How do I start distancing from a toxic clingy mother?
September 12, 2018 5:55 AM   Subscribe

I'm 26 years old Asian female, and mom is 52 years old. I'm her only child and I lived with her and my dad in their house until about a year ago. I now live 2 hours away with a fiance, and we would visit a couple times a month. Mom and I used to be very close and we had very little boundary. She doesn't have good relationship with my dad or any relatives, so she sees me as a source of entertainment, demanding mother-daughter trips to the mall every weekend.

For the past year, I'm expected to call her everyday for about 30-60 mins each. On the weekends, I might get up to 5 phone calls a day since she knows I'm off work. The relationship has turned toxic due to her constantly wanting to know about every aspect of my life, especially my finances and exploiting them. She wants me to give back by straight up asking me to buy her nice gifts, taking her on vacations, etc. She also tells me to keep secrets from my fiance that might make her look bad, such as her demands for those things. Our conversations these days feel forced to me and I dread talking to her since I constantly feel like walking on thin ice; any info I accidentally disclose could cause her to berate me, control me, guilt trip me. For example, yesterday I told her about my outfit selections for my engagement photo session and she started berating me, calling me cheap, embarrassing for wanting to wear an old dress that I love and have worn on multiple occasions. She's a believer that you don't wear the same thing twice in photos. I'm at my wits end and want to reduce contact with her but don't know where to start without her taking it as abandonment and punishment.
posted by missybitsy to Human Relations (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Here are a couple of resources for you:
Captain Awkward
Dr. Nerdlove

without her taking it as abandonment and punishment.
The key to this part is she's gonna feel how she's gonna feel and you can't manage her emotions for her. It's going to take a while for both of you to adjust to the new reality.

Congrats on your engagement!
posted by foxjacket at 6:30 AM on September 12, 2018 [13 favorites]

I can all but guarantee she will "read" the experience of you developing appropriate boundaries as abandonment and punishment.

So accepting that and making plans to accommodate it is an core part of the whole "setting and enforcing boundaries" approach. One thing you can do to set yourself up for success as you go forward, is to start small. Yeah, even smaller than that. And here's the key part: be absolutely 100% consistent. That's why you have to start small, because you have to keep it up or you risk giving your mother mixed messages and that will make it more painful and drawn-out than otherwise. And it will be at least a somewhat painful process for both of you. Take that into account and make sure you have some good self-care on board.

You might find resources online or books about 'boundaries' and/or 'assertiveness' helpful. But a good therapist will be able to give you tailored coaching and support.

What you want is totally do-able, and once you've established healthier boundaries with your mother, you will both be so much happier.

You deserve this and your marriage deserves this.
posted by dancing leaves at 7:02 AM on September 12, 2018 [10 favorites]

So I'm in a similar boat, and half my family is from the Asian continent but a different culture, and the main reaction I always have when I hear things like this is to scream 'don't let 'culture' and 'tradition' justify things that are abusive!' It is racist and insulting in my mind, even from within my own culture and in my experience, to accept that aggressive belittling and insults and demands to lie, etc., are just part of the story. I do not agree, and I think it's rather a convenient cover for the large number of abusive humans in the world, and it works to maintain social cohesion in communal cultures, so the abuse doesn't unravel everything -- but culture does not excuse or justify it even a tiny bit in my mind. Plenty of my family members have 'overbearing' parents, but they weren't torn apart, called names, asked to lie, etc., like I was, and they are from the same culture as I am. Sorry if I'm being presumptuous with the above, but it's a major element in my life, and my main wish in life is that I had extricated myself in my 20s, rather than late 30s, and had a better perspective on things rather than explaining it all away via 'culture.'

Anyway, I only managed to extricate myself because my then-fiance took the lead in helping me write an email, explaining that I was taking space and would not be available for that level or tone of contact. I don't even remember what the email said, but it was fairly minimalist. I think part of the reason it worked (her calls and constant harassment almost stopped entirely), is that in the email I mentioned that my fiance was fully supportive of my email-- and i believe the male power element came into it, but mainly I believe she felt shame that her actions were very much witnessed by others and she couldn't hide it and had better get on better behavior stat. She is still a total narcissist, but narcissists HATE having others see their gross behavior, so that could work in your favor since she knows what she has been doing is indefensible and makes her look terrible.

After my email, I did something call Grey Rock and just gave away nothing. When I was asked questions, I would give the most bland answer. I wouldn't rise to any requests for info, and I would deflect and change the subject and be as boring and bland and non-informative as possible. It can be amazingly effective, because all the fodder for belittling usually disappears without information, and rather than having to regularly confront/restate your position, it just takes the wind out of their sails and sometimes they really calm down. It can help when you aren't in a position to cut them out of your life. I recommend it. It won't make her a relaxed, supportive, happy person, but it may make it possible to make it through occasional interaction without feeling totally depleted and empty and depressed afterward. Good luck with it all!
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 7:08 AM on September 12, 2018 [16 favorites]

To add to your resources, check out r/justnomil on Reddit. Great community with people facing similar issues as you described here.
posted by snowysoul at 7:38 AM on September 12, 2018

There are a lot of things about how she shouldn't take it this way, someone who grew up in a very different but still traditional culture, have you tried saying your fiancé doesn't like it when you spend so much time on the phone? Usually, especially if you have a fiancé that doesn't come from a culture like that, it has the benefit of actually being true, too. I know it plays into some very old-fashioned stereotypes, but with that generation I find using their impressions of those stereotypes are sometimes way easier. "Oh, Mom, I can't talk on the weekends, my fiancé wants me to pay attention to him." I now have only about one call a week with my mother while I am running errands and she understands this without feeling abandoned - down from every day calls.
posted by corb at 7:47 AM on September 12, 2018 [5 favorites]

without her taking it as abandonment and punishment.

She is ALREADY taking it as abandonment and punishment, and she's freaking out about it, and that's why she's belittling you (so that you'd feel like you still need her) and that's why she's constantly trying to ascertain that you still care about her (through demands of gifts), perhaps more so than you do your fiance (hence the secrets-keeping)

You haven't drawn the line yet, but she knows it's coming and is preemptively reacting to her own seperation anxiety. And it's not your fault that she feels this way; nor is it your responsibility to soothe her, even though you may have been taught to believe these things.

If it helps, you can think of the whole thing as helping your mother learning to tolerate growing pain. This isn't fundamentally different from letting a young child fall while learning to ride a bike, and the best thing you can do is to let her live through the discomfort so that she can know she'd be fine. Remind youreslf that you are not hurting her by shoring up your boundaries.

I have/had/am still having a somewhat similar experience as a daughter of first gen Asian immigrants in North America. I may have projected a little too much in my response above...but if it resonates with you, you are also extremely welcomed to MeMail directly. Individuation is a really hard and painful thing, which is compounded by culturally shaped habits, concepts of relationships, boundaries, as well as the immigrant conditions. So I salute you, that's what I'm saying.
posted by redwaterman at 8:48 AM on September 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

I do not come from a first generation or Asian family, so the only thing I can offer is that you are articulate about how your are getting increasingly frustrated by her behaviour without mentioning if you've ever stated a boundary or pushed back.

Foe example, you can tell her that you and your SO have made the decision to join your finances in advance of the wedding, and that if she doesn't want him to know about her gift requests, then she needs to not make them.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:28 AM on September 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

She also tells me to keep secrets from my fiance that might make her look bad, such as her demands for those things.

If it seems reasonable, you might push back against this with, "Mom, I am planning on spending the rest of my life with this man. I don't want to start our time together with secrets. I know we'll each have some things that are private, but right now, I'm working on building a shared life with him; I'm not going to keep a list of things I'm not supposed to tell him."
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:59 PM on September 12, 2018

"I dread talking to her since I constantly feel like walking on thin ice; any info I accidentally disclose could cause her to berate me, control me, guilt trip me. ... I'm at my wits end and want to reduce contact with her but don't know where to start without her taking it as abandonment and punishment."

This isn't a feature of any one culture - it is abuse, which sadly is a feature of all cultures in some form.

Whatever limits or boundaries you set, even small ones, she is going to interpret as abandonment and punishment. She is already reacting that way to you living 2 hours away with your fiance. So just do what is best for your mental health.

As you unmesh from this relationship you will feel enormous guilt, obligation and fear; it's scary but it's normal in the sense that every kid who has gone through this with a parent has felt those emotions. Get a therapist to support you through the process of establishing healthy boundaries. Being able to Grey Rock is a good skill to learn. You will eventually learn to be able to say no without feeling like shit about it. Maintain a physical distance from her; move no closer. Keep her on an information diet - don't tell her things if you suspect she will use it to manipulate you.

Train her by teaching her what is appropriate: if she starts to verbally abuse you on the phone, hang up. If you're visiting her and she starts verbally abusing you or otherwise behaving inappropriately, leave. If she sends you messages or emails to berate, control, and guilt trip you, don't respond to them - but respond to the neutral or positive ones, if you get any.
posted by zdravo at 11:27 PM on September 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

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