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Ask Amy: Paranoid mother-in-law infuriates family

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DEAR AMY: About 10 years ago, my father-in-law told my mother-in-law he wanted a divorce. My wife describes her parents’ marriage as a loveless union, although her father is a great dad.

My mother-in-law ended up with the house, part of his pension, etc., but her bitterness has not abated after all these years, and she has taken to accusing her former spouse of entering her home and helping himself to her possessions.

She works part time in the neighborhood and is out of the house for a couple of hours a few times a day. Although her ex-husband lives about 60 miles from her, she insists that he enters the house when she is working.

She has had the locks changed on her doors at least four times (she insists he has a “master” key). She has reported specific days when she “knows” he was in her house, even though we know it was impossible because he was hundreds of miles away on those days.

She calls my wife a couple of times a week about this and is driving my wife crazy, with screaming matches taking place over the phone that inevitably end with my wife in tears. I told my wife that her mother is manipulating her, trying to get her to declare exclusive loyalty. Short of ending her relationship with her mother, I don’t know what to tell my wife to put an end to this nonsense. Any suggestions? -- Had-it Husband

DEAR HUSBAND: You have concluded that this behavior is a deliberate manipulation. I think it’s possible that your mother-in-law might have some sort of cognitive impairment. Her paranoia and confusion should worry, rather than enrage, you.

Your wife does not need to engage with her mother about this because she knows her mother’s accusations are not accurate. The first and most important response she should give is to take her to get a thorough medical checkup.

If all medical reasons are ruled out, your wife should disengage by saying, “I don’t want to talk about this with you, Mom. Let’s talk later.”

DEAR AMY: My unmarried niece is expecting a baby in late January. My sister says it is okay to give unwed mothers a baby shower. I realize it is done all the time, but I am unable to get excited about the baby. I feel it is in bad taste to give my niece a shower. What do you think? At what point in the pregnancy should a baby shower be given? -- Upset Aunt

DEAR UPSET: You don’t need to get excited about this baby. Nor do you need to attend a baby shower. You should know, however, that this baby is joining your family, regardless of your attitude about it.

Friends (or a different aunt) of the expectant mother should host a shower for the baby late in the pregnancy. Because it is due in January, the post-Christmas lull might be a good time.

DEAR AMY: “Heartbroken” wondered whether to invite her estranged (combative and drinking) father to her graduation party. I was in her shoes. My dad, an alcoholic, was in and out of rehab.

While I was discussing graduation details with my mother, I had her put my dad on the phone while he was (relatively) sober. I told him that I wanted him to see me graduate, but that he had to be sober the entire trip because I had no intention of worrying about him while I was celebrating a major life achievement. I told him to stay home if he didn’t think he could stay sober during the visit.

He came, he stayed sober (at least as far as I know) and everyone had a wonderful time. He eventually returned to rehab and, thank God, was sober when he died. Tell Heartbroken to be honest with her dad in terms of her expectations. -- The Graduate

DEAR GRADUATE: I think it’s very wise to lay down extremely clear and reasonable expectations. Telling your father to remain sober for this specific period of time gave him a goal he could achieve. Good for you.

Write to Amy Dickinson at askamy@tribune.com or Ask Amy, Chicago Tribune, TT500, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611.

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