I’m struggling with the avalanche of presents my partner’s mother sends: expensive gifts, often in duplicate and triplicate. I’ve thanked her and tried to say that it’s more than enough, but things keep coming. I feel as if the gifts have strings attached.
I’m uncomfortable saying anything more to her about it, as my partner’s relationship with her is complicated (he had an abusive childhood); she lives abroad with her new husband. My partner previously cut her out of his life for some years, and the past few years have been an uneasy truce. I don’t see any of this as my business, but unfortunately she continually involves me, making it clear that she prefers me to my partner, and addressing most of the presents to me.
I’ve been with my partner for only a couple of years, and had a happy and stable childhood myself, so feel out of my depth here. My partner suspects that the presents are in order to impress me, or to ensure we stay in touch with her, or both. She messages us frequently, and gets intrusive and personal quite rapidly.
I also need advice on how to deal with my relationship with her in general. We have met several times, and it’s mostly an uncomfortable experience. She puts my partner down, but is fawning towards me. I’m fairly shy but was raised to be polite, and feel it’s not my place to speak up if my partner doesn’t. My partner finds it draining, but I think he’s reluctant to cut her off again. If she’s going to stay in our lives, what lines can I draw?
You said in your longer letter that you felt ungrateful for complaining, which I understand. It feels as if the presents are to buy your acquiescence, and this makes you uncomfortable. On some level, your partner’s mother may think she’s not enough for you and has to buy you. I wonder if these gifts are less about love and generosity and more about control.
Psychologist and family therapist Sarah Helps (aft.org.uk), however, saw it a little differently. She wondered what the gifts are “standing in for, and maybe they are making up for something this woman can’t put into words”.
We both wondered how clearly you’d made the point that the presents are too much, or whether your politeness has got in the way. It’s a difficult balance to strike, especially if you are thoughtful. Helps explained that although you “can’t control what comes through the letterbox, you can change how you respond”. If your boyfriend’s mother doesn’t listen when you ask her to stop sending more gifts, Helps suggested trying to redirect her by telling her what you need or want. However, that may lead to you becoming more involved than you’d like.
I wondered about sending gifts back; Helps felt that might be seen as aggressive, and instead suggested saying something like, “Thank you for X, we received it and are grateful, but we don’t need anything at the moment so re-gifted it to Y.” Helps stressed that you “do have permission to draw boundaries”.
She was curious about why your boyfriend severed ties with his mother and why he re-established them. “How does your partner know if it’s right to continue a fragile relationship, and what would need to be said to make it less fragile?” In other words, what stops your boyfriend being a bit more honest with her?
You didn’t mention in what way your partner had an abusive childhood: was his mother the perpetrator or a bystander? Either way, it seems as if she is trying to show how generous she is, but this does not extend to being nice to your boyfriend. You can stand up for him without being rude to her. Next time she tries to put your partner down, say, “That’s not my experience, I think he’s wonderful.” Helps suggested also saying, in response to personal questions, something such as, “I’m curious as to why you’re asking?” That would be quite powerful.
I would ordinarily say, it’s his mother, so he has to stand up to her; but it’s very hard for a child who has been abused to do that, because they feel they are worthless. Be united. As for the messaging, don’t respond immediately. Helps suggested picking a day a week to answer all her messages in one go. This will also give you some distance, which helps in crafting a cooler response.