Needy Mother-in-Law Is Wearing Us Out Emotionally

Reader’s Question

My 32-year-old fiancé and I are about to have our first baby. His mother lives 3000 miles away from us and though she is a nice lady — she is also very needy. Her husband (his father) died 12 years ago, and when he was alive neither of them had friends outside of each other. Since he passed she has put the burden of her whole social life on her children. (My fiancé has a sister as well who is married with one child — they live in the same town as her.)

The problem is that his mom is always in some state of complaint or depression. She hates her job, her condo and her dog is dying. She also talks constantly about being lonely but will not seek to find friends. We have tried to help her by suggesting clubs and activities which she enjoys for her to meet people of her own age and have even looked these places up for her. But she refuses to take charge of her life and make any changes. Instead she sleeps all day until she heads into work (a night shift job).

We stayed with her at Christmas for a month. After spending time with her daily, helping her with projects and cooking for her, she broke down crying two days before we left, saying she didn’t want to live and that the only reason she doesn’t kill herself is that she doesn’t want to go to hell. We were both concerned and a little angry that she would burden her son with something like that. He says this is the second time she’s talked of dying at Christmas time (she is in her early 60’s and healthy).

We urged her to get help and at present she is seeing a physician, a psychiatrist and a counselor. They took her off work for a month, put her on new meds. We aren’t seeing much help or change but then she has still not made any changes in her life.

She requires him to call her at least once a week. When he doesn’t because he is busy or doesn’t feel like it (because “it feels like a chore”) she will call or email repeatedly saying she is worried that something has happened to him. She has even emailed me demanding that I have him call her. She once accused me of withholding information about his well-being. When he asked her what she meant she replied, “Well, I didn’t know if you were in the hospital hurt and you told her not to tell me so that I wouldn’t worry.”

This feels like emotional blackmail and manipulation. We are trying to cope with our own life changes — moving, planning a wedding and a new baby on the way. The once a week calls are adding to the stress and she is laying her burdens at his feet. She doesn’t even ask how he is doing or how I or the baby might be doing. He decided it was time to set boundaries for him and our new family.

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First, he tried just calling her every other week. But she became demanding and sent me an email telling me she was sleeping all day because it’s the next best thing to death because not hearing from her son was like death anyway. He has never gone more than two weeks without calling her and in between we have both emailed at least once a week. He then emailed her, as he finds it hard talk with her — she allows for no one else’s feelings and will begin to cry. He was upset at her emailing me and adding to the stress during my pregnancy.

He was firm but kind and tried explaining our perspective. He told her (again) that it is unfair to expect her children to be her whole world and responsible for all her social interaction. He also explained that his life is very busy right now with two jobs, a wedding to plan, a baby on the way and a move. She responded saying “busy” shouldn’t even come into it and that if he needed her she would be on the phone non-stop. She then asked if he would do this to me — comparing the two relationships. We both felt this was very inappropriate and definitely crossed boundaries.

He sent a second email telling her he would be calling her bi-weekly from now on and they could email in between. He told her that he wanted a healthy relationship with her and needed to establish boundaries that were respectful of our needs. He told her that he loves her but that he is grown and cannot be held to her expectations. He expressed that he was disappointed by her behavior in contacting me and insinuating that she was sleeping herself to death. He also insisted that she print out all of their emails and take them to her counselor.

When they talked via phone she brought up the email at the end of the conversation and began crying. He tried re-explaining and asked her if she took the emails to her counselor — she said no, that she wouldn’t want anyone to see a letter like that. He was not disrespectful in any way in the letter or by phone.

The next week was Easter and though he would normally call her he didn’t want to because he said, “It’s too early on in the process of setting boundaries.” He decided instead to send her an Easter e-card and call her the following weekend as scheduled. She called us the Saturday before Easter, Easter Sunday and Monday saying she was again “worried if he was ok.” On the last message she mentioned that her internet was down.

Because of this, he called his mother’s house (while she was at work) and left a message stating that he sent her an e-card and was sorry she couldn’t retrieve it, he told her about our holiday and said he was glad she had a nice holiday and that he would call her next Sunday.

This morning (the day after) she called again and left a message saying that she will wait for him to contact and that she is sorry that she called and she’s sorry for crying but she doesn’t understand why he is doing this to her or what she’s done to deserve this. She then signed off saying she loved him and that she would always be his mother.

We are at our wits’ end. What is the right move here? We’re out of ideas. We love her and want her to be happy and healthy but we have to take care of our needs too. She seems unwilling or unable to understand the need for boundaries in this relationship. Help!

–Worn out in Portland

Psychologist’s Reply

These situations are difficult but you and your husband are on the right track with your strategy. The Mother-in-Law (MIL) is self-absorbed, manipulative, and needy. As a couple, you’ll need to develop a strategy to deal with her. Some suggestions:

  • Scheduled, predictable contacts work best. A call once or twice a week on a schedule will be needed. If you are upset with her behavior, don’t punish her by not calling — that only increases her complaints.
  • In those contacts, provide a status report — how the pregnancy is going, work issues, preparations for the future, etc.
  • When she brings up her multiple complaints, listen with the understanding that she wants someone to listen to her — not actually solve her problems. She needs more “air time” with you than your recommendations. When offering suggestions, use those you have offered in the past — consulting her physician or therapist.
  • She probably wants talk and conversation more than anything. If you spend a lot of time talking about real life issues — the baby on the way, preparations, etc. — she is less likely to bring up her complaints and needs.
  • Keep in mind that despite her neediness — the mother-in-law is mean-spirited in her behavior. She uses guilt in a mean-spirited manner to make you and your husband feel miserable. She actually feels entitled to make you miserable if you don’t provide what she needs — a very mean-spirited approach to a relationship.
  • When confronted with multiple complaints and needs, accept one or two of them. When we accept the “bad back” or “no friends”, then focus on those two topics in each future conversation. That provides some structure to the conversations and email, giving her a “ticket” to talk about. In this way, additional complaints are not likely to be added to the list.
  • Try not to take her behavior and manipulations personally. It’s like having a busy-body neighbor or needy friend. As a couple you’ll need to discuss boundaries and what you want to and don’t want to discuss with her.
  • Remember that at a certain level, she may not want to be healthy at this time. From her standpoint, being miserable may have its advantages. She obtains sympathy from others, avoids the responsibilities of getting new friends, etc. She is unwilling to accept your viewpoint or boundaries at this time due to her sense of entitlement.
  • While providing boundaries and scheduling contacts, allow a few conversation avenues that are positive. If she talks about something very appropriate and acceptable — talk that subject up!

As your baby becomes a teenager, he/she may engage in random behaviors. The behavior that receives praise or attention is the behavior that is likely to be repeated and continue. The strategy is the same with the Mother-in-Law. Eventually, she will find that you folks will talk more when the conversation is appropriate rather than a misery recital.

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