Manipulative Mother (...In-Law)
anonymous Asks ...
My mother in law is a recovering alcoholic. I think she and my husband have a very dysfunctional relationship. Whenever she wants him to do anything she uses her recovery as a way to get him to do what she wants. He is so used to being the caregiver in that relationship and she is so narcissitic and she manipulates him to get what she wants without thinking about anyone else. She does not drive so we go up and spend Saturday night with her every week so we can help her do her groceries and errands. We wanted to go away for a weekend of couple time and then she was all week on the phone talking about how she was about to relapse and calling at all hours and laying on the guilt so thick that my husband just said we had better go see her and we all went to her just like she wanted. This is just one small example of what she does everyday. My husband agrees that she does this but he says he lived with her when she was drinking and he knows she will go back to it to spite him if he doesn’t do what she wants so he says he feels responsible for her. He says she is child like but he needs to protect her from herself. How can I get her to give us some space? I dragged him to an alanon meeting but he thought they were callous.
Rob Danzman Says ...
Sounds like a mess with no easy way out. If have read any of my previous responses to other questions or blogposts on our site, you'll know one of the big themes in our work is setting and maintaining boundaries. These boundaries are typically being set for loved-ones that do not respect or like boundaries (...or expectations or judgement or limits). There is no simple way to get her to give you all space. You can certainly be explicit..."I understand you need support but we to find a balance so please consider giving us some space" but we both know that will not work well at this point.
So what can you control if not her or your husband's behavior?
Yours. You can control what you do and say. For example: It's totally appropriate to use the "When you (blank) I feel (blank" approach. Let him know that your relationship is like a bank account that needs deposits (time with you) when ever withdrawals (responding to his mother) are made. Right now, too many withdrawals are being made which is emptying the account.
Another appropriate thing to share with him is that when he reinforces his mother's behavior (calling at all hours), he is making a decision on his and your behalf without you getting a vote. Basically, his choices impact you without you having control. He probably feels as out of control as you but does not know how to change or where to begin. One suggestion you could offer is that when his mother calls, he does not answer but returns her call the next morning. Since she probably leaves voicemails, he'll know whether there is a real emergency or just more drama.
Ultimately, what you all really need is outside help from a therapist to help identify your values, create boundaries and work towards prioritizing. Doing it alone will lead to years of arguing and hurt feelings with little progress. The mother-in-law will continue to monopolize your husband. She feels desperate and alone and clearly needs her own support structure outside of the family.
Hope this helps.