Carolyn Hax: Setting boundaries for Mom; wedding etiquette

Columnist March 13, 2013

Dear Ms. Hax:

My mother is the sweetest, most caring mother a girl could ever ask for. However, she has a tendency to overstep her boundaries.

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

We live VERY far apart and see each other about twice per year. She recently invited herself on a vacation with my family (husband and child). I noted very delicately that it would be difficult to see and do everything we wanted to with her in tow (we are going to see other friends and family). I suggested she come to visit us later in the year. Her response was that she is coming anyway and will stay with a friend.

I again tried to explain (this time in a detailed e-mail), that I would really prefer to have this time with just my brother and old friends and there would be little opportunity for her to spend quality time with us. I also offered to split a plane ticket for her to visit us another time.

Her response to this and a similar incident was, “Wow, well, you really put me in my place!”

(Nick Galifianakis)

I of course feel horrible and ungrateful, but I think I have a right to my own family vacations!

How do I set boundaries with my mother in a delicate and respectful way without either of us feeling like I am in high school again?

Ungrateful?

It’s counterintuitive, but efforts to be “very delicately” “delicate and respectful” are often the source of the hard feelings.

Limits are at their most palatable when they’re clear. Not abrupt, not harsh, just clear. “Mom, I’d rather you didn’t join us on this vacation, for reasons that don’t reflect on you at all — but let’s both get our calendars out and plan something else.”

You might be thinking, hey, that’s what I said — but you didn’t. You first said no to her in a vague way that, to the boundary-challenged, actually translates as, “Yes, with X conditions.” So she met your conditions and thought she was good to go.

You were just doing what a lifetime with her trained you to do. She’s sweet and caring, I’m sure, but manipulative too, no?

Breaking your ancient tiptoeing habit is worth the hard work. When you’re clear with Mom up front, then any hopes you dash will be early, semi-formed ones — which is still no fun, but it beats shooting down more fully imagined plans. A concrete “I love you, Mom, let’s pick another date,” then following through on that promise, inoculates you against accusations that you’re just putting her “in her place.”

Dear Carolyn:

Some friends offered to throw my fiancee and me an engagement party. However, we are planning to have a small wedding. The friends don’t want to invite people to the party who won’t be invited to the wedding, but I think this would be a good way to have everyone celebrate. Ruling?

Anonymous

Trust your friends, yikes. Hire them as your social secretaries. What you propose is famously bad form; invitations to pre-wedding events are understood to be precursors to wedding invitations — unless it’s an office party. That’s the lone exception.

If you want to be inclusive, then suggest a party after the wedding and call it an informal reception (with these friends spreading the word: no gifts).

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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