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This is the most "first world" problem I've ever experienced, but I'm hoping some folks with similar experience might have some guidance.

tl;dr: Wife's mother offered to pay for a big trip somewhere; We're worried the offer is self-serving. What's the best way to accept or reject this gift while minimizing damage?

My MIL (mother-in-law) lives alone and has recently become obsessed with the show "Doc Martin" (set in England). I'd prefer to minimize details, but I don't use "obsessed" lightly: this progressed quickly past "fandom" and has already detrimentally affected her relationships with us and others. She's gone to great lengths to get everyone around her invested in the show with her, but it's just not our cup of tea. She's taken this as personally offensive and it's been the source of a lot of tension.

During a recent visit, MIL pulled my wife to the side and told her that she'd like to send just the two of us on a vacation to Port Isaac in Cornwall, where the show is filmed. My wife, being cautious, asked for more details so we could discuss it. "I'll need your help finding out when they film so we can be sure you'll be there at the right time, and I'll get a list together of all the places you need to go and people you need to try to meet," was the reply. It turns out that she's been thinking about this for a while and has created a specific itinerary she'd like us to follow for the trip. She also asked that it be a private gift; my MIL & FIL are on good terms but live apart and lead separate social lives.

We're concerned that taking this trip contributes to my MIL's delusions around this TV show and puts us in the awkward position of enabling her isolation. It seems like this is a grandiose attempt to get us interested in the show, and a way to deepen her personal connection to the cast/characters. The "privacy" around the offer is a bit worrisome as well, and suggests that other family members might not look fondly on this sort of indulgence. My wife likened it to a free business trip (It's "all expenses paid", but at what cost?) while I joked that it'd be like sending my grandparents on a "Game of Thrones" tour ("HOW many people died here?!")!

On the other hand, this is a huge gift that she feels strongly about, and turning it down will likely do some serious damage to our relationship with my MIL. We travel often and have talked about England in the past, so we can't brush it easily off as something we're not interested in. Ultimately, our worry is that this isn't so much a gift for us as a gift for her that we're being used to fulfill.

A few other details affecting our decision:

  • We're American, and this is not a trivial expense or trip.
  • The area we'd be visiting is looks lovely but is not somewhere we'd visit on our own.
  • My MIL explicitly said she's not mobile enough to accompany us - it would just be my wife & I.
  • This gift wouldn't break anyone's bank, but the nature of where we're going and why might raise a few eyebrows.

We're less concerned about "stay or go" and more about "how to manage expectations". In particular, we're worried that she thinks we're going to become friends with the cast or that they'll know her personally from the letters she's sent. We'd love to take the trip and don't mind seeing some new sights to get pictures for her, but want to be 100% certain that my MIL understands that we're unlikely to be invited for tea with Martin Clunes!

Can anyone offer some tips on how we might approach discussing this offer while minimizing offense to our family? Does anyone have experience (favorable or otherwise) with taking a trip paid for by family? We're both a little flummoxed as to how we should proceed.

  • Is the implication that you would spend the entire time doing things related to this TV show or would you get a day or two for the TV show and the rest of it free to do as you like? Do you understand why your MIL is trying to send you two rather than go herself? – Catija Oct 2 '17 at 5:25
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    @Catija We've confirmed that she has an itinerary planned for us - I'll update the question to reflect that! Re: us vs. her - she's not very mobile and would have a hard time outside of metropolitan areas. – Alex Oct 2 '17 at 5:31
  • "stay or go" and more about "how to manage expectations" Does this mean that you are going anyway, but don't want to follow the itinerary? – Tinkeringbell Oct 2 '17 at 9:34
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    Is she expecting you to do these things on her behalf (ie; bring back video, autographs, etc from these sites) or does she think you'll enjoy these things on your own? – Erik Oct 2 '17 at 10:47
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    If it is set in Cornwall, it is a beautiful place to visit. – user3114 Oct 2 '17 at 13:14
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I'm sorry in advance; I'm going to be blunt here.

On the other hand, this is a huge gift that she feels strongly about, and turning it down will likely do some serious damage to our relationship with my MIL. We travel often and have talked about England in the past, so we can't brush it easily off as something we're not interested in. Ultimately, our worry is that this isn't so much a gift for us as a gift for her that we're being used to fulfill.

Your MIL has an unhealthy obsession with an interesting show full of small town characters who all know each other in an idealistic setting. Forget about the vacation. That says something about her own life and mental health which should be addressed first.

I would definitely not take her up on her offer to have an all-strings-attached vacation for several reasons: 1) It feeds into her illusions (if not delusions), 2) It is not a gift (a gift is about someone else. This is about her.) 3) It crosses all kinds of boundaries all over the place: with her husband, with other family members, with your autonomy as adults, the 'gift' requires deception on your part, etc., etc.

The real gift here is encouraging your MIL to get into therapy. If her obsession is interfering with her relationships and leading her to try to involve you in it as well, she needs to discuss her real life and real problems with a therapist.

You say turning down her gift might damage your relationship with your MIL. This is unusual, to say the least. There are red flags everywhere here. The thing I'd be most worried about is how to convince her to see a therapist without her feeling some kind of rejection from you.

I'd do it anyway. And I definitely wouldn't even entertain taking her up on that offer. Or, alternately, take her up on it only if she goes into therapy for six months, giving her plenty of time to think about why and if this is a 'gift' she really wants you to do for her.

I feel for your MIL. Be gentle, but be firm; she needs someone to talk to about her life who knows what they're doing. Good luck; I mean that. I hope it goes well.

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    I appreciate the kindness here; this answer really cuts to the heart of our concern as well. – Alex Oct 2 '17 at 15:02
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I don't feel qualified to answer the potential mental health issues raised here, but happy to bounce back with some thoughts. Shame you didn't tell us the title of the show, it might have given me some idea of where you might be going!

If you genuinely believe your MIL has a possible mental health issue, you perhaps need to discuss this seriously with other family members with the purpose of an intervention and treatment. But is it really that serious? Lots of people get 'obsessed' with things. You joked about Game of Thrones, lots of people are crazy about that show and visit the filming locations, but you wouldn't think they were all mentally ill! My daughter loves Doctor Who, I'm hoping to take her to some filming locations next year, no big deal, it is just a bit of fun. The fact you don't mention the name of the show makes me think it is more embarrassing for you than anything. Why can't she be obsessed with a TV show?

By going on the trip you might not be fueling the obsession so much as satisfying it. She would clearly like to go herself but you say she isn't mobile enough. Lots of parents live out their dreams vicariously through their kids, so that aspect doesn't seem so weird. It is something she would want to do herself but can't, so she wants to send her child. Maybe once it is done it will be like a checkbox ticked and she will move on somewhat?

A truly delusional person might believe that characters from a TV show are real - but actually visiting sets and meeting actors can really jar you back into reality. I once met the star of a TV show I liked, he was a complete jerk, now I can't watch him. I don't see the character anymore, just the actor. Maybe seeing photos of you in those places without the set pieces will be a dose of reality for her?

Regarding the isolated area - while there ARE what we consider 'isolated' parts of the UK, it isn't really what an American might think is isolated. You guys can drive for 4 hours across literally nothing. Drive for 4 hours in any direction in Britain and you will be in the sea.

Perhaps you need to negotiate a compromise - mark a portion of the trip for the TV show pilgrimage and make it clear the rest is your vacation time to do with as you please? If other family members are jealous then perhaps offer to pay for a percentage of the trip yourself? And if you do accept it, manage her expectations because you might not be lucky enough to see and capture everything she wants.

Really hope this helps - please don't take this an expert response.

Oh please tell us what the show is!

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    Thanks for this! I've added the show's title to the original question. The "compromise" idea of splitting the trip up is a great thought. I agree about the location as well - Cornwall looks beautiful but we'd be making a beeline for London if left to our own itinerary. – Alex Oct 2 '17 at 13:15
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    You know I definitely wasn't expecting Doc Martin! I don't watch it myself, it is one of those TV shows that just ticks along, fairly gentle and aimed at an older audience. James Herriot without the animals. I can't imagine anybody getting obsessed with it! But Cornwall and the neighbouring county of Devon ARE beautiful, really. I think nearly everybody in the UK would like to live there if they could. Perhaps that is the appeal - the peaceful, idyllic scenery - I can think of worse things to be obsessed with. – Astralbee Oct 2 '17 at 13:40
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    I like Doc Martin, maybe because I'm a doc too, and I would like (on occasion) to be as blunt as he is. But "older audience"? Hold on, there, young Astralbee! The setting is beautiful. I would have liked it 30 years ago. – anongoodnurse Oct 4 '17 at 3:18
  • @anongoodnurse It's hardly 'House' though is it? :) – Astralbee Oct 4 '17 at 9:33
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    @Astralbee - Omg, House is the worst!!! I've known doctors drummed out of practice for less! – anongoodnurse Oct 5 '17 at 20:06

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