#531: When a parent wants you to be their marriage counselor.

Dear Captain Awkward,

So, I’m having trouble with my mom and I’m not sure if it’s a me-problem or a her-problem or a “no one did anything wrong but it’s just uncomfortable” problem.

When I started college (and became an adult-ish) my mom has opened up to me about a lot of things that she didn’t want to talk to me about when I was younger. In general, this is fine. However, it’s changed the way we talk about my dad and it’s starting to make me very uncomfortable.

My parents are happily married but they’re in a tough situation–they have five kids (I’m the oldest) and my dad works about 5 hours away from where we live. He commutes Monday and comes back Friday, which leaves my mom shouldering a lot of the day to day burden of running the family. I totally understand that my dad isn’t perfect and that she might want to vent about him sometimes. However, I’m really uncomfortable with her venting about it to me. I can’t commiserate, as I’m not around to experience things the way she does, and I really don’t like hearing negative things about my dad.

Some of the stuff she says is true (he can’t do as much with a lot of problems because he’s just not accessible) but I feel really defensive whenever the conversation turns that way.

Basically, is there a script or something that can help me deal with this? Should I deal with this?

Growing Up is Hard

Dear Growing Up:

I like to think that “no one did anything wrong but it’s just uncomfortable” problems are a specialty here.

On an ongoing basis, you can give your mom some basic validation, like, “That sounds like a lot to handle,” or “That must be really hard” + “I know I really appreciated it when you (did x unglamorous but necessary parenting thing).” Part of her trying to form an adult relationship with you is being honest about how things that she made look easy when you were a kid were not so easy, and by giving her some gratitude and validation for those things you are being a mensch. It also sounds like she is lonely for adult company and conversation, so, depending on your schedule and how close you live, could you:

  • Take her to lunch or to the movies? Schedule occasional fun stuff and seek her company as a fellow adult who you like spending time with.
  • Stay with your siblings for a weekend so she and your dad can go out or go away together?
  • Come help out with siblings one night a week? Maybe if you made dinner, helped out with homework, etc. she could get a little break. If you float the suggestion, and she pounces on it like a hungry kitten, this might be what she’s asking you for without wanting to ask when she vents about how hard things are.

And when stuff becomes about your dad, you can add a question: “Do you think you’ll talk to Dad about that?” or “You seem really angry at Dad. Does he know you feel this way?” 

You don’t have to manage everything she feels about your dad, or everything she’ll do about those feelings, but but asking the question like that can sometimes gently encourage people away from you and toward the person who has some power to actually fix or renegotiate the problem. The next time this comes up, try asking those questions and see what happens. If she says “You know, I really should” and changes the subject, she’s probably gotten the message and a gentle redirect like this will work in the future.

If you ask the question and she doubles down on complaining, or explains in great detail why talking to him is pointless and will never, ever work, and anyway she can’t because: Reasons, you have an opening to have the conversation you need to have. Here is a possible script for taking it there:

Mom, now that I’m older, I definitely have a greater appreciation for what you go through running a household from week to week and I’m glad we can talk about that stuff like adults. But when you complain about Dad, it’s very uncomfortable for me to hear. It sounds like you really need to talk to someone about how you are feeling, but I don’t think that I am the right audience for these conversations.

She’ll have some stuff to say. Hear her out.

Then say: “Have you and Dad thought about going to counseling together, or could you go alone? Just having a safe place to talk through feelings like that might help everything feel more manageable.”

Brace yourself for:

  • The 10,000 reasons, time-wise and money-wise (valid concerns to be sure!), that counseling is impossible and absolutely will not work.
  • An extra helping Mom-guilt. “Can’t I talk to my own daughter?

You can’t solve the reasons that counseling might not be possible, but the guilt is kind of what we’re getting at with this whole answer. You’re setting a boundary by saying “Mom, I am uncomfortable when you complain about Dad to me. I really want you to be able to talk about that stuff, it sounds really rough and really important. But I am telling you how *I* feel, and I need to set a boundary about listening to stuff about your marriage.”

I mean, if you’re going to have an adult relationship based on honesty, how you feel gets to also be important. I’d suggest ending the conversation pretty soon after this and giving you both some time to think.

Final Note: Having direct boundary-stetting conversations like this can be really, really hard. Especially the first time you do it, especially if you’re not in the habit, especially if you weren’t raised to be in the habit or that’s not the dynamic in your family (it certainly isn’t in mine, or, there is, but the criticism all flows one way, if you get my drift). There is a fallacy (neatly outlined in the classic Five Geek Social Fallacies piece) that any criticism or disagreement with someone you care about means “I hate you!” so if you love someone you stay quiet about things that bother you because to speak up is an aggressive act.

When people love each other, as you and your mom do, or as your mom and dad do, bringing up problems feels incredibly risky because the relationships are important and there is something actually at stake. It sounds to me like your mom needs to have a conversation with your dad about a timeframe for finding a job closer to home, or moving home closer to work, or on how to support each other better if neither is possible. She needs to say words like “I feel lonely and overburdened and this is not working for me. How are you feeling about it? Can we maybe change something up here? Because you are the world to me and I want very badly to make this work so we both can be happy.” Once that can of worms is opened, it can’t be closed again and the messy contents have to be dealt with. So the temptation is to put it off as long as possible and try to make the status quo work for as long as possible.

Setting a boundary with your mom feels like opening its own can of worms, but you are very smart to know your own limits for listening to complaints about your dad and knowing that fixing the problems in their marriage is not your job. You and your mom love each other and trust each other, so trust that gently asking her to edit how she talks about your dad around you is the right thing to do. Setting boundaries isn’t mean or selfish. Think of it, rather, as helping the people who love us know how to be good to us.

79 thoughts on “#531: When a parent wants you to be their marriage counselor.

  1. Oh. My. Goodness. I am dealing with something very similar to you, LW, in that my parents are going through marital issues, and my mom is consistently pulling me aside to talk about it.

    I understand how hard it is to not only hear this stuff about your dad, but to see your mom so unhappy. I personally feel a lot of sadness for my mom when she vents to me, and even if we’re able to redirect the conversation, the stuff she says still sticks to my brain. It’s tough growing up to see your parents as individuals, especially individuals who might not be happy with the way things were when you were a child and everything seemed great.

    It’s ok to acknowledge that this is hard for you to handle. It’s ok to feel nostalgia for when you were oblivious to these issues. And it’s completely ok to still support your mom with kindness and love without having to shoulder some of her anger at your dad. I would definitely redirect conversations towards getting a professional involved, be it just for your mom, or for them as a couple.

    However, since you’re the oldest sibling, and your younger siblings might still be at home completely unaware of this stuff, know that your parents might not want to rock the boat until more, if not all, of their kids are older. This is, to me, a flawed kind of logic that parents fall into, the “we don’t want to hurt the family!” mentality by staying silent about their problems. But ultimately their problems WILL hurt the family if they keep putting them off.

    I wish the best of luck to you, your mom, and your family!

  2. When I was still speaking to my mother and she’d snark about my father’s impotence( pre-viagra). I told her I didn’t want to hear this; I was her daughter, not her friend. Her response was to smirk ” what, are you a prude?”

    1. This is a pretty classic manipulation technique when you break it down. You set a boundary, the other person answers with a personal “neg” about what kind of person you are (uptight, a prude, no sense of humor, etc.). To prove that you are not a prude, you’ll probably continue allowing the boundary violation because now it’s about you getting back in their good graces or raising their opinion of you.

      Once you recognize it for what it is, you can say “Okay, cool, I’m sure you’re right. Also, I really don’t want to hear about my dad’s penis, so, thanks.”

      Don’t try to disprove their accusation of what you are like, just restate your boundary. Eventually they give up or they take it so far that even they are like “Ok, sorry, I’ll shut up now.”

      1. The meaner option here would be to shout into the living room: “Hey dad, am I a prude for not wanting to discuss your penis with mom?” Yes, I know, not the nicest thing to do but I bet anything “mom” didn’t ask her husband for permission and it puts the problem right back into her lap (figuratively speaking). Milder version, now that I think about it: “Mom, what would you think dad would say – am I a prude for not wanting to discuss his penis with you?” Same threat without involving poor dad.

        1. Uh it’s possible Dad knows already. My mother would bad mouth my dad to me right in front of him. Sometimes even sex stuff. Do not underestimate the appalling crapness of emotionally abusive mothers – you can’t fix that kind of behaviour with a clever trick. Really you just need to get as far away from it as possible, because of all abusers mothers have the most power to twist your head around without you noticing.

          Manipulators are not people you can “win” against by trying to change them or convince them what they’re doing is wrong. The best thing I ever realised about my mother was that I couldn’t fix it and have a normal relationship. All I can do is limit my exposure to it.

        2. This was also in front of my father and some of his closest friends. They didn’t say anything.

          When I cut off my mother one of them told me he wasn’t comfortable with this, but I made it clear that I’d had enough of the symbiosis and abuse and they understood.

          1. Gawd, that makes it even worse. My mother sometimes whispers stuff to me but never in front of others.
            I guess my reaction would be more like “Ewwww! TMI!!!”

          2. Reply for Jae since the thread seems to have maxed out. 🙂

            In my case I didn’t even have a concept of TMI until I grew up and left home, alas. When you’re raised with it it seems normal. I didn’t understand it was squicktastic and broken until much later.

            That’s the thing about dodgy parents – you sometimes have no concept that the way you live isn’t normal until you’re older and realise a whole set of your assumptions about how to behave and how the world works are really really off. Then you get to look back over your whole childhood trying to rewrite your memories of a “normal” upbringing with a more accurate picture of what different events meant.

        3. Good one, Jae! (giggling at your first option). Or one tactic I like is that of looking really astonished and shocked that they’d say such a thing – “Seriously?! You think I’m a prude just for not wanting to criticise someone’s sex life behind their back?!”

      2. I feel like this should be a subject in school – “Dealing with Manipulation Tactics 101”. Neging is one of those things that works rather well when you don’t know what it is, but once you do it’s so obvious.

        Thank you for laying it out for those who don’t yet know.

        1. I would love to see a whole post that was “Dealing with Manipulation Tactics 101.” I’ve read Gift of Fear, so I know about the things he touches on, but I would be very curious to hear a CA take on it.

          1. The Gasslight Effect by Dr Robin Stern was also something I found very useful. Gift of Fear deals heavily with genuinely dangerous situations – this book focuses on more every day stuff.

          2. I can’t wait for the Manipulation 101 post! I’m okay at dealing with manipulation when I know that’s what it is. I don’t so do well when I feel that the person is possibly being manipulative, but doesn’t intend to be manipulative … if that makes any sense.

        2. Unfortunately it still works when you know about it and recognize it. My mother will say things that hurt me. When I set the boundary, she’ll call me over-sensitive. When I say “yes, I am, please respect that” next time she’ll say the same thing again and then do as if she just remembered: “Oh, but Jae doesn’t like me doing that, do you, dear? Sorry!”
          I can either ignore it which seems to give her implicit allowance to start with the thing again, or I tell her no I don’t, and why did you start it again, which brings down a fight.

          And the worst about all this: Having a mother like that makes you an expert in manipulation and I often have to fight the temptation to do unto others what she did to me on a regular basis. Quite sad really.

          And I second the request for a 101 post 🙂

          1. My dad’s doing that right now, with me. It is THE WORST, and so far I can’t see any solution beyond saying ‘no, it really upsets me’ brightly and ignoring all attempts to get me to rise to the bait.

          2. What about getting up and walking away? What would happen if violating your boundary ended the conversation?

    2. 😦 have Jedi hugs.

      My mother used to talk to me about sex problems with my Dad even when I was a little kid. I think possibly she was thinking she was preparing me for the inevitable (in her mind) crapness of men? Or perhaps she just never has had any perception of boundaries and apropriateness and doesn’t think other people are real? Anyway, she would complain about other problems about him too, and it was fucked up. The are you a prude question is such a familiar manipulation tactic to me.

      So yeah – I know what that one feels like, and I’m sorry your mother was doing that. I’m guessing you’ve realised all the stupid badness of her behaviour given that you don’t talk to her anymore, so congratulations on getting her out of your life!

      1. “Or perhaps she just never has had any perception of boundaries and apropriateness and doesn’t think other people are real?”

        Some parents have that one selectively: they don’t see their children as separate people but as part of them. So they think boundaries and appropriateness don’t apply. Guess how I know this? 😦

        1. True. My mother is worse with me and my brother and father – she definitely doesn’t see boundaries with us at all no matter how firmly or often they’re set. But she is also weirdly forward with other people too. I think she probably has undiagnosed mental health issues, about which I occasionally speculate. Not that such speculation does much good!

          I’m guessing that all children and parents have to learn to redefine their relationships as the children grow up. I mean you start out as literally part of your mother’s body, then you’re a helpless lump that relies on your parents for everything, and then slowly you transition into a separate person who is really inexperienced and lacks common sense, and then eventually you become an independent adult.

          Parents seem to vary in how well they handle this.

        2. That whole “children are a part of you” plays out in so many sad ways. See: the thing that would make me most happy is also going to make you happy, regardless of whether you think so or not, I can magically make you do what I want you to, and etc.

          1. Yes. Or alternatively, “I’m not on Team Me, and my child is part of me, so I’m not on Team My Child.”

      2. God, my zero-boundaries parents managed to raise a really prudish daughter exactly because of this – from the time I was very young, I knew that if I didn’t lock down every single topic of conversation that made me uncomfortable as hard as possible, there would be absolutely no stopping that train. It happened again over Thanksgiving! I wish my coping mechanisms were better – I just start crying a lot, or shout at them, which usually derails them (telling them something is inappropriate doesn’t).

        1. Well, you found a way to stop them. You can’t have entirely healthy boundaries in an unhealthy situation/with unhealthy people. (Because people would have to listen to healthy boundary setting. If they are not, the first thing that comes to mind is escalation.)
          I wish you good luck in finding coping mechanismus for this situation that make you feel good about yourself.

    3. Oh man, I feel you on this one. I get major TMI from my mother all the time. It was bad enough with my Dad, but now they’re divorced I get to hear all about her newfound love of BDSM in graphic detail (nothing against kinksters, just not keen on hearing about my mother’s extracurriculars).

      I’ve had plenty of “what are you, a prude” along with a helpful side of “why do you take everything/yourself so seriously”. Thanks to CA, I now respond with “OK gotta go now glad you’re having fun bye” as soon as she starts. It has definitely helped. Now if only I could stop her getting naked in front of my boyfriend life would be perfect…

    4. OH GOD I got that from a friend who started to go into vivid detail about a sexual adventure. “Um, I’m really not comfortable hearing about this.” “But YOU’RE MY FRIEND and it’s IMPORTANT TO ME. That should make it IMPORTANT TO YOU.” We were not friends for very long.

  3. My parents had been divorced for many years when one day I had heard one too many negative comments about my mother from my father. After pointing out that he had a choice about being related to her and choose not to be, I reminded him that I had no choice in the matter, that she would always be my mother, and that every time he said something awful about her he was saying something awful about me. When he tried to diminish my feelings because he was “just joking” I asked him how he would feel if every conversation we had consisted of me talking shit about his family.

    His smack talking about my mom ceased to be a problem.

  4. An extra helping Mom-guilt. “Can’t I talk to my own daughter?“

    I think the best way to deal with any of that sort of pressure is to state the truth – it’s not about supporting her, it’s about anyone criticizing either of your parents. Your natural inclination is to defend your mom and dad against any criticism, and it makes it impossible for you to be properly supportive or impartial when someone has something negative to say about them. It’s a nice not-quite-outright way to say that you wouldn’t want to listen to dad complain about her either, which might make her think twice about wanting to convince you to be willing to listen to marital complaints.

    1. Oh so much this!

      My parents are trying to work out a divorce settlement after being separated for three years. They’re arguing about the value of the house. I, obviously, want to smack their heads together and tell them to grow up but they aren’t going to do that any time soon.
      As it is, I’m in the situation of trying to maintain the boundary of You Do Not Chat Shit to Me about Other Parent. I do not want to hear about their money troubles. I don’t want to know who they blame for the divorce dragging on (the other, obviously, clearly they’re not responsible at all and they’ve done what the other has asked!) But I also want to support them because I am sad that they are sad. It is HARD.

      Also, it is Christmas, and Mum has an emotionally manipulative elderly, injured mother, who is coming to stay.

      I have my own issues with that lady, aka Gran. When Dad first moved out, over dinner she began bad-mouthing my Dad. She phrased it in a way that was meant to sound supportive of me but came with undertones of ‘give me all the dirt on your good-for-nothing father so I have something else to hold over your mother’s head’. I shut that one down quick.

      Seriously, no-one gets to bad-mouth my parents in front of me, except me and my two brothers. That’s it. I do NOT want other extended-family members trying to get me to pick sides.

      I may have shut it down with passive-aggressive sulking and refusing to speak to her, which Mum called me childish for (it’s a tactic she uses all the time and learned from Gran in the first place!), but it worked. I refused to speak to Gran for months, would not answer her calls or letters and did not go to visit. Eventually I wrote a letter to her saying exactly what she’d done wrong and why it had upset me so much. Writing that letter was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I felt so much guilt, and I dreaded what my mother would say if Gran told her what I’d done because of the ‘We’re faaaaamily’ pressures, with a side of ‘we’re the only family she’s got and you’re her only grand-daughter and your brothers don’t see enough of her/refuse to help’. Yay sibling gender dynamics and expectations.

      But (and this is where it gets good and shows there is hope!)

      Although Gran never actually apologised in either writing or in person, we did re-open lines of communication after that and now she never tries to bring up Dad or the separation/divorce with me at all. Result! Setting boundaries for the win!

  5. Oh, goodness; all the jedi hugs, LW. I have been struggling with the Not My Mom’s Marital Counselor for about ten years now (my parents are divorced, and while my dad is okay with the boundaries I set re not talking about the ex, my mom is so very not).

    No advice, because I haven’t figured out how to effectively communicate even “I don’t want to talk about my dad and his new wife/family with my mom”, nor “I can’t serve as your closest bff because you are my mom for heaven’s sake”, much less “but that doesn’t mean I hate you”, but lots of sympathies.

    1. Yeah, I’ve been in the Not My Mom’s Marriage Counselor (nor her auxilliary therapist) situation since pretty early in my teens, and it has been a long hard road to setting more appropriate boundaries.

      I have an absolutely firm policy that I do not speak to either of my parents (who are divorced) about the other, not even a little bit, not even obliquely, not even about the most trivial and seemingly innocent thing. When I first decided on that boundary, I told each of them (separately, of course) that this was a limit I would be maintaining with both of them, which I think is an effective strategy for avoiding anyone feeling singled out. It’s worked reasonably well.

      I’ve also had to nix her “venting” to me about her current husband, who was emotionally abusive to me while I was his dependant, but that’s kind of a different story.

    2. Ugh, I had to deal with being Why Am I My Mom’s Therapist through the last stages of Dad’s failing health, when I was dealing with my own stress about it. There was so much of, “You’re the only one I can talk to about how hard/complicated/stressful this is for me!” and no real thought of how hard it was for me watching my Dad dying by inches (and a lifetime of being trained that my feelings were an Inconvenience Never To Be Voiced). It wasn’t until he died that I finally had to tell her, “I can’t talk about this with you anymore.” “WELL WHO CAN I TALK TO THEN?” “NOT ME, ALL RIGHT?”

      She hung up on me, but she started seeing a grief counselor.

  6. I think I’m influenced by the fact that my parents divorced when I was a teen (and all the conflicts that went along with that), but I believe even setting a super strict boundary on this is fine. So I wouldn’t even go as far as saying “You sound like you’re really angry at dad” or something similarly understanding, I would probably just say “Please stop talking about your relationship with dad to me”. I firmly believe parents shouldn’t vent about each other to their children (even adult children) at all, and that as a child you have the right to insist on that. This still allows for being understanding with her regarding her workload etc.

    1. Yes, I agree. As a divorced parent myself, I would hate to put my child in the position of having to say any of the above. That’s a pretty sacred boundary, to not talk shit about other parent. It’s not my kid’s responsibility or fault if I have no one else to talk to about my ish. Which, thankfully, is not the case because there was a lot of talking for a minute there.

  7. I’m going to amend the Captain’s script (and it’s rare indeed that that happens!) by advising that the ‘Have you thought about counselling?’ bit of the discussion should be an optional extra that only happens if you think she is genuinely wanting advice on where else she can find support/problem-solving. After all, your job in this conversation is not to find solutions for her problems. Your job is to set a boundary around her inappropriate criticism of your father.

    Make your statement setting the boundary, then see what her response is. It’s entirely possible that it actually will be along the lines of “Yeah, I guess you’ve got a point there… I can see I’ve been going too far. I’m just so caught up in this I never thought about how it must be for you hearing this stuff.” If the conversation goes that way, great, and you could consider whether the ‘Have you thought about counselling?’ advice would be welcome (but even then, be wary – she’s an adult, she knows counselling exists, she can figure out for herself that it’s a possible option, and givers of advice that we could have thought of for ourselves are up there as one of life’s great annoyances along with telemarketers).

    However, if it’s more along the lines of ‘How dare you! You should be supporting me in all this terrible stuff I am going through, how dare you be so unsupportive…’ then absolutely do NOT get drawn into offering solutions. The problem if things go that way will not be that she’s feeling stuck for other venting options, but that she’s decided to define listening to all her problems as part of the Good Daughter role, and hence define your rejection of that job as proof that you’re a Not-Good-Enough daughter who doesn’t really looooooove her enough. She probably (probably) won’t say anything like that explicitly, and for that matter she probably won’t even be saying it to *herself* in such blunt terms, but that’s the premise that lies behind those sorts of conversations. Trying to come up with solutions such as counselling, in that case, only legitimises the idea that it’s your job to do whatever’s needed to sort out her problems. The best route to take in that case is to hold fast to the boundary: ‘Mom, I’m sorry this is so hard for you. It makes me too uncomfortable to listen to criticism of someone else I love as much as I love you, and I just won’t do that any more. I really hope you find a way to sort your problems out with Dad, and I’m happy to be here for you in all the other ways that I can.’

    Sorry about the essay. tl;dr: Don’t offer solutions to her problems as an attempt to substitute for the role you’ve been playing. Just set a boundary around your unwillingness to play that role any more, and stick to that boundary.

  8. I thought of something else: You don’t actually have to wait for the subject to come up again or for an ‘opening’. This is a recurring problem, and it is perfectly OK for you simply to say “Mom, there’s something that’s been making me really uncomfortable lately, and I need to tell you about it… [description of problem and clear statement of boundary]”. That is a really good thing to be saying in e-mail, as it gives you a chance to think carefully about the exact wording in advance, and then have a bit of space for both of you rather than having to deal with all her feelings in the moment escalating into a potential awful argument.

    1. This is really good advice. (I would favour a face-to-face conversation but that’s possibly because my mother only uses her email account for online shopping and would be weirded out to see an Important Family Stuff Memo in her inbox).

      But yes, initiating the conversation yourself in a neutral context is a good idea. It means you won’t be interrupting her mid I-Hate-Your-Dad flow, which means she’ll probably be less emotional and more willing to hear your side of things.

    2. I actually like the proactive, more emotionally neutral time better. Countering her venting with a boundary is going to feel to her like rejection; coming to her with an issue and a solution in a sympathetic way is likely to feel more compassionate to her.

      Assuming that she is generally a reasonable person and not playing manipulation games (in which case, it won’t matter how you go about it). But if she is genuinely thinking you’re sharing more now, I suspect this approach might go over better for her.

  9. Oh man. My mom did this to me, felt the need to confess all the dirty laundry to me about her and my dad’s relationship and divorce (which happened before I turned 5) after I’d gone to college. I told her I thought it was really inappropriate to tell me, and she was SO hurt. It kinda fucked up my relationship with my dad for a while because I just didn’t know how to process the crap he did when he was my age after having hero-worshipped him all my life.

    Good luck, LW. It sounds like you have a better dialog base to work from.

  10. I had to have this conversation with my mom when I was 13. I was talking about my boyfriend and she took the opportunity to complain about my dad. I had literally just read an article in one of her magazines that week about how you should never complain about your spouse to your kids, which gave me the courage to say, “Could you please not say bad things about Dad to me?” She is defensive like whoa and she FLIPPED OUT and screamed, “FINE! THEN I NEVER WANT TO HEAR ANYTHING ABOUT ANYTHING GOING ON IN YOUR LIFE EVER AGAIN!” and proceeded to stomp out of the room and give me the silent treatment for the rest of the day. So that was pretty terrible and awkward. But you know what? She cut down on the criticism of my dad (there are still occasional passive-aggressive comments, but I can deal with that). And after she threw her little tantrum, she went back to talking to me the next day. So that’s given me some perspective that even if someone reacts in the worst possible way, it may still be worth having the conversation sometimes to get the result you want.

    1. I had almost the exact same thing happen with me and my mom, at the same age! She’s gotten a lot better about it, but she still seems to slip into the “We’re just girlfriends chatting about our lives instead of mother and daughter” mindset. I feel bad for her because she doesn’t have a lot of friends to talk to, but…she also makes no attempt to MAKE friends, and seems pretty content to just lean on me, socially. Most of the time it’s fine (and I’m glad I set boundaries early, like you, even though it was super awkward), but it can definitely get frustrating.

    2. “I was talking about my boyfriend and she took the opportunity to complain about my dad.”

      Hah. I had — almost the inverse happen? I was driving my father somewhere while my parents were engaged in a protracted, unpleasant split and he started complaining to me that my mom wouldn’t have sex with him. It wasn’t the first time he’d pulled some boundary-violating nonsense around that issue (or, you know, IN GENERAL ALL THE TIME), and I responded by complaining that I couldn’t have sex with my boyfriend because I had to study for finals and it was sooooooo annoying.

      That was the last time Dad decided I needed to hear his complaints about his sex life, I tell you what.

  11. Totally agree with the advice to set boundaries on this topic of conversation. In my case, it was messed up mother-daughter bonding by mutually venting about our abusive alcoholic partners. But when I left my toxic relationship and she decided to stay in hers, eventually I had to tell her that I could no longer listen to her vent indefinitely about the things that were wrong in her marriage. Over time, I’ve had to progressively reduce contact to protect myself and my partner as their toxic dynamic continues to spiral downward. 😦

  12. LW, I send you many Jedi hugs, for I also have been in your position, with both of my parents, and it started before I was a teenager. In hindsight, it’s very clear to me my parents should have gotten divorced, but for both, that wasn’t how they were raised, and they were both honestly concerned about a divorce hurting me (I’m an only child).

    Unfortunately, neither of my parents are particularly good at adult friendships, for various reasons, and in wanting to spare me the pain of them getting divorced, they would both frequently complain to me about the other, usually very little things, just a quick vent, and then things were fine. I am lucky in that, unlike some of the other commenters, they did not talk about their sex life or its lack with me.

    After several years of thinking about these things, setting boundaries as the Captain suggests, getting some counseling, and realizing how they interacted with me screwed up my feelings about relationships and marriage for a very long time (I’m in my mid-30s now, and spent most of the last 2 decades with very unhealthy perspectives on marriage), I’ve come to this about my parents: they were not intentionally manipulative of me, but were both very lonely and didn’t know how to confide in adults their own age, so they confided in their son. Who, as it turns out, was a great listener and very encouraging …and who silently took on a lot of their pain and the burden of their marriage from a young age because he didn’t know any better, and because hey, they were my parents and I loved them.

    I think the Captain’s advice is spot on, though YMMV one on point I’ll mention: for me, the setting of good boundaries, which happened when I went away to college, involved very intentionally not spending extra time with them because they were lonely. Your dynamic and situation with your parents may be completely different, and this script might not be appropriate if you currently live at home and commute to college, but I’ll offer it as something very similar to what I said to my parents (separately): “Mom/Dad, I love you and I love that we are able to talk about important things going on in our lives. As I’m starting college and away from home, really for the first time, I’m starting to see all kinds of interesting possibilities for me, in terms of academics, and sports, and extracurricular things, and I’m realizing that this process is me becoming an adult. I want to explore and learn new things and meet new people, and so I’m not going to come back home [this weekend/for Spring Break/over x holiday] because I have [x] opportunity and I’m super excited about it. I’ll still call every week and we’ll still be close, our relationship will just change a little and adapt, as I’m adapting to become an adult.” Now, one reason this may have worked for me is because both my parents extremely value education and so “college” in and of itself was often a good reason. Another reason it may have worked was because they had both experienced their own maturity (of a sort) when they had gone to college, and I knew they were hoping for the same for me.

    The setting boundaries talk concerning them complaining about each other to me was a different talk, and one I still need to have with them from time to time. But things have gotten much better, and as I’ve grown up I’ve been able to distance myself from their failed marriage. It was hard to do! But ultimately very worth it. For me the root problem was more along the lines of them seeing me as a friend instead of as a son. They still have trouble with it sometimes, and I work on it as best I can. But a child is not a friend, or a counselor. I wish you all the best in helping your parents see that, and in modifying your own behavior to encourage it. It is hard but it can be done!

  13. The same happen to me. I call it ‘dumping problems on a child’ and it does not matter how old that child is. I believe that responsible mothers should resist temptation of dumping their problems on their children. If they need help or support, they can either find a good friend or seek professional help. After my personal experience with my mum, I would never do that to my children.

    1. If they need help or support, they can either find a good friend or seek professional help.

      But what do you do when neither option is available?

      The problem I always have is that what my mother really needs is someone to talk to sometimes, which by default is me. My mother raised two children on the autistic spectrum which left her socially isolated for many years because of our behaviour, and she lost social skills in that time which has made it difficult for her to make new friends and find people she can confide in (my dad is a bit antisocial, which doesn’t help). Sometimes the stuff she confides in me stresses me out, but she doesn’t have anyone else she can talk to about these things, and she does so much for me and this is one thing I can give back to her, you know? I mean, she’d stop if I asked, but I’m kind of her only outlet for this stuff. So I’m not really sure what to do about the situation. And the professional help option isn’t really affordable.

      1. I googled ‘autism parent support’ and found pages and pages of websites about dealing with the loneliness and social isolation of parenting an autistic child.
        This is a real problem for your mother, and it is natural and good for you to want to help her.

        However, I would beware the dynamic of being the Obi-Wan-Kenobi to her Leia. Unless she is in need of a kidney, you should never be ‘her only hope.’

        There is a dynamic that can happen when a child that was difficult to raise reaches adult competency, where they realize what it cost their parents, and feel an responsibility to pay it back in some way. This is also natural and good.

        The problem comes when the parent, grateful for (and proud of) their newly competent adult child, steps on a boundary.
        It’s so easy to do, they are your family, you have 18+ years of shared history and intimate knowledge of each other, and they are no longer protecting you from adult things.
        In that moment, it’s hard to set adult boundaries with people you have been deferring to for decades, especially when you are still maybe not good at setting them with your peers.
        And the guilt. The guilt that will never leave you completely, telling you that your parents endured for you, surely you can put up with some discomfort for their sake. After all, you are part of the reason they have these problems.

        If you are lucky that will only be a voice in your head, if you are less lucky your parent may encourage that guilt with words of their own.

        Either way, that guilt is poison to you and your relationship with them.

        Would life have been easier for my mother were she not a single parent to an awkward, strong-willed, sickly child? You betcha!
        Would she have been happier? Hard to say. The series of events that led to that circumstance, might have been replaced by something equally bad.
        She has lots of issues that are all her own and has made some tremendously shitty choices throughout her life.

        Did 20 years of trying to atone for the burdens of raising me do any lasting good in her life or mine? Nope.
        Did it damage our relationship even further for me to keep a tally of who owes who what in my head? Yep.
        Did it fuck up both of our lives even more that if I had let things be? Quite possibly.

        I am just now starting to set reasonable boundaries with her, and really wish I had done so years ago. Small resentments have snowballed into real pain on both sides after so long.

        If your mother is the good woman you know her to be (you acknowledge she would stop if she knew you were uncomfortable) she would hate for you to do that to yourself and her.

        Is your sibling is still at home? Set up a regular interval (every 2nd and 4th Thursday night, etc.) where you come and care for them and she and your father are free to use that time how ever they like. Or take over another duty (home care/yard maintenance) periodically on a regular basis.
        After so many years of being a mom, it may take time for her to figure out who she is as a person again. But once she does it will be easier for her to make social connections.

        Once you are doing something concrete to help, follow the Captain’s script when she says something that makes you uncomfortable.
        It will be weird at first, but much less weird than the inevitable blowup/FEELINGSDUMP/passive-aggressive BS that will happen if things continue as they are.


      2. I do feel sorry for your mum. People however can learn new social skills when required. Unfortunately, by allowing your mum to dump her problems on you, you are discouraging her from developing new skills, making new friends and learning to deal with her problems. May be, you could talk to your mum and explain to her, that you are feeling uncomfortable listening to some of the things she is telling you. May be, you could discuss with her different ideas of finding a different ‘outlet’, e.g. finding a good friend, support group, counselor. How about suggesting her to start a blog for sharing her thoughts and feelings there anonymously and interacting with other bloggers. That might help her to develop social skill, that can later help her to make good friends in real life?

      3. Being the only person who can do something important for someone else can be a deeply scary proposition. What if you stop being able to? What if something happens to you? What if you’re on vacation/having a crisis of your own? That’s a lot of pressure.

        On the other hand, in some ways it can feel kind of… good. With parents especially. It eases your guilt about the effort they went to raising you; it’s time when they’re paying total attention to you; and when you help them, in their eyes you are wonderful and helpful and good. That’s heady stuff.

        So yeah, it’s a complicated situation.

        The important things to have are options. If you’re ever in a situation where she needs someone to confide in and you’re for some reason indisposed to, you need to have the option to say no; and she needs to have the option to talk to someone else. That gives you both choices. Choices are healthier for everyone.

        And that way, it reduces the risk that you’ll end up feeling stressed or resentful, and that she’ll feel guilty and burdensome; because then you’ll both know that if you’re listening to her it’s not out of a sense of duty but because you want to.

  14. If you go the route of suggesting some help for your mom, is there any possibility they could get a little outside help doing whatever your dad can’t? Stuff like paying a cleaning service to do a once-a-year deep clean of the house, getting the number of a good handyman, or allotting a little money for pizza delivery or box lunches for your siblings might go a long way in stress-reduction. (I am assuming that if your dad works that far away, either his job is very good or their financial situation is pretty dire, so YMMV)

    I know after my parents broke up, my mom pressured herself to do all the homemaking, and it helped for me (as an adult living a ways away) to suggest that no one would judge her if she were to just pay someone to mow the damn lawn.

    1. The issue is that the financial situation is… not dire but still a little shaky, post-recession? Both my parents work at jobs they LOVE (plus the job five hours away is willing to pay my dad approximately twice as much as similar jobs forty-five minutes away) but the money goes to the mortgage or two college tuitions, so they’re still in the mindset that we can’t afford stuff like a cleaning service. I’ll bring it up with them, though, since I’d be willing to make some sacrifices if it meant my mom would stop feeling so stressed about vacuuming.

    2. The issue is that the financial situation is… not dire but still a little shaky, post-recession? Both my parents work at jobs they LOVE (plus the job five hours away is willing to pay my dad approximately twice as much as similar jobs forty-five minutes away) but the money goes to the mortgage or two college tuitions, so they’re still in the mindset that we can’t afford stuff like a cleaning service. I’ll bring it up with them, though, since I’d be willing to make some sacrifices if it meant my mom would stop feeling so stressed about vacuuming.

  15. I’m in a similar situation with my mom due to some issues she’s having with her family. Her parents are old and need constant care, which she is having to manage, along with coordinating with her sisters, who have their own issues. I know this is really stressful for her, but she’s made some really upsetting (and ableist) comments about them to me, which is really hard for me to hear.

    Example: She once ambushed me while I was brushing my teeth and asked me, “So what do you think about my crazy family? Are they just nuts, or do you not listen when I talk to your dad?” In retrospect, I should have called her out on such a blatantly loaded question, but at the time all I could do was gape and make vague “um” noises.

    She also commented several times while I was staying with them over the summer about “how nice it was to have another adult around” in a way that made me feel really uncomfortable, like she didn’t consider the rest of her family actual adults.

    I don’t know how to tell her that I don’t want to hear (her judgements) about my family members’ medical conditions more than is absolutely necessary. I love my family a lot, and while I’m aware they’re not perfect, some of the things my mom says about them hurt. Also, as someone who has some of the same issues as the aforementioned family members, I have to wonder what she says/thinks about me when I’m not around, if this is how she talks about them.

    1. I’d file this under an emotional version of forced teaming. The way her comments are worded, it is already implicit that you agree with her judgemental statements. I get why they make you uncomfortable (worse still she is implying your conditions too :/ ) The first thing that comes to mind is non-commital noises when she says something like that, in the hopes that when she doesn’t get the validation/agreement she seeks, she’ll cut back on this kind of comments. If you have an idea to word it sensibly, you can also ask her to not talk about family member or their condition with you, but I see how that could be sometimes necessary.

  16. I’ve been dealing with the same stuff around my parents complaining to me about my sister and trying to use me as a go-between to find out what she’s thinking/ planning. I set a hard boundary recently, and that went pretty well, but it was SUPER scary. Best of luck to you LW; I’m sure you’ll do fine!

  17. My dad did the same thing, for years. I stopped him not because it was a horrific boundary violation but because he dismissed all the very excellent advice I gave him out of hand. It took me a while to see the true problem there. And for a very long time afterwords he took the tact of “stop me when you’re uncomfortable” rather than “Well, she was uncomfortable the last 5 times I did this, maybe I will just not do it this time.”

  18. Oh LW, I feel you. When my parents got divorced, I was heading into adulthood, but wasn’t independent yet. I got earsful from both sides about things my parents were clearly venting that they’d never told me before in order to preserve the lie that they were happily married and we were a happy family. Extra-double-bonus I could never talk about how one parent was making me feel to the other parent (partly to vent and partly to think through strategies for talking to them) because it would suddenly become “Oh! That thing that your dad did that annoys you! That’s one reason I divorced him!”

    I hope the Captain’s advice worked for you. I tried setting that boundary multiple times, and it never stuck. My coping strategy became: Never talk about one parent within the other parent’s hearing. Leave the room every time one parent starts to talk negatively about the other parent.

    Even after I forced my mom to pull over and let me out of the car so I could walk home, it didn’t stick. Here’s hoping your mom is a better listener.

  19. I keep reading scenarios, and thinking “I dont really have any experience that relates”, then reading comments and realising “oh yeah, I do.”
    In my case it was my grandmother, who had loved my grandfather heaps (even though they had divorced and remarried well before I came along), suddenly deciding to tell everyone that she had caught him in bed with another woman and that there was possibly a child from that relationship.
    Cue a room full of silence and stunned faces, no-one had any idea how to react.
    I had hero worshipped my grandfather until not long before when he had a go at my mother, and all of a sudden, my whole stable extended family had fallen apart in front of me.

    So yeah, Jedi hugs and it all really sucks LW.

    1. I’m really sorry about what happened with your grandparents. Here’s a basket of small fluffy animals of your choice.

      > I keep reading scenarios, and thinking “I dont really have any experience that relates”, then reading comments and realising “oh yeah, I do.”

      Hey, that exact same thing happened to me when I read your comment!

      Does it make sense to both fear and worship someone? Because that’s what I felt towards my dad for most of my childhood before I (aged 8) found out he was cheating on my mom, multiple times. Much later I also realized how much of an emotionally abusive creep he was. It really, truly sucks.

      Hope things go well for you and your family. Jedi hugs, and apologies if I’ve messed up formatting (I’m finally delurking).

  20. Ooh, yeah, I been there too. My parents are also married but my mother is going through some issues right now, and she is/was pretty ticked off at a lot of people for minimal reasons. I actually got the worst of it! But my Dad got a fair heaping of it too, and it was generally expressed at me.

    Eventually I set a boundary, kind of by accident, by flailing my arms around suddenly when she was mid-rant and going “HE’S MY DAD, I LOVE HIM!” and she went oh, yeah. This is not… ideal, is it.

    In my case, the boundary I drew is a bit arbitrary, but my mother is fairly good at letting me enforce it when I need to. Sometimes she gets mad at Dad, but she’s not quite sure if she should be mad at him, or she in some way wants a reality check or an outside opinion. In those instances, I’m happy to listen and provide feedback. But sometimes she just wants to rant and be angry, and then I flail my arms around some more and go “MOTHER THIS IS NOT GOING ANYWHERE USEFUL”, and [i]most[/i] of the time she backs off, unless she’s really mad, in which case I keep flailing until she does. She also realized the inappropriateness of her behavior and generally slowed down on it in general and became more aware of it — since we have always been pretty sharey, I don’t think it occurred to her the difference between, say, complaining about a job and complaining about [i]my father[/i]. She still gets a bit frustrating sometimes — “I just want you to know he’s not as perfect as you think he is!” “Uh, I have met him you know,” — but by and large that aspect of our relationship has improved.

  21. I can really relate to many of these comments. I have been my mother’s therapist since I was a young child. She is still married to my dad, who is a very difficult person to deal with. She also has my brother, who is even more difficult to deal with than my father.
    Unfortunately for me, I have not been able to extract myself from this position for various reasons and she has been (gently) fired from each of the professional counselors I have convinced her to see. They all eventually say that they cannot help her if she is unwilling to make any changes in her life.
    So here we are.
    Hugs for you LW, I hope you are able to set some firm boundaries unlike me.

  22. May be long, but I need to get this out there.
    Yeah, a lot of this sounds pretty familiar, and it’s gone on for as long as I can remember. One of my earlier memories from when I was a little kid (maybe about 4-5) was them asking which parent I’d like to live with if they divorced. And then telling me a bunch of times later that if it hadn’t been for me, they’d have gotten divorced a long time ago. In retrospect, it probably would have been healthier for all of us if they had.
    Then there’s the individual stuff, like my dad keeping some money secret for bills and buying me things, either necessities (like, say, underwear or something) or something to keep me happy. There’s always been this unpleasant trade-off, where I really need something, but it hurts SO much to keep things secret. And now my mom’s kinda starting to do this a little bit too, where she wants me to keep something secret that she got off QVC and don’t tell Dad because he’d freak!
    And then there’s the venting from both parents about the other… Though I think that’s been more due to circumstances than anything else. Due to the fact that child services would immediately take us away if anyone saw the house, we never had anybody over when I was a child. This was combined with the fact that I’m the oldest and the little brothers are more severely disabled than I am, and I think I quickly became one of the only people my parents could talk to, or at least my dad.
    Thankfully, after some things involving child services and whatnot, my parents finally got a therapist…but they still sometimes vent to me, and then I get to hear both sides of an incident and I just want to throw up my hands and go “you’re both in the wrong, go settle it amongst yourselves.”
    I mean, I guess I’d like to know if my mom is going to explode if I talk to her, but I’m not really sure if I’d really like to hear about everything because it would just get me retroactively annoyed with her for an incident that I wasn’t even there for.
    tl;dr: my immediate family has issues and I desperately need to grow a backbone and set up some boundaries.

    1. Oh yeah, I relate to most of this so hard – both parents, but especially my mom, would sometimes confuse the fact that I was “bright” and an early reader with the idea that I could comprehend adult-level problems and be a good sounding board for them. From my mom, this took the particularly disagreeable form of pointing out “irresponsibility” of damn near EVERYONE ELSE we dealt with EVER. Because bootstraps, I guess? And because being “smart” meant I would know better than to EVER make “bad decisions” (spoiler: NOPE NOPE NOPE!)

      1. I guess another bit of it is the fact that I know she loves me and cares about me and whatnot and doesn’t mean to hurt me, but she’s not exactly emotionally stable and my dad and I end up tiptoeing around her moods most of the time, so I’m always scared to mention anything. One of the many reasons I’m rarely home…
        Your bit about maturity kinda made me think a bit, because, well, I AM the most mature of the kids, but then my mom sometimes mentions how I’m more put-together than she was at my age, and doesn’t seem to realize sometimes that I I have some pretty serious mental illness stuff going on. Possibly because I never mentioned to her how I was rather suicidal a few years ago.

  23. Boooouuundariiiieeeess are beautiful things.

    The thing about parent/child relationships is that they are inherently unequally reciprocal. A lot of people do not understand this; our society doesn’t help them much. Because parenting fundamentally requires committing your resources to giving the child what they need; but the child by virtue of being a child cannot be expected to fulfill the parent’s needs in return. The parent needs help from someone else. Which is why human child caretakers tend to come in groups of two or larger. Also why the usual reason parents forget this and seek caretaking from their children when their relationship with the other adults who are meant to support them break down.

    The word for the reversal is “parentification”, literally turning the child into a parent. A parent’s job is to feel responsible for meeting their child’s needs first and look after their own in a way that doesn’t infringe overmuch on their child’s. This ends up being exactly what parents ask their children to do, except kids are even less equipped to do it.

  24. Hey LW,

    That sounds difficult, and I totally relate to the position of being the recipient of parental complaint.

    I wonder if it’s possible that what is really upsetting your mom is not what she’s complaining about specifically, but Circumstances — like whatever necessitates your dad working five hours away and only being home on weekends. (I don’t know what the backstory might be there, but commuting on a weekly basis doesn’t sound like the kind of thing anyone does just for funsies.)

    I myself have found fault with loved ones when my real problems are too big or ill-defined or simply unresolveable to do anything about. If it seems like that might be the case, I hope that perspective might make it a little easier to not take her dad-complaints quite so seriously.

    (And, lest there be any confusion, you are absolutely within your rights to ask her to take her complaints elsewhere, regardless of why the complaining is happening.)

    Jedi hugs offered.

    1. I think the actual problem is closer to what you’re talking about. His job pays incredibly well but he HAS to commute every week so everyone’s kind of stuck dealing with this undesirable situation, even though my brother has recently become even more difficult to deal with. I know in my head that she’s not really so angry about this minor inconvenience or problem (my dad almost forgot his laptop on the way to the bus home, isn’t that JUST like him to do???) but rather the larger situation, but I still feel super defensive when she starts venting.

  25. Oof. My mother is amazing, and I can talk to her about anything, so I’ve never just been used as her emotional sponge without reciprocity, and I am fairly okay with the way we talk about my father now. And the thing is, he really is objectively a pretty terrible husband! My mother has to take responsibility for EVERYTHING — because he performs helplessness until it’s easier to do whatever it is — and I find him very frustrating too! And I’m really GLAD she told me that (with my father’s knowledge and acceptance) she now has a boyfriend, because now I know she has a source of happiness outside the home, I understand that despite the difficulties in their marriage, my parents see each other as close platonic friends/family and really are making a positive choice to stay together. What might have seemed like the ultimate Do Not Share With Daughter thing was actually reassuring.

    But I wish she hadn’t talked to me about her marriage (and about things like her fear of mortality when my grandmother died) when I was like, ten.

    And she wonders why I have struggled for years with being scared of relationships.

    1. Yikes. I had to have a boundaries conversation with my mom earlier this year, and it was not fun. I have been her Therapist/Marriage Counsellor/Only Friend for several years now, but this went beyond complaining about chores and stuff to the point where she was saying that she wished she had never married my dad and ended up with such a loser life (definitely not how I see her/their life!). I told her that it was really inappropriate to be telling me this and she was mad at me for several days but at least she’s pretty much stopped venting to me about him (for now). Now to work on stopping the insults for my grandfather and SIL and the meanspirited jokes about my husband.

      It really sucks because I’m pretty sure she has some untreated mental health problems which have been exacerbated by her physical health problems (and their medication), but I can’t make her get help, and so I am finally deciding that for my own sake I can’t deal with hearing people I love be insulted all the time.

  26. I had to set a very firm boundary with my mother when I moved back closer to my parents about this same problem. I was always the mediator growing up between my parents, I had to be the adult, and I resented it for a looooong time. Changing that dynamic was A Scary Thing.

    We had to spend a lot of time walking on eggshells growing up, so I’ve flipped the other way as an adult and tend to be pretty blunt with her. It was something along the lines of “Mum, I need you to stop complaining about Dad to me, it makes me uncomfortable and upset.”

    She was upset at first, and pushed it a bit initially, but later apologized and has been pretty good about respecting it. I’m almost certain I will have to reassert it eventually, but it’s much better than getting upset everytime we have a conversation because she’ll complain about my dad.

    I almost had to do the same thing to my Dad, but he hasn’t done it since I decided to set the boundary (I suspect my mother mentioned what I’d asked of her, and he realized he was doing the same thing, just less often).

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