Dear Carolyn: From what my daughter's boyfriend has told me of his childhood, his mom sounds cold, unloving, even borderline abusive. He says she's changed since then. But I can't unhear what I've heard.
I know the default is to be cordial when I meet her and give her the benefit of the doubt, but how do I handle it if she puts him down in my presence?
I recommend the benefit of the doubt, but you can't half-heart it, or else you'll take the slightest of transgressions as license to believe the worst.
So try looking at yourself through this lens for a moment. Page through your memories of raising your daughter, and fix on a couple of your lowest moments. Times you yelled, times you acted selfishly, times you said something mean. Now imagine your daughter spinning these tales for a therapist. Yikes.
When you meet the boyfriend's mom with that in mind, maybe you can upgrade your we'll-just-see to a truly open mind. Think of it as innocence until she proves herself guilty.
As for any mistreatment you witness, handle it as you would any other: Stick up for the target. Anything from a raised eyebrow to a full-out "I believe you owe X an apology" can let people know unkindness is unwelcome here.
Dear Ms. Hax: Often when my girlfriend calls me or I call her while she is with family or friends, she will announce that she has put me on speaker phone, at which point I am expected to converse with whoever happens to be in the room with her. I find it annoying, and I've expressed this to my girlfriend. She in turn finds it annoying that I am not more enthusiastic about speaking with her friends. Which of us is on the right side of etiquette?
You're trying to have a say in what you do, which is your right, even if your methods might be problematic.
She, meanwhile, is trying to have a say in what you think and feel, which is a boundary violation. It's also bad for a relationship.
Usually the best way to handle behavior as boorish as hers, is not to date her anymore.
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