Needy Mother-in-Law Always Abused, Now Abusing

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Reader’s Question

My husband and I are having a difficult time with his mother. Four years ago, his parents divorced. They always had a very volatile and abusive relationship and finally broke up when his mother left his father for the neighbor across the street. There was a lot of lying and blaming about things, and we figured the best thing to do would be to simply move on and try to accept his mother’s new husband even though we did not really approve.

The new husband required my husband’s mom to quit her job as “a sign of trust” and then handed her a very harsh prenuptial agreement once she did. He was also very controlling and verbally abusive. He is extremely wealthy and often used money to manipulate her. He also attempted to micromanage our lives.

This man wanted me to change my major in college and wanted my husband to change careers and break his engagement to me. My mother-in-law was not allowed to visit us without him. Binge drinking further fueled their irrational and mean-spirited behavior. She ignored us, breaking plans unless she was instigating arguments or needed help around her house. On the advice of a family counselor, we tried our best to detach from the situation. Two years ago, his stepfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Unfortunately, he became even more abusive and angry. My mother-in-law was his full time caregiver.

We rarely saw her during those times. Things came to a head when he filed for divorce from her during the winter because he said it would be better financially for his adult children when he died. He wanted her to vacate their house immediately. She did not have a job or money of her own. My husband called her attorney and helped her at every turn. The drama blew over when his step-dad told his mother he wouldn’t divorce her if she “behaved herself.”

When she went back to this man, she resumed ignoring my husband, and he was very hurt by this. In May, his step-dad passed away and left his mother with virtually nothing, per the prenuptial agreement. She does not have a job, she’s been dropped from their health insurance, and he left their new house to his children. We have been supportive since he passed away, because we understand it’s a scary time for her, but she demands more attention every day. She gets mad when we spend time with my family or our friends. She puts my husband on guilt trips if he can’t visit. Sometimes she manipulates one of us with tears and then lies to pit us against each other. She called me every hour on the hour, six times, the other day! We are house-hunting for our first home, in a small neighboring town, and now she is looking for houses in the same town. We need space!

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When boundaries are set she melts down. If we say “no” we are called ungrateful or selfish. We need geographical and emotional distance. My husband says she has behaved this way since he was a little boy. How can we address this without being hurtful?

Psychologist’s Reply

You need not be heartless or hostile to set and enforce limits and boundaries. You also don’t need to put your own lives or welfare at risk in order to show compassion.

Your mother-in-law appears to have a pattern of emotional dependency that makes her the ideal partner for abusive, controlling types. And, at her age, she’s not likely to modify her personality style much. Still, as an adult, she’s responsible for the choices she’s made and the circumstances those choices have created.

Your counselor appears to have given you good advice. It’s best not to take on any responsibility for someone else’s bad choices. You can remain civil, engaged, and even supportive without being dragged across unhealthy boundaries. The key is in not taking the bait of feeling responsible for another’s choices. That way, any support you do decide to give can be given freely and without regret.

You and your husband have your own life to live. You will have to work out the acceptable limits and boundaries you want to observe in the relationship with your mother-in-law. And you’ll have to resist the urge to succumb to any emotional blackmail.

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