Group Therapy is a relationship advice column that asks readers to contribute their wisdom. Each week, we offer a problem for you to weigh in on, then publish the most lively responses, with a final word on the matter.
A reader writes: My mother-in-law is like many others - she can be bossy, outspoken and tactless almost to the point of insult. She has always lived halfway across the country, but recently decided to sell her house and move to the same city as us. We support her decision - she is retired and doesn't have a lot of close family where she lives now. What I am struggling with is that she has her heart set on purchasing one of the units in the our building. My husband and I have decided that we cannot tell her what to do, although we have suggested other alternatives. She is not open to our suggestions and gets defensive when we offer advice. People think my husband and I are crazy to "allow" her to move so close. I can't help but wonder if everyone else is right?
IGNORE THE DOOR
Just as you would resent her if she tried to tell you where to live, telling your mother-in-law that she can't move into your building complex is a bad idea. A boundary line should be set. No pop-ins (you can always just ignore the door anyway), NO spare key to your unit (under any circumstances). Then be honest: These are rules you and your husband - who has to do the explaining, because if it comes from you, you are going to be the bad guy - have agreed upon. If none of this works, sell and move.
- Michelle Lynch, Toronto
ENFORCE THE RULES TOGETHER
If her living in your building is going to work at all, you and your husband need to discuss, communicate and enforce strict boundaries. The key will be doing it together. You and your husband are a unit, and you will need boundaries that reflect both of your needs, and you need to back each other up in enforcing them. That said, she is his mother and if things start to go badly, the burden will be on him to let her know that she is overstepping. Is he strong enough to do this, and do you trust him enough to do it? Once she arrives and is in the city and things calm down, hopefully she can realize that she can have the life she wants there without having to live so close. At the end of the day, this is about saving relationships, not setting them up for failure.
- Rachael Hancock, Toronto
SHE JUST WANTS TO BE CLOSER
As both my mother-in-law and my own mother grew old and ill enough to be moved into a nursing home, my wife and I tried unsuccessfully to persuade them to move into one closer to the city in which we live. We could have visited more often - once a day instead of once every two to three weeks - and they would have benefited from our advocacy when they needed it. Remember you can't "forbid" her from moving close, but try to make sure you can still keep her at arm's length. Maybe it's time you purchased your own home - one without an in-law suite. But eventually you will be glad she is near.
- Bill MacLean, Toronto
THE FINAL WORD
Dear Daughter Dearest,
First, let's do away with the mother-in-law myth; they are vengeful adversaries who prey upon our dreams, our husbands and our children. Let's send this myth the way of the piano tie and the tear-away pant; while it may be worn by some, it is not worn by all. We have enough examples to counter it. We also know: Stereotypes make for boxes - and no one wants to live in a box.
And no one wants to grow old alone. Daughter Dearest, is this why your mother-in-law is suddenly making herself your neighbour? Are there larger circumstances - namely, her health and well-being - that deserve consideration here?
That said, I understand your concern. Difficult people rarely cease to be difficult. We all have our systems for living; being difficult is her system. Your challenge? Do not let it be yours. Do not let it be contagious. Do not let it alter the way you love. Your description likens your mother-in-law to Joan Rivers - or perhaps to her gothic counterpart, that other Joan: Joan Crawford. This does not mean you must be "bossy" too and forbid her move. The question: How can you accommodate her reasonable and respectable need to be close - and concurrently protect yourself from that closeness?
No Spare Key Lynch sagely advises establishing clear boundaries, rules agreed upon before her move that form a structure for your living arrangement. Strict Boundaries Hancock takes it one step further. Insist on utter transparency with your husband first. He is the leader of this operation. Translation: The responsibility and burden, and if necessary, bad-guying is his to bear. Your job: Support.
This is the microscopic work, the stuff of daily living. The broader view is brilliantly expressed by Strict Boundaries Hancock: "This is about saving relationships, not setting them up for failure." Let her last sentence be your guiding principle. Moreover, heed the perspective of Once a Day MacLean who reminds you: "Eventually you will be glad she is near." While she may not change, you, dear Daughter Dearest, can.
Today's column is my last. I am leaving to work on two books for HarperCollins: my follow-up novel to Stunt and a non-fiction book, How to Be a Bush Pilot: A Field Guide to The Secrets of Female Pleasure. Thank you for your passion, assiduity and humour. How deeply I have appreciated you and your trust and how I hope to continue our correspondence in other ways. The column will continue.
Claudia Dey's first novel, Stunt, was published last year by Coach House Books. Her website is ClaudiaDey.com
Next week's question
A reader writes: My spouse and I have been together for 12 years. My spouse earns just over double my six-figure income and the disparity will likely increase with time. We recently began to discuss how to deal with finances if we choose to have children. I think we should split everything from that point onwards 50/50, regardless of who is the higher earner or whether one of us stays home. My spouse disagrees. This issue has become a deal breaker for both of us. I am unwilling to agree to anything other than 50/50.
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