not being “perfect” and you deserved to be shunned because you dared to eat a hot dog). And that’s fucked up. Just let people live in their bodies in peace.

    • Zechs said:

      This is a really good point, and I’m grateful to you for making it so explicit.

  53. watchthetoes said:

    Apologies if this has already been brought up, but the MIL annoyed me so much that I had to say some shit before reading the comments.

    It’s highly messed up that the LW and his husband have to keep brining up R’s chronic illness in order to get the MIL to STFU with the fat shaming. We definitely need to recognize that there are people do have chronic pain/illness/disabilities, and we need to be compassionate towards them and make life as adaptable as possible, and be willing to make sure we do things they can join in on. That said, it’s fucked up that people like MIL need a reason to accept a person’s fatness. Like there’s such a thing as “good fatties” (aka you have an “acceptable” disease and therefore get a bit of a pass, though we’ll never fully accept you at your size) and “bad fatties” (aka you’re fat for reasons I don’t deem acceptable and therefor it’s ok for me to shit on your body and tell you what you should put (or not put) in your mouth). It should not matter one ass check (regardless of said ass check’s size!) what your body looks like. Just let everybody live in their bodies in peace, damn it!

  54. Charlie said:

    When I first read the post and comments, I felt that I had nothing to add. Something that occurred to me over night in addition: Maybe it would help to establish a blanket rule here. I tend to tell people point blank: “I don’t talk about other people’s bodies. Other people’s bodies are nobody’s business but theirs, unless they ask me specific questions. Consequently, yes, my body is nobody’s business but mine; if I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it, thankyouverymuch.”

    Since MIL continues to throw her put-downs in in various ways after numerous attempts at explaining the situation back to her (basically, to teach her compassion!), I think maybe it would be more helpful and cost the LW and his husband less to establish a No Body/No Appearance/No Lifestyle Talk about Other People. I know that is obnoxious and is probably going to deprive MIL of much to say – even better! Snark is not a good conversation topic anyway.

    I’m putting this out there because so far, MIL seems to weasle her way around it, and there are follow-up questions and answers that only drain the LW. Blanket statements are powerful tools, if not over-used, I find. I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT HOW OTHER PEOPLE LIVE THEIR LIVES UNLESS THEY HURT SOMEONE! covers a lot of terrain and might get MIL to think – or not; in any case, it is way easier to bark out an established blanket statement, as opposed to dissecting why that particular comment was not okay, either.

    • BigDogLittleCat said:

      I don’t think your suggestion is obnoxious. It sounds like exactly what is needed: shut. it. down.

  55. Duo said:

    Strongly agree with the Captain, and I just wanted to tell the LW how much I enjoyed her Gundam Wing fandom made me cackle out loud!

    • Forever 2x4 said:

      Seconded!

  56. Heather said:

    You can be an ally in planning family events if you want a strong but silent way to push back on Relenas behalf. Pick places that cater to the exhausted; my partner can socialise with less exhaustion and pain if places have:
    Comfortable seating.
    Nearby parking.
    Earlier opening hours.
    Decent toilet facilities.
    Quiet atmosphere (pain and fatigue is harder to handle in a loud, bright, busy place.)
    If you can, suggest places and frame them as your favourite/cool thing you want to try/easy for you to bring kiddo rather than as a choice to accomodate Relena. Nothing shows solidarity like an able bodied person who plans thoughtfully without all the fanfare of announcing why.

    Christine Miserandos spoon theory and Batsgirl’s Gorilla In Your House are excellent introductions to what it is like to live with chronic illness.

    https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/
    http://batsgirl.blogspot.com/2008/04/gorilla-in-your-house.html?m=1

    I have mental health issues and my partner has a deteriorating physical pain condition and so we are used to the disappointment and stigma. What really helps is to have kind friends who are patient enough to give us little bits if normality without conditions; friends who understand our lack of spoons and will come be a part of our lives anyway. Friends who cheer us on and hold onto hope when a bad day seems a perpetual state.

  57. Heather said:

    My MIL is like this, she makes a habit of gossipy judgment. Her narcissistic ego is based on her health choices, it is a major way of getting attention and so anyone else’s ill health is competition that she must neutralise with shitty comments. No one is ill like she is. She has the greatest diet. She is the bigliest person bravely overcoming challenges. It’s hilarious and pitiable.

    I try to ignore the comments by letting them drop as if they are so incredibly boring and then I subject change. On occasions where she persists I will say ‘that is a rude thing to say and I would never talk about you that way, I really hope you don’t talk about me that way. Wow.’ I get a lot of huffy ‘I’m just saying/well I think I have a point/let me explain’ pushback but honestly, calling it out hasn’t led to the world ending and my MIL cutting me off.

    Once, on a day where I was very stressed and she made a shitty comment about how my partner handles his disability, I calmly excused myself and walked out of her house. She remembers it to this day and will still faux apologise (It was her steroids that made her say mean things!) I think it really made an impact and she has learned to rein her rudeness in. She needs an audience for her bullshit more than she needs to be right and once I began being appalled and showing I would walk away, she began cool it on the gossip.

  58. Pit bull said:

    Tons of great advice. My story: Mom who thinks being overweight is worse than being an alcoholic. Subtlely did not work for us. Two things helped (paraphrased because by now I forgot):
    1) “Hey Mom, anything you say to me you are saying to Person. So don’t say anything you don’t want her to hear.”
    2) “When you talk about Person’s health, body, and behavior, I become uncomfortable. I will not stay to listen. In the future, expect me to leave the [house/room/state) if you talk about those things in my hearing.”
    Superimportant – no explanation. Don’t engage in a why conversation, Just move on and follow through.

    • BigDogLittleCat said:

      Superimportant – no explanation. Don’t engage in a why conversation, Just move on and follow through.
      This. Many people cannot tell the difference between an explanation and justification, so when you try to tell them why you’re doing what you’re doing, they think it’s an invitation to try to change your mind.

  59. Zechs said:

    Man, it was surprisingly, like, scary to see my letter posted here! Even though I wrote it and sent it in on purpose! Thanks to everybody for sharing your experiences and your thoughts. The most immediate thing I’m taking away right now is shutting. this. talk. down. rather than engaging in it, even if my intentions are to educate/help. That is clearly not working! The wedding is fast approaching, and I think that’s the source of a lot of my MIL’s tension and fixation. She’s paying for it, the three of them (Relena, BIL, MIL) have been spending an unprecedented amount of time alone together, MIL has a lot of anxiety that she tries to manage by controlling everything (a great trait at her job! a very difficult trait for her family!). Relena has been in our lives for a number of years now, and none of this body/health talk really started until the wedding planning kicked into high gear. MIL also VERY recently lost her mother, and in her grief she’s been drinking a lot more, and with her drinking there’s been more of this toxicity, which is usually background radiation rather than a full-on bomb.

    My husband is going to deliver one blanket statement next time this comes up, letting her know for sure, in firm words, that we think this topic is hurtful and weird and that we’re done with it. Then it’ll just be a matter of enforcing the boundary! (He said, as if it were that easy.) But I’m definitely going to lean hard on the “We’re trying to teach our kiddo that we only say kind things about people’s bodies…” script WHICH I LOVE, and “Relena’s the expert on Relena” because it’s simple and true.

    Thanks again, everyone. I’ve got a lot of reading to do from your books and links! This was intense (why did I not anticipate that opening up my family life to a public forum ((even a great, hardcore moderated one!)) would feel intense? Haha, it’s like I have baggage about being judged and found inadequate for some reason.) but deeply worthwhile, and I appreciate everyone who took the time to offer advice or talk about their lives. Y’all are some smart, tough, and insightful cookies.

    • Feminist BI-tch said:

      Can I just say how great it is to read such a compassionate letter? You rock.

    • Typhoid Mary said:

      Zechs, I hope you become a fixture in the CA commenting community.

    • Lumen said:

      Thank you for writing in about this – and for sharing the vulnerability of it here, too. You are very adequate. You sound like someone that your family is lucky to have.

      Also, I somehow completely missed on my first read that this is all very much Pre Wedding stuff, too. Weddings cause so much intense emotion to rise to the surface for so many people, and most cultures (esp in the U.S. though I’m not sure if you’re in the U.S.) tend to sublimate it pretty hard. Because we can’t be sad! We can’t be angry! We can’t be scared! We mustn’t have complicated thoughts and feelings about major life events that alter some of the most intimate and complex relationships in our lives!!!

      IT’S A WEDDING. IT’S HAPPY. EVERYONE BE HAPPY. NOW.

      So we argue about seating charts and menus and fonts. Or drink. Or fight about things that aren’t really The Thing that is bothering us because we may not even be willing to look at that that feeling, much less talk about it.

      Anyway: yeah, I think that really informs what is going on here, but it is still not your birthright somehow to do all that emotional labor for your MIL (or for Relena, to be honest). By my words above I am not suggesting (or recommending) that you be your family’s therapist. I think your plan for going forward is very wise: firm blanket statement issued by your husband, leaning on your rules and values as a household/family, and redirecting such gossip away from you.

      You got this.

  60. “Yoga: I’ve heard of it, thanks”

    If I had a dollar for every obnoxious jerk who suggests yoga for my mental health issues, I could buy a yoga studio and fill it with kittens and whiskey and posters that say “I hate yoga.”

    And I don’t even hate yoga, I do it. But not only does it not fix my issues, it doesn’t even really help them. It just makes me more flexible and better at martial arts. But man am I ALLLLLLL the way done with “helpful” suggestions from Not Mental Health Experts on how to manage mine.

    • Nanani said:

      Yoga studio full of kittens would be both AWESOME and incredibly hard to do yoga in – so many poses seem to scream “CLIMB ON ME!” to all nearby felines – so it’s really the perfect plan. I will come to your studio.

      • Feminist BI-tch said:

        I will desert my current yoga studio to come to yours!

        • Typhoid Mary said:

          there’s a “yoga with goats” program near where I live and it’s almost enough to make me try yoga again (:

      • I’ve seen baby goat yoga around and while I think it’s adorable, it would be super difficult to do!

        I almost didn’t get into it *precisely* because I was getting evangelized about it very intensely for a long time. It fixed my bad knee, but my mental health needed a therapist.

    • I have friends who have been told to do yoga by randos when their medical teams have explicitly prohibited them from doing yoga because doing so would damage them due to their conditions. Frustrating.

    • DesertRose said:

      I don’t care for yoga for my own reason (that reason being, I tend to try to push myself too hard to be more flexible than I actually am and end up hurting myself, which is entirely my own problem), but I would so go to a yoga studio with kittens. Even if I just sat on the floor and let the kittens climb on me, that alone would be good for my mood! 😀

    • Lumen said:

      The only truly appropriate times to recommend yoga to someone are when they say either “I’d love to try yoga” (“Then you should try yoga”) OR “man I love meditating but I can’t sit like that/quiet my mind/relax for very long before I get distracted”. Because that is why yoga was invented. To, ostensibly, prepare the body and nervous system for the stillness of meditation.

      It was not created to help with mental health. Or weight regulation (lolololololol). Or fertility. Or insomnia. Or white guilt. Or world peace. Or [insert health concern here]. And I love yoga, but some people make it sound like snake oil.

    • Heather said:

      I like Yoga but my ability to do it safely varies, I have PTSD and dissociate a lot. I am prone to injuring myself while I am zoned out. Also, body memories and flashbacks in certain poses can make it stressful. That’s info I don’t share with the Yoga Cures All advocates so I get a lot of helpful suggestions that I ignore.

  61. Ugh, I have experienced a LOT of this, from both the LW’s perspective and Relena’s. Both my mother AND her identical twin sister (!!) love to “confide” in me about their crap-inions about other women’s weight (which usually comes with a side helping of subtext about my own membership in the Never Svelt and Autoimmune Disorder club). “Your sister-in-law…well, she’s [whisper-shout] A LITTLE HEAVY, isn’t she?” “Look at that girl, she’s certainly CORN-FED!” “Your cousin’s wife looked pretty in her wedding gown, but she’s a BIG GIRL and that fabric can’t hide it.” Oh. My. God.

    After hearing this crap, and crap about my own appearance, since I was 12, I now have little more than seething resentment and sometimes boiling hatred for my mother (my aunt is not as bad about this, and she isn’t the one who installed these buttons in me, so I get on better with her). I spent years trying to be polite-but-firm, asking nicely for my them not to put other people down.

    Those days are over. I am 13 weeks pregnant with my first child (haven’t told them yet…waiting until 20 weeks, because toxic ladies!), and now I am absolutely spoiling for the chance to go HULK SMASH over this behavior. My sister-and-law, cousin-in-law and I have sustained enough damage over this, and my child-to-be will NOT be put through this.

    So, yeah. I commend the LW for his remarkable restraint thus far, but I whole-heartedly support the Captain’s advice to cut to the chase and Shut That Shit Down. Be sharp if you have to. Make it awkward. Make it so that saying those awful things has a High Price for the MIL. She may learn to improve—or she may not. But if, at the very least, she learns not to say those things in the LW’s (or his child’s) earshot, that is a victory. And hopefully the first one toward winning the whole war.

    Mad respect & props to the LW. Thank you for supporting Relena!

    • Melanie Chorisglossa said:

      Huh.

      Drawntheroad, you’ve just given me a valuable insight, re a problem involving this dynamic of “confiding”- not from family members, but with members of $martial_arts dojo.

      Long story short: massive depression due to politics, meant long months where I lay on the couch and mourned. Result: weight up, condition down.

      I’d already dodged two gambits from a senior student, who really needed to talk about the health of the wife of another student. Once in front of the collected membership (and our sensei – wtf?). I used my words, you can bet.

      Recently, he again wanted to talk about body matters – this time, my own. At the time, I just rolled my eyes, informed him that I was already doing things for that, and additionally things of value for the dojo that didn’t involve me being in perfect condition, and later had a quick talk with myself about what I would say Next Time. (Not that I did that badly this time.)

      But, yeah… it suddenly occurs to me, thanks to your comment, that this was something the senior student was trying to build up to. So, now, that Talk for Next Time is going to be a lot more pointed, and so very guilt-free. Nothing like the revelation of a pattern like this to guide one’s choices. (Now, that’s what I call healthy living…)

  62. S.H. said:

    Letter Writer, I can so relate to you on this one. I really struggle with confrontation, even when it is clearly warranted, and even when I really want to stand up for what’s right.

    What I have found, when it’s difficult to express my anger, is that it can be easier to express hurt. Now, in one way this feels more vulnerable, and it’s with somebody who does not deserve your vulnerability. But, for me at least, when the idea of getting angry and possibly starting a fight feels somewhat scary, it’s easier to just say “that hurts my feelings.”

    If you expiress your feelings in the context of being SIL’s friend, you can say that it’s hurtful to hear your friend criticized.

  63. anon said:

    I adore “Yoga: I’ve heard of it, thanks.” because it’s SO EFFING TRUE. Why can’t people stop talking about yoga, it’s literally the worst thing for my condition, kthanksbai.

  64. Cats&Dogs said:

    Ugh, our neighbor is like this. She’ll complain about her husband gaining weight, or about things he doesn’t do, or ways he screwed up recently, in front of us AND HIM! One day she made her 500th negative comment to him & I snapped “Do you always have to have a negative comment about everything he does?” Seriously could have heard crickets for a minute, then she tried to justify it, which I shot down too. She’s been a lot nicer to him around us, and it had to bonus of her not wanting to hang out with us as much.

  65. antfinite said:

    LW, I wondered all the way through your letter if Relena was a GW reference, then I got to your sig and fistpumped.

  66. Convallaria majalis said:

    I am getting to this conversational party late, but let’s participate anyway.

    First of all, dear Zechs, what an amazing people you and your husband are! I wish I would have had a brother or a sister like you because my mother was a lot like your MIL. She lived by a glorious double standard: if someone else had an illness or disability she was very, very careful to take care of their every need. She spoke of them very politely and did everything in her power to make her guests and friends feel welcome and included. She was a seasoned health care professional especially trained in how to help people with disabilities. All of this was very good and I have done my best to try to learn and uphold these behaviours.

    … but then there was the double standard: me, her only child. I have an invisible illness with which I can mostly live a “usual” life (whatever that means) with some caveats: I have to take a medication for the rest of my life and this medication has side effects, including possible weight gain. I am also unable to consume any alcohol which is a social stigma here in Scandinavia. There are also some sports I cannot safely participate in.

    When my illness was diagnosed in my childhood my mother must have been beside herself of worry and guilt but I have only understood this in my 30s. When I was a child no-one explained me anything and my mother forbid me to speak of my illness to anyone. As years passed she began to act very strangely: on the other hand she tried to keep me safe all the time to a ridiculous degree (we are very privileged here; living in here is very safe). Whenever I went jogging she demanded to be allowed to follow me to absorb my health and safety. On the other hand she kept body shaming me and nagging if I gained even a little weight. The only time she was happy with my body was when my anorexia was at its worst. So, yay, way to go, mum, thanks for ruining my relationship with my body for decades.

    Nowadays I am mostly happy with my body, thanks to this wonderful page (Captain, I hope you know how important you are to us) and other sites promoting body positivity and radical body love. I have claimed back my body by tattoos, a few piercings, searching for clothes I love from flea markets and second hand shops and making them myself. I am privileged since I am of a size and shape with which it is possible to find used clothes (the ecological aspect is very important to me) and since I am also able to sew, knit and crochet and more.

    I have known a few people which remind me of the MIL of Zechs: people with firm opinions which they do not shy to bestow upon anyone close to them. I have always considered myself soft and friendly but practice helps – and it seems Zechs and their spouse have already had lots of it. I found many of The Captain’s scripts very illuminating and especially important, in my opinion, is to minimize the effect of body shaming to Zechs’s child. It is clear Zechs and their spouse have tried many things – so, just like The Captain said, it is time to put a stop on this behaviour once and for all, and though I hate to state this, Zechs also has a kind of “currency” to use: the time with their child.

    Perhaps MIL might change their behaviour around Zechs’ family if she was completely denied the presence of the child: “Oh, the child is with a friend, a really great person we love. They are body positive and that is what we want for our child.” At the same time use The Captain’s scripts to stop the bodyshaming – and perhaps it is time to get to know Relena better, so well, in fact that you can tell MIL: “Oh, I share everything with Relena these days. She is so wonderful! Did you know that she [accomplishment]!”

    If you show a united front, your family and Relena’s family and do not let the MIL spend time with your child, she is forced to change her behaviour around you if she wants to see any of you. It’s not really about changing her as that is beyond your control; it is enough that she behaves herself around you.

    I also have one thought on being in the presence of intimidating people: a realization which came to me approximately a decade ago. I have a really strong conscience and realizing it helped me not to afraid of people like MIL. If standing up against people like that gives me peace of mind I am nowadays happy to do it even though it has made me somewhat unpopular in some circles. I much rather please my conscience than any abusive person there is, no matter how intimidating they are. If you do not please them, what do you stand to lose?

    Best of luck to you, your family and Relena’s family!

  67. Bopper said:

    On internet advice sites/forums you see many people asking about what I think must be personality disordered people…because they basically have tried everything that would work on a “typical” person and still this person is acting horribly..by referring to a specific personality disorder you are saying “There are people that have this group of symptoms, and they behave in this manner so your usual techniques won’t work and all you get do is set boundaries with them.”

    • JenniferP said:

      Good thing I wrote about this yesterday at length.

      You don’t need a personality disorder to act like an asshole, and being lazy about how we assign those to people we don’t know has unintended consequences.

      The good thing is that boundaries work even if there’s no disorder present.

      • Convallaria majalis said:

        Thank you, Captain, for this particular piece. At the same time it was funny and deathly serious and I love it. For me there is also one additional benefit for not diagnosing people over internet: I tend to pathologize myself and as a person with anxiety I sometimes mill over lists of symptoms wondering whether I have a particular diagnosis without noticing it and whether I make people around me feel terrible.

        I have been thoroughly diagnosed and tested so many times that I know on the factual level that I am not a narcisist but the jerkbrain keeps popping up its ugly head.

        So, thank you for your lovely post. It is both very educational and enjoyable.

        • Charlie said:

          “I have been thoroughly diagnosed and tested so many times that I know on the factual level that I am not a narcisist but the jerkbrain keeps popping up its ugly head.”

          Concern that one might be a narcissist is, as you are surely aware of, a) very common for children/other survivors of narcs and b) a pretty sure sign that one is NOT. Tell your jerkbrain that this internet stranger said so!

          BTW, judging from your comments, you sound effing awesome: compassionate, kind, smart, ethical. What’s not to like? Jerkbrains know shit.

          • Convallaria majalis said:

            Awh, thank you, Charlie! I told my jerkbrain that and at this moment it is pretty quiet.

            Thank you for your kind comments! ❤ Your words make me feel very warm and happy. You are wonderfully awesome, too.

  68. Just popping in to say as a person with an invisible illness I appreciate the hell out of this letter, thank you LW

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