How to reconcile a loving relationship with an abuser?
June 12, 2018 8:43 AM   Subscribe

Sometimes the memories of childhood trauma and abuse perpetuated by my mother can return with great force — either inspired by current stresses or more recently, watching the Patrick Melrose series on Showtime. I’m so grateful that my mother is so much happier now that I’m an adult and that we have a loving, healthy relationship. Yet, when I feel the pain of my childhood so acutely it can be difficult to reconcile the mother of my childhood with how she is now. I’m not quite sure how to describe it — I feel like I’m living a lie in some way, or torn in two, or that celebrating what we have now is discounting or even perpetuating my childhood pain and isolation.

While I was cared for physically as a child, I suffered a significant amount of emotional abuse from my mother, from the ages of 7-17. Her past actions fit a borderline diagnosis — angry outbursts full of contempt and cruelty at any perceived criticism combined with threats of dramatic self-harm, days and sometimes a week of silent treatment. I was constantly blamed, and even as a 7-year old had to walk on eggshells and live in constant fear that I would anger her or lose her to suicide. It was an exceedingly painful childhood full of deep despair and loneliness. She is intelligent, charming and generous and few people knew how she treated me which furthered my sense of isolation. But I survived, it took decades to recover with therapy and self-care and am more or less a functioning adult. Over the last 15 years with hard work her mental health has been consistently improving and I doubt she would have a diagnosis of BPD today. Probably about 6 years ago I was able to stop being so scared of her and today we have a lovely relationship and live in the same area. I have no doubt she loves me and wants me in her life (and I feel the same!), and can now often be a source of support for me. She has vaguely acknowledged that my childhood was difficult, but I don’t think she fully remembers or can cope with the guilt of what happened. That is ok, I know she was mentally ill, had a very difficult childhood and was trying her best. I think it would be cruel to bring it up. I also know that if I raised it she would most likely react with gas-lighting and cruelty.

My therapist keeps wanting me to discuss my anger toward her in therapy, but I fear that if I really "go there" this disjunction will be too much and I will face losing her again as a parent. Also, any anger that surfaces is such an awful impotent anger which makes me feel helpless and ultimately worse. I apologize if this is muddled and without a clear question. I guess I’m wondering if anyone else has had a similar experience and how you make sense of the disjunction between the past and present when it comes to an abusive parent? How did you handle it?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I also had a traumatic childhood caused by certain family members. It is not easy but I have been working in therapy to recognize the trauma of what I went through as a kid. And would really encourage you to start working through it in therapy. It was really helpful to deal with my anger and disappointment in having a truly fucked up childhood, and also to learn how to set boundaries, to recognize when I am feeling fragile and being able to really put those boundaries in place.

As far as reconciling the past and the present, the best way I have found to deal with this that the things that happened in the past, happened to people that are now dead. It is all history - it really happened - but the family members are dead and the traumatized kid who had to go through all of that is also dead. This has allowed Adult-Me to maintain relationships with the people from my past. (This is also something that came out of my therapy and may not be a one-size-fits-all approach).

I'm sorry you are having to deal with this. It is really, really hard. I am proud of you for facing it head on.
posted by pi at 9:07 AM on June 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Your mom is your mom. You wouldn't be here without her, and you're wired to love her. But she caused you a great deal of unnecessary hurt, which looms larger since she's your mom. It's normal and ok for you to love her, in spite of what she did, but it's also normal and ok for you to be angry at her. It sounds like she is now in a place where you could have a fuller, more enjoyable relationship if you could get past the anger. This is what therapy is for. It's a controlled setting where you can work through the anger and get to a better place. If your therapist is any good, they have experience and training dealing with this anger, and ought to be able to guide you through it without making things worse. I think you should give it a try.
posted by ubiquity at 9:09 AM on June 12, 2018

I have a very similar mother (very similar childhood). In addition, I have an abusive ex husband who is an excellent co-parent to our kids. So believe me, I know about this constant crazymaking tug-of-war in your head that goes, "My relationship with them is totally different now, so I should just feel better towards them already!" vs. "They hurt me and I'm still hurting and is there any room in this universe for my hurt and anger?"

I don't have any answers for you. I myself compartmentalize the hell out of my life.

When interacting with my abusers, I seem to genuinely fall back into the place of feeling lovely towards them as if I was still in a place where I like them and love them? As if I was still trying to please them, maybe? It's all habit and social programming that comes out in those times. I go on autopilot and try to make small talk at times when I could totally walk away if I wanted to (and I do want to!) - but find myself compelled to perform social graces.

At other times, especially when I am writing, I feel this magical, deep understanding and peace at the thought that the power balance between me and my abusers has now flipped on its head; they are no longer a threat to me, and I am free to be as kind to them as I like without the risk of being abused or being threatened with abuse if I don't feel like interacting with them sometimes. It's wonderful knowing this deep in my bones and I wish I could hold on to this knowledge.

And then again, usually when I am processing my feelings in therapy, I feel like I must be mad to treat them like well, I must be mad to still keep these people in my life voluntarily. Why can't I let myself be angry and vindictive and righteously indignant to their faces? What the fuck is wrong with me that I am such a goody-two-shoes who apparently swallows all my anger and always shows a sweet face? Where IS my anger? Where IS my vituperation? and etc etc etc.

It never fucking ends, I wonder when it will or whether it will. But this much I do know: no matter how many times I spiral around to feeling these same old familiar feelings, each time I see it through a slightly different lens. Each time I learn something new about myself and about my relationship with them. So I would encourage you to dive into it, explore it, let it take you where it may. Trust yourself and your therapy to know that however your relationship with your mother is impacted by your process, the end result WILL be more authentic and more congruent with who you really are, how you really feel. That's worth pursuing. Go for it!
posted by MiraK at 9:12 AM on June 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

The only way I myself have been able to cope with this disjointed feeling was through DBT (rather than CBT) therapy. The best tactic/tool I found was the replacement of ", but..." with ", and..." so for example, instead of saying "My XXX was abusive and neglectful, but I should feel glad we have a decent relationship now," I say, "My XXX was abusive and neglectful, and I feel glad we have a decent relationship now." Being able to accept that both are true is the ongoing work of my DBT. The rejection of the word "should" has also played a big part in my own recovery from trauma.

It's possible that the treatment modality of your current therapist isn't working for you - if you are concerned that expressing your anger during sessions will put you in a dark place, a good opener to discuss this concern is to say things like, "My treatment goal is X, and I am concerned that your suggestion of Y will result in Z rather than X. How can we work on getting me closer to X?"
posted by juniperesque at 9:27 AM on June 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

My mom was extremely stressed by her marriage, and as a result, sometimes snapped or was unavailable, while being loving and supportive when she was able to be. There were moments when she was relaxed and present, but this wasn’t consistent. It was confusing, to say the least. Post-divorce, which happened in my late teens, she was a different woman - happier, *much* less prone to reactivity, more consistently awesome. But my developmental years happened with someone else. She feels deep guilt for that time (which I’ve tried to ease, but).

I’m at peace with all this now. The way I handled it was by switching between perspectives when I considered the past. (Past a certain age, I mean. I was pretty miffed as a teen, and expressed it then. Which is one reason she feels guilty, I think. In my early twenties, once I heard the full story (I knew bits, previously), I found it impossible to stay angry at her.)

So I would look at the past from two different perspectives and keep them distinct. With my adult perspective, I understood and fully embraced, with empathy, that this was a flawed person, doing her best under difficult circumstances, with little support. I knew that no one chooses unhappiness for themselves or their children if they have the skills or opportunity to choose otherwise. I seriously doubt I could have done better, in her shoes. I released my anger through understanding.

At the same time, it is true that my younger self suffered as a result of those circumstances. And, that I’m still probably working out kinks in my emotional makeup that came out of that. I recognize that this was unfair. That ideally, every child should have consistently loving, stable parents. (I note at the same time, though, that not much is fair, and that some people had and have it much worse. This isn’t to minimize the hurt I experienced, which was real and valid on its own terms, but to accept reality and put my experience into context. None of us escapes hurt, it’s part of the human condition. The challenge we all face is to use that hurt to grow and learn to be better at being happy [or content, if you want to call it that. Productive and connected with others around us, finding or creating purpose. Which may or may not be connected with the hurt we experienced, it’s both up to us and depends on where we’re at.)

The child that was hurt was wronged. The person who was a vehicle for the wrongness did it from lack of ability or knowledge in how to do better. It’s up to us to find ways to make sense of the hurt and to heal it.

(One way to do that is by consciously addressing how that hurt affects you now, in your current relationships.)

There’s nothing wrong, though, in taking the child’s perspective for a while, and voicing the impact of that hurt, with someone who’s equipped to hear it without burdening you with having to deal with how that affects them (ie your mom). Your therapist is giving you space for that, you should take it. Voicing the hurt, articulating the damage it caused, will allow you to find ways to be less bound by that pain and freer to experience emotions (and other experiences) beyond it.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:28 AM on June 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

Much of your question resonated with me. I'm sorry, I don't have a solution to offer. This is a problem I am still working through in my own life. But I want to tell you (in case you find it helpful) that I see something in your question that may be part of why you are feeling so stuck. You describe your relationship with your mother as existing in two phases, the bad phase during your childhood, and the better phase now. But it seems to me that both when you were a child and now, you consider yourself to be responsible for your relationship with your mom, and for her feelings. When you were a child, this responsibility was part of the emotional abuse that was imposed on you. No child is, or can be, responsible for an adult's emotions, or for how that adult treats them. And, while it's a bit different when a relationship is between two adults, you still seem to me to be taking on much too much of the burden of your mom's feelings and actions. It's actually not your job to make her happy, or to keep her happy enough that she doesn't lash out at you cruelly. It's not your job to help your mom keep secrets from herself about how she made you feel, and if being honest with her means that she hurts you or abandons you, that won't be your fault. She is responsible for her feelings and actions, not you. If she is unhappy because you are honest with her, it's her job - especially as your mother - to protect you from any difficult feelings she may have in reaction to what you honestly share.

Consider mourning the mother you will never have, despite the wonderful progress your mom has made. It's OK for you to decide that a relationship built to some extent on lies about the past is good enough for you. But it's also OK for you to decide that you want to be honest with your mom about the things that she did to you, and how that made you feel then, and how it makes you feel now. And if, as a result of your honesty, she feels bad or does bad things, that won't make you bad. You were not bad when you were a child, no matter how upset she got. And you are not bad now.
posted by prefpara at 9:37 AM on June 12, 2018 [5 favorites]

I think you need to figure out what you want from your mom. It's not a simple question - do you want an apology? Do you want her to listen to your experiences and validate them?

Therapy can be a good place to work on this, but it sounds like you're leery about "going there." That's great and very important that you have a sense of the danger this represents for you. I hope your therapist will honor your reservations and help you find a way to process your experiences without it feeling too out of control for you.

Some ways that I've found useful to work with traumatic pasts is to help the client approach it in a way that honors their sense of danger. So, for example, setting time frames that are do-able - can you talk about this stuff for one minute? For 10? Do so, and then take a break and indulge in self-care.

Another good approach can be writing about this, rather than talking about it - again, setting time limits. A metaphor that has helped has been to think about this like entering a swimming pool that you don't know much about, other than that it's deep. Put a toe in first, then take a break. Then your feet, and so on.

BTW, if you can figure out what you want from her, she might or might not be able to supply it, but that's a different story.
posted by jasper411 at 9:41 AM on June 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Reading answers with interest. I don't have one, myself.

Mostly, I try to consider it my job to keep the boundaries solid and be normal. But I often resent the stark difference what people see and believe - and what my mother sells - and the full story.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:52 AM on June 12, 2018

I'm also in the middle of navigating something similar. The bit about having parents who were charming and high-functioning enough that no one suspected how abusive they were at home really resonates (nothing sticks in my throat ten years later more than all the praise and accolades they got when I was accepted by a very good university and everyone was lining up to tell them what a good job they did, how many things they must have done right in raising me - and me standing there with my fake smile thinking "not only did they do nothing to help, they actively made it harder in ways I can't even begin to articulate"). It's so horrifyingly invalidating when everyone else thinks your parents was fine, maybe even great. I get this.

Around 2014 I was seriously considering going no-contact with them, but then my dad died suddenly in December that year and it turned out my mother was basically not really a functioning adult and she'd been mostly hiding this behind getting my dad to do stuff for her for years. As soon as he died she expected me and my sister to step into the husband role and we kind of have to some extent, which is interesting because the power dynamics are very different now.

I feel enough of a sense of obligation towards her now that my dad's dead that I've stayed in touch, but it's been more on my terms. My dad was more abusive in the second part of my life (age ~12 to when he died) because he was an angry, violent misogynist who couldn't handle being challenged by women, and as my sister and I grew up and became actual people this seemed to trigger his anger more and more.

But my mother was definitely the more abusive parent from birth to puberty, I think more because of bad untreated anxiety and being emotionally abused by my dad to some extent and generally not being able to deal with having two small kids that she didn't especially want in the first place. I feel worse for her than I do for my dad; I think she got a rougher deal and she did get better as we got older and she continues to get better now but her understanding of how her words and actions affect other people emotionally is still a work in progress. She's shown willingness to learn since my dad died, though, which is partly why I maintain the relationship - she's thanked me for giving her feedback about how her behaviour made me feel and asked me to continue to tell her stuff like this.

It's not totally comfortable, as she's still in denial about a lot of what went on, particularly when we were very young. She would go for days without speaking to me over minor infractions and make me grovel and plead for my mother to start communicating with me again. And now she's like, "hey, give me feedback on how my actions make you feel! but also you're exaggerating most of your memories of my behaviour during your childhood, it wasn't that bad" and I'm like you're twenty years too late and still in too much denial for us to ever really connect.

So, how I deal with it. There's very little trust there. She's not a direct communicator so I'm always looking for the subtext and she gets the least charitable reading until proven to have better intentions. I make sure I don't need her financial or emotional support. I feel no shame about taking breaks from talking to her if she's pissing me off or we're miscommunicating, or if I'm getting more flashbacks related to her behaviour or talking about it more in therapy, or if I just straight up don't feel like talking to her for a while. Sometimes messages go unanswered, it's okay. We're both emotionally low-key enough that this doesn't cause drama.

I also limit contact to text messaging and maybe three in-person visits per year max, which also works for both of us as neither of us are phone people. If I stay at her house, I bring my partner, as he's accepted and well-liked by both my mother and my sister but he's still sufficiently out-group and they're concerned enough about outwards appearances that they won't usually pull their absolute worst behaviour when he's there too.

It might cause hurt feelings on her side, but since she never talks frankly about how things like that make her feel, I'm unlikely ever to hear about it. I have to put it out of my mind. I am going to hurt her at least a little just by being her child, because she hurt me so much, and failed to protect me from so much other hurt, when I was a kid. I try to be kind and compassionate where I can but I also don't have the emotional resources - as a direct consequence of her parenting - to handle all of her feelings or make our relationship frictionless. When I was a kid I more or less had to make the relationship frictionless (impossible job), else I would get punished or yelled at. Now she has very limited power over me I no longer feel bound to suit her needs perfectly.

I consciously limit the amount of information I give her about myself and my life, based on years of experience that she cannot be trusted to handle information about me tactfully, confidentially or considerately. She was the person who said I wasn't allowed to tell my grandma I'd been diagnosed with bipolar disorder because it would worry her too much, and she was also the person who casually mentioned a few years later that she'd told my grandma, my dad's cousin and my aunt (whom none of us like!) about my diagnosis without my knowledge or consent. So she doesn't get to know any more.

I don't generally ask her for advice about life; at best I'll ask advice about a practical thing if I don't know how to do it. She and my sister ask me for advice often and I am free with my honest opinion. They are guess-people, every communication is a game of guessing people's hidden intentions and reading things into every gesture, and I just cannot live like that. I dispense advice from the Captain Awkward pragmatic-about-feelings-and-communication school and consider it free education on how emotionally healthy people handle stuff. Like so many of the things that went wrong in my childhood, it's not her fault (in this case that she also didn't know how to deal with feelings for various reasons and then did a lousy job teaching us) but she could have done better. Actually, I like the DBT phrasing above a lot. It's not her fault and she could have done better. This feels like a helpful way of reconciling some of the cognitive dissonance between the parent you remember them to be and the person they are now.

I use her forename when I refer to her, both in my head and out loud. [mother's name] and the person I called Mum growing up are in a very real sense two completely different people to me. It did feel like a personality change when she started mellowing out a tiny bit in my teens. Sometimes I take advantage of the tremendous potential for compartmentalisation and packing difficult feelings away that PTSD offers and just straight up relate to the person I have a relationship with today as a different person. It's easier to maintain the relationship that way. I'm doing a bunch of self-integration and un-compartmentalising work in therapy at the moment and I'm genuinely concerned that doing deeper trauma work than I've ever done before will erode some of my ability to continue to have a relationship with her.

I try to declaw her in my mind, to take some of the sting and the fear out of her (mother/monster/monolith). She's nearly 60 and she's very emotionally stunted and ill-equipped to live in the world. She relied a lot socially on a husband who was also at least somewhat abusive towards her. She got talked into having some kids she didn't want. She's always been shy and introverted and it feels like she never found her real self and has given up on the idea at this point (I've suggested therapy countless times but there are some serious internal barriers in there). When I think about her like that, I feel sorry for her. Put someone else's face on that story and I feel nothing but pity and sympathy.

Along with the advice-giving, I take authority in situations where she and my sister are anxious or need adult reassurance or confident decision-making (or, like, for me to walk into the restaurant first, that's the level of husbanding she requires). My dad's death left a power vacuum in the family, and I kind of feel like my role now is to fill that gap as best I can, but to do it benevolently and in a way that's more healing than hurtful - be firm and decisive when needed, help them solve their problems, but also do as much coaching and encouragement about how feelings work and how useful therapy is as I can. My dad wore us down with rage, now I want to wear us down with messages like "it is okay to be a person and have needs" and "you're allowed to feel whatever you're feeling".

Finally, I try to be as aware as I can of the fact that all three of us (me, mother & sister) have hair-trigger buttons that the others can push in fractions of a second. Habitually our fighting style was always to go from zero to nuclear as quickly as possible, escalating with every response. I have to be super conscious when I'm spending time with her in person that I can get irrationally angry before I realise it's even happened. I try to process my thoughts and feelings more consciously while I'm interacting with her, take a step back and de-escalate as much as I can, avoid certain topics, and generally just stay aware that if I'm starting to get mildly annoyed, rage is probably moments away and I really do not want to lose my shit in front of her any more.

She gets a cold front. I feel like I'm parenting her sometimes (I probably actually am in some ways), and part of that is ignoring the bad toddler behaviour she still tries to pull sometimes. I try to make it constructive, use therapy language or reframe the problem if I think she'll be receptive to it, but ultimately she just does not get a reaction out of me any more. When everyone is used to screaming awful insults at each other, silence and non-reaction can be surprisingly powerful. This is still a huge work in progress for me but at least now I know that reacting is a choice.
posted by terretu at 11:30 AM on June 12, 2018 [5 favorites]

That is ok, I know she was mentally ill, had a very difficult childhood and was trying her best. I think it would be cruel to bring it up. I also know that if I raised it she would most likely react with gas-lighting and cruelty.

This is really troubling. You cannot have an open, healthy, and loving relationship with a parent who would only address past hurt with gaslighting and cruelty. That you view talking openly about these things--huge, formative parts of your childhood that were negatively impacted by her behavior--as "cruel" says to me that you're still prioritizing her emotions, still walking on eggshells, still afraid.

And that's probably why you can't get past it. Because you're still in it--frankly, still in a relationship with your abuser. And you still, rightfully, fear abusive repercussions to conversations that, in a genuinely normal, loving family, would be fine and safe.

I can't tell you what to do. I know it took me thirty-four years to be willing to risk losing my mother. I know that other people's encouragement to go no-contact would make me feel afraid and defensive. My mother's behavior was outwardly better than it had been in my adolescence (less outright verbal abuse and no physical) but I honestly think what was really happening there was not that she got better, but that I was working much harder to manage her reactions. I did this by talking less about myself (to avoid triggers), tamping down my actual hurt at small cruelties, lots of management around the length and settings of visits. I was working really, really hard all the time so that she wouldn't hurt me.

Part of this was that instinctive love for a parent--especially one, who, despite being sometimes terrible could also be wonderful. Part of it was that I didn't want to embarrass myself. I didn't want other people in my professional and personal network to know what a mess my childhood and my life was, despite my successful, and functional adulthood. I wanted to fit in with other people, who had normal, loving moms. I wanted to seem like I was okay. And I think no matter what happens, you'll have to do some mourning. You do not have a loving, normal mother.

A third part has been harder to pick apart, and has only come with lots and lots of encouragement from a really good therapist. Because I was trained to protect her, to present an outward mode of behavior that appeared respectable because she found that personally flattering. I was trained to minimize my pain and gaslight myself. I was trained really, really well.

Not well enough, because it all fell apart anyway, despite my best efforts. For me, it only truly exploded once my own child was born and it became more clear not only that her treatment of child-me was wrong but that she would also continue to sow abuse in front of and directed toward my kid. The worst of it came back (meaning: physical abuse directed toward me when my kid was right there), and even then, I didn't totally cut off contact, because what kind of person would cut off contact from their mother? It took me more than five months of her verbal abusing and gaslighting me to say enough. Even now, I sometimes feel like I exist in a shaky liminal space. It's really, really scary to do that thing you've been trained is catastrophic.

You are probably not there yet, not if you can't even be angry in the company of your therapist without fearing losing your mother. But if I could say anything to past me, it would be that I was worth it and that I am so, so strong. You can get past this. You have people who love and support you. You deserve to be treated well, and not conditionally well.

Here are some resources that might help you:
Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers
Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Back Your Life When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder
The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence
Reddit's Raised by Narcissists community
Issendai's blog posts on Estranged Parents' Communities

That's not to say that I think genuine healing is impossible, but in every case where I've seen that happen--including with my spouse--the abusive parent has genuinely apologized and made it clear they would never again engage in that behavior. There's nothing in your post to indicate that has happened here, so no wonder you feel anxious!
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:02 PM on June 12, 2018 [20 favorites]

After working for a good long while in CBT and cognitive therapy on generalized trauma, my therapist and I focused in on a similar dynamic for me, and after we worked on it for a good long while, we recognized that some of my issues recalling trauma are very PTSD-like. She recommended, and I am pursuing, EMDR therapy to treat that PTSD-like freezing-up sensation when I recall the shitty things Mom used to do with me. I think/hope it's helping. Feel free to drop me a line if you have questions about it, or want to know how it turns out (my appt. on Monday will be the 3rd or probably 8 or 12 sessions).
posted by kalessin at 4:00 PM on June 13, 2018

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