#1179: “My mother-in-law is about to become my coworker.”

Hey Cap,

My mother in law has been out of work for some time and really needs a job, she’s applied to a lot of places and not gotten any calls. She has very specific work experience, work in this field has dried up significantly and is sporadic at best, she still has a mortgage etc. and needs to be working full time, so now she’s applying for jobs that are outside her area of expertise and is struggling to find work as a result. This has been going on for some time and is really weighing on my boyfriend, so to try to help her out he spoke to the manager at his job about hiring her and it’s looking like she’s going to get a job, great news….except I also work there and I’m not happy about it, and I don’t know if I’m being a horrible raging bitch or if I’m justified in this, or maybe it’s a bit of both.

For some background I don’t particularly like my mother in law, she’s a “very nice lady” on the surface but underneath not so nice, she says everything in a sweet voice with a smile but there can be ice in the words, she is very manipulative and plays the victim when she’s called out, she plays woe is me when she doesn’t get her way, she’s just a difficult person, we’ve had some issues over the years, but she doesn’t push me too far anymore as I’ve been quite good at setting my boundaries and sticking to them and boyfriend has gotten and is still getting better at seeing her behavior for what it is.

We get along fine, but I just don’t really like her, never will, I don’t trust her.

My concern about working with her is that she’s very needy and not very good at mixing with people so I worry that she’s going to expect me to be her work friend and to take my breaks with her and that she’s going to be popping into my office for chats etc and I’m not cool with any of that, I don’t want to be her friend and I don’t want my working life changing because she got a job there.

I know that she’s going to play the victim and tell my boyfriend I’m a horrible person because I don’t want to be her friend and I fear that this could cause serious issues for us as a couple.

Am I being really unreasonable?

I need scripts for how to deal with this, I’m blunt by nature and I don’t think bluntness is the best option here, or maybe it is.

I need to know how to tell her no and I also need to know how to explain it to my boyfriend.

Please help!!

Hello there! I do have a few suggestions to help you manage this situation with maximum professionalism and boundary maintenance.

Normally you and your boyfriend would be somewhat a united front, right? You set boundaries with his mom, he backs you up. He sets boundaries with his mom, you back him up. When you both spend time with her, you act as a buffer against her more irritating tendencies, you give each other cover and excuses for leaving early or declining an invitation, etc., right?

Have you tried a direct discussion with your boyfriend re: “Hey, it’s very sweet of you to help your mom with the job, but the idea of it is making my shoulders go up around my ears. I’m going to hope for the best, and hopefully it will go well, but we can agree that you’re taking point on Mom Duty, right? I’ll do my best to be professional and welcoming, but if she gets needy about wanting to always chitchat or take all our breaks together, I am going to send her right to you.”

You could start with questions, like, “Are you nervous about having your mom work with us? How do you want to handle it if she’s needy or passive-aggressive?”

However you talk about it, talk about it. He knows that you and your mother-in-law (MIL hereafter) don’t get along that well. If you can get his agreement to take the lead on helping her transition into your workplace, if you can decide how you’ll both handle it if things get weird, you can keep on being a united front.

That way if she is cool, great! You were worried for nothing, you can tell your boyfriend, “Hey, I was worried for nothing, but I really appreciate you hearing me out about that and making a plan with me.” 

If she is not cool and she decides to become your problem, I give you permission to immediately and routinely make her his problem. “Oh, thanks, I don’t have time to chat/eat lunch with/take my break with you today, but your son is probably free! Have the best time!”  If you usually take breaks with him sometimes at work or eat lunch with him, suspend that for a while. It’s time for quiet reading in your car, solo lunches, eating at your desk, running all your errands, whatever it takes.“Oh, boyfriend and I see each other at home all the time, don’t worry about me, go have some great mother-son bonding time!” Never compete with her for the Lunch With Boyfriend Time Slot, not ever. Let her win that one, every time.

And look, you might need to get ruthless and use the speakerphone. “Hey honey, how’s your day going? I’ve got you on speaker, [Mom]’s with me, and I told her I couldn’t go to lunch today but that you’re probably free! Sound good? I’m sending her your way right now, maybe y’all can try that new Thai place.” This is especially useful if she tries the gambit of “Oh, I don’t want to bother him at work, he’s so busy” in order to get you to fill in instead. Nonsense! NOBODY’S TOO BUSY FOR THEIR MOTHER, RIGHT? You’ll call him right now on that speakerphone and put him on the spot.

You say that your MIL’s chosen weapon is “niceness.” Your first choice is “bluntness” (I like that one a lot, too!) but remember that “niceness” is mounted on the communal Wall of Blades, free for anyone to use.

Your sword is “niceness.” Your shield is “professionalism.” Your helmet is “kindness.” If you can dress your boundaries up in those three things? You’re golden.

Professionalism is why you simply can’t discuss personal/family stuff at work! And professionalism is why you don’t like to bring work home! And you express all that as kindly and pleasantly as possible! For example:

“Oh, MIL, the only way [Boyfriend] and I manage this job is to agree to never take work home with us or home stuff to work, it really helps to keep those things separate. Now that you’re here, let’s keep that going! That way we can be psyched to see our great new coworker, [MIL-Name] at work and just hang out with our lovely family member [Mom-version of MIL-Name] when we’re off the clock.” 

Professionalism is how you hopefully keep her out of your chain of command, if you need to talk with your manager about that. “Oh, I wouldn’t feel comfortable supervising a family member.” “I’m happy to show her the parts of my job that directly affect her, but I think we’ll both do better if she has a trainer who isn’t a family member. Boundaries are everyone’s friend!” 

Professionalism is recognizing that the best outcome for everyone is that your MIL thrives at this job, that she regains her confidence, learns new skills, and fits in with the rest of the team. So, how would you (a professional) treat a new coworker who was a stranger if you wanted them to do well in your workplace?

  • You’d want them to feel welcome.
  • You’d want them to know their way around.
  • You’d want them to know where to find information, resources, people they need.
  • You’d want to stay pretty neutral, avoid assumptions about what they are like, and give them a chance to impress you.
  • You’d greet them pleasantly, make polite chitchat like “how was your weekend,” etc. and strive to keep things pleasant and light.
  • You’d mind your Ps and Qs – you wouldn’t immediately spill office gossip [important since you don’t trust your MIL] or talk about personal topics with them, you’d be on your best behavior until you knew them better.
  • You also wouldn’t spill gossip about them, right? Let your coworkers form their own impressions and relationships with your MIL, don’t tell everyone how annoying she is and poison the well for her.

Now imagine that new coworker were someone else in your life, someone you like. You’d do all of the above, right? But you might try a little harder to help them fit in. For example:

  • Look, unless the company does some kind of formal welcome lunch, you and your boyfriend are GOING to take her out to a welcome lunch on her first day. If the company or her direct manager does do a formal welcome thing, y’all are taking her to dinner. I don’t make the rules, but this is a rule, when a family member starts a job where you work, you make sure their first day is nice in some way. You can do it with a big “this is a special occasion for your first day, yaaaaaaaay for you!” flourish to mark it as different from other days, but you’re doing it. “I don’t have time for any of that” starts tomorrow.
  • When you started working there, what are some useful, low-stakes things that the existing staff told you? What are some things that you wish someone had told you? Make a list of those things. Could be “where the good bathroom is,” could be “the training manual says email the TPS report, but Gerard likes to look at a hard copy first.” Make a list of these for your MIL. Keep it low stakes (again, avoid office gossip or sore spots, you’re giving her info, not ammunition).
  • For someone with her job function, who are the most important people she should meet and know? Are you someone who can introduce her and smooth the way a bit? She’ll be less needy if she has other people to go to for work questions, and you’ll feel less stressed out by her neediness if you can redirect it to someone besides you who can actually help. It’s the difference between “I’M NOT YOUR NEW WORK FRIEND, GOT IT?” and “Great question, [MIL Name], let me connect you with the best person to walk you through that!” and walk her over and make the introduction. If it does become a boundary issue down the road, you can just repeat the process, like,“Oh, remember, Millicent is the Database Queen! Need me to walk you over or do you remember where she sits?”  (P.S. Everyone is “needy” when they start a new job, in this case you can probably mitigate and solve a ton of that by relentlessly, pleasantly introducing your MIL around and consistently redirecting her to the right people.)

Let’s end with some specific suggestions based on your relationship with this specific MIL and your boyfriend.

  • As stated before, SHARE NO GOSSIP WITH HER. You can’t trust her not to repeat it.
  • As stated before, SHARE NO GOSSIP ABOUT HER. Assume it will get back to her. It’s also the wrong thing to do. Remember when you were a sullen teenager, formed mostly of avoidance, sarcasm, and grievances, and your parents would run into other adults who knew you, and those adults would be like “Letter Writer is the most delightful person, you must be so proud of her!” and your parents would be like “Right! We are!” but also be wondering “Who the heck are they talking about? They can’t mean the Human Thumbs Down Review we have to live with?”  People have different modes – her parental mode and/or mother-in-law mode may be very different from her work mode. Let’s hope!
  • INSTEAD, SHARE PRAISE. With her: “Dalton in Accounting told me your expense reports were the easiest to follow he’d ever seen, nice work [MIL!]”  About her: “Yeah, lol, working with my mother-in-law, not awkward at all, the dream! But you know what? She’s so excited to be here, and she is really great at [organizing thorny schedules][keeping track of the details][look just find something nice that is somewhat job related and say it, “she folds napkins the best” or “she’s always reliably on time.”]. Human beings need praise, employees need praise, the best managers motivate with praise and recognition. Look for reasons to praise her.
  • Don’t let anyone triangulate. Your MIL’s supervisor should give her feedback directly, not through you or your boyfriend. Your fellow employees should ask her questions directly. Something’s unclear? She should talk to her manager directly. She tries to pass on feedback or gossip to you? “Oh, thanks for letting me know, but I’ll just wait until So & So asks me directly.” Model the boundaries you want to see. I love my sweet MIL to pieces, but she is a KNOWN Shit Disturber who is terrified of conflict so will tell you things she wants you to know in the form of telling you what someone else said about you. That way if you don’t like it, you’ll direct the conflict at the other person. It’s masterful, really. I respect it! But I try not to fall for it.
  • Consider also, your MIL had a whole career before this where she had to get along with people and develop skills and knowledge, isn’t it better to assume that your company hired her for a reason that isn’t just a personal favor to your boyfriend, that they see something valuable in what she brings to the table?
  • Tighten up your game, generally. Your MIL will likely notice and comment on everything you do (it’s her way), so like, deploy the lint brush, sort any desk piles into smaller, more identifiable piles, refresh your memory about the rules and follow them, delete anything questionable from the Slack channel, etc.
  • If your office has a guest chair, can it be temporarily hidden in a closet or be covered in a hard-to-quickly-move pile of important documents? I’m not joking. There’s also the “The Sorkin,” as demonstrated by this hero boss back in Question 11.
  • Find a few harmless scripts that de-escalate conflict that you can repeat as necessary:
    • I always love “Thanks, I’ll think about it” for unsolicited advice (you’ll think about it and not do it, this phrasing gives the other person nothing to latch onto for an argument).
    • See also, agreeing with people if they accuse you of something. MIL: “Every time I try to talk to you, you foist me off on someone else.” You:”Yes, I guess I am doing that? I just want to make sure you have lots of professional connections here, so you don’t feel like you only have me and [son/boyfriend] to depend on!” 
    • Maybe throw out some “Crossing the streams with work and family is always a little awkward, I know we’re all doing our best to be patient with each other” if something starts to get heated.
    • To make her articulate specific requests and complaints (vs. fostering a constant vague sense of grievance) go with “Everybody wants you to do well and feel comfortable here, is there something specific I could do that would help with that?” Make her spell it out. If she won’t? You’re cleared to ignore it.
    • Is there something low stakes that  you could reasonably ask her advice about? “Now that you’re here, with all the experience you have, how do YOU handle situations like XYZ?” If she’s feeling vulnerable and anxious, reminding her that she does know things is a kind thing to do. If the advice sucks? “Thanks so much, I’ll definitely think about it!”
    • The past can bring safer conversational ground, right? “What was your first day at your very first job like?” “Did you ever think you’d be working with [Son/Boyfriend?]” “What’s the best/worst job advice anyone’s ever given you?” 
  • Your resume is up to date, right? You’re searched around a little bit for other jobs in your field? Also not a joke. If you needed to pull the ripcord professionally, could you? Think of it as insurance.

Two last points:

Remember the “let’s not bring work home/let’s not bring home to work” boundary with your boyfriend I wrote about a bunch of paragraphs back? If it’s not already your practice, consider adopting it now. If you need to vent about your MIL, talk to friends who don’t work with you or make a throwaway Reddit login like civilized people, don’t get in the habit of downloading it all on your boyfriend at night (Remember, if she’s bugging the hell out of you at work, you can solve that at work by making sure she bugs him instead.)

Finally, you will not be able to avoid your MIL entirely at work, nor should you. I realize she’s irritating, but you haven’t described behavior from her where freezing her out completely wouldn’t make you the asshole in the story. There is a minimum amount of engagement you’re gonna have to do to keep the peace professionally and in your family, so figure out what that is and find a way to do it consistently and proactively. Do you stop by her desk for a quick daily “how’s it going?” check-in around the same time every day? Do you have lunch with her & your boyfriend on payday once a month? (And redirect all lunch invitations to then, “a special treat?”)

I can tell you with some certainty that if she constantly seeks you out and you constantly avoid her, she will chase you. She will notice and comment on your avoidance, she will create friction with you, your boyfriend, and your coworkers, she will make it A Thing and bring about all the annoying stuff that you wrote to me about. In contrast, if you actively seek her out briefly at predictable times each day, you will instantly get more control over those interactions because you can walk away when you’re done vs. having to keep coming up with ways to “politely” kick her out of your office or send her to your boyfriend’s desk. If you’re consistent about it, she might feel more relaxed (You don’t HATE her, you’re just at work and you’re busy, you DO check in when you can!) and, if she does try to go all “woe is me!!!!” about it, you can know for sure that you’re doing your best with an awkward situation.

If you do your best, and she insists on being terrible, that’s on her. Your boyfriend is doing a kind thing for someone he loves. Hopefully she’ll adapt well to it. Hopefully we have armed you as well as we can against the unintended consequences.

Edited to Add: STOP commenting on whether the LW is using the exact right combination of boyfriend & mother-in-law. It affects literally nothing about the advice about what to do, but it is filling up my moderation queue with non sequiturs. Stop.

136 thoughts on “#1179: “My mother-in-law is about to become my coworker.”

  1. OP, you say you’ve had success setting boundaries with your mother in law before. This is the same thing–just in a new setting.

    Decide in advance when you’ll be available for advice, chit-chat, etc. while at work. This doesn’t have to be a lot of time, but those are normal things to do with a coworker, so you should expect to do them with her too. Once you’ve decided, stick to it–when she approaches you, tell her “I’m in the middle of something right now, but I can chat at (time) if you’re around then!” Keep it consistent each day if possible; that way, she’ll hopefully pick up on your routine and learn when she can and can’t successfully get your attention.

    Same thing goes for everything else. She wants to talk about a non-work thing? “I actually prefer to keep work and home pretty separate! Let’s save this for next time we talk at home.” She wants to gossip about a coworker? “Hm. Oh, did you see (insert subject change here)?” She wants you to have lunch with her? “I use my lunch for other plans most days, you should go ahead without me.” You already know from your existing relationship with her that she’s capable of respecting established boundaries–set clear ones here, and she’ll likely fall into line eventually.

    If she gets upset and complains to your husband, that’s his problem to handle. He’s just as capable as you are of saying “Oh, OP just prefers to keep work and home separate, that’s all! That’s what we do, too–it’s way easier to keep relationships strong that way.” It won’t cause problems for you as a couple unless he decides to let it…and then that’s on him, not her.

    1. Yes, I know there are things my partner does to gently reality check my M-I-Ls hurt feelings that only he can get away with doing, it’s smarter to let him do that. From me, those same gentle reality checks come off way too personal.

      1. I legit think you can outsource handling any Hurt Feelings she develops over this to your partner, both because he’s the one who’s her kid and because he’s had more success in the past at checking her nonsense. You set your boundaries in a way that’s reasonable for your work needs, and you make sure your partner knows what you’re doing and that you expect him to have your back. He can handle it from there!

    1. If it’s a serious enough relationship, I think that counts. We don’t exactly have a better word for “my partner-who-I-haven’t-married-but-am-in-a-serious-long-term-relationship-with’s mother”.

      1. My mother referred to her brother’s partner as “my brother-out-law” for many years. They’re now legally married, which is happy in a lot of ways but sad in that specific one. I don’t think it quite applies here, unless there are legalities intervening and the couple would otherwise like to be married, but it’s in the ballpark.

      2. My MIL said it was her one regret when I married her child, because she liked having a daughter-out-law!

    2. I’m guessing the LW and their boyfriend consider their relationship permanent and while they can’t or don’t want to get married they consider each other’s family their own family as well. Basically their MIL in every way except legally.

    3. Since being in a committed relationship but not married is quite acceptable these days, a lot of people will answer the question “Should I consider my relative’s partner part of the family?” based on their level of commitment and past relationships instead of a ceremony.

      I’m not married to my boyfriend, but we are each other’s first long-term partner, live together and both don’t care about getting married. Our quite liberally-minded families now basically consider us as “married, only not” and we are very much expected to both turn up for family occasions. We’ve met each other’s more distant relatives, and our parents, while they never actually met, know quite a bit about our partner’s family by now – and a get-together with both of out parent’s is planned for this year.

      Except for the strict legal matters, there’s nothing left that would change by us getting married. The relationship with each other’s family would be exactly the same.
      In fact, last year my mother asked for “permission” to call my boyfriend’s parents my parents-in-law, as she already accidentally referred to them as that half the time and it was getting confusing.

    4. Because English has a very limited selection of kinship terms, and “mother-in-love” is just too twee?

      1. I was pondering the various in-law/out-law puns I’ve heard people make, and realised that I could also come to like “mother-un-law” as a term! But yeah, it’s difficult to pick the right term when there is no universally accepted way of naming the relationship at the moment.

    5. Because English has a very limited selection of kinship terms, and “mother-in-love” is just too twee?

    6. I call my adult child’s partner my *de facto daughter-in-law*, or sometimes just my *daughter-in-law*My child recently had occasion to refer to their partner’s father as their *de-facto father-in-law*. It’s easier that way.

    7. Not everyone wants to get married. My aunt and uncle have been together for 30 years but aren’t married. Is his mother not her mother-in-law?

      Also what better word do you suggest?

      1. Well, after 30 years together there’s probably some common-law stuff that triggers the “in law” part of “mother-in-law.” “Partner’s mother” or “boyfriend’s mother” is the same number of syllables so I guess that’s more accurate for people without the law?

        1. Common law marriage is rarely probable, because even in the jurisdictions that recognize it, it’s not so easy to attain. Common law marriage is more than just a matter of time. The details vary by jurisdiction, but it boils down to the couple must consider themselves married and hold themselves out as married so everyone around them thinks they’re married. Calling each other boy-/girl-friend, partner, or fiance instead of husband/wife, means it’s not a marriage. Having had an engagement party or handfast ceremony is a recognition that they’re not married.

          1. Common law is super easy to get here and my aunt and uncle are legally, but honestly, after 30 years and an adult child, they would both feel ridiculous saying “boyfriend/girlfriend”. And I can’t see either of them saying “partner”.

            It’s much more common around here to say “husband” even if you’re not married. People care less about the paperwork, I think.

          2. As far as I’m concerned, a handfasting ceremony *is* being married in every way except being legally recognized.

    8. There are far too many people referring to “boyfriend’s mother” as “mother in law” and similar. She’s not your mother in law, because there’s no law calling her your mother. That’s what that means. You don’t call your boyfriend your husband, why call his mother your mother in law if you’re not willing to put the legal commitment behind it?

      I mean, that’s an ability LGBT people lose by not being allowed to marry, the ability to call their significant other’s mother their mother IN LAW… because the law is not on their side. Not everyone wants to get married, and that’s fine, but you don’t get the legal terms.

      1. No one is calling their boyfriend’s mother their MIL in order to spite you and assume a special privilege that you “get” and they don’t. It’s just the suffix people use for family members of their significant other, and there really isn’t anything better. No harm, no foul. I’m surprised to see someone so invested in who “gets” to use these terms, and also to see someone bringing up the LGBT community as part of this attempt to draw lines so severely. Huh.

        1. Flipside, I will note that (speaking as a cishet married lady) it weirded me out and is definitely not something I ever called my BF’s mother or my financé’s mother. I can understand why some people choose to use it, intellectually, but I [i]completely[/i] understand being taken aback by it, and to me the point of “if I wouldn’t call my SO my husband, I wouldn’t call his mother my MIL” is extremely sound.

          I’m not saying that people can’t use the term casually (there are very few linguistic hills I will die on in English), but I don’t think it’s unreasonable for people to expect that the term be used in the traditional sense, and I can completely understand being upset or annoyed when it isn’t used that way.

          (Also, Audrey didn’t say anyone was using the term to spite people; the observation that MIL refers to a legal relationship (that some people are denied) is true.)

      2. If the LW is in the US, “in-law” isn’t a legal term. My marrying Dude X creates a legal relationship between me and Dude X, not between me and Mom X. It’s a colloquialism all around.

        1. Yep, this. “Law” has no relationship to actual legal rights or responsibilities. It’s not as if your MIL becomes your next of kin. If you get in a car wreck with your husband, he dies but you survive, and you’re in the hospital, it’s not like she’s making medical decisions for you. She’s not. Your family of origin continue to take precedent. None of those rights convey. It’s just a linguistic turn of phrase, nothing more.

          It’s a specious argument to base some kind of exclusionary tactics on the fact that “law” means anything here. It doesn’t. No legal rights confer or are conveyed.

      3. I don’t know about where you live, but where I am, “mother-in-law” is not a legal term. You don’t, for example, become your in-laws’ next of kin and have the right to inherit anything from them or make medical decisions if they’re incapacitated and vice versa. It’s strictly a vernacular term.
        Also, same-sex couples who call themselves married, by the way, *are* married, whether the law in their country recognizes their marriage or not.

      4. I just don’t think it’s that big a deal. Some people are very technical and specific in using terms (and that’s totally okay!), and some people use whatever feels right to them emotionally (and that’s okay too). If LW is talking about their own family, then they can use whatever terms they want.

        I don’t refer to my partner as my spouse, because we’re not married (whether legally, or in a non-legal social/religious sense). But if somebody else refers to their partner as a spouse, I’m not going to interrupt them and go rushing to correct them. I know who they’re talking about, so I’ll just listen to their story and respond to the content they’re trying to communicate.

      5. [Moderator Hat On] Hi there Audrey! And Lisa! And others who are really bugged by this distinction!

        I used the Letter Writer’s language for all the people in this story verbatim because I assume that they know best about their relationship – if there’s an error here, it’s more likely there’s something they know that I don’t about the situation, and since they didn’t ask me to clarify the legal or emotional bonds in the situation and they DID ask me for workplace and relationship advice, I went with that.

        Also, as people love to point out here, the LW did not indicate their gender or pronouns, there’s one passing comment where they wonder if they are being a “raging bitch” but that’s not decisive, so before we decide to be legal eagles about this, maybe…don’t? Like is there any part of the advice that would change if these words became different or if the LW is using the words incorrectly?

        I’d like all future comments in this thread to be either:

        -Advice for what to do at work when someone from another part of your life joins your team
        -Advice for what to do in a romantic relationship when one person’s parent is a contentious issue.

        Unless of course the LW wishes to clarify, anyone wanting to continue discussing whether this is exact correct wording for the LW’s relationship, you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here. Thank you.

        P.S. I should confess that I call some people “Aunt” and “Uncle” who aren’t blood siblings of my parents and if I were writing about them to an anonymous forum I would just go with that and not add in “My parents’ good friends, who I know as Uncle Louis & Auntie Elaine” because the fact that we relate to each other as Uncle/Aunt/Niece probably is more important to the story than what’s written down in the family tree. Just a thought that we don’t have to be detectives of everything? Am I breaking the law?

        1. Yep I knew as I was hitting “Post Comment” that I should have just not commented. Sorry for starting a debate in your comment section Captain!

        2. Does the LW’s workplace know that their new employee is LW’s MIL? If that’s the case, the company may solve the problem by putting MIL in another department or transferring LW. Lots of companies don’t like the appearance of nepotism. If the company doesn’t know, LW should tell the hiring manager stat to make sure no policies are being violated.

          1. The LW’s boyfriend asked his boss to give his mother a job, so most likely their workplace does know. Either way, I think the LW could ask their boss to help with the “let’s keep family and work separate” thing, if that is not already the case.

        3. When I was growing up, we had a Grandma M & Grandpa E, who were not blood/legally related to us in any way whatsoever. They had been neighbors of my mother’s from way, way back, who had become chosen family to each other in many important ways. To my brother and I, there was no distinction between them and any of our other grandparents.
          Blood and law do not the only family ties make.

      6. Just because “law” is the etymology of the term doesn’t mean it can’t (or even shouldn’t) be used any other way. The French term for the same relationship is “belle mere”, but it isn’t only used for pretty spouse’s mothers.

      7. Actually plenty of people call their long-term, unmarried partners “husband” here.

        Also I’m queer, hi.

      8. LGBT people can refer to their partners parents/family as their in-laws if they want to, and can call their partner husband/wife as well. There is absolutely no reason on earth that they can’t or shouldn’t if they feel those terms are appropriate.
        A relationship is based on the love and commitment of the people involved in it, not on the fact that they may or may not have signed a business deal together.

      9. I have a boyfriend. In the eyes of the government he’s my defacto, which is a legal state that causes the govt to treat us as married in just about every aspect. I’m not going to refer to him as my defacto though, when I’m talking to people, I’m going to say boyfriend or partner.

        So yes, there are laws that can make your partner’s family your in-laws and they kick in just by living together for long enough, no wedding required.

    9. Could you explain specifically how your advice for handling the workplace situation would change if you knew for sure there was/was not a marriage certificate and direct any future comments in this thread toward advising the LW about what to do in the workplace? Thanks.

  2. “I always love “Thanks, I’ll think about it” for unsolicited advice (you’ll think about it and not do it, this phrasing gives the other person nothing to latch onto for an argument).”

    Oh believe me, there’s still room for argument on this one with super controlling and manipulative people, like my mum. XD

    She takes anything other than immediate and total agreement with her suggestions as a rejection. If I say “thanks, I’ll think about it!” she will keep on with “oh but I really think you should do x, will you do x?” on and on and on until I actually agree, or start a fight. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    1. Just remember, “the only winning move is not to play”. You CAN physically leave the room. It helps to always meet people like this in a space that you can leave, it’s more awkward to leave the room (and stay gone), when it’s your house! If you live together, go to your room and shut the door.

      Will she freak out? Yes. Will it feel all kinds of wrong and scary? Yes. Will you feel GREAT about setting the boundary afterwards? Also yes.

      Ask me how I know.

        1. Invest in a lock. Or calmly leave the room. Or close your eyes and pretend to be sleeping.

          The thing is, you CAN keep saying “I won’t talk about this.” They can’t actually make you. Eventually they get bored/frustrated and go away.

          If you fear for your physical safety if you did something like this, that’s valuable information. If that’s the case, local domestic violence charities can offer much better advice than I can.

          1. There is a certain point where it can come down to brute stubbornness. I used to have fights with my father that hinged on whether he ASKED me to do something (I would do it) or ORDERED me to do something (I would NOT). I never lost a single one of these fights, the longest of which lasted for SIX HOURS. (The task for that fight took me less than 15 minutes to perform, once he rephrased it as a request.)

            To be clear, I am unusually stubborn and have extremely aggressive boundary defense (my father has NPD and I learned young not to give a single inch) but my point here is to encourage people to, if it is physically safe, engage your own stubbornness a bit and see how far it can take you. People like this will try to wear you down, but sometimes it’s worth giving it a try, seeing what you can do.

          2. I’ve never lived somewhere you’re allowed to put a lock on doors that don’t already have them. And a lot of those things… would not work with people I know, in fact.

          3. @Jane: Become a fan of the arts and always have a show to be rushing off to or a film to go to. Put a chair under the handle like they do in movies.
            You have two basic options, either remove yourself from their presence so they can’t bother you or become so boring to talk at that they won’t bother you. It comes down to a willingness to stick to your choice and the letting go of the desire to control how the other person feels about you.
            (I’m used to constantly getting “negged” by people to convince me to respond or change. In the end, the only thing that worked was to accept they might see me as “so selfish” or “totally lazy” and then continue to hold my boundary in spite of that.)

        2. Depending on what kind of house/apartment you live in*, a regular non-locking doorknob can be replaced with a locking one- either one that only locks from the inside, or one that also locks from outside with a key. It’s generally a pretty quick & easy job to replace it, as you are not drilling holes or putting anything on/in the walls/doorframe, and the original knob can always be put back on later without say, a landlord ever knowing it had ever been temporarily switched at all.

          But if you think that a lock would not work (…would they get violent and bust the lock/break the door in?) , like GrumpyZena says, that’s valuable information to know. And I second her suggestion if calling a Domestic violence hotline or charity STAT.

          *I’ve lived in some oooold houses where the door frames are so off that the doors would hardly stay closed, let alone locked, and/or the holes for knobs weren’t sized properly to be replaced with standard sized modern doorknobs.

      1. Yes this is basically my strategy, I just repeat “I’m not going to talk about this anymore” until she changes the topic or I get up and leave.

        1. @Jane: I think you should examine what you mean by “would not work.” I’m guessing (I could be wrong), you mean that the person wouldn’t accept your silence, and would keep going. They’ll get more and more frustrated and angry.

          My point is that they might keep going, but they can’t keep going forever. They can get as mad as they want, you remain the same. (A HUGE caveat to this is if you fear violence or other retributions against you or your pets/possessions. If that’s true, please see domestic violence charities for help, because that is a serious situation.)

          Eventually, the other person will get tired, or bored, or need to pee, and you win. They literally cannot keep going forever. You just keep living your life as if they’re an annoying alarm you can’t turn off. Eventually they run out of batteries.

        2. When “I’m not talking about this anymore” gets old, I’ve found that totally focusing on something else while minimizing my answers even further- “yeah, mmmhmm, OK”- can work wonders.

    2. I suggest the Broken Record Technique , when this happens. “Will you do x?” can get a response of: “I need time to think about that.” (repeat as needed) Otherwise , you are worn down into acquiescence; or there is a big fight; and you are definitely not happy. .

    3. I’ve run into this also, usually about something that is not immediately actionable. (“Maybe if X happens in your career you could do Y” or “I’m just worried that Z thing you’re doing with your baby will eventually lead to problem Q”) Usually after the 6th repetition of the advice, I say something like, “You’ve suggested that many times and I’ve said I’m thinking about it. Is there a specific response you’re looking for?”

      I find that it refocuses the conversation so the “problem” to be solved is now, “this conversation is weird, what’s up with that?” And it explicitly asks the other person to solve it. Or cop to the fact that they’re just using me as an emotional dumping ground, either way.

      N.B. in my life the other person in this scenario is usually a slightly neurotic person who really wants something to fix and doesn’t realize they’ve given me that advice like 1000 times. Or people who are sort of impulsive manipulators. I have less experience using it with bad actors and cold-blooded manipulators.

    4. It’s not magical against someone who will never respect ANY boundary – you may have to leave, escalate an argument, avoid this person, etc – but it can be pretty powerful when someone is trying to bait you into an argument and you don’t give them one.

    5. I feel you on this one. I finally started meta-identifying the behavior out loud during the conversation. Because my mom does this so hard. Deferrals. do. not. work. Nothing less than acquiescence is what she is looking for. Preferably punctuated by appreciation. So like, enthusiastic acquiescence. It’s like having a stalker.

      I started saying to my mom, “Why are you not letting me say no?” and “You have to let a person say no.” “You’re doing that thing again where you’re not letting me tell you no.”

      Along those lines. Depending on exactly what the topic might be about. It might be, “You’re not letting me agree to disagree. It’s time in this conversation to let me agree to disagree.” Firmly. Not snottily. Not whiny. Just direct. Definitely not in a tone of voice that is asking permission.

      Surprisingly it doesn’t start a fight. She’s able to metabolize the information, look at herself momentarily, realize she’s being pushy and needy (which she doesn’t like and loathes in other people), and stop. It may be temporary, but she stops for a period of time. She may have some parting volley like, “Well just think about it, that’s all I’m asking.” But I’ve stopped the assault.

      So, consent basically! All those societal conversations around consent, rights, and boundaries apply here. It’s calling the stalker out on exactly the larger picture of what they’re doing and holding them accountable at that moment.

      And what can they say without looking like a crazy person? “You don’t have the right to tell me no?” 0-0I mean yeah, some moms/MILs will go that far. But they are outing themselves at that point and abdicating their entire argument. Which can then be pointed out. Again, firmly, directly, not snottily.

      Or “You’re telling me no because you’re not listening?” Okay. Sure. I’m not listening to you. That’s why it’s now time in this conversation for you to let me agree to disagree. That’s the social contract.

      Whatever they come back with, don’t get pulled back down to their level. Keep it meta. About the social contract, about consent, whatever applies. In a firm, polite, “we’re moving on” voice.

      YMMV, but it might be worth a shot!

      1. Alas, mine would just go into a self pitying rant about how I “always reject her advice”, “she’s just trying to help” etc etc. There is literally no way to respond to her where she won’t start an argument. So I usually have to bring out bigger guns of refusing to talk about that topic anymore or leaving.

      2. Alas she just goes into a self pitying rant about how I “always reject her advice”, and she’s “just trying to help” etc etc. There is literally no response that won’t start a fight. Other than refusing to discuss the topic at all or walking away.

        1. And this is where “agreeing” comes in – “You always reject my advice.” “Yes, so why don’t you learn from that and stop giving it?” “I’m just trying to be helpful!” “I hear that, so which would you rather I do – say thank you and tell you’ll think about it, or lie to you and say I’ll do it?” “I want you to follow the advice!” “Sure, but I’m not gonna, unless I think it will be helpful, so which is it – thank you or a lie? Or, alternately, we could try a thing where you don’t give me any advice unless I ask, that way nobody has to lie or be mad. See how easy that is?”

          There’s NO GOOD WAY to thwart someone like this if they’re determined, but these arguments did get less tense when I did stay strategically jovial and just kept repeating that I wasn’t going to take advice I didn’t want to do, so [my difficult person] could keep offering it and maybe get their feelings hurt or stop offering it, up to them. It’s the same with unwanted gifts – send enough back, or immediately donate/throw them away – and then they try to argue, like, “Why do you keep getting rid of my gifts” and I’m like “because I told you I didn’t want them but you insisted on buying them anyway. Why do you keep buying them when you know I’m going to throw them away?”

          It never gets FIXED, but it does (sometimes) get easier if you stay consistent. They throw up their hands and grumble things that used to be direct attacks. They sigh in the next room instead of yelling. They say stuff like “I feel like I’m not allowed to say anything helpful anymore” and you’re like “That’s right! Nope!” and you change the subject. Or you avoid them completely.

    6. there’s also the option to agree! And not actually do it.

      I mean, it’s not legally binding. It’s just words.

      If they comment later, you can say, “Well, after I thought about it, my way seemed better.”

      But especially if they might never know what you really did, LIE THROUGH YOUR TEETH if that’s what it takes to get out of the conversation.

      1. Yes I’ve tried this also, but she usually sees right through it as me just placating her and will keep going on anyway, or will keep following up later again and again and again about did I do the thing. The confrontation is inevitable so I usually just do it right away by declining all advice from her and refusing to talk about the topic.

        1. One thing that works for me with my super-controlling, uber-manipuative parent is to be really clear about what I want from her when the unsolicited advice starts rolling in:
          “Actually, I wasn’t asking for advice, I was just venting.”
          “Oh, I already know how I’m going to handle this, no need to weigh in.”
          OR: “You raised me to be a competent adult, isn’t it great that I can now figure this out for myself?”
          (This last one isn’t exactly true, but compliments distract her like beeping objects distract petulant toddlers.)

          When she starts with the pouting and angsty sighing and the “I just can’t say ANYTHING to you!” I don’t directly engage, I just kind of laugh and say, “How do you think I survive when you’re not here to give me helpy hints? Would I starve to death if you didn’t tell me where the can opener was, when it’s been in the same drawer for twenty years?”

          I try to make this scenario as ridiculous and over-the-top as I can, and sometimes she ends up laughing with me. Occasionally.

        2. There is also, “I’ve already said I’ll think about it. The more you keep bringing it up, the less likely I am to do it.” Followed by, when it’s brought up again, “ok, you kept bringing it up so I won’t do it.” And then don’t do it.

          But yeah, there’s no magic bullet phrase.

    7. Question: “If I say, ‘thanks, I’ll think about it!’, she will keep on….”

      Answer: “Thanks for thinking of me!! Luv you…bye!!” [hand-wave/hug –> skedaddle].

  3. The Captain has a lot of wonderful, specific steps and scripts for making sure this doesn’t affect you professionally (although I would add to them any standard list of tricks for dealing with a coworker you’re mistrustful of, such as making sure important information is conveyed by verifiable means such as email and saving copies).

    For the boyfriend aspect you’re worrying about, however – if MIL gets backstabby and this causes issues for you as a couple – that’s a boyfriend problem, not a MIL problem. Your boyfriend is not your manager, a theoretically impartial figure. He already should be on your side without requiring receipts of blameless behavior on your part.

    It’s great that, as you say, he’s improving at seeing through her bullshit, but if she comes to him with stories about Your Bitchy Girlfriend and he takes them to heart before applying a few grains of salt, I’d end up just as wary of him as I am of MIL, which sounds frankly exhausting.

  4. Another possible reason to avoid venting about the MIL to the boyfriend: The boyfriend may get mad at the LW for criticizing his mother. Many, many people criticize their family members, but get furious with anyone else who does so.

  5. I think most of this is great, but I’m surprised by the lunch advice. If I started working at a company where I had friends or family, I wouldn’t automatically assume we were going out for lunch or dinner on my first day. (I grew up a guess culture person and am generally pretty attuned to rules, but I’ve never heard of this one!) I also probably wouldn’t make a list of things she would find helpful to know, unless you are somehow responsible for training her. The combination of going out to lunch and giving her a list of pointers seems like they would encourage her to think of you as work friends, when it seems like the LW reallllly wants to avoid that as much as possible.

    1. I wouldn’t have thought of that either, but once I read it I saw it as setting a positive parameter to say, “This is how I am paying attention to you as a family member who just got a job where I work.” And then the other parameter to be set, if necessary, will be, “and this is how I am NOT paying attention to you, this is how I show you that I have come here to work and expect you to get to work on your own.” Kind of like in a writing group—you critique each other and importantly comment on what is working—the positive—before commenting on what needs to change/isn’t working, so that the writer being critiqued has reason to know that her efforts are not just getting the brush off. In this case, even though the LW actually does not like her MIL, that’s not the message she is trying to give here and to celebrate with her as she starts her new job is a nice way to make sure the MIL sees that distinction.

      1. Yes. I am suggesting it as a strategic tactic, where the Letter Writer preemptively does a few basic things (maybe some sort of welcome lunch with boyfriend and MIL, giving a few tips, checking in briefly). It’s not that the LW owes these things, it’s that the MIL is probably always going to expect Too Much, and giving some visible token welcome is (IMHO) a better strategy than trying to be a work robot who can’t see her. Choose to engage, choose how you’ll engage, proactively do it, display some minimum friendliness threshhold vs. waiting with dread for how she’ll unleash her weirdness in the office.

        1. This strategy is the Ultimate Mature Way to deal with this type of relationship (difficult relative in a professional setting) but I immediately see how it can be adapted to so many other ‘world’s colliding’ scenarios. It’s truly brilliant. It has the advantage of giving you a lot of control over your interactions, with out having to manage her expectations and reactions since you’re pre-emptively setting her on a comfortable path.

          LW, when you take this direction, you will impress not only your MIL but everyone else in the vicinity. And it may solve your other problems interacting with your MIL going forward.

        2. It reminds me of your tactic of setting boundaries on needy parents/guardians who want to talk on the phone /all the time; instead have one phone call a (week, month, whatever timeframe is comfortable) and direct all other non-emergency requests to that. Similarly, if they do all end up working together, LW could have some regularly scheduled (lunch, weekly coffee, whatever is tolerable), possibly with boyfriend too for buffer.

    2. I wouldn’t necessarily expect it at a company where I happened to casually know an acquaintance or two, but it would be a little odd to me if a close friend or family member didn’t acknowledge me starting up there at all. I don’t know if it has to be lunch–it could be a shared break or something–but some kind of ‘welcome aboard’ does feel appropriate to me, especially if LW is trying to ward off accusations of being cold/hating her mother-in-law.

    3. I wouldn’t assume that either, but then in my workplace the custom is for everyone to eat together (it’s a small company), and lunch would be when people from other teams got to properly meet the new person. So leaving for lunch, on the first day of all days, would be unusual and even a bit anti-social.

      1. I think that’s why Cap said that’s for if first-day lunch isn’t A Thing. It sounds like it is in your workplace, so the proactive first day welcoming would be something else.

    4. I’d ask the MIL’s manager to take her to lunch on the second day, and then I’d make plans w/ MIL to lunch on the THIRD day. I wouldn’t want to set up some “I always go to lunch” expectation. So making “lunch together” be “something we have to plan ahead, it doesn’t just happen” would help with that.

      1. oops, I meant, “lunch w/ manager or direct colleagues on the FIRST day” and “lunch w/ me by specific arrangement a bit later in the week”

        Begin as you mean to go on.

  6. OP, do you and I have the same MiL? She’s all pleasant on the outside but out of the public eye, she’s controlling and manipulative. Fortunately I’ve never had to work with her.

  7. If there is even a hint of “BF is too busy but you, LW who is also AT WORK and WORKING are not” shut that shit down ASAP.
    Nobody’s got time for sexist expectations about whose work is more important and whose work is interruptible.

    If her son is actually too busy, then nobody has time to take MiL out.

    1. Ah, I should have finished reading comments before posting. I am not the only one whose hackles went up at that.

  8. LW was at the job first and presumably has established a good reputation, has earned co-workers’ respect, etc. MIL risks looking like a fool or a troublemaker if she tries stirring any pots at work. Perhaps a comforting thought for LW to keep in mind.

  9. “People have different modes – her parental mode and/or mother-in-law mode may be very different from her work mode. Let’s hope!”

    This is exactly what I was thinking. She uses niceness-manipulation to wield power within the family dynamic, but it doesn’t *necessarily* follow that it’s her M.O. everywhere. She may just be a scary person, or she may be aware enough to realize that that shit won’t work with a bunch of fellow adults whose diapers she didn’t change when they were babies, and she may act like a pretty OK person in the new context.

    Let’s hope!

  10. Also check out Ernie K. Doe’s 1961 #1 Billboard hit, “Mother-in-Law.” 🙂

    Good luck, LW!

  11. It might also help to have a candid conversation about exactly the level of professionalism you need to have in your workplace. “MIL, in order to be successful and stay on the bosses good side, I’m expected to X” or “….it’s really frowned on when I do Y” That way you’re shifting the “I can’t hang with you, MIL” blame to your superiors, or the office culture itself, not to your personal relationship.

    Also, is there a way to head off problems at the pass with (seemingly) casual comments about your workplace culture. Can you say stuff like, “One of the things I love about the Office is that everyone respects privacy there – nobody tries to pry into each other’s personal life.” Or “I just love my coworkers – everyoen steps up to the plate to get stuff done, even when there’s a challenge.” Assuming statements like that are true….it might get the message across to MIL that she’d look out of place if she comes in gossiping or starting up a pity party.

  12. In general, it’s better not to be too chummy at work with friends and relatives who also happen to be coworkers. It can look unprofessional; if you’re unequal in status it can make people wonder if one of you is getting preferential treatment; and you can just plain burn out on each other’s company. That alone might get you a lot of protection, because it’s true and it also doesn’t need to be personal. I’ve worked with people who were close, long-term friends and, yeah, we talked about friend stuff occasionally but we didn’t go Full BFF at work, because . . . not a good idea.

    1. Yes. I sit next to my husband at work (literally, right next to him) and just about the only time you’d know we were married is when we’re discussing errands between phone calls (we work in a phone center) or when we peck each other good bye when one of us leaves before the other.

      You don’t want to put your relationships on full display at work; it makes things weird for everybody.

  13. Love the suggestion about the guest chair! I work with my dad — we don’t work closely together and it’s a big campus, but he pretty frequently has work reasons to be near my office talking to other people, and for the first year that I worked here I turned down many kind offers from facilities to find me a nice guest chair for my office. It was a little inconvenient sometimes, but my dad was already stopping by my office to chat more often than I liked, and I really, REALLY did not want to make my office more welcoming until I had trained him that I was available a maximum of once per week for lunch and 5 minutes a day for chit-chat and that was ALL.

    1. The other thing I sometimes do ifi don’t want people hanging around my cube is standing up when the enter (and continuing to stand the whole time they are there). This allows me to be friendly and happily greet them, while encouraging them to leave.

  14. In Scotland the name for (usually) women who destroy you with kindness is a ‘Nippy Sweetie’. They can be brutal. One of them once explicitly outlined to me the effort they go to to insult or upset people in a way that sounds completely innocuous if the wounded party ever tried to push back or complain. The Captain, as ever, has some great advice. I’ve had success in the past by reacting as if I have taken the kindest interpretation of any conment and any alternative just didn’t occur. This can be disarming as what can they do while still maintaining the facade of niceness? Say ‘when I said your skirt was cool and retro, my mum used to have a pattern just like that, I actually meant it looks like the blanket we line my dogs bed with’? Oblivious presumtion of good intent blunts the pointed barbs of nippy sweeties everytime.

    1. I actually call this the ‘Dr. Molly Clock’ defense, from the TV show ‘Scrubs’. Basically, Dr. Clock really pissed off the grumpy Dr. Cox by just NOT getting his insults. I occasionally used this at work against nasty customers.

      Nasty Customer (sneering at my white fringed wrap)- Is that a blanket?

      Me- Oh, yes, sir, it makes a great blanket! I recently drove to (Neighboring State) to meet one of my favorite authors! The hotel room was really cold, so I threw it on top of the blankets to keep warm.

      Nasty Customer (coming for round two)- (Neighboring State)? They know how to read there?

      Me- Oh, yes, sir! They had a wonderful bookstore, and it was amazing to meet the author! He writes such wonderful books.

      Nasty Customer (finishes buying his books and slinks off in defeat.)

      1. hi! i love doing things like this with customers. i work in an area where you are legally required to buy a bag if you would like a bag for your purchases. occasionally i will get push back “i’m spending tons of money here and i have buy a 25 cent bag?”

        me: “unfortunately, its the law. they voted for it in 2012”

        customer: “EYE didn’t vote for it. can i split the difference and pay 12.5 cents for it?” (thinking this is clever)

        me: “kind sir, are you the Feds? i don’t want to get in trouble…” *wraps purchase very very nicely and charges for the bag*

        customer either laughs or scoffs in defeat.

    2. I do this… I didn’t realize, but I really am that oblivious. I have never in my life encountered more than maybe one-two people who I thought to myself “oh gosh, rude!” But I realize when you say that, I have just assumed the best of people for so long, I’m probably just disarming the occasional NS without even realizing!

  15. I have nothing to add but I wanted to let you know that I love how you give such great, neutral, thorough advice. You always provide highly useful scripts and practical solutions to any potential “what ifs”. Your advice always allows some flexibility for a person to adjust it in a way that that will make them comfortable using it. You really cover the bases and I love reading your responses as they almost always teach me something about how to look at things a different way or how to handle myself in weird situations.

  16. OP, I’m a little wary of this: “I know that she’s going to play the victim and tell my boyfriend I’m a horrible person because I don’t want to be her friend and I fear that this could cause serious issues for us as a couple.”

    You’ve gotten a lot of great advice for addressing the immediate situation, but I would also suggest sitting down and having a larger, more general conversation with your boyfriend using this exact sentence.

    “Boyfriend, I’m worried that working with your mother will put us in a situation where she is telling you bad things about me, and it’s going to cause issues for our relationship. Can we talk about how you’re going to manage it if this situation comes up?”

    What serious issues could this cause? Would your BF believe his mom, and see you as being a bad person? Would your boyfriend not believe his mom, but still feel torn between taking “sides”? Would your boyfriend not believe her, but feel annoyed that you weren’t playing along with her to keep the peace?

    Many people see it as trust = sexual fidelity. Maybe you can raise this issue with him by complicating that. In the end, this is a conversation about trust, not his mom. Can you trust him to support you? Can you trust him to believe you? Can you trust him to protect the relationship against issues like this? Does this fear stem from the fact that you can’t trust him to do those things?

  17. LW, is this your dream job? If so, the Captain is spot on.

    If not, maybe this is a sign from the universe to take a look around at other opportunities. Check some job listings and see if there’s something out there that pays more/offers better benefits/would mean a shorter commute/has a more inspiring mission/has a comfier office with more perks.

    It doesn’t have to be a negative thing about your MIL – just from a financial risk perspective, it’s good for your family not to have all your eggs in one basket. What if there are layoffs at this workplace and you’re all downsized at once? And when you’re job-hunting from a place of strength, you can emphasize how the new opportunity was too good to pass up.

    You can’t choose your family, but sometimes you get to choose where you work.

    1. Oh. Wow.

      I’m not at my dream job. I have been looking for a new place for 2 years.
      I’m still at the same not-dream job.

      So… maybe not the most accessible advise.

      1. It depends. “Dream Job” is a higher bar than I would set, but maybe, “job you generally enjoy / find fulfilling” or “job with significantly higher salarly than nearby comproable jobs.” Job searching can be really demoralizing for sure; I’ve been there in a situation where I was almost completely unemployed for eleven months and it was just miserable. The constant rejections can feel surreal, like, “am I really off about my skillset? Am I having a dunning-kruger thing happening?” It didn’t help that I couldn’t fill the gap with anything involving physical labor, walking or standing much, or carrying anything (so, no food service, retail, dog-sitting, or custodial work) yet was really avoiding applying for SSDI. In hindsight, I should’ve applied for SSDI as soon as I graduated from college.

        But, even having had that experience, I also found it helpful to ask myself in other circumstances, “what am I getting out of this job? am I only here due to inertia?” And, “what possible risk am I taking for a possible gain?” I’ve found that risking the sting of rejection while I’m gainfully employed is much easier than feeling rejection when I was unemployed, so sending out applications was a low-risk, potentially high-reward situation.

        Personally, the last time the answer to the inertia question was yes, I transitioned into a freelance / contractor / self-employed version of my work. I make less money and have to buy my own insurance through the healthcare.gov site, but my standard of living is still good and my quality of life is much better. So, it can be worth for the LW to ask, “is this thing [in LW’s case, her MIL becoming her coworker] significantly lowering my quality of life?” And at least factor that in.

        Obviously YMMV! Sending out applications is not going to be a choice worth the emotional risk and time cost for everyone.

      2. I personally don’t think it’s a bad thing to consider. The person you’re responding to is just commenting that as one of many options available. It’s not being presented as the only solution, just one of the options to consider if it’s feasible (which it won’t be for some people).

        1. As someone who used to work with my husband I agree.

          In addition to other difficulties, it’s good to diversify the sources of your incomes. There was this horrible weekend a few years back when the company was about to default and we knew that we would both loose our jobs at the same day if it happened.

          It took me many years to move because I loved my job and I wanted to move for something better, but there is no harm in being open minded about it.

          1. also, sometimes it’s just encouraging to look. It keeps you from feeling trapped, even if you don’t actually apply to anything.

  18. I just want to cheer lead the potential necessity to start looking for new jobs now.

    This is going to be super dependent on where the OP works, but I’ve worked at really large places where if folks are spread across departments it’s easy to never see one another for days. I’ve worked in smaller places, where not only would more boundary setting need to happen – but it could also mean having to curtail office social rituals. I used to work at a small-medium sized office where there were lots of groups of people who’d get lunch together, do morning or afternoon coffee runs, and informal impromptu happy hours. A number of people developed friendships with their coworkers truly beyond the office. If I were in the OP’s situation in that work place, it would feel like I’d need to stop doing a lot of things that made working there fun (or to be more fair, tolerable).

    I think that the Captain provides a really strong distinction between “professional niceness” and “personal/family niceness”. But if this is all with someone you want strong boundaries with, that can be hard. Coworkers ask “what did you do over the weekend”, “what are your vacation plans”, “have any hobbies” etc.- and there’s no way to truly cut out those social niceties while retaining professional niceness. That means the work of repeatedly enforcing boundaries so that you don’t end up sliding into bad habits is active and difficult.

    Prelude to this story – I have regularly struggled to set and maintain boundaries with my mom. Once upon a time ago, I used to work for a giant organization where my mom also worked. When I first started, we never saw each other and it was no big deal. Then we started getting lunch together about once a week? Maybe, it was nice.and usually took about 30-45 minutes tops. Then I started having problems in my relationship and I ended up having about hour long lunches with my mom almost every day of the week where I’d often end up crying in the cafeteria. (It was a hospital, crying in the cafeteria wasn’t all that uncommon – but still, not a great professional look on my part for sure)

    By the time it snapped together that I had allowed a very negative habit to form and that this was not helping me – it meant having to reset boundaries and all the emotional work that went with that.

    Had I worked at that hospital long term, I would always know I’d have to be more alert with my mom in that regard. That the potential for boundary sliding would always be there and that resetting them would be extra stress. And that sounds exhausting.

    So yeah – start looking for new jobs now.

  19. “Oh, I don’t want to bother him at work, he’s so busy”

    Am I the only one whose hackles go up at that? It just feels so insulting. Like “he’s so busy, but you’re not or your work isn’t as important.”

    I hope LW’s MIL doesn’t do that but argh! it would be hard to keep my cool if she did.

    1. I mean, that would be really insulting, but I think that was a hypothetical on the captain’s part, not something that MIL has actually done or hinted at doing so far? I can’t find it in the original letter. (unless it was edited out)

  20. If you were entertaining the notion of moving to a different company, this sounds like a great time to making that more concrete.

    I’m one who really doesn’t like to “mix the streams” in my life. I like work to be work and other things to be other things. The situation sounds like a potential nightmare to me.

    1. Yes, that’s what I would be thinking too. I would absolutely hate working with a relative I *liked* and this sounds like an actual nightmare. I think the Captain’s advice is spot-on for working with her, but I’d absolutely be looking for other opportunities.

  21. It might be worth considering that if MIL is that difficult a human, it might reflect badly on LW and Son of MIL. Just a thought! I don’t envy you and good luck, truly!

  22. In hopes of alleviating your anxiety about this, LW, a short story:

    A few years ago I worked in a creative field that required a lot of emotional labor from me toward most/all of the people I was working with, and I had a particular colleague who was, shall we say, completely fucking exhausting – call her Joan. Joan was a hypochondriac who was also always having personal crises and would be suffering greatly through some kind of illness or another, not engaging in the actual work much of the time, but observing through tears and “taking notes” for when she was physically capable. It was possibly a legitimate thing, but the ways in which Joan brought productive sessions to a screeching halt with one of her health crises was utterly exhausting and it was definitely a huge toll for me having to babysit her when she would neither excuse herself nor participate but also needed attention, and then her interpersonal relationships were also taxing as there was always drama with one person or another. I made a personal vow after the contract expired to never work with Joan again.

    Fast forward a few years; I was working as an educator in the same creative field – teaching students how to create rather than creating myself. A colleague called and asked how I felt about Joan, as she had applied to a position on our team and they knew I had worked with her previously. Very tactfully, I hope, I expressed reservations. I explained that I had not enjoyed my experience with her as there was generally an awful lot of labor involved in simply making Joan capable of working. I was acknowledged, but Colleague ultimately decided that Joan was the best fit.

    It turns out, in an entirely different environment where Joan had to be the adult, she was almost a different human being. She was funny, she was together, she had ideas, we collaborated well, we very often served as emotional support for each other in working with our students. She only stayed for one school year but she will forever be one of my favorite co-workers.

    It’s possible MIL (jeebus who tf cares about this title y’all SERIOUSLY) may be a different person when she’s in work mode. She may not be, and she may be exactly as exhausting as you fear. Hopefully she’ll pull a Joan and you can see her in a different light. Fingers crossed for you.

  23. I’m angry on the LW’s behalf that the boyfriend opened up the workspace to the MIL without LW being on board. People in comments are (quite reasonably) suggesting the LW needs to look for another job now, a way out of the company, etc. That is also what happens when people are harassed at work, the kind of cumulative discrimination that hits women, POC and others where instead of snowballing up the ladder of one company (if I can torture a metaphor), you lose traction as you have to jump-start yourself at a different company. It just so happens that LW’s boyfriend put her in this same position, while he himself is apparently not taking on the same risk. Just like it just so happens that it’s “easier” for the lower earner to relocate for the higher earner, take this and that hit to their own career, until their own career is eventually dwarfed by the partner’s. I bring this up because this letter is rife with, “am I being unreasonable??” “Am I being a raging bitch?” i.e. questions people ask when they feel angry and hoodwinked. I don’t think the LW is unreasonable for these feelings both individually, and in the larger social context. No matter the LW’s gender, the dynamic can happen and they’re probably aware of this on some level, but especially if they’re a woman. LW, you have reasons to be frustrated and maybe this comment will help you logically pin them down. I don’t know how helpful this is, strategically, in dealing with the MIL at work. The Captains advice about that seems really good.

    1. Yeah, I would feel like being consulted is a mark of respect for the impact on my professional life, if my partner dropped that ball then I’d hope he’d apologise and plan a strategy with me. To me, if a couple are both working and contributing to running a home, these decisions need to be made together. If boyfriend avoided doing that to avoid the difficult issue, that is a worry.

    2. I’d like to +1 this!

      There’s so much good advice here already about surviving the situation with a minimum of hassle, but I think it’s also very much worthwhile for LW to take periodic stock of the health of their romantic relationship. Things that make me cautious of the wider context include:
      – As mentioned above, LW asking if they are being “unreasonable” or “a raging bitch;” has boyfriend used this language to gaslight LW?
      – Also as mentioned above, boyfriend making this major change to LW’s work situation without their involvement
      – The acknowledgement that boyfriend has gotten “better” about managing boundaries with MIL; progress is great, but it does not erase LW’s ongoing stress and suffering if a gap that still exists between “where boyfriend is” and “where boyfriend needs to be in order to be a fully healthy and supportive partner.” Women and femme folks especially face expectations of tolerating bad behavior simply because it’s less egregious than it used to be.
      LW, you are entitled to being treated WELL, not just better than you have been in the past. If you feel open to it, I cannot overstate how helpful a therapist can be in counteracting gaslighting – even if it’s not happening anymore, it can be hard to return to a place of normalcy where you trust yourself after being gaslit by someone you trust. If it’s feasible, a therapist could be a great tool in managing this situation, ensuring that your ongoing assessment of your relationship is fair to you and adequately prioritizes your happiness and satisfaction, and generally developing and maintaining a reasonable and healthy expectations.

    3. tcmonster, I really appreciate your comment. I felt angry about this letter, too, but was having a hard time understanding why. You nailed it. It reminds me of how, in so many circumstances in my life, the “perfect solution” for those around me wasn’t at all perfect for me, but I was expected to happily accommodate it. I’m learning to give my own needs/preferences the weight they deserve and it feels good.

      I also wish for LW to find a way to cope in this situation that feels authentic to them. While LW needs to find a polite and professional way to work with MIL, just as they would with any co-worker they found difficult, I hope they won’t feel pressured into being more welcoming and friendly than they actually feel, since false friendship hurts everyone in the long run. The person offering it can feel phony and resentful. The person receiving it often eventually recognizes that it isn’t sincere and gets hurt.

      LW, this isn’t easy territory, and I hope your fears about what might happen don’t play out. You are not being unreasonable.

    4. Yeah, this jumped out at me too. I don’t like the fact that “MIL needs a job we need to help her” trumps the LW’s comfort level at their place of employment. I think the Captain’s advice to set boundaries and treat MIL in a pre-emptively cordial and collegial manner is really great, and hopefully MIL will get on board and behave in a professional way. But if MIL does not get on board, I also think it’s good for LW to have a backup plan. Which is to say, keep a paper trail if MIL instigates any manipulative shenanigans at work. LW has been there much longer and no doubt has amassed more social capital. In the LW’s shoes, I’d be careful to categorize any MIL-related issues into two buckets: “MIL just being generally annoying, but not AT me,” and “Things MIL is doing on purpose that could possibly derail my career.” And keep track of the latter.

  24. It isn’t 100% clear to me how big this workplace is. If there are lots of departments and other people, this might end up being a problem that (thankfully) doesn’t happen if she works in a different part of the company.

    The other thing LW has in her corner is the fact she already works there. If it becomes known that MIL is going to start working there, she can lay groundwork with coworkers ahead of time. Not in a nasty way, of course, but to say, “the company just hired a woman named Jane. She’s Tom’s mom and my mother in law. I hope it isn’t awkward that we’re related, so I’m going to try to keep things as professional as possible so we don’t blur lines.” Is the “line” that you’re BFFs with her or that you don’t like her? Doesn’t matter! You don’t have to say! You can just say you’re working to keep it professional so other coworkers don’t wonder why LW might seem a little stiff with the new employee. And then they can form their own relationships with her. If she’s as awful as LW says – they’ll reach that conclusion on their own in due time.

    Also, LW knows MIL in the context of the MIL/DIL relationship. LW doesn’t necessarily know how she behaves at work. She could show up and be Mrs. Prudence Professional and be an entirely different person than she is in her non-work life.

  25. LW, I just wanted to let you know that if you want to read even more about your professional options here, there is a whole advice column dedicated to life at work! It’s called Ask a Manager, and it’s wonderful. Jennifer (author of Captain Awkward) and Alison (author of Ask a Manager) have even answered some questions together in the past. Here’s one letter that might help you, but you can search for more.


  26. Just want to say: I haven’t read anything but the title, and I’m mentally hiding under the bed with a fuzzy blanky over my head.

    This needs the kind of really, really firm boundaries that you get when a teacher suddenly has her own kid in the classroom. And that’s hard to set up, and even hard to maintain!

    So take a tip from the literature over at Our Lady of Perpetual Diet, and when you slip up, remind yourselves of the boundaries and start fresh.

  27. LW, you know your MIL best. Would it be helpful and practical to have this conversation in advance? I worked at a particular food service establishment for six years, and some of my siblings got jobs there as well. Before they started, we generally had a quick talk about how we wanted to act at work, which basically boiled down to “We’ll act only like colleagues and pretend we don’t know each other outside work when we’re at work.” Having that decided before the new person joined the team was a load off my mind.

  28. It may help to remember that MIL has been unable to find a job that uses the skill set she has learned and applied for years. It hurts. Then she tried things she could likely do on her head and still couldn’t get a job. On top of that, older women still tend to be marginalized. She may feel she moved from experienced, financially independent, and capable person to person who had to be saved by family. Yikes.

    Doesn’t change your work behavior; may help you keep your calm vibe.

  29. I’m not really happy at the suggestions that the LW should have to quite her job if the MIL makes trouble.

    I think one of the things the LW should say, gently, to her boyfriend is that he knows how his Mom is. And that, although the LW understands why he felt compelled to help, there needs to be the understanding that if his Mom causes trouble for LW at work, the boyfriend will need to talk to Mom and insist Mom be the one to leave.

    Insisting that the LW has to quit a long standing job I am sure she is good at, so a passive-aggressive pot-stirrer can keep the job she just got through her son’s nepotism is unfair, and punitive to the wrong person. And I think an agreement, upfront, that if there’s trouble the MIL will bow out, can keep the MIL’s shenanigans under control. Because if the boyfriend can make the MIL understand that, if MIL can’t stay professional, she – not the LW – would be the one out of a job.

    Yes, I understand that the boyfriend won’t want to have this conversation. But it’s the LEAST he owes his girlfriend. That’s her livelihood he messed with!

    Not cute. Not cute at all.

    1. “…there needs to be the understanding that if his Mom causes trouble for LW at work, the boyfriend will need to talk to Mom and insist Mom be the one to leave.”

      How does the boyfriend have any leverage to make his mother quit her new job? It’s unlikely in the extreme that MIL would agree, upfront or at any time, that she’s a shit-stirrer whose shenanigans need to be controlled, or that her son gets to be her unofficial manager, or that any problem she has with LW is automatically MIL’s fault. I mean, it would be nice if she did, I guess? But this advice is not realistic.

    2. I also think it’s really premature to suggest that LW plan to leave. It’s an option if things become totally untenable, of course–but that’s not a given at this point.

      I think LW should be prepared to set boundaries (“I’m in the middle of something, so I can’t chat right now”), redirect their mother-in-law (“I can’t do lunch today, but you should check with [partner], maybe he’s free!”), and document any problems (“Hey manager, I’m having an issue I’d like to get your advice on. [Mother-in-law] has been spending a lot of time trying to socialize with me since she started here. I get it–we’re related, and everyone likes a friendly face when starting at a new place–but the constant interruptions are starting to interfere with my ability to get things done. Telling her I’m busy doesn’t seem to be getting the point across; do you have any suggestions for what I could try next?”). They (or their partner) might need to upset their mother-in-law at some point by saying “I know we’re related, but LW needs to focus on work while they’re at work. They’re not there to be your go-to chat buddy. Please back off and leave them alone.”

      But ultimately, LW has been there longer, and has a professional relationship already established. If the mother-in-law is causing professional problems, the odds are good that LW’s manager will be able to see that it’s caused by the new arrival, not the already-trusted employee. That’s a fairly easy situation to see through.

      For what it’s worth, though, I doubt the partner has any ability to make his mother quit. He does need to stand by LW; he needs to 1) back her up on whatever boundaries she decides to set, and 2) not let it impact their relationship if his mother throws a fit over being told no. But unless he’s actually the boss, I’m betting he has no real power to determine whether the mother-in-law will keep her job or not.

  30. LW I recommend checking out Reddit’s Just No Mil sub and potentially posting there with your question. I see some red flags from what you posted that may indicate your MIL and boyfriend have an enmeshed relationship. Is he able to set boundaries with her? Is she constantly tagging along/ does she feel like the third wheel in your relationship? Does she rely on him an extraordinary amount and has that always been the cas? If this resonates then I think some of the captains advice might not apply here/ therapy for you boyfriend and potentially for you as a couple may help. If you have concerns around the nature of your boyfriend’s relationship to his Mom then I recommend checking out this sub and posting for help there: https://www.reddit.com/r/JUSTNOMIL/

  31. If she gets a job at the company two of her relatives work at, she needs to behave professionally. That’s the bare minimum. If she’s completely incapable of realizing that, then he’s got no business recommending her for a job there. If she’s that destructive and oblivious, she’s a time bomb waiting to happen.

    I don’t thing telling the LW her only option is to quit her job is sensible or reasonable advice. Why should she be unemployed and out of work, rather than her MIL?

  32. LW you’ve got two things going for you (aside from the genius advice to be Officially Nice at a welcome lunch).
    1) You’re on your home turf at work. She can’t pull dominant female of the pack crap there without looking super weird. Surround yourself with familiar wagons.
    2) It would piss me off if a partner made a change like that without consulting me, but I guess that means you’re officially not involved in this plan! Stress this with:
    ” I would have warned you I was too busy before you got her the job but you didn’t ask”
    “You didn’t ask me to be her work friend or I could have told you it was a huge nope! Happy to still do x day dinner as per the plan you DID consult me on.”
    ” If you were hoping to give your mum part of my work day along with getting her a job, you should have asked if that was okay with me”
    “It’s too late to include me in this plan now but I wish you the best of luck with it!”
    “You got your mum the job, this is your problem.”
    “Yes we do have a problem. I am beginning to see the future when it comes to your mother’s demands of me. Show me the backup I can expect to get in that future.”

  33. Dear LW,
    Jedi hugs to you! I also work for the same company as my partner and we both enjoy that. However, the thought of your partner bringing your MIL into the work situation makes me cringe and your concerns seem very reasonable to me.

    Right now you have to put effort into managing boundaries with her (and into getting your husband to see your side of things) in your spare time and (hopefully) not too often – but if she works at the same company, that effort is suddenly a day-in, day-out thing on top of your other responsibilities.
    For example, the suggestion to give up lunch with your partner makes sense, but would be emotionally very tough for me (I have lunch with my partner when we are both in the office, and it would be hard for me to give up). I guess what I’m saying is that it could feel really unfair to suddenly have to put in place all these safeguards and changes, and those are valid feelings whether these problems come to pass or not.

    I’m not 100% sure whether your partner spoke to you before getting her the position, but if not, that could be something to address as well (He knows you are uncomfortable around her, right? So major side eye if he went ahead with this without asking you first.)
    I don’t have any specific advice (the Captain’s words are excellent) but this sounds like a tough situation. I would encourage you to talk to your partner about the burden that this decision puts on you and what he will do. If you like your job, I would personally not go all the way to quitting until you see how things shake out.

    Hope it goes well, and if not, trust yourself and your needs.

  34. I’ve been been bothered by the suggestions that LW consider finding another job if MIL is too much, and I finally figured out why.

    If MIL becomes more than LW wants to deal with, to the point where LW is considering changing jobs, I think it likely that in addition to a MIL problem, LW has a boyfriend problem.
    LW, if you ever start thinking you’d be better off in a different job, please take a good hard look at what your bf has and has not done to mitigate the situation he created. Is everything solid there, only that his mother is out of control? Or has the episode revealed some significant incompatibilities between you?
    I’d hate for you to leave a job you like and are good at because of your MIL, only to then break up with your bf.

    1. I don’t think the LW should have to find another job (and yes, the entire boyfriend should go in the bin if this blows up in everybody’s face) but I mentioned updating the old resume somewhere in the post because I want the LW to have maximum options if something does blow up at work (or at home, or anywhere in this shitty situation). Like, at least think about what you’d do if you had to find another job, protect yourself, make sure you have maximum options, be honest that the cleanest exit might be “enjoy each other, fam, I work/live/exist elsewhere now!” even if that’s not the optimal or fairest outcome. I’ve never regretted reminding myself that I’m not bound to one specific company if shit goes south, could be family drama, could be the company wants a slightly cuter 4th quarter balance sheet, their loyalty isn’t to me, if a situation at home might jeopardize my work situation there are fights to be had at home but one fight at work is “what color is my parachute and do I know where the ripcord is?”

Comments are closed.