in the wedding, don't push away
Q: We're planning our wedding and my fiancee's mother is making life miserable. My fiancee and I are paying for it. We live in Washington, D.C., where the wedding will be; her mom lives in California. Her mom keeps suggesting that we're doing things wrong, and that she's not included enough, and that it's her daughter's fault for not including her. This in turn makes my fiancee depressed and angry, but she doesn't speak up because she doesn't want to hurt her mother's feelings. Is this one of those times when I need to step up and ask the future mother-in-law to please restrain herself more?
A: This is one of those times when you need to back your fiancee in a way that makes her life easier. The mother's complaints expose her as someone who feels powerless, left out. If you give Mother the stiff-arm, then she's likely to feel even more left out and increase the pressure. So try this instead:
(1) Remind Fiancee that you two are happy with these plans and that's what counts.
(2) Float the idea that Mother is acting like this because she feels distant and excluded. Say it to explain, not excuse, because there are actual, grownup ways to handle this that don't involve criticizing and guilt-tripping.
(3) Ask Fiancee whether openness might calm her mother: "Mom, you're far away and feel left out. I get that. How would you like to be involved? I want you to feel welcome." Giving Mother a low-stress corner of the wedding to control, particularly one that suits her expertise, can be transformative. If not, oh well — then:
(4) Preach the gospel of owning one's choices. You and Fiancee are having a simple D.C. wedding on your dime because that's what makes sense for you — not because of, or in defiance of, her mother.
The fault-finding is Mother's choice, but the "depressed and angry" is Fiancee's choice. This is as good for Fiancee, and you, to adopt a more empowered response.