Dear Andy:

My mother-in-law doesn’t seem to have any boundaries. When my husband and I went to New York City for a weekend recently, she called the hotel room at 9am to wish my husband Happy Birthday- He’s 40 years old!  Really, it could not have waited till we got back? On our honeymoon last year, “Mom” would have a meltdown if she hadn’t heard from my husband every few days.   When we got back from our honeymoon and showed her our photos, she said seeing them made it seem like we were all together.  I don’t want us all to be together on our honeymoon.  We went to my brother’s house for lunch and she couldn’t reach us at home.  She called five times in three hours before finally reaching my husband on his cell.  He doesn’t want to hurt her feelings.  Whenever he does say something to her about her behaviour she cries. What to do?

Miffed-off Newlywed



Dear Miffed-off.

I feel your pain sister.  There is nothing like a high-maintenance mother-in-law to chill the bedsheets, is there?

Your hubby’s mom struggles with the psychological idea of separateness.  It’s like a kid’s separation anxiety when their parent leaves them with a babysitter, except the roles are reversed.  “Mom” can’t handle that her son is less attached for whatever reason (early learning, maturation and temperament all influence one’s sense of separateness).  Human beings need to move away from their caregivers in order to be self-sufficient and productive in the world-  it’s just what we do.  However, parents who are anxious have trouble allowing their children to become “individuated”-  it’s perceived somehow as threatening to the parent (why else would they be anxious, right?).  “Mom’s” anxiety is so high that she has lost her manners as you say she calls at inappropriate times and too often.

What kind of family did you come from Miffed-off?  Was there more distance between your family members?  Is your family close?  Formal?  Lukewarm?  I sense you feel smothered and it could in part be because you are wholly unfamiliar with the other end of the attachment spectrum.

“Mom” gave birth to your husband and wants to celebrate that with a phone call.  What a loving gesture. I also totally get that 9am is sleepy-snuggly time while on vacation.

What to do you ask?  It’s more about how you can influence your husband to “manage” his mother’s anxiety.  Oddly enough, you may both need to initiate some contact so that she has less need to pursue you so intrusively.  Next time you are going on vacay, can hubby call his mom and say “We are off tomorrow, I love you, we’ve got health insurance, I’ll be sure to get you a nice gift and talk to you when we get back”.  He may not know how to do that if he has not seen his own father do this.  This type of response is loving and giving and yet firm.  It’s a polite way to say “I’ll call you, don’t call me”.  You and hubby can only do this if you are both willing to follow through with each step-  to be loving AND be firm.  Over and over and over and over.

When your husband says he doesn’t want to hurt his mother’s feelings, your husband is confusing the notions of “hurt” with “harm”.  It’s ok for “Mom” to feel hurt.  She can feel whatever she wants and is responsible for her own feelings-  just like all adults are.  Your husband is never the cause of how she feels unless he is abusive to his mother.  Your husband could benefit from learning to distinguish what he is and isn’t responsible for here.   The darndest thing about boundaries is that when you set them you can’t also concern yourself with protecting the feelings of others.  Responding to the needs of others and doing what you need to do are sometimes incompatible

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