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Hax: Criticism from boyfriend's mom seems unjust

  • Article by: CAROLYN HAX
  • July 28, 2013 - 1:00 PM

Dear Carolyn: I have an autoimmune disorder that exhausts me. After a recent party at my boyfriend’s mom’s house, I heard that she and an aunt insist I came off “moody” and “mad” the whole day.

1) I was FREAKING TIRED! And,

2) I faked it anyway! I played games, lit sparklers, ate/talked with the extended family, you name it.

I assume it’s a result of this perceived negativity on my part, but later in the evening this (typically intoxicated, always unbalanced) mother of his also told him she doesn’t like me! This was all news to me, because even though she’s fit for a straitjacket, we’ve always had a surprisingly good relationship. I bring her flowers on her birthday, bake the occasional dessert and keep her updated on her favorite son’s law school progress.

I don’t know where to go from here. I’m supposed to be avoiding stress, and I don’t need this. I’ve never skipped a gathering of theirs, but now all I want to do is punch his mom in the face for being such an unprovoked jerk.

Oh, and BF and I are talking rings, so although he supports our spending less time with his mom’s family for a while, the odds of that working out in the next year are slim. Advice?

Carolyn says: Who told you what his mother and aunt said?

Dear Carolyn: My boyfriend. He hadn’t noticed I was upset, thought I might have been and wanted to make sure I was OK.

Carolyn says: You have two things going for you here: He was worried about you, where some partners, sadly, would have been annoyed that you under-rallied; and he honors you by agreeing to reduce your exposure to his family. In return, you’ve apparently worked hard at honoring him by making an effort with his difficult mom. Good stuff so far.

I’m concerned about his passing along her remark about not liking you, though. If she is indeed “typically intoxicated,” then the compassionate move would have been for your boyfriend to write off his mom’s words as possible drunken spew. If she said it enough to prove she meant it, then the next step would be for him to address it with her privately, à la: “Mom, I’m not sure you understand what her illness means. It means she doesn’t really have energy for a big family party. It means that when she comes to all of them anyway, she’s doing it to be close to us. If only as a favor to me, please judge her by what she does give, and not by what you think she should.”

If (when) that failed, then it would be time for him to talk to you about it. And you to him, too; you don’t want to hit him over the head with your animosity toward his mom, but hiding it wouldn’t be right, either. You both need to know what comes with those rings you’re eyeing.

Why am I dwelling on this? Because even though his doing it was probably just a rookie mistake, it’s also possible he learned a few things from his mother about sowing discord. If his life shows signs of that besides this incident, then please advance this relationship with caution.

Otherwise, my advice is for you and your boyfriend to discuss and re-commit to the idea of looking out for each other.

First, he defends you to his mom, along the lines I suggested. Second, he encourages you to skip the more taxing family events and absorbs any flak. Third, he reports his mom’s negativities to you on a need-to-know basis only. Criticism you both agree is baseless deserves the tree-falling-unwitnessed-in-forest treatment. Finally, he recognizes that unwarranted attacks on you mean his playing the middle is no longer an option.

And you’ll need to do two things you’re in no mood to do: admit you might have overreacted, and forgive the mother’s negativity.

If she were strong and steady, then her dislike for you would be a formidable challenge to your relationship with her son. Since she’s apparently not, the challenge is her instability, and would be even if she liked you.

That means you can’t live and die with every nastygram. Instead, stake out turf above the insults, where your chief public response is “I’m sorry you feel/she feels that way”; your response to your boyfriend is difficult-mom empathy; and your inner response is “From her, insults are compliments.” Criticism is only as valid as its source.

E-mail Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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