Carolyn Hax: Are mother-in-law secrets a form of control?

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Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Caroline: I just realized that my mother-in-law is controlling both me and my partner and we haven’t noticed.

More recently, he asked me if I had done something to upset me, I had, but he asked me not to mention our conversation to his son. I didn’t mention it. I’m not sure if she was “obeying” her or if she just didn’t want to talk to him about it.

For him, I caught him in a lie about where he was. He said that he was at our house when in fact he was at his mother’s house. I asked him why he lied and he told me that his mom jokingly told him not to tell me he was there.

While this may be minor, I’m trying to dig deeper and see if she has influenced me in other ways. I don’t know how to bring it up with him, and I’m afraid he’ll get defensive towards her and get mad at me. However, I don’t think I should talk to her about it.

Afraid: Definitely act on this, though you might be overstating the “control” part, which in turn might be overstating your sense of the stakes.

Above all, I think it’s much easier to get to this than you think. Just go back to your husband with this: “I was replaying our conversation after all that stuff about being at your mom’s house.” In general, this is a good way to bring something up when you’re worried that the moment has passed. “I noticed that your mom says that to me sometimes, not to tell you something, usually something totally innocuous.”

Then: “Have you ever thought about that?” You can add, “I’m not comfortable with that” here, or wait for their response.

If he reacts badly to that, it’s a relationship problem, not a mother-in-law problem.

Regardless of how this conversation turns out, I urge you to drive the line with your mother-in-law every time from now on. “I don’t feel comfortable accepting that. I will not keep secrets from your son. Do not move.

At best, this is just a habit of yours developed through your own insecurities or quirks in your upbringing. At worst, you’re really hinting at serious controlling behavior.

Either way, the untangling process begins when you say no. It is always your right to refuse.

The second step is to ask your partner, encourage, insist, transparency between the two. But that is actually independent of her mother and her secret quirk.

Re:Control: I think it would also be a great point to ask your husband: If you thought your mother was joking, why did you go ahead and lie to her? Because lying to your spouse about everyday things is a good way to lose trust in a marriage and break it up.

So… what made you decide to go ahead? He may not know the answer right away and may need to think about it, and you should give him the space to do so. But she brings it out into the light for them to look at.

Anonymous: Good point and excellent suggestion to act accordingly, thanks.

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