Q: My Mother Manipulates Me, A: Close the Gate

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Reader’s Question

I’m caught in a cycle of manipulative behavior with my mother and my brother, and I don’t know how to break it. They live close to each other. I live 1500 miles from them.

Mom: “When is your vacation time this year?” (Warning lights, but I can’t find a way not to talk about this without being rude. So I tell her. If you think I could get out of this by saying, “Why do you ask?” you’re wrong. They know that game, and end-run me every time.)

Me: “August 1-12.”

Mom: “Great! I’m throwing a huge family reunion party on August 5, so you’ll be free to come, won’t you?”

Me: “Well, I’ve got company the first half of my vacation, and I’d prefer to stay home the second half, and get some things done around here.”

Mom: “This is so important to me; and you never know how long your family will be around. Projects will always be there, but your family might not.”

It’s all downhill from there. They ask leading questions to get information from me, and then hit me with a request to do something “wonderful” that they believe I cannot get out of. When I decline to comply, they use the information they’ve already gotten from me as weapons. I know from the very first where the conversation is going, but am unable to find a way of putting a stop to it before I get backed into a corner and get angry. Once I’m angry, they go all sweet and injured, and it’s my fault again.

They don’t get angry when I stand up for my decisions, they just adopt hurt tones and say, “Well, it’s just because we’ll miss you. There are worse things in the world than being missed, you know.” Second helping of guilt, anyone?

Once we are together, it’s a very short time between “Hey, so glad to see you!” and the irritation that follows because their lives and mine have so little in common. This dream universe, where the “family” is all-important — it just doesn’t exist. I don’t see my extended family — they are not part of my life. So why should I spend the only week of vacation I have to myself traveling to see strangers that I am technically related to, but have no interest in, nor they in me? I feel like it’s being made into some social responsibility by my mother. Her children both have to show up, or “people will think (horrific supposition of your choice).”

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At the reunions I have attended, my mother and my brother spent exactly no time socializing with my husband and me, so what is all this moaning about my not attending? I think it is more about them making me do what they want me to do, and less about their actually desiring my company. That just makes me angrier.

Psychologist’s Reply

Your mother and brother may be manipulative, but they cannot be successful at it without your help. They can ask questions and make requests, but only you get to decide what information you share and what things you will do. This is especially true given the huge geographical distance between you.

It sounds to me like you need to start setting firmer boundaries. Personal boundaries are the rules we use to decide how much contact we want with another person, what information we want them to know, how we treat them and how we allow them to treat us. In short, personal boundaries are the limits we use both to protect ourselves and to establish intimacy with others. Boundaries are kind of like a gate. Healthy boundaries involve knowing when to open and shut your gate. Right now, it seems like your gate is permanently open especially where your mother and brother are concerned. If you want to have a better relationship with them, your gate needs to be shut sometimes.

For example, if you do not want to go to the family reunion, state that you will not be attending and be done with it. If your wish is to not attend, then it doesn’t matter when your vacation is or that they want you there. You simply state your boundary, “My vacation is already planned, so unfortunately I cannot attend the reunion” and stick to it. If they try to press the issue, you repeat your boundary and then either change the subject or end the conversation. Your gate remains closed. They key to enforcing boundaries is consistency. Right now, it appears as though they know that you will give in if they pressure you hard enough. Maintaining your boundary means holding your ground despite their unhappiness.

From your description, it sounds like you already know something about boundaries, so the question becomes: why haven’t you maintained yours? There are usually good reasons why people have difficulty enforcing personal boundaries. Many people have never learned how to enforce them (in which case I recommend reading a good book on boundaries), while others are afraid of conflict. It could also be that you are trying to bridge a huge emotional distance between your mother, your brother and you by acceding to their demands. They may be trying to do the same by using family reunions as an excuse to get you to visit. It may be that all of you are trying to walk through the gate, but don’t know the best path to choose. Whatever the reason, if you want to get better at boundaries (both letting people in and keeping them out), it is important that you figure out what has been holding you back, and what you are trying to accomplish. Once you do, boundaries will be easier to set and family interactions may get better.

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