Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“I’m Meeting My Monster Mother-In-Law for the First Time”

I might be meeting my mother-in-law for the first time over the holidays and I’m wondering how best to handle our first encounter.

My husband of three years (5 years together) is an only child and he currently has no contact with either of his biological parents. His father walked out on the family when he was a baby, but his estrangement from his mother is more recent, although it pre-dates our relationship. She is a drug addict who refuses to get help and who drained my husband of money and assets. She also fraudulently used his SSN and ruined his credit for some time, although he has been able to straighten that out. At a certain point, my husband decided that it was healthiest for him to cease contact with her. Aside from a couple of phone calls over the years, initiated by her, and the fact that he has not blocked her on social media (although he doesn’t respond to her, either), he hasn’t engaged with her at all since then.

I, however, have a very good and close relationship with my family, and my husband worried at the beginning that I might think it strange or wrong that he chose to cut his mother out of his life. A lot of people have reacted negatively to his decision. But, although I’ve never done it, I understand completely that often the best thing to do is to no longer allow toxic people in your life.

So, I have never met her. She reaches out to my husband sometimes, and he often feels like he should re-establish limited contact, especially now that we live across the country from her rather than within easy driving distance, as we used to. She almost came to our wedding (we were going to pay for her hotel since she couldn’t afford it and she turned down our offer to pay for a plane ticket, saying she would drive), but then flaked out the day before.

Recently, she has redoubled her efforts to reconnect with my husband. This Christmas, we’ll be in the area where she lives visiting other family (it’s a complicated story involving remarriages and step-relatives, but suffice it to say that she’s not related or speaks to anyone we’ll be with). She’s been particularly insistent with the text messages and social media contact lately. My husband has been floating around the idea of seeing her. He has been thinking that maintaining a minimal but cordial relationship might be better than the current state of things. I support him whatever his choice.

I have a couple of questions. First, if he does decide to see her, should I be present? He’s of two minds about it because he thinks my presence would keep things from getting too heated, but she also has been supremely mean and bitchy to women he dated in the past, and he wants to protect me from any potential ugliness. And, if I do meet her (this year or in the future), what do I even say? I get along swimmingly with his other family members (to whom he’s mostly not blood-related, but who are his real family) and I’ve always been good at meeting the parents of friends and former boyfriends. But my usual lines and conversation-starters seem to ring false or hollow in this situation: “So nice to meet you, I’ve heard so much about you” (when most of what I’ve heard is terrible), or “You’ve raised a wonderful man” (when a lot of the raising was done by people other than her), etc.

Any thoughts from you and your readers? — Meeting MIL

First of all, absolutely go with your husband if he decides to see his mother while in her town. Your supporting presence will not only be of comfort to him, but it will also provide a buffer between him and his mom and give the two of them something else to focus on besides their dysfunctional relationship/ sad history. Unless your husband is saying that he definitely doesn’t want you there, GO. He may feel awkward at first having you there and maybe a little sad, but mostly what he will feel is relief and gratitude.

Really, having you there will make a huge difference. And even if she IS mean to you, so what? You can handle it. This woman is nothing to you. If meeting her doesn’t go well, you don’t have to see her again for a long time, if ever. She has no bearing on your day-to-day life and, after you spend an hour or two with her, you will go on your way and continue your life as you would if you hadn’t met her. Whether she’s mean or not, nothing is really going to change.

As for what to say to her, you certainly don’t have to say anything that rings hollow or feels insincere to you. If saying, “Nice to meet you” even feels too forced, you could just go with, “We finally meet!” That’s not a lie. And as for conversation, let your husband and his mother lead the way, but if there are gaps or you feel the need to say something, either to lighten the mood or to keep the conversation going, focus on neutral topics like the weather where you are (versus where you live), the food you’re eating (if you’re eating), a story in the news, travel plans, your jobs, and any pets you might have. If you feel like you want to acknowledge her connection to your husband but you aren’t sure how, stick to the biological connection and comment on physical similarities (“Wow, you two have the exact same nose!”). If even that feels inappropriate, skip it and mention it to your husband later, when you’re alone if you want to.

You sound like a wonderful, loving wife and I’m sure your husband will be happy just to have your support. Don’t worry too much about saying the right or wrong thing. I’m sure you will be the least nervous person among the three of you and your presence alone will help in neutralizing the anxiety of the other two. Be as warm as you feel comfortable being and remind yourself that your MIL is someone to be pitied and not necessarily hated (especially by you).

***************

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37 comments… add one
  • something random

    something random November 27, 2013, 9:07 am

    Hi,
    When I finally met my monster-in-law (after she had flaked out and missed a payed for flight) we went out for a lunch. She was quiet and didn’t say much. I tended to talk about my husband and all the great things about him that I was proud of. I asked her about what he was like as a baby (for the limited time that she knew) and we made chit chat about current events. I actually got along with her really well because I had no emotional investment.
    We talked about the area she was from, and I asked questions about her family (my husband’s grandparents), I asked about her favorite music, books, and shows. My husband actually told me I was talking too much and wearing her out but I kept at it and soon we were joking around. She would say weird or insulting things occasionally but I didn’t bother reacting to them. I kept friendly and upbeat, the way one might when talking to someone slightly crazy at a shelter. I didn’t care if she thought I was dumb and didn’t get her comments.

    Hope that helps!
    I can’t believe I’m first 🙂

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  • avatar

    lemongrass November 27, 2013, 9:09 am

    Follow your husband’s lead here. Don’t worry about how you come across to her but more how you can make your husband more comfortable.

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  • Fabelle

    Fabelle November 27, 2013, 9:21 am

    I could not agree more with WWS about accompanying your husband if he does decide to meet with his mother. LW, reassure your husband that you can handle a bit of bitchiness. You sound very supportive, & I commend you for that, but let your husband know you’ll be fine in the presence of his mother’s ugliness, should she take that route upon meeting you. I’d wager she doesn’t, though— she probably realizes how tenuous the connection is between herself & her son, & won’t do anything to fuck it up (at least, not during a first reunion)

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  • avatar

    bethany November 27, 2013, 9:24 am

    WWS. If your husband wants you there, go. If not, don’t go.
    And just remember, this woman isn’t someone who is going to play a big role in your life moving forward, so it’s not like you need to impress her, or even go out of our way to be overly nice to her. Be friendly and polite, just like you would be to anyone else, and leave it at that.

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  • GatorGirl

    GatorGirl November 27, 2013, 9:34 am

    Be polite. That’s all you can do.

    Also, I wouldn’t schedule this meeting on say Christmas Day (or your holiday of choice). Do it on a lower stress day, where IMO there is less pressure. Go if he asks you, don’t go (and don’t be offended) if he doesn’t ask you to go.

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  • avatar

    lets_be_honest November 27, 2013, 9:36 am

    Just wanted to say you sound so supportive of your husband and understanding. High five to you LW.

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  • katie

    katie November 27, 2013, 9:48 am

    well first off, this – ” he wants to protect me from any potential ugliness” – is total bullshit. you are his wife, his forever train co-conductor, which means you have willingly signed up for a front row seat to the ugliness. thats a huge part of what you promised, and if my husband said that to me about this situation, i would tell him to shove it and that ill be by his side.

    take his lead. dont worry about conversation. your “lines” sound kind of fake and rehearsed anyway, in my opinion, so maybe this will be a good situation for you in which your normal, rehearsed, “lines” wont work and you have to improvise. we all have these situations in our lives, for whatever reasons, and you gotta know how to get through it! just be polite and make conversation. support your husband in this, whatever form it ends up taking.

    above all remember that your job no matter what: support your husband. your job is not to like this woman, for her to like you, to make friends, none of that! it is to be there for your husband. so dont get those ideas in your head.

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    • GatorGirl

      GatorGirl November 27, 2013, 9:57 am

      I disagree that it is bullshit to want to protect your spouse from someone you know has a history of being rude and nasty (as LW said). That sounds totally normal to me.

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      • katie

        katie November 27, 2013, 10:01 am

        i dont think so. its my job as your spouse to help you through the rude and nasty, not to sit by in ignorant bliss as you, by yourself, deal with whatever issues are at hand.

        i get the sentiment, you dont want rude and nasty to happen to the person you love, but thats not how i would want a relationship to be conducted.

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      • GatorGirl

        GatorGirl November 27, 2013, 10:06 am

        well, I don’t think he is wanting her to sit by in ignorant bliss- it sounds like he’s been pretty open about the way she acts/their history. I think there is a big difference in being honest about the character of a person/the way the act and wanting your partner to experience them.

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      • avatar

        Nadine November 27, 2013, 10:22 am

        Agreed. also her rehearsed lines? are sometimes the best way to get through a situation. Don’t knock thinking things through!

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    • something random

      something random November 27, 2013, 10:04 am

      I agree that he doesn’t get to decide what his wife can handle. If his reasons were different I might say the wife should bow out. But really wanting to protect her from possible ugliness is bullshit. Also agree that she may have to improvise. Eventually, my husband ended up having mixed feelings about my friendliness towards his mother; he didn’t think she deserved it. So I ended up distancing myself. This may be a situation where lw just has to see how things land.

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      • katie

        katie November 27, 2013, 10:20 am

        absolutely. if he just wants to go alone, fine. if he feels more comfortable, feels like he wants to talk to her himself before they meet, whatever, fine. but the specific reason that he is worried about the wife handling it? please. come on. get off your white horse, buddy.

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      • avatar

        lets_be_honest November 27, 2013, 10:30 am

        I don’t get why its ok for her to go to support him and make him feel better, but the idea of him not wanting her to go to make her feel better is so wrong. Isn’t it a good thing to want to make your spouse as happy as possible?

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      • katie

        katie November 27, 2013, 10:34 am

        like i said, i get the sentiment. i get that you dont want anything bad to happen to your spouse. but no, im not ok with my husband going and facing this big, shitty thing by himself. i signed up to be by his side for that kind of stuff when i married him.

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      • avatar

        lets_be_honest November 27, 2013, 10:35 am

        Oh, for sure. I just don’t think he’s disagreed with that really. Its not like he said you are not allowed to go.

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      • avatar

        lets_be_honest November 27, 2013, 10:34 am

        Is he dictating though? I don’t think so. He’s just saying I’d rather not put you through that.

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  • avatar

    starpattern November 27, 2013, 9:52 am

    Everything Wendy said! Plus, if you and your husband decide you should go along, you can always ask how he wants you to approach her. Does he want you to be friendly and try to chit chat with her? Does he want you to hang back and let them do the talking?

    Also, this may be my Southern showing, but you can say “It’s nice to meet you!” in ANY situation. You can find a reason it’s nice to meet anyone: it’s nice to learn more about where your husband came from, it’s nice you’re able to come along to the meeting to support your husband, it’s nice your husband is good-hearted enough to be open to a relationship with this woman at all, it’s nice all of you made it safely to the town and meeting spot, etc. Maybe that sounds like a stretch, but my point is there’s no need to over-analyze these canned phrases we use in social situations – it’s just a widely recognized way to kick off a conversation.

    You sound lovely, and your husband is lucky to have you. Best of luck!

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    • GatorGirl

      GatorGirl November 27, 2013, 9:56 am

      I don’t think it’s your Southern showing, I’ve always said “It’s nice to meet you!” or some variation of that phrase. It’ a pretty safe phrase to throw out.

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  • avatar

    sophronisba November 27, 2013, 9:58 am

    A troubled mom who is insistent on meeting (thus fulfilling her needs, maybe without consideration for your husband’s?) automatically puts the two of you in a reactive place. Some preparation and practice may be in order so you can approach this meeting proactively, with clear boundaries, like what your husband will say and do if she is ugly to you or how to cut the meeting short if it is too distressing for one of you. It would probably be good if the first meeting is planned for specific start and stop times so you don’t get trapped.. (guess that tells you something about MY family). Good luck!

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    • something random

      something random November 27, 2013, 10:08 am

      Agreed. Having a place you have to be at a certain time is probably a good idea.

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      • call-me-hobo

        call-me-hobo November 27, 2013, 10:18 am

        Also- probably better to meet at a coffeehouse or cafe where your order comes out quickly, rather than a restaurant where you’re at the mercy of lunch/dinner rush.

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  • rainbow

    rainbow November 27, 2013, 10:39 am

    WWS! Also, I’m not sure how their relationship is so this might not apply, but you might want to check with your husband that he’s aware she might just want money / enabling and that’s why she’s trying so hard to meet. Just so the whole thing does’t break his heart again if he’s beginning to think she cares for him at all.

    ETA: pretty obvious, I know. I don’t think he’s clueless, I just mention this because I’ve had a terrible relationship with my parents and ended up cutting all contact, and it amazes me to look back on how long I actually believed they wanted more from me than an escape goat and punching bag. It comes with being raised by awful parents, I guess, your bullshit detector loses quality when it’s them specifically on the other end.

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  • avatar

    j2 November 27, 2013, 11:23 am

    A well-crafted letter about an unusual dilemma!

    WWS

    I would only add kudos for how you have handled this so far, including the wedding details.

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    • avatar

      llclarityll November 27, 2013, 12:21 pm

      Seconded. It’s really nice to see a LW who is sincere about why she’s writing in (to support her husband) and not as a veiled letter that’s really all about her.

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  • avatar

    llclarityll November 27, 2013, 12:19 pm

    Try to meet in a public place. Don’t commit to a time limit.

    And please…for your husband’s sanity…be prepared for her to cancel or to be a complete no-show. That ending sounds highly, highly likely at this point. Talk about this in advance so there is no disappointment or anger.

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  • bittergaymark

    bittergaymark November 27, 2013, 12:22 pm

    I suppose go. And be cordial. I don’t know what else to do or say here.

    If he wants to see her with you, okay, go see her.

    But it amazes me how often people run around whining about what a mess somebody is and then act all surprised that that person is (surprise, surprise!) a mess.

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    • katie

      katie November 27, 2013, 12:27 pm

      yea this is also very important, i think…. go in with very, very low expectations. you arent going to waltz in and magically create a new, wonderful son/mother/DIL relationship.

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    • something random

      something random November 27, 2013, 12:46 pm

      Could you clarify the whining part? Who is surprised?

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  • bittergaymark

    bittergaymark November 27, 2013, 12:50 pm

    That latter comment was more of a anticipation to the forthcoming follow up letter.

    Well, we met with his terrible mother, and she was terrible! I couldn’t believe how terrible she was! Even though I already knew she was terrible because of all the things my husband told me…

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  • something random

    Something Random November 27, 2013, 12:58 pm

    Ha! Yeah I can totally see that. Especially since the lw isn’t used to having family she isn’t close with.

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  • avatar

    G November 27, 2013, 1:28 pm

    LW here. Thank you, Wendy, for your response, and all of you for your comments.

    Just wanted to clarify that my wondering whether I should go with him or not was because I didn’t want to add to my husband’s stress level when dealing with what will already be a very stressful situation for him. Yes, I can take his mom being mean to me. No, I’m not worried about me. But since her being bitchy to me would add an extra element of unpleasantness, for him, to their first meeting in years, I questioned whether it’d be best for me to be there, particularly since he himself is conflicted about it. It’s very helpful to hear that the consensus from an outside perspective is that I *should* go, and that the benefit of my presence to support him will likely far outweigh any extra stress that her meanness towards me would cause for him.

    My takeaway from your responses is also that I should reassure him further (although I already have), that I’ll be OK whatever her behavior towards me and that he shouldn’t let than worry him. I think he feels guilty that, because of him, I might have to deal with someone I’m now technically related to by marriage being a monster to me. I need to reassure him that even though my own family is lovely, I’ve dealt with plenty of horrible people in my life, and his mom being one doesn’t faze me, even if she is his mom.

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    • something random

      something Random November 27, 2013, 2:31 pm

      LW I’m so glad you responded! I’d like to clarify my “bullshit reason” comment. I have no doubt that your husband is well intentioned and so are you. I suppose because I have been in a similar situation I’m prone to projecting. My husband was reluctant for me to meet his mom when we were dating. When she was supposed to fly out and she didn’t show he was disappointed. Not because he wasn’t prepared for her flaking; he told me there was only a 50/50 chance she would come. But he had feelings of guilt and disappointment that he couldn’t give me a normal family. His mother drudged up a lot a old feelings that he didn’t want to bring into our relationship. He didn’t want all the disappointment and drama that he so often felt when he was younger contaminating our present. He didn’t want to take what we had and share it with someone who had proven herself unworthy over and over again. But she did have a place in his life. This place was based more on the type of person my husband is than what his mother deserved. He had to handle a lot of things on his own and he was used to that. It was stressful learning to share these experiences with me but doing so ultimately led to trust. It gave me an opportunity to show my husband my commitment and support. It gave my husband an opportunity to experience stress and ugly feelings around me instead of by himself which was what he was used to. It WAS new and uncomfortable for him but it was something he needed to learn to do in order for us to experience the intimacy that comes from staying connected in uncomfortable situations.

      You sound very considerate and thoughtful. I’m sure you will read the situation and respond in an appropriate way.

      Good luck.

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      • something random

        something random November 27, 2013, 2:55 pm

        Also, apologies if my comment about you having a close family came across as condescending. I have a few crazies swimming around in my own gene pool and I can still be shocked by rude and indecent people. I’m often shocked by my own shock.

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  • Lindsay

    Lindsay November 27, 2013, 4:35 pm

    I agree that you should let him know that you can handle it, and that he should make the decision based on what’s right FOR HIM, not what he thinks is right for you.

    As for what to say, you obviously don’t need to say the normal “meet the parents” things that don’t apply to her. But surely you’ve met people that those things didn’t apply to also. Just say “nice to meet you” and talk to her like a normal person. Maybe think about it like how you’d talk to your husband’s distant cousin who happened to be in town or something.

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  • Skyblossom

    Skyblossom November 27, 2013, 9:37 pm

    The advice about how to meet his mother is all good. I’d just add it wouldn’t hurt for him to review the reasons that he cut his mother out of his life and think about whether there is any benefit to allowing her back in even in a very limited way. Has she changed at all? Is there any improvement? What good can possibly come from this meeting for him? (maybe just confirming that he made the right decision) What does he expect from this meeting?

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  • avatar

    Camila June 12, 2017, 12:29 pm

    You must respect a decision of your husband, as he is going through a very complicated time, go chatting with him over his mother and let us decide whether or not you want there.
    If he does not want to respect his decision and after the visit, stop to hear how he feels about it.
    But if he wants you to go, it costs nothing to spend a few hours talking to her, you, there will be a big difference. She has no influence on your daily life and, after spending an hour or two with her, you will go your way and continue your life as you would if you did not know her. Whether it is bad or not, nothing really will change
    And as for the conversation, let your husband and mother lead the way, but if there are gaps or you feel a need to say something, to ease the mood or to keep a conversation in focus, focus on neutral themes such as Climate Where you are, the food you are eating, a story in the news, travel plans, your jobs and all the pets you have.
    I’m sure your husband will be happy just for your support. Do not worry too much about saying the right or wrong thing. I’m sure you’re a less nervous person between you and your presence alone will help neutralize the anxiety of the other two.

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