Carolyn Hax: Boyfriend’s difficult mom

Carolyn Hax
Columnist July 28, 2013

Hi, Carolyn: I have an autoimmune disorder that exhausts me. After a recent party at my boyfriend’s mom’s house, I heard that the mother and an aunt insist I came off “moody” and “mad” the whole day.

1. I was FREAKING TIRED! And,

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

2. I faked it anyway! I played games, lit sparklers, ate/talked with the extended family, you name it.

I assume it’s a result of this perceived negativity on my part, but later in the evening this (typically intoxicated, always unbalanced) mother of his also told him she doesn’t like me! This was all news to me, because even though she’s fit for a straitjacket, we’ve always had a surprisingly good relationship. I bring her flowers on her birthday, bake the occasional dessert and keep her updated on her favorite son’s law school progress.

I don’t know where to go from here. What would be the point in pushing myself so hard to attend these events if I’m going to be judged anyway? I’m supposed to be avoiding stress, and I don’t need this. I’ve never skipped a gathering of theirs, but now all I want to do is punch his mom in the face for being such an unprovoked jerk.


(Nick Galifianakis/The Washington Post)

Oh, and BF and I are talking rings, so although he supports our spending less time with his mom’s family for a while, the odds of that working out in the next year are slim. Advice? — Boxing Gloves Are On

Who told you what his mother and aunt said?

Carolyn: My boyfriend. He hadn’t noticed I was upset, thought I might have been and wanted to make sure I was okay. — Boxing Gloves

You have two things going for you here: He was worried about you, where some partners, sadly, would have been annoyed that you under-rallied; and he honors you by agreeing to reduce your exposure to his family. In return, you’ve apparently worked hard at honoring him by making an effort with his difficult mom. Good stuff, so far.

I’m concerned about his passing along her remark about not liking you, though. If she is indeed “typically intoxicated,” then the compassionate move would have been for your boyfriend to write off his mom’s words as possible drunken spew. If she said it enough to prove she meant it, then the next step would be for him to address it with her privately, a la: “Mom, I’m not sure you understand what her illness means. It means she doesn’t really have energy for a big family party. It means that when she comes to all of them anyway, she’s doing it to be close to us. If only as a favor to me, please judge her by what she does give, and not by what you think she should.”

If (when) that failed, then it would be time for him to talk to you about it. And you to him, too; you don’t want to hit him over the head with your animosity toward his mom, but hiding it wouldn’t be right, either. You both need to know what comes with those rings you’re eyeing.

Why am I dwelling on this one fact that he reported his mom’s words to you? Because even though his doing it was probably just a rookie mistake, it’s also possible he learned a few things from his mother about sowing discord. If his life shows signs of that besides this incident — brief or high-drama friendships, employment, former loves — then please advance this relationship with caution.

Otherwise, and even though your fantasies have turned to face-punching, my advice is for you and your boyfriend to discuss and recommit to the idea of looking out for each other.

His looking out for you involves a few things. First, he defends you to his mom, along the lines I suggested. Second, he encourages you to skip the more taxing family events, and absorbs any flak. Third, he reports his mom’s negativities to you on a need-to-know basis only. Criticism you both agree is baseless deserves the tree-falling-unwitnessed-in-forest treatment. Finally, he recognizes that unwarranted attacks on you mean his playing the middle is no longer an option.

Your looking out for him involves the two things you’re in no mood to do: admitting you might have overreacted to an isolated incident, and forgiving the mother’s negativity.

Clearly you deem her unstable. If she were strong and steady, then her dislike for you would be a formidable challenge to your relationship with her son. Since she’s apparently not, the challenge is her instability, and would be even if she liked you.

That means you can’t live and die with every nastygram. Instead, stake out turf above the insults, where your chief public response is, “I’m sorry you feel/she feels that way”; your response to your boyfriend is difficult-mom empathy; and your inner response is, “From her, insults are compliments.” Criticism is only as valid as its source.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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