Welcome back to Married With Buttercups!, where we answer all your questions on dating, mating and marriage-berating from four unique viewpoints — the twice-divorced Trixie, the avowed single Tailfeather, the married-with-an-attitude kadinsky and the blushing newlywed, BiscuitDoughJones.
BCP Reader Befuddled in Brooklyn writes;
Dear cherished Buttercups whose relationships are more successful than my own and whose wisdom I wish to absorb,
My boyfriend and I are seriously in love, and I have no reason to expect he won’t be a really big thing in my life, either as a long-term friend or a long-term partner. So the fact that this seems like a relationship that might, in the best of worlds, go somewhere, makes it even more important that I figure out what to do about his mother.
We finally met this Thanksgiving, and she gave me weird vibes from the start. Normally I’m a total parent charmer. . But she was prickly and domineering over the holiday, criticizing my smallest behaviors, like how I filled her kettle to boil water. I was intending to help her with the Thanksgiving cooking, and contribute some dishes of my own, but she didn’t seem interested in helping me find the right (basic) ingredients (or even in helping me get to the store in an unfamiliar city) and warned eerily that on Turkey Day her oven, and every mixing bowl she owned, were scheduled down to the hour, so I ended up not making anything. I felt awful. Worst of all, she waited until my boyfriend was out of the room to pepper me with questions that were borderline hostile. (She broached topics to do with weight and body image, as well as how much money I make. “So, you sort of live hand-to-mouth, then? That must be strange.” Etc.) I’m game to talk about almost anything with someone I expect to have an important quasi-familial relationship with, but she seemed more snarky and passive-aggressive than motivated by genuine curiosity or friendliness. I tried to parry the assault politely, but I was very uncomfortable. (Whenever my boyfriend came back into the room, she would stop.)
So, I suppose my question is, how do you set boundaries with your in-laws? What strategies have you employed in similar situations, with what results? I feel like now is the crucial time for determining the patterns and scope of our future interactions, and looking back on last week, I think I just failed, big-time. I rolled over like a puppy in the face of her questions, when my instinct was to tell her politely to mind her own business. I had no issues with my boyfriend’s dad. He was awesome. But what can I do to get off on the right foot with his mother, without feeling like I’m making myself her patsy? How do you each negotiate these delicate maneuvers? I’m at a loss.
Befuddled in Brooklyn
(P.S. The boyfriend, for what it’s worth, is completely supportive. He warned me his mother could be a little difficult, and whenever she made any comment in his presence that struck him as even slightly disrespectful or undermining, he dealt with it very well, quickly changing the subject or saying, “Come on, mother,” or something similar. But even though he makes an excellent proxy, I need to know how to relate to her myself.)
The Buttercups give their thoughts, after the jump
Trixie: Hmmmm. I suspect it’s an ex-girlfriend thing. Funny thing is, the woman you describe could be my second mother-in-law, who often treated people that way, but strangely, never me. I must confess it gives me great pleasure to imagine her treating my ex’s adulterous new live-in in such a manner. Which brings me to my point. I wonder if it’s about an ex-girlfriend. Was there a serious one who was close to the family? Because sometimes mothers take a long, long time to get over the past girlfriend whom they envisioned being a lifelong daughter-in-law, and are passive-aggressively nasty to the new girl. If that’s the case, give it time. Don’t try too hard to win her over by being overly chummy. But you must always be unfailingly cheerful and polite, ALWAYS help clean up, ALWAYS offer to help, regardless of how many times she turns you down. If she’s an old-school mother who did a lot of cooking and cleaning for her family over the years, that kind of stuff will eventually melt her cold heart. Failure to offer, even if she consistently refuses to let you, will earn her lifelong scorn. Oh, and always bring a little gift whenever you come to the house, and ALWAYS write a little thank-you card after you’ve been over. One that you mail, no e-mailing. I know these bitch mothers-in-law. I’ve had two of them and they came to adore me, and to berate both husbands for failing at the marriage. They eat that “manners and good breeding” shit right up.
Tailfeather: Hmm. Maybe you are too good an influence in the boyfriend’s life. Maybe he’s talked so lovingly and seriously about you that his mother has identified you as a threat. Maybe what she sees as “interested” and “protective” actually comes across as invasive and hostile. Who knows? What’s most important is that you don’t deserve to be treated like this.
While it’s good that the boyfriend is supportive, make sure he knows that you don’t want another experience like that one you’ve just had and that, whether she intended to do so or not, his mother made you feel very unwelcome. I’d try to mention the things that were positive about the experience as well (e.g. your father was very kind, the food was lovely, it was so nice to see where you grew up), so that it’s very clear that the only issue is his mother’s behavior towards you.
Let him know the specific questions she asked that were offensive to you, but couch it in an assurance that perhaps she was unaware she was being confrontational (doubt it, though). While he needs to understand the situation that you’re in, you don’t want to put him on the defensive – I guarantee that however much he may criticize the family, it’s a whole different thing to hear it from you (and vice versa). So, his mom is “a little difficult.” This is your new euphemism, so learn to love it. It does sound nicer than “bitch.”
And keep being your charming self! If this pattern of behavior continues on her part, it will make it more apparent to those around you that you’ve done everything you can to be polite and accommodating. This is not to establish a She vs. You dynamic, but to protect you from being dragged into her bullying or passive aggressive ways. The last thing you want is to get cornered into a competition for her son’s affection or force him to take sides.
With luck, perhaps this relationship will improve with some time. I always stick with the “catch more flies” with honey mandate and would recommend it to you in this sitation, as I think it will serve you best in the long-term.
BiscuitDoughJones: OK, Befuddled, I know this is going to sound a wee bit strange and yes, a little doormat-y, but trust me. I am the Mom Charmer, for realz. I have never had a BF (or male friend for that matter) whose mom did not BEG him to marry me. Anyway, my best advice is to IGNORE. Ignore, ignore, ignore the things that she says that seem mean/passive-aggressive/prying. For a while, anyway. If she keeps on being an asshole to you after a year (I’m assuming you’ll only be seeing the ‘rents a handful of times per year, so basically if she’s a witch the next 5 times you see her or so), then put your foot down.
See this- “I rolled over like a puppy in the face of her questions, when my instinct was to tell her politely to mind her own business.” is not a failure, despite the ‘Rah-rah empowerment, be a dick if you wanna! You’re just being assertive!’ message being touted by the self-help community. The fact is that in some situations, “sticking up for yourself” is pretty darn rude. Telling a parental figure that you’ve just met, in her own home, to mind her own business, no matter how gently you may word it, is the surest way to land you a first class seat on the Mama Hate Train- FOREVER. Oh yes, moms hold grudges for a lifetime, and you will never get on her good side if you started off on her bad one. It happened that way with the guy my hub’s sister married. He stood up to the mom-in-law, and never will she like his ass, even after 12 years. Before they married, she was constantly trying to set Sis up with dudes from her church, even though Sis and Guy had been going out for 8 years. Oh, and when Sis & Guy got engaged? Moms-in-law cried for misery. She was inconsolable for like, a day.
In order to tame the Momsbeast, you must sacrifice yourself on the altar of dignity. Even though it feels like you’re selling yourself out, backing down is exactly the right thing to do. Unfortunately, being a bit of a doormat towards a domineering mom-figure, in polite society, is considered “good manners” and “respecting your elders.” It sucks, I know, but them’s the breaks. But I promise, if you play the meek role for just a little while, she’ll soften enough to let herself get to know you as a person, instead of steeling herself against you as an adversary (AKA- what she’s doing now). However, you should keep in mind that the info she’s asking of you, in her eyes at least, is every bit her business. You are sharing a domicile with her baby boy, so she feels she has every right to grill you to make sure you’re not some crackhead or potential Nadya Suleman that will milk her son for his mealticket sperm, you know? Put yourself in her shoes for a sec. She’s used to being the woman in her son’s life, and she’s sure as hell not going to relinquish that role to just anybody. Consider your first few meetings with the ‘rents to be like an audition or job interview, b/c that’s really what they are. And remember that it’s really pretty normal to encounter such hostility from a guy’s mom. Sure, it’s not pretty, but moms are just people, all messy and flawed. The universal truth is that underneath the prickly, cold exoskeliton of the Momsbeast there is just a woman. A woman just like you. She loves her son and wants the best for him. Nothing more, nothing less.
However, if she’s still acting like a high school cheerleading captain in a bad 80s movie once she’s gotten to know what a glorious and wonderful woman you are, then it’s time for your claws to come out. Good Luck!!
kadinsky: Ugh. Mothers, especially of the ‘in law’ variety – I am not a fan. But this is because both of my MIL’s are sour faced hag’s, so let’s assume yours is not. The thing I found most difficult about dealing with them in the beginning, was the overt jealously from MIL #2 (his biological Mom). This woman behaved exactly like a jealous, possesive 8th grade girlfriend and I kept expecting her to challange me to a throw down or a jump rope battle out in the yard. But, I digress. The thing about Mothers of the boys we love is that they will always test you like this in the beginning. It’s just one of those things you have to make it through with grace and class which will prove to her that you really do love her son and want to be with him. So, your question about how to set boundaries is a bit premature in my opinion. The first several visits with his Mother (assuming it’s on holidays and such) I always look at as a warm up period. You basically show her nothing but all your best qualities and let her get used to you being there on her son’s arm. Like introducing a new cat into the house, she needs to be able to observe you (and trust that she is) and sometimes test you (kitchen battleground is especially common) before she starts to accept you as a new member of the family gatherings. So, as my Buttercups mentioned above, be on your best behavior minding the P’s and Q’s and all that.
As for your boyfriend, I find it’s best never to criticize his Mother, no matter what he says. Dudes don’t always realize it but they’re testing you as well, since nobody wants to have a war between a parent and a significant other if they can avoid it. And you know how it goes, You might be able to rant to me and call your Momma a bitch but you’d be pretty pissed off if I did it, right? I made this mistake once and said some ugly things about Mr. k’s Mother when we were first married and when he didn’t say anything I thought it was okay. Turns out it wasn’t and I had to apologize and kiss ass profusely…..and learn to keep my mouth shut until the time was right. It’s great that your BF warned you about his Mother being difficult and that he stepped in a time or two to keep the peace, but it won’t always be that way.
This can be some tricky territory to navigate. His Mother may get on your every last nerve but you want to avoid blowing up at your BF about it so he doesn’t feel like he’s caught in the middle. If she does something just egregiously inflaming then you could talk to him about how terrible it’s making you feel, but otherwise you pretty much want to smile and nod until you can get on better ground. And you will, don’t worry. Just be your charming and wonderful self until she calms down and takes you off the Terrorist Watch List. As time passes, you will have plenty of chances to establish your boundaries with his family. And, if she’s still being an asshole to you, then you get to devise all sorts of ways to fuck with her without her knowing it’s you. Me personally? I like to subtly re-arrange things in her house like picture frames or vases, maybe swap out a lightbulb for a floodlight or sprinkle sand in all her shoes. But that’s just me.
Good Luck and let us know how it goes!