As an Adult, Fighting With My Mother is Driving Me Crazy

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Reader’s Question

For as long as I can remember, I have had a poor relationship with my mother. I can’t recall her showing me any signs of love or support. I never have been able to talk to her about problems, and when I do, she either shouts (making me feel dumb) or takes the opportunity to tell me about her issues instead (it’s all about her). I have reached the point where I resent spending time with her and each time I do it ends up in a full-blown argument.

I really don’t know what to do anymore. With all of the verbal and emotional abuse over the years, I feel I hate her. My options seem to be grin and bear it or walk away. I have tried talking to her but it’s like talking to the hardest and thickest wall in existence. My mother has no understanding of how the things she does and says affect me. It’s always about her. I feel like shaking her! So it continues and worsens.

I know she won’t change. I don’t feel like she’s a mum, and I feel angry and upset that everyone else I know has a great relationship with their parents. It’s tearing me apart and I have little support. I’m scared that the constant fights and bickering will begin to affect my 6-year-old daughter. Why does she have such a control over me?

Psychologist’s Reply

Unfortunately, the scenario you describe is too common and is the type of situation that prompted a colleague and me to write the book Transcending the Personality Disordered Parent: Psychological and Spiritual Tactics . Good parenting is based on being able to provide for the child’s emotional needs. Doing so requires being able to view the child’s experience through her own eyes, and then being able to do what’s best for her, even when that means setting aside the parent’s own needs and impulses. Parents with personality pathology, however, often fail on both accounts. Their own self-centered personalities leave them incapable of accomplishing these two vital parenting tasks, and the child frequently ends up meeting the parent’s needs in a sort of role reversal.

During childhood, our parents were typically the most important people in our lives, and we hungered for their approval. At the same time, we tended to take our parents’ behavior at face value. In other words, children are not sophisticated enough to know that the poor treatment from unhealthy parents is not normal and is not their fault. Instead, children frequently conclude that they must have done something to deserve the poor treatment. By adulthood, we’ve gained enough objectivity to recognize that the primary problems rest with the parent, but we may feel some leftover guilt from all those childhood years during which we didn’t understand what was happening. Plus, our culture tells us that bonds between parents and children should be everlasting, so we end up feeling wrong over our negative feelings and our desire to avoid the unhealthy parent.

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As you’ve found, the thing about personality problems is that they’re unlikely to change. Making changes starts with recognition that there is a problem, and because a person’s personality is who that person is, he or she is unlikely to be able to step outside it enough to see themselves objectively. You summed up well the two options facing the adult children of parents with personality disorders: recognize the limits in the relationship and accept them, or keep the relationship to the bare minimum necessary. I want to stress that when I speak of “accepting” the nature of the relationship with an unhealthy parent, I’m not referring to condoning the parent’s behavior or continuing to be a victim of the parent’s maltreatment. Instead, I’m using the word “accept” to refer to not expecting anything different in future interactions with the parent. Thinking that we can “get through to” dysfunctional parents, or that we can prompt them to change, is a recipe for continued frustration and hurt.

As you noted, the difficulty of your decision is compounded by the fact that you have a child, and some of the ways your mother mistreated you may be replayed in your mother’s relationship with her granddaughter. Your job as parent is to protect your daughter and provide for her emotional needs. Although that may not require completely isolating your daughter from her grandmother, it is likely that you’ll have to be vigilant about how your daughter experiences that relationship. That way you can continue to make decisions about how best to facilitate everyone’s emotional and mental health in this triad. Although you may grieve the relationship you never had with your mother, you now have the opportunity to be the kind of mother you wish you had. In that way, the legacy of parents with personality disorders is that they often provide examples against which their children contrast themselves when they become parents. The silver lining, then, is to use our own childhood mistreatment as both instruction and motivation for building a healthy relationship with our own children.

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