Struggling with an abusive parent who promised to change
May 30, 2019 9:44 AM   Subscribe

I'm struggling (while living) with a parent who has abusive tendencies. Basically all of them - verbal criticism, being emotionally distant, name calling, triangulating in the form of getting other people involved and making them see that it's my fault. It's been a really dramatic and painful few years. My mom recently just broke down and admitted that she does not want to fight with me anymore, and it's not in my interest to fight at all - I'm in a vulnerable spot and really need someone in my corner.

The problem is that everything was fine for two weeks, but then she busted out with this criticism of me... specifically, it was referring to a physical capacity of mine in a negative way, as a reason that an ex left me. We were able to talk it out and in contrast to the past she both apologized and was able to identify a stressful work project as the precipitating factor. But I'm totally wrecked, not able to eat, sleep, or do anything but cry, and feel like biting off the heads of people I interact with (or feeling genuinely rattled by small microaggressions or things I'd normally brush off). Basically since this incident of her being demeaning to me, I've been emotionally unable to function.

I'm exhausted in part because I have no real support system outside of this relationship at the moment - or, I do have people who I like and consider friends but not anyone who could offset the pain of having her as a parent, if that makes sense. In the past, I've been very focused on using love relationships to take me away a bit from my unhealthy family. For the past two years I've been taking a break from dating to focus on myself but really still struggling.

I'm also just stressed and burned out from the fact that, essentially, nothing is WRONG but there is constantly so much pain in my life. When I look at my life, I can see so many people and situations where all I want is to share good times, and they are critical, hostile and rejecting of me. I think I'm in a seriously bad spot right now but can't figure out how to get out. New people that I meet tend to be fun but often times weird and with quirks or serious needs of their own that preclude being a really strong support or connection. Maybe I need to cast a wider net or take the idea of making a "found family" more seriously though.
But more broadly, I have to deal with the fact that this parent is emotionally abusive, and I will never have a thick enough skin not to react. This reaction is completely classic on both of our parts, and while in my saner mind I know that none of this is my fault, most of my daily thoughts involve feeling guilty for not being able to manage the harm and stress of the relationship. I feel like a complete failure.

So, metafilter, I'm turning to you. Any suggestions from people who have been there would be helpful. This isn't a "call the hotlines" type of situation, but I do have to admit being in a practical sense largely stuck. Until this most recent conflict lets up, I am pretty sure I will be kind of broken. And in the honeymoon period that is sure to follow, I want to make sure that I make the most of the peace to plan my next steps.

The parent is verbally abusive as a means of letting off stress. It is confusing in that she also has a lot of affection for me and often seems to genuinely want to fix the relationship. She has come great strides from gaslighting me 100% of the time about being abused to admitting specific instances of namecalling or insults are aggressive, and that she needs to police her own behavior. Still, there is a blitheness to her reaction when I'm struggling with the impact of her words that suggests we are still not and will never be on the same page.

The hope that she will change comes from the fact that the aggression is namecalling (and I don't know why this gives me hope - I've never really been able to deal with partners who had an issue namecalling for instance), but it's more all in her head, thus she can change it - and also the idea that now she is genuinely sorry. It is clear in her mannerisms that she is sorry and she is also using the term correctly for the first time, whereas in the past she would twist it in the sort of protoypical way abusers do to always say "I'm sorry for whatever you want me to be sorry for/that you feel bad/that you're too sensitive."

Part of me wants to set an ultimatum that we need to see a therapist, but the therapist last time sided with her hard core, which led me to a very bad place. She is very good at making people be able to have a conversation about the abuse where I'm partly responsible for it. Their idea was that I'm responsible for half the relationship, even if the half she's contributing is abusive. I have objections to that, even though some people might find it sound - I think it's fundamentally unfair reasoning but don't really care to get into a debate. Advice around that piece of it wil be less helpful than tips managing the ups and downs of really giving an abusive person a shot. I think people who have been through these situations actually tend to know more, so am turning to the internet in search of experienced responses.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not seeing reasons why moving out, or making a plan to move out, is not an option. That would be my first suggestion. I think for most adults, there's too much baggage/history with their parents for them to maintain this kind of domestic arrangement in a way that feels healthy.
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:59 AM on May 30, 2019 [26 favorites]

I don't understand why you want to keep this person in your life.

In my situation, which was more passive-aggressive than direct criticism, I moved away, kept my kids at arms' length once I realized she was going to give them the same treatment, and opted in to events or interactions when it worked for me. Mostly.

I think you're always a little bit stuck and prone to backsliding when you're striving for approval from the person who *should* give it unconditionally but withholds it. But that doesn't mean you have to do your own personal mental work and hers - nor does it mean you have to stick around to be her guinea pig as she tries on her nice face now and then.

The honeymoon period in the abuse cycle is mis-named, IMO. It's a necessary part of the abuse - the worst part in fact, because it's the part that keeps you hopeful.
posted by headnsouth at 10:01 AM on May 30, 2019 [14 favorites]

You (singular) should go to therapy, without your mom. Abusive people often "play" therapy really well, which is one of the reasons that couples counseling is not suggested for abusive relationships. But you can go by yourself and build yourself up and figure out your own coping strategies without her.

And, if you can't move out right now, you should be figuring out how to make that possible as quickly as possible.
posted by brainmouse at 10:03 AM on May 30, 2019 [24 favorites]

The victim and the perpetrator attract one another. I think you should look at the possible role of codependency on your part. Because, of course, you cannot change her.
posted by Doc_Sock at 10:04 AM on May 30, 2019 [4 favorites]

I am also not sure whether moving out and cutting this parent off is an option. I think it would be unfair to suggest that you give an abuser a shot.

I'm also just stressed and burned out from the fact that, essentially, nothing is WRONG but there is constantly so much pain in my life.

Living with someone abusive is wrong in the most fundamental way. Having a parent who is abusive is wrong in the most fundamental way. There is something wrong.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:04 AM on May 30, 2019 [14 favorites]

It sounds like you have been in therapy with your mother before, but are you in individual therapy? I think that might benefit you even more, specifically with exploring ways to process this:
I'm also just stressed and burned out from the fact that, essentially, nothing is WRONG but there is constantly so much pain in my life. When I look at my life, I can see so many people and situations where all I want is to share good times, and they are critical, hostile and rejecting of me.
You are actually making progress in your relationship with your mom, but your own resilience is running low and so you aren’t getting the sense of relief from the steps forward your mom is taking.
posted by sallybrown at 10:05 AM on May 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

If moving out feels like too big a step, I suggest taking a break. Go visit a friend or attend an event for a weekend. Invent an internet friend in a nearby city and book a hotel room if you have to. Getting a visceral sense for how much less miserable you are in a long airport security line than in her house might help you start making concrete escape plans.
posted by bagel at 10:14 AM on May 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

I've been there. Your parent is not going to change, you have no control over them or their behavior, and the coping mechanisms that you develop to deal with them are problems in their own right that you'll have to correct once you're out (which is very difficult). When they're nice to you or seem like they're changing, they're just trying to reel you back in. It's probably unconscious and not malicious on their part...but still, don't be fooled. They will play you for a sucker in a heartbeat. As soon as you think things are OK, they're going to pull their next thing and send you reeling again. And the betrayal will hurt (as you've found) and the way that it shakes your faith in your own judgement will hurt (as you've found).

I would concentrate on getting out ASAP and protecting yourself. Put up internal barriers, cultivate your sense of humor/irony/the absurd, and physically stay away from them as much as possible.

DO NOT go into therapy with your parent. Even in a best case scenario, you are not going to have the space/safety to tell the truth about how you feel and even the truth about what's going on. That's hard enough if you're on your own. How are you going to do that when your parent is controlling the conversation and the narrative and the therapeutic relationship? Do go to therapy on your own, but that doesn't need to be this second. In fact, if I were you, I'd wait until leaving the situation to get therapy for it, because trying to deal with all the feelings/thoughts that are going to come out because of therapy while at the same time still dealing with the stress of living with your parent is going to be very hard to handle. For me, it would be too much and counterproductive, although your mileage may vary.

It's difficult because dealing with them is always going to lead to you spiraling out, but not dealing with them at all ever is likely to be too painful to maintain, too. So it's always going to be two steps forward, one step back.

When I was in this situation, I had to concentrate all my energy on my #1 goal of leaving. Once I left, I could have other goals (eventually) and could start cultivating relationships. But before getting out, that goal/plan was my lifeline. What I did to get by in the meantime, before I could go, was basically to disassociate and cut myself off from my feelings. That was good in that it did get me through, but bad in a long-term-health-and-life kind of way. So I sort of recommend cauterization but sort of don't. And once you're out, you're probably going to be swamped with a whole mess of feelings that you're going to have trouble even registering/understanding because you'll have been cut off so thoroughly for so long. Like, you'll do weird shit and think, "WTF?" and that'll be you being distressed but being too out-of-touch with yourself to know it, let alone to know what to do about it. That's when therapy comes in.

Don't be too hard on your friends and other loved ones for seeming to not react, and for seeming to leave you hanging. When my friends didn't react and help me when I was going through this stuff, I felt so hurt and alone. But in retrospect, the truth is that they had no idea what was going on. Things that I assumed were obvious didn't even occur to them as possibilities, let alone facts. Even when I thought I was being clear in my descriptions of people/events, my friends were just not understanding what I was saying. I realized that again this weekend when I mentioned something going on with my parent to a friend of mine, and she just could not understand what I was saying. Finally, I had to be like, "I am being literal. When I say that he is doing XYZ, he is LITERALLY doing XYZ. I'm not joking or being hyperbolic, I am giving the literal facts." She still couldn't really get it because she hasn't been there. But at least she understood that I was relaying actual events and situations, even if she was still pretty blind to the connotations and affects.

So for example, if you NEED to get out and away from your parent, even just overnight, and you need a friend to be there for you and have you come over to her place, then tell your friend that flat-out. Be like, "I cannot be at home tonight, I'm freaking out and I can't be here. Can I stay at your place?" It is SO HARD because you're probably used to underplaying things and hiding things instinctively, so even when you're being frank, it's going to sound like you're just joking or you're not really freaking out. So you have to straight up tell people how you're feeling and that this is a big deal and what you need from them.

I'm so sorry that you're going through this. You will survive. You don't deserve to be treated badly. You deserve to be treated kindly and lovingly, and one day you will be.
posted by rue72 at 10:23 AM on May 30, 2019 [13 favorites]

I support the suggestion to seek individual therapy, since therapy with an abuser generally does not work and is not recommended. For instance, see this article published by the National Domestic Violence Hotline. This is specifically about abusive partners, but it's just as relevant to the situation you describe.
Many callers to the Hotline have related stories of trying and “failing” at couples counseling because of an abusive partner’s focus on manipulating the sessions to place blame, minimize the abuse, and attempt to win over the therapist to their side. If the therapist tries to hold the abusive partner accountable for these tactics, they will often refuse to attend further sessions and may even forbid their partner to see the “biased” therapist again. The abusive partner may even choose to escalate the abuse because they feel their power and control was threatened.
The primary reason we don’t recommend couples counseling is that abuse is not a “relationship problem.” Couples counseling may imply that both partners contribute to the abusive behavior, when the choice to be abusive lies solely with the abusive partner. Focusing on communication or other relationship issues distracts from the abusive behavior, and may actually reinforce it in some cases. Additionally, a therapist may not be aware that abuse is present and inadvertently encourage the abuse to continue or escalate.
Both partners should feel and be safe in order for therapy to be effective. A victim may not feel safe with their abuser present and could be hesitant to fully participate or speak honestly during counseling sessions. Alternatively, a victim may have a false sense of security during a session and reveal information they normally wouldn’t disclose. Then, back at home, the abusive partner could decide to retaliate with more abuse.
Individual therapy for yourself, on the other hand, can be incredibly helpful in giving you some tools to deal with the situation you're in and the emotional chaos your parent is triggering in you. In addition, it can help you reorient your focus -- away from fixing your relationship with your mom (you can't do it for her), and towards building up your own support systems, expanding your range of choices, and taking good care of yourself. They can also support you as you make a plan to leave, which sounds like it might be really important for your well-being. You describe yourself as needing someone in your corner -- a good therapist can be that someone.
posted by ourobouros at 10:28 AM on May 30, 2019 [6 favorites]

As has already been suggested: you need to move out. I don’t mean this in a harsh way, but there’s no magic fix for your situation through therapy etc. I don’t think you should cut your Mom / parents off completely. But you need to live apart from them.
posted by doctor tough love at 10:30 AM on May 30, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think I'm in a seriously bad spot right now but can't figure out how to get out.

Literally get out.

I know, far, far easier than said and done, but here are two key facts:

(1) Your mom is not ever going to get any better. Any "improvement" is just variable feedback designed to hook you more firmly.
(2) You cannot control your mom's behavior, only your own.

Please sit with those, because I infer that you don't truly believe either of them, but they are true. These are your givens, and your plans have to take them into account, because they're not going away. Some people are able to find ways to take an abusive parent's behavior that doesn't leave them feeling miserable and trapped. But for many people, it is simply not possible. You sound very much as if you are in the latter camp. In that case, if you don't want to feel miserable and trapped for the rest of her life, you need to put some space between the two of you.

I don't know if there are compelling practical reasons (e.g., finances, disability) for you to continue living with your mom, but I would focus my efforts on planning my way out. You don't have to go full no-contact if you don't feel ready for that, but getting your own place to live (to which she does not have a key) will improve your situation a great deal.

It sounds unimaginable, but the feeling of relief afterwards? Indescribable.
posted by praemunire at 10:33 AM on May 30, 2019 [9 favorites]

She has come great strides from gaslighting me 100% of the time about being abused to admitting specific instances of namecalling or insults are aggressive, and that she needs to police her own behavior. Still, there is a blitheness to her reaction when I'm struggling with the impact of her words that suggests we are still not and will never be on the same page.

You need to accept that no, you are not on the same page about your relationship, and you will NEVER be on the same page about it. At the end of the day, she wants control over you, so you having your own point of view or looking out for your own interests is the exact opposite of what she wants. She wants you to be looking at things from HER point of view and looking out for HER interests, and when you don't, she will manipulate and force you to. And she wants to be in charge, which means she's going to make herself feel big by making you feel small.

It's difficult, but you have to be OK with looking out for yourself even if it means making her unhappy or uncomfortable or disappointed or is otherwise not the best possible scenario for her. She will probably lash out and do all kinds of shit to get you "back in line," but you need to stand firm. That doesn't mean you have to be confrontational. It does mean that you can't let her suck you back in. Stop buying her bullshit. Stop making your life revolve around her. Stop letting her squeeze everything out of your life so that she's the only thing in it and the only thing in your head.

I know that this is all very hard. It's harder still if you're literally, physically around her, living with her.

Man, my heart goes out to you. It's rough, but you can get out if you work at it and are tenacious. Don't let her make you think you're broken or need her to survive or that you're trapped or any of that shit. You can do it. Truly.
posted by rue72 at 10:58 AM on May 30, 2019 [5 favorites]

The best thing for you is distance between you and your mother. That almost certainly means moving out.

The analogy I like best for the effect of abusive relationships is that they're like heavy metal poisoning: they can't get better while you're still receiving a dose.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 10:58 AM on May 30, 2019 [10 favorites]

I think you may be being really hard on yourself, to avoid being hard on your parent, because being hard on your parent is also hard on you.

Look at it this way, if someone slid you across the pavement for 5 miles everyday (picture this like a cartoon), you'd have a very very bad brush burn. If you came and told me that someone was doing that to you, I'd respond with "That's awful! What a terrible person! That needs to stop!" (And I'd want to call the police, take you into my own home, and do anything I could to stop that person, fyi).

Suppose the next day that same person dragged you across the pavement for the length of a football field. If you came and told me that -- can you guess what I'd say?

"That's awful! What a terrible person! That needs to stop!" (And I'd want to call the police, take you into my own home, and do anything I could to stop that person, fyi).

I wouldn't say, "That's great! That person has really changed! Good for you!"

My analogy isn't only about the smaller distance - it's about the brush burn, too. NOBODY's going to say "Well, the football-field-sized brush burn is really your own fault, because you should've healed overnight from the years of 5 miles, everyday brush burn. And a football-field-sized brush burn is normally no big deal. Let's all celebrate the football-field-sized brush burn!"

It's nice that your parent has seen the light and is going on this journey of self-discovery to maybe stop being terrible. Good for them. Whoopie! It'll look great in their autobiography.

This is about you. This is about your story. You can only extend yourself to an abuser as far as you're able to heal (on your own) from the pain they'll cause. Like, for some people, after they've done some healing, will visit their parent, but only on neutral ground in a public place, because if they step onto the parent's turf, the damage will be too much to recover from, easily. Do not extend yourself to an abuser farther than you can heal, on your own, from the damage they will cause. (Also, it takes distance, healing, and then practiceto even begin to assess that extension/damage algorithm).
posted by vitabellosi at 11:22 AM on May 30, 2019 [7 favorites]

Also, this is very small but something that has really helped me get through difficult times and feelings is fiction (books, TV, movies). Nicer, more hopeful, and orderly worlds to escape into. Characters who are dealing with similar feelings to you and manage to get through them (this is so cathartic to watch!). Characters who are very strong and competent and resilient even when faced with huge obstacles. I will keep from giving recommendations because I watch and read very cheesy stuff, so my suggestions are liable to be embarrassing. Memail me if you want, although I'm sure you already have your own favorites. Anyhow, it's kind of a crutch, but it's a very good crutch. Don't be afraid to use it.
posted by rue72 at 11:36 AM on May 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

I am sorry that this is happening. You are entitled to be surrounded by people in your life who make your life bigger, not smaller. What many people often forget is that the partners or family members (parents, children, etc.) who hurt us are also people that we love or feel responsible for. From one post, we can't fully know enough about what is happening here. What I can say, is that abuse is not linear. People who hurt other people can feel love for them, can feel remorse at times. It can be hard to not believe that someone who is your parent or who loves you doesn't want to change or can't change, when they say that they want to. The unfortunate reality is that we cannot control anyone else's growth and change, just our own. My recommendation would be to seek out support separate from your mother - to create space for yourself. Individual therapy with someone who validates you and supports you. Support groups for people aligned with your experiences. The National Domestic Violence Hotline, referenced above, is a good start. And the isolation from your friends and community sounds painful. Sometimes people don't know how to help. Don't know how to intervene. Sometimes people for their own reasons need to cut us off - maybe it's painful for them to watch for their own issues. There is no making that easier for you right now. The Hotline can also help you safety plan - as you are experiencing, abuse isn't just physical - and they may be able to help reframe what is happening in a way that helps you feel that some movement in the direction of healing is possible for you. Only you get to decide what that means, of course.
posted by anya32 at 11:37 AM on May 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

The other day I was kinda nitpicking the idea of covert incest - emotionally treating your child as a partner. It’s a traumatic experience, but comparing it to incest sets it up to feel like an overreaction. It’s not as bad as incest incest. I am always engaging in Oppression Olympics to minimize my trauma because it’s not that bad, and then trying to remember minimizing my trauma doesn’t actually resolve it and make it go away.

But going to couples therapy with your mom? That it felt like a reasonable way to deal with a parent child relationship?

You can’t heal in that space. You can only survive. Because you need safety to heal. You need to be vulnerable, to access your trauma, while your mother will continue to retraumatize you the more vulnerable you become.

Get a therapist. But don’t expect them to help you manage the unmanageable. Instead expect them to help you figure out how to get to safety. And once you get there, then you can work on healing.
posted by politikitty at 11:47 AM on May 30, 2019 [8 favorites]

Did you know -- you can "divorce" a parent emotionally and never look back. Nothing is preventing you from getting right away from this madness. My advice? Cut her off. You could also do a trial separation and see how it goes. If you were younger, you could do it legally -- some children have been emancipated from their parents. You don't need that option of course, because you're an adult. So what are you waiting for?

You can resume contact down the road, but right now this relationship is toxic (and it's been worse in the past, you say). She's been a little better recently? Not gaslighting you quite so much these days? She's trained you to live for crumbs. It's not enough.

There's a version of Jack in the Beanstalk where, on one of his trips to visit the ogre, Jack steals a harp. As he makes off with it the harp cries, "Master, master!" The harp doesn't want to leave the ogre. That harp is your heart. She's your mother, and naturally you feel bound to her. The prospect of disentangling yourself from her is difficult to contemplate. But because you're an adult, with adult power and awareness, you can do it, and you must do it, if only temporarily. Stop living under a volcano. You need to save your own life right now. Start now. I'm pulling for you!
posted by cartoonella at 12:07 PM on May 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Nthing all the answers and recommendations above. What I want to add here is some perspective about what might be going on between you and your mother.

Abusive mothers like yours work very hard to stunt/freeze the essential developmental stage of "separation and individuation" in their children. This is not a developmental phase that happens all at once, it is a PROCESS of REPEATED, GRADUATED LEARNING that begins at birth and continues well into old age. For example, at the moment of birth, when a baby learns to breathe, it learns that it's no longer part of the womb. A more 'conscious' stage: at around 3 months of age, most babies realize that there is a "Me" and there is a "Mama", and these two very important creatures are not the same. "Mama" (or, if you want to get very psychologisty about it, "The Breast") goes away from "Me" sometimes, and is not magically here when "I" open "My" mouth!

The same realization/learning happens over and over again as the baby grows into an adult: Mama can still see me even though my eyes are closed and I can't see anything. When I have a tummy ache, it doesn't mean Mama's tummy is also aching. Mama doesn't know the thoughts inside my head unless I tell her. And so on.

The British psychologist Donald Winnicott said the best type of mother is one who (deliberately) fails to be the perfect provider for her child. Pop culture misunderstands this concept as "a mom is allowed to be imperfect" - which is of course true, but that's not what Winnicott meant. The Good Enough Mother is a mother who is attuned to her child, but will deliberately, wisely, thoughtfully let them experience her absence (or delay in gratifying the kid's needs), so that the kid feels jussst frustrated enough that it learns important lessons ... among which is the lesson that it is separate from the mother. A Good Enough Mother knows it's important for her child to develop awareness of itself as a separate person. She allows, and even deliberately engineers ways, for her child to experience the optimal level of frustration which leads to its realization of separateness, over and over, in a million different ways.

The Good Enough Mother is not neglectful; she can tolerate being needed by the child and will respond to the child's frustration before it becomes too much for the child to handle. But The Good Enough Mother is also not enmeshed; she can tolerate the child's growing awareness of - and joy in - its own separateness without her own fear of abandonment being triggered.

The part in italics above, that's what parents like yours and mine utterly fail at. I bet your mother reminisces often - a little too fondly - about how lovely it was when you were a baby. Mine certainly does. These parents don't raise children so much as use their children as a 'lovie' ... someone to satisfy their own unmet emotional need for close attachment (which very likely is unmet because of deficient caregivers in their childhood... it's turtles all the way down!).

But here's the deal: when a parent cannot tolerate their child's separateness, the child notices and complies to meet the parent's demand that they stop trying to separate. Humans are hardwired to do this. We need our caregivers to be attuned to us in order to survive. It sets off fight-or-flight reactions in our brains when we sense that our caregiver is overwhelmed by their own emotions, because an overwhelmed caregiver is no longer attuned to us, no longer 'sees' us, is too busy managing their own overwhelm to notice what we need, and so we might (quite literally) die! So we do everything in our power to bring them back into attunement with us. If our separation from them causes them distress, we will stop separating.

In the normal course of development, a child grows to learn: Mama likes to be with other people and do other things, and yet be attuned to me/love me as much as I need (corollary -- I can like other people and still love/be loved by Mama). Mama likes different food/music/politics than I do (I can like different food/music/politics and still love Mama). Mama makes mistakes (I can make mistakes). Mama is sad for reasons that I cannot fix (Mama cannot fix all my problems). Mama fails me sometimes in important ways (I can fail Mama). Mama is as human as I am.

But enmeshed, abusive parents cannot tolerate any of that. They NEEEEED their kids to be their emotional support dollie so badly that they might react with anger, tears, punishments, yelling, etc. when their child shows too much of a separate personality from themselves. They experience the child's separateness as rejection and abandonment. Not surprisingly, their children never get to progress through all these stages of growth. Instead of growing into ourselves and coming to love our mothers for who they are, we suppress our true selves and become whoever our parents need us to be.

As adults, we tend to take responsibility for the enmeshed parent's feelings, their wellbeing, their healing, their life. We've been brainwashed to believe that we are their caretakers, that they will not survive if we 'abandon' them (by revealing that we are not like them, by going to see a movie with friends instead of them, by moving out, by cutting contact). We call these bonds 'love', maybe, or sometimes 'duty'. We keep playing this role in order to avoid the crushing guilt we feel anytime we follow our natural urge to grow, separate, individuate, and become ourselves.

Donald Winnicott, same guy who came up with the concept of the Good Enough Mother, also came up with another brilliant notion. He said that babies learn to trust in our closest attachment figures something only when we try our best to destroy them, but fail. Think of it like this: we will trustingly lean against a wall only after pushing on it with all our might but it still remains standing. Right? Same with our mothers. You have to do the thing you fear will destroy her, which is to "abandon" her emotionally (at minimum - though literally abandoning her and going no-contact might also be a good option, it's really up to you). But you do need to get emotional distance for sure. Grow. Heal. Separate and individuate. Focus on yourself, and forget about her journey of healing from being an abusive person. Prove to yourself that your abandonment won't destroy her. It's the only way to have an authentic, loving relationship with your mother.

I don't have any concrete suggestions for you except PLEASE SEE A THERAPIST WHO CAN HELP YOU WORK THROUGH ALL THIS.
posted by MiraK at 12:33 PM on May 30, 2019 [25 favorites]

I'm really sorry to hear that you're dealing with this. You deserve better, and noting that you see your mother as being part of your support system really drives that home. That's not what support looks like.

Re: moving out - I find that people in situations like yours often dismiss living with random roommates as an alternative to staying in an abusive family home as an adult child. They act as though the only alternatives (which are often not available to them) are being able to afford moving out alone or moving in with a significant other.

Perhaps you live in a rural area, or maybe you're on some form of social assistance that isn't sufficient to pay for a rented room. If those issues are at play, then feel free to dismiss the rest of this. But if they aren't...

I completely understand that living with strangers is often a precarious situation and may be more financially costly than living with your mother. Living at home, though, is probably costing you the ability to develop healthy life skills and emotional resilience because you're using all your energy to deal with your mother. Where does that leave you in the long run?

You're taking on an inappropriate, no-win situation for a parent-child relationship. It is not your job to fix your mother, nor is it really your place. You might both be adults now, but your mother is the adult in the relationship and she needs to get to a place where she can hold herself accountable for her actions. You rewarding her by staying despite her abuse doesn't allow for that.

I'm not going to sugarcoat how challenging moving out will likely be on a lot of levels, but it's a necessary step for being able to take better care of yourself for the future. This is even true if you're from a culture with a high expectation of filial duty.
posted by blerghamot at 12:48 PM on May 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

With friends and acquaintances and boyfriends and girlfriends we use a different metric. If George is boring, we make a point of never hanging out with George. And if Laura is a mess and always needs to be picked up and comforted, we keep her sorted as my unreliable friend. And if Corey has temper tantrums when a situation gets stressful and overwhelming, we don't ask Corey to be our maid-of-honour if our wedding is going to require precise timing and accuracy. If we never know what mood Jaden will be in, if we might come home to unkindness, or we might come home to a nice supper prepared as a surprise, we say they are not ready to be in a relationship, and not a good person to pair off with.

But with family we forget to do that.

When your brother acted like a jerk and ruined Christmas that year you were thirteen you couldn't dtmfa and have Christmas next year with a different brother instead. And when your mother called you something horrible when you were eight years old and left you crying uncontrollably you didn't simply move in with one of your classmates who had a nice mother and never did anything like that.

We don't use the same perspective on family that we do with non-family because for so much of our lives setting boundaries is not an option. But I am suggesting you take some of these metrics and apply them on your mother.

If your mother were a co-worker of yours, would you consider it probable that after saying she wanted to support you it would be likely she could do so? If your mother was a guy who was courting you, and you were sizing him up as a potential boyfriend, would you think he could get over committing verbal abuse enough for you to want to live with him?

It's time, perhaps to redefine mother. Yes, you desperately need someone in your corner, and your mother was that person when you were eleven months old and needed someone to change your diaper and pick you up when a big dog started barking. She may not be capable of being that person now and it may be unrealistic (even nonsensical) to be hoping to change your relationship with her so that she can again be in your corner the way she was the night she sat up with you when you were a two-year-old crying with an earache.

Perhaps you could evaluate your mother in terms of the roles you would like her to play - and need someone to play - and decide if she is honestly capable of those roles. Is your mother capable of being a reasonable room mate? Is she capable of being the person you call when your heart is broken? Is she capable of being the person who grumbles at you, tells your relatives you are useless but almost always comes through with a transfusion of cash when you need it? Is she capable of being someone you see on Christmas with both of you guaranteed to be on best behaviour?

Make a list of the roles you want her to fill - someone to talk to, someone to split the rent with, someone to reminiscence about your childhood with, someone to counsel you, someone to hold you when you just need arms and tightness and comforting - and divide them into the ones where she can and will and the ones where she can't or won't. And then methodically look for other people to fill the needs that she can't meet. You need someone you can vent to? If that leads to your mother getting verbally abusive then make a point of never venting to her again, and use your alternate plan, of going on line to a support group.

Use your mother for company a lot less. You may be living with her, but that means you can't escape each other. So the patterns recur because when she comes home stressed and needs to explode you are in her explosion radius. And if you see that she is sharp and likely to get mean, you still need to use the kitchen. Worst is when your mother comes home stressed and you know it, but right then you need someone to vent to... and because you are both in the same kitchen you vent, she explodes and both of you are left trying to hold together the shreds of your self esteem because you both lost control.

So make a plan, that you prepare for the signs that things are about to go awry, and you bail. If Mum is stressed and you know it, it's time to say matter of fact, "You seem stressed and I think it would be better if I gave you some space.' and then stay out of her way until she is appearing relaxed and gently pleased to have your company.

If you don't have a way of predicting the next time she will suddenly go all savage at you, then you need to avoid her all the time. You probably need to be working towards finding someone else - someone not abusive to live with. Don't go back to situation normal. Be prepared to quietly go for a walk, or go visit a friend, or go into your room.

You are living with an abuser. Make a plan of what to do - and practice it and work on getting better at practicing it until you figure out how to to manage the harm and stress of the relationship. You mention that your mother is emotionally distant. - CULTIVATE THAT. You NEED her to be emotionally distant. Once you are about fourteen you not longer need emotional support of your mother, you need to get it from a wider peer group. It's part of the necessary separation. So when your mother gets emotionally distant, give her space! Until she comes to you for company, and is clearly primed to be extra affectionate and supportive to make it worth your while, back the hell off. Her emotional distance is a sign that she needs emotional space.

So consider playing tit for tat and taking your cues from her. If she retreats, retreat. If she is irritable, retreat. If she is relaxed, relax. If she is tense, back off. Just watch her and be aware of how she is feeling from whatever cues you can pick up.

Sometimes it happens that there is too much going on emotionally in your life - you just need comfort so when another person starts showing signs of irritation, it can be really difficult to not try even harder for closeness. And of course that is bound to backfire. The more you escalate looking for closeness the more space the other person needs to get their equilibrium back. You have to back off or you are going to get hurt. It's like desperately wanting to cuddle or play with a dog when it is growling or barking. It's just not going to work, and some dogs are no good to cuddle with even when they are in a good mood and like you. Have a plan in place for when you have needs that your mother can't fill. You already know that going to her for comfort or support frequently backfires. Trying harder will just lead to more abuse.
posted by Jane the Brown at 12:55 PM on May 30, 2019 [9 favorites]

Echoing that you need to get out. Individual therapy can help, particularly it may helping in you doing that. But really the most important thing is to move out. Think of it like a burn that needs to heal. No cure I can give you is going to truly work if you're going to keep getting burned, and your parent is not capable, has not been capable for the last however decade-and-some, of not burning you.

I know how hard that is. But it would be worth perhaps finding work that comes with accommodation (nanny/au pair/travel guide/live-in caretaker) or social assistance or dorm supervisor - anything that gets you out.
posted by warriorqueen at 12:57 PM on May 30, 2019

The only thing I don’t think anyone else has already suggested that might be helpful is finding a faith-based support system. Getting support from friends and other informal systems is hard because as you point out, we all have our own shit. I don’t know how religious you are but there are even churches for atheists because all kinds of people need a quiet place to think about the universe every once in a while.
posted by bq at 1:23 PM on May 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

I feel your pain. Others have made some great suggestions above. I just want to recommend a book (I think I probably heard about it on this site actually)... Cutting Loose: An Adult's Guide to Coming to Terms with Your Parents.

Hang in there!
posted by acridrabbit at 2:24 PM on May 30, 2019

My recommendation is that, even if your mother doesn't drink, you should look into something like Adult Children of Alcoholics because a lot of the behavior can be similar and there will be people there that understand what you are going through. Reading self-help things didn't help me, talking to others and hearing what they experienced really really did. It doesn't cost anything that I know of, and you can see if it helps. YMMV but those meetings saved my life many years ago. Best to you.
posted by Rufous-headed Towhee heehee at 2:34 AM on May 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

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