Dear Wendy: “My Boyfriend’s Jealous Of My Relationship With My Mother”

I’m 27 years old and for as long as I’ve been dating, my mom has always gotten in the middle of my relationships. I should preface this by saying that we are very close, I am her only child, and I love her dearly, but this has been a continual problem. She either hates who I am dating (and sometimes with reason) or at the very least creates an “us against him” policy. Recently I moved from my hometown to beautiful Hawaii, and shortly afterward, I met a wonderful guy I started dating. The problem is my parents have a vacation home nearby and my mom came to visit four months ago and hasn’t left, and it’s really beginning to affect my relationship with my boyfriend. She actually likes him, so I thought I was in the clear, but it turns out my boyfriend is jealous of the amount of time I spend with my mom. When he and I began dating, I warned him that this has always been an issue, and he swore he would be supportive, but there’s definitely tension between us. My question is: is it fair for him to get upset about how much time I spend with her? And how can I establish healthy boundaries with my mother once and for all? I love spending time with her, but I also sense our relationship is not healthy because of the guilt I feel. — Mommy Issues

From your note it’s hard to tell if you really want to establish healthy boundaries with your mother or if you simply think it’s the only way to ease tension with your boyfriend. If it’s the latter, I worry that you may come to resent your boyfriend for what you feel is him not being supportive of your relationship with your mom. You asking whether it’s “fair” for him to get upset about how much time you spend with her indicates you already think he’s being unreasonable … unreasonable for having feelings. It’s as fair for him to be upset as it is for you to be hurt he’s not more supportive of your relationship with her. As soon as you both acknowledge you’re each entitled to feel a certain way — whether the other thinks it’s justified or not — the faster you can work together to reach a compromise.

What you need to realize — and I suspect you’re starting to — is that if this is an issue that’s come up with every boyfriend you have, it probably has less to do with finding someone who will tolerate it and more to do with you making it more tolerable. And that’s going to require some changes. You can start by communicating with your boyfriend about his needs. How much of your time does he need? Does he feel you’re emotionally available enough to him? In what ways does your relationship with your mom affect him? Listen to him and really consider what he’s asking from you, whether you can give it to him, and if/how your relationship with your mother has prevented you from meeting those needs in the past. Then talk to him about your needs and explain what is it you get from your mother that you don’t or can’t get from him. Maybe there’s a space to shift some of the needs your mom fills over to your boyfriend’s column. Of course, there will be certain things you get from your mom that you’ll never find from your boyfriend — that’s normal and healthy — and I’m sure your boyfriend understands and respects that (if he doesn’t, that’s an issue that certainly needs to be addressed first).

Finally, it’s time to have a frank, but loving, conversation with your mother. Tell her that while your relationship with her is always going to be among the most important in your life, you need her to let go of your relationship a little in order for you to grow into other relationships. You’re not a child anymore and it’s time for her to find other interests, hobbies and activities to fill the void in her empty nest. This doesn’t mean you won’t still be a big part of her life, but her job of raising you is over and her role in your life has changed. You now have other people who fill emotional needs once filled mostly by her and while that might be a difficult transition for her — and you — to accept, it’s one that’s long overdue.

I’ve been in a relationship with a very smart, kind, and dedicated guy for close to two years. The problem is that his mother, who’s divorced from his father, is very mentally unstable. My boyfriend suspects she’s bipolar and has expressed his concerns to her, but she’s never tried to get help. She frequently lies about her employment status and health (she recently called my boyfriend to tell him she was dying, when she was, in fact, in perfect health), and threatens to commit suicide if he doesn’t drop everything and come to visit her immediately. She often threatens never to speak to him again, but calls back within a week acting as though it never happened. Recently, she made it clear that she doesn’t approve of me and has told my boyfriend, “You should not be with someone your mother doesn’t like.” I don’t especially want to win her over (I’m not sure she’s a person I want to get any closer to), but since I’m quite certain my boyfriend and I are in it for the long run I want to make sure that I’m not making this situation any worse for him. He has told me in the past that he would like to cut off ties with her, at least for a while, but no one else in his family understands that decision. I will support my boyfriend’s choices about his relationship with his mother no matter what, but I don’t want him to be stuck in a toxic situation, and I don’t ever want her to make him choose between her or me (he’s said he’d choose me if she did). What can I do to make this situation less unpleasant? — Potential DIL

Unfortunately, this is an issue that’s largely out of your control. I understand your instinct to want to protect your boyfriend, but it isn’t your job to protect him from his mother. What you can do is be there for him, support him, stand by him, and let him know that you would never see his mother’s behavior as a reflection of him. Understand that there are certainly going to be difficult hurdles ahead — especially if you marry into his family — but if you tackle them as a team, there’s potential for them to make you stronger as a couple. But, in jumping over those hurdles, don’t forget to protect yourself. Being supportive of your boyfriend doesn’t mean tolerating abuse. Decide what you are and are not willing to put up. If doing something — like emailing a birthday message to his mother — makes you uncomfortable, speak up. If you’d prefer not to ever be left alone with her, let your boyfriend know. Setting boundaries for yourself is going to make it that much easier to give your boyfriend the emotional support he needs.

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