Come and Visit, Darlings! The Wine Cellar is Always Open.

Aunt Messy is Happy to dispense Advice along with Various Aperitifs and Treats! All you have to Do to Contact Her is send an e-mail to: .

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!


  1. Wonderful Advice, as always, Aunt Messy. But I have a few questions, though, that I think will shed some light on our LW and the BF's situation. How is it that BF gets to come to Chicago every weekend from CA? If he drives, he'd have no time to spend in Chicago, so, he obviously flies. That being the case (and, frankly, even if he did drive), the money spent must be absolutely ridiculous. If the parents are funding these trips, there's no ground to stand on, at all, and the LW is just as complicit. And I don't think the LW is that daft, or clueless, so it appears either she or the BF are funding the trips. If so, how are they funding them? If it's via a credit card, STOP IT! NOW! Holy smokes! WTF, over? If it's not card, if the LW or BF have money of their own to be used so indiscriminately, why aren't they using it to get financially independent from the parents? Hell, I worked at a full time job through college, and paid my own way through school, so I have no patience whatsoever for those tied to their parents' purse, ESPECIALLY where there are strings attached to what is supposed to be a gift (education and/or room and board).

    In the end, though, something that I think you may have glossed over too much for the LW (although I know that you didn't miss this) is that there's no "standing up" to mom. There's only leaving. I won't get into it here as this is your column, but it's abundantly clear. Mom is beyond help and won't be swayed. Leaving her is the only option. And, if BF had a spine, he'd have done it already. LW needs to know this and needs to know that BF isn't likely to be able to make a clean break. Further, something else that I know that you noticed, but you didn't hit on due to your impeccable manners, is that the LW is acting exactly like mom. She may want to do some soul searching on that. Her letter made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and, if I were the BF, and genuinely not liking my mom's behavior, I'd be just as concerned with and paying attention to the LW's. And I'd be planning to leave BOTH of them. Just sayin'.

  2. Ah, yes: I'd like to swing a cat and take a crack at this one! Still, she's already on the ball right here: "...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."

    A matter of choices and time, indeed.

    The danger zone: you added "He will be in a Program far from his Home and will be able to Act as His Own conscience dictates." I fear not - the stings of aprons are sewn of emotional fabric far, far more dysfunctional than the ether of distance can sever. Mommies are a disease sometimes, and the cure isn't geographically curable.

    I must say in the end you still, as ever, do very nice work, my dear. Toodles!

  3. I agree with both of you. It's all about the money. Yes, the parents are funding the BFs lifestyle and it seems very difficult for him to let that go. The LW didn't say, but I have to conclude that this has been going on from the beginning. All the way through boarding school and undergrad, the BF has had a pretty good revenue stream coming from his parents.

    Now, the mother is slightly bonkers, but she has the Mommy-Guilt thing down pat. She's using a combination of, "Look what we've done for you, paying your expenses for all these years," and, "You abandoned me for six years already, how can you do this to me!"

    Mom seems like she's definitely cast the LW as The Enemy, which is a load of BS, and the LW knows that. It's just an excuse. Given the mother's other behavior, I don't think this is going to change. If those two do marry in the end, I can see big hassles coming from dear old Mom. They'll be at their 30th anniversary and she'll STILL be ranting about this.

    Still, after all of this mess, things CAN turn out well. The LW says that her BF is getting very frustrated with the whole situation, which is a good thing. Here's hoping he gets frustrated enough to tell his mother to shut up. But now is not the time. He needs to finish his Master's degree and that's a matter of what? Twelve or sixteen weeks?

    That's the problem with the ultimatum that the LW wants to lay down. NOW IS NOT THE TIME. I understand she's frustrated about the Christmas arrangements, but one week in a potentially life-long relationship is NOTHING.

    I fully understand where she's coming from, and she's right. There will be no relationship if her BF doesn't get a grip and tell his mother to back off. But first he has to stop taking the money. HAS TO. They don't get to have it both ways. They need distance and space to make this relationship work and shouldn't even consider marrying until all of these issues are hammered out.

    As a side note: Smag, I did ignore the mother's real issues and that was deliberate. The mother's problems are no doubt many and varied, but they only matter insofar as they directly affect the LW and her boyfriend. Do I think Mom could use a trip to a nice quiet place and some meds? Sure. Is that going to happen? I doubt it very much, and I don't much care.

    The thing is, we cannot change people, ever. We can only change the way we respond to them. The response is what needs to change here.

  4. Okay, Messy, I'm going to take advantage of this format and put you on the spot, because it's not often one gets to directly question the advice-giver after advice is given. And I do apologize for doing it, and you can obviously delete this comment, but, if you're willing, do you agree that the LW might want to check herself and notice that her attitude it approaching dangerously near the attitude that she attributes to the future MIL? The problem there is that, though the LW can recognize this in herself and change it, what does that say of her choice of man? Is he destined to be like the future FIL, a shell of a man, knowing something's wrong, but powerless to change it? It's not a coincidence that, if we're not careful (assuming we need to be) we often seek out our parents' attributes in our mates, and, too, often become our parents.

  5. Egad! Not on the spot! Now quit apologizing, big guy, you know I welcome all comments.

    Yes. I would say that the LW is on the verge of behaving badly. She hasn't said anything to him yet, though. I think she's also fully cognizant that if she does show how angry and frustrated the situation is making her, it could be a setback to the relationship. Add to that that she KNOWS that much of this problem is self-limiting - he's going to graduate soon - she asked for advice before flying off the handle.

    All that doesn't make her act like his mother. His mother has been whining and acting like a toddler for her entire life. She's just been able to get away with it.

    It's an angry moment for the LW. Her BFs mother made a blatant play for control (over the holiday dates) and managed to force her son to cave. Worse, it was all about the money. The question the LW has to ask herself is how far she's willing to tolerate his apparent willingness to give in to blackmail rather than stand up for himself.

    On the other hand, she sees her BF every weekend and has had to listen to him complain about his mother for a year and a half. I'd be irritated with him, too. She's approaching this in a very analytical way and in essence wants to tell him to shit or get off the pot. If his problems were half as bad as they SOUND to her every weekend, then she doesn't understand how on Earth he hasn't dealt with them already.

    I get that. I do. There are ramifications to this that she probably hasn't thought through. If her BF says something to his mother now, he's running the real risk of being cut off. This means no apartment, no visits to Chicago, having to potentially get a part time job (and the LW is right, if he can avoid that it would be good), he may not even be able to afford his cell phone any more.

    Both of them need to wait until he is well away from his mother. THEN the LW needs to watch how he acts. See, he's never had to live without a net before. If he feels he can't do that and permits his mother to force him to fly home every couple of weeks so he can subsidize rent on a nicer place than he can afford, THAT'S going to be the problem and THAT'S the appropriate time for an ultimatum.

  6. Well, I see what you mean, Messy, and, in general, I agree. I was under the impression that the LW had already made her feelings clear to her BF. That said, I'll back off of her for now (mostly).

    However, if what you say is true and if the BF is proposing to basically cut off all ties to his parents after he graduates and has them fund his education, room, board, travels, luxuries, then your second to the last paragraph, above, about the ramifications, ought to be exactly what they do NOW. Not later. How could he possibly take money from his parents under such pretenses? And spend it so wastefully (traveling that distance every weekend? having to work for himself? Oh no! no cell phone? Will it never end? That's like bamboo shards under his manicured fingernails, I guess?). Having worked full time through college while supporting a family, Messy, during a time where we didn't see a single movie, eat out, or ever trave--anywhere--I have no sympathy (not that they're looking for my sympathy), but, if true, the BF's actions are patently dishonest, dishonorable, and entitled. And the LW endorses this? And wants to spend her time with this man? (and doesn't appear to see anything wrong with it?) I suppose youth could play a part here, but, it says a lot about character to me. I know that you know what I mean, even if I'm not saying it very clearly. And I'm probably not, but, holy crap, the entitlement here seems just preposterous! Please tell me that I'm wrong. It's the Christmas season and I want to be happy. :-)

  7. Not to side with Psycho Mom (because she truly is, if as described.) However, if she is funding WEEKLY trips to Chicago, I can understand her feeling there's a sort of double life. After all, he takes her money, but she apparently has little time where she actually sees him.

    Now if I were Psycho Mom, I wouldn't waste my breath. I'd tell him I can't continue to fund these weekly get-aways. She isn't bright enough to figure this out, or else Dad is the one actually holding the checkbook. He apparently thinks Mom isn't TOO unreasonable, because he doesn't make overt efforts to stop her.

    Little Ms. Letter Writer really shoudl reconsider whether she wants to get involved with this wealthy but disfunctional lot. Just because the man (living like a boy off his parents) moves to Timbuktu doesn't mean Psycho Mom won't follow. I've known several people whose families of origin moved every time they did, until they finally gave up and gave in to being emasculated (it's usually a male) by their mothers.

  8. I see where you're coming from, CoolOne, and I do agree. However, I think it's too early to see how the lad's going to turn out. He's only 24, after all. There's still a chance that he'll choose to be independent, and I have hope for that because he has at least lived away from home for a long time.

    I would give him a year to get himself together. After that, if he's still taking money from his parents (and really, it's NOT NORMAL for parents to subsidize Ph.D. students), then she has some hard thinking to do.

    Damn, that money is addictive, though.

  9. What a mess! The whole family and would be family member should just immerse themselves into one of the great lakes and meditate about fish being so much smarter than silly human beings....

    Happy New Year!

    (love the photograph!)