couples

'When my boyfriend asked me to marry him, his mum burst into tears. It explained a whole lot.'

Warning: This post deals with abortion and may be triggering for some readers.

When you’re young, possibly in love, and wanting to get married, it’s so easy to think that it’s okay if there are issues with your partner’s family. You’re not marrying their family, right?

But reality is a lot more complicated. You might not be marrying their family members, but you’re certainly inheriting those relatives. If issues should arise between you and your partner’s parents, a lot will be riding upon the way your partner responds to that. And if you have a problem with their response somewhere along the way, that can spell trouble for your entire relationship.

It took me a long time to understand this. We might joke about “monster‐in-laws,” but a lifetime of bad behaviour from your in-laws is hardly funny. It’s even less funny when your spouse doesn’t support you for fear of pissing off their family.

I saw this with my first husband, who wound up using me as a scapegoat to avoid dealing with the issues between him and his mother. After our divorce, however, I knew I wanted to avoid dysfunctional family dynamics in the future.

Of course, I wasn’t always good at it.

Mamamia Confessions: The worst thing I said to my mother-in-law. Post continues below. 

Video by MMC

In my mid-twenties, I think it’s safe to say that I was desperate for love. My shortlived marriage and divorce left me feeling aimless and untethered, in a negative way.

I longed for family and connection, something I thought I had to get from a man.

In those days, I attended a messianic church on Saturdays to help feed that hunger in me. I also worked hard to lose the more than 45kgs that I’d gained during that unhappy and unconsummated marriage. I was working so hard on myself, but I was frustrated in love.

I struggled to meet anyone who was good for me.

One autumn when I was feeling particularly at the end of my rope, my friend brought her brother to church. He’d been living an hour or two away at university, and I’d never met him before.

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We got along well enough, and before too long, he was asking to date me.

In the back of my mind, I think I always knew it was a doomed relationship. But I entered it anyway, perhaps hoping I was wrong.

I wasn’t.

This boyfriend was a few years younger than me, and socially awkward. I didn’t realise the extent of his awkwardness until we’d been dating for a few months. It gradually occurred to me that I wasn’t comfortable bringing him around to events with friends because I didn’t know what he would say.

Often, he’d say something that both shocked and embarrassed me. If we went shopping and a cashier asked him how his day was, he’d hold up the line to tell them exactly how crummy things had been going. Or what he hoped might improve.

In front of my work friends, he’d speak up like something of a know-it-all, except that it was usually obvious he didn’t know what he was talking about. I’d try to gently explain something but then he’d interrupt me to say he knew what I meant and once again make a completely off-base assumption.

It was easier not to invite him along at all, but even when we were one on one, he had a knack for sticking his foot in his mouth. Early on in our relationship, I had to explain to him that it was rude to bring up my makeup like he often did (What’s on your face? Um, glitter eyeshadow).

Likewise, he didn’t understand why it was so bad to spend a lot of time telling me what he really liked about my girlfriends’ appearances, particularly after being so disparaging about my features.

His dating skills were so bad that I told myself early on that our relationship would have to be shortlived. But it wasn’t. The truth is that he improved in many ways, and eventually, we had a lot of fun together.

So, I just… coasted.

Neither he nor I had too many friends, so, it was hard to end a bad relationship when it also felt like the only good thing in my life.

When we first began dating, his sister (my friend) seemed to object. At first, I was hurt because I thought she was saying I wasn’t good enough for her family. But eventually, she cleared the air and said she was worried about her brother hurting me.

In hindsight, I think I understand what she was getting at. But at the time she didn’t elaborate and I didn’t understand.

toxic mother in law
"His dating skills were so bad that I told myself early on that our relationship would have to be shortlived." Image: Getty.
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It seems like a lifetime ago, but I didn’t know how I felt about sex back then. A big reason my previous marriage didn’t work out was because we could never have penetrative sex, and we didn’t know how to handle a problem like that in our evangelical Christian setting.

But dating my friend’s brother in the years after my divorce came with other problems. We were still in a conservative Christian environment where sex outside of marriage was deeply frowned upon. Yet my new boyfriend was also a self-described “horn dog.” He wanted a sexual relationship and didn’t care what other people thought about it. I was still torn and worried about the whole “going to hell” thing.

I wasn’t happy or comfortable with our relationship, but I still thought it was better than being alone. So, I let myself be pressured about sex even though I was a grown woman who should have been making her own choices about her body.

It’s not like I’m the first or last woman who’s made the poor choice to date somebody who (despite being age-appropriate) makes her feel like she’s dating a teenage boy. I was still suffering from vaginismus back then and I didn’t like the way he pressured me to have sex when I was uncertain. I’d been lucky enough to avoid those sorts of relationships in high school but my twenties were another story. Men who acted like blue balled boys, behaving as if women owed them sex.

I should have known better, but in so many ways it just seemed… normal. In all my years of conservative Christian sex education, there was this underlying message that all men were horn dogs, but they couldn’t help it. Worse yet, it seemed to fall on every woman’s shoulder whether a man was satisfied or depraved.

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In those days, no matter how much pressure I felt from a date, it felt like I was to blame. As a woman, I was a sexual instigator simply by being alive.

So, I kept dating my friend’s brother, even when he pressured me sexually, or made me feel gross about sex. I didn’t like it, but I also thought it was standard.

The sex was pretty much always uncomfortable and unfulfilling for me. I wanted to feel good about it, and I wanted to “get over” my vaginismus, which made full penetration impossible. We muddled our way through the act with me holding onto the base of his penis to prevent it from going too far.

Despite my uncertainty back then about whether or not our actions actually “counted” as sex, I got pregnant in 2007, shortly after we began dating and having shallow intercourse.

It seemed like a terrible joke. Pregnant by the relationship I knew wouldn’t last. Of course, we were still in a conservative Christian bubble where premarital sex was wrong, abortion was wrong, and there was no safe space to talk about sex or pregnancy.

Although I felt like I had to have an abortion, I was very torn up about it. When I talked to my boyfriend about possibly continuing the pregnancy, he was quick to remind me that my mother would kill me for getting pregnant in the first place.

After a bit of back and forth, it occurred to me that I really didn’t want him to be my child’s father. He wasn’t stepping up to help; he just wanted to make sure I had the abortion. Then I realised I didn’t want my father to be involved in my kid’s life either.

When I went in for the abortion, I found out that the pregnancy didn’t appear to be viable. They said it looked like an empty sac, and completed a D&C. My feelings about the whole thing were complicated, but ultimately, it was good that I didn’t become a mother at 25. I wasn’t ready.

To my horror, however, my boyfriend wanted to talk about a future with lots of children and act like nothing happened. I needed time to heal and sort out my emotions. He didn’t get that, and I think we were on different pages for the duration of our relationship.

After the abortion, I felt very brittle, almost bitter inside. I don’t believe in post-abortion trauma, but I discovered that abortion can certainly become traumatic when you live in a culture that requires you to hide it. My boyfriend didn’t mind hiding the abortion from his family, because it wasn’t a big deal for him. It was a big f*cking deal to me because I had grown up internalising so many negative messages about sex, my body, and motherhood.

It was a relationship which I never expected to last long, yet I stayed in it for five years. It’s hard to believe how quickly complacency grows when you’re sharing your life with someone whom you know isn’t right for you (and vice versa).

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After five years, to the outside world, I should have been happy. I always wanted to be a part of a family, and his family was kind to me. During that same time frame, my mother was too depressed to spend any holidays with me because she was separated from her grandkids (my nieces and nephew).

Staying with my boyfriend meant that I had a place to go for Christmas. Even Mother’s Day. And while I didn’t always feel comfortable with his parents and their particular quirks, there was a certain sense of ease that made it hard to leave the bubble.

Of course, staying with my boyfriend also meant that everybody expected us to stay together… forever. Nobody knew the beginning of our relationship had this weird trauma with the abortion. Nobody knew that I had all this pent up resentment about the way he handled things.

Mamamia’s award-winning podcast The Split discusses the difference between a healthy relationship and an unhealthy one. Post continues below.

I didn’t even know why I still had resentment after so much time. Part of me actually agreed that we should go ahead and get married. So, when he suggested we look at rings, I said okay.

The ring I picked out was inexpensive and ideal for me. A pink pearl because diamonds are overrated and not in line with my values.

He didn’t actually propose though. Just bought the ring, gave it to me and expected us to set the date.

After my boyfriend gave me the ring, we went back to his family’s house and watched a movie with his sister. She spilled the beans to his mum that night, and their mother cried. They weren’t exactly happy tears, nor completely ugly ones either.

The truth is that she cried because she couldn’t stand the thought of her baby boy growing up and leaving home. You see, his mother had many lovely qualities, but she was in certain ways, a very possessive parent.

Over the years, I watched my might-be mother-in-law throw a number of tantrums. She once threw a fit because nobody in town served frosting-filled doughnuts like Krispy Kreme… about a year after all of the local Krispy Kreme locations closed up shop. And I frequently found myself stuck in a vehicle with her frazzled outbursts which led to her making poor driving decisions like illegal U-turns or going the wrong way down a one-way street.

I was more or less used to his mother’s outbursts, and sometimes they were very educational. When we all watched Disney’s Tangled together, my boyfriend’s mum got into a heated debate with her daughter about Rapunzel disobeying Mother Gothel. Despite the fact that Mother Gothel is a witch who literally kidnaps Rapunzel as a baby and locks her in a tower all so the witch can stay forever young, that’s the character his mother most identified with.

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It explained a whole lot.

When my boyfriend’s, er, fiance’s mother began crying about our engagement, she made the news all about her. How she couldn’t stand to think about her son growing up and no longer needing her anymore.

Ironically, her tears were just the wakeup call I needed. She reminded me that if I kept going down the path I was on, I was going to be in this family. And I’d have to live with that certain discomfort for the rest of my life.

It wasn’t just wrong for me, it was wrong for him. And wrong for his family.

It was just… wrong.

Ending that engagement was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Here I thought it was so damn obvious that we weren’t well-suited for each other. We wanted different things, and I was finally ready to start going after the life I wanted.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t obvious to everyone. He tried to get me to change my mind. His family tried to get me to change my mind.

Everybody thought it was just some misunderstanding. Like we could simply work things out and get back on the marriage track. In reality, though, any “misunderstanding” between us ran way too deep.

The relationship never felt right, and I knew that staying together was just prolonging the selfishness that left me so scared to be alone.

She doesn’t know it, but that mother helped us all dodge a bullet when she cried about our engagement. I was a bad wife once and really didn’t need to enter another failed marriage. I only wish I’d come to my senses a lot sooner.

The good news, though, is that whenever you do finally come to your senses, there’s usually a lot of lessons to glean. If you’re honest with yourself, of course.

Five years is a long time to overstay a relationship, but I’m far from the only one to do it. And I learned to never go there again.

It also confirmed for me the importance of never getting into another relationship where there’s too much drama with the person’s family. Some folks might be built for that but I’m not. Instead of cracking jokes about mothers-in-law, I’d much rather be joking with my MIL, if I ever do get married again.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished with full permission. For more from Shannon Ashley, you can find her here.

Feature Image: Getty.

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