Fighting for Family

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Dear Hoopers,
My boyfriend will soon become my fiancé, and although our relationship is mostly wonderful, there is one hurdle I hope to cross. My boyfriend hates my mother. In some ways, this is completely understandable. His experience with her has largely been negative. Although she likes him a lot, she has a very rocky relationship with me, and our fights have often affected my relationship with my boyfriend.

For instance, before last Thanksgiving (when he and I were briefly long-distance), she angrily dis-invited him from the holiday: AFTER he had bought plane tickets, and with nowhere else to stay. She did this to punish ME, but it hurt him, even after she later re-invited him. He was also dis-invited to my younger sister’s birthday party while he was on his way (at this point living much closer), again because she was mad at me. He has been privy to many of my fights with my mother and was a big factor in the painful decision to move out of my family’s house recently.

I have been partly to blame for the fights, but to be sure, my mother’s behavior has always been erratic and unpredictable. A therapist described my family’s issues as “enmeshment;” we are actually TOO close, and my mother’s overprotective side has been unchecked. With that all being said, my mother is actually a kind and loving person, albeit very flawed, whom I believe struggles with mental illness.

She currently sees a therapist, and I have seen small improvements. Again, she actually really likes my boyfriend, but at this point knows he is angry with her, and that approval is starting to wane. My family is seriously dysfunctional, but I love my younger sisters and yes, my parents (my Dad sometimes quietly supports me but doesn’t really stand up to my mom). I don’t want to lose them, especially once I get married.

I know that my boyfriend should be a priority, perhaps even THE priority, but my family is really important to me. I always tell him that I’m trying to fix the relationship with my mother—he feels it should all come from her. But she isn’t going to change overnight, and I will do my best to work with her good sides for the sake of my family.

I know he’s angry, but I’ve already agreed to visit his family with him for Christmas. I feel the least he can do is attend a holiday with us too. When we do get married, he will become part of my family, and I don’t want our relationship with them to crumble. Is it wrong of me to ask him to be polite and civil, even to my dysfunctional mother, for the sake of me keeping a good relationship with my family?
-Fighting for Family

Dear Fighting for Family,
I hear the tension and concern in your question. This is a palpable stuckness that you feel with your family. You love them and they have been with you since day 1. You sort of feel like for better or for worse, they are your family and therefore deserve to be in your life.

While this has been fine for you growing up, the problem for you now is that these unhealthy dynamics are putting your relationship at risk. This devotion to your family no longer affects only you but can have serious costs for your relationship. Family issues certainly aren’t a unique challenge to relationships. More times than not, some aspect of your family dynamics will produce a difficulty for your relationship. The question is, how much are you willing to put up with?

I will say, the way that your mother disinvited your boyfriend was pretty harsh. I could imagine her still allowing him to come but maybe giving him a hard time or not being very inviting. A disinvite in those circumstances is pretty cold hearted. I think most people in your boyfriend’s shoes would be pretty hurt, and ready to put up some serious walls with your mother. A perfect picture of your mother’s dysfunction is the fact that her “approval is starting to wane” because he is mad at her for the hurtful things that she did to him. Like it’s his fault for being hurt and mad. I think most of us would fail that test of goodwill.

I think most people in your boyfriend’s shoes would be pretty hurt, and ready to put up some serious walls with your mother.

-Dr. Ryan

Despite all of this, you still have every right to try to have both your boyfriend and your family. It may not work out, but you certainly have the right to try. I do have hope though. The aspects of this situation that give me hope are your awareness of the dysfunction, your awareness that while your family is important that they perhaps aren’t the biggest priority, your understanding that change will take patience and work, and your understanding that your boyfriend and mother must both be willing to come together.

Armed with that knowledge, I would encourage you to think back to what your therapist told you about being “enmeshed.” If this is true, this means that you need to start creating some safe distance from your mother. Don’t do it in a way that is vindictive but instead in a way that is transparent and open handed. Have a conversation with her about your concerns and what you would like to have happen in the future.

If she attempts to disrespect your relationship, set a boundary with her in words and in action. For example, if she wants to disinvite him from something again, tell her you disagree with her and therefore you won’t be there either. Once she understands that she can’t manipulate you through these hurtful actions, she will begin to respect you and your relationship.

Simultaneously, you need to intervene with your partner. Let him know of your devotion to making your relationship work and your understanding that your mother is mostly to blame for their conflict. However, the past is the past. In order to move forward he will need to be a part of your family, including your mother. Let him know the steps you are taking to set boundaries with your mother, but that you need his support in order to make this work. I am hoping the best for you guys, just know that there may come a time when you have to make a decision about your priorities.
-Dr. Ryan

Dear Fighting for Family,
Why can’t they both just get along? Mother stress and relationship stress are challenging enough on their own, but even worse when they’re combined. Unfortunately, both your mother and boyfriend have taken the position of being over critical and unloving towards one another which is a hard place to find yourself between.

Because this dynamic swings both ways, effort needs to be made on both sides. While you can encourage this, ultimately it needs to be up to your mother and boyfriend to see it through. The encouraging part is while they may not see eye to eye there is one combined quality that they both share–they love you. This becomes a win-win and something that you can leverage.

Just because the road has been rocky doesn’t mean that repair is out of reach. It is encouraging that your mother is seeing a therapist and trying to actively work through some of her mental health issues. She may be more willing at this time to listen to the concerns that you have about her relationship with your partner, as well as better able to express her reservations. Communicate to her that you love her and would appreciate her support in your relationship. Also let her know that you will need to set boundaries to avoid continued hurt and disappointment that occurs from the last minute uninviting and lack of civility. Let her know that they will not be accepted and will result in you not being able to attend as well.

There has to be a “meet in the middle” type of mentality for this to work, as sacrifice is part of loving someone.


There has to be a “meet in the middle” type of mentality for this to work, as sacrifice is part of loving someone. You partner shares much of this weight and needs to step up and support you better as well. Communicate to him the importance of your family and the need you have for him to make more of an effort to be cordial to your mother.

While you hope that both of their decisions come from a place of good intention, they need to respect each other, or at least respect you enough to make it work. Mother and chosen partner do not have to see eye to eye, but they should have a common goal. That is keeping things pleasant enough that you don’t have to choose between them.