Letting Go of Unheathly Family Relationships
May 8, 2005 5:29 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone know of a book or resource to help someone end their relationship with family? I have a friend who's mother is a mess. She has never been a good mother and she plays guilt trips, lies, fakes illnesses, etc. My friend is not someone who should have unhealthy relationships. I usually say family is THE most important thing in life, but in this case I think she should cut ties. I want to find something that will help her get through the guilt she is feeling for wanting to sever communication.
posted by toftk to Human Relations (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Don't know a book.

I did this for five years, but only with the help of therapy. There were some very difficult moments.

Is your friend in therapy toftk? Therapy, often, acts as a support system in lieu of family.
posted by filmgeek at 5:44 PM on May 8, 2005

I think it's too deep for a book. Counseling really sounds like a good idea. I'm thinking about not only the pain and guilt of severing ties with one's mother, but of all the ways that being raised by such a mother might cause a person feel.
posted by puddinghead at 5:54 PM on May 8, 2005

i'm worried you're taking too simple a view. just cutting someone off doesn't make all the problems go away. it sounds a bit (not knowing much detail) like you've decided that you should be pushing around your friend instead of their mother. so i guess i third the suggestion that you leave it to a professional.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:56 PM on May 8, 2005

Ask her if the guilt will be less damaging to herself than continued contact with her mother.

If the answer is "no" then the decision is a no-brainer.

That's what did it for me.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:56 PM on May 8, 2005

And don't pressure her, or you'll hurt her worse than the mother has.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:58 PM on May 8, 2005

Counseling is a good suggestion. I don't know of a book out there, but I'm sure there's at least a chapter on it somewhere.

Here's a little on what worked for me: lots of time and introspection. Growing up I realized what my mom was doing that was not normal, and how to eliminate those elements from myself (becasue trust me, they will be there!). It's a lifelong process.

As for totally eliminating contact, I did that for about two years after leaving home, and then slowly got back into contact - on my terms. If I needed to hang up before getting upset, that's what I did. I always explained my reasons to my mom, even when she didn't or wouldn't understand. Living on a different coast helps to distance, since they can't demand that you spend time with them. If it's at all possible for your friend to think up an excuse to not keep in contact that will help, particularly if it's at least partially true, since this will help with your friend's inevitable feelings of guilt.

She should always remember that her mom's problems are NOT her problems. If it helps to lay blame, then she should lay it: parents are there to parent, not to get support from their kids, and anyone who expects support from their children is not a parent for the right reasons, so doesn't deserve it.

Also, supportive friends are extremely important. For me, friends were always more stable than family, and they became family for me for a long time. I even had one friend pledge to be my "brother" through thick and thin, which was very reassuring - particularly because he meant it. That said, if she has any family that she can rely on, she should go to them as well.

(info on my mom: single parent, disabled, makes up stories about life that are roughly based on reality, paranoid, unsanitary housekeeping, does a lot of self defeating stuff, very invasive and demanding of my help and support. But guess what? As soon as I left, all the things she "needed" me for suddenly got done... by her! Your friend's mom is more self sufficient than your friend may imagine - she should NOT feel guilty for letting her go)
posted by lorrer at 6:09 PM on May 8, 2005

Best answer: I recommend Surviving a Borderline Parent. Whether or not your friend's parent really has any sort of borderline personality disorder, this book has some helpful tips for getting some distance from family members who are destructive. It's good for people who have messy emotionally unstable parents rather than people who have parents who are physically abusive. It deals with a lot of the troubling guilt issues that come from cutting ties with a parent who may not understand why the separation is happening, or who reacts to bad news by getting emotionally reactive. I read it and found the tone pretty helpful and not too self-help-y.

I also want to support what lorrer said about taking a break and then possibly coming back into contact with very firm terms. I've been moderately successful with this and my Mom and while it's certainly not the parent-child relationship I would have wanted, I think it may be better that no parent at all.
posted by jessamyn at 6:21 PM on May 8, 2005

I have done this.
After many years of fruitless attempts to forge some sort of healthy relationship with her, I finally realized I was killing myself.
There's no book that I know of, but as I really truly discovered what my values/convictions/etc were, my self esteem was strong enough that I made my boundaries clear. I no longer speak to her, I wish her no illwill, but as far as I know we only live once, and I'm not going to waste my life mired in fear, lies, deciept, and bitterness.
If indeed your friend's quality of life would be better without her mother, she should Not feel guilty about it.

It's hard not to mourn the mother she would long to have (but doesn't exist - something I years ago referred to as 'the ghost mom'), but over time, with a good therapist...well I can't speak for others, but I'm the happiest I've ever been. This kind of thing is so personal and subjective, I don't know if my comment is any help though.
In Summation:
1. weigh the 'better off or no' question.
2. therapist/psychiatrist
3. committment to the long haul, that will get easier over time.
4. Resist society's hegemony that implies happiness always comes from your blood relations, and the deification of the mother role.

Give your friend a hug for me. Best of luck.
posted by Radio7 at 6:36 PM on May 8, 2005

I did this too. The Dance of Anger kicked it off for me. The whole book isn't about anger...it's about changing the pattern of relationships. A great counselor helped a lot.

It also coaches you through the "push back" that she will get when she tries to change the relationship with her mother. Obviously, being dysfunctional works for her mom on some level or she wouldn't keep at it. So, if your friend begins to change the relationship, she should be prepared for a harder road before she gets to an easier one.

I toned down my connection (but didn't totally disconnect) until I had some time and space to work on changing myself. Then I reconnected slowly. Fourteen years later, the relationship is so amazingly different...I can't believe it actually.
posted by jeanmari at 8:20 PM on May 8, 2005

I too have a very distant, cool relationship with my family, because I gradually moved away from them (geographically as well as emotionally). Time is an important factor - it takes a while to get used to the absence of somebody who was once a major presence in one's life, even if they were a bad presence. So your friend should probably expect to "fade out" of the family rather than sever ties instantly. Also, a support system of stable, reliable, caring friends and/or relatives is a huge help.

How to fade out? Screen calls and don't pick up right away if it's Mom. Wait a few hours or a day before calling back, which lets Mom know that she doesn't get #1 priority over everything else. A good tactic is to reply to phone calls by e-mail, which makes the interaction less immediate and personal. (If Mom can push your friend's buttons like nobody else, it's easier to keep cool via the written word. There's time to think and re-write before hitting "send".) Mom doesn't have email? Even better - send a paper letter.

Another good thing is to leave home, as far as possible and permanently. Get a job in another state, and maybe even get married too. This tells Mom that her daughter is a grownup now with her own life and family and Mom is sidelined.

Basically, the idea is for your friend to keep interactions to a minimum, and under her control, not Mom's. If she must visit Mom, she should bring a friend along and make sure she's never alone with Mom. The presence of a non-family member tends to keep everybody behaving more reasonably, instead of devolving into their old bad patterns.

Finally, the whole idea that family is the most important thing in life is an ideal, NOT the reality. Domestic violence and child abuse are all too common, and we periodically see statistics claiming that you are more likely to be hurt or killed by a family member than by a random stranger. So if your family isn't straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, you've got lots of company. Face it, you didn't choose your family (except for a spouse, if any), so why should you feel guilty to admit that you really don't like them very much?

If your friend can find a spouse/partner/SO who is loving, stable, healthy and supportive, that may be the best thing for her. The SO will automatically become the most important person in her life and Mom will play a much smaller role. (Mom may even start getting the message to buzz off if she senses that your friend is preoccupied with somebody other than Mom!) The bad interactions are probably patterns that developed long ago and, at some level, fulfill some kind of need for both women. (For example, if your friend doesn't have much of a social life or emotional support system, even a bad interaction with Mom is better than no interaction with anybody at all.) It's incredibly hard to break these deep-seated patterns unless there's a major change somewhere else in life. But if a SO enters the picture, there's no need for those bad interactions with Mom because there are good interactions with the SO, so it's vastly easier to push Mom to arm's length.

Therapy may help, but a good listener and loving partner at home can also work wonders as a counterbalance, antidote, voice of reason and sounding board. (My husband, a pillar of loving sanity, is what finally did it for me.) Good luck and best wishes.
posted by Quietgal at 8:47 PM on May 8, 2005 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Andrew Cooke: I actually encouraged her all these years to work on the relationship. Only after the recent death of her brother and what her mom has done to her emotionally since then have I finally come around to supporting her decision to sever ties. Support being the key word, NOT force.

Jessamyn, Jeanmari, Lorrer, and Radio7: thank you so much for the tips and books. I appreciate the input. I definitely think her mom is completely capable of taking care of things herself but has always played victim in order to get help, so I agree with Lorrer on that part.

This mom is the ONLY family she has left. At least the only blood family. Her friends are her family now and we are definitely making her see that.
posted by toftk at 8:57 PM on May 8, 2005

I have some experience with this - not personally, but with people close to me.

The first thing that comes to mind is that people in a situation like this often don't really believe that the mother's behaviour isn't "normal" or acceptible. Even if they verbalize their unease or angst over the situation, there's a long way from voicing concern to really deeply understanding or believing there's a fundamental problem that can only be resolved through severely limiting contact.

So one thing that you can do that doesn't cross the line very much is just to support the idea that she deserves to be treated well, and that certain behaviours - where ever they come from - are not acceptible. Doing that in a positive way is relatively safe in that you can do that without "trashing" the mother (dangerous ground to do that).

In addition, people who have grown up in a borderline situation like that often have some self-confidence issues. The other side of the "is this really abnormal" coin can be a lack of feeling that "I deserve - and have the right to demand - better than this." This often means that even when someone knows that a person - a mother, for instance - is treating them badly, that it would be self-indulgent or arrogant to actually DO something about it. Even those who demand better from friends or colleagues can have trouble doing so from family - and often don't believe they have the right to do so.

Again, in this case the safest (for your friendship) and possibly also the most productive thing is just to support your friend and make sure that she knows that she does in fact deserve better and has the right to demand better - and that she can, if necessary, even give ultimatums to try and secure better treatment.
posted by mikel at 5:40 AM on May 9, 2005

My best advice is that it sounds from the description that it's the sort of abusive relationship which is absurdly likely to cause an unnaturally strong parent-child bond, so BE EXTREMELY CAREFUL in dealing with this. The more someone is abused, especially by a parent, the more protective they will become.

Also... I don't know. Maybe talk about abuse in general, seek out novels/movies/tv shows where it takes place, because people on the street will assume you come from a healthy, insanely idealized family with parental role models who all dispense the exact same timeless wisdom -- so it's hard to remember that THIS IS NOT THE NORM. Parents abuse their kids. Parents make bad decisions and can be wrong -- 1/2 of all marriages end in divorce, after all.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:34 AM on May 9, 2005

When I was going through rough patches with my mom, it helped to read a bulletin board over at Table Talk: My Mother, My Self: How Mothers Affect Their Grown Daughters. It's wound down a bit now, but it's full of people going through similar things, which is always helpful, and has tons of good book recommendations.
posted by occhiblu at 8:45 AM on May 9, 2005

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