Tell Me About It: Repairing bond with an abusive mother

Adapted from a recent online discussion and continued from Monday.

Question: With my parents, I feel I am in a similar position (as Monday's questioner). My mother has serious mental illness and has been emotionally abusive. She is now in treatment and it is clear she would like a closer relationship with me. However, given our history, I have a hard time feeling motivated to share personal details or put effort into our relationship.

I'm not sure your answer about her mother's alcoholism being "north" fits the questioner's position - it doesn't seem to be about her mother's alcoholism; it's more about her mother wanting to be closer and her daughter being ambivalent.

So, when Mom makes an earnest effort to change, is it our responsibility to put in effort to repair that relationship?

Answer: It's about the effort Mother has made, the atta-girls she seeks, the closeness she wants, the responses she does and doesn't take well - so, with all due respect, it is still about the alcoholic dynamic in which the addict takes and everyone else gives. The only difference is that, instead of liquid relief, Mother craves relief in the form of (compulsory) intimacy.

That emotional give-and-take isn't supposed to be 50-50 between parent and child; the parent is supposed to do all of the giving in the child's infancy, and over time the child grows and matures and starts to shift the balance toward, ideally, equilibrium by the end of young-adulthood.

With the alcoholic parent, small children are asked to give early and often and badly out of proportion to what their own needs dictate.

So, I'd say the adult child in this instance has better justification than most to hang on to what s/he thinks is right, instead of deferring to parents. They imposed an imbalance on her that took her years to sort out, so it's only reasonable that, any time she's unsure what constitutes balance in a given situation, she errs on the side of taking care of herself, versus taking care of her parents.

If that doesn't feel right to you in your situation, that's OK - the whole point of my answer is that you get to follow your own sense of what is right.

Question: My boyfriend is insecure. He's says it's just part of his personality, I say it's something one can change, if they work on it. Who's right?

Answer: Neither of you. He should be willing to work on it instead of just choosing to be needy, you should be aware that it's not your place to tell other people what they need to work on, and both of you should see that arguments over relationship "shoulds" are birds flying at plate glass windows thinking they're shiny bits of sky. (Poor birdies.)

Put your relationship expectations away somewhere and resolve just to enjoy people's company. If it works, it works, and if it doesn't, your irritation will tell you it's time to go. I don't mean this in a what-has-he-done-for-me-lately way, but in a general one, where all of your relationships are answers to a standing question: "Is doing my part enough to make this tick?"

 


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Chat with Carolyn Hax online at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.

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