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The Simplest Way To Deal With An Overbearing Mother-in-Law

Mama drama, guesting games and bathroom blues.
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Dear Lisa,

My mother-in-law has a habit of inviting herself over...constantly. When I say, "Today isn't convenient; please come tomorrow instead," she turns right around and calls my husband on his cell. He doesn't want her dropping in on us all the time anymore than I do, but she always manages to manipulate him into relenting. When I try to discuss it, he just shrugs and says, "You know how she is." How do I deal with a mother-in-law who won't take no for an answer?
  -- HELP, PLEASE!

Dear Mother Smothered,

I believe it was Abraham Lincoln who said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand up to a lot of unwanted mother-in-law visits." Of course I'm paraphrasing here, but you get the idea.

I've been lucky, as my mother-in-law and I have always had a lovely relationship. Is this because we're both delightfully easygoing? Is it the fact that she lives on another continent? Is it the way she doesn't speak a word of English and my German vocabulary consists of Volkswagen and strudel? Who's to say? All I can tell you is that it's working out great.

But given that you have not been blessed with a mother-in-law in a different time zone, here's the plan.

Step 1: Together you and your husband must sit his mother down and say, "Our jobs and our lives are getting increasingly complicated, but we certainly don't want to miss out on our time with you, so let's set a regular weekly date to catch up over a meal. We can do either every Wednesday at 7 or Sunday brunch."

Chances are she won't go down without a fight. She will guilt, she will steamroll, she will test the boundaries in the same fashion that a child who's accustomed to getting his own way does until he's finally told no by somebody who actually means it. If your husband can't stick to the program, then he should not be answering his cell phone. If she deckles to show up despite your telling her not to, then you must grab your coats, explain that you're just on your way out but you're really looking forward to dinner Wednesday, lock the front door behind you, jump into the car, wave bye-bye and take yourselves for a drive! This may sound dramatic, but your alternative is to become a mob-informant and join the witness protection program.

Step 2: Has it occurred to you that your mother-in-law might be lonely? Use her birthday, Valentine's Day, Saint Patrick's Day, April Fools' Day, Arbor Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Tuesday, virtually any excuse to treat her to a Chinese cooking class, French lessons, a lecture, a museum tour, anything filled with nice people who -- and this is crucial -- are not you. Look into a book club in her neighborhood, yoga for seniors, volunteer work with juniors, whatever might expand her horizons, increase her sense of purpose, refocus her interests onto something that -- and this is crucial -- is not you.

Step 3: Go easy on your husband. Of course his mom knows how to push all his buttons -- she's the one who installed them.

You see, my friend, at the end of the day, you've got two choices: You can answer your mother-in-law's neediness with compassion, her bullying with the clear message that this behavior won't be tolerated, her stubborn refusal to hear you with a promise not to let it affect your marriage. Or, you can smile, nod and keep repeating the words Volkswagen and strudel until she gives up and leaves the country.

Lisa Kogan is O's writer at large and the author of Someone Will Be with You Shortly: Notes from a Perfectly Imperfect Life. To ask Lisa a question, email AskLisa@Hearst.com

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