Adapted from a recent online discussion.
DEAR CAROLYN: Here’s a problem you might not get too much: in-laws who are too nice. My husband’s mother calls him once a day, sometimes more. Every time he and my daughter visit them (about weekly), they insist on sending things back with them that we don’t want, usually foods we’re trying to avoid.
Each of these gifts requires a special phone call of thanks from me personally, usually after a long day of work, which then turns into a lengthy chat.
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My in-laws want phone calls anytime we travel long distances or in bad weather, just to be sure we’re safe, and they get annoyed when we forget.
They keep track of our kids’ doctor’s appointments so they can ask how everything went.
Is there a polite way to get them to back off, just a little? We love them and appreciate that they are always there for us, but it’s just too much of an emotional burden to handle their anxieties about our everyday life. When we try to speak up, my mother-in-law is very hurt and feels we don’t want her around.
DEAR SMOTHER-IN-LAW: This is a problem I do get “too much,” but calling it “nice” is new.
You describe a mother-in-law who is manipulative, controlling, insecure and boundary-challenged.
Is your husband as uncomfortable with this as you are? Is he ready to set some limits, or has he too bought into the “nice” canard?
I suspect you’d both benefit from reading about boundaries and emotional manipulation. Don’t tune me out: The best read on this topic is “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker. It will seem like a loopy recommendation for “just” a fussy mom, but it’s actually square on point — and if that doesn’t stick then ask if he’ll join you at one, just one, session with a family therapist for some outside perspective. You can talk follow-ups afterward.
It won’t be pretty, even if your husband’s fully aboard. He’ll need to be kind and sunny, and absolutely immovable on these, phased in gently:
• Screening her calls. He picks a frequency he’s comfortable with, and sticks to it.
• Saving your “We made it home OK!” calls for when there’s some doubt. (Severe weather, for example.)
• Supporting you when you say “Thank you” by note or email.
• Realizing her distress does not obligate him to appease her. “I love you, Mom. This is just the way I’d like to do things from now on,” until it sticks.
These are optional:
• Not sharing appointment times. “When there’s something to report, we’ll let you know,” cheery as a cupcake. If the appointments are a bone you want to throw, then keep sharing, knowing it’s one concession, versus the top of a slippery slope.
• Tackling the gifts. “Our home runneth over, and we hate to see you spend money on things we can’t keep” is one approach, as is channeling: “If you’re looking for something for the kids, they need new socks” or “The kids loved those X you baked – would you be willing to make them again?”
Neither will work, of course, if their goal is to undermine (“usually foods we’re trying to avoid”?), but it’s worth trying before you start the (smile)-“Thanks!”-(donate) cycle.
Your lives, your terms, with love.