Depression, Mothers-in-Law, Friendzones

1. At what point does your wife trump your mother?

My mother-in-law suffers from a host of mental illnesses that she has had for as long as anyone can remember. These problems result in her being defiant, promiscuous, self-endangering, and basically incapable of telling the truth.

I agreed to let her stay with us temporarily until we could find a better situation. My husband made me a few promises that made me think this could be okay.

1) If it got to be too bad, we would kick her out and she would go back to being crazy and destructive outside of our home.

2) I get to decide what “too bad” means and make the call.

3) If she interferes with our marriage, she goes.

Fast forward three months. It is Too Bad. I find the situation unbearable. I am a constant crying mess, and I can’t even begin to keep up with the trail of destruction and chaos that this woman leaves. My husband is angry at me for complaining all the time. I feel justified, as this woman has systematically alienated everyone in her life to the point where we are her last hope. No one in her life has been able to deal with her, but I am somehow an alien monster for being frustrated constantly.

I have asked to get her out repeatedly. My husband’s new solution is for me to move out. Today, we got in a fight and he told me to pack a bag and go to my mom’s house, and that he thought I should move out. I am sitting in an airport crying.

My husband’s solution is logical to him. She can’t take care of herself, I can. She needs him, I don’t. I am miserable living with her, so don’t live with her. I am struggling to make him see that life isn’t all logic, and that other things matter, too. Like feelings. Like the feelings of one’s wife. He says she is worse than she was, I say he only thinks she is worse because he is actually around her now. Either way, the promises he made me were not followed with “You know, unless it is absolutely unbearable. Then, fuck you.”

Is there anything that can be done? I am 100% at my wit’s end.

Let me drop the insouciant tone we Married Dudes usually use around here, and just say I’m sorry this happened to you. I wish I had anything more than sympathy to offer, but sometimes that’s all there is. 

You and your husband have just separated. The vast majority of separations end in divorce. If this was just “Go sleep at your mom’s while we both cool out,” that would be one thing, but asking you to move out is another. All the stuff about his mother sort of obscures that fact, but something has changed in your life together, and it’s gotten to the point where your husband has asked you to go, and you’ve agreed. What now? (You don’t mention children in your letter, so I’m going to assume you don’t have any.)

Two people have to decide if this marriage can be saved — him, but also you, so the first thing you need to figure out, if his mother does move back out, is whether this is still the guy you want to be with.

If it’s “Yes,” then you have a pretty clear path. If you want it to work, you have to make him decide what he wants. Start by saying “Your mother living here has interfered with our marriage. It’s time to live up to your promise. Her or me.” (I’m generally not a fan of ultimatums, but if ever there was a time for one, this is it.) You have to be willing to go, if you say this, so he knows he can’t talk you out of this without changing anything.

And if it’s “No, what I’ve seen tells me more about my husband than about his mother, and I don’t like what I see,” then you also have a pretty clear path, and one in which his opinion no longer matters, which is to formalize the separation, and get on with your life. This is a horrible outcome, of course, and if it comes to that, the only thing to recommend it is that it will be less horrible than the alternative.

But if, as likely, it’s “I feel both ways,” then you and he have to decide together. If you genuinely don’t know what outcome you want well enough to either issue an ultimatum or to walk, then you have to guard against two things while you hash it out. First of all, never let him (or anyone) use the word “logical” to try to convince you that their emotional reality matters more than yours. That’s just bullshit. If he goes down that route, cut him off. If he can’t not go down that route, that may be your answer.

And second, I think you have to make a pact with yourself that “I’ll change” and “She’ll change” and “It’s just for a while” are not phrases you’ll tolerate. From your description of your mother-in-law (and, frankly, your husband), this sounds like a situation that won’t ever work itself out over time. It has to be changed decisively for anything important to change, and he has to do a lot of the changing.

The saddest, most awful moment in a marriage is when “good for me” and “good for us” point in opposite directions. I went through it once, many years ago, and would never wish it on an enemy. But that’s where you are. If you decide for yourself that you want to try to re-align those arrows, then you have to make him decide if he wants that too.

But you have to be bloody-minded enough, going in, to recognize that the answer may be No.

2. I have been with the same man for 16, going on 17 years. I have been through almost everything with this man, and I mean everything. Philandering (early on in the relationship), unexpected pregnancy (not carried out), family drama, everything. If you look at my life, it looks like an episode of One Life to Live meets Twin Peaks (at times) meets Good Times. No kidding, we have seen it all.

We got married five years ago and have two babies, ages four and one. I love this man, I care for him. Am I in love with him? Well, it’s a bit complicated … the year I found out I was pregnant with my oldest son, shit went totally left in his life, dragging me with it. His grandmother passed, he and his brother had an extraordinary fistfight, he had a falling out his oldest daughter (oh yeah I’m a stepmother of two, 20 and soon to be 18, girl and boy respectively). Now the year I gave birth, he fell into a severe and deep depression, and I ended up basically flying solo for the better part of my son’s first year of life. It was as if he checked out mentally and slept most of the time. He was getting help during this time, and with medication he slowly came around. Those broken relationships sort of healed, but not really. Enough to get by and pretend they worked.

Now fast forward to baby #2, who was a total surprise. I had dealt with the first one alone, and was scared of doing it again by myself a second time. He assured me he would be there, would help, and would be present. So onward and upward, and I give birth to another lad and we’re all happy. Except the depression comes back a few months into lad #2, and I’m with both children on a round-the-clock basis (almost) and trying to keep him, the babies, and myself afloat. I’m also working full time and trying to keep all the balls in the air so he gets time to rest and get better. Except it doesn’t get better. His moods ebb and flow, go up and down, and it leaves me hanging in the wind, wondering if I should texas two step or cha-cha through the day. See, I’m the hustler in the family, I get shit done, I work, I pay bills, I keep that ball rolling. He’s really trying (I don’t want to shortchange the man here), but there’s only so much he can do and I’m beginning to drown under the weight of it all. My therapist (of COURSE I have one!) is supportive and encourages him to come see her and she thinks he’s a wonderful man with a serious depressive problem.

Fast forward again. I threaten divorce, and he gets his shit together. I’m over simplifying because I’m trying to get to the current issue. Every summer my stepkids come up from Florida, where they live, to stay with us. They’re fun, and teenagers, so the drama they bring is standard fare. August of last year rolls around and they go home. Everything’s fine, yes? NO. Around October my stepson, one of the kindest most amazing individuals I have ever met, by the way, decides that he hates his father and is angry at him and refuses to speak to him. He won’t indicate the reasoning behind this. This leaves my husband floundering. Depression #3 hits and he’s trying to contact his son, he doesn’t want to involve his daughter, and his ex is no help either. I’m just as broadsided by this as my husband was, because this kid went from glowing and happy with us to suddenly refusing to speak to his dad, and for no apparent reason. I don’t involve myself because I know the boundaries, this is not my issue, and he has to work it out with his son. It’s now March, stepson’s prom is today (date of email) and my stepdaughter sends his pictures to my husband just to share it because she’s somewhat the intermediary in this situation. It wasn’t out of malice, she talks to her dad no problem and thinks her brother is stupid, she just wanted to share the moment that the son would not. Now my husband is all upset, and wants to give up trying to reach his son. The plan was for him to fly down to Florida to spend time with his son and work things out, and I was all for it, I was itching to buy him the airplane ticket because I felt this was important for him to do. Obviously his son is going through something and needs his father, but this git does not see it that way. He sees it as his son not wanting him in his life so he is going to just walk away.

WTF!? I am beyond angry, I think I passed angry 20 minutes after he told me he was giving up on trying to reconcile. I feel this is bullshit, and if this is how he deals with it I almost want nothing to do with the man. I sit here in amazement at the life I have spent on him and I almost, almost regret it. To fully regret it is to regret my kids, and I will not do that. I can’t even speak to him, because the level of anger I have simmering in my organs alone would cause me to say something irreparable and my rational mind knows not to do that. I know he is depressed, and part of depression is giving up, but I didn’t sign on for this. He did not show signs of depression until AFTER we were married and AFTER I had my first son. The man I married died somewhere inside this shell of an embittered man who feels the world is against him. And after this bullshit of self pity, I may very well become part of that world.

Question, finally, is this, what do I do? How the hell do I talk to a man I barely know anymore? That man I fell in love with is gone, replaced by this creature I don’t know, and, as of late, want nothing to do with.

So here it is, ultimatum day at The Hairpin, and you’ve already made him get his shit together once by threatening divorce. The shrinks call this the “flight to health,” where a possibility that someone might have to examine and then change their life is so threatening that they momentarily escape the symptoms that create that threat.

So let me first suggest, gently, that of all the things that could make you angry, a father and his adolescent son having a falling out, even a big one, doesn’t seem to me like it’s what should be at the top of the list. I suspect that this is an escape valve for a lot of other things, including losing that chance that he would go away for a while, and that he would feel better for having seen his son when he got back.

The deeper issue — the pool of magma underneath your current volcano of anger — is that he’s not the guy you married, and maybe more to the point, not even the kind of guy you would have married. Your young kids and his older ones add stress to the situation, of course, but the thing they add stress to is that your husband is depressed. That’s the core issue — the things that set you off set you off because there’s no reset, no period in which things are good enough to make the annoying stuff just annoying and not cumulatively unbearable.

This will sound old-fashioned, but the question of whether to stay together is different with kids around, so I think you have to try a bit of what you tried when you threatened divorce, but with a long-term goal rather than a short-term one. You can’t go one like this forever if he’s depressed, so you need him to do whatever work he can to get better, including seeing your therapist.

This may not work — one of the first thing depression saps is the will to get better — but it works better now than it used to. Serious depression is a soul-destroying condition, and it rarely stops at just one soul. If you want to say together, you need him to get better. And if he doesn’t want to get better, you may need to re-think being together.

3. So my boyfriend and I have been together for a little over a year and a half, and are very happy together. Not deliriously happy, or infatuated, but the kind of happy where we’ve been through a lot of stuff and been there for each other at difficult times in both our lives. We have the kind of deep, deep bond that only comes around once in a lifetime. He’s respectful, super smart, funny, adorable, and basically everything I could want. We have discussed marriage in a very concrete, real sense, and I’m excited about spending my life with this guy. The problem is, I’m 19 and he’s 20. We are both still in school (we are in the same year at the same school), and won’t graduate for two more years. We plan on getting engaged at the end of next year, and being married the summer after our senior year. My parents, however, although they absolutely love him, are skeptical that I can know right now that he is really “the one,” and that in my girlish puppy love I’m deluding myself into making a hasty decision I’ll regret later in life (it’s worth noting that my mom was engaged in college, but broke it off and later met my dad in grad school). My friends, too, my lovely intellectual feminist friends, are kind of judging me for being excited at the prospect of “settling down” so quickly.

I fully plan on waiting at least 10 years to have kids, though, and don’t think being married will really affect me having a career — my boyfriend and I are both extremely driven and ambitious. It’s not really a question of whether I should marry this guy, but as a married person, do you think I should wait until we are a bit more together and have more support, or should we get married when we can? It just seems silly to wait when we know we’ll be married eventually. On the other hand, though, if we’ll be together forever, what’s the rush? (Note: His parents were married very early, so he’s totally fine with marrying young and his parents are behind us. Both our sets of parents are in totally awesome marriages). I know what I want, and there are no red flags, considering every angle. We’ve talked about money, about our future, and everything. We will be financially secure (at least as far as anyone can tell), because his father is a very successful businessman and my boyfriend is following in the family business, and I’m on track to have a good job as well. This is not a “hasty” decision by any means, and there isn’t much uncertainty at all as to my future being compromised. That being the case, it kind of rubs me the wrong way when everyone assumes we are entering into this immaturely because we are so young. So, two part question: what are your thoughts on getting married young, and if you support it, do you have any tips to deal with cynics?

If you were Amish, 19 and 20 would be fine, because the community you were part of would have all of the expectations and structures set up to support couples that age. You don’t sound like you live in that kind of culture, so, at the very least, you would be heading into this with less support than you might need or want.

So now the question is “In a culture that doesn’t expect people to do what you want to do when you want to do it, what are the chances you are making a mistake?” In your case, I’m saying “High enough chance to advise caution.”

You talk about your age and the opinion of your friends and so on, but the sentiment that jumped out at me was “We have the kind of deep, deep bond that only comes around once in a lifetime.” To which the only sensible reply is, You have no way of knowing that.

I’m sure you have a deep bond, and that it’s the kind that only comes around infrequently. This is all kinds of lovely when it happens, as always. But I will also tell you, not just as A Married Dude but A Re-Married Dude, that there is no The One Meant for Me. That’s fairy tale stuff. What there can be is The One I Made It Work With. Maybe this is that guy. But that “only once in a lifetime” language makes me skeptical.

So here’s the red flag, the angle I think you haven’t considered enough: People change. I know you think you know this, but you don’t, not yet. I also know this sounds insulting, but there’s no non-insulting way for an older person to tell a younger one “There are things you don’t understand,” but there are things you don’t understand, starting with this: It isn’t just the relationships built on puppy love that get affected by future events.

In our part of society, the one with the feminist friends and married parents with advanced degrees, there are two major institutional transitions, where one way of life is suddenly replaced with another. The first is the shift from high school to college, and the other is the shift from college to the real world. Both of these cause profound alignments in people’s self-image, life choices, and social decisions, but you two have only been through one so far. I know exactly one couple from my college years that went through that transition and are still together today, but I know lots that ended in divorce.

So I say wait. As you say, if you’ll be together forever, what’s the rush? And if it turns out you won’t be together forever, what’s the rush? You will know so much more about your lives, singly and as a couple, after you leave college that the new information will make the wait worth it. I hope, as you do, that everything works out and you have a long and happy marriage. But the chances of that not happening are precisely why you should give this more time.

4. I have been best friends with A for around five years now. I’ve been in love with A for four of them. Around two years into our friendship, I told him my feelings, he did not share them, and after some awkwardness (almost entirely on my side), we were back to chatting on the phone for at least an hour every day, hanging out most weekends, etc.

We are each others’ significant others — dates to weddings, work functions, etc. I sometimes pick up his dry cleaning and do other “girlfriend-y” things. But we are decidedly platonic.

Here’s the thing: I feel like we would absolutely be a couple (serious verbal, intellectual chemistry) if not for the fact that he doesn’t find me attractive. I am a big girl — very big. I don’t think I’m unattractive (and this isn’t a self-esteem issue), but he’s simply not attracted to me. I feel like on some level he’s in love with me, as I am with him, even if he can’t notice it or label it. You don’t spend hours on the phone every week with just anyone, right?

I guess my question is: How do I deal with this? The logical answer is to stop spending so much time with him, set limits, guard my heart, etc., etc. But I can’t do that! Secondly, is it possible that, post-confession of love a few years ago, he really thinks I’m over him and he’s truly oblivious to my affections? Because if he knows I’m in love with him, and he continues to act like we’re a couple without the sexy bits, that’s kind of cruel, no? He’s taking advantage, right?

Any ideas on how to be less forlorn, generally pathetic?

You’ve been friendzoned.

First of all, he can be oblivious to your affections. He’s a guy — obliviousness is our core competency. That doesn’t mean, however, that he isn’t feeding on those affections. He’s obviously partly in love with you, but it’s unlikely that that love is heading into real coupledom, and yes, that’s kind of cruel, and yes, he’s taking advantage. (I mean, dry-cleaning? Really?)

So what you have is a friendship that sits on a core of attraction, as many friendships between straight men and women do. And sometimes that’s just a thing that’s true — I have a number of female friends that I think are just great in all the ways I think my male friends are just great, plus one other way. But it’s in the background, and nothing ever comes of it (which is as it should be, me being married and all).

But sometimes that underlying romantic interest is the main thing, the thing without which the friendship would be a pale shadow of its current intense self. I’m guessing that’s you.

And you know all of this. You don’t need my advice, and indeed, to prevent me from giving you any, you shut off the one piece of it — stop spending so much time with him — that you know I’d give, and which I suspect you know you should take.

Instead, what you seem to be asking for is a love potion. You want to know how you can make him love you, despite his apparent preferences. And the answer, as in all other years since time immemorial, is that you can’t.

It sounds like you’ve decided that the current situation is better than not being in the friendzone, while the risk of “Kiss me or get out” is too high. Something will eventually happen — you’ll meet someone else, he’ll meet someone else — and that will end this phase of the relationship. Until then, you’ve already decided that you’re making the best of a bad situation. However long that lasts, try to enjoy the phone calls without fretting too much. But please, no more with the dry cleaning.

Previously: “I just don’t think you’d be a good parent”

A Married Dude is one of several rotating married dudes. Do you have a question for A Married Dude?

Photo via Flickr/boynton

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