My mom and her new fiancé have been together three years. On paper, he’s a great match for her. But he’s revealed himself as jealous and controlling. I once told my mom about a restaurant I visited, for example. When she replied that her college boyfriend owned the restaurant, her fiancé threw a temper tantrum.
He’s also inexplicably jealous of my dad. He can’t be in the same room as my dad, and I’ve overheard him insulting my dad to my mom. When my parents drove my brother to college together, my mom lied so her fiancé wouldn’t get upset, even though she’s made clear she’ll never reconcile with my dad. This irrational jealousy makes family events extremely uncomfortable for me and my siblings. What’s more, he often says disparaging things about his ex-wife, including rude comments about her drug addiction.
My siblings and I have all expressed our concerns to my mom many times. When we found out he was going to propose, I begged her to say no. She didn’t. She says he makes her happy. I know I need to accept that, but I’m struggling.
I could not have asked for a better mother growing up. She’s sacrificed so much for us. I feel terrible that I can’t just be happy for her. But it’s almost physically painful to be around them. How can I make peace with her choice and rebuild our strained relationship into a strong one? What can I do to accept this man who will soon be my stepfather?
Steve Almond: The optimist in me hopes that your mom’s fiancé is expressing situational insecurity, and that once he’s married to your mom (i.e. feels more secure) he’ll be less of a jerk. But the realist in me suspects this problem is one of his character traits. Unfortunately, this kind of dynamic can become a vicious cycle. As this guy’s behavior further alienates you and your siblings, he’ll sense your rising disapproval and react by becoming increasingly possessive, further driving a wedge between you and your mother. That’s the underlying risk here, the scenario you want to avoid: a kind of loyalty showdown. I’d do what you can to ease the tension, especially as the wedding approaches. You don’t have to pretend to like this man, or approve of his conduct. But it might help to remind yourself that this man makes your mother happy, by her own account. What’s most important in all of this is that you establish a relationship with your mother that’s independent of your feelings toward her partner. This begins by letting her know that you love and support her unconditionally.
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Cheryl Strayed: My heart sinks every time I read your letter, Sad. Your situation is awful and, unfortunately, common. Everyone who loves someone who’s in an unhealthy romantic relationship shares your conundrum. I’ve been there myself a few times. That your mother reports her fiancé makes her “happy” does not obliterate the fact that he behaves horribly, and perhaps abusively, toward her. You and your siblings have done the right thing in being honest with your mother about your observations and feelings about her fiancé. Your intervention in advance of her engagement didn’t yield the results you’d hoped for, but that doesn’t mean it was a wasted effort. If your mother ever questions her relationship, she’ll remember your words. That she can’t see now what you see doesn’t mean she won’t.