Is My Controlling and Manipulative Mother Just Punishing Me?

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Reader’s Question

My mother and I have had a very tense relationship in the past few years. She has always been very controlling and manipulative. In the past, I would do whatever she asked of me to keep her happy and thus stayed in her “good graces”. Recently, however, I realized that I have been sacrificing my own self-worth (and so much more) in order to keep her happy. I have difficulty trusting her, because I never know if her intentions are sincere or just a ploy to make me fall for yet another deceptive tactic. I feel that she has always been more concerned about her own wishes than she has ever cared about my emotional well-being. Lately, she has focused most, if not all of her time and energy on my younger sister. I call my sister, only to find out that there were plans within the family that I was not included in. My mother will visit my sister’s children, but not mine. Recently, I had an argument with my sister. My mother was not present for the argument. My sister gave her the details of the argument, although I hadn’t expressed my side. My mother told me I needed to apologize. I was floored, given the fact that she had no indication of what I felt happened. I told her that I would not apologize. The following day my sister apologized to me for what she had said… I feel as though I have made a change to stop the manipulation and control from happening, and I am now suffering for it. Is it possible that I am being alienated, being given the “silent treatment”, and/or paying for my decision to stop the control?

Psychologist’s Reply

Is it possible that you are being punished for your decision to stop the control and manipulation? Absolutely! Controllers and manipulators operate exactly as you describe — controlling others with deception, lies, misunderstandings, guilt, and schemes. They are extremely self-centered and actually feel entitled to punish others who don’t meet their immediate selfish demands. They are rarely concerned about how others feel — only about how they feel. They have the behaviors of a Personality Disorder, and most would actually meet a diagnosis of PD.

When present in a family system, the controller and/or manipulator strives to keep family members separate, using a different manipulative strategy with each person in the family. It’s to their advantage to keep family members fighting and at odds, as that allows maximum opportunity for a manipulator to maintain themselves as the center of attention. When a family member tries to break away from the controller, they are punished not only by the controller, but through manipulation by the controller’s family. You’ll notice when trying to stop your mother’s controlling and manipulative behavior, she will enlist the help of your sister and other family members to call and say “Why are you mad at your mother?!” Some guidelines and recommendations:

  • Dealing with a controller/manipulator is like being arrested — everything you say can and will be used against you! If you reduce information provided to your mother to grocery-store level, which I recommend — such as the weather, school activities of the children, etc. — she will encourage your sister to pump you for information. To manage this situation, you must control the information presented to all family members, perhaps saving your private information for your non-family best friend.
  • Assume that any time you challenge your mother, you will be punished in some manner. Her punishment can be verbal confrontation, the silent treatment, increasing her activities with your sister’s family, or being excluded. Remember that while men are prone to physical aggression, women are prone to “relational aggression” — using relationship features to punish or attack others by alienation, spreading rumors, exclusion, etc. She is mostly concerned with her feelings and for that reason, will intentionally justify doing something she knows will hurt your feelings.
  • Your mother will be threatened and jealous if you and your sister have a good relationship. If you and your sister decide to do something as sisters, without your mother, one of you will be punished. Controllers demand to be the center of attention and when that doesn’t happen, they retaliate.
  • Having a controlling parent is rather toxic to our self-esteem and self-worth, as you mention. If you are slowly developing self-confidence, your sister may not be able to help you break away. She may still be focusing on keeping Mother happy. You’ll need to break away on your own and for this reason, professional counseling may be helpful. I’d recommend reading my introduction to personality disorders on this website as well as reading related questions by selecting this topic from the list of popular topics in the sidebar of the page. Millions of healthy adults must deal with a controlling and/or manipulative parent or relative.
  • Your mother behaves in a way that is to her benefit, as you describe. For this reason, you may need to accept the fact that as you become more healthy and independent, she will have less contact with your children and family. She will go where her selfish needs are met and where she has more control. Redesign your family to include other healthy families and their children. In life, we have the family we are given…and we have the family we create from those around us.

You don’t need to be in your mother’s “good graces” to be happy or to be a good parent. You can also be a good daughter without surrendering to her manipulations and control. You can continue to treat your mother well, show her respect, yet not accept her behavior. You can be a good daughter because you are a good person — not because you stay on her good side.

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