Dear Carolyn: When I married my wonderful husband, he asked if we could cut ties with his family. I thought he was joking.
He grew up in a verbally and emotionally abusive household — something I will never fully understand, but definitely didn't grasp pre-marriage. While his mother was also a victim (her father was the abuser), she is the one we have the most problems with. I spent the first part of our marriage telling my husband he should be more supportive of her because she was a victim and has clear untreated mental illness. What I didn't understand was that she filled his childhood with manipulation, passive-aggression, severe OCD and hoarding, and helicopter parenting.
Now she continues to unload her untreated anxiety on him. He tries to set boundaries, she ignores them. Many people have suggested therapy, she refuses treatment. She blames every problem she's ever had, including things that happened four decades ago, which she still ruminates about constantly, on any- and everyone but herself. Every 20-minute call leaves my husband drained and frustrated.
She wants to be around her grandchildren. How do we let this woman into our life without feeling depleted? How do we set boundaries with someone who ignores them?
— Distraught Daughter-in-Law
Distraught Daughter-in-Law: Oh, my.
You do seem to have meant well, and made mistakes of ignorance, not malice. I say this because I am about to be blunt about the beginning of your story:
You laughed off your husband’s cry for help! And then sided with his tormentor against him.
This history must be addressed before you deal with the present. Why? You owe him a massive apology. And because your husband needs strength to hold the line with his mother — wherever he draws it, which we’ll get to — and healthy relationships with the primary people in our lives are, for any of us, a significant source of emotional strength.
As his wife, you are likely the primary person.
Maybe you get it and have long since repaired the trust you damaged by siding against him. My apologies, if so. But your letter doesn’t have that “WOW I messed up” vibe, and his mother is still tormenting him — and that tells me there’s still work to do on your marital trust. That means a full reckoning with your part in his pain. Such as: “You asked sincerely to cut ties with your family and I treated it as a joke. I’m so sorry. I left you to deal with her unsupported.” Show him you get it and you’re safe to lean on now.
As a full and fully comprehending partner, you can join him in learning about boundaries: namely, that when properly set and held, they aren’t subject to anyone’s disrespect. You decide what behavior you’ll accept from people, and become unavailable to those who behave otherwise. She gets blamey on the phone? He says, “Sorry to interrupt, but I have to go,” and hangs up. She screams? He screens.
She keeps hurting him? He cuts ties.
Therapy, meanwhile, isn’t just for untreated moms. Both you and your husband could fill key gaps in your emotional educations — his from being too close to abuse, and yours from being too removed from it. Please, both of you, go learn how and where to draw lines.