How can I best deal with my mother's counterproductive Xmas related nagging?
November 1, 2004 1:46 PM   Subscribe

Christmas family hell come early - how can I best deal with my mother's counterproductive Xmas related nagging? ( I'll post more inside)

My mother has started nagging already about how much time my fiancé and I will be spending with her at Christmas. He doesn’t like her and I find her difficult – so I planned on a quick visit with an overnight. My mother wants us to spend two nights and because I wouldn’t sign up to this, started saying some jaw-dropping stuff about my partner. I can now look forward to having this sort of awful telephone conversation with her every week until Christmas as she nags, nags, nags about when we are visiting and what we are doing. If I don’t answer the phone, then she starts ringing me at work where I can’t screen my calls. I’m really fed up of this vicious circle where she nags us to visit in such a way that she makes us want to avoid her at all costs, but I don’t know how to tackle it. I’ve tried lots of self help books off Amazon, but to no avail, they say stuff like ‘empathise with her’ it works for about five minutes and then she says stuff that drives me stark staring mad again. What have people tried in similar situations that worked?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If it were me I would tell her that unless the nagging stops that you will find somewhere else to be on Christmas.

I'm a mom myself and feel funny about recommending that, but you have to draw boundaries. My mom and I get along great-but only after I had to do some major boundary drawing myself.
posted by konolia at 1:54 PM on November 1, 2004

I'm going to go out on a limb here. She loves you and doesn't understand she's no longer your Mother, the all-controlling figure from your childhood.

You'd be surprised how well tell her off works. Not that my mother is anywhere near as bad as yours, in fact I wouldn't even characterize mine as bad -- but when she starts nagging I just go "shut up" and then tell her that it bugs me, etc. Of course my mother would never call me at work, only if it was an emergency...

So the real question you need to ask yourself is beyond the fact she did give birth to you, what real connection is there? If you told her off not-so-politely and told her that it was upsetting you and your partner and that you would not show up to Christmas this year -- what's the worse she would do? She'd be mad at you for a time, yes.. but if she has that romantic mother love, the kind that loves you no matter what, it'll resolve itself. If she turns a 180 and you guys don't speak for a few months, let it cool off and then explain to her more calmly why you did what you did.

Of course she could completely disown you and never talk to you again, yes, but then wouldn't you be better without her if she was like that?
posted by geoff. at 1:55 PM on November 1, 2004

Oh, by the way, one of my major rules is -treat my husband with respect. That one is nonnegotiable.
posted by konolia at 1:55 PM on November 1, 2004

(telling her off) argh. Spell check, you dog you.
posted by geoff. at 1:56 PM on November 1, 2004

Dude, your mom has to understand that you're not 5. If she's not willing to be civil, and starts interfering with your life, gently tell her to fuck off.

She doesn't get a free pass to act inappropriately just because she's your mom.
posted by bshort at 2:01 PM on November 1, 2004

To me, this sounds much worse than merely being treated like a child. Why is she calling you at work? Why does she batter you with insults against your fiance every week? That's abusive. If she weren't your mother, you'd describe her as a stalker.

My own mother does her own manipulative, borderline abusive things. She wonders why none of us enjoy spending time with her. At least three of the four of us deeply dread the day our father dies and he's not there to absorb her attention. And then we shift to resenting her for making that the reason...

If you don't want to just gradually divorce yourself from her by default, I think you've got to take a stab at telling her off. It may or may not work, but at least you'll have tried.
posted by lodurr at 2:18 PM on November 1, 2004

Bshort used the magic word - inappropriate. If you wouldn't allow a friend or stranger to talk about your fiance like that, why allow your mom? You may have complained about him to her in a weak moment, but even if so, has no right to throw that back in your face. Don't do an ultimatum unless you're prepared to back it up, but under no circumstances are you obliged to spend time with someone who says "jaw-dropping" things about your future life partner.

Tell her the truth - "Mom, I find your behavior to be inappropriate and unpleasant, so much so that I'm already trying to wriggle out of spending much time with you over the holidays. I will come to see you provided every interaction we have between now and then is free of this complaining and ugliness. I love you and I want to have a pleasant relationshio with you, and the way you're behaving is flat unpleasant."

In other words, tell her to cut it out. But make sure not to give her reasons to keep it up afterwards.
posted by pomegranate at 2:22 PM on November 1, 2004

What konolia said. Both times. Especially the second thing.

And ditch the self-help books -- it doesn't sound like you're the one that needs them anyway. She'll keep this up long as it works: if you make it clear in no uncertain terms that it's not going to work, she'll eventually stop doing it.

(And good luck; I know this is easier said than done. But better to have it out now than to put up with it for the rest of her life.)
posted by ook at 2:29 PM on November 1, 2004

I would check out the advice given earlier about training a cat not to behave inappropriately. Seriously. Your mother is somehow being rewarded for her boorishness. Is it by getting a rise out of you? Making you eventually give in to her wishes? Or maybe she has low self esteem, and is making you tell her what she unconsciously dreads: that she is a bad person. If you can figure out what she's getting out of the situation, you can withhold it until her behavior changes. But be aware of the "extinction burst" mentioned in the cat-training discussion.
posted by ba at 2:45 PM on November 1, 2004

Best answer: Pomegranate's script is the same one I used to draw boundaries with my mom a couple of years ago: it worked great. I would add:

If your Mom is like many parents over 50 or 60, her nagging is an expression of her fear that you will abandon her when she's old. This fear is all-consuming and (only to some extent!) irrational. We will all feel it someday. It is fed, in part, by general inattention on the part of the kid. (That doesn't make it less irrational--it just makes it worse.) In your own words it is a vicious circle: but it's a vicious circle that revolves not just around this particular situation, but probably around a general dynamic of inattention and fear.

My Mom used to do this kind of stuff all the time. My advice is to (a) draw fiercly defended boundaries around things like holidays and your partner, and (b) give a little more at less tense times of the year, and in small ways--letters and packages, occasional phone calls, less intense visits that you undertake of your own accord. If your Mom is anything like mine then this will make your relationship a lot better. Just telling her 'fuck off' will not help the situation: it will just make her more anxious. Make sure that the love part of your message is backed up by concrete actions.

It used to be the case that my once-a-week phone call to my mom and my twice-yearly visits were insanely tense and uncomfortable, and it was obvious to both of us that I was not enjoying them. Now I call my mom for ten or fifteen minutes every couple of days (instead of for hours on the weekend) and try to see her, even if just for the day, every couple of months. It is a lot more saner and both of us have found a normal, less pressured relationship to one another.

It might be that you already do this stuff, in which case your mom is just being unreasonable--but the way I dealt with this with my parents was by reaching a compromise and by divesting holidays and other conflict-rich events of their 'all or nothing' visit status. I now try to visit my mom at other times of the year, and so holiday visits are less of a big deal. What I really wish is that my mom and I lived nearby--tha way we could have lunch every other week or something, and have a sane relationship like normal people do!... So, in other words, your mom is acting crazy, definitely, but I would try to help her out _as well_ as being stern and severe. If you're not already doing that, of course.
posted by josh at 2:45 PM on November 1, 2004

I am impressed with the good advice here once again at Ask Mefi. What Josh said is especially on target.
posted by jeremias at 3:02 PM on November 1, 2004

What have people tried in similar situations that worked?

To be honest, rather than pontificate about what I think, intellectually, would be a good tactic, all I can say I've done in the past is flip my shit and bitch the person out. This is usually a sort of maximum-pain way to go about it, but in terms of results it tends to either snap the person out of their selfish delusion, and/or establish a firmer boundary.

YMMV, but if you've never flipped your shit and bitched your mother out because you're afraid of her reaction, then she's got you under her heel. No one likes yelling, but it is often the only thing that gets through. Showing someone you're mad can be construed as violent, abusive, aggressive, and the rest of it, but it should also make it obvious that you actually do give a shit. It sounds like, if your usual tactic is avoiding her and ignoring messages, that perhaps she thinks you're just blowing her off.

posted by scarabic at 3:02 PM on November 1, 2004

How nice to read an AskMe thread completely full of advice that I agree with.

To me, the bottom line is that your mother has to be made to believe that you are capable of deciding not to go home for Christmas at all, and sticking to that decision. It may not be necessary to go that far, but she must learn that it really is up to you, and not, in any way, shape, or form, up to her.
posted by bingo at 3:06 PM on November 1, 2004

My dad's not quite as bad as it sounds like your mom is, Flitcraft, but even so I've had to have a couple of rude exchanges with him over control isues. At one point I had to explicitly point out to him that the more insistent he was, the less inclined I was to do what he wanted.

Tell your mother you can't take personal calls at work. Tell her that if she continues calling you there, will be forced to hang up on her. Then do so if necessary.

Tell her the decision has been made and that further nagging will only decrease the amount of time you spend with her, it cannot increase the amount of time. Inform her that you are visiting for your enjoyment, not hers, and if visiting her ceases to be enjoyable for you, the visits will cease entirely.

In short -- tough love.
posted by kindall at 3:42 PM on November 1, 2004

Think of her as you would a three-year old you're trying to discipline. You don't yell and lose your shit at a three year old, do you? You have to be firm, leave no wiggle room, and repeat your stance firmly and calmly as many times as it takes. I really don't think telling her how YOU feel is gonna matter -- it sounds like she's totally focused on how she feels. (like a 3 year old would be). The browbeating is a last-ditch power play.

It worked for me. It took awhile, but it's worked. The trick personally was disengaging emotionally with each repetitive phone call.
posted by xena at 4:00 PM on November 1, 2004

Ba is onto something. Don't Shoot the Dog, by Karen Pryor, could be very useful. It's not really self-help(screw empathizing in this situation) and it's not just about training a dog. It can easily be applied to your dealings with people. I found it helpful in dealing with a certain person who is quite passive-aggressive and manipulative. This person's constant attempts to control me whenever I was around them pretty much enraged me. The first time I really took a different approach to their mind-boggling manipulation was an epiphany. And it worked.
posted by lobakgo at 4:11 PM on November 1, 2004

My own mother does her own manipulative, borderline abusive things. She wonders why none of us enjoy spending time with her.

Hey that's my mom too! in fact, there's a 50% chance she'll read what I'm writing here and give me a bunch of hell about it at some later date. I know I'm coming in late to this discussion but it's a textbook My Mom case. I like my Mom a lot but sometimes when she is tense and has an event to plan that is in the distant future, she'll just agitate herself into a dither and then do the constant haranguing calling thing, also with a little boyfriend-insulting tossed in to boot. I am in a current phone holiday from her which only works if I'm really good about emailing. So, here's what I do....

1. make a plan with her and stick to it. So, I'll say "look, I have to spend time with others around the holidays too so we'll show up Saturday morning and stay til lunch Sunday" Any other fine-tuning of this [a la "do you want to go to the Moran's for an egg nog feast?"] she can just plan and drag us along on NO NEED TO CALL any more. Any phone calls from this point forward do not discuss the holiday because we have a plan already with her and have used that plan to outline our time to make plans with others.
2. any boyfriend insulting ends the conversation that instant with some variation of the "that's inappropriate, if you'd like to talk when you're less stressed out about all this, please call me at home over the weekend, I have to go now, goodbye"
3. when my Mom seems especially stressed I make a concerted effort to email her every day or every other day and just give her the run down of what is going on and ask about her. I think sometimes she just feels out of touch and that makes her stressed and clingy. I send many postcards, even dorky ones, and try to stay in constant less-high-stress touch, just like what josh outlines.
4. calling at work is against the rules. I promise to check email pretty much twice daily [to avoid the "did you get my email??" calls] and to write back but work time is not family time. She is also on AIM so sometimes we can just chat for five minutes a few times a day if she has something on her mind and that works well, even at work.
5. The "it's not you it's me" thing doesn't work well for people you're dating but it works okay for parents. Telling my Mom "look, I've had a hard day at work, why don't I write you an email later when I'm out of the bath and let's not talk now?" will more often elicit sympathy -- even if she is being nutty -- than just hustling her off the phone which just makes her more crazed for the next call.

The only self-help book I ever read that I found remotely helpful was called Surviving a Borderline Parent which sort of deals with the problem of having a parent who simultaneously wants to see you all the time and yet is also somehow always mad at you. I am not saying your Mom has Borderline Personality Disorder, but I found some of the scenarios in it familiar and it was helpful to me to recognize the patterns and see how I could break bad communication cycles. Again I think josh has it right on -- your Mom is being nutty. On the other hand there may be ways to help calm her down that help solve her problem and yours at the same time. Lord knows I'm still grappling with it as well, best of luck.
posted by jessamyn at 6:45 PM on November 1, 2004 [1 favorite]

When family members (or acquaintances) grow a little too catty, my husband and I always change the subject abruptly. You are getting great advice in this thread, but this little tactic is easy to remember in the meantime or when other ideas fail.
posted by whatnot at 7:09 PM on November 1, 2004

" started saying some jaw-dropping stuff about my partner."

This is grounds for an ultimatum. There are lines not even a mother should cross without risking severed relations, and this is one of them. Besides, if she dislikes your partner so much, why should she beso eager to have more of him around?
posted by majick at 7:48 PM on November 1, 2004

When family members (or acquaintances) grow a little too catty, my husband and I always change the subject abruptly. You are getting great advice in this thread, but this little tactic is easy to remember in the meantime or when other ideas fail.

Thanks, whatnot. My mum can have her negative moments and I'll keep this little trick in mind.
posted by deborah at 8:11 PM on November 1, 2004

Jessamyn's point #2 is the way I got my family to realize that I was to be treated as an adult and was no longer interested in the various games they used to play with me.

I moved out, abruptly and with no advance warning, the day after I graduated high school. From then on, anytime I was on the phone with them and they started playing monkey games, I'd just say "Hey, you know what? I need to go, talk to you later. Bye!" and hang up.

Eventually, everyone got the message that there were subjects/themes that would end conversations immediately, and they started to change their behavior. I wish I had been mature enough then to have added an explanation of why I was doing what I was doing, but it worked out okay.

It occurs to me just now, that my family relationships have been almost exclusively phone-based since that day that I moved out (I moved pretty far away when I moved out and never moved back). Weird.
posted by Irontom at 4:56 AM on November 2, 2004

My mom can be manipulative and demanding, and it's worst at the holidays. I didn't go back home for holidays for about 8 years, and some holidays have been so wretched that I still don't go often. I live 1,000 miles away so it's not "in your face." I have worked hard to develop clear boudaries with my mom. Ideally, I don't blow up or act out; I just leave if things get ugly, or hang up. Phone calls at work are very discouraged, and always kept short, good or bad, so there's no habit of calling me there.

When she's not depressed or manic, she can be terrific - funny and supportive. I try to reinforce that with lots of praise. Regardless of her mental health, I call often, send cards and small gifts, and try to let her know that I love her. Being a parent is not easy and letting go is not easy. My mom is in her 80s and in poor health. She won't be here indefinitely, and she's earned the love and respect of her children.

No matter how much I love her, if she can't be civil, I'll love her at a distance. It took a long time for her to learn and a long time for my siblings and I to create boundaries. But it is entirely worthwhile. I have a much better relationship with her. The sooner you start, the sooner you can have a health(ier) relationship. Many great responses here, but I still need to post this. You all understand, right.
posted by theora55 at 7:39 AM on November 2, 2004

Maybe I'm lucky with my own Mom. She's the best. However, I've had a challenging time with my Mother-in-law.

She would make comments that would just stun me and no one else batted an eye. It took 10 years of marriage to finally convince my husband that the situation needed to be addressed or I wasn't going back to his folks to visit. Speaking as the spouse who had to put up with the bull, I can assure you that I appreciated my husband gearing up his courage and telling his Mom there was a major problem.

Things have improved markedly. So, do your partner a huge favor and tell Mom that such comments are unacceptable and will not be allowed. Also, if she starts saying them to him directly instead, assure him that he has every right to tell her to stop as well. He may feel, as I did, that she's your Mom and thus your responsibility.

Good luck
posted by onhazier at 8:34 AM on November 2, 2004

I dealt with my parent's meddling by excommunicating them. It was tough, but it was well worth it.

In the end we made up, but the relationship is very different now. There is a clear understanding that I am an independent adult and that our relationship is now one of mutually-respected friends. The type of communication and support is markedly different from that of our old parent-child arrangement, and we're all happier for it.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:42 AM on November 2, 2004

Best answer: Bear in mind that the emotional response which is evoked in you is the *goal* of the manipulative behaviors and words.

You may not be able to avoid experiencing it, but when you feel it coming on, you should be alert to that, and strive to your uttermost to avoid letting on and to divert the conversation immediately to your needs. Particularly, your need to experience approrpriate behavior. If you can't get those needs satisfied and you find yourself becoming angry, then EJECT EJECT EJECT and cool off. The "Sorry, gotta go now, bye" is a good one.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:56 PM on November 2, 2004

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