Should I Keep My Mother Out of My Life?

Question: “I am a 42 year old psychotherapist. I spent about 10 years in psychotherapy learning how to deal with my family of origin issues. In a nutshell, the issue is this. My Mother was very emotionally incestuous with me. She related to me emotionally (but not physically) as if I were her spouse. She confided many things in me that she should not have and used me as a best friend and therapist to meet her emotional needs. When I did not meet a need she would fly into what was for me a terrifying rage. This rage could be triggered by many small normal every day interactions. At the age of 39 I finally cut off all contact with her because it just felt too traumatic to me to continue. She does not respect boundaries and actually becomes enraged when they are set, even if done so kindly and respectfully. I am now married and have 2 wonderful step children. I suffer often from feelings of guilt that I do not include my mother in my life, but I am afraid too do so because: 1. It actually triggers my own trauma from childhood of emotional abuse. 2. I am afraid she will do the same thing with my kids. 3. I am afraid she will be harmful to my relationship with my husband. Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not trying to paint my mom as a monster- she is just very troubled. And she has had treatment, but is not better. I actually forgive her, I just do not want to be abused any more- and I would never forgive myslef if she hurt my kids. Am I justified in terminating contact with her, or is this wrong? I am not LDS, but there are many principles of LDS that I admire and utilize in my own life. I tell you this so you will know that I don’t have access to any Bishops for advice/support.”

Answer: You have a good solid grasp on the family of origin issues. Sounds like your mother parentified you and inappropriately used you as an emotional sounding board and confidant. This behavior is common with parents in weak marriages that confide in their children. This is such a burden to carry as it complicates and breeds dysfunction within the parent-child relationship. Her rage following your not meeting her emotional needs is common for parents that do not having boundaries and end up not nurturing their children but instead using them to get their needs met, emotional or otherwise. That must have been so painful.

You asked, “I just do not want to be abused any more- and I would never forgive myself if she hurt my kids. Am I justified in terminating contact with her, or is this wrong?” Your not wanting to be emotionally used or abused is completely normal and health. The guilt and longing to some degree you feel in having your children around your mother is normative too. In some relationships, like the one with your mother, toxic relationships need to be what I call ‘cut off relationships.’ Cut off relationships are ones that are characterized by so much toxicity and problems that the your emotional health is better by not being involved in it at all. These relationships are not typical for most individuals but in cases like this I do advocate them. You may want to assert yourself and continue to set the boundaries and framework of works with you for her. If she can’t do that they she’ll not be a part of your life. This isn’t about shutting her out or punishing her for her treatment of you; rather, this is about your protecting yourself and keeping emotionally safe. That being said, you do need to review the nature of the pain and what you can tolerate.

Keep on your course. Set the boundaries, if she comes unhinged, then that is about her not you. Remember that, boundary setting in terms of how you and your kids can and will be treated is healthy and if she cannot or will not abide by them then she in fact is omitting herself from you life, not the other way around.