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Savvy Minds: Ask Dr. V ~ My Wedding and My Monster-in-Law

Savvy Minds: Ask Dr. V ~ My Wedding and My Monster-in-Law

Venus Nicolino holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Her column addresses Love, Life and Relationships.

Dear Dr V,

My fiancé and I will be getting married in the Fall. Of course we’re both very excited, and are having fun planning the wedding, the honeymoon afterwards, the whole thing. The issue isn’t between us, it’s my fiancé’s mom. We’re not having a very traditional wedding party, I won’t go into details but we just don’t want to spend the money on a gigantic wedding. We’d rather put it towards other stuff (like saving for our first house). Anyway, his mom has very strong feelings about what she wants to have happen in the wedding. We feel that the plan we’ve come up with is both financially realistic for us and really reflects who we are as people and what we want our marriage to be. I don’t want to start my marriage out on the wrong foot with my mother-in-law, but she’s threatening not to come, and to have his whole side of the family boycott us if we don’t do what she wants. I feel like this moment that’s supposed to be wonderful and a milestone is turning into a nightmare. What can we do?


Dear Lauren,

Before we discuss things further, let me just say congratulations on your upcoming wedding! We’ll get to the nitty gritty of what you can do to hopefully make things work out with your soon-to-be husband’s mom straightaway, but I wanted to tell you upfront that it sounds like you two can already work and plan together as a team with a shared vision, and I think that is one of the most important elements of a successful marriage.

Now, let’s talk about Mom. I’m sure you know that issues with in-laws are practically unavoidable in nearly all marriages. I’ve spoken about this before, but what’s going on in both families is a major shift, usually felt more by the parents then their children. Your fiancé’s mother has been his primary caretaker his entire life.

From the amount of emotional investment she’s obviously placed in your wedding, it would appear to me that your fiancé has been the apple of her eye all these years, and now you are stealing him away.  All of her insistence on how things should be at the wedding I see as her wanting to make sure that she is a part of it. She may not be aware of this motivation, as it could be happening on a more subconscious level for her. The fact of the matter is, while you may not really be “stealing” her son from her, she is no longer responsible for him in the same way. The shift I mentioned is that you and your husband are now responsible, first and foremost, before anybody else in the world, to each other. You will soon officially replace your almost-mother-in-law as the main woman in your fiancé’s life, and I’m sure this is upsetting her no small amount.

If you want to keep your wedding yours, which seems to be the general thrust of your question, then you and your fiancé will have to work together and present a strong, unified front. You will need to establish what the boundaries of your marriage are, not so much with each other, but with everyone else. Not to drop an alarmist cliché into all of this, but it’s time to circle the wagons. This may be harder for your fiancé then you as it could be emotionally challenging for him to draw the line with his mother, but this moment, before your marriage even really begins, would be better than any. Both in my professional and personal experience I’ve known far too many friends and clients who have had issues in their marriages exacerbated by the intrusive presence of a spouse’s mother. The sooner everyone knows where they stand, the better.

Presenting a united front however, does not mean being harsh or inflexible in how you relate to each other’s parents. In regards to the wedding, perhaps the best thing to do would be for everybody to sit down over a meal and discuss things calmly (at least you two will have to try your best to remain calm. I’ll get to the threats of a “boycott” in a moment). What are the aspects of the wedding you feel strongest about? Are there any items you could compromise on? You should ask the same questions of your fiancé’s mom. Perhaps if she felt included in some aspects of the planning, it would assuage her anxiety. Again, I’m not suggesting you compromise on anything that will detract from the day’s meaning for you, but rather that you revaluate the day as a whole, to see what points you could give a little on.

Now, I realize I am making a huge assumption with my suggestion of a discussion. The assumption being that everyone will behave like rational adults. Needless to say, threatening not to come, and more than that, threatening to hold your fiancé’s entire family hostage from the wedding because his mother is not getting her way is far from rational. I’d go so far as to call it borderline abusive, especially to your fiancé. However, you can’t give in to this kind of behavior, as it will set a precedent for how to get you to comply with her will in the future. Don’t negotiate with emotional terrorism. This could be the most challenging aspect of the whole state of affairs for you both; it will test your ability as a couple to maintain those boundaries we were talking about. If, after trying to reason things out, you still cannot come to an agreement with your soon-to-be mother-in-law, you might just have to call her bluff. And she may be so stubborn that she refuses to come. And that could be terrible. But the onus will be on her, not you two. It would be unfortunate and hurtful, but I really think that if you give in now and basically make this woman a part of your marriage, it is a trend that will continue, as will the negative repercussions on your relationship with your husband. As far as keeping the rest of his family from showing up, unless she’s hiring out mercenaries to hold them at gunpoint, I don’t see how that could happen.

The right thing to do is rarely the easy thing to do. That’s why we root for the “good guys” on TV shows and movies all the time, because they do what’s good and true, despite how difficult or painful it might be for them as individuals. I can tell you that, if you can get through this challenging period in a positive, healthy way, you and your fiancé will give yourself a fantastic wedding gift: starting out in life together in a sound relationship based on shared trust and strength.

With Empathy,

Dr. V

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