Dear Carolyn: From what my daughter’s boyfriend has told me of his childhood, his mom sounds cold, unloving, even borderline abusive. He’s quick to reassure me that she’s changed since then. But I can’t unhear what I’ve heard.
I know the default is to be cordial when I meet her and give her the benefit of the doubt, but how do I handle it if she puts him down in my presence?
– Uncharted Territory
A: This is actually two questions. The first is how to handle what you’ve heard, and the second is how to handle what you witness.
For the former I recommend, yes, the benefit of the doubt, but you can’t half-heart it, or else you’ll take the slightest of her transgressions as license to believe the worst.
So try looking at yourself through this lens for a moment. Page through your memories of raising your daughter, and fix on a couple of your lowest moments. Times you yelled, times you acted selfishly, times you said something mean. Now imagine your daughter spinning these tales for a therapist. Yikes.
You may know these were deeply regretted exceptions, typical and human and duly mended, but you also need to know that, if phrased just-so to someone who wasn’t there and doesn’t know you, these could paint a scary picture of you. Of anyone.
When you meet the boyfriend’s mom with that in mind, maybe you can upgrade your we’ll-just-see to a truly open mind. Think of it as innocence until she proves herself guilty.
As for any mistreatment you witness, handle it as you would any other: Stick up for the target. Anything from a raised eyebrow to a full-out “I believe you owe X an apology” can let people know unkindness is unwelcome here.
An intrusive request
Dear Carolyn: My husband and I are newlyweds and his mother wants the wedding gift list, as in who gave us what. I think this is inappropriate and violates our guests’ privacy. He thinks there is no harm in giving her what she wants.
What do you think? She claims she wants to be able to thank people for their specific gift whenever she runs into them. But she wants the entire list, not just her friends and family, to “make it easier on me.” My husband and I are mailing thank-you notes promptly.
A: I’m with you – it’s not his mother’s place to be thanking people for gifts given to you and your husband. It’s an intrusive request.
I also disagree with your husband, though we probably have different notions of “harm.” You’re not comfortable with it and she doesn’t need it? Then it’s “no.” His choosing his mother’s comfort over yours, be it right out of the marital gate or as the stakes go up with time, will do harm he can’t even see.