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Dear Captain,

I (mid-30s, she/her) could write a novel about my mother-in-law’s transgressions (highlights: announcing our engagement on social media after specifically being asked not to, making petty comments about my race/weight/hair whenever Husband is out of earshot but tearfully telling him she wants to be my friend, secretly changing our wedding plans last second so everyone could see her walk down the aisle). Husband has trouble setting/maintaining boundaries with her, which often creates frustration for me. He sees his mom as a great person who’s dealt with SO MUCH in her life, “but she’s losing her mental clarity which is why when she says/does mean things–but she doesn’t intend it that way.”

Background: Husband started taking care of MIL at 16 due to her many serious health problems. She’s had dozens of surgeries and has multiple physical/mental challenges. Despite giving up on his dreams of military/college/doing something for himself, he’s diligently taken care of her for 17+ years. Her health challenges are real, but that doesn’t stop her from martyrdom, manipulating emotions to get away with bullshit, and relying on him for basically everything.

MIL and her new husband lived with Husband before we started dating. As our relationship progressed, I agreed to move in only if there was a plan for us to live alone within a year. MIL wanted us all to live as a big happy family, but she tried to control EVERYTHING, wouldn’t let us be alone, and made me miserable. Anytime I politely brought up an issue, she’d cry, overreact (“I guess I’ll just go die in a hole!”), or be extra passive aggressive for days.

They moved out two years ago and I kept the peace by choosing my battles carefully. Then MIL’s husband was diagnosed with cancer last year, and all she can think about is moving back in with us when he passes.

Husband and I have had MANY discussions that can be summarized as:

Me: “I understand this is extremely hard for MIL, but I can’t live with her again long term—X, Y, and Z are better options. I work from home, you work 12 hour shifts, and I’m not qualified nor want to be her caretaker/roommate.”

Husband: “I want my mom to live here because she’s scared of living alone and if anything bad happens to her it’ll be my fault. I’d do the same for your mom. Other options work logically, but I’ve been guilt-tripped my entire life and believe I owe her everything for birthing me. Let’s just figure it out when the time comes.”

Captain, I need one of your step-by-step plans to help me keep my home MIL-free. Please help!


I don’t want to be her caretaker

(PS – Extra background if needed: All of this is more complicated by the fact that SIL died last year and we’re in the process of adopting our 15 year old Niece. MIL body shames/tries to control/manipulate Niece who already has self-esteem issues/grief/past trauma.

I 100% believe it wouldn’t be good for Niece, Husband, or my mental health for MIL to move in. Husband thinks if we “tell MIL she has to adjust to our house rules/treat me as woman of the house/not force diets on Niece” MIL will go along with it and everyone will get along and be happy. Obviously, I disagree—she won’t change.)

Hello Don’t Wanna,

I’m so sorry that your family is dealing with your mother-in-law (MIL)’s husband’s illness and your sister-in-law (SIL)’s death all at once. That is a lot of grief and uncertainty to be wrangling, and trying to make big decisions in the midst of grieving is not easy. Your husband has already experienced a great deal of parentification, a form of child abuse where adults force their children into adult roles like caretaker, emotional support, confidant, and on-call childcare for siblings. This was true when your mother-in-law (MIL) had another child and a spouse in the picture, and I think you’re correct that when she really, truly doesn’t have anyone else to rely on she’s going to try to fly back like a cursèd Mjölnir.

Unfortunately, your husband’s repeated entreaties to “just deal with it when the time comes“* when you try to discuss it have an entirely predictable outcome. By refusing to work with his mom and her husband to make a plan where she lives elsewhere (a detailed-paperwork-and-money-behind-it-kind-of-plan), it’s not that your husband isn’t making any plans at all. There is totally a plan in place! That plan is: MIL will keep on planning to move in with y’all, assuming that he’ll be unable to say no to her that you’ll be unable to say no to him, and that will be that. There may be some pretense when the time comes that it’s “just for now,” but we all know that’s a fiction. He’ll continue to work 12 hour shifts. You’ll do your best to work from home, but you’re not going to totally ignore a sick old lady, so over time you’ll become the default caretaker. She has 17 years of evidence on her side that says that her son is not going to suddenly grow a spine and push her out again once she’s landed. And you know from experience that his promises about her good behavior aren’t worth a damn. “She doesn’t mean it!” “Weird, then how does she manage to only say offensive things like that when you aren’t here?” It’s only getting worse from there.

[*””Let’s just figure it out when the time comes” reminds me immediately of that scene in Walk The Line where Johnny Cash tries to reassure June Carter about their relationship: “June, that stuff will just work itself out.”  And June (correctly) is like: “No, it does not work itself out. Other people work it out for you and you think it works itself out.”]

You can’t really control what your MIL will assume or do, nor can you control what your husband will do about any of it, but I think you can, with great difficulty, push back on the assumption that it will work out “somehow” because you’ll work it out for him at the expense of your own happiness and well-being. What happens if you refuse to work it out? It sounds like you’ve already raised possible alternative solutions (X, Y, and Z) where your MIL is housed and cared for but not living with you, with no luck. And right now, you can probably vividly imagine scenarios where your MIL moves back in and you and your niece put up with constant boundary-crossing and verbal abuse from her until *something* goes down in flames: your niece moves away as far as she can get, your marriage snaps under the pressure, and/or your MIL’s health declines to the point that she must be in some kind of facility or she dies, whichever comes first.

But I want to suggest another possible path, one I’ll call “That’s not happening.” If you were to create boundaries for yourself along the lines of “I will not live with a person who goes out of her way to make me miserable,” and “I will not subject my niece to controlling behavior and verbal abuse in our home,” what would you need to do to preserve them? Something like:

“Husband, if you want your mom to move in here, or you want to move in with her so she won’t be alone, I guess that’s your choice, but I need you to understand that I will not live under the same roof with her again, and I won’t subject Niece to that, either. So it sounds like we’ll need to plan around two households. My strong preference would be that the three of us live together in one and your mom lives in her own place with plenty of X, Y, and Z support in place, but if that’s not what you want, we’ll need to make another plan so that Niece and I can be comfortable in our own home.” 

Does that seem drastic?  I definitely wouldn’t start with that *conversation* with him out of the gate, mind, but in your shoes, I would start including “two parallel households” as a very real, concrete possibility in any plans you make for the future, starting now. It’s time to at least start making some lists about what would need to happen logistically, legally, and financially to protect yourself and your niece if your husband does decide to move your MIL in over your objections.

There are two additional list-making tools that I, personally come back to again and again for managing my own anxiety around conflicts and difficult choices. The first is disaster preparedness: If the thing I’m dreading actually happens, what will I do about it? Write it down. Okay, worst case scenario, what will I do then? Write it down. If I run into stuff where the answer is “I don’t know what I’ll do,” I write down “I don’t know” or try to quickly come up with who I could ask for help or where I could find more information, and then I keep going. What I end up with is a list of options that does double duty as a reminder that I have options. They may all suck, but spelling them out makes them automatically more manageable than the expanding, unnameable dread, even if it’s only a matter of ruling out what I won’t do.

The second tool is also effectively a list of options, it’s a reminder that other people have choices about how they behave. Your husband”s mom has choices about how she treats you and your niece. And she has choices about her own future, and about where she lives, that don’t involve invading your home. The sooner that she and her husband and the rest of her family (incl. your husband) make an actual plan for what happens when she’s on her own, the more choices about all of that she will have. The more everybody kicks the can down the road, the more narrow and urgent the choices will become, which is something she and your husband seem to be counting on.

Your husband also has lots of choices here, choices like get a therapist to help him process his upbringing and get support in setting boundaries with his mother” and “actually listen to his wife when she reminds him that you all already know that living together absolutely does not work. If his choice is “She’s my mom and I owe her and I want her to live with me so I can take care of her and I expect you to make it work somehow,” then so be it! But recognizing that as a choice *among other possible choices* gives everybody a clearer, more honest picture of what’s at stake. In a scenario where “My sonsband will always choose me over his mean wife!” and  “I can’t just abandon my mom!” clashes with “Well, I can’t have her up in my business all the time, especially when it’s me and a vulnerable child and not you who will have to deal with her antics,” somebody is bound to be disappointed. If your husband is choosing that the disappointed person is you, every time, then at least let’s name that? He can’t say no to his mom, but he can assert himself on her behalf when the happiness of the woman he married and his grieving, traumatized niece is on the line? How interesting.

Using the lists together can help you figure out what your own deal-breakers are and what your resources and support system actually look like before you try negotiating the hard thing again. I should be clear that the lists are meant to be private, process-tools for you to figure out your own mind and prepare for discussions, and you do not have to “show your work” or share every branch of your decision tree with your husband in real time when you discuss it. (People incredibly do not like it when they learn about private pro/con lists you’ve made about them.)

From there, there’s no “one discussion to rule them all” that solves all of this for both of you. It may take a lot of time and the services of a couples’ counselor to really get through. You’ve been doing a great job of expressing yourself so far, so we’re really talking about degrees between “I can’t live with her again long-term, I think X, Y, and Z are better options” and “Okay, but I am telling you that I won’t live with her again, at all, so we’re going to need another plan.”  If you take living with her completely off the table for yourself, and use that as your *starting* point in any negotiation, what else becomes possible? I don’t think you and your husband can really figure it out as long as everyone pretends that postponing the decision is anything but acquiescing. Setting and communicating your boundaries now can make that a more informed choice on his part.

This is so hard, because it feels like potentially letting your MIL “win,” by reaping the fruits of her years of grooming if he does give in to her and you end up having to move out. But your husband is an adult. If he knowingly puts his mom first, even when you’ve told him how it will hurt you, that is a choice he is making.

Immediate next steps: My hope is that your husband will get a therapist, like, yesterday, to deal with the enmeshment, and that you’ll at least be more equipped to operate from a place of knowing for sure what you need in order to be happy and well and how far you’ll go to protect your space, your health, and the vulnerable kid who is about to come under your care.

In closing, I hate this for you. Please take very good care of yourself and your sweet niece.

Hi Captain,

I (she/her) have a friend who is, in most respects, a lovely person. We live about an hour apart and both have pretty busy schedules, so it’s hard for us to see each other in person more than about once a month. In between visits, we tend to catch up via phone calls.

I have no problem with talking on the phone for an hour or so at a time, so this is generally fine. But she WILL. NOT. GET. OFF. THE. PHONE. I used to try gentle, but not excessively subtle, cues like “Well, it’s getting late”, or “All right, I’m getting a little tired”, or “I haven’t had dinner yet and I’m getting hungry, so I think I’m gonna let you go so I can make dinner”, but nope. She’ll either argue (“It’s not that late”) or tell me I can stay on the phone with her while I do the thing. If I tell her I really do need to go now, she’ll “jokingly” act all offended that I don’t want to talk to her and must not like it anymore.

This is, as you might imagine, exhausting. Some days I see her name on my phone, decide I don’t have the mental/emotional bandwidth to deal with the inevitable end of the conversation, and just don’t answer. Then I get a voicemail message “jokingly” accusing me of being mean and not wanting to talk to her because I don’t like her.

I do like her, but I would like her a lot more if she didn’t pull this crap! I’m usually pretty good at being assertive and maintaining boundaries while keeping things pleasant, but she is… a challenge. I’m writing this after a phone call where I told her at the beginning that I’d had a headache all day, then an hour later told her I needed to feed the cat (“You can do that while you’re on the phone!”) and make dinner (she immediately tried to change the subject). I finally resorted to an emphatic “[Friend], BYE”, which she obviously didn’t take well.

I’ve been trying and failing for years now to come up with clear, unambiguous, polite scripts for “I enjoyed our chat but I am now choosing to end it whether you agree or not”. Can you help?

-Telephone Hostage

Dear Telephone Hostage,

I can think of any number of strategies for addressing this problem with your friend. None of them involve trying to patiently out-polite someone who is being extremely manipulative, though. The time for hints is over.

You could try to schedule routine times to talk, and set more realistic expectations by including an end time from the start. “Oh hi, great to hear from you. Before I forget, I have to be off the phone by 7:30.” Set an alarm for 7:25. When it goes off, start wrapping up the call. At 7:30, GO.

You could stop preemptively supplying reasons for why you need to get off the phone, since you know your friend will discount whatever reason you supply. And if she demands reasons, call this behavior out! “Well, since you ask, I want to start dinner and feed the cat, but the important part is that I’d like to hang up now. Talk to you soon!” :click:

You could try taking a break from phone calls altogether, maybe switch it up with other activities that can be done together from a distance, like watching a show or playing an online game. You can try setting her number to “do not disturb” or putting your phone away during times that you know that don’t want to talk to her. (Like when you have an awful headache and aren’t in the mood).

You could try being very direct with your friend: “Friend, from now on, when I tell you that I need to hang up, I need you to say ‘Ok! Bye!’ and just let me off the phone. No arguments, no interrogations about why, no more passive-aggressive texts about how mean I am. I love talking to you, but when I say I need to go, I both need to go and want to go. Have mercy!”  

You could try translating your past hints into actionable requests: “Friend, when I say ‘its’ getting late’ or ‘look at the time,’ that means I’m ready to start winding down our call. Do I need to be more specific? If so, okay! Iloveyoubyehangingupnow!” :click:

Alternately, at the beginning of a phone call, when tensions are low and she’s not behaving badly, you could bring the problem to her attention and ask her why she’s doing it. “Friend, I’ve noticed a pattern where, whenever I tell you I want to hang up, you argue with me and try to keep me on the phone longer. What’s going on with that?”  If you need an example choose one very recent, very glaring one.

Expect some deflection, defensiveness, justifications, attempts to play it off as a joke, etc. I suspect that whatever anxiety-avoidance dance (where she’s an adult literally begging someone to not hang up the phone, not a toddler with bedtime FOMO) does not feel good to her, either. Don’t argue, just listen. She may not be self-aware enough to articulate why. Fair enough! The exact reason she supplies isn’t really the point. The act of listening in the service of airing out the grievance is the point. And just to be absolutely clear: If she tells you a very sad, sympathetic reason about why she’s doing what she’s doing, that’s good information, but it does not obligate you to keep doing what she wants. Continued compliance is never the cure.

When it’s your turn to respond, try something like this: “What I’m hearing is _______ and ________ [a rephrasing of what she said to you goes in the blanks]. The reason I brought it up is, when I tell you it’s time to get off the phone, I need you to stop pressuring me to keep talking. And I need you to stop sending “joking” texts about how mean I am or how I don’t like you. It turns talking to my lovely friend –  a fun thing that I enjoy! –  into a bummer, and I don’t want that. So help me out here! Also, I’m not going to argue back and forth about it in the future. Once I tell you I need to go, that’s it, I’m going!” 

Or, since this is a known, recurring problem, maybe you don’t have to talk through it in detail.“Friend, I said I needed to go, stop making it weird!” “I like you a lot, but not when you act like this! I’m going now!” “Five minutes ago I ‘politely hinted’ that it was time to wrap up, now I’m telling you! Bye! Talk to you later!” “Friendname, bathroom time is alone time! Good night!” “I enjoyed our chat, but I am done now whether you agree or not!”  

You can also tell her that her”jokes” aren’t funny.  If she’s “just joking,” then she won’t mind, right? (Ha.) One way to defuse the “just joking”/”I didn’t mean it like that”  gambit is to ask the person what their real thoughts are. “If you didn’t mean it, great! What did you mean? Surely not…that I’m not…allowed…to hang up the phone….right?”

Now for the catch: Any of these methods can work, but absolutely none of them will work unless you actually hang up the phone when you want to.

Maintaining boundaries isn’t really about what you can persuade other people to do, it’s about deciding what you are willing to do in order to get your needs met when and if someone isn’t persuaded. She wants to talk longer. You want to hang up. Someone is bound to be disappointed here. Your friend has apparently decided that the disappointed person is always going to be you. Until you stop martyring yourself, so have you. When people say “actions speak louder than words,” this is exactly the kind of shit they’re talking about.

Which means, regardless of what scripts or strategies you want to try, you’ll have to hang up, knowing that she won’t like it, knowing that it will be uncomfortable and awkward. And for best results, you’ll need to hang up the very first time you say goodbye, whether she’s cool with it or not. The more you linger and repeat yourself, the more it will appear that there’s still something to discuss. This isn’t that scene in action movies where it takes two people with two separate keys to arm the bomb in the submarine. It doesn’t require consensus to say “Oh hey, it’s 7:30, I need to say goodnight! Let’s talk soon!” and hang up. Save yourself! Save her from herself! :click:

The first time you do it will be the hardest. It will feel jarring and awful and you’ll probably second-guess yourself a million times. Your friend will likely escalate at first before she adapts. (There will be weird text and voicemails. Delete them.) Moving forward, when you do interact normally, be the pleasant and loving friend you always are. You’re not mad at her, you don’t hate her, you just need this one thing to be different. If she insists on manipulating you after she’s been told outright, then take a break from phone calls for a while. “I don’t want to fight with you, but I was serious. When you make getting off the phone into an ordeal, I have way less energy for getting on it.” 

I’m reasonably sure that many people read your letter and thought, “OMFG, you need to just get off the phone already! How is this even a problem?!?” Those people are not technically wrong, in that “hanging up already”  is what you are going to have to learn to do if you want this to ever change.

But often, I find it useful to mentally edit “You just need to” “obvious” “tough love” advice like this to something more like “That wouldn’t be a problem…for me. In your shoes, I would just….” Once I reframe it as the person talking about themselves, then, sure! Knowing what worked for somebody in a similar situation can be damn useful at times! Especially when, let’s say, an advice-asker’s parameters for what “normal” is like are somewhat sketchy. Except, what’s easy for one person isn’t universally applicable, and I would venture that this website is one decade-long exercise in me figuring that out, publicly, in real time. 😉

Letter Writer, if hanging up is hard for you (and I believe that it is), I’m assuming there’s a reason for that. People-pleasing tendencies like the ones I see in your letter don’t occur in a vacuum. I don’t know your life, but I’m willing to guess that somebody (possibly many somebodies)  taught you that your time and your preferences and your feelings don’t really matter as much as other people’s and it would be much more pleasant (“for everyone”) if not literally safer (for you)  if you just kept quiet.

Unfortunately, lots of the skills people learn to survive dysfunctional environments are not useful outside of those environments, and need to be un-learned later. The good news is, you’re a grownup now, safe and warm in a place where nobody can make you do anything. The unlearning can be done (even if it takes a while), and one otherwise lovely person you quite like, who does one specific thing that really annoys you, is a very good place to start.

. :click:

Hello everyone!

Everyone who’s coming please make sure you take a lateral flow test (or PCR) the previous evening or that morning

Obviously I will cancel if the situation changes or the rules change

5th February, 1pm, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, SE1 8XX.

We will be on Level 2 (the upper levels are closed to non-ticket-holders), but I don’t know exactly where on the floor. It will depend on where we can find a table. I will have my plush Chthulu which looks like this:

Please bring your masks/exemption lanyards, and obey any rules posted in the venue.

The venue has lifts to all floors and accessible toilets. The accessibility map is here:

The food market outside (side opposite the river) is pretty good for all sorts of requirements, and you can also bring food from home, or there are lots of cafes on the riverfront.

Other things to bear in mind:

  1. Please make sure you follow social distancing rules. This particularly includes respecting people’s personal space and their choices about distancing.
  2. We have all had a terrible time for the last two years. Sharing your struggles is okay and is part of what the group is for, but we need to be careful not to overwhelm each other or have the conversation be entirely negative. Where I usually draw the line here is that personal struggles are fine to talk about but political rants are discouraged, but I may have to move this line on the day when I see how things go. Don’t worry, I will tell you!
  3. Probably lots of us have forgotten how to be around people (most likely me as well), so here is permission to walk away if you need space. Also a reminder that we will all react differently, so be careful to give others space if they need.

I will cancel this meetup if government guidance changes, so keep an eye on this space.

No need to RSVP, but please let me know if you want me to keep an eye out for you!

kate DOT towner AT gmail DOT com



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