The Inner Bottom Line ®
A Column on Personal Choices & Ethical Dilemmas by Olive Gallagher
At 96, my mother’s still attractive. Her life-long hobby has been health and exercise and she regularly has people tell her she’s beautiful. She’s a perfectionist, and any evidence she’s not really upsets her. She also has no boundaries. Although I’ve tried to set ground rules for years, she doesn’t listen. She has an endless need to criticize or give advice to me about everything and won’t respect any rules or boundaries I try to set, so we end up fighting the same battle over and over. I’m exhausted. She calls me two to five times a day; I usually answer once, in deference to her age. She wouldn’t dare do that to my brothers. They’ve avoided one-on-one contact for years, although we do gather as a family for dinners and barbeques. She doesn’t value my opinion, but if my brother says something, she treats it like gold. I thought you might be able to offer a different perspective on this mess and point out something I might be missing.
Thanks so much for your phone call and subsequent letter that I’ve tried to carefully edit down here. Of course, you’re exhausted. Trying to support someone while being endlessly criticized, invalidated and berated would tire out a superhero. Sadly, your situation isn’t uncommon and it’s not limited to just mothers and daughters. It’s daughters and moms, sons and fathers, brothers and sisters, even friends and friends. It’s a relationship problem or, to be more exact, a non-relationship problem.
You summed your quandary up well when we first spoke: How can I have a peaceful relationship with her without losing my own autonomy? I don’t want to cut her out of my life. She’s older, needs some emotional and financial support, and when she passes on, I don’t want to feel guilty about how I treated her.
It appears you’ve been trying since childhood to please and placate your mom, and your efforts speak volumes about your character, patience, underlying devotion and loyalty. So let’s start with a basic question: is a relationship here possible? Is there any peace to be had? Can you find intimacy and harmony with anyone who doesn’t allow connection? Can you fashion a viable relationship with anyone who doesn’t or can’t treat you with respect and fairness, who puts up walls, lays down rigid rules, operates from criticism and judgment, can’t be pleased no matter what you do or say, and isn’t capable of seeing, hearing, or acknowledging you as a valued, independent person.
That’s a description of a non-relationship. A relationship takes two, willing, pliable, giving entities, both of whom want to be in it and are capable and willing to listen, compromise, respect and value one another.
We tend to place such high expectations upon familial bonds as if they’re automatically more magical, essential and loving than our friend or love connections because “it’s family.” But is that realistic? Evidence to the contrary indicates it doesn’t always work that way.
You can’t change anyone, including your Mom. You never could. And at her advanced age, it’s unreasonable to expect things will change or she’ll “get it.” She obviously isn’t able or willing to listen or hear you and that kind of invisibility can leave a life-long, core wound that cuts deeply.
All you can do is remember that the unloving, judgmental, critical way she acts out in her life is a reflection of her stuff and not about you, even though that’s hard to do, especially with a parent.
However, you can consider making new adjustments that might protect your boundaries better and reduce your exposure to toxic, hurtful, and insulting moments.
You can’t have it both ways. If you’re clear and convinced you’ve done all you can, then it might be time to pull back without regret or guilt, the most pointless, empty and useless emotion available. There’s nothing to feel guilty about it if you’ve done all you can. You tried your best. Sadly, there’s no way to avoid the hurt, or sadness at what won’t be or never was.
You mentioned your brothers have avoided one-on-one contact for years. Perhaps you need to take a page from their playbook and remove yourself from the line of fire without ultimatums or statements. Decide what you want, what you need and what you can’t tolerate anymore. Period. Your mom probably won’t like any changes she detects; she may have a tantrum or two. But you don’t have to stand there and take it.
We always have choices; these are not the easy ones. But at 56, it seems like it’s time to choose the ways in which you want and deserve to be treated by anyone in your life, and that includes your Mom.
Olive Gallagher is a life coach, ethicist, media expert, and national speaker and columnist, and has a private practice specializing in stress, boundaries, transition and choices.
You can submit your questions and ethical dilemmas or book consulting appointments and private and group coaching sessions with Olive at www.theinnerbottomline.com.
Hard cover, Kindle and audio versions of Olive’s book, The Nude Ethicist: A Simple Path to The Good Life™, are available on amazon.com.