Ask Dr NerdLove: My Ailing Mother-In-Law Is A Toxic Nightmare

Ask Dr NerdLove: My Ailing Mother-In-Law Is A Toxic Nightmare

Hello all you deathwatch love nodules, and welcome to Ask Dr NerdLove, a dating advice column to surpass Metal Gear.

This week, we’re about emotional (and occasionally physical) self-defence. We know it’s OK to leave toxic relationships, but what about when that toxic person is family? How do you handle someone who sees “boundaries” as something only other people have to abide? And how do you put yourself out on the dating market when the people you want to date are a legitimate danger to your safety?

Tune your codec to frequency 141.80, because it’s time to gird your loins and insert coins. Let’s do this.

Dear Nerdlove PhD,

I’m a bisexual trans woman who has gone through too much garbage in life and would really like to find someone nice to keep me from going insane from loneliness. My issue is that while I’ve dated plenty of other women, I’ve never dated a guy, and while I would like to, I’m kind of ridiculously scared of them?

I’m pretty plugged into the internet these days, and it’s really hard not to hyper-fixate on certain death statistics about trans women, and it might be stereotypical, but I tend to project a lot of those fears onto men rather than women.

I’m a lot more talkative and friendly around women, and even when it’s a straight girl I’m talking to, I feel l’m more capable of being flirty and fluid than I am when talking to basically any guy.

This even sort of extends to people I’m friends with; even when I know a dude isn’t an outward, violent transphobe, I get really nervous around them in ways I never have around women and never did before transitioning, which I guess might just be a part of the whole Gender Package, but not one I’m comfortable with.

There’s a guy I know that I love talking to, have loads in common with, and think is super, *super*, just very hot, but I’m afraid of what could happen if I interpreted things wrong and there’s a really bad reaction to those intentions.

There’s no real safe way of directly asking “Hey, would you date a trans person” without seeming obviously thirsty and embarrassing myself that I’ve thought of yet, and without that kind of confirmation I’m not sure how to move forward safely.

I know these fears aren’t entirely unfounded, and that it’s good to be cautious sometimes, but I also desperately want some dude in my life and my current approach of “Do Not Approach” isn’t really getting me anywhere. And like I said, I’ve never dated men before, so I don’t even know if these reservations would go away after the initial asking out.

– Just Really Wanting a Boyfriend

Alright, JRWB, before I get deep into this, I want to make it clear: I’m coming at this from the perspective of a cis-gendered straight male, so please take my advice with a grain of salt.

With that in mind, let’s start with this: Your fears are real and legitimate. One of the things a lot of guys don’t always get is that the dating experience for women is very different than it is for men. Women on the whole face risks — emotional and physical — that men simply don’t.

From the differences in potential STI exposure, pregnancy, social stigma and opprobrium, and yes, violence, dating for women requires being willing to risk their health and safety.

This is especially true for trans people. Trans and gay “panic” has been a successful defence in many violent crimes against the LGBTQ community, even in 2018. So it’s entirely understandable, even reasonable, that you’re hesitant to flirt with straight guys you’re into.

But the fact is that life is risk and love is a full-contact sport. As with other pursuits — skydiving, snowboarding, driving — you can mitigate the risk as best you can, but you can’t eliminate it. Dating means that you have to make yourself vulnerable to someone, in the most intimate and personal ways. If you want a boyfriend, then you’re going to have to be willing to take your chances.

Now, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some best practices that can help reduce the risks of the people you approach.

The first and best thing you can do to find a boyfriend is to look for the folks on dating apps who’ve opted in to the possibility of dating someone who’s trans. Dating apps such as Tinder and OKCupid let users identify themselves as trans, nonbinary or genderfluid, which helps filter out folks who simply aren’t open to dating someone who isn’t cis.

The double-opt-in factor of the apps also helps cut down on the risk of connecting with someone who’s transphobic; both of you having to swipe right on one another means that you’re (presumably) connecting with someone who is cool with your gender identity.

This isn’t a fool-proof system; God knows there’re dudes who swipe right on all women, guys who only look at photos, and folk who will miss incredibly important information in people’s profiles. And of course, there’re still dickheads out there who will react badly upon finding out that someone they matched with is trans. Arseholes are gonna arse, after all. But it should still radically cut down on the potential false positives and bad matches.

Second, look for potential partners among demographics and groups who might be more likely to be open to dating trans people. From a recent study, the people who were older, weren’t particularly religious, and who had graduated from university were more open to dating people who are trans.

You may also want to see about finding guys who identify as bisexual or pansexual. They tend to be thinner on the ground than straight cis guys, but men who identify as bi or pan are far more receptive to dating trans women. Plus, the fact that they’re willing to flout gender norms means that they also tend to be more open to people who ignore traditional gender roles, and are probably cool with women being the ones taking the initiative.

The next thing is to take things slowly and let folks get to know you as you. While people are quick to form a consensus of who’s attractive and who isn’t based on initial impressions, our idea of who’s hot and who’s not change as we get to know people.

Over time, an individual’s uniqueness tends to surpass the initial consensus about that person’s looks. The more we get to know somebody, the more attractive they become to us.

That time you’ve spent with them also has the benefit of letting people get to know you and see you as an individual instead of as their limited idea of what a trans person is. The more people get to know someone personally, especially someone who’s part of a marginalised population, the more we as a culture build empathy and demolish stereotypes about that identity.

And from your side, it helps you get a feel for them as a person. What kind of language do they use when describing trans folks? Are they quick to dismiss people’s gender identity, or are they willing to accept people as they are? Are they the sort of person who may be working out of ignorance, rather than malice?

And, just as importantly: How do they respond to you? Do they give any signals that they think you’re cute? Are they willing to be a little flirty and silly with you? Or do they treat you like a strictly platonic friend? The more you get signs of interest, the easier it is to broach the topic of a date.

One thing to watch out for are the trans fetishists out there. While there can be benefits to that — there’s something to be said for being objectified, especially by someone who finds what makes you unique to be a turn-on — you want to be loved for you, not for what you represent.

I’m not gonna lie, JRWB; your dating pool is going to be limited, and you have risks other folks don’t face. But the good news is that the number of people who are looking for someone like you is growing year after year.

Love is always going to have risks. It’s never going to be easy. But it is worth it.

Good luck. And write back to let us know how you’re doing.

Dear Dr NerdLove,

I have a complicated question that I’m not sure there is a good answer to. I’m also changing unimportant details to protect identities of those involved as it is a very specific situation. I apologise for the length, but I think background is needed to grasp the situation.

My wife “A” and I have been a couple for a long time and have two young children. A is from a very small family; it was only her, her parents and her brother while she grew up. Her brother is always in trouble and incarcerated so he is out of the picture at this point.

A had an unhappy upbringing. Her father was terribly verbally abusive to everyone in the household and her mother was narcissistic.

As A entered her teen years, her mother began treating her more like a friend than a parent. Her mother began cheating on her father and told A about this, expecting her to be happy about this wonderful relationship she was in. While A’s father is not a good man she realised much later that this was entirely inappropriate of her mother.

A’s mother left her father to be with the other man while A was still a teen. A was then stuck living alone with her verbally abusive father. A few years later A and I began dating. She told me what a nutcase her father was, but I didn’t really understand the full picture yet.

Her father had always been dependent on others to do things like help him pay the bills or deal with accounts. At this point A was a young adult and would still go over to his house a couple of times per month to help him with these sorts of things.

One day I accompanied her and witnessed him screaming and swearing at her, in front of me no less, about how much his pay TV bill was. When she decided to cut off contact from her now deceased father I completely understood.

Things are not as clear-cut with A’s mum. During this time they had grown apart. A would make plans with her mum only to have her break them, or she would only be interested in hanging out for very short spurts. A also began resenting her mother for abandoning her with her abusive father. Her mum had zero guilt about this and thought A was being selfish and should have been happy about her new-found love.

It eventually got to the point where A’s mum would only contact her when she needed something, often to borrow money. When our first child was born, A’s mum showed very little interest. Her visits were still infrequent and even though she lived nearby she did not offer the type of help with a new baby most mothers do.

Her frequent requests to borrow money and lack of any interest in spending time with us finally reached a breaking point when my own loving father died. A’s mum did not come to the funeral, which was a huge insult. At this point A more or less stopped talking to her mother.

Six months after this occurred, A received a late-night phone call from a hospital. Her mother had suffered a traumatic stroke. Suddenly her mother was back in our lives out of obligation. For several months helping her mother get accounts in order, disability set up, and a place to live took centre stage in our lives. Her mother was and is mentally there but now has physical limitations and cannot care for herself.

The biggest problem is that A’s mother is still the same narcissistic, inconsiderate person. After she was set up with a caretaker and place to live, she went back to her old ways, only calling A when she needed something and never out of any genuine interest in A or her grandchildren’s lives.

I will also mention that A suffers from serious depression issues which she is in treatment for. Without question her mother makes this worse every time she calls.

About six months ago A was pushed past her limit again. Her mother called her on a Friday night and asked her to do a favour for her the next day. This favour would involve A driving about a 160km roundtrip and spending her whole Saturday doing it. Not only was this short notice for a fairly big favour, we had plans and her mother expected us to cancel them.

A stopped talking to her mother again after that, and went so far as to block her phone number. While I totally understand this, I feel very conflicted about it.

First of all, there is the issue of our children. The older one is five and certainly knows of this grandma, even though they haven’t been close. She hasn’t really asked, but I don’t know how to explain this complicated situation to either of our children when they are young.

I have thought about suggesting to my wife that I can bring them for occasional visits to their grandmother’s house without A, so that they have a chance to know her on their own terms. She can’t manipulate me as easily as she can my wife. The thing is it is such a sensitive topic I’m afraid to even speak of my mother-in-law to A. Just a mention of her triggers A’s anxiety.

Secondly, I’m afraid of sending the wrong message to our children, that it’s OK to abandon a disabled family member. The thing is, if A’s mother hadn’t had her stroke they probably wouldn’t have gotten back into contact. If my own mother, who is a warm loving person, had a disability, we would have no problem going out of our way to care for her.

More superficially, I am worried about how this looks to others, that we really have no contact with A’s disabled mother.

Any advice on what to do here? How do we handle this with our children? Are we completely in the wrong for having no contact with A’s mother? This really eats away at me.

Thank you,

Caretaker’s Guilt

CG, your feelings do you credit. It’s admirable that you’re concerned about your mother-in-law’s health, your kids’ relationships with their grandmother, and your wife’s feelings.

But with that having been said, A is right to cut ties with that arsehole and it’s cruel to suggest that she keep in in contact. A has already gone above and beyond when it comes to taking care of her mother, especially in light of what her mum has put her through. The fact that she’s willing to put in any effort at all is borderline qualifying for sainthood.

While I understand worrying about explaining things to your kids and the optics of cutting ties with a disabled senior citizen, you have to ask yourself which is worse: An awkward moment of explaining things to your kids, or the damage this does to your wife?

Because let’s be real: After a lifetime of neglect and abuse, your mother-in-law is demanding that your wife sacrifice her own happiness and emotional health to indulge in her selfish whims. Providing for someone’s care is one thing, but why in pluperfect fuckery should your wife be setting herself on fire just to keep her abusive mother warm?

And for that matter, while you may be immune to your mother-in-law’s blandishments and toxic behaviour, what makes you think your children are? Considering how she treats her own daughter, do you think she’s going to be any less shitty to her grandchildren?

Which do you think is going to be more awkward: Explaining why they’ve never seen GramGram or trying to undo the horrible shit that she’s likely to inflict on them? Are you ready to talk about why GramGram was wrong when she said that their mum was a selfish bitch?

Trying to explain to your five-year-old that Grandma is an awful person can be a bit awkward, but demonstrating to them the importance of strong boundaries is going to be far more valuable than telling them it’s more important to cater to a toxic family member than it is to take care of themselves.

Fuck the optics, dude. This woman has been nothing but a millstone around your wife’s neck and there is no reason on God’s green earth to let that continue. A has made arrangements for her care and health; she’s done her duty as a daughter to someone who hasn’t done hers as a mother.

For now, all you need to tell your kids is that grandma is very sick. As they get older, you can explain things with more nuance and detail — and more importantly, teach them why they don’t need to sacrifice themselves for someone who doesn’t give a damn about them.

Good luck.

Did you have a toxic relationship with a family member? Do you have experience dating as a trans, genderfluid or nonbinary person? Share your story in the comments below and we’ll be back with more of your questions in two weeks.

Ask Dr Nerdlove is Kotaku’s fortnightly advice column for matters of the heart, hosted by the one and only Harris O’Malley, AKA Dr Nerdlove.

Harris O’Malley is a writer and dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blog Paging Dr NerdLove and the Dr NerdLove podcast. He is also a regular guest at One Of Us. He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and on Twitter at @DrNerdLove. Dr Nerdlove is not really a doctor.


  • I find with toxic family relations its best to not engage with them. Because more often than not they want you to loose your temper with them just so they can justify their attitudes towards you. As the saying goes “Kill em with kindness”

    I have an aunt who is almost the exact stereotype of “racist old aunty” and most people in my family dont bother engaging with her because she is so set in her inane views its not worth trying to dispute what she says. A lot of us just treat her as a raving lunatic, Whenever she spouts some inane racist stuff, We just sarcasticly say “What every you say”. Or if she says “(Insert race/ Religion here) is taking over the world” we will reply with “Sure they are aunty”.

  • I have an incredibly horrid aunt too- A neurotic narcissist who is so painful to be around that even her 2 dogs are on doggie Prozac (yup, that’s a thing) because she stresses them so much. All her life her parents fawned over her every whim and demanded my father ate shit and pull her weight for her (my Dad is a genuinely good guy whose only wants is a stable, happy home. Unfortunately not a season passes without her demanding him or I help resolve whatever the latest crisis may be in her life). She detests children, and refused to have any because “Fuck raising vermin that do nothing but squeal, mooch and ruin my figure!” according to her and despite being a paediatric nurse! 8 months after the birth of my 1st kid, the family got together for Christmas (the annual “get the whole family together and watch old grievances rise from their graves day”) She congratulated me at the table then 15 minutes later pulled me aside to tell me 3 things. To never ask for money to fund my “poor life choices” (I’ve never in 41 years asked her for anything except to leave our house). When are you going to pay for the mower fuel you used? (I mowed her lawns and fed her pets when she broke her ankle) and never, ever darken her door with “my little overdue abortion” as she “could feel herself getting fatter just being in the same room as my daughter.”(Aunty is chronically anorexic. I’m not shaming, just putting context to her comment). I was so enraged I told her that all I wanted from her was to fuck off and die so my father can enjoy his retirement and my daughter won’t need to met pure evil in human form. Que tears and an Oscar-worthy portrayal of a poor, innocent victim and all of a sudden the fundamental christian nutters from the other side of the family (who don’t like my long hair, tatts and career anyway) are threatening to call the cops on me. Not that they like her, they just saw it as more proof of my damnation. Jump to 5 years later. The 1st family Xmas day I’d agreed to attending as my daughter wanted to meet more of the fam and the good eggs in the family wanted to see her. She delighted everyone with her manners and sunny disposition… Except for (of course) my Aunt. She kept making snide comments about her weight with things like “you can have dessert once you’ve shed some baggage”. My girl wasn’t fat. She was 5. My daughter simply asked “Why are you mean to everyone? You must be really sad. Do you want a hug? That makes me feel better.” My Aunt blurted out “Not a fucking chance, kid.” before thinking and received an absolute barrage of angry commentary from the whole damn tribe! Sorry for the rant. God I fucking hate that woman. Shitty family is shitty.

    • Geez dude, I am sorry that you had to go through that… we all have one or two dodgy family members, but that is not normal behaviour. I think your daughter hit the nail on the head, your aunt must be really sad…

  • Fuck the optics, dude.

    This is all the advice that you need. So many perceived morals are based on pure arbitrary principle ignoring context. “Kids need to have a relationship with grandma” is one of many. If granma is a toxic, hateful person, kids don’t need her in their lives just because a blood bond that she has done very little to honour.

  • As i said to one of my mates, I don’t care for dealing with complicated shit in my life. Like literal shit, it just get’s flushed and never to be thought of again. Life is already too busy to worry about difficult situations, so just remove the possibility of the situation occurring again.

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