Dear Wayne and Wanda,
I am three years into a relationship with a great guy — who has a not-so-great family. For whatever reason, I’ve never really clicked with them. I come from a family that’s big, loud, and open. His is more reserved and many family gatherings can best be described as tense.
I particularly don’t get along with his mother. I feel like she is constantly judging me and our home, whether it is simple things like how I’ve chosen to organize my kitchen, why I don’t do yoga, or down to more substantial and in my opinion invasive questions about why I don’t go to church or whether I intend to try to get promotions and better pay at work. The way she asks these things isn’t supportive or encouraging. She talks to me like all I’ve done is make mistakes and bad choices.
I’m not a millionaire or CEO or supermodel, but I enjoy my office job, make enough money to have a comfortable life, and I’m healthy overall. Most important, I love my boyfriend. I genuinely hope we’ll get married and we do talk about spending our lives together. But I don’t know how to get past this roadblock with his mom. Thanksgiving is coming up fast and everyone is coming to our house this year.
I can already imagine her criticizing my cooking — she fancies herself quite a star in the kitchen. Any advice on getting through the holiday — and possibly getting through the years to come?
Let’s start with the small potatoes, which is this upcoming Thanksgiving, and on that note, let’s lean in on potatoes — mashed, in this case, if I have a vote — to bring the two of you together. That’s right, it’s time for you and future mother-in-law to get in the kitchen together. Thanksgiving is about togetherness, and thankfulness, gratitude and, well, carbs! Lots of carbs. And cooking carbs. And in this case, cooking carbs together, you and your boyfriend’s mom!
Cooking brings people together. That’s a fact. It’s methodical, creative and rooted in tradition. It opens up opportunities for collaboration and storytelling and bonding. Ultimately, it’s productive, resulting in something you’ve created together and can share with others.
Maybe if she’s in your kitchen and on your team instead of on the outside looking in (and judging), the two of you can capitalize on holiday camaraderie and cheer. Take coffee breaks, open a bottle of wine, and try and enjoy the time together. As a bonus, if she’s helping you cook, she can’t very well criticize the outcomes, especially if you appeal to her ego and experience and let her take the lead.
I appreciate that adding some sugar and cinnamon might sweeten this bitter relationship, Wanda, but I think we’re probably gonna need something a little stronger to make this diverse dish work. At some point, our letter writer is going to have to sharpen her knives and stand up herself.
Maybe mom is overprotective or maybe she’s just not a nice person. Maybe you two just don’t understand each other. Maybe you’re a little oversensitive. Doesn’t matter. Her constant criticism, nit-picking and emotional envelope-pushing is a recipe for dysfunction that you will not allow in your life or romantic relationship. Your boyfriend shouldn’t, either, but he doesn’t know any better. This is the environment he was raised in.
So you will likely have to push back and tell her to let you live the life that you love, thank you very much. And after being frank and firm with her, maybe, after getting over the shock, she’ll have a little respect for you. At the very least, you’ve let her know that you aren’t putting up with this behavior for the next 20-30 Thanksgivings, Christmases, birthdays and all of the other occasions you’re going to be spending together because you aren’t going to let her spoil this special relationship with her son.