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The Mother-In-Law Con

The Mother-in-Law Con

By Amalah

Oh, wise and all-knowing Amalah, I am in the quandary of all quandaries, a veritable no-win situation, a rhymes-with-clustersnuck circle of hell.  You talked about mothers-in-law before but this is a whole new ballgame.

My husband’s mother is not your typical parent.  Her relationship with him is strained at best. She is unpredictable, to put it nicely. If he doesn’t do what she wants, when she wants it (think middle of the night calls for emergencies like wanting ice cream at the most benign, and attempts to inform him and solicit his help with her intent to commit a crime at worst), she uses  guilt to try to get her way, preying on his sense of duty to family… and he has a very hard time setting boundaries. In the last few years he has set some, but only when she was forcing him to, and he always does it by refusing to talk to her because he hates confrontation.  This means that her being around for any real length of time makes him upset and angry, but he won’t confront HER, so he represses until it spills over into anger at… well, usually me.

But still, she’s his mother and he loves her.

Until recently, she’s lived far away but came home for a visit last summer.  Her intention was to stay with us for a week or two, visit with our 2 year old son and head home.  Unfortunately, she had some… less than legal dealings that came to light and can no longer travel freely. Which, you know, I was raised to believe that actions have consequences but his family is more about bailing out at all cost in the name of “family” .

Six months later, she still has no job or place of her own and spends most of her time scheming about how to get back to her old life.

At first, she stayed with us. By the second month, our marriage fell apart (not all her fault as there were and are other issues but having her here, making him on edge and dividing us by disregarding house rules and COMMON SENSE SAFETY RULES with the excuse that “He said it was okay” didn’t help).  She left to stay with other family.  He left and wanted a divorce. He very nearly got it.  Eventually, we reconciled but things aren’t perfect, obviously.  Damage was done.  We’ve also had a horrific year financially, so, yeah, just about all topped up on shit to worry about over here, why don’t you try next door.

Anyway, the family she was staying with finally had enough of her continued involvement in criminal behavior and has asked her to leave.  I should say that this behavior is not drugs or firearms or anything that would be an IMMEDIATE danger to our son, except I worry about the people she with whom she associates, albeit mainly long distance via phone and text.

Husband hates that she does these things and has admitted that he does not want her here but also doesn’t want her to have nowhere to go, so he thinks we should let her come here to stay. For an undetermined amount of time.  But don’t worry, because he will set rules! Like, uh, no using our phone to call your shady associates! And no wandering the house at all hours! And sure, she’s never respected his authority before but maybe this time…

I… I hate to be this kind of wife but I put my foot down. No.

Because our relationship will not survive it.

Because no rules we could set would be followed and then what? If he can’t say no to her coming, he can’t stand up to her and throw her out.

Because if I thought it would change or help her, I’d still consider it even at the risk to our marriage but I honestly believe that this is the equivalent of driving an alcoholic to a bar.

The ideal situation would be him agreeing that those points are true, seeing that she’s hurting everyone, including herself, and realizing that no, it will not be different this time or any other time until we stop letting this be okay. But although he’s right with me on the first two parts, he just isn’t ready to accept the third. And because my family is not perfect, I know that’s something that he has to come around to on his own.

And I swear that, contrary to popular belief, I don’t really dislike HER, I just hate what she does to my husband and his good intentioned family.  So, I said no.  Well, technically I said that I was not okay with it due to the above reasons and that although I wouldn’t stop him if he felt that he had to let her come, I thought it was a bad decision for everyone. Essentially, I refused to give my consent, which, to him, is making the decision for him.

But now I’m afraid that he’s going to resent me for basically refusing to “help” his mom when she needs it.

So, am I being too harsh? Would another chance do anything but ruin us? Is our marriage doomed either way? Am I making it worse by taking the decision away from him?

Help me!

Heartless Daughter-in-Law


Well, first and foremost: What a freaking mess, and I am so, so sorry that your little family is having to bear so much crap all at once. I’m sorry you’re being forced into being the sole voice of reason and being vilified for it by people who have mistaken enabling for loyalty.

Even though you specifically mentioned that your mother-in-law’s troubles don’t stem from drugs, there’s CLASSIC signs of addiction all over the place here, or at least, the effect her behavior is having on your husband is eerily similar to what an adult child of alcoholic or drug addict might see. Namely, to continue to enable his parent and seek to protect and preserve a toxic relationship at any cost…including his marriage, home, security, etc. Because make no mistake, that’s what he’s doing here.

Here’s a couple bullet-point characteristics from Adult Children of Alcoholics that tend to also apply to adult children from other dysfunctional homes (like parents who are compulsive gamblers, liars, narcissists, etc.):

ADULT CHILDREN ARE EXTREMELY LOYAL, EVEN IN THE FACE OF EVIDENCE THAT THE LOYALTY IS UNDESERVED: The alcoholic home appears to be a very loyal place. Family members hang in long after reasons dictate that they should leave. The so-called “loyalty” is more the result of fear and insecurity than anything else, nevertheless, the behaviour that is modeled is one where no one walks away just because the going gets rough. This sense enables the adult child to remain in involvements that are better dissolved.

ADULT CHILDREN ARE IMPULSIVE: They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviours or possible consequences. This impulsivity leads to confusion, self-loathing, and loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.

The list goes on and on…I wonder how many other characteristics you or your husband might recognize. I bring this up mostly because while I can absolutely sit here and say that I’m in your corner and support your decision to NOT let your mother-in-law back in your home, and that I agree with your point of view that as long as your MIL has family willing to act as a safety net no matter how many times she shreds them up and keeps on repeating her bad habits (which of COURSE she will, again and again), she’ll never hit bottom and take responsibility for her actions…your husband may be dealing with some really, really deep-rooted issues from his childhood and will probably need more help/support/advice than “I wrote an online advice columnist and she agrees that we shouldn’t let your mother live with us again.” Your fear that he will resent you is not unfounded, even if it is unfair, at least to those of us listening to this saga from safe ground.

First, you guys should probably be in couples’ counseling, if you aren’t already. I know you mentioned going through the ringer financially this year and I know insurance will rarely cover family/marriage counseling, but trust me: A divorce will likely cost a hell of a lot more than a few sessions with an impartial third party to listen to the MIL saga (and the other, not-directly-related problems you mentioned). Skip Christmas gifts, find a therapist with a sliding scale fee or payment program, call local universities with counseling majors and see if graduate students will see couples, whatever. I don’t think your marriage is doomed, but anything worth fighting for is also usually worth the price of some reinforcements.

And your husband should seek out an Al-Anon chapter, or some other similar “adult children of…” program. And no, your parents do NOT need to simply be “classic” alcoholics to attend Al-Anon. The program is designed to help anyone who is dealing with wounds from selfish, unstable parents — gambling, drugs, pathological lying, compulsive crimes/cons/what-have-you, etc. Browse around the bookstore’s self-help section and if you see a book with a checklist that describes your husband, show it to him and ask him to consider reading it, please.

Of course he loves his mother. But if she really loved him, she’d have recognized the impact her behavior has on him, his marriage, his CHILD a long time ago. She hasn’t, and she probably won’t, so long as he keeps putting his loyalty to her above his loyalty to you, your son and others because he still feels like he has an obligation to be the grown-up of their relationship. This is a really awful, painful truth to confront, which is why programs like Al-Anon exist to help people through the confrontation/realization/healing process.

It sounds like your mother-in-law will figure out someone else to con into enabling her while she “gets back on her feet.” I have no doubt that your husband’s concerns are coming from a good, kind place: I need to take care of her or else she’ll end up with those shady associates and get in even more trouble. That might be true, but it’s also not his job, responsibility or obligation. A better option might be presenting her with numbers to various social services and support groups that might help her secure a place to live or job and a path to staying out of trouble…and an ultimatum that until she can prove that she can stay 100% out of trouble and take full responsibility for her actions, she is simply not going to use your home as a soft fluffy place to land if/when she crashes and burns. Again.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Published December 6, 2011. Last updated May 14, 2018.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Annie

    December 6, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    Wow, what a rough situation. I agree 100% with your advice, and I really hope that LW and her husband are able to resolve some of these issues with a therapist. It sounds like MIL is one of those toxic people who is always looking for new ways to take advantage of situations and people – I have family like that too, and it’s really hard to see that behavior for what it is when you’re right there in the middle of it.

    And, I have an off-topic question: how do I submit a question to Advice Smackdown? Is there a big, obvious button that I’m missing here?

    The email address is in the sidebar, but here it is: amyadvice[at]

  • Kira

    December 6, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    As I was reading the question from “heartless Daughter-In-Law,” my first thought was “GET THEE TO AL-ANON!” So, yes, I completely agree with Amy on this one. But I would add one thing: Daughter-In-Law, encourage your husband to go. But if he won’t go, then YOU go. Find a meeting and go. Because protecting your home and your child is your job. Protecting you mother-in-law is not. Al-Anon can help you find the language and perspective that you need to realize that YOU are not heartless. In twelve-step, we generally refer to it as allowing a person to have the benefit of their own consequences. In advocating for your home, marriage, and child, you are doing exactly what you should be doing. Realize that you are not taking the decision out of your husband’s hands. Your MIL has already done that.

  • Danielle

    December 6, 2011 at 11:17 pm

    Two resources that would be immensely helpful:

    1) Get the book “Codependent No More”. Your husband is a codependent, and that book will teach him everything he needs to know to save himself – and even start *really* helping his mom (the advice will sound totally counterproductive to him, but I can say from experience that it can work – you just have to put faith, and effort, into it).

    2) For your marital problems, seek out your local Retrouvaille program. Retrouvaille is designed to save the absolute worst marriages, and it really works. It saved my marriage, which was all but dead, and even made it better than it has ever been in our 14 years together. Don’t worry about money. They never turn people away because they “can’t afford the program”. You can choose to pay as much or as little as you want (anonymously!) and they will never ever ask you for money again. It is technically through the Catholic church, but do not let that turn you off if you aren’t Catholic. The weekend is not about religion. They don’t try to convert people or shove Catholicism down anyone’s throat. It’s open to all people of all faiths (or lack thereof), without question or judgment. They really only want to fix the most shattered marriages. Also, be sure to attend all of the post sessions, as you cannot truly benefit from the program without them.

    Lastly, don’t be afraid to put your foot down. Ultimately, you have to protect yourself and your child if your husband wont. If he chooses his toxic mother over you and his child, that’s his choice. You’ll be okay in the long run. He’ll eventually have to face the consequences of his choice. Don’t back down from what you absolutely know is right, just because you don’t want to lose your marriage. It wont work. Set your own boundaries and enforce them. It’ll be a great example to your husband and son to see how a healthy adult functions.

  • Kate

    December 7, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    If the writer DOES have insurance of some kind, she should be able to find some coverage for mental health services. Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding someone with the “right” qualifications to get coverage – the Mental Health Parity act requires that coverage for mental health services should be equal to those for medical services. From one kid of a really messed up parent to the spouse of another – I wish her the best of luck.

  • Liz

    December 8, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    I second Amy’s suggestion of social services. Is your MIL at retirement age? There are plenty of reduced income housing options out there (depending on where you live, I suppose) that your MIL might be able to live in/pay rent on with SS alone.. 

    We did this with my mother, so that she could live more independently and not be dependent on her kids to tithe monthly into an account for her so she could stay afloat.. 

    It might be the solution that gives you and your husband an “out” that doesn’t seem heartless or disloyal, and from there you can begin the hard work of therapy and codependency issues.. if nothing else, perhaps it buys you some time to get your marriage back on track without making you the scapegoat or your husband the bad guy..

  • MommaFergie

    December 12, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    Wow.. what a roller coaster rise you’ve been on.  The only advice I can give is to listen to that little voice in your head – don’t second guess yourself.  You need to do whatever is best for your family (especially for your child).  Get some help if you think your family could benefit from it… stay strong.  I hope things improve for you soon.

  • OP

    December 12, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    OP here. Thanks for the help. I did bring up Al-anon and it met with some interest so hopefully he will be willin to check that out.

    I would love counselling but we have no coverage and are barely keeping the heat on and food on the table, so it’s just not happenig. I also checked out the Retrovaille thing but was told there is a deposit of $400 to register so not an option.

    She is not of retirement age and I doubt social services would be considered. She is not interested in anything but getting back to her old life. She is perfectly capable of working and refuses to even discuss looking for work because she’s “leaving as soon as possible”. There’s just no changing it.

    I’m going to try to get him to come with me to al-anon as soon as the whole holiday thing dies down.

  • Erika

    December 21, 2011 at 3:21 am

    Hey OP–are you members of a church? Even loosely affiliated? Talk to your pastor about counselors. We often have resources to help people who can’t afford therapy for whatever reason or they may know of a counselor who will do a couple sessions for free.