Relationship Connection: How do I handle my controlling mother?

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Question

My mother has worked very hard my whole life to provide everything for me, from learning opportunities to self-worth to finances in the form of a trust fund they set up before I was born. I am so lucky to have all these advantages in life. However, she has always been very controlling.

I’ll give you an example. Every day I came down the stairs to go to school she had a comment like, “Oh you need to wear blush with that, sweetie” or “You should wear something that complements your figure, cupcake.” She has had an opinion on every little thing I wear from pants to anklets. And has something to say about everything I do as well.

She also keeps saying she wants to support me in everything I do and wants me to travel. But she exploded at me when she found out I was traveling to Rome in a few months without telling her. I had planned on telling her I was going to use my own money, but I never got the chance. She assumed I was going behind her back to do this.

Also, she has always felt threatened by me. When I was younger and my dad got really mad –he had an explosive temper – I was the only one who could calm him down. I always gave him hugs when he came home because I missed him, but I saw mom every day. I was terrified of my dad for his temper (though no physical violence), but I still loved him more than her.

These days, if I ever ask mom to change one of her behaviors or even just to scoot over on the couch in “her house,” she flares up at me, saying I’m ungrateful or that I shouldn’t dare to tell her what to do.

Every time I try to have a civil conversation with her, I end up monologuing, which I know is a bad habit of mine, and she sends me away crying because I don’t do the things that make her happy, even though I know it’s not my job to make her happy. She’s somewhat of a formidable figure and refuses to back down and thinks every conversation is a fight.

I’ve been to therapists for years now, and I really think we could do well with going together, but there’s no way I could ever convince her she’s the problem. She might just shun me from family gatherings for the rest of my life. In my family, once the family head decides that someone doesn’t belong or follow family traditions, they will be ousted. What do I do? I’m running out of options.

Answer

It sounds like you’ve lived in a dynamic with your parents where you’ve had to emotionally support and manage both of them. This is a tough dynamic that leaves the child anxious and unsure in this reversed role. This role reversal with both your mother and your father will not likely change until you do something different. Parents in this dynamic generally don’t have much insight or motivation to change the relationship.

Even though you’re an adult, you still have inborn instincts to expect stability and emotional security from your parents. You may logically understand that they can’t provide this, but it still can dial up a sense of loss that you don’t have someone you can count on.

Understanding this is important because these instincts can keep you stuck in a role reversal as you become motivated to please them, take care of them and manage them so you can at least get some of your emotional needs met in return. The problem is that it usually doesn’t work out this way. Instead, you end up feeling more used and depleted.

It sounds like you’ve been working hard to undo these struggles with your parents for years. I’m guessing they’ve not been engaged in the same kind of work. Even though you would love to join forces and co-create a new relationship with your parents, you’ll need to take charge of your life and decide what kind of relationship you want with each of them.

If you wait for their consent, you’ll stay in a state of inaction and eventually believe you’re powerless to do anything different. You have options to change things, even though these options will likely raise the intensity.

You’re worried about losing your place in the family if you assert yourself and ask for what you need. Please recognize that if your standing in your family depends on silent compliance, it’s not a healthy family system. Family systems function best when they respect individual differences and honor the variety of personalities and needs of each family member.

You’re likely monologuing at your mom because you know something needs to change, but you don’t know what else to do. There’s really nothing more to say right now, as she doesn’t have the self-awareness to be influenced by your words. It’s time to act and then use words at a time in the future only when there is genuine curiosity and openness to the changes.

This is a time to consider the best course for your life, which includes personal preferences like vacation plans and how you present yourself. While your mom may have endless opinions about how you should spend your money, spend your time and what company you should keep, you get to have the final word.

This doesn’t mean you exclude her at every turn, but it does mean that you pay close attention to your motivation for including or excluding her. She can learn that you get to direct your own life and make your own decisions, even if it’s upsetting to her. Again, you get the final word. She gets to decide what works best for her and so do you. If your preferences clash, then you still get to decide what works best for you.

Many people need additional support breaking out of these role reversals. It can be overwhelming to see a parent throw a tantrum and demand that you make everything better. You’re both adults now and it’s time to expect her to manage her own emotions, especially when she disagrees with your path.

Stay connected!

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

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