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Heavy Meddle: Help! My Stepmother Is Overstepping Her Bounds

Not only is she meddling in my life, but she’s trying to force her religious views on me as well. (porschelinn/flickr)
Not only is she meddling in my life, but she’s trying to force her religious views on me as well. (porschelinn/flickr)
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Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to advice@wbur.org. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

I’m an adult child of divorced parents. My parents separated four years ago, and the divorce was finalized two years ago. My dad is heavily involved in his church (which played a big part in the divorce — he put it before his family, and still does), and he remarried a year ago, to a woman who has also become involved in the church.

My new stepmother is far from the “wicked” stereotype. She is a very caring and kind woman. However, she is also pretty overbearing and tends to stick her nose where it doesn’t belong. My relationship with her is complex — out of my dad’s three children, she has had the most contact with me, because I lived with her and my dad up until recently. She seems to have latched onto me as a sort of surrogate child; she has two adult sons who don’t have much to do with her. From what I understand, their father kept them from her a great deal after they divorced, so she didn’t actually get to raise them. Also, she disapproves of the lifestyles that they both lead now — she’s very Christian, and they are not. For that matter, neither am I, mainly due to my experiences with my dad’s church and the role it played in my parents’ divorce. But I don’t feel that I can tell this to either my stepmom or my dad outright, because both of them are unable to view things from a point of view that’s not their own. So not only is my stepmom meddling with things in my life that she should just leave alone, but she’s trying to force her views on me as well.

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I’m really at a loss of what to do about this. On the one hand, I know that she means well, and I feel sympathy for her because of the situation with her own kids. On the other hand, I don’t need parenting from her, not only because I’m an adult and not her child, but because I already have a mother with whom I’m very close. Any advice you could give would be greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,
Frustrated and Torn

Dear Frustrated,

This is a tough situation. You’re well within your rights to express your true feelings toward your stepmother. In fact, it’s important for you to set boundaries with those who have a tendency to overstep them. But I get why you’re reluctant to drop the hammer. You sense that this woman is lonely and needy. She didn’t have as much contact with her own sons as she wanted to when they were growing up, and she’s managed to alienate them as adults. She no doubt sees you as the best available object of her maternal energy. What’s more, she’s your dad’s new wife and alienating her could put a strain on your relationship with him (though clearly his involvement with this church has already created some tension).

Still, becoming someone’s stepmother does not — repeat does not — give her the right to interfere with your life or impose her views on you. And you need to tell her so. You don’t have to say, “Hey lady, you’re not my mother. Butt the [bleep] out of my life and stop judging me.” Actually, you’re welcome to say that. You can scream it, even, if it will help you blow off steam.

But in dealing with this woman, who sounds both insecure and controlling, your best bet is to take a softer approach, something like: “I think it’s really sweet that you worry about me. And I know your advice comes from a place of love. But you need to recognize that I’m an adult. I can take care of myself. I also know my own mind. Just as I would never try to impose my views on you, I need you not to impose yours on me.”

it’s important for you to set boundaries with those who have a tendency to overstep them.

It may be that this woman won’t be able to hear you, that she’ll blow right through the red light. There’s a reason, after all, that her own sons won’t deal with her. But you have to be honest with her. You have to give her the chance to rise to the occasion and check her behavior.

This is especially important because, even if you limit your contact with her, you’re going to have to see her at family events, and when you want to visit your dad. So you need to set a precedent of being candid with her. Don’t complain about her to other people, or fall into passive-aggressive patterns. If she starts pulling the same stuff, nip it in the bud. Tell her, “You know, we already talked about this. I don’t like it when you overstep these boundaries. It makes me feel like you’re not respecting my autonomy.”

This is a grim association, but the line I keep thinking about is the one at the end of Flannery O’Connor’s wonderful short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The character being described is a grandmother who has a similar problem with keeping her mouth shut: “She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

I certainly hope it doesn’t come to that, Frustrated. But try to remember that your central obligation is to invest your energy in those relationships that make you feel respected and nourished, not disregarded and bullied.

Good luck,
Steve

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

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