#1245: “My Brand New Stepfather Thinks We Are On The ‘LW’S Mom Is Terrible Train’ Together. Help?”

Dear Captain,

I (34/she/her pronouns) have a new stepfather as of this summer. He has been with my mom off and on for the last 10+ years, and they finally married in July 2019. I think this man is a Garbage Human, but we have to let our parents make their own adult decisions.

A bit of background – my highly narcissistic mom and I have reached a detente after several years of fighting and NC (no contact). She knows what sort of leash she is on, she knows that access to her only granddaughter depends on her good behavior. We mostly get on ok.

SF seems to be of the opinion that he can smack talk my mother’s shopping habits to me when she is not there. I could use some scripts to help deflect him, because while I am very frequently in my first class compartment on the “My Mom is Awful” train, I do not want my stepfather as a seat mate.

Help?
This Train Has No More Room

Hello This Train Has No More Room:

Oh yeah, shut it down.

Your stepdad humorously venting or having “Hey, is this normal, or…?” or “Here’s what’s going on with me” conversations with a close friend or other trusted member of his personal council of advisors is within bounds, but you don’t have to join that advisory board.

He’s either trying to bond (badly), assuming y’all are much closer than you are, or sending out a triangulation advance scouting team to test things like “Will LW not repeat mean stuff to her Mom?” and “But will she repeat the stuff I strategically want her to, so it comes from her and not me?” but it doesn’t really matter what he’s after, you can still opt right out. He could be like “I’m just making conversation, your mom is what we have in common” and you could still decide “Nope!” He doesn’t have to be aware of the history of how much effort it’s costing you to even be around him and your mom for you to decide “I’d prefer not to,” and you don’t have to explain yourself.

You don’t have to explain yourself, but silence will only encourage him to continue, so the next time he tries this you’re going to have to say something. Possible scripts:

  • “Wow, what a weird thing to say to me about my mom.” + redirect your attention away from that topic. 
  • “Sounds like a good one to talk about with Mom, a therapist, and…nope, actually just those two.” + redirect your attention.
  • “I thought we covered this: Don’t say anything to me about my Mom or anyone in my family that you wouldn’t say when they’re in the room.” Then, redirect your attention.
  • “‘Ladies be shopping’? Whoa, save it for the comedy club!” There is a decent chance he is one of the legions of shame-proof straight, cisgender men who are convinced they could do stand-up professionally despite never once having made a person who wasn’t dependent on them for a salary, lunch tip, or lucrative sales contract authentically laugh. If he comes back with “Ha, I’ve always known I could do stand-up!” try “Sure. Pose as a time traveler from 1983, and let me know when it is so I can not be there.” Then redirect attention, etc.
  • Use your “Yikes.” “Wow.” “What.” “Nope!” “But jokes are funny.” as necessary and then redirect your attention.
  • You could ask him, “When you say mean stuff about my mom what is the reaction you are hoping for?” but do you actually want to know? If you think he’s looking for an excuse to expound, don’t use this one.

Redirecting your attention could mean:

  • Being very terse, flat, and boring in your reactions.
  • Changing the subject.
  • Leaving the room. Doesn’t have to be a dramatic exit to make a point, wandering away because you need a glass of water or to make a phone call or use the rest room does the job.
  • Ending a phone call, social media back-and-forth, or text conversation. Anything from “Ok, gotta go” to not replying to selective replying to using “mute” and other filters to best serve you.
  • Starting up a pleasant side conversation with someone else in the room.
  • If you are a person who tends to space out, harness it. Were we still talking about that thing? Who knows? You kinda spaced out there for a second. (Might as well make it work for us for once).
  • “Rudely” disappearing into your phone. Sometimes the people in the internet are much nicer than the ones we’re related to, sometimes “Oh, sorry, I’m getting distracted by this work message, I need to handle it, if you’ll excuse me” is what gets you out of the moment.
  • Over time, limiting contact with people who routinely stress you out. You know all about that, Letter Writer!

I know I’ve recommended all the above actions individually a whole bunch, but I started thinking of them as a unit to be filed under “redirecting your attention” during the holiday posts, some of the “reasons are for reasonable people” and “why do we spend so much time and energy on the worst people?” discussions, and definitely as part of a “do less” approach to fraught relationships. We spend so much time and energy worrying about communicating with people who don’t give a single shit about our feelings or our comfort. Can “do even less!” in 2020 be about changing that equation?

For example, politely changing the subject is useful, I’m a fan, I like to let people save face and de-escalate situations when I can. But how long do we have to knowingly walk into certain rooms with a list of safe, innocuous topics that we extensively strategized about beforehand, and then cheerfully toss them out like a gym teacher distributing tennis balls at the beginning of class and pretend this is normal, neutral thing to have to do?

Do we have to pull every mean and annoying person we know aside and earnestly and patiently discuss our boundaries, or spend all family gatherings navigating patiently around the people we don’t like and didn’t come to see? Or can we say a quick “hello” for routine politeness’ sake and because it would take more effort to freeze them out, and then go talk to the people we actually like?

When someone says something out of line, can it be enough to say “Jeez Louise! What a weird thing to say” and then skip right to “Oh hey, there’s Louise, I’m going to bring her a glass of water” and keep it moving right out of that conversation? Not as a way to “reinforce the boundary” or convince anybody of anything, more like, that’s done, now I’m reclaiming my attention and re-directing it where I want it to go, somebody else can change the subject for a change.

‘Cause sometimes what the person who is behaving badly wants most is more of your attention, by any means necessary, and if they don’t get the initial high-five or commiseration or invitation to expound they hoped for, they’re willing to be loud and wrong if it means they can suck you into a longer conversation where you discuss the subject by which they mean they get to talk more about it. 

If your stepdad is one of these people, being told “no” is just fine, he’ll promise he won’t say mean things about your mom anymore, but that doesn’t mean he’s gonna shut up, not when he’s just gotten started, can he interest you in a long, involved back-and-forth about why he is the Normal, Cool, Reasonable One Who Is Trying Here and you are the Touchy, Humorless One Who Can’t Take A Joke, Just Like Your Mom, now with extra bad faith? It’s entirely possible that the more you try to talk about stuff you don’t want him to share, the more opportunities he has to try to “discuss” your mom with you, which…is exactly what you don’t want.

Emotional sea-lioning is still sea-lioning, someone whose opinions you don’t care about being “very concerned” (or whatever) and wanting to “get to the bottom of things” or “work on our relationship” doesn’t mean you have to play along. “Ok, stop doing the behavior and the relationship will be fine” is your way out of that one. Resist the pressure and the urge to play the “what if” game. What if your mom’s shopping is excessive and causing financial problems or making him think dementia is happening and he’s worried about her? ‘kay, maybe, then he should talk to someone who is close to your mom (clearly not you) and someone who didn’t just get finished telling him “Hey don’t tell me stuff like that about my mom” i.e. Not You. What if your mom is mean to him and he’s regretting the marriage? He should talk to someone who likes him (Not You, again!), someone who cares about their marriage (this role will be played by…Not You!). Does he want someone to talk with about aging, wills, elder care, and the like? Simple, he can ask people he knows for recs or type those words into Google and click any results that do not contain your name. Is he trying to loop you in because that’s what would happen in other families? Cool, cool, somewhat understandable, but he’s known you for 10 years and he knows you don’t have that relationship. Does he think he can repair the relationship you and your parent have with each other? What an unusual hobby, he should get that looked at by (you guessed it) Someone Who Is Not You. Is your mom perhaps deputizing him to talk to you on her behalf? She knows where that game ends by now, it ends with You, Not talking to Her for extended periods of time. It doesn’t matter why. Hold fast to the safe, happy life you have created and don’t let either of these people make their problems into your problems. 

Letter Writer you are smart and realistic, you obviously have some hard-won boundary-defending skills, and correctly, you don’t want to change this dude, you just want to avoid this dude slightly more and slightly more skillfully than you already avoid him. So when your stepdad says weird stuff about your mom to you, tell him to stop in the quickest and most efficient way possible and then redirect your attention. Don’t worry about getting it perfect, if your stepdad thinks you don’t like him much or that you are unreceptive to his confidences, those things are true, so…:shrug emoji:?  If someone you don’t like, whom you see incredibly rarely, under highly-controlled circumstances decides you’re not exactly his cup of tea, I think you’ll manage to carry on somehow. 😉 If the train called “Mom is Terrible” and the train called “Both Of You Are Terrible” leave the same station at the same time, they will be necessarily be on parallel tracks that can’t meet without causing a serious accident. It doesn’t matter if they are headed in the same direction part of the way, or how long it takes to get where they’re going, or if they double back and cross each other’s paths sometimes, this isn’t the fucking SAT and you don’t have to show your work.

Let us close with a video montage. Is Miranda Priestley (antagonist of The Devil Wears Prada) a paragon of warmth and human kindness? No.

Is Miranda Priestley going to get three visits from three spirits one Christmas Eve to examine her past, present, and future? No, every rich mean person doesn’t get issued a personal redemption psychopomp, but I would watch the hell out of that movie, twice if there were Muppets.

Is Miranda Priestley extremely good at getting people to stop talking when she’s done listening and might you want to harness some of that “I said what I meant and I mean what I said kthxbye” energy when you talk to your stepdad? Oh yes.

 

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