Girl­friend should let her guy han­dle his abu­sive mother the way he thinks best

The Washington Post Sunday - - DIVERSIONS -

Dear Carolyn: I’ve been dat­ing my boyfriend for about 3 1/2 years and we are mov­ing in to­gether. I’m 38 and he’s 35. Ev­ery­one in his fam­ily has been so wel­com­ing to me and is happy we’re do­ing this.

His mother, though, is never nice to him. She’s al­ways been nice to me, but he’s told me sto­ries that still haunt him about ver­bal abuse from when he was a kid. Things like, “You’re a loser just like your fa­ther,” and blam­ing their di­vorce on him. The first time we met, she told me he was such a dif­fi­cult child that “from the mo­ment he was con­ceived, he was a night­mare.”

Now she gets her digs in by mak­ing sure ev­ery­one in the room knows he’s not a good son be­cause he doesn’t spend time with her. Things like, “Well, if I had a son who would visit me once in awhile, maybe he would know I re­ar­ranged this room months ago.” His cell­phone has been glitch­ing and not ac­cept­ing my calls lately and she said (three times, be­cause peo­ple were ig­nor­ing her), “I would think that if he’s blocked any­one’s num­ber, it’s mine!” I asked if any friends wanted to come help us move, and she re­sponded, “I doubt he wants me to know where he lives!” Ahem.

I ei­ther ig­nore her or make a com­ment that doesn’t agree with hers but also doesn’t en­gage her neg­a­tiv­ity.

I pushed back once, when I told her how we met. She said, “Geez, HE was the best you could do?” I said, “Hey, I think I did pretty well,” and looked her di­rectly in the eye. She got flus­tered and said she was only jok­ing.

I don’t know how else to han­dle this. I at least want to make it clear that it’s not ac­cept­able when I’m around. I know it should be his job to han­dle his peo­ple, but I think it’s dif­fer­ent given their his­tory. Peo­ple can’t al­ways just han­dle their abusers. What would you do? — C. C.: I’d talk to my boyfriend about it. His cir­cus, his (vi­cious) mon­key.

And to pre­pare, I’d take a closer look at the shad­ings in his mother’s var­i­ous re­marks.

There’s no gray, ob­vi­ously, in “loser” and “night­mare.” They’re so aw­ful that I’d cite them in my pledge to sup­port him fully if he sev­ers his tie to her.

But the other com­ments be­tray some­thing that al­most looks like shame. “If I had a son who would visit me”; “[I]f he’s blocked any­one’s num­ber, it’s mine”; “I doubt he wants me to know where he lives!”: These aren’t so much about an aw­ful son, are they, as a son dodg­ing an aw­ful mother? She’s pro­ject­ing his de­sire to avoid her.

That would be as­tute of her, in a feral kind of way. She ap­par­ently can’t apol­o­gize or own her ac­tions — she’s too un­healthy for that, pre­sum­ably — but she pretty well nails the emo­tional read­ing of a child who wants no part of a mother like her.

This mat­ters be­cause it could mat­ter to your boyfriend. He hasn’t cut ties, af­ter all, de­spite com­pelling rea­sons to do so.

There could be any num­ber of ex­pla­na­tions, in­clud­ing that he puts up with her just to see the rest of his fam­ily, or that he’s too emo­tion­ally in­jured to drag him­self away from her. But he could also see through her, see a sad and stunted fig­ure, one he pities and stands by for his own rea­sons.

Each of these war­rants a dif­fer­ent ap­proach from you, the per­son in place to serve as his pri­mary ally. He’ll need you to un­der­stand how he han­dles his abuser, whether it’s healthy or not, and whether you can sup­port him with­out get­ting sucked in your­self.

That means grasp­ing how he views her, how well he un­der­stands her, how much her barbs still hurt, what his cop­ing meth­ods are and what he hopes to achieve by keep­ing her in his life.

If he hasn’t reck­oned with these con­sciously and de­lib­er­ately, then your role can be to rec­om­mend that he does. It could war­rant a for­mal step like coun­sel­ing or an in­for­mal check­off that var­i­ous cop­ing strate­gies he’s adopted ac­tu­ally sit right with him.

No mat­ter what he chooses, for your own well-be­ing your next role is to step back and let him han­dle it his way. If you don’t agree with his way, then you deal with it within your re­la­tion­ship or, if need be, by end­ing it — you don’t fight his mom bat­tles for him.

That will still leave you in a po­si­tion some­times to re­spond to his mother, maybe in your boyfriend’s ab­sence or when she’s di­rectly ad­dress­ing you. For­tu­nately, in your one push­back mo­ment, you hit on an ex­tremely ef­fec­tive strat­egy: calmly and fac­tu­ally hav­ing none of it. “I feel lucky to know him” is a mes­sage about her son this mother can’t hear enough.

And for her poor-me asides, try a rhetor­i­cal-but-not-re­ally, “Why do you say that?”

Write to Carolyn Hax at tellme@wash­post.com. Get her col­umn de­liv­ered to your in­box each morning at wapo.st/hax­post.

Join the dis­cus­sion live at noon Fri­days at wash­ing­ton­post.com/ con­ver­sa­tions.

Carolyn Hax

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