I am an adult (early 30’s) child of two wonderful people who are going through some turbulence in their marriage–that thing of having an empty nest/rediscovering each other/discovering they have communication issues that have just been sitting there for 30+ years and are now blowing up. They’re going to get counseling, which hopefully is step one of getting this all resolved, but in the meantime, I need some advice about navigating things with my mom. We live in different parts of the country, but we are on very good terms with one another, and talk on the phone a couple of times a week.
The current problem I have is that my mom calls me to vent about how hurt and despairing she is about her marriage, how my dad unintentionally really got under her skin or triggered her PTSD (she grew up in an abusive home). I should clarify that neither she nor I think that my dad is abusive; he just sometimes doesn’t understand what’s wrong or how to fix it. He gets hurt that she’s mad at him for reasons he doesn’t understand, then she gets hurt that he doesn’t understand, which restarts the spiral, etc. etc. etc. And then I get to hear all about the fight and how upset she is. The fighting is not constant, but it cycles around from time to time, and when it happens, it’s pretty intense.
She has been talking to me about this stuff for years–starting from when I was honestly probably still too young to deal with it–and it is super, super hard for me. I love, like, and respect both of my parents, and it feels like a punch in the gut to hear about them hurting each other, especially because I know they both deeply love each other and are trying to do right by each other. I don’t want to deny my mom the basic emotional support that friends show each other when going through a rough time. But when she talks about her marriage, it’s so hard for me, because that’s my dad. I guess for this part I feel like I need to get better at either a) not getting so rocked when we talk about this, or b) asking my mom to leave me out of it in a way that won’t absolutely crush her–especially in light of the fact that it’s been going on so long.
So that’s the current problem; the potential future one is that my mom has floated the idea of leaving my dad if things don’t get better, and she would want to come move in with me. She is disabled–still pretty independent, but unable to work, and living on her own would be a real struggle. My other sibling is kinda flaking out on the world right now and is not an option; my mom’s side of the family is the reason she has PTSD and is therefore also not an option. And as much as I love (and like!) my mom, and as much as I’d love to live in the same state again, it hurts so much to think of her moving in with me because of leaving my dad. And it would substantially disrupt my life to accommodate her. It’s not completely unworkable–but man it would be hard. If my dad died–or abused her or cheated on her–I would take her in a heartbeat with no complaints and no hesitation. But knowing that she was staying with me because she and dad gave up on each other feels very different. I worry about what it would do to my relationship with my dad. I worry about what it would do for my financial and living situation. If she decides she would be happier living with me, well, maybe she’d be right–but I’m pretty sure I’d be less happy, and I’m not sure she’s done the math on that, and I’m not sure how to tell her without making her feel rejected.
They’re adults, and are not beholden to me, so I know that pulling a “think of your (grown) children” talk would be beyond inappropriate. But–it would directly affect me. And of course I want them to work it out. I can’t tell where healthy boundaries end and selfishness begins here for me.
I guess the biggest underlying struggle I have is that I am my mom’s closest friend, and the person she trusts most in the entire world. I know this because she has told me so, repeatedly–starting when I was probably a bit too young for that to be entirely cool. And as much as I am grateful that she believes I love her and like her, it kinda scares me to be the only one she really trusts. She’s recently been seeing a therapist (thank GOD–seriously, that took years to talk her into), so I am no longer the only person she talks to at all, but I’m still the one she trusts most.
Practically speaking, I am almost certainly her only option for somewhere else to live, and I’m not sure there’s much to be done about that. Emotionally speaking, I am the only one she’s fully willing to lean on–and I feel like that part is not quite so inevitable, and also not spectacularly healthy, but I don’t know how to fix it without being really devastating to her.
Again, I love and like my mom so, so much, and I’m willing to knuckle down and do the right thing even if it’s costly to me–but I also don’t want to be shouldering burdens that I shouldn’t be taking on.
Any advice/scripts are greatly appreciated.
Boundary-Challenged Adult Daughter
It’s good when parents and their adult children have cordial and friendly relationships with each other, but whenever I hear “My daughter is my best friend” from a parent it gives me the same sketchy wary feeling as when an employer says “We’re like a family here!” or a romantic partner says “You’re the only person who can ever understand me.” Like, what is missing here that you’re projecting this whole other type of relationship onto what you have? Parents are not the same thing as friends. Whether the bond is strong and loving or not, there is too much primal history and power imbalance between parents and children to make “friendship” be the thing they have with each other. In this vein, it is really not cool to make your child the sounding board for marital woes and issues with the child’s other parent! It was super-NOT COOL of her to do that to you when you were a kid! Children are not here to soothe and repair their parents’ emotional landscapes!
So, you’re right, it’s time to get out of the middle of your parents’ marital crisis. Your scripts, when you choose to deploy them, are:
- “Mom, I know I’m changing the rules on you, but I need to set a boundary: I’m really uncomfortable with how much of our time we spend talking about Dad and I am going to start changing the subject when the topic comes up!“
- “Mom, I’m sorry that things are so hard for you and Dad right now.” + [Subject Change]
- “I don’t want to be your sounding board about Dad anymore.“
- “Mom, that’s as much Dad-talk as I can handle today.“
- “Mom, I would tell Dad the same thing if he wanted to talk to me about you: I am not the right person to process this with.“
Recombine and repeat as necessary. Be gentle with her and yourself and give it time. This dynamic didn’t happen over night, and it will take multiple attempts to make the boundary stick on both sides. At the beginning, strive for 2-3 gentle subject changes and then, if the subject won’t stay changed, end the conversation for that day. Do your best to start again fresh the next time you talk to her; you don’t want to punish her for past failures to change the subject, you want to encourage and guide her toward a new normal.
If you’re not in the habit of maintaining boundaries with your mom, guess what, it’s really hard to get started. There is such a weight there, and it can’t be shed overnight. If she has a really painful reaction to being told “no,” it’s probably gonna hit you like a ton of bricks at first, and you’re gonna want to do anything to comfort her in that moment (shredding your fragile boundaries all to hell). Keep repeating this to yourself: The first time is the hardest time. Every time after that will be at least a touch easier, because you will have survived the first time and you know you will both survive the next time. Whatever you do, don’t neglect your own emotional support resources – Trusted friends as sounding boards, maybe a counselor of your own – as you learn to put this into practice.
When your mom brings up coming to live with you, this could be your script:
“Mom, if you eventually decide that living away from Dad would make you happier, you should take steps to do that. But coming to live with me is not an option right now, and I need to tell you that so that you can explore all the options that might be open and make the best decision for yourself.”
In a true emergency, you’d find a way to take her in. Absent that emergency, let’s interrogate the idea that you’re her only option. In case of a divorce, your mom’s housing situation and the splitting of financial assets would be a part of the negotiations between your parents. The solution the courts arrive at might not be ideal for her, but I don’t think think you have to accept your mother’s framing of this as your problem until a lot of stuff that is outside your control (and outside the realm of stuff you should have to control) is resolved. There are a lot of miles before that bridge needs crossed.
Sometimes good people who love each other can want and need really different stuff from a relationship. You don’t have to solve her marriage, her housing situation, or her feelings about having limits set in order to have and set those limits.
So, it’s okay to set a boundary for what you can handle and to redirect her toward someone who could actually help (like her counselor, who can help her sort through her history and the feelings she’s having)(who might also know a social worker)(who might be able to set her up with a stable housing situation or brainstorm other solutions).
She won’t like hearing “no” from you, it’s true. Her feelings will be hurt. But just like you are not solely responsible for her marriage, or her future housing situation, you aren’t solely responsible for how she handles disappointment or the steps she takes to find support and healing in the world. It’s part of the job of being a parent to set these kinds of boundaries and protect your kids from having to function as your emotional pillars. She grew up in an abusive home, true, and probably didn’t have good models for doing this, true, but she made a lot of choices to be a better parent to you than the ones she had and she has choices about what she does, here, too. If you say, “Mom, for my own sanity, I gotta set a limit on being the Secret Keeper Of The Order Of Your Marriage To My Other Parent,” her saying “I hear you, I’ll try to do better not to put you in the middle between me and Dad” is one of those choices. You’re not a bad daughter if you keep steering her toward that choice.