How do I deal with ongoing animosity between long-divorced parents?
August 14, 2014 9:38 AM   Subscribe

My parents got divorced twenty years ago. How can I set boundaries with my mother while still having a good relationship with my father? Recent events have made it obvious that there's still a lot of hurt and anger between my mom and dad.

My parents divorced in the mid-1990s. I am in my late 30s, married, with a great career and life. Currently, I live in the major East Coast city near where I grew up. Both my parents moved away-- my dad to the major West Coast city where my brother lives and my mom to a tiny southern city. Both parents are remarried and have good relationships with their new spouses.

Mom has issues with my dad, and especially has issues with my relationship with my dad. She's always seen my brother as being on "Dad's side," even though he's worked very hard to show her otherwise (in therapy, through reaching out to her, through having direct discussions with her, etc.). At the same time she's always seen me as being on "her side," since she's confided in me about problems with my dad since I was in middle school. Since they live 3000 miles apart, my way of dealing with this has just been to keep everything separate and not talk to one of them about the other.

My relationship with my dad was rocky until about a decade ago, mostly because he was a pretty lousy father growing up (controlling, patriarchal, etc.). But as I've become an adult, he and I have created a new relationship which is solid and supportive. He was wonderful at my wedding, for instance, while my mother constantly bitched about other people, my mother-in-law, my father's wife, bringing up what I saw as petty issues (where people were sitting at dinner, whether someone greeted her first or second) while I was very busy with, you know, getting married.

Over the years I've spent a lot of time and energy trying to manage my mom's emotions. Recently my brother bought an apartment and my mom flew out to help him pack and move. She called me the week before and asked me to visit. I was already on the West Coast for a business event and changed my ticket to fly down and spend time with them. Once my dad found out, he invited my brother and I to his birthday dinner. I immediately knew this would upset my mother and strategized with friends and my brother on how to best tackle it. Ultimately, I ended up spending the entire rest of the visit directly with my mom rather than seeing friends. We shopped, did touristy things, went to movies, and generally had a nice visit. (A derail: I was pregnant at the time, which nobody knew, so kept having to take naps. It turns out it was a missed miscarriage which ended in a D&C, which was a very traumatic event for me. My mother knows none of this.)

When I came back in the evening from seeing my father, my mother was up and waiting for me. She asked me some questions about the event and when I said I had a good time, she said "wrong answer." I could tell she was upset, but kept going about my nightly routines and getting ready for bed. My mother then blew up at me accusing me of loving my dad more, of spending more time with him, of not caring about her, and so forth. I did not engage but kept telling her I was sorry that she was hurt, that I didn't mean to hurt her, and so on. She ended up getting up in the middle of the night and going for a walk (potentially dangerous). I went to sleep and she apologized when she returned. The next morning she was on edge and upset with me as soon as I woke up, and again picked a fight with me. This time she hurled accusations at me, including that I was taking naps to avoid her, that I visited my dad but never visited her, that I didn't love her, etc. She was deliberately goading me to try to get me to respond, and ultimately I lost my temper, told her she was being manipulative and it was totally fine for me to have a relationship with my father and we ended up having quite an argument 10 minutes before I left for the airport.

(Note: I do see my Dad quite frequently since I travel a great deal for business and he lives in a major city which I visit 2-3 times a year. I do not enjoy visiting my mother, and I know I should suck it up and go to her small city more frequently, but she only wants me to visit during small windows of time which usually do not sync up with my business travel or work schedule.)

It's been several weeks and I haven't spoken to her since. She wrote me an apology card which basically said that she was sorry she had lost her temper, but that it was not OK for my dad to invite me to his birthday dinner when she was the one who invited me to West Coast city, etc. which I don't exactly take as an apology. I am sick of this behavior after dealing with it for decades and I am still smarting from the miscarriage and the aftermath. I'm not sure what to do.

What would you do? Sorry for the wall of text but I wanted to include pertinent details. I am in therapy and have been in therapy for years with various degrees of success.
posted by baronette to Human Relations (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You have a significant opportunity to use this incident as a way to redefine the relationship with your mother.

"Mom, I understand that it must be really difficult for you to see me have a relationship with my dad. But I'm choosing to engage in a relationship with my dad that isn't based in the conflict of the marriage. I hope you can understand that I love both of my parents, and I am choosing not to take sides. I know this might be stressful for you, but I want to assure you that my relationship with him doesn't lessen my love for you."

It's really difficult to choose a new way to interact with your parent, but you need to set that boundary. It might be harder at first, but she will adapt. She's continued her behavior because she's gotten what she needs from it. You have to set a boundary and hold to it.

Best of luck to you.
posted by frizz at 9:45 AM on August 14, 2014 [7 favorites]

Over the years I've spent a lot of time and energy trying to manage my mom's emotions.

This goes on in our family too, or it went on as long as we had a surviving parent. Basically we've all tried to manage each other's emotions. We needed to stop it. It is easier said than done but I think the best thing to do is to explain to your mother that you are going to have a relationship with your father now, and that's non-negotiable. It's very very sad that you ended up having to protect her while you were going through some very rough stuff yourself and it sounds to me like you realize that's not sustainable.

One possible paradigm to consider though, is that of the prodigal child. The parent who's always been involved with you is jealous of the one who wasn't involved and is now getting a new chance. It seems to her, maybe, that someone can come into your life and get credit for just showing up now now, free of the complications and expectations she has dealt with. You know that's not how it really is but it may feel that way to her.
posted by BibiRose at 9:50 AM on August 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

You can't manage your Mom's emotions. Heck, if you can manage your own emotions, you're doing fine. You can be supportive to your Mom by helping her deal with her hurt and anger. You can have a healthier relationship if you make it obvious that you love her and you love your Dad, and you won't take sides. The more you try to shield her from the reality that you and your Dad have a relationship, the more she is able to manipulate you.

My son kind of idolizes his Dad, which I find somewhat annoying. But I want him to be the sort of son who loves his Dad. Over time, he has opportunities to observe his Dad, and his opinion of him slowly changes. His Dad can no longer sabotage me and my relationship with my son. One - play the long game, with the goal of honest, healthy relationships with both parents. Two - Be true to yourself, and don't let your Mom manipulate you; it only causes resentment.
posted by theora55 at 10:00 AM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is a great time to tell her that, from now on, any discussion at all of your Dad is off-limits. You won't bring it up and neither should she. If she breaks the new boundaries, you let her know and terminate the conversation.

There's a gentle way of doing this and letting her know that you love her and value everything she's done for you. However, it's wildly inappropriate for her to be doing this, and for her to have started in on this pattern when you were so young. She'll strain against the boundaries at first, but she'll eventually get it.
posted by quince at 10:01 AM on August 14, 2014 [13 favorites]

Yeah, after my dad acted out at my wedding (parents divorced 18 years at this point, 15 when I got married - my mom left him, we had a bad relationship growing up, but its really great now outside of this issue) I calmly sat him down and informed him that any behavior like that again would result him and his wife not ever being invited to a family event again. Not that I was going to cut him off or sever our relationship, but I was just going to quarantine him from being part of big events in our life and his grandchildrens life. And I made sure he knew I wasn't fucking around and that I was seriously angry with him as was my wife (whom he loves).

Since then we've had three family events and he's acted appropriately and naturally. No fake bonhomie, just civility with my mother and her family. That's all I wanted or hoped for and I'm happy its worked out. I also always make sure he knows that he doesn't have to come if he doesn't think he can control his emotions and that would not impact future invitations.

To be frank I don't think its your job to manage your parents emotions.
posted by JPD at 10:21 AM on August 14, 2014 [6 favorites]

Ugh. I'm sorry for your loss in the midst of all the drama. First of all I think you don't have to rush with your response; if you think you'll be able to have a calmer conversation with a few more weeks of distance, you should definitely take that time.

I think that one way to approach this with your mom would be to say that you're not going to discuss your father with her anymore. I'd frame it as saying that one, his relationship with you is totally irrelevant to your relationship with her, and two, mention of him clearly hurts her deeply. Since those conversations are so hurtful to her, you're going to avoid hurting her by talking about your dad. Of course this is TOTALLY NOT WHAT SHE WANTS. She wants you to bitch about your father, she wants you to never talk to him again and to tell her all the juicy details of his wrongdoing. But if you frame it as being sensitive to her feelings, there won't be much she can say about it. As for limit-setting, you can remind her you're not talking about dad when she starts in on him and change the subject.

This can apply the other way as well for fairness' sake, but although you phrased this as a problem between your parents, it doesn't sound like your dad has much of a problem with your mom.
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:24 AM on August 14, 2014

You are not chattel. It is perfectly fine for either or both of your parents to invite you anywhere, anytime they please. It's perfectly fine for you see them as you please. Mom is out of line. If it's hard for you to recognize that, it's because your experiences have installed some buggy code in your brain about appropriate parenting choices. Mom's had made some bad decisions about how she's pulled you into two decades of divorce: "my kid versus his kid" and telling you details of the divorce...these are not healthy behaviors.

It's not your job to cater to mom's emotions. You can't fix her. You can limit her access to you and your emotional health. Have you worked with your therapist about defining boundaries with your mom? It sounds like you need to set clear limits in your own mind about what you're willing to tolerate.
posted by 26.2 at 11:02 AM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Even though your boundaries might get your Mother to change, the boundaries are all about you: what behavior you'll tolerate, and what you'll do if she behaves inappropriately. You absolutely can say, "I will no longer talk with you about my father at all. If you bring it up, I will end the conversation." If she keeps at it, you'll need to hang up or leave.

My husband and his brother had many years of interacting with their mother in the way you've described. They were helped by some of the principles in these books: I Hate You -- Don't Leave Me, and Stop Walking on Eggshells. Both books address dealing with someone who has borderline personality disorder, but the boundary-setting advice is good for any relationship where someone is not showing any respect for your feelings.
posted by wryly at 11:34 AM on August 14, 2014

She wrote me an apology card which basically said that she was sorry she had lost her temper, but

But nothing. Fuck her. Sorry your mom is acting like a child. I have a similar adolescent mother but her issue is mostly jealousy about my (strong) relationship with my sister. I'm past the point of negotiating with her and I am way past the point of letting her dictate anything about how I run my life. We've hammered out a good relationship but it's mostly because I've set up hard and fast boundaries and if she decides to walk over them, there are 1) consequences she doesn't want to deal with 2) and immediate cessation of bullshit by my removing myself from the situation.

I sometimes wish it were not this way but it works to solve the problem which is that she is being unreasonable and unpleasant about something she needs to have gotten a grip on decades ago. The problem is not "I have a bad relationship with my mom" which is what I thought the problem was for years, trying in vain to solve it. She was not trying to have a relationship with me, she was trying to control me and whether this was due to whatever mental issues she was having or not, it doesn't matter.

You absolutely can say, "I will no longer talk with you about my father at all. If you bring it up, I will end the conversation." If she keeps at it, you'll need to hang up or leave.

This, exactly. "You dictating how I live my life is against the rules and I will not engage you in discussions of how you think my relationship with my father will go. You can manage this or I will manage it" and then after you've informed her of this you can end whatever conversation is going off the rails by hanging up the phone or walking out of the room. No drama (BPD types feed on drama and attention give them anti-attention) just an end to the nonsense.

You already have boundaries with your mom (not telling her about your pregnancy/miscarriage. I am sorry about that. I think not telling her was a good choice) just start enforcing more strict ones. You don't have to deal with this nonsense.
posted by jessamyn at 12:07 PM on August 14, 2014 [8 favorites]

You're doing a lot of self-sacrificing here in order to keep the peace--giving up things to spend extra time with your mom, letting her accuse you of things without defending yourself, etc. I know it's easy and tempting to do that (it's the way I often do things, too), but I'm finding myself feeling sad for the daughter who's being so misunderstood and mistreated, just for trying to have relationships with both her parents.

As others have said, it's time to establish a new boundary. Right now, the rules of your relationship are that she can say and do any awful thing she wants to and you will take it (and apologize for it). You need to tell her--and writing it might be more comfortable for you--that you love her, but that you also want a relationship with your father and that you will not discuss that relationship with her. And you will end any conversation that veers into that topic. I managed to do this with my own mother almost accidentally--she was nagging and berating me, so I quit doing things with her. And her behavior changed dramatically; she still treats my sister like dirt because she will take it, but my mother treats me completely differently. You can use your mother's desire for a relationship with you to change the terms of that relationship. And I hope that you do, because you deserve so much better than this abuse you're getting. Good luck.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 1:45 PM on August 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm going through something extremely similar, and I have to stress, in light of anecdotes of success above, that you have to be totally okay with the idea of her never, ever changing.

You can't get her to change. It's kind of unfair to expect that, and she's probably too old. You need to set boundaries for your own sanity, not to guide her towards reason. She may always be like this, and the end game is how are you going to live with that and be happy.

Ideally setting boundaries and acting in a consistently firm yet empathetic manner might essentially force her to change a little in order to have a relationship with you, but I know firsthand that changing your own behavior and being more assertive, which is really stressful and upsetting after half a lifetime of this dynamic, with the expectation that she will react rationally (because she must care, right?) can only lead to more frustration and resentment.

In my own situation I keep getting myself into these fights where it takes talks with my therapist and endless revisions of carefully-worded emails in reaction to her tantrums to try to describe to her what's going on and to get her to respect me and stop manipulating me and that I won't be baited anymore, and when she flips it on me without listening I just get even more angry and self-hating, because I just tried so very very hard and change never seems to happen. (it probably is, on a very slow, multi-year scale)

She may never change, that the ultimate goal is to try to recover/maintain your well-being. You already know that, but when the focus is on trying to work with her and get through to her, it's easy to lose sight of that.

Best of luck. You are a good person, and a good daughter, and she knows that, and will adapt.
posted by Sayuri. at 2:32 PM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

You need to set a boundary, and it will feel really weird to you because you've never done it. If your mom starts in about your dad, just say, "I love you both and I choose to have a relationship with you both. I don't want to hear any more about it. If you do start in, I will get up and leave immediately." Then be prepared to do it. If you're on the phone, say, "I've told you how I feel about this, unless you change the subject I'm hanging up." Then do it.

Don't put up with bad behavior, always have a back up plan. I've left my mother in more places than I care to think about.

Stop letting her bad behavior rule your life and relationships.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:15 PM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some people become vain with age. Preeners, scorekeepers, demanders of obeisance, treasurers of imaginary slights. It's a folly that gets worse if you indulge it. "I love my father and your opinion of him and our relationship is of zero interest to me" is not too harsh a way to put it.
posted by MattD at 7:21 PM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would definitely pull the age card here. You are a grown woman, you are entitled to have a relationship with both of your parents on an individual basis that has nothing to do with her relationship with your father. She's too old to be pulling a guilt trip on you with regards to this and even if it's hurtful for her to hear you say that, you most definitely should. Say it and mean it because it's true.
posted by h00py at 4:30 AM on August 15, 2014

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