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Monday, December 21, 2009

She Who Holds the Purse Strings....

(Photograph copyright 2009, all rights reserved.)

Dear Aunt Messy,

I have been reading your column for a long time and now find myself in need of your unbiased advice. My boyfriend and I have been together for a year and a half and are seriously contemplating marriage (the ring has been purchased).

We are both graduate students. He is in California, where he grew up and his parents still live, and I'm in Chicago. Before he returned to California, he had been away from his parents for six years. He went to boarding school for part of his high school, then moved on to university to get his bachelor's degree. His sister left home for college when he left for boarding school and has not returned.

The problem is his mother. After he returned to California, she has become increasingly clingy and needy. He used to call her "helicopter Mom", now he's started calling her "psycho mom". She demands that he show up for dinner regularly and starts a huge argument if he has other plans. A large part of her problem is that he spends weekends in Chicago with me. Every weekend she asks him what he's doing, and gets the same answer - he's coming to see me. This always starts another huge argument where she accuses him of "slipping away" and "abandoning" her. It's also causing problems between his parents. His father knows his mother is being unreasonable, but has little influence on her.

Two things have happened recently that are particularly annoying. First, he agreed to spend part of the Christmas holidays at his parents' second home in New England. The plan was that he would leave there for Chicago on the 28th and join me in a drive to California for New Year's Eve. As soon as he told his mother this, she informed him that he was not permitted to leave until the 29th. Since his parents purchased the plane tickets, he felt he had no choice but to agree.

Second, it seems that his mother finally realizes that my boyfriend will be leaving soon, and has stepped up her campaign to make him stay with her. She accuses him of "leading a double life" because of his visits with me and is being even more controlling and needy. This is easier for her because she and his father are supporting him financially, including paying his rent while he's in grad school. Since he only has one semester to go before he leaves California for good, he's inclined to let this situation continue until he leaves home for good. He won't be applying to any schools in his home state, so he won't be in this position much longer.

I hate to see him miserable, but I have a hard time sympathizing with someone's situation when they just let it continue. If he continues to allow his mother to do these things to him, my sympathy is going to run out.

I want us to have a nice New Year's Eve out on the town. I am afraid that this is going to turn into a me vs. her thing and I do not want that to happen. Other than all this, she is a lovely woman and I would like for us to have a good relationship. But I want my boyfriend and I to live our own life together and not be constrained by what we are expected to do down to the last detail. At times like this, it's nice to be reminded ho grateful I am for my own mother!

Thank you for reading my letter, Aunt Messy. What do you recommend?

(This letter has been edited for length and the locations changed to protect both the writer's privacy and that of her boyfriend and his family. While it is unlikely that anyone will connect this specific situation to those specific people, I feel that I should exercise at least some caution to prevent it and avoid hurt feelings on any side.)

Hello Dear!

I am So Glad you could Be Here! Your timing is Excellent too, because my Dear Brother Osgood is just putting the Finishing Touches on the Lights and Decorations. It's going to be Beautiful this Year. So Handy to have a Decorator in the Family, don't you Think? Well come in. It's chilly outside and I could Certainly Use a Glass of Brandy right now! Would you Care to Join me? Delightful!

I did Read your Letter, Of course! It Seems that you are in the Middle of Something that your Young Man will have to Contend with on his own. Why ever did he Choose to go to Graduate School near his Parents in the first Place? Was it the money? No Matter, dear, what's Done is Done for the moment.

Sadly, the way his Mother is Acting is Far Too Common. I do not Understand how it is that a Woman with all of her Wits about her would Think that it is Acceptable Behavior to Cling to her Adult Children like the Proverbial Limpet. She Should be Enjoying her Freedom right now instead of trying to Curtail that of Others!

She is Not the Only One to blame, though. By Accepting his parents Money and Continuing to Accept it, your Boyfriend is at least Somewhat Complicit in his own Troubles. You were Quite Correct in that assessment. It's Not a Comfortable Place to be, to realize that One's Freedom is Curtailed under the Threat (even if it is vague) of Losing one's Livelihood, especially when it is a Parent doing the Constraining! There's nothing to be Done Now, though.

(Another brandy? Oh look! Cook has Left Us some Sugar Cookies! Do Have some Dear. They are Delicious.)

You say that your Young Man's sister left home at the Same Time that he left for Boarding School. I find it Interesting that she has Never Returned. She may have Known Something that he did not Realize at the Time. Remember that he was Very Young when he left, only fifteen or sixteen years old. Since Teenagers are not Known for their Subtlety or Ability in Reading Adult Situations, it's possible that his Sister deliberately Escaped the kind of Behavior from their Mother that he is Experiencing right Now. You also Mention that your Young Man's Father is well aware that his Wife is Being Unreasonable. It seems that he is also Incapable of Influencing her.

It's not only Possible, but Probable that your potential mother-in-law has had Serious Emotional Issues for a Long Time. She has become Accustomed to Controlling the People around her, and that could Only have Happened if Those around her have Consistently Indulged her Whims to avoid Argument, rather than saying No to her. Your Young Man has also Fallen into this Habit, but Not Entirely.

You are Correct that he will One Day have to Stand up to Her. However, you are Incorrect that the Time is Now. If you Demand this of him, You will Only be Adding to the Pressure that he is Already contending with. I Understand that your Christmas Plans are Important to You and that you Feel that your Young Man should have Refused his Mother's Demands, but he is in a Very Difficult Situation. He is Dependent on his Parents for Money, with only One Semester to go before he can Leave them Permanently. His Impulse is Discretion, and I think that he is Correct in this. I suggest Forgoing the Long Drive and Arranging to have a Quiet New Year's Eve in Your Arms.

In Four Short Months, he will be in a Position to Escape his Mother's Control permanently. He will be in a Program far from his Home and will be able to Act as His Own conscience dictates. Be warned, though. For him to be Truly Independent, he MUST stop Taking Money from his Parents altogether. I Know that this will mean some Lifestyle Changes in the Short Term, but this is Something that he Must Bear. Remember that Most Students are Not Wealthy, but they all manage to Survive on their Own.

So dear, you must Be Patient for now. He Knows that you Don't Want to Hear his Complaints about his Mother. He Knows that you are Getting Impatient with this Situation. However, he Also Knows that it is Temporary and that in a Few Short Months it will be Over for Good. Do not Lose Patience with him Now. He doesn't Necessarily want Sympathy from You, just an Ear to Air his Frustrations.

As for Having a Good Relationship with his mother....I doubt Very Much that it will Ever be Possible for you to Be Friends with the Woman. I know that you Say she is a "Lovely Woman", but Her Behavior indicates Otherwise. Since a Large Part of her Problem at the Moment seems to be that her son travels to See You every Weekend, I am Forced to Conclude that she Sees You as a Threat - Someone who is, in her mind, Taking Her Son from her. If you Truly want to Have a Life that does not include Indulging your potential Mother-in-Law's whims, then that is Up to your Young Man. He is the one that will have to Steer that Relationship.

I Know it Chafes Dear, but this is a Situation where Patience is Called for. You are Sensible to Realize that it's too Early to Get Married. Now you must Exercise some Restraint until your Young Man is Independent, which is Not Far Off now. Let him Build a Separate Relationship with His Parents that does Not Involve obeying his Mother at Every Turn. He has an Ally in His Father. Give this some Time before you Leap to any Conclusions or Say Something in Haste that you May Regret.

After all, in the End, You are the one he will be Spending his Life with, Not his Mother.

Oh my it is Getting Late, isn't it? Today is the Shortest Day of the Year, though. After this, things will Improve Rapidly! Oh look, I Knew I forgot Something. Cook has Left You a box of her Famous Sugar Cookies. You Make Sure and Share them with Your Young Man, now.

Good Night!