At my father-in-law’s insistence, we moved in the upstairs of their 3-bedroom house. The agreement was pretty standard: We could stay rent-free, have full-use of the kitchen and the entire upstairs, and would help with the weekly cleaning. We were so close to buying a house, so it sounded like a good deal to us, especially since they were both so enthusiastic about having us nearby.
Things did not go so well. Two weeks after moving in, my husband’s stepmother’s estranged son died. He was only 35 and they hadn’t spoken in 10 years, she was cut out of his wedding and his deployment and completely had no contact, so it was terrible and confusing news. The in-laws went to the funeral that weekend, and my husband and I stayed behind. The day they returned my husband’s stepmother had a complete meltdown. While they were gone, we had forgotten to do a few things, such as empty the lint trap and put a pan back in its exact place. She started screaming, calling us blind, retarded, lazy, inconsiderate. She even told my husband that even his mother doesn’t love him and so maybe he needs to change. We spent the evening crying and said that we would move out and find an apartment to rent. My father-in-law begged us to stay and talked with my husband, blaming the funeral for his wife’s outburst.
Unfortunately, we stayed. Although a blow-up to the same scale has not happened, the stepmother remains very cruel to us. She is essentially on a witch-hunt to find things we have done wrong, and she has repeatedly threatened that she will break our stuff since we disrespect hers. We can’t enter the kitchen without being glared at and we receive cleaning lists like we’re children, which we are expected to complete enthusiastically. She could spend whole evenings complaining about my husband and his brother and tells everyone who will listen that she can’t have nice things because of her stepchildren. She even created a list of home projects she wants my father-in-law to complete since he offered to help us do a few things around our house. I’m miserable and depressed, but, luckily, we’re only two weeks from moving out.
After we move out, my husband does not want to have a relationship with his stepmother. I don’t want my husband to jeopardize his relationship with his father, but I can’t help but agree that we need to keep this woman out of our lives, at least until she gets some help to deal with her anger. How do you recommend we tread this tricky relationship, Wendy? While I want to be sympathetic to her grief, I don’t want to replace one toxic mother for another! — One Toxic Mother For Another
There’s more than grief at play here. Something is up with your husband’s stepmother and your husband’s dad knows it and doesn’t want to be alone with it. That’s why he “insisted” you move in with them — and made an offer that would be hard to refuse (Free rent! You could continue saving for the house you want to buy!) and why he begged you to stay after his wife went apeshit on you guys for not returning a pan to its exact spot. Any normal person, after an incident like you described where you were called “retarded,” “blind,” “lazy” and your husband was told that his mother didn’t love him — all very offensive things, would want to flee. Your intuition would be screaming to leave. But you ignored your gut. You let your father-in-law convince you to stay. Which, honestly, is pretty crazy! Especially considering you weren’t in a desperate housing situation. You and your husband both have jobs. I’m assuming, since you say you were so close to buying a house, that you had savings. The smart thing to do would have been, after the stepmother’s epic meltdown, to get a hotel or an airbnb, and, as graciously as possible, exit the crazy. You could have said: “You’ve just experienced a huge loss and we don’t want to add to the burden of grief and stress you must be feeling. You deserve to process your loss without the distraction of house guests, so we’ve found a place to stay temporarily until we’re able to move into a more permanent home. We’ll only be a phone call away if you need anything.”
It’s too late to get out immediately, but it’s not too late to get out now. Why stay there two more weeks? Do you know how much more damage can be done in two weeks? Don’t give yourself a chance to find out! Get out! This isn’t the time to cut costs or pinch pennies. Spend the money it’s going to cost to stay in a temporary place for the two weeks until you can move into your new home. Give all of you the gift of some distance and perspective.
In the future, avoid spending time with your father-in-law at his home if his wife is going to be there. Agree to meet in neutral spots, like restaurants, public parks, movie theaters, malls, etc. Unless the stepmother has freaked out on you in public places, you can assume those spots are “safe” … or at least safer than the privacy of someone’s home (especially hers). Be as compassionate as you can with both your father-in-law and the stepmother, because there’s clearly something wrong, beyond your garden-variety grief. To be estranged from a son for ten years and to instill so much panic in your husband that he begs his closest family members not to leave him alone with you… well, there’s a deep issue there, and you can only hope one or both of them faces it and gets some help. In the meantime, protect yourself with space, distance, and public meeting places. If all that fails, and the toxic continues seeping into your life with your husband, you may consider moving again. This time maybe farther from family instead of closer.
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