Why don't you visit your mother?
June 15, 2006 11:17 AM   Subscribe

What to do when parental pressure to visit goes nuts and leads to crazy allegations?

My fiancé and I have (due to divorce and remarriage) three sets of 'parents' between us. Five of these people are sane and fun to visit. The sixth is my mother. I don't get on with her and don't visit as often as she wants. I've had all the good advice to molify her and lower the tension by speaking to her and visiting her more frequently, but I fail on this count because she comes out with stuff that freaks me out (the latest being an accusation that I was pregnant before I got engaged - a complete fantasy on her part) and she puts huge pressure on me to visit at times when I'm stressed at work. If I cut off contact because she's driving me mad, she goes ballistic - calls me at work, writes letters with crazy claims like the pregnancy one, sends me text messages designed to guilt me into calling, gets my stepfather to email me etc. I'm at my wits end. What to do? Bear in mind I've tried advice about giving her more contact to help her anxiety and I wasn't able to keep that up because I wasn't coping with her well enough to keep up contact.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
She sounds like a pain, but nothing worth cutting off contact completely. Rather, you just need to have a strategy for dealing with her.

My mom is kind of annoying too - I bet a lot of people can say that... here's some things that I do.

- ignore her guilt maneuvers.
- don't tell her stuff about your personal life, keep it very general.
- when she calls, if I'm not in the mood to talk to her, I don't answer. Don't reply to her e-mails.
posted by k8t at 11:21 AM on June 15, 2006

Tell her you won't talk to her or visit if she doesn't treat you the way you want. Write down rules, and send them to her. Follow the rules.

The rules should say when you will hang up on her, how long you will go without talking to her or visiting her if she breaks the rules

The rules should not commit you to talking to her on a regular basis, but establish consequences for her inappropriate behavior.

Tell her your therapist came up with these rules, so everyone has to follow them. Sneaky, but effective.
posted by ewkpates at 11:25 AM on June 15, 2006

You need to set some really firm boundaries with her. She has to understand that calling you at work is not acceptable.

If she doesn't act like a normal person then you need to not interact with her. She's found that acting out gets a desired response out of you and she'll continue to do that as long as it works.

It's kind of like training a dog: don't feed it treats when it's peeing on your leg.
posted by bshort at 11:31 AM on June 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

It's worth communicating the impact her behaviour has on you as a first step - nothing aggressive or accusatory, simply explaining that when you are stressed at work you don't have the time to have anything but fleeting conversations, or that you were upset by her accusation of being pregnant. By way of comparison, it simply doesn't occur to my own mother sometimes that I have things going on in my own life now I've left home, and that I am not "on call" 24 hours a day. If making this clear doesn't change her behaviour, then I think the "ground rules" step above sounds like a sensible escalation.
posted by greycap at 11:31 AM on June 15, 2006

Here's a book you may find helpful. Coping with Your Difficult Older Parent: A Guide for Stressed-Out Children.
posted by russilwvong at 11:36 AM on June 15, 2006

Keep in mind that there is a difference between an annoying parent and one that is crossing some lines as far as acceptable behavior. It's hard sometimes to figure out when that line is crossed because we're all so wrapped up in our parents, but yours sounds like she's well over the line, specifically with the accusations and the anxiety with compulsive need for attention.

I have a similar relationship with my Mom and here are some things that helped me.

1. I read Surviving a Borderline Parent and Toxic Parents. They're a little touchy-feely, but had advice that was helpful to me.

2. I didn't debate with my Mom anymore, just set up guidelines and stuck to them even if it meant refusing to talk to her on the phone and/or being somewhat rude in sitations where I would otherwise have been more polite. As ewkpates said, boundaries, strictly enforced.

3. Instead of random "you never visit me enough" harangues, I'd try to be pro-active and work from the "how much is enough" angle where "I never see you enough" is not an option. If she says that seeing you four times a year is okay, then she has to lump it when you don't see her more than that. You have SIX families to keep up with. Whether she can accept that or not, it's your reality and the math means she will not be seeing you as often as she may think is "fair" being one of your two parents.

4. Part of a set of guidelines should also include the accusations and the weird stalkery behavior STOP. No calling you at work. No texting. Any time a conversation goes into something like the "you were pregnant before you got married" you stop it and either hang up or walk out after saying something to the effect that what she said was unacceptable. Try to limit putting up these walls, but defend them once they're up.

5. Be clear with your husband and your stepfather that this is the deal and that they can do whatever they want about it, but attempts to end-run your desire to manage this issue will be unappreciated.

6. Stick away from crazy language and focus on behavior. If I told my Mom I thought she was being crazy, out would come the "oh yeah, well you DO THIS TO ME" accusations. Instead I'd make it about me "I can't talk to you on the phone for 90 minutes at a time, so...."

7. Another important guideline: bygones are bygones, or as we call it here on MeFi sometimes BRAND NEW DAY. She can't dredge up old hurts and you'll try to treat her like you two can move forward with a decent relationship (if you think that). No rehashing old messes. Again, if she can't or won't do this, end the conversation.

I'm not saying your Mom is weird like mine, or that she's toxic or borderline or whatever. I am saying that she may have a level of anxiety that bears very little resemblance to your relationship with her and that if you weren't around she'd take it out on someone else. I congratulate you for trying to stay part of her life, but there may not be any way to fix her, but that doesn't mean you can't at least try to wrestle the relationship into one that works for you and is tolerable for her. Good luck.
posted by jessamyn at 11:40 AM on June 15, 2006 [5 favorites]

Re-frame the situation:

Q. Why don't you come home?

A. I am home. I moved away from Oshkosh, and I live in New York.
posted by KRS at 11:50 AM on June 15, 2006

Don't cling to the notion that you are dealing with a person who responds to reason.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:02 PM on June 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'd go with Jessamyn. This sounds very borderline.

I've acted this way at times and been involved with other people who have and the escalation is almost unimaginable.

I would also suggest, what has helped me in the midst of these crisies, is to express love in a way that seems almost casual. Saying "I love you, but you have to stop calling me" can be taken as manipulative, and therefore that won't stop the raging beast that is inside the borderline-esque person here.
posted by Brainy at 12:36 PM on June 15, 2006

With someone this difficult, any capitulation to a demand, even if only 1 demand out of 10, seems to encourage them.

Learn some self-protection skills. If she is abusive on the phone, say, "I'm sorry, I have to go now" and hang up. If she is abusive in person, leave. Respond to inconvenient text messages with, "I'm sorry, I can't talk right now" and close the window. Close the IM client or block her if needed. Calling you to harass you at work? Caller ID. If she calls at a bad time, say "I'm sorry, I can't talk right now" and either hang up or put her on hold and don't pick up.

Plan any visits to her in advance, with clear dates, times and plans. When she pressures you to visit, remind her of the next planned visit, and then just reiterate that yuo look forward to seeing her then, but can't see her sooner. Don't be creative, be boring, and repeat the same response.

I spent a year with no home phone, due, in part, to behavior like this. I always rent a car whe I go visit her, so I have a way to leave. If you are incredibly consistent about not accepting bad behavior, she will eventually change her behavior. Try to be as loving about it as you can, for both your sakes, but accepting bad behavior will just allow it to continue. The sooner you do this, the sooner you and your Mom can have a better relationship. Seriously.
posted by theora55 at 2:20 PM on June 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

Coincidentally, I just gave my dad a short lecture on why calling my cell and office phone each twice in a row within a five-minute period of time, leaving identical messages on each, is not acceptable.

Honestly, the only way I get my dad to respect my time, in a lot of circumstances, is to get my mother to explain it to him. He also loooves my SO and will accept explanations from him.
posted by desuetude at 2:39 PM on June 15, 2006

This is just like how to train a stupid, small animal to not do certain things based on certain stimuli.

In this case, it's reacting to her craziness. If you start reacting only to positive things with positive reactions, and ignoring everything else, she may eventually subconsciously take the hint. It's quite clear she has no way of intelligently observing her own behavior as crazy.

Make sure you speak to other family members she uses against you and let them know exactly what's going on what you're doing. In fact, tell your mother that you won't be reacting to her batshittiness.

Other than that, cutting off contact is is the only way to remove it completely. In my case it took cutting off contact and her quitting methamphetamines.
posted by cellphone at 2:45 PM on June 15, 2006

I'm following this with great interest, because my mother is very similar! Except that in my case, my wife and I have 7 parental units and my mother is not remarried.

Accusations: respond calmly, as if you were describing the weather. "That's not true. Was there anything else you wanted to talk about?"

Guilt over not visiting -- never apologize or make excuses. Just live your life and make reasonable accommodations. Stay out of her house and don't let her drive you anyplace, meet on neutral territory where she is less likely to make a scene. Don't spend more than 2 hours at a time in her company, it will just drive you nuts, so make sure you always have an escape route and have planned time for sanity breaks -- long walks always help me... I can feel the tension start to dissipate around mile 2.

Calling at work -- immediately say that you can't talk, and that you will call her back after work.

Text messages -- don't respond, no matter what.

If she is capable of getting your stepfather to convey messages, I think he is being a bit passive/wimpy and dysfunctional himself. Tell him that she has to communicate her issues herself, and that you will not respond to any such messages conveyed through him.

Probably this is connected to your engagement. Marriage brings out all kinds of unconscious expectations, hopes and fears. It's possible that your mother is getting provoked into a state of high anxiety about something that has nothing to do with you. She might welcome questions regarding her ideas regarding marriage, and it could give you something to talk about.

About a month before my wife and I were married, we were so sick of the crap that we sent out The Wedding Manifesto, which stated The Way Things Were Going To Be Done. It addressed every issue and brooked no dissent. That shut everybody up. Actually, the mothers who had been making most of the fuss were happiest, since they now knew all the organizational details that they had been trying to figure out and plan, but the fathers were terribly insulted because they took everything personally. It all worked out.
posted by Araucaria at 3:05 PM on June 15, 2006

I've found one of the best ways of dealing with people who try to instill Guilt and come up with crazy conspiracy theories is to just agree with them.

"You were Pregnant before you were Married"

"Yes, but I was abducted by aliens and they took the baby, please don't make me talk about it"


"You don't call me as often as you should"

"You're right, I'm a terrible daughter, I don't know why you would even want to talk to me I'm so terrible. You must be filled up with boundless unconditional love to still talk to me."

This works for me because I'm a naturally sarcastic person, and I really have said zingers like the above to my parents, though they seem easier to get along with than my parents (it's my ex-girlfriend's parents who these comments really worked on)...

Be an asshole/bitch for a day, really throw her 'sly' insults back in her face. She'll be less likely to try to use guilt if she knows you don't respond to being pressured with guilt anymore.
posted by hatsix at 8:45 AM on June 16, 2006

Had similar issues. Tell your mom that you can't respond to her when she is like that and that any conversation that goes that way, or other communication, will result in you terminating that conversation. Then when she pulls that crap, tell her that your sorry but that you can't continue the conversation because of it. Then say goodbye and hang up.

Except my mom used suicide threats from about age 8 on. Her sister, a psychologist, suggested this method for dealing with it. I followed it to the letter. There are no more threats. My mom is civil to me and never does it. How we relate has completely changed. It took less than a week for a total change to set in--it was totally amazing!

If you do this, I predict that it will work wonders for your entire relationship.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:01 PM on June 16, 2006

Jessamyn has it right--sounds like she has Borderline Personality Disorder. That's what my Mom's got. My brother never tried this and his relationship with her is still quite difficult.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:03 PM on June 16, 2006

Sounds like my mother. best thing I ever did was cut off all contact with her. My life (and mental health) improved dramatically in the years since.
posted by drstein at 7:03 PM on June 16, 2006

I feel your pain. This sounds so much like my mother as well. I have to keep my place of employment secret, since she's called managers looking for me before. People don't understand there are rational reasons to avoid a toxic parent. In my case, she has no sense of boundary, plus she works for a government agency with friends in other agencies. She loses control then attempts to ease her guilt. She's extremely critical, verbally, and emotional abusive. And, the manipulation, omg. I've tried and tried over the years, but at this point I've almost completely cutoff all communication. Since I have a child now, I feel I have no choice. It must end somewhere.

I'm sorry you have to deal with this, because it's so hard for acquaintances to understand. I'm always amazed how common the subject of mothers or fathers comes up in work and other social environments. I'm one step away from simply telling people my mother died years ago. At least then the questions will cease... until she tracks them down and calls them.

I have a brother as well, he's never stood up to her like I have. I'm in a combination of standing up/cutting off. Her affect on him is so bad, his doctor told her she is directly responsible for his failing health (4 heart attacks before age 40). Of course, why your mother would be talking to your doctor...? That's my mother. The recommendations to set clear boundaries is the most progress I've made. Failing that, long periods of silence (no interaction) really drives home your intention. But, it can also lead to wild ideas that she's let spin and spin inside her head.
posted by ick at 10:35 AM on October 2, 2006

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