How to “divorce” an enmeshed parent / smothering mother?
April 30, 2021 6:21 PM   Subscribe

This problem has been affecting me and my siblings for a long time, and now I have a close friend dealing with the same issues. In practical terms, I don’t know what actually needs to be done.

I’m a woman in my early 30s. My upbringing wasn’t as overtly awful as other stories that I’ve heard, even on the purely “emotional” abuse spectrum. There were occasional cutting jealous remarks, but for the most part it was just constant neediness, “no one loves me” meltdowns, etc. When she’s up, she’s up. When she’s down she’s really down. My siblings and I are all aware this is dysfunctional. We have all felt fed up at various times, to varying degrees, and have pulled away somewhat over the last 5-10 years (e.g., no more lending money, less emotional involvement), but it’s pretty clear all of us feel some shame and/or guilt when we try to make a decisive change. And frankly, I feel like an enormous dick, like I’m some kind of “tough love” asshole when I try to navigate the situation. The options I bounce between are basically 1) cave in, get involved in the drama, 2) cave in, be the amateur therapist (including struggling to take some kind of distant yet “compassionate,” inauthentic professional stance, 3) ignore or deflect and sort of play dumb. No matter which I choose, I end up walking away feeling triggered and inevitably facing some kind of shame spiral.

I recently became friends with someone who appears to be dealing with the same issue. It’s helped me see my own situation from the outside, and realize that while nothing clearly obviously abusive is happening, it’s immediately apparent that something’s wrong. A healthy, securely attached person would probably sniff it a mile away. My friend is male and also dealing with his mother and it seems to give him problems with women, romantically. Which made me realize for the first time— as a straight woman, I ALSO have problems with women. After many years, I’ve healed a lot of the internalized misogyny, but I still struggle to bond with women and find emotionally squishy relationships frightening. I avoid women and female friendships almost completely, despite admiring a lot of women from afar and really craving their friendship. But it’s once we start getting to know one another and emotions enter the picture... I skedaddle. (To be clear, the issue isn’t that women are more emotional, it’s just like the combo of woman + emotions triggers my flight response.)

Anyway, I really don’t know what to do. I have a few friends with overtly physically or emotionally abusive parents who have totally cut them off. Cutting off my own mother feels overly harsh. Yet, I really suffer from the constant “trigger” of her emotional needs. For my friend, his mother is a lot more smothering— calling constantly, demanding this and that— whereas mine mostly stays distant until she’s having a meltdown.

It made me realize that I really don’t know what is optimal, realistically. And I want to triple underline realistically. Online resources often seem super harsh— cut them off, go no contact, etc.— which seems more suited for neglectful and overt verbal or physical abuse. When it comes to enmeshment, therapists etc. seem to suggest dealing with each situation as it comes and building boundaries/resilience, as opposed to total no-contact.

But what does this really look like? I recently listened to a podcast where two men (who used to be in the PUA community) discussed their (very) emotionally needy mothers and how they turned to hook-up culture as a way to maintain emotional distance from women as a result. They both expressed that they had tried to “divorce” their mother. One told his mother he didn’t want to have certain kinds of conversations, and would constantly repeat this. He ended up writing a book about his life and his mother refuses to speak to him now. The other (by their own admission) did it the messy way and just ghosted, and also has no relationship with his mother.

So is the calculus just to set these harsh boundaries— either ghosting, or being very explicit about avoiding certain topics of conversation— and most likely ending up with a nonexistent relationship? I feel like therapists who suggest “gently” disengaging are living in a fairy tale land. Years and years of gently disengaging has gotten me nowhere. On the other hand, going no contact seems... cruel? Excessive? At the end of the day, I do love my mother, and I can’t imagine the indescribable pain of “losing” a child in this way, especially if you’re basically unaware of what you’re doing wrong, which I think she is. Growing up this way gave me my own emotional wound, and I get how terrifying and empty it feels at times when you have no one to “fill it” with, and don’t know how to fill it yourself. I think therapists are probably seeing both sides of the coin, the suffering parent and the suffering child. But from the child perspective, I’m afraid of carrying this damage with me into my own potential future parenthood. What do I do when I have a child, and am having a rocky relationship with grandma?

My real question here is wanting to know what actually works (or at least, what is likely to happen), not what sounds good from a therapeutic standpoint. I realize I will probably never be totally free of this situation, in one way or another— either she will stay in my life and this will crop up from time to time, or I will cut her off and feel insanely guilty knowing she is suffering. I really feel like I wouldn’t cut her off proactively unless she escalated in some way, which has so far not happened.

So does setting firm boundaries usually end in tragedy anyway? I am curious to hear from others who have this dynamic. If you have a perpetually “victimized” parent, what have you done? How have you moved beyond the relationship, especially if the parent was particularly needy or smothering? How did you detach? How did things end up?

(Apologies if this is a bit ramble-y, I’m recovering from a migraine and struggling to express myself.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (27 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Recommending you visit (and share with your friend) r/JustNoMIL.
(In regard to MILs & Moms - there are also other similar forums for other family members, dynamics often vary some depending on the relationships.)

Also, there's an excellent book list linked from the JustNoMIL reddit sidebar.

You'll get more specific information there. MeFi, imo, isn't necessarily the best for this sort of issue - altogether too many people give not-great advice because it's out of their realm of experience - or imagination.
posted by stormyteal at 6:50 PM on April 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

This is a super hard situation to be in, complicated by the social assumption that mothers are always loving and well-intentioned. I tried so hard for 30+ years to have a healthy relationship with my mother, but she is a narcissist who needs the narcissistic family cult to revolve around her at all times.

When I had a child of my own, and saw how my mother was repeating the cycle on an innocent toddler, that’s when I realized how toxic she was to me and MY family. “Will I Ever Be Good Enough” by Karyl McBride was the book that opened my eyes to the overall dynamic.

So I finally decided to set a simple boundary by email: “I need some space in our relationship, and will let you know when I’m ready to connect again. Please don’t contact me in the meantime.”

Her immediate response was “YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO TAKE A BREAK FROM ME!” via multiple emails and voicemails. Then she enlisted everyone she could to harass and berate me, and that made my final decision clear and necessary.

I’ve been completely no-contact for ten years now. It’s not easy because she keeps trying to contact me using every possible manipulation to force a response. I maintain radio silence and refuse to get sucked into debating with any of her flying monkeys.

But it gets so much easier every year, and was 100% the right thing for me and my own family.
posted by farkleberry at 7:41 PM on April 30, 2021 [5 favorites]

The bad news, you can't fix this right away. The good news, there's no time limit. You can start tomorrow or in a month, you can do drastic stuff or gentle corrections, and you can change what you're doing day by day. If tomorrow you just can't talk to your mom and she calls, just say "hey mom, I'm working on [thing], I'll give you a call in a few days" then hang up and don't talk to her. Then when you do talk with her, you can say something like "oh I was really not up for conversation, how are you" and just keep deflecting.

If she violates a boundary, you can tell her to back off, or you can just leave. She doesn't automatically get your life on her timetable. Sure, she's your mom, it's a kindness to listen to her problems and try to help her out, but you have your own needs that need to be balanced against hers.

It's ok to have your own needs. It's ok to tell her your limits. It's ok to give her consequences for not respecting your boundaries. When you were a kid, she made you be polite when you messed up. You owe her the same courtesy, and you also owe yourself.

You'll probably feel guilty. That's ok. That's normal. But it doesn't mean that you're doing anything wrong, just that you're doing something that you've come to believe is wrong. Like, I think that kicking puppies is a dick thing because it hurts puppies and puppies are awesome, and I think that masturbation in and of itself is a neutral act because it doesn't have to have any effect any anyone else. But it took a long time to get past my feelings of anger for growing up in a religion that I loved but ultimately couldn't reconcile with being good for humanity. The key is that feelings don't control is, they merely provide feedback based on our history. Interrogating that history can give you some useful information about yourself, and having some space and time to yourself is pretty much the only way you can get it done in a reasonable amount of time.

You have to consider your own capacity for dealing with other people. Your mom is a person and dealing with her can be actual work for you. Be kind to yourself and insist on getting what you need. You're worth it.
posted by disconnect at 7:47 PM on April 30, 2021 [8 favorites]

All the roads available to you are hard. I think you know this -- you've already described the various stuff you've tried to do to make the relationship less painful, obviously "ghosting" your mom would be a combination of relieving and terrible, and therapy to reinforce your boundaries would probably help but not entirely.

That's because this is just a legitimately hard situation. (I emphasize this because I had a very difficult and beloved parent, and spent a LONG time beating myself up for not finding a "magic thing" I could do that would make the situation stop hurting.)

That said, I personally found some relief, like it sounds like maybe you already have, in speaking with people who'd also grown up with difficult parents. I didn't always take their advice, but it was relieving and sometimes insight-producing to see the commonalities of our experiences. In that vein, if your mom has addiction problems you might try ACOA, and if she has mental illness you might try NAMI (or a similar org in your vicinity).
posted by hungrytiger at 8:03 PM on April 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

You are very articulate and I don't think you need to cut your Mom off. I think you expressed a lot of your fears here, but maybe a lot of them will maybe never be realized. Please just talk to your Mom and live your life forward.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 8:04 PM on April 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

I've been dealing with ambiguity on this for years. My mom is great most of the time but sometimes it's like good lord, things just blew up/became difficult. We've had some bad times, some better times. I haven't quite gotten to the point of cutting her off but there have definitely been times where I thought about it. Some years were quite rocky. Things have gotten a LOT better since she got a boyfriend and is having her emotional needs met, lemme tell ya, though. The neediness thing has died way down, but she used to insist I call her twice a week whether I wanted to or not or had anything to say or not and got really snitty about it. These days? Hah, she calls me if she's bored and her boyfriend's not around.

I kinda feel like what you said is about the case: it's not bad enough to leave forever but frequently enough to make you crazy/down/depressed/fried, whatever. Cutting off your mother entirely and forever is kind of the point of last resort, and I've never gotten that far. Also because if I don't have her, I have no one.

I'm terrible at boundaries. Well, let me explain. People will be all "Have you heard of boundaries? You should try some!" and I am all "Yes, I have heard of boundaries! Do you have any suggestions as to what to do when someone ignores them and plows on through like a bulldozer anyway?" Shockingly, nobody has any except for cutting her off entirely. Frankly, if my mother's determined enough, you'd have to set off a nuke to stop her, and who wants to have to set off a nuke? So I very frequently cave if she's temporarily insane because god knows it ain't worth the fight. Screaming "NOOOOOOOOOOOO" a billion times just doesn't effing work. Boundaries only work if the other person respects them. "Setting boundaries" with someone who doesn't respect them is just wasting your time and you find yourself having to escalate harder and harder and do things that make you feel like a complete asshole just trying to get her to stop. I've had a lot of drama about hanging up on her when the crazy erupts. I've gone a few months without speaking to her during especially bad periods. It doesn't last. I don't know on "tragedy," but in my case boundaries frequently don't work, especially if she's super upset.

It's not really something you can solve. She's got unhappiness going on within her and she's relying on her kid to solve it because who else can? I got lucky that she finally found a guy who loves her and that's curbed almost all of the cray cray, but that's probably not an option with most moms. I just put up with it and deal with the crazy as it comes, and I go to therapy. You pay a price to have someone in your life, so I put up with it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:10 PM on April 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

I hear what you’re saying about recognizing some toxic aspects of a parent relationship but not feeling the need to cut off completely. My parents continue to do what they’ve always done and some of it is crappy. However it bothers me so much less than it once did and also I don’t feel as drawn in by their behavior. I used to get very reactive and feel I was part of their dynamic but now I am able to engage almost a sense of otherness when they start doing things that are un-parently. I think that has come from time and age mostly - I have so much else in my life by now (mid 40s) that they just don’t matter as much, so paradoxically, I feel capable of tolerating having them in my life more than before. That’s because I also feel like I can walk away from them whenever I need to. If they do any bullshit when I adhere to the space I need, I just don’t really care - it’s them behaving badly, not me doing something wrong. Besides the time and age, what also went into me feeling better has been some good therapy that made me feel seen, acknowledging things about what they’ve done “to me” and that I deserved to be angry at them about it etc. All this was a slow process, nothing that happened overnight.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 8:18 PM on April 30, 2021

Happy to talk over memail. The best advice I have heard and then passed on is, there is no answer that doesn't involve pain.
In my experience the people who say it's inherently better to carry on some surface relationship may not fully understand, as you say, the triggers and the energy required to maintain a surface relationship - and the constant guilt and pain that that's all you can give and you know they want more.

Obviously, being fully estranged is also painful.

No one can definitively say which one is more painful. There's only the pain that's easier for you to deal with.
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:39 PM on April 30, 2021 [10 favorites]

(disclaimer: my two cents)

1) you need as much distance as you can manage. If you live nearby, you need to move, as far as possible. If you have physical distance, you need to get a new main phone, not give her the number, and relegate the number she has to a voicemail you never check. You don't have to maintain this indefinitely - you can make up any excuse for a temporary break that you want, or that you can get to fly - but it needs to happen for, oh, let's say at least three months.

This is NECESSARY because:

2) only when she no longer has unfettered access to you, only when your quiet-mind knows that you are SAFE, will you truly realize what it is like to live without the enmeshment; how profoundly the enmeshment has influenced you (when I had this realization, the words I used were "has broken me"); how much of a relief it is to have made that enmeshment - even temporarily! - impossible.

In my experience, estrangement only felt 'excessive' and 'cruel' until I got the distance to understand why it was NECESSARY. And until I realized that there was no way in hell that I'd let a friend or coworker treat me that way - and that family should live up to a HIGHER standard than those, because family is supposed to love you, not harm you. And until I realized - and fully internalized - that when my mother began her 'routine', I could simply hang up the phone and choose to not participate.

It was a revelation that I could not have experienced without achieving that distance.

Seconding nakedmolerats in that there is no answer that does not involve pain...but that's life: birth is pain, death is pain, growing is pain, change is pain. And you've internalized the belief that family is pain, which is both untrue and cruel to yourself. You're gonna need to shove that belief into the strongest light imaginable, before you can analyze the truth of what it's doing to you - instead of giving in to the automatic assumption that you need to subject yourself to the pain because it's Mommy doing it, which is both untrue and incredibly cruel to you.

Only then can you work out which pain is going to bring you forward into a brighter world, instead of stranding you where you are.

Best of luck to you. <3
posted by WaywardPlane at 9:37 PM on April 30, 2021 [21 favorites]

Going no contact for a few years with my parents was one of the best decisions I've ever made. It helped that I was also between several hundred and several thousand miles away. After I felt comfortable enough (again, this took years) I reached out to my mother and the two of us have established a healthier, closer relationship through very small steps over several more years. She has developed her own circle of friends and seems much happier overall. I remain pleasantly estranged from my father.

Having an open-ended clean break was very useful. Communicating over email before going no-contact meant I had a record of what boundaries I set and how they were respected (or not). I even kept a spreadsheet of contact attempts and what seemed to prompt them, and that was useful enough I could start forecasting each attempt and turn it into a joke about predictable bad behavior. I found r/JustNoMil helpful, especially the book lists and resource guides, but prone to catastrophizing in the comments; that was several years ago and the community culture may have changed. A therapist who helped me practice setting boundaries and let me rant without trying to "fix" the parent-child relationship helped the most. I needed the space and time to recreate my identity away from the parent-child dynamic.

You sound like you've done a lot of work already. Good luck, and feel free to memail me if you want further specifics.
posted by VelveteenBabbitt at 9:54 PM on April 30, 2021

I was successful in setting the boundary of "that topic is off limits." It was extremely worthwhile. Requires that the parent be terrified enough of you actually ghosting them that they overcome the barriers to compliance, of course.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:03 PM on April 30, 2021

I 100% feel you and am currently frequently debating how to set boundaries with my parents and considering estrangement as an option (even writing that makes me feel guilty).

I’m a woman in my mid-30s and also a mom to a toddler, so I think it’s wise and laudable that you’re addressing this issue before maybe having kids someday. Parenting my kid brings up a LOT of old emotional stuff to deal with, and I probably could have dealt with some of this sooner.

So one thing that has helped me is digging further into my own issues and tendencies, many of which probably spring from my childhood. I’m in trauma therapy, and working with a therapist is probably best, but there’s a lot of reading you could do on your own too. Topics like reparenting, parentified children, Complex PTSD and fight/flight/freeze/fawn, attachment styles, and internal family systems/parts work have helped me to see that the family system I grew up in was problematic, that my pain is real and valid, and that some of my triggers and problematic behaviors/patterns of thought as an adult come from frankly heroic attempts to cope and survive through a tough childhood.

A parent shouldn’t be the needy one in a parent-child relationship (at least during that child’s childhood - it obviously can be different at times when both are adults). And she’s continued to rely on you for emotional support in ways that probably push you back into old roles you were shoved into (the amateur therapist, the peacemaker, etc.). You can’t really support her emotionally without huge cost to yourself without first healing from having been inappropriately forced to support her emotionally when you were still a kid and needed *her* to support *you* emotionally. It is 100% valid for you to feel hurt, disappointed, angry, triggered, and any other emotions you might feel.

What I’ve done recently while going through trauma therapy is just try to get more space from the relationship. I told my mom I was struggling and couldn’t talk regularly (I didn’t feel okay telling her I was struggling about *her*). Being able to take a step back has helped a lot and given me room to process my own feelings without worrying about it affecting the relationship. So if you can make an excuse and get some space and focus on yourself for a bit, you may be able to come back around and reconnect with your mom and have a real relationship down the road. Or it might not work, and you might end up severing the relationship anyway. At least this way you’re leaving the road open for now until you’ve done more thinking and processing, and even more relieving to me, you also don’t have to make this huge, weighty, guilt-laden decision from a place of being exhausted and confused and just fried. Good luck.
posted by bananacabana at 10:14 PM on April 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

I am not sure how abrupt can you be, but maybe a "forced change of topic" may be in order.

When she starts to bemoan her fate, start with "I don't want to talk about that."

If she presses for a reason, "I'm not getting involved in that, since I can't do anything about that. " (or whatever sounds reasonable)

If she persists, warn her again, "I am NOT going to talk about it."

If she persists a third time, give an ultimatum, "If you won't change the topic I'm hanging up. And NOT taking your call for (however long, 15 minutes to 1 hour)"

Then actually do so if she can't take a hint.

And turn on do not disturb for the time you promised.

After bouncing off the wall a couple times, either she stops calling or she changes the topic.

(And encourage her to see a counselor)
posted by kschang at 11:43 PM on April 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

There is no easy way. If you genuinely love and care for your mother, that's just the truth. Dump the mf already, is very popular advice around here, because 1.) it's so much easier to say to an internet stranger whose circumstances we don't really know and 2.) it's a solution that, when deployed real-time, is brutally effective. Emphasis on brutally: not only does it cause the person being cut off pain, it causes the cutter-off pain as well, of one sort or another.

So, how does one go about firmly setting boundaries with someone who tramples over them given the slightest opportunity, without throwing walls up and barricading oneself behind them?

In cutting off my own mother for a time, I felt I had to do it, to reclaim my sense of being not the daughter of a demanding, highly critical person who existed to reflect well on her, but my own person, with my own rights and needs. It showed her I would no longer cave in to her pushing my buttons. Then she became ill and I visited her again, cautiously. She wanted me to visit more than she wanted to pick at me (whereupon I would just have left again) and so we made a truce. We didn't talk about upsetting things. In part this was because she was dying. In this way I was able to be there, having established my limits beforehand.

A lot depends on the severity of the other person's denial. My husband and his mother could never have come to a truce, never have. Ever. He does his best not to cut her off entirely, but it's right at the edge, because she is very adept at triggering. Long ago he set a condition - she has to see a therapist before he'll talk to her again. So far she has refused. So that's not a full cut-off, but more of a this-needs-to-be-done-prior, mentality.

Navigating the land between no change and full cut-off is hard. Toxic Parents, by Susan Forward, helped me quite a bit. I recommend you read it.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 12:23 AM on May 1, 2021 [3 favorites]

Following on stormyteal's subreddit suggestion, is maybe even better. Read the sidebar on abbreviations; posts use them frequently.
posted by zardoz at 12:55 AM on May 1, 2021

Boundaries only work if the other person respects them. "Setting boundaries" with someone who doesn't respect them is just wasting your time and you find yourself having to escalate harder and harder and do things that make you feel like a complete asshole just trying to get her to stop.

Setting a boundary with somebody is not at all the same thing as simply telling them that some behaviour of theirs is problematic for you.

Setting a boundary with somebody is informing them what you will do if they perform the problematic behaviour, and then following through when (not if) they do. A boundary is information for the other person, not an essentially empty threat.

If you've set a boundary with somebody else, and they overstep it, and the consequence of that is that you do exactly what you told them you'd do if they overstepped that boundary, then any ensuing unpleasantness is on them, not on you. Nobody is an asshole on the sole basis that they do follow through on their stated consequence for a boundary breach. The choice to breach the boundary or not is always the responsibility of the potential breacher.

It is of course possible to be an asshole around boundaries, but this involves choosing unreasonably aggressive consequences for breaches. For example, if I were to tell you that any reply to this message would give me no option but to track you down and doxx you, I would absolutely be the asshole in that scenario.

But boundaries involving personal withdrawal, such as "if you attempt to raise topic X again, then I will immediately and without further warning remove myself from that conversation" or "If you attempt to contact me before having undertaken enough therapy to understand why our interactions to this point have been toxic for both of us, then I will simply never respond" are both fully enforceable and non-asshole in pretty much every circumstance.
posted by flabdablet at 1:31 AM on May 1, 2021 [24 favorites]

The only way I was able to maintain a relationship with my person like this was to cultivate compassion through lovingkindness meditation.

Once you don't have to fake compassion, and you truly feel it without being triggered (that's where meditation helps too), you can deal with what's there in a healthy way. It takes years of practice (all meditation and living is practice anyway) but it gets easier.

Ironically, my earnest striving towards compassion did eventually break through to her and sometimes being loved without being understood mitigated her big emotions and bad behaviors.

Also meditation helps with boundaries. Sometimes I can't fix things. That's okay. Sometimes I *do* get triggered. That's okay. Sometimes I have to take a break. That's okay.

The feeling of helplessness and hopelessness in these relationships end up being really draining. Take things moment by moment and be forgiving to yourself and your parent.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 3:42 AM on May 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

Online resources often seem super harsh— cut them off, go no contact, etc.— which seems more suited for neglectful and overt verbal or physical abuse. When it comes to enmeshment, therapists etc. seem to suggest dealing with each situation as it comes and building boundaries/resilience, as opposed to total no-contact.

If she has borderline personality disorder (which it sounds like she might? you should research that), only no-contact will work. Emotional abuse is no less abuse than verbal or physical.

I feel like therapists who suggest “gently” disengaging are living in a fairy tale land.

I've heard it said that therapists are a little scared of/unwilling to deal with BPD—again, IF this is BPD. I'm not a medical professional.

Years and years of gently disengaging has gotten me nowhere.

Sounds familiar.

How have you moved beyond the relationship, especially if the parent was particularly needy or smothering? How did you detach? How did things end up?

I got a new phone number and email address, stopped checking the email address that she had, and had to set up a filter on my work email when she discovered what that was. Almost ten years later, she's still sending (what I assume are) the standard lengthy diatribes-cum-mea-culpas.

Apart from all that, it was relatively clean, because everybody else in the family was on board. I'm not WRACKED with guilt because a large part of my decision to ghost (the precipitating event, in fact) was based on protecting others in the family; if it'd been just me, I probably would have stewed silently for another several decades. MeMail me if you'd like more details.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 3:51 AM on May 1, 2021

So is the calculus just to set these harsh boundaries— either ghosting, or being very explicit about avoiding certain topics of conversation— and most likely ending up with a nonexistent relationship?

As I have shared before, I managed to improve the relationship I had with my dad over several years before his death by telling him that I would not accept racist comments, yelling, or other unacceptable (to me) behaviour. The biggest boundary was refusing to listen to him talk shit about my sisters, who cut off contact with him.

Just telling someone your boundaries once doesn't mean everything becomes rainbow unicorns. I spent years going to Al-Anon meetings (for the friends and family members of alcoholics) and in therapy. Both of those resources encouraged me to set up Plans A, B, and C to protect my boundaries when I saw my dad.

He lived several states away, and I stayed with him when I visited. My therapist did not think that was a good idea, but that is how my family rolls. So if my dad said something shitty or upsetting to me, I would remind him that it was over the line and/or upsetting. If he kept going, then I would tell him I was going for a walk and leave for a while.

I started maybe when he was in his early 80s and by the time he died, nearly 90, his behaviour had changed significantly. If I reminded him that he was saying upsetting things, he would stop and immediately apologize for forgetting the agreement. In his case, at least, he wasn't trying to game me, he often forgot.

Here is the most amazing thing to me about the 5-year or so process of trying to make the relationship with my dad more manageable: He began to treat me better in a spontaneous way. He used to be mostly self-centered. It feels a bit that he learned I was a feeling human being who needed consideration because I kept insisting that if he was doing X, which made me feel bad, then he needed to stop. My feelings mattered and why X made me feel bad was not up for debate. The point was, he was my dad, X made me feel bad, so he needed to cut that shit out.

I did not do the boundaries thing perfectly. No one does, especially when just starting out. But it's also an experiment. You get to change your mind. That is a human thing. Like, my Dad was gobsmacked when I refused to forge some kind of paperwork for him. I was just nope, I don't do that stuff. Or when I refused to buy a house with him.

I remember how hard it was when my dad was really angry one day because I refused to drive him to a dentist so he could yell at the dentist. He raged about my refusal and I just calmly held my ground. I said something like, "Of course you can go yell at your dentist, Dad. That is your call. I am just not going to help you do that. You need to find someone else to help." Then I went for a walk. I did that a lot in those early years of this project.

A lot of times I reminded him that when I said no, it wasn't to hurt him but to protect myself. Eventually, he seemed to understand that in a very basic way, it wasn't personal. I tried hard not to be judgmental toward him while saying no. Anyway, this was a long-term thing. But I kept at it because I loved my dad, he loved me, and I wanted to maintain our relationship. He didn't understand that unless I spoke up, he was going to drive me away.

In summary, your mother will not appreciate your setting boundaries at the beginning and maybe never. But you aren't actually being mean to her (whatever she may think); you are being kind to yourself and trying to make it possible to stay in a relationship with her. If the relationship cannot continue because she refuses to respect your boundaries (after a long trial period), that is not on you. She also has choices. Feel guilty if you want but that, too, is a choice. This stuff is hard. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 5:08 AM on May 1, 2021 [20 favorites]

Life eats life.
Emotional abuse is worse than physical abuse. I think that because my siblings were subject to her shit. I was too, but because of my personality it didn't take.
She poisoned me with mercury instead.
She did this the shadows. Parents will eat the offsprings,they have abolute control.
I don't think there is a solution to your problem that eliminates the damage already done. My advise is note the injustice and don't pass it on.
posted by JohnR at 5:18 AM on May 1, 2021

Wooo so many thoughts.

So first, your goal - to feel okay as a woman, with women, as a mother, etc. Is great. I would recommend a bit of therapy and after Covid, a lot of joy. Do things you love to do, with women (knitting group, hiking group, martial arts, whatever!) And consider therapy or Al-Anon.

Second is your relationship with your mum and finding peace in it. I took the “keep boundaries, stay connected” route and my experience has been...mixed. But I think no matter what I’d chosen, my experience would be like that. So one thing I had to give up on was the idea that there would come a day that I had a great relationship/non-relationship. What I do have is a joyful life. It comes with baggage.

Here are my sort of highlights of boundary and “we have a middling relationship “ setting:

1. I share as little of my emotional life with my mother (and father because he’s her ally) as possible. I talk to her about food, her life, my food bank work, news stories about wildness rescues, etc. At one point I had a list of ok topics on the fridge which I would glance at. Luckily for me, my mum is the star of her own show and never noticed. The hardest part of this is don’t. call. her. first. Pregnant? No. Won an industry award? No. Call once you have your feet under you and whatever it is is old news. Then her reaction won’t enter into that fresh tender place.

2. Especially at the start of reconfiguring things, I kept everything short. I called her like this, “I only have a few minutes because I have a meeting at 10, but I wanted to check in.” I only met at restaurants in those lovely non-plague times. I volunteered to deliver Meals on Wheels on Christmas Day to break up the day and another year I booked a holiday. Break every tradition. Get gifts delivered, with fanfare, for Mother’s Day but do not have brunch. Etc. After a time she started scheduling conflicts for some days and weirdly I felt bested until I worked. But short. It’s easier (not perfect, but easier) to stick to your plans for a short period.

3. Cultivate kindness. My mother did a lot - a lot - of damage to me, as hers did to her. She is not safe for me. She had opportunities to do therapy and look at things over and over and chose not to. But I know about her, anyway...she still is mentally damaged and ill, and it makes her spiritually damaged in our relationship too. As her daughter I have to protect myself. But I do try to see her as human, in part because it takes me out of the place where I was a dependent, scared kid. I’m an adult now.

4. Be prepared to leave. I drive or bike to everything. With the exception of one cruise (an exception I regretted at the time) I don’t travel with her. I used to set explicit boundaries —she redecorated her living room to highlight an arm chair she knew I was raped over and I didn’t go in her house for 3 years until she got rid of it although she still! Has! The matching! Ottoman! - and then leave. But now I just leave if needed. I’m taken my kids out of an all you can eat buffet because she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) stop discussing a grisly murder in front of them, and driven to the next one to pay again and feed them. Result? No murder talk. It is tiring!! But it is something I always control.

5. Don’t explain to other family members. My extended family thinks...I don’t know what they think, she controlled the narrative. I was never ready to invest hours of phone calls to sort it out. I just say “it’s complicated,” and sigh.

Whatever you decide, hang in there.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:28 AM on May 1, 2021 [16 favorites]

Lots of good advice here. Seconding the recommendation for Will I Ever Be Good Enough?, which helped me contextualize and validate a lot of my childhood experiences, which, like yours, weren’t on the extreme end of the spectrum but which were nonetheless quite damaging. I also found Anne Lamott’s writing about her (similar) mother to be strangely comforting.

It took five years but I’m at a good place with my mom now, and I have compassion and empathy for her limitations. You’re in for a long haul but I do think you can get to a place where your mom no longer exerts such power over you. Start with little boundaries: setting a timer and hanging up the phone first, letting more time elapse between calls, not sharing anything personal about your actual real life that you care about (like warriorqueen’s, my mom will talk endlessly about herself so this isn’t as hard as it might seem). Not sharing anything about your personal life will also make it easier for you to get off the mom-approval train, last stop disappointment. My mom can’t see me, only herself, so she can never approve of me as I really am; the only way to stop that pain was to stop seeking it.

Over time, set bigger boundaries. Make alternate holiday plans, insist on your own lodging and transportation, refuse “gifts”. This is where the rubber meets the road and you will probably experience some furious resistance to a big boundary (wedding, birth, etc.). If you can have your therapist on speed dial at this point to help you stick to your guns all the better, and if you can hold out and stand firm there is a better relationship on the other side. You want your mom to think of you as the unsatisfying, materialistic, unemotional, self-absorbed child who is too busy with her own life to be of any use. Aim for breezy, (intentionally) obtuse, and busy, but extravagant in material gifts and praise on your own schedule.

It’s always going to hurt, and it’s hell to get to the other side. I love my mom a lot and have grief and compassion for her upbringing, trauma, and limitations, and I know she did the best she could for us. I’m glad I can have a detached, loving relationship with her now and it was worth the work. Good luck.

(And if you don’t have a good therapist, get one if you can. It would have been a much harder, longer process without someone in my corner.)
posted by stellaluna at 9:43 AM on May 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

One more thing: it sounds bad but it really helps me to treat my mother like a child. I try to reward the behavior I want and ignore/redirect behavior I want, and dispassionately say things like “oh, let’s talk about your upcoming yard sale instead of my health” in the same way you’d say, “let’s share our toys”. Maybe this is just setting up a different unhealthy pattern but it helps me be kind and firm with her.
posted by stellaluna at 10:19 AM on May 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

Captain Awkward has, in my view, great advice on this topic of difficult relationships with difficult parents, and there are a range of strategies discussed from boundary setting (hanging up the phone or leaving their house when problem behavior arises to estrangement). Here are two recent ones: #1281 and #1247.
posted by spamandkimchi at 11:44 AM on May 1, 2021 [5 favorites]

options 1) cave in, get involved in the drama, 2) cave in, be the amateur therapist, 3) ignore or deflect. No matter which I choose, I end up walking away feeling triggered and inevitably facing some kind of shame spiral. I still struggle to bond with women. two men (who used to be in the PUA community) discussed their (very) emotionally needy mothers and how they turned to hook-up culture as a way to maintain emotional distance from women as a result. So does setting firm boundaries usually end in tragedy anyway?

I am a Mom. My Mom was bipolar and alcoholic. I experience a lot of depression, probably some of it is genetic. It helps me have sympathy.

I recommend never taking advice from anyone in or from the PUA community; they have deeply fouled toxic beliefs about women. I'd be stunned if they had healthy advice to offer.

When she’s up, she’s up. When she’s down she’s really down. sounds bipolar, and her neediness sounds severe. The loving, compassionate response is to encourage her as strongly as possible to get professional help. "I love you, you sound so unhappy, please see your therapist; they can help you. Please take your meds; they help." You can't be her therapist; it is harmful to you to try, and not effective. The drama is a thing some people do because their emotions are overwhelming and pulling other people in feels better. Again, bad for you, not actually helpful to her. Deflect drama, manipulation, any abuse, but offer healthy relationship, even if it can only be for 20 minutes at a time. My Mom stopped trying to pull me in to tantrums when I told her I would call emergency services. I would not have hesitated, and I did talk to professionals in her town.

Setting and enforcing boundaries is effective; it is not clear to me what you want the boundaries to be. You get to decide how much time and emotional energy to give your Mom. Think about how much energy and time you have, and then proceed. Act on your boundaries, words are not enough. To enforce boundaries with my Mom, I moved 1,000 miles and didn't have a phone for a year at one point(40 years ago). I called her regularly, but for short calls. I always sent cards and gifts, but I rarely visited for holidays. When we were occasionally together, I called her on some of her most outrageous BS, but was not usually confrontational. I would occasionally state "That was mean; if you're mean, I won't stay on the phone." I have left the room, the house, town. No yelling, no accusation, just "I have to go now." Over time, my Mom was a lot less abusive and manipulative. We had an okay relationship, but I felt like I didn't get a lot of mothering, and that's a deficit, but /shrug. You may want to think about the grief you feel because your relationship with your Mom was lacking.

You need a therapist to help you figure this out, separate from the unhealthy pressure, and be able to let her love you and be able to love her. Warriorqueen's technique is distraction; it's effective, and I always had a mental list of topics. Side benefit: my Mom was smart and I learned stuff while avoiding meltdowns. Walk away from anything abusive as neutrally as possible. It takes time and work to come to lovingkindness, but it's a very good place. Look for what your Mom has to offer and accept anything good she has to give; try to understand that a lot of the bad stuff is mental illness, not malice, and you are not responsible for fixing it. If at all possible, find things to share and enjoy, like doing a crossword together, or music. Growth and change are possible for her and for you. I wish you the very best.
posted by theora55 at 12:04 PM on May 1, 2021 [3 favorites]

I'm here to make my usual suggestion of Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents which won't tell you what to do (books rarely should!) but how to understand and manage interactions if you need to.

There's also a subreddit for Estranged Children should that be useful.

Although they are lengthy, I find Jerry Wise videos very good. You might like this one on overcoming guilt and shame as you mentioned feeling guilty about not being there for a family member.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 12:53 AM on May 2, 2021 [2 favorites]

Also anonymous, if you can get the name of that podcast to me (by mod or some other means), please let me know!
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 1:50 AM on May 2, 2021

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