How Do I Get My Mother-in-Law to Stop Taking Advantage of Us?


Because she is, right?

by Liz Moorhead, Editor, Ask APW

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Q:It seems to me my mother-in-law uses us for everything. Firstly, we fixed up her house, and we spent a lot of money on it thinking we were going to move there when she moved out. Things didn’t work out where she had moved, so she wanted to move back into her old house. My husband and I were thinking that the place was not worth the fix-up after all, so he decided to just give up the idea of moving there. She has yet to pay us back. She has only been occasionally paying $200 a month.

Secondly, she has recently been in possession of my husband’s truck, which we let her use thinking that she would only be using it for no more than two weeks. She has had it for almost half a year! Today she was over, I went outside and noticed that the front light was broken, she had hit a deer. She has trashed the inside of the truck too. There were even mice in it!

Lastly, she invites us to eat with them. Where do we eat? My house. Whose food do we use? Our food, minus the deer meat. I’m curious, is it just me or is she using us? If she is, should I just be quiet and let her tread all over us?

—Anonymous

A: Dear Anonymous,

I’ll be honest, this sounds like normal family stuff. Fronting the money for some repairs, lending a truck, hosting a dinner. This is just how families take care of one another. So long as everyone is on board, that is.

And it sounds like you’re not. Which is fine, but should be mentioned to your partner, and then to mom (in a softer, gentler version). I’m sure there’s more to the story, but I’ve just got this email to go on. And based on this email, it doesn’t sound like she’s taking advantage, trying to milk you for all you’ve got. It just sounds like there weren’t very clear expectations up front. Did you make it clear that you wanted to be reimbursed for the repairs? Did you establish a payment plan? Did you set a deadline to get the truck back?

Direct communication can be sort of awkward with in-laws, I know. But not as awkward as harbored bitterness. Just make sure you and your partner are agreed on your expectations before you guys articulate them to her (which means you need to be involved in these decisions if he’s not including you already).

Carefully laid boundaries do less harm than some long-term resentment. And it’s not too late! Right now, you can sit with your partner and ask, “How much longer is your mom going to use the truck?” and then agree together to tell her, “Hey, we’re gonna need that back in a month. Will you be able to find something by then? And clear out the mice?” (please clear out the mice).

Families help each other. They cover expenses, lend stuff, fill in the gaps. All of that is just as it should be, and hopefully you can choose to continue to treat your mother-in-law with generosity. But it’s a good idea to set some limits so you’re not feeling overextended. You’re getting a bit of a middle-of-the-road answer, here. No, she’s probably not using you. But no, you don’t need to just shut-up and take it. Set some expectations, first with your partner, then with your mom-in-law, with or without the deer meat.

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO ASK APW A QUESTION, PLEASE DON’T BE SHY! IF YOU WOULD PREFER NOT TO BE NAMED, ANONYMOUS QUESTIONS ARE ALSO ACCEPTED. (THOUGH IT REALLY MAKES OUR DAY WHEN YOU COME UP WITH A CLEVER SIGN-OFF!)

Liz Moorhead

Liz is an illustrator and writer who paints custom stationery and types up impassioned opinions about weddings, etiquette, feminism and motherhood (usually while shaking a fist and mumbling expletives around mouthfuls of cheese fries). Her spare time is spent sipping bourbon with her husband and playing Don’t Throw That in the Toilet with her sons.

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  • Cleo

    Not helpful at all, but… Was it just me or did anyone else read this:

    “Today she was over, I went outside and noticed that the front light was broken, she had hit a deer…
    Lastly, she invites us to eat with them. … Whose food do we use? Our food, minus the deer meat.”

    and draw some possibly erroneous conclusion?

    • Sara

      I thought the same thing.

    • Kate

      Waste not, want not?

    • K. is skittish about disqus

      I have hillbilly relatives (preferred term!) who wouldn’t think twice about that!

      • Lisa

        Yeah, I know that’s a pretty common thing. If you hit and kill a deer, you’re supposed to call police/animal control, and they have a list of people who will happily come and take it home for food.

        • another lady

          In WI, the police will usually call a company that will take it to the dump or a place that properly disposes of dead animals. If you want it, you gotta take it home yourself! Although, there are definitely people who will take it off your hands for you, just not the police! There are crews that are hired by the state/county to go around in the spring or fall and pick up dead deer from the side of the roads and dispose of them. It’s a different world up here! lol

          • Jessica

            In Northern MN if a deer is too damaged for someone to take/has been there too long, it goes to the Wolf Center for their meals. I was in 4th grade when I saw a giant dumpster of deer…kind of weird.

        • louise danger

          some of those organizations also have partnerships with local food banks if no one else will take it

      • Cleo

        Not judging! I’d take it if I had a freezer I could store it in. From experience – fresh deer meat cooked simply is leaps and bounds above fancy cooked venison in high-end restaurants.

        The mention of both was written so un-self-consciously, I had to know!

        • K. is skittish about disqus

          Oh, didn’t take it as judgment – it was a shock to me, the “city kid,” the first time I visited Western Pennsylvania, trust me. Just mentioning that it might not be an erroneous conclusion!

    • theteenygirl

      My dad has watched deer being hit by other people, pulled over at the side of the road and been like, “do you want it or can I take it?” much to people’s surprise! But I mean, back then my dad would get a deer in the fall and there’s no way it would last till Summer for BBQ season, so a free deer… we’d be pleased to take it!

    • another lady

      I kind of took that as a joke, although I definitely know people who would do that, and I also eat venison on a regular basis (usually hunted in the woods, as far as I know!). The issue I see with that sentence is that she is borrowing your/husband’s truck and hit a deer (had an accident in your vehicle) and didn’t think to tell you until you noticed the light was broken! Was she going to/did she fix it? Also, if they live in the country or have land with lots of trees or store the vehicle in a warm building during the winter, it’s not hard to get mice in your truck. But, she needs to have that taken care of before returning it to you!

      • Ros

        Just here to second “not hard to get mice in a car” – we’ve got a standard parent-car (not hugely filthy, but the toddler occasionally drops a rice cake…) and have had a mouse get in twice. It’s just part of living in the country, unless you sanitize your vehicle and never ever have food in it (and even then…)

        That said: both times we set a trap and the mouse was caught within 24 hours. If theres no effort to do that before they chew seats and wiring: PROBLEM. If the OP meant “trashed” as in “oh god I can’t see the floor snd most of the seats and this is desperately unsanitary and smells”: PROBLEM. But mice in and no country car… not inherently a problem unless not dealt with.

        • z

          Yes. They love to climb up under the car to get warm. And if a vehicle has ever been used to transport hay or grain, a lot of tasty morsels will fall down between the seats and be impossible to get out. The mice think it’s a little slice of heaven. Don’t judge!

    • emilyg25

      I mean, the meat is already tenderized! *rimshot*

      • another lady

        and it’s ‘free range’ and possibly ‘organic’!!

    • thebluecastle

      ehhhhh maybe its the Texan in me but that’s not superrrrr weird. I mean, that way its not going to waste? ;)

      • Jessica

        Normal in most parts of Minnesota, too.

    • Natalie

      Yeeeeaaaah, I don’t think that conclusion is erroneous. I live in Montana, where OF COURSE if you hit a deer/see someone else hit a deer you take home the meat. Why waste 100 lbs of perfectly good food?

      • anon

        Yep. We’re on a roadkill list and get a call when an animal is killed without doing much damage. You have to be able to go get it within an hour or they go to the next person. We’ve gotten quite a bit of meat that way.

      • Jess

        That’s exactly what I assumed. I remember my neighbors being horrified when my rural dad did that and strung up the deer in our suburban Chicago garage in the middle of winter.

  • Katharine Parker

    Is your husband upset at any of this? Presumably, things like his mother borrowing stuff without returning it or returning it in poor condition, inviting herself over for dinner, seeking his help financially or with home repairs, etc. aren’t new behaviors. This is how his mother is. If he accepts this from her, it’s hard for you to get in the middle of that. You should discuss with him what boundaries you both think are necessary (is there a certain amount of money that you’ll give her or spend on her? Is there a limit on the number of meals you’ll host monthly? Do you need the truck back at a certain point, in a certain condition? Would you loan it to her again?), but when it’s his mother, he needs to agree on these boundaries and, in my opinion, setting them and maintaining them is his responsibility. You can’t manage their relationship, even though it affects you.

  • sofar

    Ah yes, difference in family cultures.

    I’ve had to get used to my husband’s family having (compared to mine) zero boundaries and helping each other with e-ver-y-thing. Where I’d tell my sister it’s her own damn fault for letting her checking account get too low to cover the plane ticket she wants to buy to a bachelorette party, my husband will think nothing of sending his brother/sister $500 to cover it (which is why we have separate personal checking accounts!)

    I’ve found that, when it gets to be too much, it helps to just be more distant for a while. His parents are coming into town with a day’s notice? I’m “not available” to see them beyond dinner Friday night. Husband “has” to help a cousin move (for the fourth time in a year)? I’m “not available,” so he helps alone. My MIL recently asked us to accompany her on a trip across the country to visit a relative, because she doesn’t like to fly alone. My husband is going — I am not. This leaves me more energy to help them when they REALLY need help, like in organizing their financial/insurance stuff, which I’m good at. And my husband doesn’t have to choose between me and his family.

    Maybe LW needs to skip a few of the family dinners and spend a blissful day/evening shopping/sipping coffee/going to a bookstore while her husband prepares dinner and the home for his family.

    • ZOO

      This is similar to my strategy with my inlaws. Love them dearly, but I grew up seeing my grandparents twice a year at most and they’re used to monthly or more frequent. So I’m a fan of the “husband and baby will meet you for lunch and I’ll join you afterwards” thing, or any variation thereof.

      • sofar

        Dude yes! My family has always been close, but doesn’t define that as frequent face-to-face time (quality over quantity). For my in-laws, face-to-face time extremely often is EVERYTHING.

        • Totch

          My family is little facetime/lots of emotional closeness and honesty. His family shares nothing with each other and actively keeps secrets, but have family dinner almost once a week. ?

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    • Totch

      I knew I’d find you here!

      I agree with you that pulling back might be a good idea for a bit, but I also know the Hamilton-style Room Where it Happens feeling. When you feel like you’re in the middle of a precedent-setting time with family, you feel like you can’t afford to miss anything. Even if maybe the precedent you need to set is being unavailable more, it’s so hard to know that things are happening without you!

      LW, maybe that’s totally what you need. But it’s ok if it’s scary or feels really high stakes for a little while. FOMO is real.

      • Totch

        …how many times can Totch use the word “feel” in one post? A lot.

      • sofar

        I didn’t think of the FOMO issue, which you’re right, is totally an issue early on.

        I no longer feel FOMO when my husband’s family is hanging out without me. I’m like, “Well, right now my husband probably fielding questions about grandkids and weight loss. Sucks for him.”

        LW seems over the FOMO too. ;)

        • Totch

          Yeah, but getting over that FOMO is also about trusting that your partner can answer those grandkid and weight loss questions in a way you’re good with. And it feels pretty unclear here where LW’s husband is in all of this.

          For us, my FOMO came from a trend where something important would come up when I wasn’t around, and he’d reply for himself rather than for our family. If LW and her partner aren’t in the same place, she might have to work out the “we as a team are telling your mom to ditch the mice” part before she can step back.

          • sofar

            My husband basically just responds to any and all questions (and follow-up questions) with, “Mom, stop it.” Which is a message I approve of. :)

  • Eh

    It’s really important to be on the same page as your partner about any boundaries (especially since it’s his mother), and then make sure they are consistently enforced. He should be communicating the boundaries and enforcing them with his family (and you with yours). If his mother asks you something related to that boundary, you can repeat a canned line as your response (for example, either that she should talk to your husband, or short description about the boundary).

  • Spot

    Ooh, I sympathize with the letter writer here. But her problem isn’t in-laws. It’s a husband who can’t bring himself to so much as imply a “no” to his mom.

    I also think Liz’s talk about supporting family needs a huge asterisk, because it can rapidly twist into really unhealthy “faaaaaaamily” dynamics. Sure, it’s reasonable to lend your car when a relative is in need–but it’s not reasonable to damage that borrowed car and fill it with trash and rodent turds. We don’t know the details of the housing issue, but it’s generally not reasonable to request help from someone under one pretext and then decide to reap the benefits of that help in a way the person didn’t agree to/wasn’t aware of when they contributed labor and money. But then, you know what they say about assumptions…

    I’m guessing these are just the biggest sore points in a running list of entitled (in LW’s view) behaviors. LW needs to straighten out parental expectations and boundaries with her spouse before her frustration ferments into resentment.

    • another lady

      also, when you do a ‘favor’ for a family member, assume it’s a ‘gift’ and that it will not be returned, unless you have stated otherwise upfront. in my husband’s family, they will frequently do house repairs or fixing up for each other and will not expect reimbursement for the tools or lumber, etc., unless the person buys it upfront and tells the person that they need to be paid back. but, his family is just really gracious and generous like that. maybe mom/MIL assumed that you were doing the repairs out of the kindness of your/husband’s heart, when really husband was ‘secretly’ hoping to someday move in there and reap the rewards of his hard work. (but, there might have been an agreement since the MIL is occasionally paying them $200/month for the home repairs.) but, either way, these situations need to be discussed and determined before husband just decides to spend a bunch of money/give mom their vehicle to use!

  • K. is skittish about disqus

    This is absolutely a family dynamics and culture issue. So it’s important to hash out what YOUR dynamic and culture is (or what you want it to be) between the two of you and any children you may/may not have now and in the future, in order to really have the kind of grounding needed to even begin setting down these boundaries.

    For instance, my husband and I have had this same issue (relatives of his wanting monetary help that I wasn’t comfortable giving) *and* the opposite issue (relatives of mine offering monetary help that he wasn’t comfortable receiving). We had to have long talks about the role of money in our relationships and how they relate to family, which really came down to core values for both of us. It lets us be a guiding force for making decisions for the future and be able to actually set down those boundaries with our families, along with compromises amongst ourselves. So yeah, I may have to get used to the idea that his mom may live with us in the future and that he hates when my mom pays for our airplane tickets, but he also understands that I refuse to give money to his healthy, educated and employed sister just because his mom wants us to and that sometimes my dad wants to treat for dinner because that’s what he does. Not tit-for-tat or blind generosity, but case-by-case based on our own values.

    Obviously, this doesn’t change your in-law’s culture, but being on the same page for your own little family helps immensely in navigating these tricky waters. Plus, it gives you a much better sense of whether one or all of these are something that goes against what you and your husband have talked about, empowering both of you to change things.

  • K. is skittish about disqus

    Another thing I want to add is that if you and your husband are among the highest earners in his family, I get how it can feel like they’re “taking advantage.” We’ve had to navigate that with some areas of my family and definitely a lot of his – the idea that we can afford to be the ones to always treat for dinner, always cover the lapsed bill, always buy the kids the most presents at Christmas…and without a lot of explicit gratitude in return, since in their eyes, we have the money to do it and it’s just “what you do” for family. It can sometimes be frustrating, but I always try to reframe my perspective to find the ways that they are generous to us (even in much less obviously direct ways) and the reasons why the relationship is important and good–even if not to me, then to my husband.

    • another lady

      and, you may need to have conversation(s) with husband about this and determine what you are/are not willing to do for family (ex: we will give $200 to brother for ‘bills’ twice a year, but we will not pay off his mortgage every month, we will give ‘free’ labor to mom to help fix her house, but she will have to buy the lumber/supplies)

      • zana

        boundaaaaaaaaaries.

      • K. is skittish about disqus

        Oh for sure; big big proponent of that. But even the small, piece-meal, slow burn expectations can end up breeding resentment about “entitlement” if it’s not managed, in my experience.

        And that’s not to say that it’ll never actually be entitlement either – sometimes it definitely is. But when it’s people I love and people my partner loves and the Venn diagram in between, I try to give the benefit of the doubt when I can or when it’s not super egregious. The mice in the car might be egregious enough for me though!

    • Kate

      Yep. FH and I clash on this frequently. I’m by far the highest earner in my family, and my Mom and brother are especially bad about abusing it or expecting that I’ll cover everything when we see each other. It drives FH insane (and me too when it gets especially bad) and he unfortunately tends to wear his emotions of his sleeve and get tense with my family.

      We’re working on it.

  • Amy March

    She is absolutely using you. The question is why are you letting her? Why have you not asked for the truck back? Why not say- oh, I’m not up for cooking, I thought you were suggesting we go out? Why not say “you still owe us $1000 for the house, when are we getting it?” I agree with Liz that there’s not much to go on in this letter, but this isn’t family taking care of each other to me, because she isn’t reciprocating.

    • anon

      Yeah, I feel like the only one who’s like, noooooo this isn’t “normal” family stuff! Maybe the slow repayment on the work because ish happens, but keeping a 2-week loaned car for 6 months and crashing and trashing it to the extent of wildlife living in it? Suggesting a nice family dinner and then expecting LW to pay for most of the ingredients and prepare it in her home? Noooooooo. LW and husband need to stand up for themselves! It doesn’t seem helpful to just tell her that this is normal and part of being in a family. Maybe some families, but certainly not all or even the majority.

      And by the ranting tone of this letter, it feels like these are more the straws that broke the camel’s back rather than isolated events.

      • Amy March

        And even if this is the norm in his family, okay, so the norm is using each other? Just because it’s the norm doesn’t make it okay!

        • archaeopteryx

          Extremely good point!! “This is how we roll” doesn’t work if your standards of behavior suck!

      • Jana

        Agreed. This is not at all normal family stuff. Normal family stuff is leaving some takeout wrappers in the backseat of a borrowed car. Normal family stuff is not hitting a deer and not telling the people who own the car, unless my family is abnormal.

        • Amy March

          Like, maybe don’t tell them because you just went ahead and got the car fixed? This is completely not okay.

      • Katharine Parker

        None of this would be normal to me, either. In my family, money flows downward–my parents aren’t quite at the Tony Soprano level of not accepting their children paying for dinner, but there’s a parallel to be drawn. But that isn’t normal to everyone. Because of that, I do think that the boundaries (and this couple needs to set some boundaries) need to come from the husband. It’s his mother, and he has to break this pattern of her behavior. Otherwise, the LW’s attempts can be constructed as her being rude or a snob or dismissed because she doesn’t understand their family. He needs to be fully invested in establishing and maintaining these boundaries (and he should respect that the LW is fed up with the current state of things).

        • K. is skittish about disqus

          Right, I think there’s pretty likely some big socioeconomic stuff going on here, which can be extremely difficult to deal with as the outsider. I think that some of the stuff here is egregious (the treatment of the truck is beyond the pale; NO ONE in my family or my husband’s family would ever do that) but I can see how the “Let’s have a family dinner…at your house, with your ingredients, with your time…but we’ll bring the meat!” could easily happen and how LW could be vilified as a snob if she pushed back against it.

          So yes, boundaries, boundaries, boundaries from the husband’s perspective and a complete core value discussion about all this with her husband has to happen yesterday.

          • Emily

            Yeah the meat / dinner thing seemed like the least egregious item in the list to me. I could see someone saying “Oh lets make tacos – can we do your place? I’m happy to bring the meat (aka most expensive item)” – I think its a symptom of a broader pattern the LW must be seeing because that on its own could just be an innocuous misunderstanding

          • Amy March

            Yeah it’s it once, nbd. If it’s always, huge problem. You can’t invite yourself to have me cook you dinner in my home. Unless you are a Hemsworth brother.

          • Katharine Parker

            The letter writer being Elsa Pataky would be a fun twist.

          • GotMarried!

            I’m also ok with the meat/dinner thing … depending on personality …. I hate driving places, like even the 35 minutes to my parents … I would greatly prefer they come my way for dinner than me have to drive theirs. Cooking – I don’t mind. Hosting – don’t mind … Leaving my house any more than absolutely necessary – no thank you.

          • Katharine Parker

            Is this something that APW has already written about? Dealing with class differences in family of origin could be a valuable topic of discussion.

          • Emily

            There is a lot out there on this (can’t speak to family of origin / APW specific) but there was actually a book written on this by a guy named Alfred Lubano.

            Also the below article is about the office / work norms more but its really good. I would also love to see discussion of this in the personal sphere because I feel like people are often not prepared for the ramifications of class differences.

            http://www.getbullish.com/2010/10/bullish-social-class-in-the-office/

          • K. is skittish about disqus

            I feel like it’s come up a lot tangentially in the past, but I don’t recall a dedicated post (at least in the past 3 years that I’ve read). Someone else may know better than me though.

            I agree that it would be interesting to get different perspectives! A lot to mine there.

          • Katharine Parker

            The fact that it does come up a lot tangentially supports that it is a big deal! Family differences for a couple interest me as a way that class differences become apparent, even as we try to claim that we’re all middle class in the US.

          • PAJane aka Awesome Tits

            I want in on that article.

      • NotMotherTheresa

        I feel like “normal” family stuff sort of follows the bell curve, and this is towards a tail, but it’s not like, way far off at the end of a tail or anything, if that makes sense.

        Like, for 98% of my family, this would not be normal. If my parents or in-laws did this, I’d be appalled. BUT I have an aunt for whom this would be 100% normal behavior. She’s not a bad person. She doesn’t intentionally use people. Her heart is in the right place, and she’d happily give a stranger the shirt off her back. But yeah, if I loaned her my car for the afternoon, and didn’t make it super duper clear that I expected it back later that night, she would probably drive it around for the next two years until she finally totalled it. That’s just how she is, and it’s normal for her. The key with her (and people like her) is boundaries.

      • TheHungryGhost

        Yup. My OH and I come from families that are chalk and cheese, and neither side of parents gets that we sit pretty much exactly in the middle of our backgrounds and subscribe to different norms.

        My parents – very frugal, never buy things on credit, take very basic holidays that are all about culture, very academic. His parents – have refitted the kitchen 3 times during our 10y relationship on credit, entirely standard tv/music interests, go on holiday to sit on the beach. None of those things make a difference, but it’s the weird little attitudes that clash the most.

        My boyfriend and I are both drummers, for instance, and both – for space reasons – left our old kits at home when we moved out. My parents’ attitude is ‘keep it here as long as you like’ – his dad just decided to dump his drumkit on us at our current place with no warning ‘because you guys have the space now’. Now this sucks because they KNOW we are buying a house very shortly and would take it then, and they have masses of storage space, and it would have been sooooo easy for them to bring it to us there. Next time the dad comes around, ‘still haven’t set the drums up, eh?’ – no, asswad, we weren’t expecting to have them and we’re moving in a month! (I get that to many people we have been using their space for a while, but honestly, they have a huge amount of storage, and my parents would NEVER do this without warning at the very least).

    • Emily

      Yeah…I’m solidly on team validating to the LW that this is unacceptable. Unfortunately since it is her husband’s mom he is probably going to have to be the major boundary enforcer but I would be pushing him to do this in the LW’s shoes. My mother would totally walk all over me and let me bankrupt myself / work myself to death while she laid on a lounge chair drinking an iced tea… some people will take from you until you put a stake in the ground.

      Signed – Person who once told her mother that all financial help was conditional on said mother getting a FT job and making a good faith effort to live within her means.

    • archaeopteryx

      Yeah, family cultures differ, but in my book if you suggest / invite a dinner, you’re either cooking it or paying for it. Or at least suggesting to “meet up” at a restaurant, i.e. split it. But inviting herself over for dinner at their house? To me that’s preschool manners. I’m on team “this isn’t normal”.

      • CNA

        This would be normal in my family (both sides). It would be done with varying degrees of tact and politeness, but ‘I’m going to be in your town. I can come by for dinner.’ would be totally normal. And it would be weird for the answer not to be yes, unless there was a schedule conflict.

        The rest of the letter… not normal.

      • ManderGimlet

        Mom seems to be exhibiting classic symptoms of what scientists call “being broke af”. I kind of have a feeling that mom tried to invite them to dinner before but could not meet the expectations of her guests or is unable to afford to feed them. Also, LW uses a lot of coded words regarding the state of her house and goes on to talk about the truck and how disgusting it is. I can’t imagine that disdain was well hidden when at Mom’s place.

    • z

      I think it makes sense if the underlying reality is that she never has any money and the LW and her husband know that. There’s no point in asking for $1000 if she doesn’t have it. If she were broke, she wouldn’t be offering to go out. If she has been broke for a long time, this is probably normal behavior to her.

    • Ros

      Yes yes yes omg yes. Thank you!!

      I’m seeing some major socioeconomic differences here (and like, I get it: my parents are corporate business owners who vacation in Europe yearly, my in-laws are back-to-the -land hippies, and the culture shock is A Thing, ok).

      But: families take care if EACH OTHER. I think the question is: is it reciprocated? Like, say: clearly your MIL is short on cash, so assuming that you’re not, you pay some bills, help renovate her house, loan her a car… what does she do for you? Babysitting? Help with yard work? Something? Anything? Like, with my in-laws, they give us resources (lumber and access to the sawmill when we needed to build access deck, for example). And my husband will do their heavy yard work when they’re not well enough to do it. It’s not the same, but there’s reciprocal care.

      If it goes both ways, then you need to evaluate how you’re communicating your expectations and feelings around it. But from the original letter it didn’t seem like it did go both ways, and that’s BS.

      • z

        Maybe it does go both ways. Like, maybe if the LW were really, truly down on her luck, the MIL would come through for her by letting her move in or something, and be understanding and nonjudgmental in a way that a more affluent family would not? Maybe she’s planning to do something (like watch their kids) that the LW doesn’t actually want her to do, but in her mind it’s going to come out even eventually. I’m just speculating…

        I think it’s important to be realistic about what it means to say no to someone. Yes, boundaries are great, but to tell my sister she can’t have $500 for a bachelorette party, is a totally different thing than telling her she can’t have $500 to prevent being evicted or to fix her car so she can go to work. It’s a lot harder to have boundaries when the stakes are high, or when paying something now can forestall bigger financial problems later.

        • Ros

          Yeah… but “maybe” doesn’t help huge feelings of resentment, and hashing it out with the husband (what are family cultural expectations, etc) would help clarify and manage feelings.

          Or, to phrase it another way: say she’s inviting herself over for dinner. She might want to spend time with her family, she might be too broke to go out or offer to bring a full meal, she might live in a place too small to have them over or not have the money to offer a meal at her house, etc – like, there are are lot of perfectly valid explanations!! But once she’s there: does she help with cooking and dishes? Does she participate or sit back and criticize? (Aka: the difference between “we are doing are thing together to the best of a tell our abilities” and “do a thing for me”)

          Because feeling taken advantage of comes from somewhere… and usually it’s not JUST about the resources. So understanding what the expectations are and what everyone is offering might be a good first step.

    • ManderGimlet

      I feel like there is so little information to go on: how old is the mom? What’s the socio-economic situation between mom and LW and her husband? What was it like growing up for LW’s husband and has he in any way explained to her the expectations of his family? Did mom spend many years working her ass off to support LW’s husband, putting him through school, paying for activities and sports? Are there other siblings she has/is supporting? I mean, she GAVE them a house and we don’t know any of the situation as to where she was moving so very possibly it was very costly and upsetting to her and moving back was not in her plans either. Maybe she hates the idea of not being able to give her son this home and now his wife is acting like putting in tile was the equivalent of a whole new house?

      Personally, it feels like LW does not understand ANYTHING about her partner’s relationship with his mother and is getting a bit of a shock, maybe her parents are still together and much more financially fortunate? From my personal experience, nothing about what has happened so far seems out of the ordinary for being an adult child of a single, aging parent. What’s her plan when mom is too old/frail to live on her own?

  • AmandaBee

    I think Liz’s advice is spot on – this is the kind of thing that just happens when you blend families with different communication styles. Does mom know that you only expected her to have the truck for 2 weeks because that was explicitly communicated, or was that assumed? If the latter, work on beefing up communication for sure.

    I will also add, though I could be off base: are there possibly some social class differences between LW’s family and her in-laws?

    I bring this up because my mom and my dad’s side of the family just have REALLY different standards that I think are ultimately part social class, and part cultural. Actually, same with my family and my in-laws. My experience has been that this can lead to very different expectations of what’s acceptable in terms of borrowing limits, both for stuff and money. The issue of trashing the truck DOES go a bit far for me, but everything else (keeping a borrowed vehicle for months, being slow to pay things back) would be normal for one side of my family, while they’d horrify the other.

    That doesn’t mean you can’t have your standards, but it does help to think of them as different standards that require both negotiation and communication, vs. being taken advantage of. You just can’t assume you’re on the same page when you have totally different rulebooks.

  • Mrrpaderp

    Sounds like LW has a husband problem, not a MIL problem. Look, different families have different approaches to “helping” each other. In some families it’s perfectly normal to fix up an elderly parent’s house and expect nothing in return. Or to have the in laws over for dinner every week (I can hear her now: “I wouldn’t have to invite myself over if you would invite me! I brought dinner to my mother every Sunday night even though I had a zillion kids and 15 jobs! And I walked uphill in the snow both ways to do it!”). LW and DH need to have a serious chat about what resources of time, money, etc. they’re willing to devote to his family.

  • z

    Hang in there, OP. Cultural and social class differences can be really fraught and complicated.

    I think you need to consider the long term. Not to be overwhelming, but it seems likely that she will lean on you and your husband more and more as she ages, right? It might be prudent to set aside some money for when she really, truly needs it, rather than giving it to her now. It’s not that you don’t want to help her, it’s just that you have to be prepared to help her when it’s most important.

    • Totch

      Oh boy this. We help support my husband’s mom and it’s absolutely part of our long term planning because the costs will only get higher. If long term financial support isn’t ok with you, talk it out now. If it is, talk it out now and start saving. Either way it’s better to assume that she’ll need you more in the future than she does now, and to face it.

      • z

        Indeed. It’s a really, really hard and complicated topic. But I have found a great way to head off my husband’s desire to give his parents money in the present, is to agree to deposit in a special account for later. It may be a false distinction, because if they had made better choices they would not be needy in their old age, but it’s a lot easier for me to stomach giving money to a future old person, than to someone in the present who is more capable of self-help.

      • z

        And don’t even start with me, this topic, and being an adult child of divorce. I had to have the I Won’t Help Support The Guy You Left My Dad for talk with my mom. I had to have the I Can’t Care For Your New Wife After You Die, She Is Not Enough Older Than Me talk with my dad. It suuuuuucked! And really, what was the point, both relationships ended anyway. But it will be a cold day in hell before I take on responsibility for any extra old people beyond my Actual Parents. The whole forced Brady Bunch thing ran smack into the brick wall of financial reality and irresponsible Boomer choices, and it wasn’t pretty.

  • Totch

    This balanced answer is exactly what I need today. We’re having dinner with my MIL tonight to have A Big Talk about family dynamics and expectations moving forward. I’ve avoided mentioning it here, but my in-laws messed with our wedding day in a couple big ways. Part of it was a symptom of a larger problem: my husband is the baby in his extended family so even though we’re careening towards thirty they often don’t take him seriously.

    It really sucks that they did that on our wedding day and fucked things up, but it’s sucked for a while and this pushed him to a place where he’s interested in talking to his family about it. We support my MIL financially, which is a pretty normal familial expectation in their culture. But “We pay your rent and do your taxes and you don’t trust us not to drink and drive” is a pretty untenable relationship. We’ve tried to have similar conversations before, but his mom falls pretty heavily into the “but you’re my baaaaaaby” camp and doesn’t want to change to a more grown up dynamic, despite expecting fully grown support on our end.

    I’m really nervous about tonight, and this response was calming. No one is intentionally taking advantage. No one is cutting anyone off. We just need to be taken seriously and be able to have these conversations with less strife.

    • penguin

      Best of luck with your in-laws!! Those kinds of talks stress me out, but they are so necessary.

    • BSM

      Good luck, and good for you guys for making it happen. Sounds very necessary.

    • SS Express

      Oh that sounds so stressful and frustrating! Good on you for tackling it, and taking a calm and reasonable approach. Good luck!

    • Lisa

      I hope everything went well last night! That sounds like a really difficult but important conversation to have.

    • Jess

      I hope that conversation went well!

    • ManderGimlet

      Good luck! It is so so so SOOOOOOO hard to get to a point of an “adult” relationship with parents some times. And it can be really hard if your (or your partner’s) relationship with their parents is “normal/healthy” (subjective, of course) and the other’s isn’t. You can struggle for years to explain what the situation is but they never get it until it affects them, usually in the biggest way possible like at your wedding. Dealing with this right now with my own mother as I plan my wedding (and I’m almost 40!) I’m learning (slowly, painfully) to just laugh at the absurdity and do my own thing, but it’s annoying as hell and can be very insulting and undermining.

      • Totch

        Yeah, I’m with you. Like, I moved to their city (not in my home country) five years ago to be near MIL and help support her. This has been going on for yeeeeeeaaars and it’s getting old that every time her response is the same “but it’s hard because he’s my baby.” Especially when you’re making big adult life decisions with them in mind, it can be really hard not to get respect back.

        Solidarity on wedding planning in that situation. Just keep pushing. And if one of you does have the normal/healthy parental relationship you mentioned, don’t take it for granted! We made a lot of little concessions for my in-laws because they’re difficult, and they added up to my family feeling less loved/recognized because they just didn’t need to be accommodated in the same way.

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  • The house thing bothers me. What, exactly, was the agreement? Was she gifting the OP and her husband the house outright? Was she becoming their landlord while they lived there rent free in exchange for doing it up? Was she going to gift it to them after they lived in it rent free and did it up? Is she leaving it to them in her will (and are there other siblings involved who might have issues with this)? Was the work on the house actually finished, or did OP’s husband just stop when they decided it wasn’t worth the cost and handed the house back?

    I mean, I’m asking these questions but from the narrative provided it’s clear the arrangement wasn’t gone into in this level of detail. The legal and financial ramifications weren’t discussed, and as a result confusion abounded. If the OP and her husband weren’t paying rent while they did it up – saving themselves money on living elsewhere while MIL presumably had costs of her own to pay on the place she decided against living in – I can’t see why MIL should feel obliged to pay them for the work they don’t appear to have even finished. Morally, sure, if the cost of the work outweighed the rent they ought to have paid her, but even that’s being generous.

    There are massive communication issues between the couple and the MIL, and when it comes to financial transactions (and being gifted a house is a massive financial transaction!) you really have to nail out every single detail so there’s no space for misunderstandings. The car sounds like the same sort of issue: both parties think it’s being loaned for as long as it’s needed – the couple assume that’s until MIL gets a new car, and therefore won’t need theirs any more, while the MIL assumes that the car is needed until it breaks and she needs a replacement. If you have expectations about the time, money and assets being offered back and forth, you need to lay these out in excruciating detail to make sure everyone is on the same page, and you need to ask MIL what her expectations are in the same detail.

    • gonzalesbeach

      yeah I also wondered about other siblings (is that who MIL tried to move in with?). also the other item that has me scratching my head: ‘Lastly, she invites us to eat with them.” – who is them? – the rest of the letter only mentions MIL (her house, she is in possession of truck etc).

  • Cay

    Yeah this definitely doesn’t seem like regular family stuff, at least not with any of the families I know. There comes a question of integrity and trust. If someone allows you to borrow their stuff, you treat it well, heck even better than your own stuff because you have to give it back to them. I wouldn’t keep something, especially a car, for a month without constantly checking to see when they wanted it, let alone 6 months. And then she “invites” you to eat at your own house? What in the world….? I think there definitely needs to be some boundaries drawn with you, your husband and her, because this is already heading toward an unhealthy relationship and unnecessary emotional/financial drainage on both ends.