Adult Daughter Question

Reader’s Question

My daughter is 34 and recently completed her college program in chemistry, after many delays and failures in her 20s, including a “career” in club dancing….and ended up securing a very good job at an international company. She appears to be doing very well at it. This is quite a change from her earlier behaviors, which have been very troubled and unstable, since her young childhood. When her father and I divorced, he kept us contained in nasty, destructive and gut wrenching custody challenges and maneuvers, an extension and ongoing campaign of abuses, including physical, that we all (myself, my daughter and her younger brother) suffered when I was with him. I finally had to cut all contact, there was no sharing children with my ex. This included letting go of my own children, not an easy decision, but it was a case of save myself and let go of children who were so abused, brainwashed and messed up that I scarcely recognized them anymore, along with long periods of absence each time he grabbed, stole and/or hid them.

I know, it sounds extreme, and the situation was almost unbelievable. I am apparently very strong and level headed, because I survived it, not easy for a mom who once dearly loved her children. My children, as you would guess, did not fare so well. Please understand that I had no good choices, the courts back then were no help…a horror story from the 1970s in rural Oregon. Social services at that time were nil. The father was “god”. Etc. So, of course, my adult children now have serious problems.

Nevertheless, I tried to leave the door open to my kids, as well as move on with my own life. They would visit now and then, as kids, mostly at his prompting and under his control…a way of trying to reopen the game. The visits were generally very difficult for me, which I kept from the children, not wanting to burden them with any more “adult” feelings.

My daughter and I did keep fairly good contact, more so than my son, who was much younger when all this happened and did not really retain many memories of me. They were 5 and 2 when it started. To this day, he tells me he retains very few memories. Blocked. I send him photos sometimes, and then he remembers some things.

Anyway, all well and good, but then when my daughter became a young adult, her behaviors toward me started to mirror her father’s. She was overtly disrespectful and even a couple of times attempted physical abuse of me, etc. And of course, I deserved it, I asked for it, it was my fault, etc.

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Then in her late twenties, she stepped up her visit to my home, twice a year or more (I now live 2000 miles away), and her brother called me on the side, with concern because she was involved in a very abusive relationship with a boyfriend. I attempted to talk with her and she blew up with both of us…he was not supposed to tell, and it was her business, etc.

OK. At this same time, my own parents, quite elderly, took ill and were hospitalized, and I needed to go to Florida to care for them and the situation. I invited her along with me, simply to get her out of the abusive situation she was in, to take a break. And she came along. Needless to say, it didn’t work out too well, I had a lot on my hands, being both medical and legal executor, and also I loved my parents very much. So, the added burden of her problems erupted in very rude, exploitive and aggressive behaviors toward me, and much else. So I sent her back to her home town. I also urged her to seek counseling, which she did, for some months, and it seemed to do her a lot of good.

Then we were mostly out of contact for years, and I was grieving five people I loved who all died within six months (we still call it the death blitz…both parents, my closest male friend, an aunt and a famous literary uncle). Whew. And my daughter seemed also to not care to have anything but minimal contact with me. One time, a few years ago, she wanted to come and visit, but I cancelled it, I didn’t feel up to dealing with her, did not trust myself and was very wary of her.

Suddenly last winter, she began calling a whole lot, since she wanted to tell me how great she was doing on her very responsible and important job, and also tell me about her new relationship, with someone who she says is a wonderful, loving, and successful guy, and someone she had known already “as a close friend” for four years. It turned out he was 20 years married, with four children, two still at home. Then, she broke it off with him, having “developed romantic feelings for him”, and lo and behold, right after that, his wife asked for a divorce. The divorce is now final, and they share the children by alternating weeks. My daughter expressed some guilt feelings, like she had something to do with this, right at the start of it.

I instantly suspected their intimate relationship had been going on a long time, and expressed my discomfort with that, especially as regards her, and his children. This man had, prior to his wife’s request, always told her “I will never divorce my wife”. Interestingly, somehow he managed to manipulate his wife to ask him for the divorce, is what I think actually happened. He and his extended family are Irish Catholics.

So, of course, in response to her calls and emails, I have expressed my own sense of worry, morality, discomfort with all this for her sake, etc. Not to mention his wife and children. I have tried to do this in a friendly, chatty, non-accusatory, loving, concerned for HER manner.
That was wrong, because now she is on a campaign with me of calling and baiting me, going on and on about things, and if I respond, I then get slammed and told how inappropriate I am. It feels very abusive, like a “control” trip, although she calls it “setting boundaries”…she is insisting what my role is supposed to be, one of passive listener, no thoughts of my own. It feels unfriendly and weird.

She seems not to realize at all that the topic around my house, between my husband and I, for seven years now, is more like “should I allow myself any contact with her at this point or not” …and my own feelings are more than tired, more than ambivalent. I am sick of all the craziness and games, and she has made it clear that she does not want to know anything I think, feel or want to say. I wrote her an email back this week, saying, “OK, sorry, I won’t be making that mistake again. How about this…don’t contact me! Don’t call me if you don’t want my response to what you are telling me! It’s simple! It would be the decent thing to do!”.

Admittedly, it was a thinly disguised “leave me alone” message.

The only rub, of course, is that I never do forget my children, I never do really detach from concern for them.

Most recently, she had slammed me big time and then a month later started calling again, saying nothing about the previous incident, acting like business as usual. And then, almost immediately another rude slam.

Would you say I am taking the right course of action here? Saying no to mistreatment from her?
What does she want from me? Someone to act her anger out on?

By the way, she refuses to discuss anything at all about the past, saying she has moved on. Emphatic about that. When she was a teen, we went through a stage of discussing it a lot, and I did my best to explain what my terrible choices were, and why I made the decisions I did. I also apologized for her horrible childhood, and much more. It was heartfelt. I also tried hard to give her stories about herself that were positive, despite the terrible family history, which was not her fault, and I set her up in counseling at that time, which she kept up for a couple of months.
I of course can clearly see the roots of her behavior in the earlier traumas etc. And could you please explain to me why the bonds of abuse (she lives in her father’s town) are so much stronger than any of genuine love or concern?

The whole thing just baffles me. It has become much easier to not have contact, to not expose myself to these upsetting situations and terrible treatment from her.

My son is able to tell me that, despite my literally not being there in his childhood, I was very much always there, in their heads growing up. He meant this in a positive way, I think. I have said to him, well, then there is the mommy in your head, and then there is the real me? Is that the source of all these conflicts?

What to do, with this daughter of mine, if anything? How do I help her, can I or should I?

And there is one other factor…long after the divorce, it was found out that all of us…my daughter, myself, and my son, have a genetic form of FSHD muscular dystrophy. She is about 50% disabled now, where my son and I have much milder cases.

She will likely need to be in a wheelchair soon. She can never safely have children, and my son was so upset he had a vasectomy. No cure yet, in sight. My brother and two of his three children have it, as well.

WHEW! Sorry this is so long.

Your comments will be greatly appreciated.

Psychologist’s Reply

WHEW is right! Some observations and opinions:

  1. Your daughter is going through a very difficult time. The recent romance trauma, her disability, and worries about her future and possible incapacitation have taken a toll on her emotionally. During such times, people often seek the support of their parents, often as a sounding board. This is why she wants you to be a passive listener.
  2. In her depression and resentment produced by her situation, your daughter is replaying the video of her life. Depressed folks almost always replay their “worst hits” video, recalling all their difficult times, reviving old hurts, reviewing their childhood, etc. These Emotional Memories contain a lot of resentment toward you and for that reason, conversations that begin as half-normal quickly turn into an emotional beating. Your son is in a better spot and is not reliving his past, so his attitude is better.
  3. You can’t correct the past. Your daughter can’t correct it as well. In her discussions, there is little point in rehashing the childhood. In her anger and resentment (related to her situation more than her childhood), she now feel entitled to punish you which is why she doesn’t want a discussion, just an opportunity to verbally abuse you.
  4. You are not required to be a “passive listener” which in this case is actually a “passive verbal-abuse victim”. Even when her verbal attacks are part of her stress and she is using you to ventilate her pressure, you’re still not required to participate. You might want to consider an approach that tells her “I’m here for you, but I’m not here to be accused, yelled at, or abused.” When she begins abusive behavior, announce that you are hanging up and do so. Only listen when the conversation is neutral or not abusive to you.
  5. With so much anger and bitterness, your daughter is likely to be depressed. Focus on the physical manifestations of depression such as inability to sleep, fatigue, GI symptoms, etc. Recommend that she see her physician who should recognize the situation as related to depression.
  6. You might need to recognize that a mother-daughter relationship is not possible at this time. Approach her woman-to-woman and use the same relationship rules you would have in a friendship — no abuse, etc. If a woman-to-woman relationship is stabilized, a mother-daughter relationship may be possible in the future.

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