Tell Me About It: Dreading mom's rants about family

Question: It seems like every time my mother calls me, she wants to vent to me about my terrible aunt and cousins. There has been some major bad blood in my family since my grandmother died - claims of elder abuse, fraud, theft, as well as petty complaints such as who gets to visit grandma's gravesite with grandpa. I typically spend the night after one of my mom's venting sessions crying.

I have suggested family counseling to her, but my mother says she's not the problem, it's my aunt and cousins. I have suggested that some of the battles she has picked aren't worth it, and that some of the more outrageous claims might be overblown. But my mother has made it clear she doesn't want solutions, she just wants to vent.

I don't want to participate in the venting. It's raising my blood pressure and stress level, and otherwise making me dread talking to my mom. What do I say or do to discourage my mom's rants?

Answer: "Mom, I'd love to be the shoulder you lean on, but I typically spend the night after one of these venting sessions crying. It's raising my blood pressure, stress level, and taking the joy out of one of my favorite things in the world, talking to my mom. I also don't have the credentials or the detachment to help you understand your family. I'm asking you to bring this to a good family therapist, because I can't do this anymore."

If/when she says she's not the problem, explain that even if absolutely everything is someone else's fault, her reactions to these relatives are obviously upsetting her and that in itself warrants getting help.

If she comes back with an accusation that you're not supporting her, then please see that your mom's portion of the problem isn't just her refusal to get help; it's also that she is an equal (and equally enthusiastic) part of family-wide dysfunction.

As for her specific you-don't-care-about-me charge, you can simply say that it's because you care that you've chosen not to serve as her passive shoulder to cry on anymore. All of the listening you've done hasn't made the situation a bit better, and possibly instead has enabled her to postpone finding someone more qualified to help.


E-mail Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com.