Carolyn Hax: Who merits compassion in a family struggle centered on an abusive mom?

Carolyn Hax
Columnist November 30, 2013

Dear Carolyn: As I write, my husband is halfway across the country taking care of his ailing mother. We have had a terrible “text” fight over the past few days, and it revolves mostly around the fact that he thinks I am “compassionless” about his mother’s situation, and I am not being supportive of his decision to stay weeks with her while I fly solo holding down our family fort.

His mother is a prescription drug and alcohol abuser who has emotionally tormented my husband for pretty much all his life.

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

Shortly after we married and had our child (eight years ago), Mother-in-Law turned on me. She has since sent a deluge of hate mail disowning me, my husband and our innocent child. I never engage her, and I’ve not actually spoken to her for seven years. I have watched him struggle with trying to maintain any semblance of a peaceful relationship with her to no avail. There will be goodwill for a smattering of months and then she pulls out the claws and the poison pen again, usually after a bottle of wine at 2 a.m.

Thankfully we live 20-plus hours away, and I’ve told my husband he can do as he pleases with his family, but I won’t be a part of their circus.

Now I am stressed with holding down a job, having a few minor health issues myself (resolvable, but nonetheless bothersome), taking care of our child and myself, and he is miffed that I am unconcerned about his mother?!


(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

My last words to him via text (because I was too angry to talk on the phone) were, “You choose to let toxic people into your life and pretend it doesn’t affect me and Child.”

What amount of compassion and support am I really obligated to give him after a decade of dealing with a venomous mother-in-law? I’m just tapped out. — Compassionless

Interesting, the way you chose to phrase your ultimate question.

You describe the conflict between you and your husband as your being “ ‘compassionless’ about his mother’s situation.” But in your last line, you ask how much compassion you’re “really obligated to give him.” (My emphasis.)

If that was a mistake, then you’ve erred your way to being correct. You owe your mother-in-law little to nothing,* but certainly your husband, the man you love and share your life with, is worthy of your compassion; his mother has worked him over emotionally, apparently from birth to the hour of the day that I’m typing this. “Tormented,” you say. Be gentle especially when you’re right.

I get that compassion can drain away when he’s unable, or unwilling, to disentangle himself, and when that brings wholly avoidable stress to your life. But that inability or unwillingness is knotted up with all the other puppet strings his mother spent his lifetime attaching.

So what you need is some quality time spent reading on the subject, if you haven’t done that already. What he needs, among other things, is an excellent therapist who works with adult children of alcoholics. What you both need is the patience to get through the days peacefully until he’s home again, so you can tackle these bigger issues while you’re close enough to hug.

And you both badly need to stop communicating by text. Texting strips away context, facial expression, voice inflection and elaboration, also known as everything human beings use to indicate their tone. It also creates false courage. Since tone is how we say “don’t worry, I love you” — or “bite me” — during a difficult conversation, you’ve both basically asked for a fight by using such a blunt medium to have such a delicate exchange.

*Nevertheless, I’m going to use somewhat context-free prose to float the idea that, even owing her nothing, it might be good for you to muster some compassion for your mother-in-law. If you think of the alcohol and prescription drugs she abuses as her self-prescribed pain relief, and if you think of self-medicating fierce anger like hers as the province of those too stunted or fearful to deal with their pain through more productive channels, then it’s reasonable to consider your mother-in-law as not just the source but also the recipient of some industrial-grade suffering.

So while it makes sense for you to stick to your sensible regimen of not talking to her, ever . . . and remain 20-plus hours away . . . and let your husband know that while you understand his pull to be with his mother, he has people who actually show him love who are eager for him to come home . . .

It might also be useful to locate, somewhere in your home, a photo of his mother as a child. It’s a long shot, but having it handy might keep your compassion reservoir from running completely dry.

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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