Dear Margo: Tis the Season To Give Peace a Fighting Chance

Margo Howard’s advice

Tis the Season To Give Peace a Fighting Chance

Dear Margo: I need some relationship calibration heading into the holidays. A year ago, my f-i-l (“Sam”) left my m-i-l (“Abby”) after 43 years. Things have always been tense around her. Sam frequently diffused the situation, and the kids learned to “just shut up and do what Mom says.” As a newcomer to the family, I attempted my usual direct style of communication, but was told to knock it off. After 10 years, I assimilated and played along.

Although Sam had spent more than half of the past six years living on a different coast, Abby was completely shocked when he finally left her. She was devastated and went into what I can only describe as a psychotic depression: strange emails and phone calls to her children, threatening to hurt or kill herself, calling my husband by his father’s name, accusing him of physically assaulting her at a family function, and destroying all the family portraits. Several days after a particularly hostile conversation with my husband, I confronted her about her recent outbursts and said I didn’t feel comfortable with her around our daughter given the way she had been behaving. She said I should mind my own business and that I can’t accept that she’s getting better.

She has since informed my husband that she has no intention of interacting with me until I apologize for my “egregious and abusive” email. She wants to see only him and my daughter. Hubby says she can’t pick and choose which parts of his family she wants to see. Now she’s threatening to sue for visitation rights. He repeats the same message.

We have told my daughter that her grandmother is hurting badly because of the divorce, and that we’re giving Grandma some space to heal. Our daughter hasn’t seen her grandmother in almost a year. I know she misses her, but I fear that person no longer exists. I am beginning to feel some pressure from my husband as the holidays near. “We should to invite her to…” What should I say to my husband? — Feeling Like a Holiday Pressure Cooker

Dear Feel: Agreed, your m-i-l is clearly not wrapped real tight. Because her son, your husband, wants to test the waters again, go along with it. But if she aggresses in your direction, do not respond. Just get your coat and exit stage left. If, however, she behaves, give peace a chance. If she goes after you, you will have powerful ammunition to lop off the relationship. Margo, carefully

A Delicate Subject and How To Respond

Dear Margo: My cousin recently came out to the family. This wasn’t really a surprise, because we guessed as much. I have no problem with it, as I believe this is something that’s not a choice. My question is: What is an appropriate response? “Congratulations!” doesn’t seem right, but neither does “Oh, we’ve known for awhile” or “It’s about time.”

I muttered something awkwardly, but I wish I’d said something more eloquent that expressed how I love him, no matter what, and that I’m glad he wanted to share this with us. Can you help me with a good response to a friend or family member who comes out the next time? — Wanting To Say the Right Thing

Dear Want: You know, whatever you say that’s supportive is fine. I have a girlfriend who, when her son came out, did say: “Ta-da! I’ve known for quite some time.” With certain relationships, “Congratulations on coming out” would be fine.

If you want a do-over with this cousin, you might drop him a note saying what you wrote to me at the end of your letter. My all-purpose response when someone tells me s/he is gay is to say, “I hope there’s someone wonderful in your life — or that there will be.” — Margo, supportively

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Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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48 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    LW#1:  It sounds like things have never been good between you and your mother-in-law.  Her behavior does sound extreme in response to the divorce.  However, if you husband wants to give it another try, I agree with Margo that giving her another chance…as a united family…may be worthwhile.  Of course, if she cannot control her aggression towards you, you can sever the relationship with a clear conscience.  But its interesting that none of the examples you cite indicate aggression towards you until you *confronted* her and told her you didn’t want her to see your daughter.   Perhaps you should prepare for this *reunion* by telling yourself not to throw gasoline onto the fire by *confronting* her in your  *usual direct manner.*

    LW#2:  I suspect that anyone coming out will be happy to be given a hug and a *thank you for sharing*, *congragulations* or even *I always knew* because he or she will be so relieved not to receive a shocked or negative reaction to their news.      

    • avatar Messy ONE says:

      I think you missed part of the letter. The MIL had been sending weird and hostile e-mails, calling the LW’s husband by her ex’s name and generally behaving like a nut for quite awhile before the LW had had enough. She was far more patient than I would have been – I would have called MIL on her behavior a LOT earlier.

      While I’m willing to grant that they should give MIL another chance, it should be at a restaurant or someone else’s home so that if it becomes necessary to leave quickly, they can do it rather than try and shuffle the crazy lady out of their home.

      • avatar Katharine Gray says:

        No, I did not miss part of the letter.  None of the examples indicate the MIL’s aggressive behavior toward the letter writer…only her own children.  I’m with Mayma on this one.  The woman is exhibiting signs of mental illness and should be treated as such and not provoked.  Obviously, I wouldn’t ask her to babysit my child and would closely monitor her interactions with my child but confronting her with punishment instead of urging her to seek some medical or psychiatric help does nothing to improve the situation although it probably did make the letter writer feel righteous.  And what is the harm in allowing her husband to spend time with his mother on his own…unless the letter writer’s purpose is to punish the MIL (which I strongly suspect is her goal)? 

        • avatar Ariana says:

          It wasn’t that the LW is trying to prevent the mother from spending time with the son, but the fact that daughter would also be present. The mother says: I do not want my daughter around you while you’re acting erractically.
          I think she has the right to keep her daughter away if she’s concerned that the grandmother will also start acting erractically towards the granddaughter. What if grandmother then starts unloading on the child and saying she wants to kill herself? I wouldn’t risk exposing my daughter to that, blood relation or not until the grandmother has had enough time to heal after the divorce.

        • avatar Messy ONE says:

          It’s not unreasonable at all to tell the MIL that she doesn’t get to be around a child (because it’s stupid to expose your child to crazed people) until she’s had some help and is acting rationally. I wouldn’t let a kid near that woman with a barge pole at the moment.

          Thankfully, the LW’s husband is a sensible sort and is at least trying to make it clear to his mother that he and his wife and child are a FAMILY, and that they are a unit. You don’t get to invite half a couple to a wedding, and you certainly don’t get to dictate to your child that his wife (who he lives with) can’t come to a family event.

          No one is “punishing” the MIL. MIL is behaving badly. To cave in to her irrational demands is rewarding her for abuse. Abuse should NEVER be rewarded. MIL is the one with the problem, so MIL has to be the one to fix herself. She is the only one responsible for her actions.

        • avatar BeanCounter says:

          You have absolutely no idea if this is a mental illness.  Why, pray tell, did you not assume that this is related to over-medicating herself or some other illegal non-prescription drug?  Why is it a mental illness to be treaded around lightly?   This only started happening after a traumatic event, and thus….is probably drugs or alcohol related.   sorry, but I completely disagree.

        • avatar wendykh says:

          Mental illness or not the first priority is to keep oneself and children safe. If MIL is having mental illness problems she needs to be responsible and get it treated; not just visit her illness on others!

  2. avatar mayma says:

    LW1 — You have mental illness confused with jerk-ish behavior. Excuses for plain ol’ selfishness are thrown around too quickly in my book, but in this case she sounds truly ill. I wouldn’t bother “confronting” a sick person or punishing them for “bad” behavior. There are tons of books around on how to deal with mentally ill people; maybe you and your spouse could read one.

    LW2 — “I wish I’d said something more eloquent that expressed how I love him, no matter what, and that I’m glad he wanted to share this with us.”
    Why don’t you just say that? — except for the “no matter what” part, which sounds a bit patronizing to my ear.

  3. avatar David Bolton says:

    LW1: I would meet somewhere with her in a calm setting together—and then individually before I would “invite” her to anything. This will give you an idea of the dynamic that will play out if either of you are alone with her. I would wait to involve the granddaughter in any capacity.

    LW2: “I’m very happy for you. Have you found someone special?” will do the trick nicely (pun intended).

    • avatar KailD says:

      Maybe it’s because I haven’t had my coffee yet, but what is the pun?

      • avatar Ariana says:

        LOL I was wondering the same thing, but I thought I just wasn’t getting something.

        • avatar David Bolton says:

          We’ll wait and see if that Nair do well (pun intended) R Scott gets it.

          • avatar butterfly55 says:

            I was assuming (not trying for a pun) the “trick” was the pun, now I’m not sure since everyone is questioning the statement.

          • avatar Kriss says:

            I’m aware of “trick” being a slang term having to do w/ prostitution but does it also some sort of slang term in re: to homosexuality?

          • avatar Toni Jean says:

            Trick doesn’t necessarily mean prostitution. It is far more frequently used now to indicate a sexual interlude and that was david’s intended pun. (it was not his most fabulous Bon Mot) but the effort is appreciated!

          • avatar JCF4612 says:

            David … I got it, and laughed.  

    • avatar R Scott says:

      David -LOL  Yep. “No, no one special. Just lots of fun tricks for now”.   Oh I miss those days…….

      Trick = One night (if it lasts that long) stand.   

  4. avatar Belinda Joy says:

    Letter #2 – I think we all have been through this because I happen to believe there is someone Gay in every family. I have had to confront this realization on many occasions and my standard response is “There is nothing better than living an open and authentic life…..good for you”

    Letter #1 – The son (husband) has every right to see his mother and allow the letter writer’s daughter to see her grandmother. Holidays or not. This letter writer needs to stay as far away from the MIL as possible, it isn’t necessary that she be present when they get together. She should tell her husband that she would prefer not to be there when they meet up for obvious reasons, and go her separate way. I get the sense she is far from being the innocent party in all this family drama. Best to let the husband deal with this issue on his own.

    • avatar Ariana says:

      LW#1: Great response.

      LW#2: I too believe that the son should be able to see his mother and that DIL doesn’t need to be present. But I disagree about involving the granddaughter so soon. Since the GM has a history of acting hostile and threatening suicide to her own kids, why would anyone want to expose the granddaughter to that? Wait until grandmother has had more time for healing. Just the fact that it’s the holidays wouldn’t decide that for me, but rather what is the state of grandmother’s mental health.

    • avatar Messy ONE says:

      Absolutely not. You are dead wrong. The husband has already made it clear to his mother that she is not permitted to split up his family. That is the way it should be for ALL couples. You accept both or none.

      Besides, the MIL is being rotten to everyone, not just the LW. The LW is the parent of a small child and has decided that her child will not be permitted contact with a crazy person until the crazy person deals with her nonsense. Perfectly sensible.

      I reiterate – the adults can meet away from both homes without the child. If MIL can’t keep it buttoned, then the LW and her family should leave, secure in the knowledge that MIL can’t be trusted around any child at the moment.

      • avatar Toni Jean says:

        You are completely on the money.

      • avatar phrugall says:

        As always, Messy, you make a lot of sense.  Crazy or not, this woman has found that crazy behavior lets her get her own way.  It’s not necessary for LW to buy into her drama, or to let her child be exposed to it.

  5. avatar Kathy says:

    Although the mother in-law sounds like a real piece of work, LW1 is unfairly holding her granddaughter hostage.  It sounds like when her husband abandoned her after 43 years, she went off the deep end.  How many letters have we seen from the wife in those cases?  She sent some bizarre e mails, got names confused, and imagined slights that didn’t occur.  The writer even says MIL is likely depressed.  So what does she do?  Keep her granddaughter from her for no reason other than LW1 apparently isn’t having the impact on this situation that she is accustomed to having (i.e., “my usual direct style”).  I feel sorry for the grandchild to be caught in the middle of two such strong-willed and selfish women.

    • avatar Artemesia says:

      This grandmother is dangerous on many levels to the granddaughter. If I were this mother she would not be seeing grandma without mom present.

      And I agree that getting together in a public place — perhaps a museum or a restaurant is the right idea to test the waters.

      And whether the MIL is mentally ill or not, children should be protected from jerks and crazy people.

      • avatar wendykh says:

        Where do we get this idea grandparents have some inherent right to be part of the grandchild’s life? They don’t. They are the parents of the adult (presumably?) parents. That is all. Sorry but no one has a “right” to be part of my child’s life other than myself and her father unless we decide they do. And if you’re a toxic freak, or disrespectful of us as parents, guess what? You don’t get to. Simple as that.

  6. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #1: Guess I got off really lucky in the Mom-In-Law Department. What is it with all these screwball M-I-Ls? I know being a woman can be very difficult, but gosh. Unless it’s clinical, do these gals NOT want to be taken care of in old age? Act like a major horse’s patoot and guess who will be glad to dump you into the nearest nursing home? Duh.

    L #2: I have gay friends, but all were already out when I met them. Not sure how exactly to respond to an *announcement*; a friendly response should suffice.

  7. avatar Ariana says:

    LW#1: That letter gives me the creeps because it directly describes all the behavior that my BF’s ex exhibited when they broke up. We started dating soon after, so all of a sudden she started harassing me. She constantly called my work and would hang-up (we had to contact the phone company to see who it was), she sent sexually explicit postcards that were supposedly sent by my BF to my work, sent anonymous letters to my BF stating that I had STDs. She burned all of his photography slides out of revenge, told him that he wasn’t to come to any event where she would be present, banned him from letting him see his sons if I was in the vicinity even though they are adults, and sent mails with “I can’t go on living without you” up to 4 years after the breakup.

    Break-ups turn some people into loons. I even asked my BF why he was involved with a crazy person like that. He said she’d never exhibited any behavior like that in the 12 years they were together. 

    But whether you put it down to being a jerk, mental illness, or temporary insanity, it’s not a risk I would take exposing my granddaughter to. If the husband wants to reach out to his mom he can do so, but I would wait before introducing the granddaughter into the picture again until she has been proved to be back in a healthy state of mind. It may never happen, but if there is a risk of her acting unpredictably around your daughter, it’s not worth the risk. That’s a family tragedy asking to happen.

  8. avatar wlaccma says:

    I know my nephew is gay but is never coming out as long as my brother and sister-in-law are alive. They are evangelicals and would never accept him. I feel so sorry for him. He is living with a women and I hope he does not marry her as many gay men do to cover up. On the other hand my niece, from a different family, is dating a gay man. Everyone has told her he is gay and she has caught him with men but she is of the idea I guess that “any man is better than no man.” I love what Steve Corbett said on his show. “We have stopped trying to change left-handed people to right handed so let’s stop trying to change gay people.”

  9. avatar susan hiland says:

    LW2: I would call your cousin and tell them how proud you are of him/her, it took a lot of courage to come forward and tell the family. I would say I was sorry I didn’t respond more positively but you were a bit surprised but you understand that was probably one of the most frightening moments in there life and are glad they felt they could share something so important with you. Wish them a happy, healthy relationship and then let them talk. Knowing that a family member supports your life makes such a huge difference. I might not be a lesbian but I have had my share of BS from my parents over my husband I had one freaking cousin show me some support everyone else has dropped me like a hot potato because of the lies my mother has spread about us.

  10. avatar jennaA says:

    LW1: Unfortunately there is no reasoning with the unreasonable. However, if she really has changed the only way to find out for sure is to do a trial run. I hope for all their sakes that she has healed enough from the divorce to have stable relationships with her family. 


  11. avatar lebucher says:

    LW#1:  No way would I allow an unstable person around my kids (if I had them).  ‘Nuff said.

    • avatar luna midden says:

      As another poster said-do it -the meeting in a restaurant. I would do it BEFORE THE HOLIDAYS-because the Holidays puts STRESS on ALOT OF PEOPLE. And why ruin EVERYONES HOLIDAY if Mommy Dearest goes off th deep end? They should have ALREADY done the ‘OUT TO DINNER’… but, since they haven’t… do it next weekend.. and take it from there. 

      The first thing though, is to PROTECT THE LW’S DAUGHTER and other Children. They should not be exposed to someone who is MENTALLY ILL OR SOMEONE ABUSING DRUGS/ALCOHOL. Which is what the lw is dealing with-a MIL who is either mentally ill and/or abusing drugs/alcohol. 

      I see that a few posters have said ‘it is up to the MIL to change, etc. MENTALLY ILL PERSONS-alot of them, they do not know, at least in the beginning, that they have problems. (look at all the people who suffer from depression-many have to be diagnosed by their Drs… and while Mommy Dearest might be depressed, she definitely has alot of other problems). MIL does not SEE HERSELF AS WITH PROBLEMS, and it did not help, if as the LW said, the ‘children’ YES’D HER and went along with what ever she said forever. MIL will not ADMIT she is ill, and GOODLUCK getting her to a DR. LW WILL have to get her supportive husband to OPEN HIS EYES (and his siblings, again, goodluck with that) that his MOTHER is a danger to others, and HERSELF. Than, maybe, according to the laws of the state they are in, with a Dr. Drs. she can be admitted to a hospital to be observed for 48 (?) hours for a diagnosis. But, the laws went into reverse since the 60s since when people who shouldn’t have been locked up in institutions, were, and for along time…..and I know, it is to keep people from throwing in ‘relatives, people, they just don’t like, but unfortunately, there are people, people like this MIL-if the LW is being straight with us, that really need help, observation to see what is going on in THEIR MINDS!!!

      Sorry for going on and on… just thinking back to the 90s and working in NYC.. and those on corners, Penn Station, that really needed help and weren’t getting it. 

      Anyhoo… it is sad when a child does not have a grandparent anymore, or can’t see them, but it is far better for the child to remember them in a GOOD LIGHT.. If MIL goes off on people, who knows when the Girl will be a target and believe me, if MIL gets back to seeing them, one day, the girl will say something innocent, but MIL will take it wrong… and THEN…………..             

      • avatar Toni Jean says:

        Why all the SHOUTING?

      • avatar wendykh says:

        I disagree. There are plenty of people, bipolar IIs especially, who finally go in and get help because enough people say “I am not putting up with your BS anymore, you’re acting like a complete screwball, get yourself in for an assessment NOW.” They resist at first, but eventually enough people say it and deep in their souls they know this isn’t normal. And then they go.

  12. avatar Grace OMalley says:

    Excellent advice on both counts!  Outta the park today Margo!

  13. avatar Jean B says:

    My two cents on the first letter. MIL was unstable well before the divorce. Things were always tense around her? The kids learned to shut up and just do whatever mom said? Dad was always trying to smooth things over with her? The divorce just gave her more reason to act like the loon she is. MIL needs professional help, NOW! No, make that decades ago. For all those years before the divorce the father and kids (not that they could help it as kids) were enablers to MIL, time to stop being enablers and force her to see the truth and get professional help. In the meantime, do not allow this young child to be traumatized by her grandmother, the damage that would be done to the child is not worth it. If grandma wants to see her family she needs to be the one to learn to get along rather than everyone else bending to her will.

    • avatar Messy ONE says:

      The MIL wasn’t “mentally ill” before the split, she was a controlling jerk who got her jollies by howling and growling until everyone obeyed her just to shut her up. That is NOT mental illness, that’s what we call a “character flaw”.

      Diagnosing this woman is utter nonsense. A jerk is a jerk is a jerk and while it might make some people feel better to think that she couldn’t help herself because she was “sick” for all those years, that’s their issue. Not hers. Believe me, if she were a man and had been controlling a wife and kids that way, you and everyone else who’s trying to excuse her would be out for blood.

      Is she ill now? Maybe. But depression is NOT “crazy”. Adding angst over her divorce to her previous nastiness just made it harder for her to hide it. Now this lady is no spring chicken and she should probably go to her doctor for a checkup, but in the meantime, she should not be permitted to have any influence over anyone’s life but her own.

      When you are an adult, people can only abuse you with your permission. The LW has chosen not to jump on that crazy train, her husband agrees with her, and they both understand that permitting MIL to rain her nuttiness on a child is wrong. Perfectly sensible.

      • avatar Toni Jean says:

        I am applauding your comment! Manipulative and selfish isn’t a medical condition.

        • avatar Diagoras says:

          Not true. The DSM lists four personality disorders: anti-social personality disorder (basically, sociopaths), narcissistic, histrionic and borderline. If you read the symptoms, they are full of character flaws. None of those people are nice people. They are all manipulative and selfish – that’s what a personality disorder is! Unfortunately, we haven’t found a good way to deal with personality disorders.

      • avatar wendykh says:

        Even if she is a manipulative selfish cow, that’s usually borne out of some sort of trauma or issue from childhood or young adulthood. A good therapist can help work through that. Get help. Jackholism can indeed be treated, if the person wants to change. And if they’re given incentive –“NO ONE WANTS TO BE NEAR YOU because you’re such a BITCH” for example– it can move it even more quickly.

        • avatar Messy ONE says:

          It doesn’t matter. No one cares if her Mommy didn’t hug her enough or if she got teased on the playground. The ONLY thing that matters is what she’s doing NOW.

          Right this red-hot second, she is choosing to make her kids lives miserable. The LW needs to deal with this NOW. MIL needs to deal with her own issues. No one else is obligated to take the garbage she’s dishing out.

  14. avatar R Scott says:

    LW1 – Excellent advice. “…get your coat and exit stage left” is sound advice in many situations. No one needs to take abuse or agression in any setting regardless of who’s dishing it out. 

    LW2 – I wouldn’t even add anything about meeting someone special because not everyone does nor needs to (gay, straight or otherwise).  I would just say, “Cool. Thanks for letting me know. How are things going”?

  15. avatar JCF4612 says:

    1) So let’er sue. … Meanwhile, do test the waters to make your husband happy, but make sure hubbs and daughter are prepared for a hasty exit if and when MIL starts cranking up. I would not recommend that you overnight in her home. Have a hotel room for escape.

    2) Thank you, Margo, for providing just what I want to say, the next time such an occasion occurs.    

  16. avatar JCF4612 says:

    LW2) Sorry, I now realize the scenario would involve inviting her to your turf.  Am very wary of this … Why not try to meet on neutral ground somewhere, even if you’re all in a hotel?  

  17. avatar T says:

    LW#1 sounds like she has Borderline Personality Disorder (was married to one, and this sounds all so familiar). Don’t expect her to “come around”. Detaching and keeping your distance is the only solution. As for the granddaughter, better to not expose her to a toxic relationship.

  18. avatar LuckySeven says:

    Sigh. That would be “defused”, as in, to make something less volatile, not “diffused”, as in to scatter.