DEAR NATALIE: My soon-to-be mother-in-law and I have always had a rocky relationship. My fiance is from a very wealthy family and I am not. I was a waitress when we met. He would frequent the restaurant I worked in and asked me out repeatedly until I said yes. I knew he had a little bit of money, but I had no idea the depth of it until we became much more serious. We got engaged recently after dating for two years and are so in love. He is wonderful. His mother, however, really hates me. She has gone on several tirades (most of them vodka-fueled) saying that she hopes he cheats on me or that bad things happen to me so that he will leave me and not marry me. My fiance makes a lot of excuses for her behavior, I think, because she still controls a lot of the family money. I feel really alone and want him to defend me when she says these incredibly mean things. His sisters have just told me to deal with it because this is just “how she is.” How can I marry him knowing this woman will be in my life and possibly our future children’s lives? --SCARED OF MOM
DEAR SCARED OF MOM: There is so much to unpack here. First, it sounds as though your fiance and his sisters have been living with this abusive woman for most of their lives, and since she controls their money, she in turn, controls them. Abuse can take many forms: verbal, emotional, physical, financial, mental, or sexual. It can appear covert or overt, and can happen to anyone, no matter their race, religion, age, economic situation or gender. Your husband and his sisters have learned how to cope with their abusive mother in whatever ways that they could over the years, and sometimes coping skills that we pick up aren’t always healthy. It doesn’t surprise me that he is defending her or that his sisters are telling you to “deal with it.” This is how they are coping, by identifying with their abuser, by internalizing it and by intellectualizing it. If your fiance is open to it, I would suggest that the two of you go to counseling together to discuss how you are feeling with a neutral third party. Because this is all he knows, he may not even realize how dysfunctional and abusive this woman is. Having said that, you are the one that has to decide whether you are going to let this woman into your life, and how much of an impact she will have on you. Are you and your fiance going to buy a house next door? Down the street? In another town or city? Having some healthy distance from her is probably best. How often does she call? Every day? Twice a day? Twice a month? Learning her patterns of communication can help you set up healthy barriers so that if you do decide to marry him, you won’t be trying to backpedal. It sounds as though she really doesn’t like you, but it also sounds as though she doesn’t like her own children (or herself) very much either. Don’t take what she says and turn it inward. In fact, you may want to learn healthy ways to emotionally distance yourself from her and her barbs. If this man is the love of your life and there is nothing that is going to stop you from marrying him, you may need to explain to him first how you are feeling, what boundaries you need in order to create a healthy start for the two of you, and what kind of relationship you want your possible future children to have with their grandmother. Be honest and lay it all out on the table. Better to figure out what is best for you and your fiance now before you tie the knot, instead of waking up in six months and realize you made a terrible mistake.
DEAR NATALIE: My friend asked for my advice about about her boyfriend but she didn’t take my advice and now she is in a really bad situation with him. I don’t understand why she wanted to me to try and “help” her (literally I spent hours and hours on the phone and in person trying to get her to work through some stuff) but didn’t listen to anything. I am super annoyed with her and she has been blowing up my phone wanting to know “what’s wrong.” I don’t even feel like talking to her. What would you do? -- EMOTIONALLY DRAINED
DEAR EMOTIONALLY DRAINED: There is nothing wrong with taking a step back from your relationship so that you can recharge your batteries. There is also nothing wrong with her deciding not to take your advice. Come on, we all know it is much easier to dish it out. (That’s why I love this job, I get to dish it out all day long). But in all seriousness, I remember one of my teachers in grad school saying to me about therapy clients, “Natalie, remember, it’s their job not to listen to you. You can’t let that stop you from trying.” Meaning, she may just not be ready to really take your (hopefully sound!) advice. I think it’s great that you wanted to be there for her, but don’t let this drive a wedge between you. Rather than being her therapist, just go back to being her friend, and give her the number of a good counselor, instead.
Natalie's Networking Tip of the Week: It can be challenging to remember people’s faces and names if you only meet them once or twice. That’s why it’s great to get business cards with your photo on them. It not only makes you stand out from the crowd, but it will help cement you in their minds when they see you again in person.
Please send your questions to Natalie Bencivenga to her email, firstname.lastname@example.org; or through postal mail to Natalie Bencivenga, 358 North Shore Dr., Pittsburgh, PA 15212. Follow her on Twitter at @NBSeen and on Instagram @NatalieBenci
(This column was originally published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)