What to say after "Yes, that really sucks."
September 1, 2012 2:58 PM   Subscribe

Help me find the right things to say to/do for my parents and their slightly terrible relationship, especially now that my mother is housebound.

The longer I've lived out of my parents house, the more I've felt sorry for them. They've been together for 50 years, but I think they've spent a lot of time avoiding each other in the same house.

My mother has struggled with her weight for probably the whole time they were married (she told me recently that my dad had wanted her to lose weight before their wedding, and she got down to 117, but he still said she could stand to lose more), and now she's had a hip injury and is trying to lose weight so they can perform surgery. She's also suffered from arthritis for at least the last 30 years, so she's never been very active.

My father has a tendency to fly into rages and say terrible things, and then apologize the next day. For example, the last time I spoke to him, he took a conversation about their house and suddenly turned it into an angry conversation about the end times. An hour later, he apologized, but when I tried to understand why he felt he end times was important to bring up during the conversation, his eyes got all angry again and he left, only to return ten minutes later and tell me I was right, and apologize.

It seems like he's been haranguing my mother about her doctor-required weight loss, among other things. I can totally see where she's the sort of person who comforts herself with food and stuff, so part of me understands how that could drive my dad nuts; she's got a whole room of online purchases that she hasn't even unpacked, and it sucks that her weight is affecting this aspect of her health (she was at 215 or so, and she's not a very tall lady.). Now it's like everything he ever thought about her weight has been proven wrong.

So I've thought their marriage was kind of shitty for a long time, but while my mom could move around and go places, I just shrugged my shoulders and figured she was the one choosing to stay with him. Now, she's trapped at home, and I get these super sad emails about how he yelled at her the other night because she's not losing enough weight.

To be fair, she also sends me happier emails about how he's been physically taking care of her; lifting her in and out of bed, taking her to the bathroom, buying the groceries, adding some handicap friendly things to their living area.

I don't know what to say in response to the shitty emails..."that sucks, I'm sorry?" repeat, repeat, repeat? I've encouraged her to follow the doctor's instructions, and reminded her that Dad has always said mean things, so it's not like we should expect him to stop now.

They live about 45 minutes away; I've visited once a month or so recently to help clean out some junk and cook some diet-friendly food. Their house is filled with stuff and it sort of terrifies me. I don't know what else I can do that will not draw me into their web of codependent behavior and angst.

I feel like their entire relationship has built up into a perfect storm of issues; my mom's weight and stuff, my dad's attitude towards my mom's weight (and my own), my attitude towards them for constructing this miserable pattern of interaction, ugggh.

How should I be responding to my mom's emails/calls about her current condition?

Are there things I could be encouraging her to work towards?

How should I be framing my relationship to them, if I want to help, but feel that it might be a lost cause?
posted by brisquette to Human Relations (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

How should I be responding to my mom's emails/calls about her current condition?

With sympathy and understanding.

Are there things I could be encouraging her to work towards?

Self-reliance and the understanding that she's loved.

How should I be framing my relationship to them, if I want to help, but feel that it might be a lost cause?

Their relationship is their relationship. It is not your business to address it.
posted by xingcat at 3:05 PM on September 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure there's anything you can do about their relationship--that's their responsibility and sadly, I can't see any realistic scenario where talking to your dad about the crappy way he treats your mom will end well, especially as he has anger issues.

In your shoes, I'd get a therapist for myself (because being in this middle of this must be horrible) and if I could swing it, I'd see if I could arrange a therapist who makes house calls for mom (and dad, if he'd agree). In the meantime, comfort your mother as much as you can without it affecting your own health. I'm sorry this is happening to you and your family.
posted by smirkette at 3:07 PM on September 1, 2012

If you have siblings, please enlist them in your parents' care, even if it's just extracting a commitment to call regularly.

I think you can do a few things with regards to their relationship so long as you stick to the immediate mission. For example:

A) Motivate your father to be kind, especially if your mother isn't providing reinforcing conditioning, e.g., "Dad, Mom was so happy when you [did whatever]! I think that really helps her with [related goal of mutual importance]"

B) Make him feel good about his sacrifice, e.g., "Dad, I just wanted to tell you how awesome it is that you're [doing whatever]. I recognize that the circumstances have to be frustrating and I'm really proud of you for keeping that in check and being so helpful with [related goal]" and

C) Let him know that you're watching and he's setting an example, thereby giving him a reputation to live up to e.g., "Dad, I can't help but think about how I would handle these circumstances in my relationship, and I hope I would have the strength to [do recent good thing or desirable behavior] consistently too."
posted by carmicha at 3:59 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Honestly, it's not your job to fix this.

My mom used to unload on me about her relationship with my dad all the time - and while it's totally understandable behaviour when someone is in pain and feeling trapped, it's only more recently I've realized that it's actually quite an inappropriate dynamic.

Ultimately, it's up to you how to handle it. I would say your best to choices are to lend a sympathetic ear, but to avoid getting otherwise involved or to explain to her that your not entirely comfortable being her confidante when it comes it issues with your father, and recommend resources for other ways in which she can get support.

As for her weight loss, again, you can direct her to resources, but if she's not ready/able to take it on herself, it will never work. Given your father's approach, the worst thing you could do is set her up to feel like she's disappointing you if she doesn't succeed in making it happen.

It's a hard place to be in, and when I was firmly in it, it was hard not to actively commiserate with my mom since I, like you, also found my dad's behaviour to be unacceptable. But really, it's not up to you to change this - it's your parents' relationship dynamic, they've both chosen to engage, and by inserting yourself any deeper, you run the risk of alienating them both and making the situation worse. The only way it's going to improve is if your mom chooses to do something about - direct her to any resources you know about, and step back.
posted by scrute at 4:06 PM on September 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

Carmicha, yes! Fill-in-the-blank sentences are so helpful, and I would welcome more of them.

I hadn't thought of a good way to address my dad about all of this; I did mention how good it was of him to be doing so much for her, and he kind of shrugged it off, but mentioning specific things might be a way to continue that encouragement.
posted by brisquette at 4:46 PM on September 1, 2012

The relationship between your mom and dad is not something you can manage, but as for how your dad treats you, well I hate it when people use emotions, especially anger, to control and terrorize other people. I think you should scream back at your dad louder and more angrily than he does so that he gets a taste of his own medicine. Sometimes you have to really shock people to get them to look at themselves and change.
posted by Dansaman at 5:01 PM on September 1, 2012

If you're going to follow Dansaman's advice, it's important to keep in your mind at all times that when you are hulking out, it's theatre. Getting into a genuinely emotionally engaged screaming match with an angry person will leave you feeling shitty.
posted by flabdablet at 6:52 PM on September 1, 2012

I have two close family members that have a similar toxic relationship and BOTH of them would vent to me. I eventually told them I didn't want to hear about it anymore. It would get me riled up and miserable, there was absolutely nothing I could do, and much like your situation they were two people heavily invested in a muck of their mutual creation.

You can't mother your mom, you can't father your dad. If the situation isn't threatening to degrade into a call the authorities problem then their bickering should be labelled "not your business". Certainly don't stop being supportive and helping with the occasional dinner, but don't try to plan out the correct way to fix this, because there is nothing you can do or say that will fix it and hitting your head against that brick wall will only cause you pain.

When my relatives kept up with their laments (we all know just asking them to stop wasn't going to do anything) I started sending them literature on "finding the right therapist for you", and one is currently going and the other one is willing to give it a try. (And I'm seeing my own to help deal with having such a dysfunctional family, it might help you too).
posted by Dynex at 8:45 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is there any way a nurse providing care can be brought into the situation? And can you address the issue with that person?
posted by angrycat at 7:59 AM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm concerned that your mother is in an unsafe living situation. Is there any way to involve a social worker or have her stay somewhere that would be easier for her to navigate while semi-immobilized? You describe someone who is elderly, injured, and infirm, in a setting that is full of junk and emotionally volatile. That sounds extremely unacceptable. She needs to be in a different context, at least until she recovers, or else fairly thorough changes must be implemented in this context. The situation that you have described should not continue.
posted by jann at 3:38 PM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

My advice might come in handy down the road. I hope not, but I thought I'd post it just in case. I have found that in difficult situations where none of my attempts to help or motivate change are fruitful, I have to take a step back and accept the situation as MY lesson. What can I learn from this so that A) I stay sane. B) I never get myself into the situation. This has been very helpful for me on many occasions.
posted by thorny at 7:06 PM on September 2, 2012

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