My BF's mom has no boundaries.
His mom can be REALLY manipulative towards him...When I questioned him about it recently, he said "it's not worth the fight with her."
A CUTIE PIE:
So I have been dating my boyfriend for almost 2 years now and he is a sweetheart and we are super happy together. In fact, we just recently moved in together. BUT he is extremely close with his (very) overbearing mother. And this is beginning to become an issue for me because it's starting to affect my life now that we live together.
Some background: My boyfriend's dad passed away when he was a baby and his mother didn't remarry until he was in college, so for a long time they only had each other. I totally get that (I grew up with a single mom too, however I had a lot of siblings so there was way less of a spotlight on me) and I like that he is close with her and values her BUT....it's getting out of control for me and I need advice on how to set up boundaries before things blow up.
One of my main problems with my boyfriend and his mom's relationship is that they tell each other everything. And I really like privacy. Growing up with a lot of siblings, I never really had a lot of privacy and as an adult I have realized that is something I really value and need. When I share something with my boyfriend that happens to me I don't want his mom to know about it if MY mom doesn't even know about it, you know? Like once I told him about a raise I got at work and later that night I got a "congratz" text from his mom about it and I hadn't even told anyone except my boyfriend about it! I may be a more private person than most, but I get really taken off guard when someone who I don't really know that much or consider "close" to have a lot of personal details about me. So this oversharing is starting to take a toll on me, especially since I consider his mom a little manipulative and emotionally unhealthy towards people.
That brings me to my other issue we have: His mom can be REALLY manipulative towards him. She will pressure him into doing things that he doesn't really want to do. When I questioned him about it recently, he said "it's not worth the fight with her." This is not new behaviour from her that started because of us dating though, she has historically always been like this. I'm worried that if he just continues to keep the peace all the time she is going to have way too much control over his life and ultimately our lives.
For example, when we moved in together, his mom and step dad contributed towards our down payment so we could get a bigger house with the idea of getting a renter in there to help with the mortgage. It was incredibly generous of them to do that for us, and of course we were super thankful towards them for it. But the idea was that helping with the down payment just meant that when we eventually sold the house we would pay them back with interest, they aren't on the title of our house. The house and all the responsibilities that go with it are on us. However, his mom doesn't see it that way. Since moving in 2 months ago, she has asked incessantly persistent questions about how we are handling things. To the point of her even telling us what kind of furniture to get and how we should upgrade certain areas of the house.
She's also started to put a lot of pressure on my boyfriend on WHEN we are going to get a renter in the house (she didn't include me in this conversation fyi, it was a huge text exchange between them). My boyfriend and I had a conversation about this together before we moved in, however, and we decided that since we can afford the mortgage just fine on our own, we were going to take some time for ourselves to figure out living together (neither of us have ever lived with a SO before so we wanted to learn the new normal before a stranger joined the mix). But when my boyfriend told her this perfectly acceptable reason for not having a renter yet she got angry! She told my boyfriend that his stepdad (allegedly -she tends to over exaggerate) made a comment about how he wouldn't have supported us with a down payment on a bigger house if we weren't going to use it to get a renter and save money to upgrade the house, etc. We were both incredibly frustrated by her telling my boyfriend that because it was like she was using the money for the down payment as a way to control how we were doing things (and at the end of the day it's just a timing thing, because we will eventually get a renter in the house and start doing upgrades! So that makes it even more eeky, because the only reason she's peeved is because we aren't moving fast enough for her). And the fact that she didn't include me in the conversation also shows me that she doesn't really respect or see my role in all this either (however, this is my boyfriend's first big relationship too so maybe his mom is just confused on how to navigate this new normal as well after only going to her son for so long? idk).
So I'm wondering how I can talk to him about 1. the oversharing and 2. her manipulation and controlling behavior towards our new life without him thinking I hate his current relationship with his only parent. He loves and respects her a lot, and oftentimes her meddling can be helpful (ie. she gives us advice on saving money and deals happening etc.). So I don't want him to think I'm criticizing them (even though he knows she's overbearing), I just think we would all get along a lot better if we all treated each other like we are adults. I also don't want his mom to blame me as the reason my boyfriend is less open with her either. I want this whole thing to be healthier but idk how to make that journey start happening!
Oh yikes yikes yikes yikes yikes!!!! You have a very big problem on your hands— not to freak you out or anything; I’m genuinely just trying to not sugarcoat something that is a LARGE problem—and to be perfectly frank, people are going to get hurt. The thing about situations like this is that you cannot keep falling on the sword and prioritizing other people’s feelings over your own. That is a recipe for resentment and ultimately a break up. There is no way for this relationship to survive if you just keep getting hurt and you suck it up. That will not work, and ending that cycle—where your needs are not prioritized—is going to likely anger/sadden/embarrass other people (your boyfriend ad his mom). But it has to happen if you want the relationship with your boyfriend to survive and be healthy.
The beginning and end of all of this is boundaries. Your boundaries, your boyfriend’s boundaries, and your boyfriend’s mom’s boundaries (or lack thereof). Boundaries are a way of communicating limits and expectations, to be sure, but they’re also a barometer of respect. If you don’t respect yourself, you won’t set and maintain personal boundaries. If someone doesn’t respect you, they won’t follow your boundaries. One tricky part of boundaries is that while something may seem like it doesn’t need to be said to you, another person may feel totally different. They may be oblivious to what you need to feel loved/cared for. They also might simply not care, or care more about someone else’s boundaries. This letter is aaaaaaalllll about respect and boundaries.
Right now, your boyfriend is communicating to you that he cares more about his mother than he does you. There are a few outcomes:
You set new boundaries that prioritize you over his mother and he follows through (healthy, good and normal for a romantic relationship).
You ask for new boundaries that prioritize you over his mother and he refuses or doesn’t follow through. (RED FUCKING FLAG!!!!!!!! GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT!)
You don’t ask for new boundaries and you’re miserable and he either doesn’t see or doesn’t care. (GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT!).
Here’s the real kicker: you don’t have a boyfriend’s mother problem, you have a boyfriend problem. He is going to have to be the one to navigate this because it is his mother and his girlfriend. He needs to be the one to stand up to her and support whatever boundaries you two decide together. He needs to care enough about you that this is something he wants to do. Anything less than that is a cop out. I’m not suggesting that he should want to have conflict with his mother— no one does!—but he has to want to create a good life for you. Unhealthy relationships with in-laws are one of the biggest sources of tension in couples and without a major overhaul now with boundaries upheld by HIM nothing will change.
The thing about this major overhaul is that not everyone is going to be happy. People like your boyfriend’s mother are not usually thrilled when their power gets taken away—and that is what she has right now: power. You cannot be effectively manipulative over someone without that. She is unlikely to be kind and gracious about it, and since this is his first real relationship, both of them are likely to bungle this. Not by any fault of their own, just because they’re not used to him having a say in his life and her role in it. So brace yourself because things might get ugly—they may not, but be prepared that people don’t like relinquishing control. Change is scary and you can approach this with as much kindness, grace and understanding as you can muster (and I recommend you do!!!) and still people may be hurt. In some ways, this will be a loss for your boyfriend’s mother, whether that’s “real” or not, and you can be sypa/empathetic about that, but it is not your job to mitigate that with concessions to your boundaries, ok!?!??!
SO. Here is what you should say to your boyfriend. Well, something like this in your own lovely words: “Boyfriend, we have to talk about the boundaries you and your mom have and how it’s effecting me. Right now, I feel like you’re prioritizing peace with her over my needs, which is incredibly hurtful, even if you do not intend for it to be. I need us together to come up with new boundaries for your mom. Part of these new boundaries need to include you sharing less about our lives—and my life in particular—with your mother. I’m not drawing this boundary or asking you to uphold it to hurt you or her, or to make your relationship weaker. I love that you love your mother, and she has helped us out a lot, and I know that. I am grateful to her, I’m grateful she raised such a wonderful son. That does not buy her a right into our lives. I am more private than you, and I need you to respect that. I also need us to set boundaries about the house with her, and you will have to be the one to communicate that. Let’s decide on that together so that we can create a united front and hold firm. I don’t at all want to harm the relationship you two have, but if we do not do this, it will harm the relationship you and I have and I need us to work on this together.”
DO NOT LEAVE ANY ROOM FOR HIM TO GET OUT OF THIS TASK. There is no, “We can talk about this in a few months,” or “Let me think about it,” or “yeah yeah I hear you; I’ll do better.” This is something that you two have to talk about and agree on and really get into. Talk about how you feel, for fucks sake! Tell him why you value privacy so much! Tell him how it feels when his mother isn’t including you on decisions about the house. Listen to how he feels, what he’s worried about. He’s absolutely in the right to have reservations about this process—if he has wanted stronger boundaries with her in the past, he certainly hasn’t pursued that. Also listen to what he needs as well. This is his mother and his closest relative. There may be things that you two can compromise on, but don’t be afraid to have nonnegotiables. It may even be helpful to write up a list upfront of things that are the most important to you and start there.
Remember, this talk doesn’t have to be—IN FACT IT SHOULD NOT BE!!!— the last time you two talk about this. You will have to adjust and renegotiate boundaries kind of…forever…because that’s a relationship. Keep talking about it and keep opening up. If he’s not willing to do the work, that’s a crimson flag.
NOW, I’d like to address some sundry things you said in your letter:
When I questioned him about it recently, he said "it's not worth the fight with her." DO YOU KNOW WHAT “it” IS IN THIS SCENARIO?!??!??!?! “It” is you. He literally said aloud that you are not worth fighting with her. I’m hopeful that that is not his intention, but merely a turn of phrase, but right now he’s telegraphing to you with his every action that you are simply not worth the fight with his mom.
I'm worried that if he just continues to keep the peace all the time she is going to have way too much control over his life and ultimately our lives. WHOSE PEACE??!?!?! WHAT PEACE IS HE KEEPING???? HE’S CERTAINLY NOT KEEPING YOUR PEACE. DO YOU FEEL PEACEFUL?!?!?? No, you don’t. Once again
Oftentimes her meddling can be helpful. No. Meddling is meddling and help is help and if you “help” someone—say, by contributing to their mortgage—in order to keep control over them, that is not help, that is at best manipulative and at worst abusive. This woman should have ZERO say in the furniture in your house. Either the money was a gift, in which case it should come with no strings attached OR it was a tool of manipulation, in which case you guys need to figure out a way to pay it back ASAP and get out of this situation.
To the point of her even telling us what kind of furniture to get and how we should upgrade certain areas of the house. Just wanted to drop in real quick and say ABSOLUTELY THE FUCK NOT. Nothing to add here other than NO!!!!!!!!!!!
It was like she was using the money for the down payment as a way to control how we were doing things. 🚨🚨ARE YOU KIDDING ME!🚨🚨 That is EXACTLY what she was doing and I’m kind of shocked/dissapointed in your boyfriend for not knowing better. He should know how to protect people he loves from his mother’s manipulations better than this. He’s a grown ass man. I pray to GOD you guys wrote up a contract about the money.
She doesn't really respect or see my role in all this either. She doesn’t respect you at all, and the fact that her son allows that is gross and if something doesn’t change, he will start to think that he can treat you that way as well. God forbid you ever have children with this man—will he stick up for them?!?!
LAST THING: You may want to sit down with all parties involved and write up or re-write the contract you have about the house money. You should have a contract anyway!!!!! I HOPE YOU DO!!! Because lord knows that if you don’t they can just say that you and your boyfriend owe them whatever and your boyfriend sounds like the type to say, “Well, let’s just pay it, it’s easier than fighting her,” or “She’s my mom, let’s just give her the money.”
A physical contract might make everyone feel a bit uncomfortable at first, but may be a good way to lay down boundaries. You can always fall back on, “I’m sorry, but that’s not what we agreed to in the contract.” It may sound mercenary and cold, but writing out expectations—especially about money—actually protects people and lets the relationship not have to be about finances.
The new contract could look something like (in more official language): “The money comes with no strings attached and we will have sole control of the house, improvements, and renters. We agree to pay back the money upon sale with this % interest.” Hell, get a lawyer involved if it’s easier. You do not want to be involved in this for the rest of your life! Please!
I wish you luck. It may get ugly, it may be hurtful, but you have to fight now for the relationship that you want with your boyfriend in the future. You simply have to. I’m sorry; he should have better boundaries with his mother than this at his age. He should care enough to establish them. If he doesn’t, you have to find a way out. I don’t think it will come to that, but please please hold firm on what you need.
Sophia Benoit writes this very newsletter; she also writes about sex & relationships for GQ, tweets about everything else at @1followernodad, is a researcher for Lights Out With David Spade, and has had bylines in The Guardian, Reductress, Refinery29, Allure, and The Cut. You can reach her or yell at her at email@example.com.