Help me to repair my relationship with my mother without going insane
June 18, 2010 6:37 AM   Subscribe

I'm in my late twenties, and my unhappily married parents are getting a rather acrimonious divorce. Both parents want my support, but I've sort of been mostly focusing on my father, as he is depressed, lonely (my mother has a new partner) and has to sell the family home by himself. This has caused my (formerly very close) relationship with my mother to disintegrate to the point where we are no longer on speaking terms, which has placed a lot of unwanted stress on me (I've just come out of an eight year relationship). How do I patch things up with my mother without everything getting emotional? (Long explanation inside)

Early last year, it turned out that my mother was cheating on my father with a married friend of the family, who lives in the same small village as my parents, and who's wife was my mother's employer. My parents had not had a very happy marriage (mostly due to my father's alcoholism and also the fact that he is a very introverted and antisocial person, while she is optimistic and very sociable) and I had been half-heartedly encouraging my mother to move out for years, but this seemed a bit drastic. My father felt betrayed and devastated and tried everything he could think of to get my mother to come back to him, including stopping drinking and paying for her to go and see her parents overseas, but she said she couldn't live with him, and moved in with the guy she had the affair with.

At first I was very upset and angry with both my parents for letting this happen, especially my mother, and I said some pretty horrible things to her, which I regret. Her side of the family, who I used to live with, and who are like my second family, told me off for not being supportive enough, and things got pretty uncomfortable for a while. I was having some relationship difficulties with my then boyfriend too, and I felt like I had both parents bitching in either ear about the other one. Eventually I went to the doctor and was prescribed antidepressants, which helped a lot, and which I am still taking, and I also saw a psychologist. I managed to patch things up with my mother, and when my younger brother came back from overseas he hung out with my father a lot and took some of the pressure off me.

Since the separation, my mother has become increasingly immature and selfish. She refuses to be civil to my father, and constantly tries to find negative things to say about him. She is also being very obstructive with things to do with the sale of the family home and the way the money will be divided, and basically acts as if she doesn't care what happens to my father. Both my brother and I feel uncomfortable hanging out with her and her new boyfriend, but she insisted that we have Christmas with them, and when we went to see our half-sister and her children instead (whom we only see a few times a year) and saw her on Boxing Day instead, she got really miffed, and still goes on about it. I feel that she is pushing everything too fast be expecting us to play happy families with her and her boyfriend, whom I don't particularly like. I used to have a fantastic relationship with her, we were very close and phoned each other several times a week and wrote letters (we live in different states) but now we don't call or write. The last few times I have seen her, we've chatted about superficial things, and not talked about the real problem.

Last week she sent me a six page letter basically telling me that I was behaving badly and then going on for about 4 pages about all the instances when my father was awful during my childhood, and how could I side with him. The whole tone of the letter was mostly anger that I wasn't taking her side, and there was no mention of the fact that she missed talking to me or missed having a relationship with me. I didn't want to respond, as I though I might say something in haste and then regret it, so I just ignored it. I had to go interstate and visit my father to help him clean up the house for a house inspection, but I didn't tell my mother, because I was still upset about her letter. Of course, out of the blue she came round to the house, and was hurt that I hadn't told her I was visiting. Now I know that she will think that I am ever more horrible, but I just don't think I can deal with her at the moment. I feel bad for hurting her feelings, but I want her to realise that she's behaving weirdly. I know my father was a crappy husband, but I have a good realationship with him now, and it seems useless to bring up all that stuff which is over and done with. Any advice about handling parents divorces as an adult will be greatly appreciated!
posted by Piroska to Human Relations (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Yikes. You know, you may want to disregard my advice completely, but I'd be inclined to refuse to get involved in this at all. I'd make it clear to both parents that I loved and wanted a good relationship with them both and would spend time with them, but that I was NOT taking sides and would not listen to either of them talk negatively about the other, and if they felt they needed to talk at length about the divorce they needed to go to a therapist or at least a friend. It's totally inappropriate for them to involve their children in this — and by children I mean offspring of any age.
posted by orange swan at 6:44 AM on June 18, 2010 [6 favorites]

It sounds like your Mom could use some time with a counselor. She's broken her way out of a toxic situation, but she hasn't yet started to grow into a truly independent person. It sounds like she's enjoying her liberation, but if she doesn't adapt she risks ruining her current relationships, most especially with you and your siblings. She needs to understand that she is hurting you, and that needs to happen in a place in which judgment and blame are kept to a minimum. With that in mind, you should start working with a family therapist, with the goal of having group sessions with your mother and your siblings in the near future.
posted by pickypicky at 6:50 AM on June 18, 2010

Sounds very similar to what I went through when I was your age. The best advice I can give you is to back away from it all and let them sort it out and tell them that you will re-establish your relationships with them once the divorce is final and they are no longer trying to engage with each other. If you can speak with either of them without the other coming in to the conversation, all the best, but that was pretty impossible with my parents. Their late-in-life divorce was messy and angry and a marathon. And I made the mistake of trying to be there for one of them because I was angry at the other. You are not their friend, you are their child, and it is inappropriate for your relationship with them to be brought into the conversation about their bad choices in life and their bad behavior as adults.

You can't let yourself get upset about things they are doing to each other. They are adults and need to work it out themselves. If they are treating you poorly, that is different and you should deal with that as a separate issue from how they are treating each other. If the children are all adults now, then they really have no reason to speak to each other anymore and will have to handle the future discomfort of having to be at family events (weddings, births, deaths, etc) together when it is appropriate.

You don't have to spend any time with anyone you do not want to spend time with. Your mother is behaving badly and you are not obligated to accept that treatment or even be a party to witnessing it.
posted by archimago at 6:50 AM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Stop taking sides and stop blaming her. You are clearly on your father's side and I can completely see why your mother would be hurt. Ask yourself why you can forgive your father for his past "stuff that is over and done with" but you hold your mother to a higher standard and refuse to forgive her or put actions in the past. It is possible his alcoholism during your childhood trained you to be his enabler and your mother is frustrated to see you repeating the same pattern she put up with for years. Get yourself in a healthy place and back off from both of them.
posted by saucysault at 6:52 AM on June 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

Hmm I think your handling it good. IF your father is being nice to you now and your mother is not then just tell ignore your mom for now. tell her i will talk to you when you stop being so immature and the divorce is final.
posted by majortom1981 at 6:58 AM on June 18, 2010

Refuse to engage either of your parents in discussion about the other. If your mom says anything about your dad, say "I won't engage in this topic with you." and leave the room if necessary. Lather, rinse, repeat.

You can't change her behavior. All you can do is define your boundaries and guard them.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 7:20 AM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might find some good advice with this question I asked a couple years ago. The situation isn't the same, of course, but I had some similar feelings of being very angry with my mom. I was particularly upset with her for making it all about her when it should have been about other people, and vice versa.

I didn't talk to her for three months. We got together on Christmas and had a good time, but when I left she said some more stuff that reaffirmed that I'd made the correct decision. I think the thing that brought us together again was a long-promised trip to the opera, which was her thing but got us out of the house and away from the giant mess of their lives.

Yes, both your parents had roles in this. Even if your father had had otherwise perfect behavior, he played along and let your mother continue to act the way she did, and that engaged and sustained the drama.

Set your boundaries.
posted by Madamina at 7:20 AM on June 18, 2010

posted by schmod at 7:33 AM on June 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

Your parents probably feel you are choosing sides, you're not. You're trying to maintain healthy and loving personal relationships. It sounds like you love both your parents, but that you're also trying to not be "between" them. You may be judging your mother more harshly than your father, but then, the last big of negative action was from her -- she cheated on your father. That's an intense betrayal and you will be hurting from the runoff of that for a while. It's important that you understand that her infidelity was less about "this guy is better" and more about her shaking up a situation that was negative. I expect that the new boyfriend (it's not clear, is new boyfriend also the same person she initially cheated with), whether he stays around or leaves, is a symptom, not the cause.

Your mom badmouthing your father around you is NOT GOING TO FLY. Your sensibilities seem pretty sensitive, and you need to let your mom know when you're uncomfortable about it. It sounds like your mom is making a case to you, as though this were some kind of competition. You need to communicate to her that the fact that this is NOT a competition. You love both your parents and if you're helping out your dad it's not because you hate her or you're ungrateful to her, or whatever claims your mom makes.

Now, as to your father: your synopsis is such that it sounds like he's depressed, alcoholic, and not coping well. You will NOT BE ABLE TO FIX HIM. His happiness is not your responsibility. But you can act in a helpful and loving way toward him. It may be helpful to suggest therapy or counseling or AA or church or whatever kind of tools that may be helpful to him.

As for you, you might consider something like ALANON or ACA and what kind of patterns of behavior the kids of alcoholics and troubled family homes go through. You may find it comforting to know you're not alone. Further, you might look CODA, it has some tools to help you think about personal relationships that may remind you to maintain good boundaries.

Navigating this is really really hard, and I wish you did not have to deal with it. Remember that your parents are going through big stuff, and not everything that they do or say is related to you. You also need to forgive yourself for whatever guilt you feel about any of your actions. I think some of the things you've avoided dealing with (holiday attendance, your mom's letter) will be easier to deal with if you can figure out how to have better boundaries. "Mom, I got your letter, and I'm not sure what it is you want from me, can we talk about it" and "Mom, I feel uncomfortable spending a holiday around your boyfriend this year, can we talk about it." It will be tough, but avoiding those conversations now will always make it worse later.
posted by artlung at 7:35 AM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wanted to comment on saucysault's comment "You are clearly on your father's side and I can completely see why your mother would be hurt." I disagree that she's clearly on her father's side. A person who has taken sides would simply blow off her mother entirely. Christmas, hell no, I'm spending it with Dad. Some ranting letter? The woman is crazy. I think the questioner cares deeply about her mother but can't figure out how to balance that against her own healthy boundaries, and against the fact that she loves her father. There may be alcoholic/enabling dynamics from the past at work here saucysault, and the advice to consider that is good, but alcohol/enabling doesn't sound like they're the main dynamic to me right now.
posted by artlung at 7:42 AM on June 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think you could try to communicate to your mother that you are helping your dad because he needs it. She is ok. She has a new partner, family etc, she has a support network that she can rely on. Your dad seems to have issues that need more attention and no one else to pick up the slack. She seems to be ranting because she feels you ARE taking sides, which you aren't. You're just applying yourself to support the parent who most needs it in a practical sense. It might not hurt to at least reassure her that you know he was a crappy husband. I guess that her thinking that you are on his side invalidates her reasons for leaving him and makes her feel guilty for having had an affair and left.

My partner's parents had an acrimonious divorce almost like yours. His dad left his mother because he felt she was a bad wife and shacked up with a previous love in the most dramatic way possible. The kids are no longer speaking to him because of the way he left and he did exactly the same thing as your mother - he wrote a long detailed email describing all the things she did wrong as a spouse and reminding them of all the things he had done for them as a parent and how bad it was that they weren't standing by him, and all it did was make him sound petty and horrible. They're still not speaking to him, but he was a jerk in general. And he was being a jerk about them selling the family house as well. It's like a mirror image of your situation. It sounds like your mother's just lashing out because she wants you to validate her reasons for leaving, and spending more time with your dad seems to confirm her deepest fears that she did something wrong.

Anyway, I sympathise, and although I think you might try telling her all this, it might take her a while to come round to the idea, and she may still behave the way she is for the time being. But keep calm in your dealings with her, don't let her rile you up, and repeat that you are helping your dad because he needs it more than she does, and that it's a separate issue to whether or not he was bad to her or not. Besides, if she wanted to speed things up and help get him settled with the house stuff in order to spend more time with you, she might not be so obstructive with the sale.

People are weird when they get emotional. But you are doing the best you can, and you are doing right. Good on you.
posted by scuza at 7:58 AM on June 18, 2010

I recently read The Dance of Anger, and I thought it did an excellent job of exploring the "triangle" dynamics we often get into with family. I'd recommend it.

Hope things get easier for you soon.
posted by lily_bart at 8:05 AM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

The way to patch things up with your mother is to open up the lines of communication - and that means opening yourself up to new and different ways of looking at her actions.

Let's take the example of the letter first. Yes, her long letter was essentially a screed about your father. And nowhere in there did it address your problems, or what you see as the problems between you. And that upset you. That's fine - it was upsetting, you are upset, and you understand why. Now the trick is to figure out why your mother would send you this and what she wants out of you. No person in her right mind sits down and says "I'm going to turn my daughter against her father! She's being too supportive to that bum!" So clearly, that's not what's going on - even though from the evidence in front of you, that is a conclusion you can come to. Instead, try to imagine what would motivate your mother here. What I think is that she's feeling hurt and wants you to understand how she feels. That's why it isn't about how she misses you - this isn't about you. It's about her. She feels isolated, lonely, perhaps she is feeling somewhat competitive (you have limited time, and you're spending more of it with your father than with her. She doesn't understand why, especially since the two of you were so close in the past). The competitive/jealous thing is worrying, but it's something you can bring up in conversation when you're addressing the rest of her feelings. It isn't about your dad. It isn't about you. This is her, and she's trying hard to be heard.

It's clear that you don't approve of a lot of her actions during and after this divorce (nor am I saying that you should!). And I'm sure it's clear to her as well. She feels judged. She feels as though you have weighed your two parents and found one of them lacking - and it's not the one she found lacking! She is trying to persuade you to see things from her point of view, because she can tell that she is not coming across well to you. Unfortunately, she's going about it in the wrong ways, and she obviously doesn't understand a lot of what you really object to.

I would set aside some time - maybe a full day every two weeks or something - just for your mom. Go do you and mom things. Go catch a movie. Hang out. Get a nice meal together. Work on something together. And talk. If and when it seems like a good time, try to let her know that you want to be supportive to her. Not "instead of", not even "in addition to". And if the fact that you've been so very supportive to your father comes up, let her know that if your parents positions were reversed (your mom was in need of more physical assistance, she was alone, there were specific material things you could do to help) you would be doing them for her. Let her know that this divorce is hard on you - spell it out for her. She may not have realized it, because she's going through so much on her own end. Yeah, that makes her oblivious. But right now, you're looking to focus on what you love about your mom, and try to get past the things that drive you mad. And if you need to, spell out for her what things have made you uncomfortable.

Good luck. I'm sure this will be rough, all around. It sounds like she wants to patch things up - the letter may seem to say otherwise, but she's opening up lines of communication. Go gently. Try to have a lot of empathy. Shelve your judgment at the door as much as you can.
posted by lriG rorriM at 8:06 AM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Your mom had an affair with her boss' husband and she's lecturing you on "behaving badly?"

I would refuse to talk to either parent about the other or about anything having to do with their marital situation or the events leading up to the breakup. But that's just me.
posted by The World Famous at 8:50 AM on June 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Mom, I love you very much and you mean the world to me, and I would love for us to go back to enjoying the close relationship that we have always shared. That said, I refuse to get involved with any of this business between you and Dad, and I won't be listening to anything you have to say about him. If you try to involve me or complain about him to me, I will not respond/hang up/leave. Besides that, I will support you and I would like for nothing to change between us. I'm happy for you that you've found happiness with [new boyfriend], and I'm sure I will learn to get on with him... but I'm not ready yet for the whole 'one big happy family' thing. I'm just not there yet, so please don't rush me. Again, I love you, I want you to be happy, and I want for us to have a good relationship. All I ask if for you to respect these boundaries."

In your own words of course.

And then gently but firmly stick to your guns about said boundaries.
posted by couch fort dinner party at 9:08 AM on June 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Just want to add that this email/letter-writing business about how awful your dad was is really indicative of a victim mindset. Whether consciously or not, your mom is thinking of herself as a victim of your dad. Victims (generally) always want to be rescued. She's acting in a horrible way to you because you're not playing the role that she wants, and in her mind, that justifies also making herself a victim of you. The victim mindset comes from anger and resentment and she needs help with that. Right now, she isn't in a place where you two can have the relationship you used to have. Maybe in a few years when time has passed and healing has occurred, but right now, focus on what you think is the right thing to do: take care of yourself, make sure you have your own support system, help your dad, create and enforce boundaries. Boundaries keep the enforcer sane and sends a message to people on the other side of the boundary: "I will not put up with your shit. It is your responsibility, not mine." Yes it will piss them off, but that's what happens when people realize they can't manipulate you with their victimhood. Who knows: maybe things aren't all roses with her partner, but that's not your problem. She has to take responsibility for her own life and I think that's what's causing her to freak out and act like this. Enforcing boundaries will give her a greater chance of taking responsibility - because you're not doing it for her.
posted by foxjacket at 9:09 AM on June 18, 2010

Oh god, this was just like the behaviour following my parents' divorce. You feel like, do you want to see me because I'm your child and you love me, or because I'm another point-scoring metric in this divorce game? And Christmas, bloody fucking christmas; it's a minor miracle I still enjoy the holiday after the years of guilt-tripping, horrible, nonsense, bullshit I endured. And they get so obsessed with their shiny new lives, new habits that they pretend they've always had, new tastes, and you're just gonna dive on in, whilst you feel like they're not just shitting all over the marriage they had for years, but the very notion and idea of your family itself. Oh, man, I have been there.

Ahem. It does get better.

The thing that helped me was having people to talk to, preferably people who had experienced this kind thing. My siblings were, on the whole, wonderful support, and being very, very firm on what I would, and would not tolerate. Remember: they need you more than you need them. They will always agree - angrily, grudgingly, but eventually - to any demand you care to make.

Call the nonsense bluff. Set the rules. They're, unfortunately, not going to act like adults - maybe not even parents - so you have to be the adult. That means you say "Mum (and dad), I love you, and I support you, and I want you to know I value our relationship, even at this stressful time. But I insist that we don't discuss the other parent, the marriage, anything to do with the divorce, and I want you to give me some understanding that during a very rough time in all our lives, I have to look after my needs, too, just as you are looking after yours. If you can't do that, obviously, I will spend less time with you, even though I love you."

And fucking mean it, man. Any bullshit, just hightail it out of there. Always give yourself an out at events etc - never depend on someone else for a ride. Don't answer the phone when they call if you don't feel like, call them instead. Hang up - not rudely, just say it's not on and you're hanging up. Be ruthless about your emotional wellbeing, regardless of guilt pangs, cause frankly, post-divorce your parents probably aren't going to be.

Best of luck, you need to talk, shoot me a memail anytime.
posted by smoke at 7:14 AM on June 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mom, this is your and Dad's divorce. It has caused me a great deal of difficulty. Dad needs my help right now and I'm going to give it to him. Please don't make it any harder than it already is. I love you both, and I need you both in my life. I'm doing my best to understand and respect your decision, and I hope you will do the same for me. Love, Piroska
posted by theora55 at 12:05 PM on June 19, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you so much for all your answers and advice, I really appreciate it! It helps to know that other people have gone through this. Foxjacket, I think you are right about the victim thing, and I agree with pickypicky that she probably needs to see a counselor. I have mentioned this to her before, but she's a bit resistant, so I might have to work on that one later.

I actually went to see my mother before I flew back home, and although we didn't really talk about any of the problems in depth, we agreed to be friends again, and I made it clear to her that I don't want either parent to speak badly about the other one to me, so I think that's some progress. Thanks hivemind for giving me the courage to set some boundaries!
posted by Piroska at 7:18 PM on June 21, 2010

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