I played hooky with Commander Logic yesterday, so no posts, sorry! If you’ve been wondering “Is Hot Doug’s still delicious? Is the movie adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a) enjoyable b) a clinic in the importance of lens choice and detail in production design c) a fucking masterpiece of acting in Gary Oldman’s performance? Is scotch delicious? Is reading fundamental?” Good news, everyone! The answer to all of these questions is “Yes.”
Continuing on the theme of “parents who throw tantrums” with a bit of leftover “the winter holidays are not shiny and wonderful for everyone,” today’s question is about a mom who disowned her adult daughter on Christmas day.
Dear Captain Awkward,
On Christmas day, my mother disowned me.
I recently moved into a sweeeet new place with my boyfriend of two and a half years. It was unanimously agreed by everyone that my Mum and little brother would spend Christmas at our place. I decorated the tree, hung up paper chains, bought a ton of food. Well, as soon as they got here, they started complaining: Our kettle doesn’t boil fast enough, our bathroom door doesn’t close easily enough, the door locks behind them when they go out to smoke, they wanted their Christmas presents NOW not on Christmas day.
Then, on Christmas day I *casually* mentioned something to my mother about BF and I’s future matrimony (because we’ve been together three years and we know we’re definitely getting married, we just haven’t worked out when) any my Mum begins lecturing me about how “there should always be some element of doubt in a proposal” and how “he should consider it an honour for you to marry him, not due course”. I admit, I got pretty angry. Apart from anything else, my mother has never been in a relationship for more than four years. She’s been married three times. I pointed out that the “let’s get married and then get to know each other” hadn’t been successful for her, and BF and I really enjoyed the fact that we aren’t afraid to talk about the future. She flipped and stormed out. She sat outside my apartment for the next five hours. I went and apologized to her after an hour but she said she hated being in the same building as me and refused to come back in or eat Christmas dinner. BF and I ate ours in silence then hid in our bedroom for the rest of the day.
When my mother finally came back in, she screamed at me and BF again, saying she was disgusted with me and disappointed with BF. She demanded I book her a ticket home as soon as possible. There weren’t any trains or coaches to where she lives until the 27th – which was when she was due to go home anyway, so I bought myself and BF tickets to his parents for the next day. When I told her this, she started yelling AGAIN, and told me I was making a huge mistake.
During the course of the next week, I got several text messages from my little brother telling me off for “upsetting mum” and “locking her out of the house on Christmas day” (which I definitely did not do). Well, we went to BF’s parents on boxing day, spent a no-drama week there, then came home. My mother had left all her Christmas presents and long, ranty note telling me that she now considers me to be an orphan. (Seriously.)
What do I do? When my Mum is good, she’s great; but when she’s bad she’s unbearable. BF (who comes from a normal, stable family) wants to have nothing to do with my family ever again, which to some extent I totally sympathise with. The problem is, that these two people are my only family. Until a few years ago, I’d never lived in the same place long enough to get the kind of friends who become your substitute family. Even though they are abusive and slightly insane, they’re all I’ve got. Should I try to rebuild this relationship or am I only hurting myself if I maintain contact?
Girl who still maintains that you should know someone quite well before you marry them.
Dear Girl Who Sounds Pretty Level-Headed And Correct About How Marriage Probably Works,
I’m really sorry that happened to you. There are many, many layers of wrongness here.
First, let’s unpack the idea that the question “Should we get married?” must be a surprise to one of the participants and that the answer to that question should be suspenseful to the other in order for shit to be sufficiently “romantic.” Here’s a short clinic in how to make sure I will not marry you:
- Ask me without having many discussions about it first. Surprise!
- Do that first thing in front of a lot of people so that I’m put on the spot. Surprise! If there’s a Jumbotron involved, not only will I not marry you, I’m basically never talking to you again.
- Buy a big expensive sparkly thing (that I’m expected to go apeshit over and wear for the rest of my life) without consulting me about finances or whether I even want one in the first place. Surprise!
- Describe it as “popping the question.”
I may be in the minority here (evidenced by every romantic comedy or boring-white-people-in-a-house-competing-to-marry-other-boring-white-people show, ever), but those are my rules and I’m sticking to them. Even if she herself had a GREAT track record with matrimony I think your mom is pretty wrong about how that should go down, period, and she’s definitely wrong about that for you in this specific instance.
Second, to be a guest in someone’s home and to constantly complain and nitpick everything is downright rude. And to *scream* at fellow adults? Really? I grew up in a “yelling house” and as a result have an extreme allergy to raised voices outside the context of defending immediate personal safety, calling for help, etc. People who scream at me or each other are not invited into my life, period, and I will severely minimize contact with the ones who are already around. Lovers have been summarily dumped, jobs have been quit without two-week’s notice, and I have walked right out of buildings to get away from people who think they get to yell at me. It’s a giant, giant red flag that there is a basic lack of respect and the situation is or is about to become abusive.
Third, let’s talk about basic maturity and narcissism. Like the moms in the Case of What To Name The Baby or the Case of I Guess You Can Sleep On The Floor of the Sewing Room, But You Can’t Have Keys or Get Personal Phone Calls, your mom has decided to make something that is not about her (How you and your boyfriend will make your decision about getting married) and make it ALL about her. Didn’t you know that your personal romantic choices are a referendum on a) your mom’s entire life and b) how you feel about her? Didn’t you know that she totally gets a say in how you make that decision and also about the quality of your teakettle and the locks on your doors?
Obviously, OBVIOUSLY, I cannot diagnose people’s mental conditions through the Internet, but I can direct you toward a book by Dr. Karyl McBride called “Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers” and tell you that a lot of the behaviors you describe tick some ticky boxes for me on this inventory. If that list resonates with you, you may find the book extremely enlightening and useful in navigating your relationship with her.
The stuff you describe in your letter is part of why I am so invested in trying to help people learn to set boundaries and why I encourage people who may be in emotionally abusive situations to look strictly at behaviors (and how those behaviors affect you) vs. getting caught up in looking for reasons the person is acting that way. I don’t think anyone sets out to become an abuser, and I take it as a given that abusive people have survived some bad shit at the hands of other people and/or have diagnosable conditions that contribute to their behavior. Those reasons may be sad, but they are not a reason that you should have to put up with the behavior. You get to say “I’m sorry your feelings are hurt…” or “I’m sorry you went through all that…BUT that doesn’t mean you get to talk to me that way.“
Someone who comes into your space as a guest and begins a constant barrage of complaining and criticism, someone who thinks that manners don’t apply to them, someone who screams at you, and someone who takes your (rational, normal, autonomous, adult) decisions as an excuse to throw a giant tantrum and kick you out of her life is completely out of line. There is a red light flashing the words “NOT OKAY, NOT OKAY, NOT OKAY” behind all of these behaviors. You see, it, right?
I know that it’s so, so, so sad to think about being totally cut off from your mom (and probably your brother, who sounds like he was formed in her image). Even if you did have a big friend group it would be sad. It’s a very big deal and I want you to give yourself a lot of self love and forgiveness and permission to be really sad about it.
But honestly? I think she did you a favor by severing ties. Trust me, she won’t keep them severed. She needs your attention and the hit of adrenaline and drama that comes from being engaged in the conflict too badly (which is why you are getting those texts from your brother – he’s getting an earful and passing it on to you). But you probably have a small window without having to deal with her, and I kind of want you to write her a big letter and dump out all your feelings, and then seal that letter (and the feelings) up in a box for a little while so you can just enjoy the peace and quiet and love of your good dude and your awesome new space.
When people threaten to storm out and/or to never talk to you again? They never realize that they are giving you the sweet, sweet gift of their absence. What they want is your attention. They want to make a giant statement and force you to fight for the relationship. I’m a big fan of believing people when they break up with you and taking them exactly at their word. You can best thwart them and hold onto your own equilibrium by saying, “Well, that’s sad to hear, obviously, but if that’s what you need to do I understand” and then going on with your life, which you did when you took yourself off to your in-laws’s place and surrounded yourself with people who don’t scream at you. Those instincts of yours for what is reasonable and how to take care of yourself are in great working order, I’m thinking.
A few closing thoughts:
- I think your relationship with your mom will never be fully comfortable or ok, but that it may be possible over time for you to figure out how to make a safer space for yourself by setting and enforcing boundaries.
- I think that if you do continue a relationship with her at some point in the future, it’s best to have very low expectations and to keep that relationship within very narrow parameters. No extended holiday visits for sure.
- I don’t think it’s on you to “rebuild” anything right now, and whether you decide to in the future is something you do not have to worry about right now. Let things be demolished for a while.
- I think your brother is part of the problem, and you don’t have to put up with his behavior either. Don’t let her triangulate and deploy him as her agent to pass on her messages. Tell him to leave off (as in “This is between Mum and me, so you and I are going to change the subject now,” and if he doesn’t stop, block his texts for a good while.)
- I think if you have or can get access to a therapist, now might be a good time for that.
- Your boyfriend is smart, and his instincts to protect you from people who are mean to you are correct. Marry his ass (when the time is right and you both decide). You don’t owe him never talking to your family again, obviously, but it’s great you can trust him to have your back when things go badly.
I’m so, so sorry you have to deal with this, and so, so glad that you have such a level head on your shoulders and a supportive partner by your side.