Dear Family Advisor

Is it selfish to not want to move in with a boyfriend whose live-in mom is old and sick?

Last updated:

November 14, 2009

Fifteen years ago I had a romantic relationship overseas that my boyfriend ended abruptly because his mother threatened to commit suicide if he continued seeing me. (She even threatened to burn his motorcycle because I sat on it!)

I'm now in the U.S., and he's in Canada. He wants to rekindle our relationship, which I'd like. But his mother now lives with him. She's given her blessings to us, but after what we went through, I don't want to live in the same house as her. She's old and has health problems, and as an only child her son feels a heavy obligation to her. Am I being selfish?

No, you're not being selfish. You're at an important point in your relationship, a time when you still have a choice about whether to even pursue it. You know that this relationship has some issues, and I have my doubts that "mommy dearest" has had a total change of heart. Some in-laws act more like outlaws and can really damage your relationship and your self-esteem.

You need to make up your mind right now that no one, no one, is going to treat you badly or threaten you with bodily harm.

You can ask many a married woman what she'd do if she knew beforehand that her mother-in-law would butt in and cause such hurt. And they'd all probably tell you to set the situation straight from the start and not tolerate years of playing second fiddle.

Some adult children feel such an allegiance to their parents that they put their own lives on the back burner. This isn't a healthy mind-set. Of course we should honor our parents and make sure that they're safe and getting the proper level of care. But that doesn't mean allowing them to sabotage our lives.

First make a visit to decide if the situation is something you can live with. Stay in a hotel so you can have lots of privacy for some honest conversations. Observe how much his mother calls, interferes, and places demands on his time. Pay special attention to how she talks to him and to you. Imagine interacting with her every day. Would he expect for you to care for her as well? Is this something you can tolerate? Can you see yourself caring for her for the rest of her life? Has she really mellowed? Perhaps she truly has, and I hope so for all of you.

Take it slow, and visit again soon. You need to know what he and his mom are like after the initial "honeymoon phase" of your relationship starts to wane. Would the two of you have any privacy at all? Would you be free to go on dates, watch television together without her, and do other "normal" things couples get to do? You have lots of questions to answer.

Ask him: Is it absolutely necessary that his mother live with him? Apartments, small group homes, and other care options where she could stay might better give you a chance to start your life together as a couple. If he's not willing to even consider these options, then that's a red flag. Be sure not to blame his mom for things he's not willing to face.

But let's not put the cart before the horse. Before you narrow your options, I suggest you date around. There's no need to sign up for such heavy baggage when you're not already committed. Why not take a risk to see what else (or who else) might be a good fit? You deserve a good life with healthy relationships. You deserve to be adored.

If you decide that this is the man for you, be sure to ask yourself: Will he put you -- and your relationship with him -- before his mother? If not, run the other way. He can still love and care for his mom, but he needs to have his priorities straight. You get what you're willing to settle for -- so don't settle!