From Australia: My partner and I have been together now for 5 years. My partner comes from a divorced family and only really has his mum and brother as his family. His relationship with his mother can be quite volatile and they can argue and speak to each other with a lack of respect and love sometimes, something which I am not used to in relationships with family members.

His mother has never been welcoming to me, she will ignore me to the point she will not say hello or goodbye to me when we see her, she’ll ignore me at family dinners and won’t even acknowledge my presence. She’ll serve everyone at the table a drink except me and make it very obvious of her dislike for me. She has never tried to get to know me or take any interest in me.

It’s got to the point where I want to avoid any family gatherings as it’s really affecting my mental health. My partner says he just wants to try and make it work and try and have some sort of family but I’m not sure how much more I can put up with being treated like this for no reason.

I have never done anything to warrant her behaviour, she has been like this ever since I first met her. Me and my partner would love to start a family of our own but I am hesitant as I wouldn’t want my kids to be around such a toxic environment, I would want them to be part of a healthy loving extended family but if she is like this with me now, I don’t think she would be any different if I was the one to have her grandchildren.

My partner thinks everything will be ok but I don’t know if it can ever work if she refuses to even acknowledge or respect me? Would the problems just become worse if we had our own family together? I wouldn’t want to cause them to stop having a relationship with each other but I also wouldn’t want her acting this way in my home and with my kids and I wouldn’t put up with it. Right now I can ignore her behaviour to a point but with kids in the picture I wouldn’t put up with her treating them in any nasty way. I don’t know what to do!

A: This has been going on for 5 years? I think if it was going to change, it would have done so already. You are right to be concerned; especially if you are thinking about adding children to the situation. I doubt the mom’s treatment of you is about you personally.

It looks like your partner has accepted and participated in a relationship of disrespect. He is discouraged about changing it and is expecting you to join him in that discouragement.

You only have a few choices: You can accept the situation as is. You can try to have a discussion with your partner and mother about what you are and are not willing to accept. Or you can refuse to participate and absent yourself (and your children) from gatherings at his mother’s home.

To me, it’s always worth a try to change things. Start with your partner. Be as frank with him as you have been in your letter. If he doesn’t know how to talk to his mom, suggest that the two of you see a couples therapist, not because the two of you need therapy but because you need some help deciding how to best work towards changing the dynamics when you visit his mom. It’s likely that a therapist who can hear the whole story will have some insights into the mother’s behavior and can offer some suggestions for how to handle it.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie