Hax: Dealing with a 'smother-in-law'

The Washington PostOctober 1, 2013 

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: Here's a problem you might not get too much: in-laws who are too nice. My husband's mother calls him once a day, sometimes more. Every time he and my daughter visit them, they insist on sending things back with them that we don't want, usually foods we're trying to avoid.

Each of these gifts requires a special phone call of thanks from me personally, which then turns into a lengthy chat. My in-laws also want phone calls anytime we travel long distances or in bad weather, just to be sure we're safe. They keep track of our kids' doctor's appointments so they can ask how everything went.

Is there a polite way to get them to back off, just a little?

SMOTHER-IN-LAW

This is a problem I do get, too much, but calling it "nice" is new. You describe a mother-in-law who is manipulative, controlling, insecure and boundary-challenged. Is your husband as uncomfortable with this as you are?

I suspect you'd both benefit from reading about boundaries and emotional manipulation. The best read on this is "The Gift of Fear" by Gavin de Becker. If that doesn't stick, then ask if he'll join you at one, just one, session with a family therapist for some outside perspective. You can talk follow-ups after. It won't be pretty, even if your husband's fully aboard. He'll need to be kind and sunny and absolutely immovable on these, phased in gently:

• Screening her calls. He picks a frequency he's comfortable with, and sticks to it.

• Saving your "We made it home OK!" calls for when there's some doubt.

• Supporting you when you say "Thank you" by note or email.

• Realizing her distress does not obligate him to appease her.

These are optional:

• Not sharing appointment times.

• Tackling the gifts. "Our home runneth over, and we hate to see you spend money on things we can't keep" is one approach, as is channeling: "If you're looking for something for the kids, they need new socks."

Email tellme@washpost.com. Chat online at 10 a.m. Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.

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