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I’m a college student who’s a little chubby and doesn’t have perfect skin, but I’m able to look in the mirror and smile. Unfortunately, my mother doesn’t feel the same way about me. When I became a teenager she started telling me about the benefits of plastic surgery. I simply don't want to do it. I have tried explaining this, from polite statements, to tantrums, to cold indifference, with no effect. Once, when I was in high school, she told me she wanted me to come with her to visit my grandmother, but she pulled up to a plastic surgeon's office, where it turned out she had set up an appointment. It took my tears to convince the doctor that we were there without my consent. After we left, she refused to talk to me for a month. Now she constantly insists that men will not be interested in me because of my nose or other things. I’m going to a therapist, and it helps emotionally, but the therapist also doesn't see a way out. My father doesn't get involved in family issues and usually ends up saying if my mom wants something for me, it’s for my benefit. I'm going back home this summer. Next term, my face might not look how it does now! What can I do?
Your mother may be the progenitor of a new psychiatric illness: Instead of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, let’s call it Wildenstein syndrome by proxy. If your mother is such a fervent believer in the life-enhancing arts of plastic surgery, then she is free to offer herself up for a Joan Rivers look-alike contest. But it is abusive for her to harass and demean you over your looks, or to use subterfuge and emotional manipulation to try to get you to become the Barbie of her dreams. It says something remarkable about you that in the face of this endless disparagement of your face you’ve managed to stay strong and confident. I’m glad you’re seeing a therapist; it’s important to have a sympathetic person to unload to. But you should consider finding a therapist who takes a more active approach to helping you manage your parents. If you’re financially dependent on your parents, that complicates things, but it doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to extricate yourself from this oppressive situation. Unless you are committed to a summer job at home, run to your college placement office and see if there are positions that would give you room and board—maybe as a research assistant or a camp counselor. When you are at home, set firm ground rules. The first time your mother brings up surgery, tell her that no elective surgery can be performed without the patient’s consent. You don’t want to submit, so the discussion is ended. If she keeps pressing, get up and explain you will leave the room each time she talks about it. If she gives you the silent treatment, think of it as blessed relief from the lectures on rhinoplasty. And when you brush your teeth, continue to smile at your perfectly lovely face.
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My husband's parents divorced about two years ago, which was the same time we were getting engaged and then married. He’s in his early 30s, but the separation was still extremely upsetting for him. We learned his mom had been having an affair with a married man before the divorce. His dad was completely devastated and relied heavily on my husband for support. Supporting his dad took a real toll. Meanwhile, his mom was living it up and going to parties with her boyfriend. Now, wounds are healing, and my husband has returned to having a loving relationship with his mother. Before all this I had a pretty good relationship with her, too. But I've lost so much respect for her. We all live near each other, and I try to be pleasant, but inside I'm still a little bitter. Am I being ridiculous for holding onto this grudge? If so, how do I can let it go?
—Bitter and Strained
Be grateful you’re describing a happy ending to this mess. Many grown children whose parents have divorced go through life pressured by one parent to forever punish the other. It is not your mother-in-law’s fault that your father-in-law overstepped his bounds and turned his son into his confidant. Fortunately, it sounds as if that phase has passed, and, most importantly, your husband no longer feels he has to side with his father against his mother. In the years to come you will see versions of your in-laws’ drama played out among your friends. These marital misadventures will confirm just how messy, painful, and even silly life can be. While your husband continues to restore his relationship with his mother, focus on being cordial and enjoying her company. Having a good time with her will help blot out your mental images of her good times. If you someday have children, she will be their grandmother, and probably a devoted one. In that case you’ll realize despite her failings, you’re lucky to have her around.
I have been married to my husband for four years and have a wonderful, happy 7-year-old stepson. My issue stems from how his mother handles holidays and birthdays, and how my husband feels forced to compete. She and her family buy him numerous extravagant gifts starting the month before his birthday, and she tells us all the gifts he is getting and how much they cost. We live on limited means, and we buy one large present for his birthday. But even after my husband and I agree on one gift, he will go to the store and sneak another gift in. We have very young children together, and I don't want to be giving something to one that we can't provide for all. My stepson is not spoiled, but he is beginning to expect this kind of treatment. I know this will cause confusion with my other children when they are old enough to understand, and I’m not sure what to do.