Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: My boyfriend's mother has started introducing me to her friends as her "daughter-in-law." There's a long history of her discomfort with the fact that her son and I aren't married (yet/ever?), and I'm not sure how to address this. Should I just leave it alone, since it's relatively harmless and probably makes her feel better in her social circle, or correct the inaccurate label?
What has your boyfriend thought or done about it? This is his move before it's yours. I hope he greets it with a pull-aside and a discreet, "Mom, please cut the (crud)."
If she's doing it when he's not around to hear it, then I suggest speaking up to her afterward, in private. "I appreciate how welcoming you are, but calling me your daughter-in-law leaves me with two awkward choices: to correct you or to deceive others. I hope you'll understand that I'd rather not do either one."
I disagree that her using this terms is "relatively harmless." What she's doing is manipulative and wrong - forcing her views, really, under a veil of propriety, family and apple pie.
Re: Non-daughter-in-law: Is it manipulative to use a formal term for an informal relationship? I used to refer to my (now, really, truly) stepmother as such when she and my dad were cohabiting. It was mostly for simplicity's sake but also to introduce her in relation to me, and there was no other good term for it. Dad could call her any number of things, but all I had was "Dad's live-in girlfriend," which felt impersonal, or "stepmom."
Remember, we're talking about a situation where "there's a long history of her discomfort" - hence my reading it as manipulative.
To answer your general question: Whenever you're not sure, ask. "I don't like to call you X because it feels Y. OK if I call you Z?"
It can also be helpful to err on the side of omission. Of the three pieces of information - "Dad's," "live-in," "girlfriend" - how many did your listener really need?
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