I’m the Daughter of a Controlling, Verbally Abusive Mother

Reader’s Question

I am a 40-year-old daughter of a controlling, narcissistic, verbally abusive 67-year-old mother. As long as I can remember, my mother has been angry or depressed. Her temper was frequent and frightening and then the next day, we just “moved on”. My mother has never, ever apologized for any wrongdoing on her part, for as long as I can remember.

I married my husband 16 years ago. My sister married and moved across country. My mother has never missed an opportunity to ruin a visit to see my sister and her family. Because I have been in the same city with my mother for the last 20 years, I have been the one who “doesn’t call enough, bring the grandkids over enough, include her in every holiday gathering enough, see her enough, etc.” I have always tried to include her because she is alone, yet NOTHING is ever enough. She has no life outside of my sister and me.

Last year (11/2007), things became heated at her house. My girls (10-year-old twins) and husband witnessed my mother shove me into a staircase banister. My husband quickly grabbed my girls and left while my mother yelled expletives at me and kicked at my legs to leave her house or she would call the cops to tell them how “her daughter abused her”. She became uncontrollably angry over my husband explaining that our girls would not be staying the night with her because we made other plans. She accused me of secretly “turning her grandkids against her”.

The next day my mother left a series of emotional, rambling angry voicemails on my cell phone. She never once apologized for any part of that outburst and completely denied to me and my sister (and in family therapy, to the therapist) that she shoved me into the banister. My sister, mother and I met for family therapy. We barely completed one session and I have not seen or communicated with my mother since. During therapy, I demanded acknowledgement and an apology for the abuse. My mother looked me in the eye and told me to “stop being dramatic” and that my daughters will believe “what their parents tell them happened”. In other words, it never happened, she never shoved or kicked me. From that day forward, my husband and I decided to go “no contact” with my mother. Through therapy, I have realized the guilt and responsibility I felt toward making my mother happy. I have virtually no confidence and I second guess how I have raised my girls. (Ironically, I am very accomplished professionally and my friends and colleagues would be very surprised to know the real me.) I have been depressed to the point of believing that my family would truly be fine without me. It is a daily struggle sometimes.

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The problem now is this. My sister is moving back to our city. She has been able to establish over the years a 3000 mile emotional boundary between her family and my mother. Obviously, it’s easy to hang the phone up when my mother gets abusive. My sister has the mind set that “she knows how to handle mom” and now that she is moving back why can’t I just “go along to get along”?! The idea of even seeing my mother gives me anxiety and I am also feeling very betrayed by my sister’s expectations. I have explained to my sister that seeing my mother would be deleterious to me, my husband and especially my daughters. Where should I go from here?

Psychologist’s Reply

Your mother is likely a Personality Disorder (see my introduction to personality disorders on this website). Individuals with a Personality Disorder are totally selfish, attention/control demanding, manipulative, totally deny personal responsibility for their misbehavior, and feel totally justified to use/abuse/harm others. As you witnessed, this is a life-long personality that frequently doesn’t mellow with age.

You and your husband have taken the typical steps to deal with your mother’s behavior. Healthy families first try to understand, tolerate, and accommodate the misbehavior. They next try interventions such as family therapy, talks with ministers, etc. The final strategy is also typical — recognizing that your mother is toxic to the health of your family and keeping a safe emotional and physical distance.

Your sister is moving back to your city…with Mom? From your description, your sister doesn’t have expectations about how to deal with Mom — she has fantasies. Managing a long distance relationship by phone isn’t the same as four hours in the living room face-to-face with Mother. Some recommendations:

  • Read about Personality Disorders on this website, including similar questions posed by readers in your situation by selecting the “personality disorders” topic from the sidebar.
  • Recognize that you didn’t cause your mother’s personality, and you can’t fix it.
  • Continue your “no contact” strategy and recognize that your sister has unrealistic expectations about her return to the homeplace. Your Mother will have a “honeymoon” period with your sister’s return — being sweet yet blaming you and your family for all the issues. It won’t last long. You’ll have the option to say I told you so…but I wouldn’t recommend it.
  • Your sister will have some guilt about being gone for so many years. She will have a natural interest in gathering all family members into one big happy family again. Your job is to protect your children and family — not fulfil your sister’s fantasy. Continue your relationship with your sister, but be careful. She is likely to naively plan a surprise meeting with your mother for you, hoping to fix the difficulties.
  • You can’t make your mother happy. She will always be unhappy because those around her can’t meet her unrealistic and insensitive demands, prompting her to abuse and attack them. She is alone and has no life because of her misbehavior and inability to respect others. Sharks swim alone because they have a tendency to attack and eat anything that swims with them.

As you increase your self-confidence and become more assertive, you may eventually be able to maintain a relationship with your mother — a scheduled, controlled, and protective relationship. I’ve listed some components of such a relationship in several of the Ask the Psychologist questions on Personality Disorders. You’ll be interacting with your mother while maintaining the safety of your family. It can be done…but that may be in the future.

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