I have a problem with my mother in law. My wife and I have been married for five years. My divorced MIL lives in another state. She will come twice a year to visit us. She is nice company for both my wife and myself. As we both work, she is happy to cook supper for us. The problem is her lack of wanting privacy. Every single time she has come to visit she will walk out of the bathroom topless. Sometimes totally in the raw. I don’t understand her need for attention, as she is build like a brickhouse. I’m pretty sure she times her exit from the bathroom around my being nearby. I don’t know if she is coming on to me, or she just likes showing off. When I brought this up with my wife, she tells me not to worry, her mom has always walked around topless. I’d feel a lot better if it was my wife doing this, not my MIL. I am really uncomfortable bringing this up with my MIL, as it seems pretty messed up in the first place. Instead of looking forward to good company and fine meals, I find myself being tense as her next visit approaches. What do I do?
Seeing Too Much
Dear Too Much,
Can you imagine a profession where a person would continually get exposed (no pun intended) to so many weird scenarios? Well, here we are, and here you go: yup, it’s a pretty freaky situation. You say you’ve been married for five years, and as your MIL’s behavior hasn’t escalated to any weirder behavior, it would seem like she’s not coming on to you. However, if it had been my MIL, I’d be freakin’ out. And, in the event you think your wife’s response is normal, it’s a little wacked out as well.
I have found as we age, other people’s behaviors force us to become more assertive. I cringe a little when I recall incidences when I was younger that I let pass because I was too uncomfortable to address it. But time after time after time of being subjected to improper behaviors have helped me to find my voice. I suggest to you begin to find yours. I will occasionally begin to make a difficult statement by prefacing it with the comment that I am uncomfortable in saying this, but….. For example, early in my career as a therapist, I had to endure numerous clients who would bath in perfume before sitting down in my office. A couple of times I would find myself slightly choking in mid-sentence (“so Ms. Jones, when you say [*ack*] you are depressed, etc.”). So I finally took my own advice about learning to be more assertive and would say, “I’m so embarrassed to say this, as your perfume is really quite good, but I have an acute sense of smell, and it would be better to come in without your good perfume. Please forgive the rudeness.” Although I was uncomfortable, and she would be a little embarrassed, my “new” assertiveness has set me free. Thus, at the end of a fine supper you might say to your MIL (and perhaps with your wife in attendance): “Gertrude, I am massively uncomfortable in saying this, but it really makes me uncomfortable when you exit the bathroom without much on. Please forgive the rudeness [although it’s obviously not rude], but if you could throw something on, it sure would alleviate my discomfort”. It’s a gentle but assertive way of telling someone to stop being goony. If she can’t stop being a bizarro exhibitionist, stay away from the bathroom when she’s dressing (or undressing). Perhaps your wife will benefit from your new-found gentle assertiveness and eventually learn to speak up for her husband when she needs to. Clearly, she needs to.