Should I go to counseling with my mother?
November 18, 2018 9:00 PM   Subscribe

Two-part question: 1) Would it be beneficial to see a therapist with my mother in attempt to rebuild our relationship? I stopped speaking to her over a year ago and have been much happier since, but my other family members won't stop arguing with me over the decision. 2) What things should I look for in a therapist in this situation?

Apologies for the length. Trying to efficiently sum up a 30+ year relationship to give proper context to this question.

About a year ago, I got into an intense argument with my mother that ended in me deciding not to speak to her anymore. We frequently fought and there were numerous occasions where I attempted to cut her out before this instance, but this was the first time it stuck.

For some background, my mother had been emotionally abusing/gaslighting me for decades. When I was a child, she would at best ignore me, but her go-to tactic was usually to openly mock me anytime I showed an emotion deemed too much for the situation. Situations like being relentlessly bullied at school (both verbally or physically) and crying in response.

In my teenage years, she added punching me in the face. The first and only time I fought back, she had me committed to a mental institution under the guise that I was 'violent and a danger to others'. As an adult, our relationship remained toxic, albeit in a more subtle way.

The day before I stopped talking to her entirely, we had gotten into a argument because she backed out of a loan she agreed to give me to help with cross-country moving expenses. I was initially pretty pissed because she was backing out days before the scheduled move and I had planned a lot of it based around the financial help she was supposed to give me.

Later I decided that money was not something worth being in conflict over, so I called her the next day to apologize and let her know that I respect whatever decisions she wants to make with her own money. Instead of being gracious and moving on, her response was to reinforce at length why the situation I was in was all my fault. (Situation = I was living across the country and wanted to move home, but couldn't afford it on my salary.)

I got sick of listening to this pretty quick and stopped her to ask, 'Can you say one nice thing to me?'. The only thing she could say was 'I love you'. I told her that doesn't excuse her behavior and from that point it devolved into me yelling that she was a sociopath / I was never going to speak to her again and she hung up on me.

In the first few days/weeks of not talking, I thought I would have a change of heart and eventually call to apologize (again), but the more time went on, the better I felt. I no longer had this toxic person in my life constantly telling me that everything about me was wrong.

Fast forward over a year later, we're still not talking and I'm still really happy, but my brother and father continue tell me that we should make up whenever I see them. I want them to stop giving me this guilt trip, especially when they do not understand the degree of sacrifice that would entail for me. She treats my brother very differently than she does me (she's a misogynist) and my father, even though their brutal relationship and ensuing divorce sparked years of severe depression for him, doesn't have to interact with her and rarely does.

Additionally, she is completely incapable of ever admitting any fault - she either denies that what she does is wrong or completely denies that a thing even happened.

I would love to have a relationship with my mother, but I read this article recently, which solidified my decision because I can't be the only person compromising to make it work and I don't believe she is capable of change. I also believe that neither of us fundamentally respects the other.

I want to be able to say I did EVERYTHING I possibly could to fix our relationship for my own sense of self, but I already felt that way before my brother suggested therapy tonight. She has agreed to go, but I suspect she believes that it will be a way for her to prove that I'm the emotionally unstable, overly-sensitive person that she's always painted me to be, instead of a real opportunity for us to both make changes and build a healthier relationship. I am also afraid that if I go, it will somehow give everyone else more ammo to use against me if it ends without reconciliation.

So, should I go and if yes, what important qualities/qualifications should I look for in a therapist in this situation?

Thank you for reading this long-ass post and for your valuable input / always keeping it real - I love you guys.
posted by prism4tic to Human Relations (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You don't owe your brother or your father or your mother anything. There is no good outcome from getting back in contact with your mother.

You know the answer. Whatever your brother and father's motivation here, it is their issue to resolve. Let them go to therapy with her if they're so keen. You are done being the designated abuse target for your mother.

Listen to your gut. Get therapy FOR YOU when you can. Realize this situation is not your job to fix. It's out of your hands.

You only get this one precious life. You don't know how long it is. Do you really want to waste even one more day of it trying to appease someone who only knows how to hurt you? Or her enablers? They have made their choices. Now you get to make yours.
posted by emjaybee at 9:12 PM on November 18, 2018 [37 favorites]

Are your brother and father encouraging you to make this effort at reconciliation for your sake, or for the sake of themselves or your mother?

It sounds to me like the relationship you'd like to have is not possible at present, possibly ever, for the reasons you've detailed above. If that's the case, is it worth the possible anguish and financial/time expense to enter therapy under possibly less-than ideal circumstances?

1. The likelihood of an ideal or even acceptable positive result is low
2. The risk of enduring additional emotional turmoil and abuse is present
3. There is a non-zero opportunity cost
4. You've been feeling much better over the past year

If these are correct, I can't recommend this. Good luck in whatever you decide. Be gentle with yourself.
posted by EKStickland at 9:14 PM on November 18, 2018 [6 favorites]

I'm a licenced to do counseling (who doesn't even practice therapy), I'm not your therapist.

No. No. No. Don't do this. Do individual and get someone in your corner. Don't have another person trying to navigate the two of you. You discovered that not being around her is healthy and makes you happy for very very good reasons! Keep that up, you deserve respect and peace and consistancy in your life.

Couples/Family counseling is done because it's for people in close proximity who want to work together or live together because they are kids of parents and can't live on their own, are married/have legal lies to one another and WANT to stay together. You don't want to be around her, you feel better without her. She's an adult, it isn't your job to help her figure out she's abusive.

I would hope most therapists wouldn't even take this. But I'm sure there are some that would . Navigating relationships is hard, and people will have different perspectives. I'm sure some people will have different perspectives here.

My perspective is your an adult who has the right to not spend time around people who disrespect you. That's healthy and overall improves your quality of life. If your having trouble advocating for yourself or need additional support, get yourself a therapist. Don't spend your mental health and energy on her.
posted by AlexiaSky at 9:18 PM on November 18, 2018 [17 favorites]

Abusers tend to be EXTREMELY good at manipulating joint therapy. It is not, for example, recommended that an abused partner attend therapy with an abuser. Don't do this.

Based on what you've told us, you will never have the relationship with your mother that a normal person might hope for and expect. She is a cruel and abusive person and those kinds of people simply don't change, except possibly to get less violent as they get physically weaker and more dependent. I'm sorry; it's deeply unfair. But when you really accept that, it gets a little easier.
posted by praemunire at 9:20 PM on November 18, 2018 [37 favorites]

No, don't do this. Your brother and father unfortunately don't have your best interests in mind. You were right to cut contact and your instincts were good when you did. Good for you! Your gut here is correct again--don't enter into joint counselling with your mother. She is abusive and your decision to go no contact has been much better for your mental health.

But...if you are not already, get yourself into individual counselling with someone you click with and trust. Like someone else said above, you need someone in your corner who can remind you of why you have gone no contact, since your brother and father will not fill this role.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:26 PM on November 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

we're still not talking and I'm still really happy

Don't fix it if it ain't broke. Stand your ground on this one, because you know it was the right thing to do.

AFA your brother and father are concerned, here's the script:

Dad/Bro--I'm going to tell you once and only once more, my relationship with her is MY business, and I no longer want to discuss it or have you pressuring me to change what I am doing. I have no issues with changing the subject, should you honestly forget, however if you persist, I will hang up or leave. If you continue to escalate this, I will be reassessing our relationship.

Oh, by the way Bro, I think mother really does need therapy. Unfortunately, she needs to handle her own problems. I will not be going with her. Should I decide to do individual therapy, that will be my personal issue/business.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:30 PM on November 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

When you go through the process of therapy and it fails, they will still blame you. No change in the situation.
posted by jbenben at 9:46 PM on November 18, 2018 [7 favorites]

"Additionally, she is completely incapable of ever admitting any fault - she either denies that what she does is wrong or completely denies that a thing even happened.
I want to be able to say I did EVERYTHING I possibly could to fix our relationship for my own sense of self, but I already felt that way before my brother suggested therapy tonight. She has agreed to go, but I suspect she believes that it will be a way for her to prove that I'm the emotionally unstable, overly-sensitive person that she's always painted me to be, instead of a real opportunity for us to both make changes and build a healthier relationship."

Your Mom sounds a lot like my Mom.

I wasted too much money going to see a therapist with my Mother. I'd tell the therapist that my Mother did or said X and then my Mother would deny it or say that she was justified for Y untrue reason. My Mother would say something wildly untrue about me and my behaviour and I would protest. The poor therapist was constantly being presented with two completely conflicting versions of reality and he had no way to tell what was true and what wasn't. The only thing he could do was vaguely endorse communication skills and compromise.

Eventually I started bringing my Father to the sessions so he could back up my version of events. But, despite the therapist finally having a clearer picture of the reality of the situation, we still didn't make any progress because he couldn't get through my Mother's layers of denial. You can't do much with someone who refuses to believe they have a problem.

Don't put yourself through what I put myself through. Sure, I get to say that I tried absolutely everything, but it really wasn't worth the money or the stress.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 10:22 PM on November 18, 2018 [24 favorites]

Relationship therapy is never advised for abusive relationships. John Gottman discusses this extensively in his book for marriage therapists The Marriage Clinic- when a couple he believes to be abusive comes to him, he instead tries to get the abused partner individual therapy. Abusers use relationship therapy as a tool in their abuse arsenal.

So: no. No, no, no, do not ever go to therapy with your abuser. A good therapist will refuse to see the two of you together, and a bad therapist is, well, a bad therapist who should be avoided like the plague.
posted by Cozybee at 10:29 PM on November 18, 2018 [6 favorites]

No, please don’t go to therapy with her! Lots of people in this thread have explained why not. I would encourage you to check out r/raisedbynarcissists and r/raisedbyborderlines—I obviously can’t diagnose your mother with a personality disorder over the Internet, but you may find some helpful perspectives there on how to deal (or not deal) with people like your mother. You might also check out books like Will I Ever Be Good Enough?, which is for daughters raised by narcissistic mothers, or Out of the FOG, for family members of people with personality disorders. Cutting out your mom sounds like a great decision for you, and I encourage you to hold fast to it, no matter how much your father and brother try to pull you back into the old dynamic/position you were in. Sometimes when an abused person escapes from an abuser, the abuser turns their ire on a different family member who previously didn’t have to experience the brunt of their personality. Then the family member, uncomfortable with their new role, will try to pull the old scapegoat back into their abused position and get back to the old dynamic. I don’t know if this is what’s happening with you and your brother or father, but I do hope you’ll keep doing what’s right for you, not what other people think you should do.
posted by Illuminated Clocks at 10:53 PM on November 18, 2018 [7 favorites]

Absolutely not. Never. As said above, there are a multitude of reasons to NOT go to therapy with an abuser.

I want to be able to say I did EVERYTHING I possibly could to fix our relationship for my own sense of self, but I already felt that way before my brother suggested therapy tonight.

I would go to individual therapy to explore this. Because I'm here to tell you, this feeling of needing to know you tried everything is a trick. It's not necessary. You don't owe this person ANYTHING. Not because they're family. Not because they raised you. Not because they're "trying." You owe nothing to a toxic person. You don't have to try to fix this. It's not on you. This is not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to yourself.

In addition I think you should attend therapy individually to build boundaries around the rest of your family. Tell them you no longer want to discuss your relationship with your mom. If they keep going, change the subject or leave the room or end the call or whatever. This isn't their place, and they are being similarly toxic.

I haven't spoken to my "mom" in over 12 years. It's glorious. I also stopped speaking to their entire side of the family for a mix of toxic reasons. My life is so much better. I didn't "try everything" because I didn't need to. They were abusive and that's not on ME to fix.
posted by Crystalinne at 11:55 PM on November 18, 2018 [9 favorites]

Sorry for the double post, but there's a strange socialization (especially put upon women) that we must bend ourselves into pretzels trying to accomodate an ABUSER to absolve ourselves of guilt. The abuser is the problem. You should feel no guilt putting yourself first. There is no magic thing YOU can do to fix this person or this situation. It's out of your hands. Please see a therapist, on your own.
posted by Crystalinne at 12:00 AM on November 19, 2018 [17 favorites]

My mom has the "relentless criticism" part in common. I backed off to the point where we just say hi at larger family events and text at birthdays and Mother's Day. It's GREAT. Otoh, she did not push for more contact.

My dad has the "you may only have the feelings I deem appropriate" part in common, and I haven't spoken to him for 2+ years. It is absolutely terrific. (Parents have been divorced for decades.) Yeah there are bits that are not so great - my inlaws love him and still ask about him, even after I encouraged them to call him themselves. Still soooo worth it.

I still talk with a sibling who is close to both parents. I'll listen to about 2 sentences of complaining about the parents -- after that, new subject. It's up to them to manage their relationships. Boundaries boundaries boundaries. They were not taught to me as a kid, so I had to learn them as an adult.

Seconding Out of the FOG, Will I Ever Be Good Enough, and r/raisedbynarcissists, the only subreddit I'll lurk on once in a blue moon.

This is not healthy or "normal." You are not wrong. The fact that you're happier right now seems like a sign to me. Best of luck.
posted by cage and aquarium at 3:34 AM on November 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

Agreed with all of the above. There’s no reason to listen to your father and brother, who aren’t subjected to your mother’s shitty behavior, and don’t have to deal with what you’ve had to deal with. Especially your father, who chose to leave his terrible relationship with your mother, but wants you to return to having your terrible relationship? What could possibly justify his reasoning? Nothing.

Tell your father and brother, “No. She’s a terrible person who has mistreated me my entire life. I won’t be dealing with that anymore. If you think it’s so important that Mom have someone around to be her punching bag, you do it.”

It’s only been a year. It’s not like your mother had some radical period of enlightenment, started a new medication that completely overhauled her personality, joined a 12-step group and is trying to make amends, or has even so much as apologized for leaving you high and dry just before a cross-country move.

I want to be able to say I did EVERYTHING I possibly could to fix our relationship for my own sense of self

You’re not what’s wrong with your relationship. Your mother is. She punched you in the face, institutionalized you under false pretenses, and used financial manipulation to sabotage you—just from the examples you gave. No amount of emotional contortion on your part is going to make her treat you differently from the way she’s treated you literally your entire life, because she. is. doing. it. on. purpose. You are the person that has been designated as the family Bad Guy. Your father and brother have also been indoctrinated into this accepted dynamic, and that’s why they’re pressuring you to step back into it. Otherwise, Mom is going to be looking for a replacement Bad Guy and it might be one of them, so they’re turning to you and saying, “Hey, it’s your job to let Mom punch you in the face. Why aren’t you doing it? You need to get back over there and let her punch you.”

Nope. You actually don’t need to do any such thing.
posted by Autumnheart at 3:40 AM on November 19, 2018 [13 favorites]

No no no no no. Never go to therapy with your abuser. Never. Therapy requires honesty and vulnerability, and she is not a safe person for you to be honest and vulnerable to. She will use it to abuse you further.

Your family is valuing their comfort over your health and safety. They’re invested in perpetuating the toxic family dynamic. You have internalized some of this, because you still feel that it’s your job to “fix” your mother. It’s not. You matter, and your first responsibility is to protect yourself from further abuse. Therapy for yourself to navigate this, but in the meantime take a huge step back from your brother and father; they’re not on your side.
posted by snickerdoodle at 4:27 AM on November 19, 2018 [7 favorites]

I really admire your strength to set such a good, self-loving boundary and stick to it. That is so a hard thing to have to do, especially with immediate family, and I'm so sorry your mother's behavior required it. You deserve the peace of mind and calmer life of not being subject to her abuse. Sure, she's messed up and desperately needs therapy (individual therapy!), and that's her responsibility.

Your brother and father do not have your best interests to heart here, if they are doing anything but supporting your decision 100%. Lots of good advice and points upstream, I just wanted to add my vote to the 'No' side of the poll.

Continue to take good care of yourself. You sound awesome!
posted by dancing leaves at 6:06 AM on November 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think it might help if you reorient yourself with the idea that you have already done everything you can do for this relationship. Nthing that you check out the recommendations above for books/sites on narcissistic parents (especially for daughters), because a lot of your sounds familiar from life with my narcissistic mother. And narcissists don't change and in fact narcissistic tendencies generally become worse as people get older. Your father and brother (and anyone else who tries to guilt trip you for not speaking to your mother) don't have your best interests at heart -- dysfunctional families try to maintain the status quo of their dsyfunction because it's easier/more comfortable.

I haven't seen my mother in several years, though it took her entering a nursing home with Alzheimer's for me to be able to make a complete break (and the one time I visited her there she couldn't remember my name but within a few minutes was into one of her usual "this is why you are terrible" speeches at me -- they don't change). Also agree that you would probably benefit from individual therapy if you're not doing that already -- a good therapist will support you in having broken from your toxic parent.
posted by camyram at 7:31 AM on November 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Sending lots of support and love to you as you continue to maintain this eminently healthy boundary.

Everyone has said it already, but I know so well that feeling of relief after cutting ties. Several years later (I actually can't really remember when I made the cut???) all my siblings have also made the decision I did with regard to my abusive brother, and nobody tells me anymore that "oh, I understand why you don't talk to him, but I just don't get involved/take it lightly/know that he's a good person." I am sad that it worked out this way but most of my brain is just so freeeee of any worry about how things will go wrong next.

You are doing the right thing, and you are not responsible for the abuse you suffered or godddd your brother and father's comfort around her.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 7:44 AM on November 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Another useful resource for people dealing with a parent who is acting narcissistically is the Narcissists Suck blog. It's written by someone who was raised by a narcissist. That blog, as well as Johanna Ashmun's, have helped me to make sense of my experience and detach from a narcissistic parent.

Also adding to the chorus that it is not advisable to go to family therapy with someone who is narcissistically inclined. I had my own experience with this and I can attest that they will manipulate the situation with tactics including but not limited to gaslighting, deflection, blame shifting, and most importantly, charm. Basically, they will try every trick to win the therapist over and convince them that you are the problem. It will be at a minimum a waste of time and money and very possibly also re-traumatizing.
posted by jazzbaby at 8:31 AM on November 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

A year of not talking to your mother is quite an achievement, but like being sober for a year, is just the beginning. It's understandable that you miss having a mother but that is better dealt with in individual therapy than by trying to turn the woman who holds that title in name into an actual mother.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:53 AM on November 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

The proof of a good decision is in its effects. It's been a year, and you're happy. Before thinking about reversing course on a choice that's working out well, I'd want a damn good reason other than "just because".

Other family members imploring you to return to the fold are almost certainly doing so because you upset the status quo when you left, by opting out of a dysfunctional system, and the new status quo is unfamiliar and uncomfortable, for them. And your mother. That's why they want you back in the system.

Which actually a worse reason that "just because". Stand pat. You're taking responsibility for your own being, and you're doing well.
posted by Ipsifendus at 12:11 PM on November 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

Everyone's already covered everything, but I just want to be one more voice saying "Don't do it!" As someone who constantly struggles with a very similar mother, I can tell you that nothing I have ever tried has ever made our relationship any better. You deserve to be happy and at peace. Make that your most important goal.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 2:28 PM on November 19, 2018

Noooo! Keep her away at all costs.

"I want to be able to say I did EVERYTHING I possibly could to fix our relationship for my own sense of self, but I already felt that way before my brother suggested therapy tonight. She has agreed to go, but I suspect she believes that it will be a way for her to prove that I'm the emotionally unstable, overly-sensitive person that she's always painted me to be, instead of a real opportunity for us to both make changes and build a healthier relationship. I am also afraid that if I go, it will somehow give everyone else more ammo to use against me if it ends without reconciliation."

You did do everything you possibly could. You're right: any therapy for her, if it can be helpful to her, which is doubtful, will only be so if you aren't there. If you're there, her entire goal is going to be to perform for the therapist to prove that you and not she are the monster who ruined everything.

If your father and brother keep it up, give them a simple ultimatum and when they break it, cut their asses off, too.
posted by Don Pepino at 4:50 PM on November 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

I agree with every other person here that says, "NO!!!" Don't do it, especially since the best thing that you did for yourself was to finally cut her out of your life, AND you're still happy. You can tell everyone that if your mother is thinking of therapy for herself, that's just great - it would be therapy that she could benefit from. If she doesn't go because you're unwilling to go with her, well - then you've just learned that she only used therapy as a ploy to to manipulate you back into her abusive circle.
posted by itsflyable at 9:47 PM on November 19, 2018

I had to mark every answer as the best. Everyone who responded has been so helpful.

I let my mother know that I wouldn't be doing therapy & wanted to stay out of contact, then blocked her phone number. Immediate relief.

I'll also be reinforcing my boundaries regarding discussions about her with my brother & father.

I was in fairly intensive individual therapy in the years prior to my initial decision to stop speaking to her and it really helped me to make sense of what I was experiencing / how living with that kind of toxicity for so long was affecting my life in other ways.

I haven't been in therapy since I moved last year and I'm a little reluctant to go back because, as I mentioned, I have been relatively happy and it seems better for me to get some space by not talking about my mother on a regular basis.

This has served as a reminder though that I still have a lot of work to do on the behaviors that I carried over with me as a result and now is a pretty good time to get back into it.

Thank you again - much love!
posted by prism4tic at 6:30 PM on November 20, 2018 [6 favorites]

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