Dear Carolyn: My wife and I live 10 minutes from her mother. We visit her once a week, and text every day. We’ll soon be moving to a new apartment an hour and a half away. It’s larger, and in the area where we’d like to someday buy a house and start a family.
Unfortunately, my mother-in-law insists our moving away means we hate her. Otherwise, we wouldn't leave when she needs us to stay.
The thing is, she doesn’t need us nearby. She’s in good health. She’s generally very independent. She’s lived her entire adult life several states away from her family.
So we never expected this much drama over a comparatively short-distance move. We'll still text daily and visit every few weeks. We've told her there will be space in the new apartment for her to come stay sometimes.
None of that matters. She still sees our move as a punishment.
How can we help her understand this is not about her? How do we communicate that our unwillingness to prioritize her happiness over ours doesn’t mean we don’t care?
— Untying the Apron Strings
Untying the Apron Strings: Stop explaining yourselves. Just stop.
If she really wanted to understand, then she would probably piece it together herself — say, “They like that neighborhood.” And if she were truly stumped, she could 1. ask you to explain, and 2. accept as an answer the basic outline of your thought process that you provided to me. So there’s bad faith all over her reaction.
Her lament that you decided to move because you “hate her” is not even an hour and a half away from the neighborhood of “understanding.” She is trying — with more success than finesse — to bully you emotionally into calling off your move. That’s it.
One of the advantages of visiting a relative weekly and texting daily and planning to maintain an active presence even as you move an hour-plus away is that you are fully inoculated against charges that you don’t care.
As you say yourself, you also operate from a foundational “unwillingness to prioritize her happiness over ours.” That’s not only your prerogative but also appropriate for independent adults. You’re living your lives, as is your prerogative, and she’s living hers, as is her prerogative.
That means, by the way, that all the time you spend together is freely chosen vs. coerced, which makes it better, even if visits are less frequent due to the distance.
So just own it. Own it and stop tacitly validating her claim to the top spot on your priority list.
If I sound cold, then that’s because I see preying on people’s sympathies as a particularly insidious form of blackmail. “If you loved me, you wouldn’t live your life on your own terms!!” does not warm my heart or even pluck my guilt strings. It’s a form of manipulation and control like any other — except crocheted into an afghan and presented as love. Don’t be suckered in. Love her, listen to her, visit her, feel compassion for whatever hole within her she is trying to fill with your obedience — but don’t erase yourselves for her. She’ll either deduce you care from the evidence of your continued visits, or she’ll hang onto her victim narrative in perpetuity at, ultimately, her own unrecoverable expense.
More from Carolyn Hax
From the archive:
Sign up for Carolyn’s email newsletter to get her column delivered to your inbox each morning.