Dear Carolyn: I’ve been dating my boyfriend for about three and a half years and we are moving in together. I’m 38 and he’s 35. Everyone in his family has been so welcoming to me and is happy we’re doing this.
His mother, though, is never nice to him. She’s always been nice to me, but he’s told me stories that still haunt him about verbal abuse from when he was a kid. Things like, “You’re a loser just like your father,” and blaming their divorce on him. The first time we met, she told me he was such a difficult child that “from the moment he was conceived, he was a nightmare.”
Now she gets her digs in by making sure everyone in the room knows he’s not a good son because he doesn’t spend time with her. Things like, “Well, if I had a son who would visit me once in a while, maybe he would know I rearranged this room months ago.” His cellphone has been glitching and not accepting my calls lately and she said (three times, because people were ignoring her), “I would think that if he’s blocked anyone’s number, it’s mine!” I asked if any friends wanted to come help us move, and she responded, “I doubt he wants me to know where he lives!” Ahem.
I either ignore her or make a comment that doesn’t agree with hers but also doesn’t engage her negativity.
I pushed back once, when I told her how we met. She said, “Geez, HE was the best you could do?” I said, “Hey, I think I did pretty well,” and looked her directly in the eye. She got flustered and said she was only joking.
I don’t know how else to handle this. I at least want to make it clear that it’s not acceptable when I’m around. I know it should be his job to handle his people, but I think it’s different given their history. People can’t always just handle their abusers. What would you do?
I’d talk to my boyfriend about it. His circus, his (vicious) monkey.
And to prepare, I’d take a closer look at the shadings in his mother’s various remarks.
There’s no gray, obviously, in “loser” and “nightmare.” They’re so awful that I’d cite them in my pledge to support him fully if he severs his tie to her.
But the other comments betray something that almost looks like shame. “If I had a son who would visit me”; “If he’s blocked anyone’s number, it’s mine”; “I doubt he wants me to know where he lives!”: These aren’t so much about an awful son, are they, as a son dodging an awful mother? She’s projecting his desire to avoid her.
That would be astute of her, in a feral kind of way. She apparently can’t apologize or own her actions – she’s too unhealthy for that, presumably – but she pretty well nails the emotional reading of a child who wants no part of a mother like her.
This matters because it could matter to your boyfriend. He hasn’t cut ties, after all, despite compelling reasons to do so.
There could be any number of explanations, including that he puts up with her just to see the rest of his family, or that he’s too emotionally injured to drag himself away from her. But he could also see through her, see a sad and stunted figure, one he pities and stands by for his own reasons.
Each of these warrants a different approach from you, the person in place to serve as his primary ally. He'll need you to understand how he handles his abuser, whether it’s healthy or not, and whether you can support him without getting sucked in yourself.
That means grasping how he views her, how well he understands her, how much her barbs still hurt, what his coping methods are, and what he hopes to achieve by keeping her in his life.
If he hasn’t reckoned with these consciously and deliberately, then your role can be to recommend that he does. It could warrant a formal step like counseling or an informal checkoff that various coping strategies he’s adopted actually sit right with him.
No matter what he chooses, for your own well-being, your next role is to step back and let him handle it his way. If you don’t agree with his way, then you deal with it within your relationship or, if need be, by ending it – you don’t fight his mom battles for him.
That will still leave you in a position sometimes to respond to his mother, maybe in your boyfriend’s absence or when she’s directly addressing you. Fortunately, in your one pushback moment, you hit on an extremely effective strategy: calmly and factually having none of it. “I feel lucky to know him” is a message about her son this mother can’t hear enough.
And for her poor-me asides, try a rhetorical-but-not-really, “Why do you say that?”
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.