#340: How do you say “I don’t love you?”

More on the theme of parents & communication with adult children today.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’ve been reading your blog for just a few days now but I already caught on to the important part ‘speak up for yourself’.

Now my problem is that I can’t. Or rather I can’t make myself.

I’ve grown up with my bipolar mother. She’s in therapy, on meds and the whole family is very supportive.
She was stuck in depressive stage for what feels like my whole youth, so living at home was equal to walking on egg shells. No arguments, no unplanned behavior, no upsetting mom lest she burst into tears. No friends over (not that I had many). No going for a walk after school instead of heading straight home. No speaking my mind. Keeping my head down so dad wouldn’t have more to worry about.

While my younger brother dealth with the problem by taking drugs and acting up, I was the model daughter. Dream grades. Quiet behavior. Self sufficient.

I, well, broke around age 17 where she had another depressive plunge and went into the hospital. I was unable to visit her, speak to her, look at her without everything freezing. I had two years of therapy, at least one mental breakdown and unvited her from my graduation ceremony because I didn’t want to risk her ruining the day as she was almost but not quite out of the hospital.

Fast forward to today:

I’ve moved out and live with my boyfriend of 6 years. She’s not had a depressive episode in a while but is bordering on mania. She’s still self centered but more aware of her surroundings. Unfortunately she has this big idea of us being/becoming bffs. She tries to bribe me with presents (small things…flowers, yarn, chocolate). She says she loves me and I can see in her eyes that she wants me to just say it back.

But I can’t. It would be a lie. I don’t love her. She has serverely disabled me with this need for top grades, the inability to speak up for myself and the fear that one wrong step will have her telling me again what a horrible child I am and/or send her back into depression.

I generally keep my distance as she’s getting clingy again. I only visit my father (he works at me university, so I can just visit his office). But I don’t want to cut her out of my life. Or rather, I feel I shouldn’t. It would mean not seeing my father as much. I enjoy spending time with her in small doses (or at least I think so…might be self-delusion). I’m afraid it’ll push her back into depression and though I should be taking care and thinking of myself I just can’t.

The solution to my problems is just one talk/phone call/email/letter away
I could talk to my boyfriend.
I could call or email my father.
I could call or write a letter to my former therapist.

But I just sat here for three hours trying to make myself do any of it and couldn’t.

Any idea?

Lips Glued Shut

Dear Glued Lips:

I think it’s hard for you to say anything because “I don’t love you” is an absence or retreat rather than a statement.

Here’s a script I would suggest for you, since you don’t want to cut your mom off entirely. You can send it as an email or a letter, or rehearse it ahead of time with a close friend or therapist. I see you have a ‘former’ therapist – would you consider finding a ‘current’ therapist? The stuff you’re dealing with is Big Stuff. A letter might be best so you can say everything you want to say and then shield yourself from her reaction.

Mom, I am glad you are getting some treatment and making strides toward feeling better.

I have some awkward but important requests. First, I would like to ask you to stop giving me gifts like (example) and telling me that you love me. I know you mean it kindly, but to me it feels like pressure to say something back that I am not ready to say. I worry that if I don’t react the way you want to it will send you back into depression. That is too much pressure for me to carry. 

The best way you can show me that you love me is by taking good care of yourself and giving our relationship some space to breathe and to heal on its own. I don’t know that we will ever be as close as you want to, or the way that other people think mothers and daughters should be. The hard truth is that we can never make for lost time or undo the past, but maybe with time we can develop something that is honest and real based on choices we both make as adults.

For the next few months*, I think it’s better for me if we don’t talk or see each other very often. I want to ask you very directly not to contact me, and to let me be the one to get in touch with you and make plans when I feel ready. I’m sorry if that feels hurtful or scary to you. I wouldn’t ask this of you if I didn’t feel it was important to my own well-being and mental health to set some boundaries in our relationship.

As always, adapt and use only what feels good and useful to you, if anything. If she falls back into a depression, please release yourself from all responsibility for having caused it. She has a chronic, cyclical illness that will always need management with therapy and medication.

I hope you get some peace from this, however it plays out.

*This is a tactic, not a schedule. NEVER is a long time and is very hard for people to think about and hard to enforce, especially with family, especially since you are still close to your dad and he’s going to be in the middle. Sometimes it works better to ask someone to change something up for a few months, with a promise that you’ll re-evaluate, than to issue ultimatums or invoke the words “never again.” You can obviously decide after a few months that you like the peace and quiet and see no reason to change anything about the situation. In the meantime you will have laid the groundwork for a world where she doesn’t contact you against your wishes and given your dad a way to help you without putting pressure on yourself to make a permanent decision.

61 thoughts on “#340: How do you say “I don’t love you?”

  1. I have a very similar experience with my mother LW. It was incredibly difficult for me not to feel guilty for in some way ‘causing’ my mother’s issues. At a very early age I was trying to protect her (though she in no way reciprocated). I carried feelings of anger and recriminations toward her that I never felt I could express. They weighed me down. I had a therapist suggest writing out every hateful, mean, honest, angry thought in a long letter to her. I wrote it all out and then, after a while of sitting with it and re-reading it even, I burned it.

    I know this is a fairly common technique but if you have never done it you may not realize how powerful it can be. In addition to what the Captain suggests that exercise might help you feel a little better about some of the silenced words. You shouldn’t have to carry them.

  2. I think the point about not issuing ultimatums is a really good one! I sort of know what it feels like to be in your shoes, where your knee-jerk reaction is to be like, ‘LEAVE ME ALONE FOREVER I CAN’T DEAL WITH IT,’ but I think it’s good to also allow people space to make a few plays as well. Being on the other end (AKA your mom in this situation) is tough, so not breaking things off for forever and ever will put the ball in her court and allow her to evaluate what she needs to do to help the situation as well. I know it’s probably tough for everybody involved when somebody acts a certain way and it’s not something they can entirely help, but at least maybe the eye-opener will help inspire your mom to work harder to keep you in her life if you are really important to her.

  3. That sounds really hard. One thing to keep in mind is that you don’t have to worry about ‘pushing her into depression’ because you really don’t control that. She might become depressed again in the future but if she does that won’t be because of any particular thing you did. It sounds like you grew up with the idea that if you could just be good enough and nice enough, then your mother’s illness would go away, but brain chemistry really doesn’t work like that.

    1. I was thinking that, too — I wonder if LW could reframe her thinking about her mom’s illness in such a way that it liberates her from the “good daughter” trap. LW, your mom has a neurological condition that means she will go through more depressive episodes. What looks like a causal relationship from your end (I said this, and then Mom acted like this) is actually coincidence. If she had, say, epilepsy, you wouldn’t blame yourself if she had a seizure in your presence, right? Instead you’d need to know your strategy for dealing with that inevitability. Maybe you can think about the depressive cycles in a similar way — something you can devise strategies for that protect you while acknowledging that you are not the cause of your mom’s struggle.

      1. I wouldn’t quite say it’s always a coincidence, since with *some* bipolar people outside events often do trigger their manic or depressive episodes. But those triggers are ultimately incidental, and going to happen anyway, because those episodes are inevitable. And no one can manage that for another person. Her mother has to manage it all by herself (with professionals), and the LW still gets to set and enforce her own boundaries and needs.

        1. As someone with BP, I want to reinforce this point. Yes, external stress can flip me out. But even more yes that is my thing to deal with. I want the LW to feel freed from any responsibility for the mother’s mental health.

        2. My depression is of the unipolar sort, but the way it generally gets set off is this:

          1. My life becomes more stressful than usual because of reasons.
          2. The stress settles in to stay for a while.
          3. Things start getting rocky for me emotionally.
          4. My self-care starts to slip a little.
          5. The stress starts to feel even greater, due to 3 & 4.
          6. Things get even rockier emotionally.
          7. Some precipitating event pushes things over the top.
          8. Off I go on the rollercoaster ride from Hell.

          My most recent trip through Depression Land (I’m still not quite out the other side yet) was an interesting exception: step 7 never happened. 4, 5, and 6 got set on Endless Loop, and that eventually skipped things straight into step 8. Which made me realize that some of my earlier precipitating events maybe weren’t all that important.

          So, yeah. Not exactly coincidental, but not exactly causal either.

          1. I’ve noticed that certain things seem to precipitate an upswing or a downswing for me, so I try to seek out things that make me happy in hopes of starting or sustaining a good period, and avoid unpleasant interactions to stave off the next bad one. And what this does, basically, is buy me a little time here and there. If you could control bipolar depression by simply throwing enough good events at someone, or protecting them from enough bad ones, that would be awesome! Except that even then, the person would still have ups and downs, because it’s an independently chemical thing. And all of the things I try to do or not do–reread a book I love, spend time with someone who can cheer me up, find a new interest to get excited about, avoid getting into fights or spending time with negative people–they all have one thing in common: they are life. They are all life experiences that I’m going to keep having, and I’m not going to be able to choose all of them, or choose when I have them. In the end, I’m the only one who can be responsible for my own ways of coping with a mood cycle, but even I can’t control it, because no one can. Which is my way of trying to say, LW, you’re not responsible for your mother’s mental health. Ups and downs are going to happen no matter what you do.

  4. THIS THISITY THIS. I am so grateful for this LW’s letter and doubly grateful for being reminded I am not alone in these feelings. My details are different (I don’t have an illness’ tripwires to avoid and my parents are blessedly divorced) but THIS:

    “First, I would like to ask you to stop giving me gifts like (example) and telling me that you love me. I know you mean it kindly, but to me it feels like pressure to say something back that I am not ready to say. I worry that if I don’t react the way you want to…[I don’t even know what I worry about, specifically]…I don’t know that we will ever be as close as you want to, or the way that other people think mothers and daughters should be. The hard truth is that we can never make for lost time or undo the past, but maybe with time we can develop something that is honest and real based on choices we both make as adults.”

    When I was 21, not wanting to send a Valentine’s card because I didn’t feel the love for her that merited one, I just didn’t. Nothing more than that. I chose not to chase her down any more, not seeking her approval or paying her false homage. She simply never again contacted me directly until I was 34 and she had a cancer diagnosis and she needed her emotional tampon back. How can you kick someone when they’re down, especially when she is saying how wonderful I am and how much she loves me (when she just wants me to support her now).

    The day I stood up to her when she was berating me for never giving her credit for the good things she did do, when she can’t even own the damaging things she did – I said, “Look, when you contacted me last year, I tried to just start fresh, like we just met, and forget about the stuff in the past and go like we’re both adults getting to know each other. And you’re not letting that happen. I didn’t get to be angry at you or get anything I needed, so I am not really ready to start handing out Mother of the Year medals yet.”

    Then she called and I was busy and didn’t get around to calling her back. On day three, her husband calls, furious, “what is going on?” taking it all very personally. And I just chose that time to resume the no contact rule. I was going to write a letter, I even drafted it, but I never sent it. She sent a letter. I didn’t read it. I feel so much better, having her out of my life. I’m not saying you should do what I did, but IF you do, I support your decision, for many many many people will not. “But she’s your MOTHER.” I hereby authorize the Captain to share my contact info with LW if you ever want to be validated in this.

    Of course I support your decision otherwise, but I offer to be a resource if you go Team Cut Off.

    Jedi HUGS and one for your dad as well; it’s got to be very difficult to deal with and stay in love with a woman with her complex and emotionally taxing condition.

    1. I sit here and read your storey @Karinacenerina and I go WOW… I know exactly what your talking about, your post spun me out, as clearly I can relate in some way.

      I actually don’t know what I am talking about directly when it comes to bipolar, as I have never met the mother of my partner of 5 years. what I have seen from his side has been, pretty fucked, especially when I can do nothing about it…..

      I could write on and on, I know I don’t need to go into details regarding certain behaviours, as you and LW already know them.

      I personally have always marked my line in the sand as I have never met the mother, I know if I do it would be disruptive to my relationship and what I have is great. My guy doesn’t contact his mother, he has stopped. To be honest, his mother works in cycles and every 18mths 2 yrs she contacts him, presents him with another situation, it escalates and then anywhere between a few days to a few weeks she drops off as she has a new situation at hand and dismisses what has just occurred.

      I dont know much else about bipolar, but thought I’d share……..

  5. I think we need to start an internet support group for children of bi-polar moms.
    Mine has the emotional IQ of a 6 year old (which I know because my 7 year old has surpassed my mother in emotional-social maturity).
    She cannot grasp complicated communication. She forgets what I say 15 seconds after I finish saying it.
    I’m sorry to hijack this thread, LW, but your letter hit me like a ton of bricks.
    If I was totally true to myself, I would never speak to her again.
    I don’t feel like that’s an option for me at all. She doesn’t have anyone else in her life aside from my husband, daughter and I. My brother is involved but not local.
    To complicate our interpersonal matters, I’m adopted, and just started searching for my first mom. Letter mailed. No response x 6 weeks.
    I’d better stop. Actually, I’d better write CA a letter of my own…

    1. It’s not your fault. You didn’t do it to her. You have a right to your own healthy, safe life, and so does your daughter.

    2. I’m sorry you’re dealing with that.

      Let’s be very, very careful how we talk about bi-polar (and other mental illnesses, which is why I hate diagnosing shit here). It’s not automatic shorthand for “behaves like an asshole.”

      1. Thank you. My aunt has a bipolar disorder, and she’s kind and loving and impetuous and passionate and *not an asshole*. A close friend of the spouse’s has a bipolar disorder, and she is a pretty good parent.

      2. I appreciate this. My friend from school was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a few years ago. She is still the kind and funny person she was when we were kids, but she’s sick. It doesn’t change her personality, it just makes her life harder to deal with.

      3. Thanks, Cap.

        For a huge number of mental illnesses, I know someone in my social sphere (not just through clinical work) who’s met that diagnosis at some point in their life, and is not an asshole. Including people with personality disorders. “Asshole” is not a diagnostic category.

        To quote Lois McMaster Bujold, “Half of what we call madness is just some poor slob dealing with pain by a strategy that annoys the people around him.”

      4. Yeah, I’M bipolar. And I grew up feeling very intimidated about expressing how I felt about pretty much anything; I learned a lot of *outward* emotional control very early on. My sister, having a very different personality and family relationships, didn’t. We’re both bipolar, but you see it in very different ways.

    3. I’m so sorry you’re in that position.

      My partner is the Good Child of a bipolar mother (his brother got to be the Other Crazy One, which isn’t better but gets fixed sooner). The crazily unfair part of it is that she’s been really stable for years now and they can’t fix any of the bad stuff because nobody is allowed to talk about how bad some of it was.

      i wish i could get him into some sort of support group or therapy. But the Good One is also the Sane One and they don’t NEED help, right?

      1. LW here

        yes…the good child doesn’t need help. Until shit goes up in flames.
        I’m not him, but try nudging him in that direction. It’s all fine until one day you wake up and look at the parent and things don’t work any more. It’s better to get the issues dealt with before you can’t speak with your mother any longer….

        1. Yeah, the one way to get real support in some families is to become really dramatically obviously needy.

          In this family, the nice thing is, she really is a LOT better now, and has been for a long time. She finally sought treatment just after her kids moved out of the house. So there aren’t bad things getting piled on anymore. The calcified family structure where everyone tiptoes around her and nobody who isn’t one of the Officially Needy has emotional needs is still there, but the horrible episodes that the structure was built around haven’t happened in at least a decade. Also she’s been stable for so long that it’s become apparent that some of the weird stuff isn’t her at all – not all the crazy was coming from the Officially Crazy people in the family, and not all the behaviors of the Officially Sane folks were totally healthy.

          What I’m saying is: it won’t necessarily keep getting worse. You’re smart to look for solutions for yourself now, because you have the power to do that from your end. But there is a chance that your mom will look for solutions on her side, too.

      2. Maybe they don’t need “help” the same way. But support? If you’ve been the good one all your life, carrying everyone else’s stuff because they can’t? I think you deserve all the support you can get

        1. agreed, Atma. SO much they need support, and it’s such a trap, because in order to keep wearing the mantle of the “good one” you are not allowed to need, let alone ask for support.

    4. Hello, LW here

      And on the issue of forgetfulness…It comes with some of the meds…my mom has it as well

      1. uhm…since I can’t edit…just wanted to add…

        this is not meant to excuse the issue. Just…at least this might not be something she does intentional

  6. I really want to make a point here that seems to get lost all too often in parent/child relationships and discussions about them: that the parent is the parent and the child is the child, and only one of them is responsible for the other. Yes, once we are grown, we are responsible for our own behavior, and for whether that behavior is hurtful to others or not. But parents never outgrow their responsibility to be kind to and protect their children, to nurture and raise them, to be emotionally available to them, and if they are incapable, to see that that duty is assigned to another capable adult (yes, once a child is grown, if the child does not keep their end of the “responsible, decent adult” bargain, I think it is ok for a parent to walk away from the relationship, but that is another subject). And it is never the child’s responsibility or duty to nurture or protect the parent (unless, as an adult, they so choose), or fix their problems, or take blame for them, etc . Especially when there is abuse, or mental illness, or addiction, or any other circumstance the child has no control over, or may also be a victim of. “But she’s your MOTHER” is one of the cruelest, besides-the-point accusations to level at anyone. It is a statement that should only ever be followed by “How on earth could she have done that to you??”

    1. This isn’t true in all cultures. Where my family comes from, if you’re doing well enough that your parents aren’t sending you money to help out, you are sending money back to help them out. Immigrants get to negotiate a compromise for their personal family; it can be tricky. I don’t know what particular social mores the LW is dealing with, but for a lot of people, responsibility in the parent-child relationship is more bidirectional, especially for adults.

      Which is not to say that you have no choice about the responsibility or the relationship, of course. But the choice may be framed differently.

      1. I understand what you mean about the cultural differences. And I’m not talking about dynamics in healthy families, where everyone is doing their best to keep the family and community going. What I was trying to refer to was the way the emotional responsibility flows when there is dysfunction: a child should not be held responsible for an adult’s emotional needs or quality of life or basic food/shelter etc. That’s one way abuse starts, including sexual abuse. If as an adult they *choose* to do so (or if, as you point out, there is a cultural expectation), by all means. But not if it’s at the expense of the child’s well-being, even when the child has grown, IMHO. Or further, when the grandchildren end up at risk because of it. And parents should *never* hold their minor children to blame for their own mental well-being or lack of it. That really is abusive.

        1. It’s so true from where I stand what your saying. I’m a big one for responsible and accountable for making the decisions we make, in any given situation. As I commented before my guy has chosen to distance himself, but not only from his mother, but grandparents also. They are not bipolar, but they are staunch people who have only one idea in mind “theirs”. With the background my guy comes from most people would be a wreck, ,he chooses NOT to be, he lives in a different state and he picks and chooses his battles. Trust me there are a number of battles to choose from and they are ongoing so there is never a problem with any one issue, coz there is plenty.

          I don’t mean to be harsh it’s only my corner I’m commenting on. I personally don’t wish to met my guys mother, as I feel if I do then I won’t be the support to him that he needs. if I do met her it will then become emotional for me. At present it’s not emotional so why would I take that solid ground away from the person I want to spend my life with?

          If you dont ‘actually’ know somebody with bipolar directly, it doesnt mean this condition doesn’t affect you and your life, it does mine.

    2. “But she’s your MOTHER” is one of the cruelest, besides-the-point accusations to level at anyone. It is a statement that should only ever be followed by “How on earth could she have done that to you??”

      THANK YOU for that. Wish the majority of the world could understand this :/

      1. Yes. Seriously. My upbringing was nowhere near as traumatic and overtly damaging as the LW’s and other commenters’, but it still—insidiously—f’ed me up enough that I am still dealing with it (with professional help) decades later. I have problems with my father, because of what he was and is like. And my oldest friend has never been able to understand it. She adored her father and had a happy, happy, secure childhood, and she thinks it’s my problem and that I’m unfair because I don’t love my father.

        When her father was in the hospital dying, I went there, and when she saw me standing there with my father, she started crying and whispered to me, cryptically (though I knew just what she meant), “oh, your dad… he’s so cute … really.. it’s you.” (i.e., be kind to your sweet daddy and love him, because he’s wonderful and he’s your dad). If she weren’t in such a bad, sad, situation herself, I would have told her to STFU and MYOB. Nice choice to guilt me there for having feelings about growing up with a Catholic fundamentalist with anger issues.

    3. Such a fantastic comment Kika, and incredibly true. I grew up in an incredibly dysfunctional household with a very controlling and manipulative mother, and father who lived in complete denial of the entire situation. One of the most often used statements from my father was “Don’t upset your mother”, and yes there are some mental health issues involved with my Mum, but I’m not entirely sure that the diagnosis she was given was truly accurate so I’m not going to go into it here.

      All I wanted was for my parents to be parents, to be responsible grown ups who didn’t rely on us and who were capable of looking after us. I am now 40 years old and I still desperately want my parents to be parents. Mum still actively tries to guilt and manipulate us into her world of denial.

      The worst thing is when she tries to take credit for how well we’ve turned out. It takes all of my strength not to say “that was in spite of you Mum, not because of you!”

      I have tried at times to broach this sort of thing with my parents, maybe I need to write the Captain for my own script, but it has just become easier to set up coping mechanisms that limit their involvement and impact on my life. It’s not ideal, but we all find our ways to cope.

      Anyway, all of this is to say, great comment Kika

  7. I absolutely love this script for the way it gives LW what he or she needs in terms of boundaries and space without burning bridges or being unkind.

    My mother has been clinically depressed since she was about fourteen. She did not get treatment until I was nine, and it took another decade and a half to work the kinks out of her medications – which means she was trying to parent through a thick black fog for half of my childhood, and through a totally unpredictable emotional landscape for the other half. A huge part of my personality went underground as a way of dealing with that delicate and explosive situation, and is only now resurfacing – the damage it did to me and to our relationship runs deep. Even now, as two adults with a not-bad relationship, I have things I cannot trust her with the way I wish I could.

    A year or two ago she crossed a line with me in a heated moment and I had to shut her out of my life completely for a little while. During that time she completely respected my desire to have no contact with her, and that really meant a whole lot to me. To me, her leaving me alone until I contacted her let me heal and proved to me that she could earn her way back into my life – and she did. Since then, she knows there are things she cannot say to me, and I know that I don’t *have* to be her dutiful daughter or else I’m in trouble – that when I enter into relationship with her it is a choice I make as an adult.

    So, I guess what I’m saying is that it’s okay to limit contact with someone, it doesn’t have to be forever unless you want it to be, and that if someone wants to limit contact with you, the best possible thing you can do is respect that. Um…yeah.

  8. (Not helpful to the LW.)

    Reading this letter has made me glad (for the first time) that I lost my daughter to adoption because of my mental health problems. She really is better off for the adoption, no matter what my difficult feelings about the issue say. I’ve been unstable for a minimum of half her life, and unreliably stable for the rest of the time. I’ll probably keep framing the adoption as the least worst option though – it will never feel like the ‘best thing that could’ve happened’ as some well-intentioned people assert.

  9. ahem.


    I just wanted to say it really loud and clear. I have all kinds of words on this, about boundaries and control and such, and what a person can do, and all that, but it really comes down to that one thing.

    The only mental health you’re responsible for is your own. Which is secretly awesome, because it’s the one you can change.

    I have no idea what it’s like to grow up with a bipolar person in the house; my own family was more or less emotionally stable. I’ve got depression myself, though, and it’s a terrible thing. Sometimes things set me off! Sometimes those things are things other people did! And then I am ALL SAD and it is THEIR FAULT…. oh wait. Actually, no. They did what they did, but my reaction is ALL MINE.

    Yours is also all yours! And your mother’s is hers.

    It’s not fair, though. Those of us with mental illnesses don’t deserve them. Those around us don’t deserve to suffer with us, when we can’t keep it together. Our children — oh, I have a universe of compassion for the children of mentally ill people. It can be so very hard.

    As adults, those children have the privilege and the honor to decide for themselves whether they want to deal with their parents, or with anyone else. It is theirs. Not mine, not the parent’s, not some tsk-ing stranger.

    Your mother’s suffering is real. But so is yours, and in the universe of you, yours is far more important.

  10. My mother has a severe anxiety problem for which she never sought treatment. Sometimes it seems like our entire relationship is a hostage to her disease. One of the things that I did with my mother, that may be something to think about is to set firm, regular boundaries around communication. She had gotten to the point where she was smothering me– calling all the time, and if she didn’t get my home phone, she’d call my cell and my work in rapid succession. She’d send gifts and nag me to visit all the time. It was cloying and overbearing, and especially difficult at a time when I was trying to establish some distance and work through some of my issues with her disease and how it’s impacted me.

    So what I did was just to make it clear that I would call every other Thursday evening and visit in October (I live 1000 miles away). If it’s not Thursday evening, I won’t answer the phone. If it’s a true emergency, she can send me an email or leave a voice mail. I think she’s more relaxed about it because she knows when I will call, and it makes it easier to turn other things down without causing a meltdown (“The beach vacation you’ve planned sounds really fun for you and dad! I so look forward to hearing about it when you get back. It’s lovely of you to invite me, but I’d rather plan something super awesome for when I see you in October.”) Our communication is rigid and structured which can be difficult and annoying, but it also means she doesn’t chase me so hard.

    A friend of mine said to me one day, “I think I might hate my father.” She obviously felt really guilty about it, like she shouldn’t feel that way. So I really surprised her when I said, “So? Have a good long hate. Wallow in it for a few hours, then figure out where it came from and what you want to do with it.” I think it’s more destructive to try to deny or guilt yourself out of such feelings. You don’t love your mother? You don’t have to, it’s not something you automatically owe to her by virtue of biology. You’ll be better served by figuring out what type of relationship (if any) you want and how to set boundaries to achieve that.

    I think you are wise to try to create more distance in this relationship because as it is, it becomes too easy for you to take on responsibility for her mental well-being. In fact, it is easier for her and for your father if that responsibility is delegated to you as opposed to your mother needing to manage her own feelings. That’s part of why I’ve structured my relationship with my mother the way that I have, I told her up-front the things that I am willing to do and put up with, and it’s her job to meet me halfway in order to have any relationship at all.

    1. “You don’t love your mother? You don’t have to, it’s not something you automatically owe to her by virtue of biology.”

      Ding ding ding!

      I’ve been lurking my way through the archives for about a month now, and this is an idea that comes up again and again with romantic relationships that suck and friendships that suck. You don’t owe ANY person ANY emotion for ANY reason. You don’t owe that boy love because he bought you dinner. You don’t owe that “friend” love because you’ve known each other since scrunchies were still cool. And you don’t owe your family love because of shared DNA.

      1. I agree with this 100%. But I’d like to offer an alternative version of this story.

        My dad was abusive to me and especially my brother when we were little. My mom had just died and he had been in the military for most of my childhood, so all of a sudden he was jobless, wifeless, homeless… with two little kids. He flipped his biscuit. He did stuff that I can never forgive.

        Almost a decade after my brother and I finally moved away and got our heads above water, I found myself facing this choice: cut him off? or is there room in my life for him? Once we moved away and stopped seeing him much, I think he had some time to get his act together. He remarried. He apologised. It was awkward. And then one day when he said he loved me…. even though I knew I could never forgive him, I *decided* to love him. Because he was my dad. Because sometimes he had really tried. Because he knew he had failed and was heartbroken he couldn’t take it back.

        I’m still pretty fucked up over it, but I decided to love my dad that day, and I feel pretty good about it.

        That’s just my story, though. LW (and all folks) you don’t owe anybody any emotion. I just had a mostly positive experience…. erm, *donating* an emotion to my dad.

        1. I feel like the important part of your point is choice. You CHOSE to love your dad. That love is freely given. You were not obligated to give it, and you’re not giving it because you have to. You’re giving it because you want to, as a person, and that makes all the difference. I’m glad you had a positive experience, and Cap’ns advice did mention scaling the distance desired based on what LW wanted, so I think your story is a worthwhile point to consider. Boundaries are for your own comfort, and sometimes you have a boundary that many others consider weird.

        2. I agree with Red John – choice is everything. It’s at times like this that I feel the English language is really woefully inadequate to describe all the nuances of giving and receiving love. There is most definitely an economy of love – love is increased by certain actions and depleted by others, yet to say that someone has “earned” love feels incredibly entitled.

    2. This is only slightly related, but the structured contact thing is a great idea even when you do have a beneficial relationship with someone. For instance, when I went away to college, my mom and I agreed that I would call home on Sunday nights. If something came up in the meantime, we would e-mail each other. It really helped me to get used to being on my own, and trying to renegotiate what my relationship with my mother was going to be like as an adult.

  11. Just thinking out loud here, so this may be off base, but the Captain’s proposed e-mail/letter seems very conceptually sophisticated and emotionally complex. Based on the LW’s description of her mother, I am skeptical that much of it will be comprehended in the way it is intended. Is there a simpler way to convey the key point, which is “Back off. I’ll let you know when you can come closer.”?

      1. That’s excellent. It’s only got four concepts, and they are expressed clearly and simply:

        (1) Back off. (What do you need the person to do.)

        (2) I think your motives are good. (Which, even if it isn’t true, is an acceptable fib to tell someone to shut them up and get them to do what you need them to do.)

        (3) You’re smothering me. (What is the effect of the person’s current actions.)

        (4) I don’t like it. (How do those current actions make you feel.)

        Yeah, this is great, and much easier for someone who has trouble understanding the effects of their actions on other people to comprehend.

  12. LW, please believe it really isn’t your fault if your mother sinks into another depressive episode. My mom is in a very dysfunctional marriage, and I have long accepted that whenever I visit, I will inevitably become the trigger for a fight, whether it’s something I say, or where I am sitting in the moment, or any little thing. And even if it’s not something I directly precipitate in that moment, one of them will use me to bludgeon the other and generally put me in the middle of it by pointing out how the other person is supposedly failing me in some way or telling me to ask the other some sort of leading question, or taking something I said previously out of context as “evidence” of my disappointment/criticism to open the latest round. It really has nothing to do with me, and I am just a convenient excuse to resume hostilities. This is the dynamic they’ve created, and it bleeds into their relationships with me, obviously. I get all of that intellectually, but it doesn’t make it any less painful to experience. Your mother’s bipolar diagnosis indicates a neurological dysfunction, compared to their relationship dysfunction, but there are some similar consequences for the people around them.

    I’ve tried talking to them separately over the years. And I sent a FEELINGSLETTER to my mom, because she wasn’t willing to talk and completely dismissed me, yet I felt I needed to try to do something rather than nothing at all, given how much she’s suffering. I don’t know if she ever read through the whole thing, though I know she tried. And most recently, I told her that I was going to limit contact because we couldn’t cope with the toxic environment. And really, the most empowering thing my partner and I did was to plan a strategy for their visit this year in order to contain their emotional time bomb to settings where we had good escape routes and the shrapnel would not endanger the public. It helped simply acknowledging the reality of it in advance and agree on how we would handle it, instead of sitting through it yet again pretending we didn’t exist and that this wasn’t happening. As it turns out, I think they’ve largely engineered their lives so that the explosive ingredients simply are not in contact for extended periods, so we did not have to evacuate during their visit.

    It’s okay that you don’t love your mom. I know people talk about the wonders of unconditional love, but I don’t think I’m capable of it. That means no matter how awful that person is, what terrible things that person does, whatever suffering that person creates, that zie still receives love. I can understand how love can persist when all of the ugliness is directed elsewhere, but when even some of it is directed at you, much less being the target of it? There should be real consequences of causing harm, and one of those can be the death of love. Love that won’t give up can contribute to staying far too long with an abuser. And self-sacrifice can mean valuing someone else more than loving oneself. Too many of our cultural tropes reinforce self-loathing and insecurity, or at least duty to others at personal cost, instead of self-care.

    It may be that with time, and willingness, and effort from both, you can develop a loving relationship with your mother in the future. Or that may never happen. And both of those outcomes are okay. Don’t try to force it because of some cultural narrative about what your relationship is supposed to look like or how you’re supposed to forgive and forget or because someone else in your life is pressuring you to do so. You get to decide when you might be ready, even if that answer is never.

    I know someone who grew up with a bipolar mother who was untreated. And zie’s only now getting to the point of acknowledging that hir childhood was abusive and that zie probably has (complex) PTSD as a result. Mind you, the abuse wasn’t due to simply having a bipolar mother. No, the really toxic marriage and a very ugly divorce definitely contributed. But when hir mother died, zie felt nothing at all. And zie is now trying to figure out hir relationship to hir father so that when he dies, zie will feel something, even if it’s only relief. That’s another fraught relationship, and personally, I think he’s an asshole and zie is enabling him by going along with his demands. But it’s not my relationship to navigate.

    I hear you on not feeling the “I love you” and refusing to mindlessly parrot it back. This was a real source of conflict with my abusive ex. He expected me to automatically mirror his avowal of devotion, and I wasn’t willing to say it if I wasn’t feeling it in the moment. It feels coercive to have that emotional expectation placed on me. And I know I disappoint my mom sometimes when I don’t repeat it back to her every time either, but she doesn’t hassle me about it at least. And when I do say those words, mostly but not exclusively to my partner, it’s never with the expectation of reciprocity. I don’t expect us to orgasm simultaneously either, no matter what the romance novels and endless Hollywood sex scenes portray.

  13. LW, I see so much of myself in your letter, so I’m going to ramble a bit in the hopes that it helps, even a little. My father is bipolar and has been ineffectively treated or not treated at all (other than his attempts at self-medication with various substances of the not medicinal nature) for the majority of my life. He and my mother have been divorced since I was a little kid and I’m his only child and I was his support structure (as a child) for a long time. He can be supremely self-involved and he’s unreliable at best and he can be emotionally exhausting to deal with. But he’s also warm and kind and creative and funny and smart and we have the same taste in music and books and art and he taught me so much and I really do believe that deep down he always wanted the best for me. It took him throwing what amounted to a temper tantrum (from 6,000 miles away, thankfully) a few years ago during what was an in.cred.ib.ly stressful time in my life for me to finally decide that if I really believe he wants what’s best for me deep down, he’d want me to do what makes me less stressed and more relaxed and able to breathe, which is to not talk to him, or at the very least only talk to him in very small, very controlled doses like holiday cards and very infrequent phone calls when I’m on my way somewhere and can force him off the phone when I arrive. I love him, I want what’s best for him, but he’s not the daddy I thought he was as a little girl when I was protected from his problems by my mother’s presence before their divorce, and I’m old enough and capable enough to get the emotional support and hugs and camaraderie that I got from him from other people without the endless stress and emotional manipulation and the feeling like I needed to justify myself constantly and the exhaustion from dealing with him. I’m not sure why I say all of this other than to tell you that you can do this, and you will be better for it, and you are so not alone and I can hear myself a few years back in your words.

    The Captain gives excellent advice and a really wonderful script. I’m a big fan of letters, because for me and my anxiety (thanks for passing on the interesting brain chemistry, Dad!), the thing that freezes me from talking about something is the simultaneous fear of my emotions being exposed (and therefore weakness or potential to hurt) and an even more crushing fear of reprisal. I hate making other people upset, I hate other people thinking I’m selfish or bratty or mean (“spoiled” was one of the favorite descriptors of me as a kid from some family members and it stings to this day because I was spoiled as the oldest granddaughter and an only child until middle school, but I wasn’t a brat and I wasn’t demanding a golden goose like Veruca Salt! Sorry, tangent), and I hate more than anything feeling like I’ve let people down, and that has stopped my tongue more times than I can tell you, even with people as close to me as my dad. Therapy therapy therapy is my biggest suggestion to work through your own difficulties speaking up. Is your mom in therapy, or receptive to it? Could you work towards a joint session (with a therapist YOU choose who is on Team You)? For me scripts and role playing ahead of time has helped immensely, just to make my brain and mouth have the words I need to say more readily available when I start to freeze and the anxiety kicks in. I sometimes have difficulty remembering the old emotions I need to talk about in a situation like that, so things end up sounding downplayed and then no real resolution happens, so scripts where I speak very honestly and forcefully if need be help with that. Something to try if you find yourself stuck in the “oh well that really wasn’t so bad, she means well” trap like I have been.

    Build Team You, and please, please divorce yourself of the idea that you are responsible for your mother’s mental health however you can. You cannot heal your mother or your relationship with her by martyring yourself at the altar of her illness. Jedi hugs if you want them, and all the good thoughts I have.

    1. This…you…
      LW here and you and your dad are me and my mom. Only without the divorce

      Mom has been in excelent care for as long as she’s diagnosed and it’s working pretty well.
      I’m entertaining the idea of asking my dad to ask her doc for an appointment with her therapist so I can ask him the ‘what effect will these words have on her emotional well being’ question.

      1. Her therapist can’t know for sure. And what would you do if s/he said “Oh god, don’t say that to your mom, she’s so fragile, etc.” Would you suck it up and accept her clinginess?

        I think you need your OWN therapist to run this by. I think your own needs are your needs and you don’t have to take care of your mom around this.

        1. I thought more in a forewarning sense.
          I’d like to say to her and was am wondering what a likely reaction will be. And if he says ‘explosion’ then I will find a way to be far away at that time/get the fire brigade ready…
          but yeah…I should start with contacting my therapist and getting a few names for adult therapists because she, sadly, is a children therapist and I’m not sure she’s permitted to still treat me…

        2. Yep. I always strongly discourage people to have any contact with the individual therapists of other adult members of their family. Someone else’s therapist has professional duty to *them* and their interests, not to you, and their interests may not coincide with yours.

          And it can be even worse than that. At one point several years ago, my mother’s therapist attempted to contact me via e-mail to elicit a response from me concerning what I perceived as my mother’s “best and worst qualities”, with the supposed goal of giving my mother “things to work on” for the betterment of the family. Fortunately, I was too smart and experienced with the ways of my mother to fail to immediately recognize it as just another way for her to manipulate the situation into her being a blameless victim doing her best with professional supervision and approval and oh, by the way, receiving unearned praise. It was actually pretty impressive in its cleverness.

          The proof that this manipulative bullshit is exactly what was going on came when I ignored multiple e-mails from this therapist, and my mother’s reaction was angry tirades about how I don’t care about “the family” and I only care about what is convenient for me and blah, blah, blah. I told her in no uncertain terms, “Sorry, but I am not engaging in any dialogue with your therapist. All that stuff is between you and her, and has nothing to do with me.”

          So yeah. My blanket rule is “No contact whatsoever with other adult’s therapists.” The potential downsides are vast, and the potential upsides are minimal. The last thing you need is to give a manipulative intrusive person another mechanism for being manipulative and intrusive.

          1. Somewhat OT, but my mom’s therapist P (untreated ADD with depression and a ton of marriage issues) once tried to get my mom to give her access to my medical records–from when I was 19–because she wanted to know more about my depression and me being bi. And then told my mom that obviously the reason that I was bi was that I’d endured some kind of horrible child abuse that had turned me into a deviant, or something equally ridiculous, and my parents had missed it. So they were bad parents, and it was their ault. Also, I was going to hell. My mom called me distraught and apologizing for having let me down by missing the child abuse, and I was absolutely floored. And furious.

            She went to P for about six more years, even sent my sister to her and took my dad to see her for marriage counseling. I honestly don’t know what it was about that woman, but my mother was enamored.

            My mom would try and talk to me about P and what P talked about in therapy and P’s vision and and towards the end I refused to even talk to her about therapy or anything mental-health-related related–partially because it hurt that she would go to a therapist that had acted in this way, partially out of sheer righteous outrage that a member of a helping profession could be so flat-out unqualified.

            TL;DR: Just because your family member has a therapist, doesn’t mean that person is qualified even to support your family member–much less you.

      2. It’s simultaneously bizarre and comforting how similar other people’s stories can be, huh?

        I agree with the Captain below that if you do talk to your mom’s doctor, I’d phrase it more as “these are things that need to be said, can you give me a heads up as to things I should be prepared for in response or ways that I can still be completely honest and say these things that need to be said without causing more chaos than necessary?” Depending on the doctor and where you are and such though, there may be some ethical concerns for her doctor that prevents them from saying anything about your mother’s condition or treatment without her express permission, just as a heads up. If nothing else, have your own therapist available, too.

    2. very infrequent phone calls when I’m on my way somewhere and can force him off the phone when I arrive.

      Yeah! I totally do this, too. Another thing I do is make calls to people I want to be able to get off the phone with quickly just before the top (or bottom) of the hour, so that I can be all like, “Oh, wow! It is almost 10AM. I have a meeting/conference call at 10AM. Gotta go! Bye!”

      1. Oh that’s brilliant, I had never thought of that! My go-to with my dad was to call him on the way to work (my last apartment I had a fifteen minute or so walk to my bus, and that was just about the right length to not feel too short (and end up with him calling me again later that day or something to “finish what he was talking about”) but also be short enough as to be tolerable), but I don’t have that excuse anymore and have been a bit at a loss.

  14. Thank you. I have a similar problem to this–I’m supposed to be the Good Child to someone who routinely denies my agency, guilt-trips me and goes through phases of being Ophelia and the one who takes on big, disruptive projects that don’t always get finished. I find this helpful because I am sick of my mum’s highly volatile behaviour.

  15. I also empathized with the LW here. My mother had a traumatic brain injury when I was 10 and as she recovered from that became an emotional mess, and is now bi-polar. I too was the emotional rock in my family, and because of that, people would pile and pile all of their problems on me till I would break. Then they’d be mad that I wasn’t helpful anymore.

    But when people do that kind of piling on, treating you like you are the “stable” one is them not looking at you, not asking about you, not caring about you. It’s selfish family members using you and not truly caring about your well being. If you feel like you can’t say no, if you feel like you can’t say “I’m sorry, I can’t handle this right now, I’ve got a lot of my own problems weighing me down right now” then they’re not really interested in having an reciprocal adult relationship. They just want to use you because you’re useful. And it is A-OK to be like, “No, sorry. I’m not into being used because of shared circumstances of birth.” They’ll deny it if you say it up front like that, but really, I think it’s important that you aren’t offering more than you’re getting from people who love to take from you, or feel entitled to your attention/affection/assistance because you’re related.

    I’d also like to echo many of the sentiments above that you are not responsible for your mother’s emotional well being. Also this “living at home was equal to walking on egg shells. No arguments, no unplanned behavior, no upsetting mom lest she burst into tears. No friends over (not that I had many). No going for a walk after school instead of heading straight home. No speaking my mind. Keeping my head down so dad wouldn’t have more to worry about.”

    Sounds to me like you taking responsibility for your mother’s behavior/emotions, and sounds a lot to me like people who are emotionally abused. At least, it’s throwing up red-flags to me. And frankly, if you go over the way your life with your mother has been and come to the conclusion that she was ever crossing, or even nearing, abusive lines, she kind loses all claim to any affection from you. Civility, sure, basic human decency, sure. For me, framing in my mind the interactions with my mother as “I will be decent to you. Nothing more. I will be polite to you. Nothing more.” Really helped me to back off from her and draw boundaries. And nowadays we can chat about knitting and the weather and our pets and have fun talking. But it took years to hash out, and even then we have bumps here-and-there.

    “Unfortunately she has this big idea of us being/becoming bffs. She tries to bribe me with presents (small things…flowers, yarn, chocolate). She says she loves me and I can see in her eyes that she wants me to just say it back.”

    ALSO, THIS THIS! My mother did this exact thing to me! I knew a lot of it was about her not wanting to feel guilty for all the bad things she had done to me, but I wasn’t going to just smile and wave and pretend everything between us was hunky-dory. I really resented her “I love you!” followed by silence. So what I did was start always answering with “Thank you. That’s nice of you to say because my day has been terrible, etc” or “Thanks, that reminds me, how has dad been doing” or whatever. “Thank you” always worked as a place holder, though always follow up with a topic change. A clear “No, I’m not going to say I love you back just to pacify you. No, thinks aren’t rainbows and sausages between us. Let’s move on.”

    After a couple of years of thank yous she eventually confronted me with “Why won’t you say you love me back” and that’s when I felt comfortable saying what the captain suggested of “Our relationship has had it’s problems, etc.” And after a while she has backed off on that particular pressure. So hopefully, that will be what you can work out with her as well.

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