#1366: “Malicious, controlling mother-in-law wants to move in”

Dear Captain,

I (mid-30s, she/her) could write a novel about my mother-in-law’s transgressions (highlights: announcing our engagement on social media after specifically being asked not to, making petty comments about my race/weight/hair whenever Husband is out of earshot but tearfully telling him she wants to be my friend, secretly changing our wedding plans last second so everyone could see her walk down the aisle). Husband has trouble setting/maintaining boundaries with her, which often creates frustration for me. He sees his mom as a great person who’s dealt with SO MUCH in her life, “but she’s losing her mental clarity which is why when she says/does mean things–but she doesn’t intend it that way.”

Background: Husband started taking care of MIL at 16 due to her many serious health problems. She’s had dozens of surgeries and has multiple physical/mental challenges. Despite giving up on his dreams of military/college/doing something for himself, he’s diligently taken care of her for 17+ years. Her health challenges are real, but that doesn’t stop her from martyrdom, manipulating emotions to get away with bullshit, and relying on him for basically everything.

MIL and her new husband lived with Husband before we started dating. As our relationship progressed, I agreed to move in only if there was a plan for us to live alone within a year. MIL wanted us all to live as a big happy family, but she tried to control EVERYTHING, wouldn’t let us be alone, and made me miserable. Anytime I politely brought up an issue, she’d cry, overreact (“I guess I’ll just go die in a hole!”), or be extra passive aggressive for days.

They moved out two years ago and I kept the peace by choosing my battles carefully. Then MIL’s husband was diagnosed with cancer last year, and all she can think about is moving back in with us when he passes.

Husband and I have had MANY discussions that can be summarized as:

Me: “I understand this is extremely hard for MIL, but I can’t live with her again long term—X, Y, and Z are better options. I work from home, you work 12 hour shifts, and I’m not qualified nor want to be her caretaker/roommate.”

Husband: “I want my mom to live here because she’s scared of living alone and if anything bad happens to her it’ll be my fault. I’d do the same for your mom. Other options work logically, but I’ve been guilt-tripped my entire life and believe I owe her everything for birthing me. Let’s just figure it out when the time comes.”

Captain, I need one of your step-by-step plans to help me keep my home MIL-free. Please help!

Signed,

I don’t want to be her caretaker

(PS – Extra background if needed: All of this is more complicated by the fact that SIL died last year and we’re in the process of adopting our 15 year old Niece. MIL body shames/tries to control/manipulate Niece who already has self-esteem issues/grief/past trauma.

I 100% believe it wouldn’t be good for Niece, Husband, or my mental health for MIL to move in. Husband thinks if we “tell MIL she has to adjust to our house rules/treat me as woman of the house/not force diets on Niece” MIL will go along with it and everyone will get along and be happy. Obviously, I disagree—she won’t change.)

Hello Don’t Wanna,

I’m so sorry that your family is dealing with your mother-in-law (MIL)’s husband’s illness and your sister-in-law (SIL)’s death all at once. That is a lot of grief and uncertainty to be wrangling, and trying to make big decisions in the midst of grieving is not easy. Your husband has already experienced a great deal of parentification, a form of child abuse where adults force their children into adult roles like caretaker, emotional support, confidant, and on-call childcare for siblings. This was true when your mother-in-law (MIL) had another child and a spouse in the picture, and I think you’re correct that when she really, truly doesn’t have anyone else to rely on, she’s going to try to fly back like a cursèd Mjölnir.

Unfortunately, your husband’s repeated entreaties to “just deal with it when the time comes“* when you try to discuss it have an entirely predictable outcome. By refusing to work with his mom and her husband to make a plan where she lives elsewhere (a detailed-paperwork-and-money-behind-it-kind-of-plan), it’s not that your husband isn’t making any plans at all. There is totally a plan in place! That plan is: MIL will keep on planning to move in with y’all, assuming that he’ll be unable to say no to her that you’ll be unable to say no to him, and that will be that. There may be some pretense when the time comes that it’s “just for now,” but we all know that’s a fiction. He’ll continue to work 12-hour shifts. You’ll do your best to work from home, but you’re not going to totally ignore a sick old lady, so over time you’ll become the default caretaker. She has 17 years of evidence on her side that says that her son is not going to suddenly grow a spine and push her out again once she’s landed. And you know from experience that his promises about her good behavior aren’t worth a damn.

“She doesn’t mean it!” “Weird, then how does she manage to only say offensive things like that when you aren’t here?”

“She doesn’t mean it!” “Weird, then why is it always the same stuff – my race & my body – that she’s been harping on for years despite being told to stop?”

“I’d do the same for your mom!” “Great, but my mom isn’t mean to you the way your mom is mean to me and our niece. You’re asking me to bear the brunt of her racist, controlling, body-shaming behavior.”

It’s only getting worse from here!

[*””Let’s just figure it out when the time comes” reminds me immediately of that scene in Walk The Line where Johnny Cash tries to reassure June Carter about their relationship: “June, that stuff will just work itself out.”  And June (correctly) is like: “No, it does not work itself out. Other people work it out for you and you think it works itself out.”]

You can’t really control what your MIL will assume or do, nor can you control what your husband will do about any of it, but I think you can, with great difficulty, push back on the assumption that it will work out “somehow” because you’ll work it out for him at the expense of your own happiness and well-being. What happens if you refuse to work it out? It sounds like you’ve already raised possible alternative solutions (X, Y, and Z) where your MIL is housed and cared for but not living with you, with no luck. And right now, you can probably vividly imagine scenarios where your MIL moves back in and you and your niece put up with constant boundary-crossing and verbal abuse from her until *something* goes down in flames: your niece moves away as far as she can get, your marriage snaps under the pressure, and/or your MIL’s health declines to the point that she must be in some kind of facility or she dies, whichever comes first.

But I want to suggest another possible path, one I’ll call “That’s not happening.” If you take him at his word that he wants his mom to live with y’all (“I want my mom to live here”), what happens if you create boundaries for yourself along the lines of “I will not live with a person who goes out of her way to make me miserable,” and “I will not subject my niece to controlling behavior and verbal abuse in our home,” what would you need to do to preserve them? Something like:

“Husband, if you want your mom to move in here, or you want to move in with her so she won’t be alone, I guess that’s your choice, but I need you to understand that I will not live under the same roof with her again, and I won’t subject Niece to that, either. So it sounds like we’ll need to plan around two households. My strong preference would be that the three of us live together in one and your mom lives in her own place with plenty of X, Y, and Z support in place, but if that’s not what you want, we’ll need to make another plan so that Niece and I can be comfortable in our own home.” 

Does that seem drastic? He might ask, “Are you saying that you want a divorce?” and you could answer, “I don’t want a divorce, at all, but I am saying that you can live with either your mom or your wife, but not both at the same time, so if you expect to live with her it means that you and I will need to plan for separate households even if we do stay married.” I definitely wouldn’t start with that *conversation* with him out of the gate, mind, but in your shoes, I would start including “two parallel households” as a very real, concrete possibility in any plans you make for the future, starting now. It’s time to at least start making lists about what would need to happen logistically, legally, and financially to protect yourself and your niece if your husband does decide to move your MIL in over your objections.

There are two additional list-making tools that I, personally come back to again and again for managing my own anxiety around conflicts and difficult choices. The first is disaster preparedness: If the thing I’m dreading actually happens, what will I do about it? Write it down. Okay, worst case scenario, what will I do then? Write it down. If I run into stuff where the answer is “I don’t know what I’ll do,” I write down “I don’t know” or try to quickly come up with who I could ask for help or where I could find more information, and then I keep going. What I end up with is a list of options that does double duty as a reminder that I have options. They may all suck, but spelling them out makes them automatically more manageable than the expanding, unnameable dread, even if it’s only a matter of ruling out what I won’t do.

The second tool is also effectively a list of options, it’s a reminder that other people have choices about how they behave. Your husband”s mom has choices about how she treats you and your niece. And she has choices about her own future, and about where she lives, that don’t involve invading your home. The sooner that she and her husband and the rest of her family (incl. your husband) make an actual plan for what happens when she’s on her own, the more choices about all of that she will have. The more everybody kicks the can down the road, the more narrow and urgent the choices will become, which is something she and your husband seem to be counting on.

Your husband also has lots of choices here, choices like get a therapist to help him process his upbringing and get support in setting boundaries with his mother” and “actually listen to his wife when she reminds him that you all already know that living together absolutely does not work.” If his choice is “She’s my mom and I owe her and I want her to live with me so I can take care of her and I expect you to make it work somehow,” then so be it! But recognizing that as a choice *among other possible choices* gives everybody a clearer, more honest picture of what’s at stake. In a scenario where “My sonsband will always choose me over his mean wife!” and  “I can’t just abandon my mom!” clashes with “Well, I can’t have her up in my business all the time, especially when it’s me and a vulnerable child and not you who will have to deal with her antics,” somebody is bound to be disappointed. If your husband is choosing that the disappointed person is you, every time, then at least let’s name that? He can’t seem to say no to his mom, but he can assert himself on her behalf when the happiness of the woman he married and his grieving, traumatized niece is on the line? That is also a choice. How interesting.

Using the lists together can help you figure out what your own deal-breakers are and what your resources and support system actually look like before you try negotiating the hard thing again. I should be clear that the lists are meant to be private, process-tools for you to figure out your own mind and prepare for discussions, and you do not have to “show your work” or share every branch of your decision tree with your husband in real time when you discuss it. (People incredibly do not like it when they learn about private pro/con lists you’ve made about them.)

From there, there’s no “one discussion to rule them all” that solves all of this for both of you. It may take a lot of time and the services of a couples’ counselor to really get through. You’ve been doing a great job of expressing yourself so far, so we’re really talking about degrees between “I can’t live with her again long-term, I think X, Y, and Z are better options” and “Okay, but I am telling you that I won’t live with her again, at all, so we’re going to need another plan.”  If you take living with her completely off the table for yourself, and use that as your *starting* point in any negotiation, what else becomes possible? I don’t think you and your husband can really figure it out as long as everyone pretends that postponing the decision is anything but acquiescing to you becoming her reluctant, resentful unpaid caregiver.

This is so hard, because it feels like potentially letting your MIL “win,” by reaping the fruits of her years of grooming if he does give in to her and you end up having to move out. But your husband is an adult. If he knowingly puts his mom first, even when you’ve told him how it will hurt you, that is a choice he is making. Setting and communicating your boundaries now can at least make that a more informed choice on his part.

Immediate next steps: My hope is that your husband will get a therapist, like, yesterday, to deal with the enmeshment, and that you’ll at least be more equipped to operate from a place of knowing for sure what you need in order to be happy and well and how far you’ll go to protect your space, your health, and the vulnerable kid who is about to come under your care.

In closing, I hate this for you. Please take very good care of yourself and your sweet niece.