Setting new parent-child boundaries
May 29, 2017 1:27 PM   Subscribe

I'm in my early 30s, single (and not looking for a partner), and successful in my career. I've had a good relationship with my mother my whole life, including when I was a teenager, but she's become increasingly judgmental and controlling of my life choices, which makes me feel resentful toward her. How do I change this pattern and establish more effective boundaries for dealing with my mom as an adult?

(OK, I know the standard answer to this kind of question is therapy, which I am open to, but I have crap insurance right now that doesn't pay for anything counseling or psych related except hospitalization. So while recommendations for low-cost therapy services in the Philadelphia area are appreciated, I also need suggestions that are actually feasible for me to do right now. Apologies in advance for wall o' text.)

When I was in college, I was in a very good relationship with someone I loved very much. He was not part of our ethnic minority/immigrant group, and my mother continually made snide comments about interracial couples (never in front of him). I would tell her to stop, leave the room, etc, and she would change her behavior for a little while, then "forget" and start up again.

Eventually, Boyfriend and I broke up after he cheated on me during what was later diagnosed as a manic episode. My mom took this as confirmation that she was right all along. I semi-rebounded into a relationship with a very charming guy who did not respect my sexual boundaries and over time, started to gaslight me; I stayed with him for years longer than I should have because I blamed myself for not being "good enough" for Boyfriend #1. I became depressed and suicidal, and one evening while visiting my parents, my mom found me holding a bottle of her muscle relaxant. She was understandably shaken, took away the pills, and sat with me for the rest of the night. When I finally worked up the courage to leave Boyfriend #2, she was a little more supportive, and even helped me financially until I got my feet back under me. (I am now financially independent, but I can't stress enough how grateful I am to my parents for helping me pay off loans in those earlier years.)

I have since sought care and been able to process both these failed relationships and am actually really happy being single right now. I did try online dating twice, but dislike the marketplace mindset and enjoy being able to do whatever the hell I want whenever I want. Unfortunately, my mom keeps trying to interfere in my life and career choices in the following ways:

-- Called an internship supervisor pretending to be me. Her justification? "Because you had been talking about applying for it, so I just did the groundwork for you." She now claims no memory of this.
-- Convinced me to turn down a job offer I loved for a place that, while nice enough, has not been a great fit, because the latter is in a more convenient location (3 hr drive from home rather than cross-country) and has more prestige.
-- Set up an account in my name on an online dating service favored by our ethnicity. My dad found this one out and made her shut it down. I've repeatedly told her that I do not want a relationship right now, and I don't want children ever, but she doesn't seem to hear that.

Things came to a head this Memorial Day Weekend, because my parents were visiting me and my mom started telling me to try online dating, because a couple of my friends found husbands that way. I told her to stop; she wouldn't, and when I tried to leave the apartment, she grabbed my forearm so hard she bruised it. My dad got her to let go, and I escaped. Had to walk a half mile to the grocery store in the rain to get ice to put on my arm. I stayed in the grocery till closing, then came home and went straight to bed. The next morning, I told her how hurt I was (both physically hurt as well as emotionally hurt that my mother could do something like that do me), and she apologized with tears. She did not, however, acknowledge that she had violated my boundaries re subject matter. Then today, after lunch, my mom was rearranging my cupboards for no reason other than to suit her idea of how a cupboard should look and shattered a commemorative wine glass that holds (held) significant sentimental value. It was an accident, but I got very upset, told them they could leave whenever they wanted. So they left.

I do not want to cut her out of my life, though the incident with my arm made me seriously think about kicking her out of my apartment right then. Most of the time, we have good phone conversations and visits, talking about books, watching comedies on Netflix, sightseeing locally or on vacations. The usual advice in a situation like this is to define a boundary with consequences (e.g. "If you keep talking about this I will leave") but what do you do when even those boundaries aren't respected? I don't want to let resentment build and then explode, as happened today. Is this abuse?
posted by basalganglia to Human Relations (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry you're going through that. It sounds like your dad is on your side and has stepped in to help on more than one occasion. Can you chat with him privately about these issues and see if he can do more? Maybe him telling her to knock it off will help the message sink in.
posted by joan_holloway at 1:50 PM on May 29, 2017

I think you're handling this pretty well, honestly. Personally, I would not call that abuse, but you know the label doesn't really matter; what matters is that her behaviour is hurting you.

Some suggestions:

You've been very good at describing the impact her actions are having on you, have you tried explicitly linking them to your mental health? "mom, when you do these things, it makes me feel like I did back when things were bad, do you understand that?"

Find a way to leverage your mum's feelings of love and care for you, but channeling them into productive ways that make her feel healthier. Can you ask for her assistance on something low pressure and meaningless?

But also, it's a carrot and stick approach. You might want to say (and then demonstrate), "mom when you use details of my personal life to do things that you know I wouldn't want you to do, it makes me not want to tell you anything about my life."

You could also use judiciously chosen lies, but in this case I would be wary because this is fundamentally about someone not understanding your needs, and lying won't help that.

Finally, there are some things, like the cupboard, they are profoundly annoying but you may have to put up with for the duration of a visit. View it as a long term project to change behaviour there. That is a thing that some parents do (my dad used to rearrange my furniture when he stayed sometimes!)

Best of luck, that really is some out of control boundaries. All you can do is firstly define the limits and then follow through. You sound like you're doing great.
posted by smoke at 2:24 PM on May 29, 2017

Best answer: Until you are in a place where you can afford or find low-cost therapy, MoodGym might be a help to you. Another suggestion might be to find a local psychology grad school program - they often have sliding-scale appointments with student therapists who need to get their supervised hours in.

As far as your mom is concerned - was she a stay-home parent or worked in a family business and put most of her identity into being a mother? Much of her behavior might be linked to worry and control issues. Are you an only child? I'm one, though not from an immigrant background, and I think the urge to "helicopter" an only child can be strong - My Only Legacy! My Only Chance For Grandchildren!

Is there an adult in your family besides your dad, or maybe a close family friend, or a religious leader, who might be able to intercede with your mom on your behalf? How is your mom's social life? Does she have support other than you and your dad? For that matter, how is your social life? Do you have a Team You? I hope there are people that you and your family can lean on, besides each other. If you don't have supportive friends, that might be something you can work on - it might not make a difference to how your mom treats you, but it will make all the difference to how you feel.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 2:56 PM on May 29, 2017 [4 favorites]

The usual advice in a situation like this is to define a boundary with consequences (e.g. "If you keep talking about this I will leave") but what do you do when even those boundaries aren't respected?

You leave. Don't set consequences that you're not willing to act on.

I think the way for this to work is probably going to be through your dad. You reiterate your boundaries with your mother, you make sure your dad is aware of them, and you make sure both she and he fully understand how serious you are about cutting mom out of your life for a while ("The next time this happens, I will not talk with you for a month"). Ask him to please help you keep her in check and help her understand how completely unacceptable she is being.

And then when she crosses the line again (and she absolutely will -- if you're lucky you'll see her getting closer and you'll get to warn her first), you go "no contact" for a month... and tell her that the next time will be no-contact for a month and no visits for a year. (Or whatever you're mentally prepared for... see the "Don't set consequences" line.)

Either she'll start to respect your boundaries or she'll find herself in no position to break them. Either option is better for you, I promise.
posted by toxic at 2:57 PM on May 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

You don't have to cut off contact but can you minimize your contact with her? When you talk you can avoid any topic you aren't interested in talking about and steer the conversation toward what she is doing, how is she spending her time, etc. You can be friendly and gracious through this, it will take some practice not to feel threatened, but you can do it. I think it's the only way if you really don't want to cut ties with her. Remember that you are in control of yourself, not her, and you need to stop putting yourself on the defensive around her. She will naturally use that dynamic to get pushy and nosy. Practice comments like "that is nice of you to ask but not something you need to worry about. And how do you like that new Netflix series?" Remember that you love her but you don't need to do or say anything just to make her happy.
posted by waving at 3:05 PM on May 29, 2017

Best answer: No matter where on the range from unhealthy to abusive this sits, it's valid that you feel unsettled or concerned about this and want to address it.

The Council for Relationships also offers individual therapy on a sliding scale. So does this therapist.
From my own search here, there seem to be a lot of therapists in Philly - I'm sure there are some that offer sliding scale for people who can't afford full price (and it's always worth asking if they don't offer it up-front). Also, as you look for one, you can meet with or try out several before you find one that's a good fit (it's a normal part of starting therapy so therapists aren't awkward about this). Listen to your gut - it will steer you toward folks who you feel comfortable talking with.

Also, this isn't therapy, but I've found it useful to read some of the advice on Captain Awkward, especially around boundary-violating family.

It's hard to fight for boundaries with family that disregard them, especially if it's part of a long standing dynamic. Good on you for taking care of yourself and looking for help. Hugs.
posted by Geameade at 3:33 PM on May 29, 2017

One suggestion that I have is that you shouldn't be leaving your own home when your mother breaks your boundary -- I think that how your mom might see it is more like "sulky teenager stomping off/eventually she'll realize I'm right and thank me for it" more than "adult asserting boundaries/attempting to keep situation from escalating/escaping from further physical harm." Instead of saying "leave whenever you want" you should flat out tell them that they need to leave because x,y, z. The former gives them control over the situation; the latter asserts that there are consequences to her actions.

Of course, this (and all the other great advice you've gotten or will get) is all easier said than done. I wish you tons of luck.
posted by sm1tten at 4:02 PM on May 29, 2017 [11 favorites]

(I want to add, of course, do whatever feels safest for you.)
posted by sm1tten at 4:14 PM on May 29, 2017

Seconding Captain Awkward!
I'd lock down information and situations which end up with mother stomping on boundaries. Little to no career/job searching information, relationship or lack thereof or lack of desire for information. Be vague or lie by omission, or just lie. "Job? Doing fine." Even if you are looking for a new job and had a promising interview: don't say that you're looking, or what the company is called, or where it is. If your mother violates your boundaries by interfering with your life in some way, don't arm her with more info about that area in the future.
And don't let them into your place again: she snorfles around like that and behaves badly toward you. Just shoot down any plan close to your place or end the activity far away from your place.
posted by sacchan at 4:19 PM on May 29, 2017 [5 favorites]

I went through something similar with my mother, and it was hard. She and I had been very close for most of my life (I am quite a bit older than you) and it was such a shock to have our relationship change from being so great to being pretty difficult.

I was very, very hurt by her, and I never saw it coming. I trusted her completely for most of the big issues in my life and never doubted her. But she changed toward me pretty dramatically, and one time I was just stunned at something she did to me that was just mean and hateful.

I set some pretty clear boundaries, mostly because I wanted to preserve my emotional health. It wasn't something I did overnight, I thought about it a lot, and talked it over with people. I did not want to have to do that, but it turned out to be a good thing. I think it saved me some major emotional pain.

It ended up that my mother was having some serious emotional problems, and eventually she developed an eating disorder. Which is another story altogether, but the point is, that it really wasn't about me after all.

You can work through this to preserve your own independence and sanity. Good luck.
posted by chocolatetiara at 5:41 PM on May 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Is your mom on some sort of medication? Going through hormonal changes? Exhibiting other exceptional behaviors?

I think your mom needs some sort of medical evaluation, because her behavior is escalating and I'm wondering what's going on there.

Also, what she did falls under the legal definition of felony assault and you could have her arrested if you wanted. I'm not saying to call the police, I'm just letting you know she assaulted you, and that comes with some trauma and some healing on your part. I know this because someone did something similar to me after a fender bender in a parking lot and I experienced some wild stuff afterwards, also the police who showed up asked me if I wanted to press charges and have the woman arrested. I had significant bruising the next day and sorta went into a tail spin for a few days where I got monumentally depressed and couldn't leave bed or cope.

Be gentle with yourself. Your mom sounds sick, so that would be my first approach. My second approach would be to keep visits short and only see her places you have an exit route pre-decided. I'm really sorry this is going on, I'm sorry your mom is acting like what she did wasn't egregious. It was. Take care of yourself.
posted by jbenben at 6:17 PM on May 29, 2017 [11 favorites]

Do not ever discuss either your current job or any job openings you're interested in wth her --- if she asks how work is, give bland no-answers like "work is fine." Nothing more. Ninety times never let her know of any interviews or internships, what companies they're with or where they're located.

Never discuss your personal life with her. Don't tell her one damn thing about your friends or possible dates. If she signs up on another online dating service, don't argue with her about it and definitely don't participate --- she cannot physically force you to go on a date or even communicate with someone online.

Stop letting her into your apartment: never let her in again. Meet your parents ONLY at their home or someplace public like a restaurant, places you CAN walk out of. Don't let her chase you out of your own home, keep that as a mother-free no-stress zone! (And if she has a key to your place, change the locks!)
posted by easily confused at 6:38 PM on May 29, 2017 [7 favorites]

I have had a lot of talk with my ordinary family lately, with regard to family matters. I am a mom in a similar situation, but not really. I can say this after polling family and friends, it is a common thread that you can't to parenting exactly right, you can not always be right, you did the best you could at the time. All of these people have been parents, with varying degrees of success, at least they are all still alive even with some severe medical problems.

Your mother may have never been anything else but a mother, and she is bored and feeling powerless at your place, so she arranges cabinets in the kitchen. This is benign.

She caught you before you could self harm, at one time, so she still feels protective. She grabbed your arm, that is not felony assault, and though it was surprising as an adult to have a physical happening with your mom, that is survivable. I don't know your ethnicity, but it is difficult to break out of the control that some societies feel a right to have, over their daughters, and even sons. In a lot of places cousin marriage is OK, and people have arranged marriages, to family members. That is difficult for me to imagine, as the whole thing is a dictatorship in the most intimate choices an adult can make.

You have to cut those apron strings, and find a way to be happy on your own. You have to define your boundaries, and figure out some formal activity you can do with your mom, it is worth saving the good parts of the relationship. Only if you want to, however, do this only if you want to.

A lot of hinges on the age difference between you and your mom. If she is 30-40 years older than you are, then you will start to see the effects of aging. From what I see, she wants you to get safely into a marriage, so she can stop worrying, and start meddling in some other way. It might be a cultural thing with her. She almost lost you, and she is holding on, literally. She doesn't want to lose your love, or you. She is just not able to do it right.

You need to find out what is right for you, and then carefully clue her in. Set your boundaries.
posted by Oyéah at 7:40 PM on May 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

Seconding jbenben here. It doesn't sound like your mom has a history of being violent with you or of breaking your things (either on purpose or through anxious clumsiness) and this escalation is worrying and might mean something is going on with her health. Laying hands on someone hard enough to leave a mark during an argument is a big deal. And yes, it is assault-- jbenben and I are saying this not because your mom is now a criminal and you should call the cops, but because suddenly becoming physically violent after a lifetime of not behaving that way is a sign that something isn't right. I would check out the resources on boundaries like Captain Awkward, but also encourage your parents to get your mom a checkup. Calling potential employers is one level of overbearing, but physical fighting is another level, and a concerning one.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 10:01 PM on May 29, 2017 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I have a good friend who is a psychiatrist, and once I asked him how to deal with difficult people in my life (I have to deal with a lot of people with personality disorders and psychiatric issues at work). He said "treat them like toddlers: give them two acceptable choices." So, in the same way that I tell my toddler that he can choose between the red shirt and the blue shirt (but wearing his bathing suit is not an option), when I was offering something to the difficult people I had to deal with, I started giving them only two acceptable choices. And just like toddlers, they didn't always accept that what they wanted wasn't an option at first. I had to keep at it, to show them that I really meant it, and every time they threw a tantrum or tried to bring up a different choice, I would just repeat "your only choices are A or B. That's not one of the choices."

Your mom reminds me of someone who needs to be treated like a toddler too (because she's certainly behaving like one, resorting to grabbing people who are trying to leave, and pretending she doesn't remember the things she's done) - and so you may have to be like the Supernanny, who enforces a bedtime routine by continually turning children back around and marching them back into their room until they get bored and realize that she means it and they're not going to be able to stay up later. She'll do it a hundred times if she needs to to get the message across.

Now, your mom is not really three years old, so she probably doesn't deserve a hundred chances to treat you like a jerk. However, just remember that when you try to train a person of any age, they naturally have not only a period of boundary testing, but also, unfortunately, often an "extinction burst" of bad behavior before they accept the boundary. So what do you do when your boundaries are not respected? Keep on going!

As a side note/on preview, I do agree that personality changes as a person ages can have a medical cause. Examples can be anything from depression to menopause to early dementia. You can't force her to get a check up, but might be worth mentioning to your dad in a "wow, mom never used to act like this... " kind of way.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:16 PM on May 29, 2017 [10 favorites]

Part of shifting those boundaries is shifting your own perspective. An example of this perspective shift is how at some point, we all realize "parents are people with feelings too!" And you might be a little young for this, but in the past couple years, I've even started to feel more protective of my parents. From the way they cared for their parents (worrying about falls, e.g.) I can see that this only increases over time. In your words, I still hear a fair bit of you reacting to how they treat you. But at some point, you might see yourself as more "the competent person in the driver's seat" whose job it is to keep the clown car on the road. I mean, sure, you could kick your mom out of the metaphorical car, but maybe you could keep the car on the road via milder interventions.

As a kid, there's the "you can't tell me what to do" reaction. But at some point, new reactions take hold, like (1) trying to learn what makes them act out, and doing so not out of self-protection but out of love and the adult instinct to look out for the people in your life, or like (2) talking to her about it with a sympathetic focus on the anxiety it raises in her. You might find that you start to think "oh, my poor mom, she gets so worried about whether or not I'm going to get married." It doesn't mean you should get married, but it might lead how you talk to her to shift.

All this mostly only applies with relatively well-balanced parents who just have a few quirks. But when you get less reactive, and think more like a person in the driver's seat, it also enables you to see them more clearly and to make decisions about possibly putting distance between yourselves (or not).
posted by salvia at 10:40 PM on May 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

Just as a side issue, my father-in-law has always been an easy-going pleasant and quiet person. He was recently diagnosed with the early stages of Dementia and he's changed dramatically -- getting angry with his kids and grandkids and generally being quite unpleasant to be around (unfortunately for my MIL). If you see significant changes in your parents it might be worth looking down some other avenues for a reason.
posted by tillsbury at 11:06 PM on May 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think the key points here are: you are in your early thirties, single, and have told your mother you don't want children. Are you an only child and thus her only chance for grandchildren?
posted by corb at 1:00 AM on May 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Not that this obligates you, but it might explain what's going on better.
posted by corb at 1:01 AM on May 30, 2017

I think your mother wants what's best for you. It's your role as an adult to let her know, and more importantly acknowledge to yourself, that you know better than she does what's best for you. Not sure what your ethnicity has to do with this.

You don't need therapy. You need to move away from your folks, and learn to put some distance between you. That's what growing up is about. You can have a very loving relationship with your parents whilst calling them twice a month and seeing them four times a year.
posted by Kwadeng at 1:48 AM on May 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I particularly appreciate learning about local and online resources (MoodGym is great, I did a module last night and plan to finish the rest of the program). I also like the sample language to redirect her when she brings up difficult subjects. I tend to fly off the handle (witness my response to a broken glass), so I like having specific, calm words to fall back on to avoid the "sulky teenager" impression.

To clarify a couple of points: my mom worked outside the home her entire adult life and was very well respected in a male dominated field (tech and finance, early 1980s-late 2000s) until she took early retirement. She was always a bit of an anxious personality and a meticulous planner, but was never a helicopter parent or controlling e.g. about my or my brother's grades, hobbies, choice of college, major, career choices, until recently. My brother lives much closer to our parents than I do (10 miles vs. 3-4 hour drive), so he has been subject to most of her "stopping by to drop off food" type events. A lot of this behavior started after she retired, so I suspect it's about her having more time on her hands which gets channeled into her sitting around worrying that her genes are going to disappear or whatever. She does some volunteer work, but it doesn't compare to a 50 hr workweek x 30 years. Likewise, her strong social group from work fizzled as people retired. So I think at least part of this is about her feeling lonely/not useful. She has had a recent general medical checkup, and I have been urging her to see a psychiatrist ever since I learned about generalized anxiety disorder in medical school.

Anyway, I sent separate emails to my parents last night, and talked with my dad on Hangouts, that her behavior (specifically, physically hurting me) was unacceptable and they are not welcome back in my apartment. Likewise, if she brings up a subject that she knows is painful or hurtful to me, the conversation is over. I told her that I enjoy talking to her and having her in my life, but if she cannot respect me as an adult, we cannot have a relationship. Annual family vacation is coming up in a month, so... we'll see.
posted by basalganglia at 3:56 AM on May 30, 2017 [8 favorites]

Likewise, if she brings up a subject that she knows is painful or hurtful to me, the conversation is over.

This is a fine way to handle it.

While I was scrolling past the other answers I was composing one in my head, and I'll type it, even though it's possibly extraneous.

If possible, when she gets too far in your business about dating choices and job choices you could say "That's a painful topic. (small pause). I'd like us to have a nice visit." And if she takes the hint, great, otherwise follow with a stopping gesture or an insistence on changing to subject. But I think, since you said you want to maintain the relationship, it's desirable to be explicit that the comments hurt you. (Unless this makes you feel too vulnerable.)
posted by puddledork at 7:39 AM on May 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

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