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Caught between gf and mom

by Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

I’m a European expatriate stationed in Asia who, as of the last 6 months, lives with my girlfriend of 3 years. Apart from a few conquerable problems we’ve had a good relationship that started shortly after I started my foreign assignment. I love her and I know she loves me. We both planned to spend the rest of our lives together.

Then we ran into some serious problems when my mother recently visited for two weeks. My girlfriend met my parents 2 years earlier for a few days, when we traveled to my home country, and the meeting went fairly well. I’ve only met her parents shortly one time. This time however, my girlfriend-for a number of reasons-got the feeling that my mother doesn’t like her. Moreover, and more importantly, she was shocked by the way my mother touched me.

My mother has always been one to hug, caress, and touch me and my brother, or any child for that matter, extensively and she continued with that even as we grew old. Specifically there was one event-which perhaps was a bit extreme even for my mother-where my mother stroked my leg and fiddled with my neck while my girlfriend sat next to me.

I, who are used to the touching, did not react strongly to this and when my girlfriend thought it sick I initially brushed it away by saying, “Just ignore it. My mother treats me like a child. That’s just how she is.”

That did not help, of course. My girlfriend believes the touching might be sexual and the problem is that I don’t see it, or take it seriously enough. I had a hard time doing that since my father (mother and father are divorced since my birth), brother, and I guess close family have seen this touching without ever commenting on it. In my family it is not strange, which then of course becomes a problem. Also I don’t see how it could have any real effect on my life, especially since I’m not the one doing it.

However, since I no way want to hurt my girlfriend, who is the most important person in my life, I changed my defensive stance and agreed to never let my mother touch me like that again. I also told this to my family, but my mother was not really willing to accept it, even if I think she will in time. She thinks it important for people to touch each other.

How that situation will play out I don’t know, since I only meet my mother about once per year, and my girlfriend meets her even less.
My girlfriend still wants to break up with me though, since she feels I have not changed my attitude enough, or understood the depth of this problem. She also thinks I care more about my mother than her, because of this, and perhaps that I should be more angry with my mother.

I’ve tried to show my girlfriend that she is the one I care about and I also thought that came natural since I’m spending my life with her. It hurts her tremendously that I cannot see the seriousness of the situation. She also thinks I’m too nice to my mother and that my mother depends too much on me. I am nice to my mother and to my whole family, I will not refute that, and my mother does depend on me to some extent since she lives alone in a big house and sometimes needs help. But honestly I have a hard time understanding what impact this can have on my relationship, especially when I meet her rarely. She calls me about once per week for 15-30min and my girlfriend now thinks those phonecalls come too often and are too long. She believes I need to distance myself even more from my mother, at least until there is a change.

I love my girlfriend and I care first about her and me, but because of these events she has lost faith in me. I’ve hurt her so much that she cannot believe me anymore.
Now I don’t know what to do. I would do anything to fix my relationship, but shutting out my mother and with that the rest of my family doesn’t seem like a healthy solution. Also I still, to some extent, fail to see how this could break a relationship.

What you may be experiencing is a difference in cultural values, not a question of what is “right.” Your mother’s behavior may mean entirely different things to the two of you. Instead of arguing about your mother’s behavior, you might do better to explore what is expected of a mother-in-law in her culture as opposed to yours.

On the other hand, it does sound as if your mother was consciously or unconsciously feeling a little competitive with your girlfriend (who gets to be with you all the time) when she was touching you so intimately in front of her. This may be what your gf was picking up and reacting to.

The fact is there’s touching and there’s touching. Your gf is right to ask that you not allow your mother to touch you in ways that are more appropriate to lovers – like stroking your leg. But it’s unreasonable to expect that you and your mom won’t make at least some of your family’s style of physical contact, especially when you don’t see each other often.

As for the reaction to a weekly phone call, I have to wonder why your gf feels so threatened by that. Do you behave differently toward her after the call? If she doesn’t have a close relationship with her own family, perhaps she is jealous? Have you and your mother done enough to include her in your family or does your gf feel closed out when mom is around?

In short, I think that there’s more to this difference of opinion than meets the eye. If you want the relationship to last, you and your gf have some important talking to do. You two aren’t kids. I’m hopeful that you can find a way to expand your love to include members of both families.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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