Dear Prudence

Help! My Mom Helped Us Buy Our Home, but We Can’t Stand Living With Her.

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 1 of this week’s live chat.

Woman looking displeased, in front of a graphic of a house.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.

Jenée Desmond-Harris: Thanks for joining me for this week’s chat. What’s on your mind?

Q. Stuck with mom: Where do I begin? About four years ago, I made the mistake of buying a large home with my mother; I also have a school-aged child and am married. My mom helped with a large down payment; the agreement was the house is mine and in my name (I pay all bills and mortgage), and she pitches in with my child care and pays a small amount monthly toward shared expenses, but essentially lives rent-free through her golden years.

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However, living with her has been challenging at best and is threatening my marriage at worst. You can’t disagree with her on anything—otherwise she gets mad and will make life miserable until she decides she is over it, even if she is wrong (she will literally have temper tantrums and engage in the silent treatment for days or even weeks). She expects me to pay for everything above and beyond what was originally agreed upon, and uses my house as a drop-in laundromat and soup kitchen for family members, also on my dime (even though we agreed early on that could not happen). Any ask I have (e.g., don’t do laundry during peak electricity times) she ignores and essentially dares me to call her on it (see aforementioned temper tantrums, etc.). I have no idea what to do. On a positive note, she can be quite helpful (cooking and dishes are her thing), but the bad seems to outweigh the good. Help???

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A: Well, I hate to say it, but dealing with your annoying and unreasonable mother day to day seems like the reasonable and predictable consequence of accepting a down payment, money for expenses, child care, and help around the house from your annoying and unreasonable mother. In other words, you got a pretty good deal here, and her personality and lifestyle choices are part of it. The alternative, I assume, would be renting and its accompanying stresses, having no help with child care, and still looking out for your mother’s well-being as she aged in her own place, which would all be hard in a different way.

That doesn’t mean this situation can’t improve in significant ways. How about seeking a family therapist to help navigate your different lifestyle choices and your mom’s emotionally immature reactions to conflict? You might even use this third party to help come up with some house rules that you can both agree to live by. But I think the most important thing is going to be coming to terms with the fact that your living arrangement is going to involve some compromise, and you’re simply not going to get to enjoy the financial windfall and help from another adult without putting up with some behaviors that you otherwise wouldn’t.

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How to Get Advice From Prudie:

• Send questions for publication here. (Questions may be edited.)

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Q. Pulling off the Band-Aid: My husband and I have known each other since junior high. We married at 21, lived around the world, have four great kids, and have been successful in careers, entrepreneurial businesses, and education with three Ivy League degrees and an MIT Ph.D. between us. In our small hometown, my husband was brilliant and curious, but also considered weird by our friends, teachers, and families, who are salt-of-the-earth types who can’t imagine why anyone would want to leave our small town.

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Once we got out, we found people, programs, friends, and employers who really understood and appreciated his brilliance. Through our 25 years together, his family at first just disagreed with our life choices around college and travel. Now, his dad especially will downplay our successes, question our decisions, and undercut our dreams, to the point where we feel not just disapproval but outright disrespect. Everything from our cars to our pets to our jobs are on the bad list. He always wants to talk about politics, religion, and money, and we align on none of those things. We still see them multiple times each year and try to maintain relationships in the interest of their siblings and all the grandkids.

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Next year, they want us to attend a get-together, and we agreed. However, due to life being life, the event will coincide with a lot of big-deal decisions for us that they will inevitably criticize: colleges, investments, jobs, travel, etc. It will be a critical time when we need a lot of support, and I want to cancel attending the event because I know his family will make him sad and angry. I want to tell my husband’s mom exactly why we’re canceling, but we could also just cancel without explanation, or we could attend with nothing said. After years of this, I feel I could let this all go or finally draw a line.

A: It sounds like you and your husband are doing really well for yourselves and really like your lives. For some reason, the fact that your in-laws are punching up instead of down, critiquing people who have more education, experiences, and financial success than they do—in ways that seem pretty clearly inspired by jealousy—makes this less offensive to me than it would be if they were berating you for being less wealthy or not as educated as them. Don’t get me wrong—it’s really rude and not OK for them to criticize you and your husband. But they have no power over you, and they’re not digging in about things that seem to make you insecure or are emotionally charged for you, so I don’t feel like you’re particularly vulnerable in this situation.

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With that in mind, is there a way that you can get through this one event with a combination of mentally putting their inappropriate remarks in perspective, giving them much less information about the details of your life, firmly telling them that you don’t appreciate their insults, and coming up with enough other topics to discuss? Or perhaps you could give them one very clear warning before you see them: “If you criticize our cars, pets, jobs, or any of our other life choices, this will be the last time we get together.” After all, you haven’t said whether you have ever let them know how much their behavior bothers you. I think they deserve to be put on notice. But if you really and truly feel that seeing them would make you both miserable, you get to decide what’s best for you and cancel.

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But you and your husband need to be on the same page, so I would just suggest that you check in with him to make sure you understand how he feels and how it would affect him to cut off his parents completely. As much as their remarks hurt him, that’s a big decision and you don’t want your efforts to protect him from criticism to lead to another kind of pain.

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Q. Disappearing act: I am a 14-year-old, 5-foot-5, 100-pound girl. I eat three meals a day, plus snacks, and eat until I am full, and yet have barely gained any weight for three years. I have struggled with weight for my whole life, going from a very underweight child to a mildly overweight tween, and I finally feel healthy and happy in my body. Yes, I am underweight, but I don’t see the issue (everybody is different).

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Until recently that is, when my family approached me with an “intervention,” telling me that they believe I have an eating disorder. Prudie, I am underweight and skinny for my age, but I am also extremely small-boned and run a mile every day. How can I handle this? I don’t believe I have an eating disorder, but they constantly say I’m getting too skinny and that I’m “disappearing” on them. Eating disorders do run in the family, but only because of pressure to be skinny, while I believe that anybody is fine as long as you are happy and healthy. What should I do? I can’t deal with these constant comments.

A: Why don’t you suggest to your parents that, as a first step, you put aside the question of whether you have an eating disorder and investigate whether there’s anything physical going on with you that needs attention. Go to your family doctor together and explain that you haven’t gained any weight for a year and want to look into whether there may be an underlying medical issue. If all of the numbers other than the one on the scale look good, that should bring some comfort to your family and strengthen your case that you’re just fine.

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You could even agree to see a therapist or counselor too. This might satisfy your parents’ demand for addressing what they see as an issue, while giving you support around feeling misunderstood and attacked. When you go, be honest—especially about topics like why you feel you need to run a mile every day. And keep an open mind about the possibility that there may really be a few things about your relationship with food and exercise that aren’t as healthy as they could be. Considering your family history, this wouldn’t be shocking—and keep in mind that there is a lot of room between “normal relationship to your body” and “eating disorder.” So even if you don’t have a serious problem now, perhaps there are some techniques that could keep you from going down the disordered eating path and make you feel even better about yourself. Either way, it might be a good opportunity to start to be proactive about caring for your mental health and learn how to navigate challenging relationships.

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Q. An insecure hopeless romantic: So I’ve matched with this guy on a dating app. We exchanged a few messages back and forth and the conversation was great. I was the last one to message him and I haven’t heard back. It’s been two weeks. I think he’s really cute and I want to get to know him. Do I ask him out now or just move on with my life?

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A: You have nothing to lose, so go ahead and ask him out. But do it with very low expectations. If you haven’t heard back, it’s probably for a reason—either a lack of interest on his part or another relationship. Remember that we have no idea what other people have going on, so if this doesn’t work out, be ready to move on to the next match without taking it too personally.

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Q. Re: Stuck with mom: Short term, I’d go into either individual or family therapy (preferably both) to work out some ground rules regarding her tantrums and behavior. What she’s doing is unacceptable. Longer term, I would try to figure out how to pay for day care and either refinance the home or sell it and get two smaller ones, one for you and one for her. Your mistake was in not having a formal, written agreement with her. I know that sounds like a lawyer’s response (guilty as charged), but unless your expectations and obligations are clearly spelled out, this is often what happens.

A: This sounds like a good plan, if it works out financially. The only thing that makes me hesitate is that as the mother gets older and needs more care, her living independently might prove to be even more stressful than having her under the letter writer’s roof. I would hate to see this person have to drive across town every day to deal with many of the same behaviors that are bothering her now. But maybe there are options like an assisted living facility or hiring help when it gets to that point.

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Q. Re: Pulling off the Band-Aid: Why does your husband’s family know so much about what’s going on in your lives? I suggest you limit conversation to prosaic things, like gardening, weather, stuff like that. There is no need to tell them about colleges, investments, travel—all the things they criticize. Maintain a polite, icy distance with them. This will be a valuable lesson for your kids too.

A: Great point. I also vote for giving them much less information.

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Classic Prudie

My husband and I have been married six months. All is well and we have no real complaints. But he does have this annoying little trait that I am wondering if I am just being nitpicky or if I actually have ground to stand on. I will accept whatever decision you put forth. My husband is Southern and calls every woman sweetheart or sweetie. This only happened a few times when dating to an occasional waitress, but now I see that he does it with longtime friends, other men’s wives, and co-workers. It grates me that he does this and doesn’t even give me a different pet name. I ask him to stop but he says that’s how he’s been his whole life. Is this a marriage compromise that I should just let go?

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