A few weeks ago, I faced a challenge in one of my close family relationships. My mother did not approve of a major decision that I recently made, and she said some hurtful things in response. I knew well enough prior to the conversation that she wouldn’t approve, but I was still surprised by the hurt I felt at her reaction. In my teens and early twenties, my desire for approval was strong enough that this reaction would have led me either to make a different decision to appease others, or keep my thoughts and actions private and hidden from those who would not agree. This codependent tendency led to some extreme negative consequences and limited my ability to form genuine relationships.
Now, in my mid-thirties, I’m learning to put the brakes on my people-pleasing instincts. While I don’t feel I owe anyone a direct window into all my thoughts, feelings, and decisions, I also cannot keep a wall up if I’m going to have a satisfying relationship and connection with someone. So, I did what I could not do a decade ago, and directly told her of my decision and stuck by it. Just as I realized that my decision would be difficult for her to come to terms with, I also realized that, in my life, it is the decision that is right for me and I am at peace with it.
My mother’s response may have been natural and expected, but it crossed many of my boundaries and pressed on old wounds. My history with my abusive ex-husband was brought up, and my decision was attributed to his prevailing influence over me. (As readers will know, I left him nearly two years ago and have been completely no contact. Most days, he is the furthest thing from my mind. And after my year of healing while I waited for my divorce, I rarely feel that I will discover anything of value by delving into my memories of the past.) I have asked my mother not to bring up the worst things that happened in my past when we are discussing my present and future, but it still happens repeatedly. I understand that it has also been a difficult process for her to come to terms with the abusive situation her daughter was living in for a decade, with a man who had been accepted into the family. It comes from a good place of concern and protectiveness over her daughter. But it is still frustrating to me when it happens.
Then, my mother hit another nerve by using “defining statements.” These types of statements tell someone else what they are feeling, what they are, what they think, etc. This was a frequent verbal abuse tactic of my ex-husband and a generally unhealthy way of arguing. Some fairly mild examples could be, “You think you’re always right. You don’t know how to own up to your mistakes. You’re stubborn! You’re just trying to make me mad.” How does someone else know what I think, if I did not tell them? Do they get to decide my intentions and what I am trying to do? It took a long time for me to realize that only I get to define those things about myself! While my mother’s defining statements did not reach the level of toxicity, insults, or name-calling that my abuser used, it was triggering and frustrating. It was not at all how I felt, what I thought, or what I did! It left me not knowing how to bridge the gap of understanding, when we were on such different pages.
I took my time in getting back to her after this conversation. I needed space and time to process my disappointment and to think about what I could reasonably expect from my parents versus how I wished the relationship would be. The conflict stemmed from the fact that my parents and I have different views of a couple of important matters. I feel that I respect and understand their stance, but I do not receive that same respect and acceptance in return.
Then I thought of the extremely toxic situation I left at the beginning of last year. How I had allowed myself to be treated like dirt for over a decade, and how I resolved to rebuild my boundaries and never accept that treatment again. That new resolve applied not just to a romantic partner but any and everyone I allow in my life. But enforcing boundaries is not as easy as setting them. What was I willing to do if my mother refused to respect my decision and continued to say things that were hurtful and triggering to me? Would I take a step back from a relationship that I consider important? Would I be willing to, at least temporarily, end that relationship if needed?
My answer is complicated, but for now the answer is.. no. I would not be willing to end the relationship, although taking a step back is sometimes necessary. I have seen others’ pain and grief at the loss of their parents and been urged to appreciate the time I have with them. I will only have one mother, and my time with her won’t last forever. So I try to understand where she is coming from, see the good intentions, agree to disagree, and adjust my expectations. One reason that I can feel comfortable doing this is that I can look back on the relationship’s history and remember all the times my mother gave, offered support, and times when we had previously worked through conflict and experienced growth. My mother is not a perfect person, but neither am I. I believe both of us are well-intentioned and capable of resolving differences, and it’s still a relationship that adds more than it takes away.
This is where my feelings are complicated. Think of the importance and influence of a relationship with one’s parent, through all the stages of life. How does that compare to the importance of a partner or spouse? In my upbringing, and I believe in our culture at large, marriage was by far the most important relationship. (I am not a parent, so I’m not including the relationship with children here.) Choosing a spouse was the most important decision you made, and it was a decision that was supposed to last a lifetime. Being married, being a wife, became a major part of your identity, to the point that you can’t imagine living without your “other half.”
So compare this to my response to feeling a lack of mutual respect and a pattern of hurt in the relationship with my mother. I was not at a place to consider ending that relationship, and I was willing to accept some hurt, conflict, and limitations because I consider the relationship important. “You only have one mother, and they’re not with you forever!” was more than enough reason for me to do what I can to repair things. But how much of that feeling also applied to staying with an abusive spouse and accepting his unacceptable treatment? “I’m not perfect either.” “He’s my husband for life and we need to work through this.” “This is really tough, but we have had better times in the past and I’m sure we’ll get back there.” These are natural responses! Which is why it becomes so difficult to break out of that pattern, give up hope of mending the relationship, and leave.
In the weeks after this conversation with my mother, things have improved between us. We shared Thanksgiving dinner and have talked more productively. I am hoping that time will help her to accept my decision. We are working to establish healthier patterns, and for me that means not giving in to my desire for approval, and to be willing to accept disagreement without closing myself off from someone completely. When, how, and with whom to enforce boundaries is something I will have to continue to think about. I sense that deep down, the same impulse that drove me to repair things with my mother is what drove me to stay with someone abusive. What is sometimes a healthy, natural impulse can become a major weakness when the wrong person is allowed to take control of it.