The Washington Post

Carolyn Hax: Desperate to break from mother-in-law’s holiday tradition


Good Morning, Carolyn: I’m hoping my debacle makes it to your column because I desperately need sound impartial advice!

Each year, my mother-in-law sends out a (ridiculously braggy and self-righteous) holiday “letter” updating her friends and extended family members. She recently sent a group text to my husband, his sister and me asking for our favorite pictures from the year to include in her Christmas letter.

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

My issue isn’t that she ignores the concept that our favorite picture would be used for our own purposes, it’s that she insists on having us be a part of this letter. Since our engagement, my husband and I have sent out our own holiday card to friends and family on both sides. We’re adults also — shouldn’t we be treated like them?

I plan to call her and say that although I’m thankful for her thinking of us, we will again be sending out our own holiday card and do not need to be explicitly included in hers.

Our concerns, whether they come from my mouth or my husband’s, are bound to ruffle feathers and create additional problems. Am I just stirring up unnecessary trouble?

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

My position in his family since we began seeing each other, more than 10 years ago, has been to be the only person in the history of time to tell his mother “no.” My husband often appreciates it because he agrees with me but doesn’t have the energy, patience or desire to stand up to his mother. If we do not go along with this holiday letter nonsense, many texts, e-mails, phone calls, handwritten letters, etc. will follow, and I’m sure, as in every other debate in which we assert ourselves as adults and wish to be recognized as such, will end in our not feeling heard or respected.

Background: My mother-in-law tends to be very selfish. One brief, childish example, of which there are many: She demanded that her husband wear a white tux to our wedding. The only men wearing white at our ceremony were fellow members of the military who were involved in performing the traditional sword arch. She staged this argument the week before the wedding, ignoring that my husband and I were very deliberate in asking our fathers to wear traditional black tuxes. Other examples abound.

Is it possible that we should just roll over? — Adults Treated as Children

When you tell me with a straight (type)face that a photo request for Ma’s Christmas newsletter is a “desperately” anything “debacle,” this is how I want to respond:

Famine. Human trafficking. Syria. Hello?

I will not go so far as to say your husband married his mother in a fight-fire-with-fire maneuver, because that would be pointlessly alienating — plus, I get the very real, crazy-making effect that 10 years in a drama vortex can have on a person.

But the examples you give of outrageous behavior from your mother-in-law are so trivial, they throw your judgment into question right along with your mother-in-law’s. Her pushing back on your black tuxedo request, for example. That was childish of her, certainly, but consider the worst case: The wedding doesn’t happen? Nope. You suffer lasting emotional scars? Nope. She shows up with a guy dressed like Col. Sanders? Bingo. That’s less an outrage than a self-inflicted wound.

As for the holiday letter, I could spend days trying to figure out why the content in her Christmas letter and your grown-up holiday card has to be mutually exclusive, and why her request for your “favorite” picture can’t be satisfied with your second- or fifth- or 19th-favorite shot from this past year (I won’t tell!).

But while that sounds delightful, I’ll pass, because it’s beside the point. You aren’t looking to present legitimate arguments against your mother-in-law, you’re looking to present any argument against your mother-in-law.

Even if she deserves every bit of your revulsion — those “many texts, e-mails, phone calls, handwritten letters” she uses to get what she wants, by the way, are your best argument there — a slap-fight over every outfit or mass mailing is not a path to victory or even detente. Instead, it gets you exactly where you are now: stewing up to your neck in a broth of her every offense, real and perceived, of the past decade.

Please trade that for a strategy of ruthless, don’t-look-back sorting. Imagine a giant wheely trash bin — label it “Ridiculous.” Imagine an old-school desktop in-box — label it “Real.” From now on, you’re putting everything your mother-in-law throws at you into one of these. White tux? Ridiculous. [Thump.] Wants a photo for her insufferable annual brag rag? Ridiculous. “Here. It’s of all of us on St. Crispin’s Day.” [Hook shot! Thump.] Um . . . I’m going to have to make something up here . . . her trying to dictate how you live, love, worship, spend money, raise kids or schedule your time? Real — inbox. [Swish.] That’s when adults “assert ourselves as adults.” Husband, I’m looking at you, too.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at

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