Amy Dickinson is a general advice columnist.
DEAR AMY: I have a controlling, manipulative guilt-tripping mother-in-law-to-be! I know that each time I hear from her she is just trying to trap me into saying yes to something. These traps include trying to get me to change our wedding plans, and roping me into a jewelry party hosted by her friend (repeatedly pushing on that). She just can’t understand the word “no.” When I did say no she whined to my fiance, saying it felt like a slap in the face (can you say “manipulation?”). This has to stop. My fiance tried dealing with it by telling his mom that I will say no to some things, but I felt this was really his way of calling me “pushy.” My fiance tried the kid gloves approach and it didn’t work. I decided to take matters into my own hands and texted her three examples of her overstepping her boundaries and letting her know it would no longer be tolerated. She had the nerve to say it made her “sad.” Now he is having a hard time because his mom is upset. He doesn’t understand that we have to back each other up, especially in situations like this. His mom is so bad that she needs a copy of his shift schedule at work because she wants to keep track of him. Maybe my approach is too direct, but so what? We are in our 40s and don’t need to be under her thumb. I don’t let my mom get away with this kind of behavior and I’m certainly not letting a MIL do this. What is your opinion, Amy? — Upset
DEAR UPSET: Reading your letter gives me a case of anxiety hives, as I look into the future and see no way out for your poor guy. In terms of who gets to control him, he seems to have met his mother’s match.
Your fiance has been giving in to his mother for a lifetime. Do not insist that he fight her using your aggressive techniques. You are taking the coward’s way out by texting offensive lists of her transgressions and then hiding behind your fiance when she reacts. Of course this makes her sad, and you can affirm this without going on her guilt trip.
You two should sit down with her and as kindly and calmly as possible let her know that when you say “no” to something the first time, that is also a final answer. Expect her to react in the way that has worked for her in the past — to be emotional and try to manipulate both of you. You can respectfully say, “I can tell this is hard for you, but if we give it time, I know we can all adjust.” Be friendly, respectful, firm and consistent.
DEAR AMY: After my 40-year marriage ended earlier this year, I have begun to date. I’m only spending time with women near my own age (68). I feel as if I’m being held responsible for a lot of perceived mistreatment by past partners of the people I date. I’ve sensed control issues and even anger when I propose a date or time or specific activity. I don’t think I’m being overly aggressive or suggesting anything that isn’t appropriate in a get-acquainted phase of a relationship. What gives? — Wondering Gentleman
DEAR WONDERING: One hazard of dating after divorce is bringing along the ghosts of other partners when you’re trying to date again. The women you are with might be hyper-sensitive to any possibility that you could be trying to control them because of something a previous partner did (this is not fair to you). But one other thing to consider is the possibility that you, too, are responding to these women through a lens that is colored by the dynamic of your very long marriage.
You could respond to this in a way that disarms your dates and also opens a window into this dynamic. You say, “I sense some tension here. Can you tell me what you are reacting to? I’m still new at this dating thing and I’d like to hear what you’re thinking.”
DEAR AMY: Like “Asthmatic,” I have asthma and a mother-in-law who smokes. I was really nervous, but years ago I ended up doing exactly as you suggested — I simply told her about my illness and asked if she wouldn’t smoke while I was there. I never expected it to happen — but she became a fierce advocate for me. — Still Asthmatic
DEAR STILL: Wonderful.