Do I Have to Invite My Manipulative In-Law?


I want to protect my fiance... and my wedding

by Liz Moorhead, Editor, Ask APW

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Q: I’m twenty-five and in the midst of a long engagement to my college sweetheart, a wonderful man who’s been through a lot. His dad and stepmom are supportive and loving, but his birth mother (who won custody of him for most of his life and formative years) is less than. She is manipulative, passive aggressive, starts drama, and plays the victim. She badmouths my fiancé’s dad and stepmom regularly. During his childhood, these personality traits amounted to emotional abuse for him. The long-term impact of her actions is something we’ve been working through for the four years we’ve been together.

My fiancé isn’t in regular contact with his mother, and there was a period of a couple years where they didn’t speak. I’ve met her once. I don’t want to invite this woman to our wedding, and although I probably shouldn’t have, I’ve voiced this opinion to my fiancé. He hasn’t told me whether he’s inclined to invite her or not yet. We still have a lot of time to finish up the guest list, but my question is this: Do I have a say in whether or not she should be invited? Or is that a decision I really need to leave up to my fiancé since it’s his mother? I have a feeling it’s the latter, but I’m sure if she came she would just be a really negative and possibly disruptive presence. I want to protect him and our wedding, but it is his mom.

—Anonymous

A: Dear Anonymous,

You’re right. It’s his mom, it’s his call.

But, that doesn’t mean your opinion doesn’t count. You sound regretful about letting him know how you feel, and I don’t think you should be at all.

When you’re in a marriage, it’s important that both folks carry on with their individual interests, their personal relationships, all of that. But one of the awesome benefits to being married is having that second set of eyes and ears that you trust. All of this awful stuff has happened to him, but now he’s got you to watch his back! Right now, that means saying, “Hey, I’m worried involving your mom will spell a lot of hurt for you.”

Just be sure to make it clear that you’re looking out for him, not yourself. If I had to guess, you probably dislike his mom (and who wouldn’t, based on what you’re saying up there). But like you also mentioned above, you really want to protect him. You’re not just acting out of that dislike, but out of concern for him. If that’s what it’s about, make sure he knows it, so worries about, “My partner hates my mom,” don’t cloud the issue and add to the drama. Picture standing on his side, rather than standing in between him and his mom. That’s where you want to position yourself.

As with everything else, this problem isn’t just about the wedding. You’ll be handling this for a good long time. What will your dynamic be moving forward? What will you say when she wants help moving or is very ill or somehow needs your partner and he has to decide how much he’s willing to be involved? Starting now, set a precedent for sharing how you feel, but also letting him know that you’re concerned for him and will support him.

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO ASK APW A QUESTIONPLEASE 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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  • Violet

    Oh Anon, I feel for you. I really want to “protect” my partner from his father. But even though we’ve been together for a long time, he still has more experience handling that relationship than I do. Rather than protect, my role is to support. I do still voice my opinions, but my partner is in charge of the decisions. So even though I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect, we invited his dad to our wedding. He didn’t come anyway due to being arrested a few days before, but I could fully support my partner in the pain of his father’s absence, rather than be a contributing factor to it.

    • Lisa

      “I could fully support my partner in the pain of his father’s absence, rather than be a contributing factor to it.”

      I really love this line.

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  • anon for this

    My father’s mother was emotionally (and occasionally physically) abusive to him, his siblings, and my grandfather while he was growing up. There wasn’t really a name for it from the 60s-80s, especially in the small coal mining town they lived in. Plus, they were the wealthiest family in that town and she was/is beautiful, charismatic, well-dressed, charming…so people chalked her abuse up to her being simply “difficult.” So because of longterm entrenched belief that someone who looks and (publicly) acts like her can’t be an abuser, she’s still in our lives and was actually a fairly good grandmother to me when I was young, mainly because she knows how to spoil and entertain children. But she lacks the emotional and psychological capacity to maintain relationships with adults, so I speak with her maybe once a quarter, if that.

    While I have much worse stories than this, she actually did try to “ruin” my wedding, where she tried to get my aunt to take her to the emergency room ~30 minutes before the ceremony because she had a mosquito bite (this was pre-Zika)…and after she spent the entire afternoon having a crying meltdown in her room, begging for my dad to come see her. I was shielded from this knowledge until later, but this is the kind of person she is.

    The thing is though, I’m not sure my dad would ever want me to be completely out of touch with her. He supports everyone who distances themselves from her, both physically and emotionally (he says it’s almost impossible not to), but says that he thinks that she has many severe undiagnosed mental illnesses, and so she needs our pity, if not our understanding. It’s important to him that she’s taken care of and that we see her as a Tragic Figure in some ways, rather than an evil one. This helped me learn a lot about compassion,

    But at the same time, I also see how long-lasting the effects can be, especially on my mother, as the “outsider.” She often has to take the brunt of my grandmother’s current difficulties, because she’s in more contact with her than my dad is. It’s kind of f*cked up, but as part of the same protective instinct, my mom signed up to be the conduit to my grandmother and has struggled against her bullshit for 30+ years, all in the name of protecting my dad from having to speak with her often, but still keeping her in their lives. It’s messy and difficult and the darkest part of my parents’ otherwise amazing relationship. It’s only been recently (40ish years later) that they’ve actually discussed ways for my mom to begin detaching herself from the relationship as well and my dad supporting that in the way he always should have. It helps that they both recognize her abuse for what it was now, but it was a long time coming.

    All this to say, tl;dr, there are ways to honor your husband’s potential desire to maintain contact with her or help her as needed, but also please heed Liz’s advice to protect your and state your own needs too.

  • Ashley

    Feeling this right now. My partner was raised by his grandmother because his biological mother left, and his father was in and out of jail (they were teens when they had him). His mother (grandmother) was pretty much the only person that has shown him unselfish love and consideration, and she has passed away. Long story short, his father has *issues* but has pulled his life together for the most part, though has seriously stunted development. His dad is supposed to be a groomsman. Hubby is slowly rebuilding his relationship with his biological mother, so she will be there too.

    With this wedding coming up his dad is freaking over seeing the biological mom after 20+ years. At first it seemed like the normal level of anxiety, and they planned to talk over the phone and eventually have lunch, he was being a little dramatic, but all good. Now it’s clear he is not over the rejection from 25 years ago, and is not able to act mature about it. He has made it clear he doesn’t want to go to the wedding because of it, and says nasty things about her to my partner now, such as that he is going to “brain bang” her at the wedding. I guess they met for lunch- mother wont talk about it but her mother told me he simultaneously hit on her and threatened her…however you do that.

    I have been considering whether or not to call him and give him a piece of my mind if he keeps it up. I really really don’t like to see my fiance have to deal with this crap (his strategy is a figurative smile and nod), after all he has been through. But I don’t want to be the one to drive a wedge either….family stuff is hard.

  • Oh, Liz is back! Welcome back, Liz!
    And hugs to the LW. This sounds really tough. :(

    • Liz

      Thank you! <3

  • Anon Today

    Well, here’s a solidarity hug from an internet stranger. My hubby and I went through something very similar with his mom, and all I can say is that it doesn’t end with the wedding. We made the decision together not to invite his parents, and we made it fairly late into our six-month engagement. We didn’t want to do that, but there were a lot of very toxic things being thrown at us both, and it seemed like the only thing we could do. We actually worried for a few days that they would show up to the wedding to try and stop it, and had to appoint a friend to manage that just in case.

    It’s hard, and it’s unfair. And you shouldn’t be surprised if his bad relationship with his mom means that she holds a grudge against you, as well. Try not to take it personally (it’s super hard). In the end, if hubby had really wanted them there, I would have stood behind him on that decision. But, for us, we definitely made the right call. Dealing with the aftermath is pretty hard, too, and I wish I could be more optimistic about that. I’m afraid that two years later we haven’t made much progress with his family in accepting the two of us, or even just him.

  • LizCoop

    Difficult parents are complicated, to say the least. This is the best that you can do: Ask him to make a decision about whether or not he is inviting his mother. Support him in whatever decision he makes. Try to stay as objective, even neutral, as you can. It’s his Mom and he is the one who has to live with the decision. You might be affected by it, but he has to live with it. I’ve worked with a few couples that have been in that situation, and there really is no way to tell how it’s going to turn out. One mother of the groom screamed at the Bride while they were taking wedding party pictures. Another father of the bride dotted on his daughter and insisted on dancing with her. Most difficult parents behave. If they don’t behave, no one blames their kids – if you’re grown and you’re a jerk, it’s on you. But seriously, let him make the decision and stand by him, whatever it ends up being.

  • raccooncity

    My partner has a family member who treats him and everyone else terribly. If I’m honest, I had to stop talking about them re: our wedding because I realized that I couldn’t separate my absolute disgust with how family member acts and dislike of them from caring about my spouse’s feelings. So I let Mr. RC hash it out with the rest of his family who also love this family member but also get the hurt feelings.

    I don’t have any of the love so I stepped aside so I wasn’t permanently remembered as a bitter angry person. I think it’s important to acknowledge if being objective or supportive-in-any-scenario isn’t going to be possible for you at this time instead of pretending you are. (I’m not saying LW had this tone at all, just that it was an issue for me and I think that’s not uncommon.)

    • Violet

      Yes, this. That is what close friends are for: venting all your anger about that family member too. I get really angry sometimes, but I don’t want the situation (as my partner is experiencing it) to become about my anger. He’s got enough to deal with where this issue is concerned. But you need to look out for yourself too! So removing yourself from involvement where possible, getting those thoughts out to a trusted third party, so key.

      • raccooncity

        Super good point. You better believe I was on the phone with my own family/friends frequently about the offending person. I pretty much only talked to spouse about stuff if he wanted my opinion or to throw in the odd “hey, this isn’t your fault and you aren’t asking for anything out of line right now” in case he seemed not to know.

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  • Kay

    LIZ! Yay! Welcome back!

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    You can talk to him about whether to invite her or not but don’t be too aggressive. Let him take the final decision. When you’re in a marriage, it’s important that both folks carry on with their individual interests, their personal relationships, all of that.

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