#1270: “My mom has always hated my boyfriend. Now she says it’s because he resembles someone who abused her.”

Behind a cut for mention of child abuse, sexual abuse, and abuse from a therapist. See also, bullying about weight and fat-shaming. Basically a bingo card of triggering, problematic shit and a very awesome Letter Writer trying to handle it all gracefully. ❤

Dear Captain Awkward,

I (31/she) started seeing my partner/boyfriend (33/he) in January 2018. We are in a very committed and loving relationship, and he’s only ever been an absolutely wonderful partner to me. We plan on getting engaged eventually and marrying. I absolutely adore him.

My mother has hated him since day 1. The first year of my relationship, we had many loud, hours-long fights about how he didn’t have a good enough career (he’s an editor), he’s not good-looking enough (I’m very attracted to him), he’s not personable enough (he’s a bit socially awkward, but warms up), and the list goes on. She couldn’t find one nice thing to say about him ever. He’s only ever been polite/kind to her, and he made it clear the first time he met my parents that he’s smitten with me. She was extremely unkind and horrible to me during this time period and our relationship suffered terribly. But I kept in contact with her by phone and in person no matter what (I see them every couple of weeks and we talk 5-6 times a week).

She claims she’ll never be in the same room with him again after only meeting him 3 times in these last 16 months. She finally cracked during one of our last arguments in November 2019 (when I was trying to set boundaries and explain that her irrational behavior was no longer allowed) and told me that she had been molested when she was 16 and my boyfriend looks similar to the man who did this to her. To say I was absolutely shocked is an understatement. I never knew she had been through something like that, and then to find out my boyfriend resembles him…I didn’t react very well. I shut down and stopped talking.

In February of this year, we finally revisited the subject and I told her I thought she should seek therapy since she had never done so before for this trauma, claiming she had worked it out on her own. Then I found out it was her therapist at 16 years old who molested her and she doesn’t want to see therapists because of this trauma.

I don’t know what to do. This is something that I never knew about and that came out almost a year after we started dating. She spent that whole year convincing me she hated him for the most superficial reasons and saying that if I “just lost weight” and I just “stopped settling and cared about myself more” then I’d find a better partner. Aka she said rude and cruel things to me. Now it’s all because she was molested and the other stuff she previously said “is still true but not her ultimate reason for hatred”. I’m confused and feel like I’ve been jerked around.

How can I choose in this scenario? How can I do right by myself and by her?

Smothered by my mother and her past

P.S. A potentially helpful detail: I have NOT brought him around her/my family since she told me about the resemblance to the molestor in November 2019. But my birthday is next month and I’d like him to be involved in these types of big celebrations with my family (Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc…).

And if I have to keep them apart, do I tell him the real reason why? Or just say she doesn’t approve?

Dear Smothered:

Let’s absolutely assume your mom is telling the truth about what happened to her as a teenager and how it’s affecting her now. That’s traumatic, upsetting, messed up, painful, all of those things. I sincerely hope she finds a way to deal with it someday, whether it’s working with a trauma-informed counselor (maybe look for female providers only for this and do a lot of screening and due diligence), talking to the good people at RAINN (a thing you might benefit from, too), revisiting whatever strategies have worked for her in the past to “move past it,” reading books about trauma, or maybe investigating treatments designed specifically for trauma like EMDR. We can’t recommend any specific treatments, so I’m just throwing out that there are options other than “You immediately break up with your favorite dude in the history of dudes.” None of them are easy ones, especially since your mom’s therapist was the source of the abuse, but it is possible that this doesn’t have to feel this bad nor does it have to completely rule her relationship with you and your partner forever.

The thing is, your mom didn’t level with you in order to apologize for how she’s been mistreating you and your partner all this time, she did so to justify it. I’d be answering a very different letter if she’d said, “I realize I took an irrational dislike to [PARTNER] from the start, and as a result I invented/focused on all these reasons that I didn’t like him and that he was a bad fit for you, and I’ve just realized why I was doing it, and I’m so sorry I said all these terrible things about him and about you ‘settling’ or blaming your body shape for how I was feeling. He reminds me of something very traumatic that happened when I was a kid, and I realize that it isn’t his fault and that neither of you had any way of knowing that. I’m going to need some time to figure this out, and while I do, what I need from you both is X, Y, and Z*, but I wanted you to know that I’m working on it and I’m very sorry for how much pressure I put on you to break up with someone who makes you so happy.” 

*Possible Values for X, Y, and Z, above:

  • Advance warning if he’s going to be somewhere she is also going to be so she can make a good decision about whether she’s up for engaging or plan whatever coping strategies she needs.
  • No judgment or friction if she feels overwhelmed and needs to bail from an event.
  • Scheduling solo time with your mom without your partner sometimes, just for the two of you to hang out.
  • Understanding and compassion for what your mom suffered in the past and why it was so hard to identify and talk about before now.
  • Some time to figure all of this out and find a new normal where everyone can peacefully coexist.
  • Ongoing conversations about boundaries, like, is it okay with your mom if the you share this info with the partner or is it important to her to keep that private? You asked for advice about whether to tell your partner, specifically, and this is where I would follow your mom’s lead. “I don’t want to disclose your story to [Partner] without your consent, is it okay if I discuss it with him? It might help him to know that there’s a reason underlying all the weirdness and that it isn’t his fault.” 

Unfortunately, your mom didn’t tell you this to apologize, ask for understanding, accommodations, or help finding a way forward where you could be happy with your chosen person and she could be more comfortable. Instead, she dropped this on you like the Queen of Spades in a game of Hearts, like, “Ha! Now You Have To Break Up With Him!” at the end of a long campaign of insults, manipulation, and being incredibly mean to you. [“She spent that whole year…saying that if I “just lost weight” and I just “stopped settling and cared about myself more” then I’d find a better partner. Aka she said rude and cruel things to me”]. Checkmate, right?

Your mom didn’t have a choice about what happened to her as a kid, and she didn’t choose to have a visceral reaction to your partner’s face and the reminders it brought up, she may not have great tools for reliving a terrible life event, and that has to be just so difficult and awful for her, but the fact she chose to be so consistently mean to you about this is A GIANT PROBLEM. 

From what I can tell, your mom does not want to fix the situation or find a way for your partner to be included. Rather, she wants you to accept responsibility for reminding her of what she experienced long ago and making sure she’s never reminded of it again, she wants you to end a relationship that she knows makes you happy, she wants to double down on all the mean stuff she said about your partner, and I don’t see her being willing to do anything at all to work on this on her end. It is a painful truth that a person can be both a victim of a terrible crime in the past and be emotionally abusing and manipulating their adult child in a way that’s completely unacceptable in the present, and I’m sorry to say, that’s the dynamic I see here, so that’s where my advice is coming from.

Our traumas are things we shouldn’t have to carry. They are not ever a license to be mean to people or control them. I mean, when we talk about generational trauma and not passing stuff down to the next generation, it’s rarely so literal, but let’s get literal: I don’t think you have to automatically wreck your happy life because a stranger wrecked your mom’s life once upon a time. The fact that she thinks sharing her story is the one true way to pressure you to do a thing she tried a ton of awful, mean, manipulative tactics to make happen, and the part where she sees guilting you about a thing that isn’t your fault as the solution to her problem (vs. a recognizable, treatable problem for her to work on) does not sit right with me. I know you don’t want to be the person who re-traumatizes your mom, even accidentally, but you don’t have to automatically assume responsibility for her feelings about her own history nor do you have to implement her suggested solutions, especially without anyone exploring the many alternatives to find a way where everyone can co-exist peacefully, especially when her motives are…let’s say…complicated.

You are looking for a way forward that’s respectful to your mom but where you still get to have your wonderful partner in your life. I want to help you find that way. Time for action steps and scripts!

Before you do or say anything to your family, please get some things clear for yourself. You can be understanding, sympathetic, offer certain accommodations, but you have certain boundaries, starting now:

  • Your partner is here to stay. Right? Right. If the love of your life was the guy who actually assaulted her, I’d be like “Eat shit, Kevin, it was not nice hardly knowing you,” but that is just completely not the case here. You are not required to break up with a good, kind, person who makes you happy for something that isn’t his fault and that literally has nothing to do with him. Whatever your mom does next to take care of herself, she should proceed with that fact in mind. Her story isn’t a new bargaining chip, it’s a problem to be worked on and hopefully solved.
  • You are not agreeing to permanently keep your partner on the sidelines of your life in order to participate in your family. This all may take a long time to resolve, but since you’re planning to be together forever, good news! There is all the time in the world to sort this out in a way that works for everyone.
  • You are not going to listen to any more “concerns” (insults) about his looks, his job, his personality, any of it. He treats you well, he’s polite and kind to your family, and he makes you happy. Unless one of those things visibly changes, your family can keep their concerns to themselves. Their concerns are noted. Your mom told you the real reason she doesn’t like the dude; she can drop the other ones, forever, and she can stop being mean to you about this, forever. 
  • Worth repeating: Your family is not allowed to be mean to you about your choice of partner any more (or your weight, or anything at all). Ever again. You can withstand disapproval and disagreement, but you won’t tolerate unkindness.

Let’s talk about your birthday celebration in a month. There’s a pandemic on, so, whatever party you were planning isn’t happening, right? There’s no safe way to have a bunch of people who don’t live together all in the same room, which is a huge bummer celebration-wise but also a highly useful face-saving excuse Mom-wise for at least the rest of 2020. It’s (genuinely!) so sad that all the people you love can’t safely be together in the same place to celebrate you and holidays and other milestones, but heck, there’s a pandemic on, what can we do. It’s not that your mom hates your boyfriend and has been willing to say literally anything about him or you that might get you to break up with him for the past two years, it’s that you don’t want to get anybody sick so it’s best to Just Not. Voilà!

Since she won’t have to see your partner for a long while, this is probably the perfect time for your mom to work on her reactions to and feelings about him, knowing that she’s entirely safe from his company for the time being. However she wants to do that is between your mom and your mom. If therapy is off the table, she’s the boss of herself, hopefully she can find some way to feel better about all of this.

Here’s the thing, though! You, her daughter, are obviously waaaaaaaaaaaay too close to all of this to be the person she talks to about it. You’re deeply involved with the person who is accidentally triggering all of these awful memories, and while you’re glad she felt she could trust you with the real reason she’s had such a terrible reaction to this guy, you’re certainly not the best person to dig into the details or be her sounding board on an ongoing basis. For everyone’s good, you are literally the last person to process this with her. You hope sincerely that she’ll find someone she can safely talk to or the right resource.

This may or may not apply to your mom, but it’s worth mentioning: While I accept that therapy is not useful for everyone even if it is accessible, I harbor a skepticism toward people who insist that therapy doesn’t work, can’t possibly work, they just don’t see the point of talking about feelings, but also, they clearly love talking about their feelings as long as they get to do it with you (and only you), for as long as they want, as much as they want, any time they want, and also treat you any way they want because of those feelings, and also, hey, this person is regularly mean to you and puts you down all the time, but you still have to listen to their feelings for some reason? Your mom doesn’t have to ever get a therapist. That in no way means that you have to consent to becoming her de facto therapist.

So, your partner is here to stay. And that’s your script, honestly. “Mom, [Partner] is here to stay. I’m so sorry that happened to you, and I don’t want to upset you, but I’m also not going to break up with the love of my life for something that he absolutely didn’t do and that isn’t his fault.”

This is an awful situation, so please do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself, take all the time and space you need, and let me know if X, Y, or Z [see above bullet-pointed X, Y, Z list] would help you. I’m happy to give you lots of advance notice if he’s attending something and be understanding if you need to nope out or cut visits short for whatever reason to take care of yourself. Maybe by the time the quarantine lifts, we can do a reset and try this all again.” 

Once you put boundaries in place and communicate them, I can’t promise things will get easier. Your mom may escalate the conflict a lot and dump a ton more shame and blame on you, you may find yourself needing to take breaks from talking to your mom so often and enforce boundaries by changing subjects and ending calls when things get out of bounds. It might feel like you have to choose your partner vs. your family, she may issue ultimatums or deputize other family members to carry the story of how you chose this vile interloper over Your! Own! Mother!

In response, you might have to keep saying, “Mom, I’m so sorry that happened to you, and I want you to find peace, but it’s really unfair to make that about me & [Partner]. He didn’t hurt you, I didn’t hurt you, and I need you to find a way forward that doesn’t make me choose or place the blame on us. You definitely can’t say mean things to me, so I’m going to hang up now.”

In other words, it might get a lot worse before it gets better, and you’ll probably definitely write in again at the wedding planning stage of things. 😉

The thing is, the way to deal with hard things is to deal with them. Say you break up with this partner because you don’t want to risk re-traumatizing your mom. What happens when the next guy is also [too ugly][insufficiently ambitious][an outward living symbol of your poor self-esteem][whatever other insults your mom can cook up]? I believe that your mom was assaulted. I believe that it was her therapist. I believe that he may have resembled your partner, or, at least, I believe that *something* is really setting her off about him if “hours long screaming fights about him for 16+ months” are a thing with him in a way they haven’t been for past datefriends. We lose nothing by taking her at her word about this and taking it very, very seriously. But she didn’t seek help or clarity or honesty about what she was feeling, instead she abused you routinely for two years to get you to dump him. Given how quickly she jumped on insulting your weight and your looks, I’d guess it’s not the first time she’s ever been a bully or tried to control you. Her consistent, ongoing, chosen behavior toward you is a part of this story just as much as anything that happened to her long ago is, and I’d certainly weigh it at least as much as I would weigh unfortunate, coincidental passing resemblances before I made any big decisions.

We’ve all had that dream where we fight with someone we love and then we wake up and we’re angry at them for the stuff they did in the dream. The anger we feel is real. Punishing somebody for what they did in our dreams is still not okay. Or, since we’re talking about physical resemblance, I’m reminded of a very beloved friend who was repeatedly abandoned and abused for decades because his mom said “he reminded her too much of his (late) dad.” Did her relationship with said dad go badly and end worse? Oh yeah. Does he physically resemble his dad and have a similar affect? So much. Does his mom have a lot of painful, traumatic, and untreated…stuff…that has made her life very hard? I would certainly guess so. Is his mom a vile, evil, abusive b-word whose eventual funeral I will attend just to make sure she’s completely dead? Yes. With A Fancy Hat On. And A Craft Cocktail In Each Hand. And Possibly A Brass Band To Mark The Occasion, P.S. Does Anybody Know A Good Skywriter.

Like the painful truth that someone can be both a victim of harm and a perpetrator of it, the harm that we do when we are triggered or traumatized still causes harm. What was my friend supposed to do to make his mom feel less bad so she wouldn’t mistreat him? Do they even make “Face Off” plastic surgery for little kids?

You’re being asked to give up your future happiness because of a coincidental resemblance between two strangers that jarred something in your mom’s memory. Triggers are real and the things that are “all in our heads” can harm us, so I am not saying that in any way to deny or belittle your mom’s experience, but I am saying that the harm that we do in the present when we are triggered or acting out of past trauma is also real harm. If you end things with your partner or make some kind of devil’s bargain to never, ever bring him around your family, I do not think it will actually restore a harmonious, peaceful relationship with your mom. She may feel some relief, knowing that she won’t see him again, she may get something out of knowing that she “won” and her daughter will choose her (eventually) (if bullied into it enough), and she might be magnanimous and as sweet as pie in her victory and wait at least a few months before trotting out the “I told you he was wrong for you” gloating, but just the same, all the bad things that happened to her long ago will still have happened to her, the same way all the mean things she said and did to you for the past two years to get her way will still have happened to you. The heartbreak and grief you’ll experience after ending a loving relationship will still happen to you, the resentment at your mom for forcing this choice will still happen to you, or, should you stay together, the stress of having every single celebration, holiday, and family milestone be a negotiation between your mom’s hostility and wanting to include your partner will definitely still happen to you. 

Your mom’s ongoing hostility and her revelation mean that there are hard things ahead, no matter what you do about your romantic relationship, so I think it’s important to stop and ask: Why, exactly, can’t those hard things be any of the constructive, healing kind of hard things that lead to a someday where you celebrate your birthday with your friends and your beloved and your family and your mom is there and she has found a way to be at peace with all of it and supportive of you? Why can’t the hard work be done in service of your happiness? You can’t choose your mom’s path for her, but you can ask why does the only possible way you can be supportive to your mom (according to your mom) just happen to be the one that is maximally controlling of you, maximally costly to you, maximally unhappy for you, and also the one that fits so conveniently with the thing she’s been abusing and berating you about the whole time?

I don’t think you have to accept that bargain as dictated by your mom in order to be a good daughter, a good person, or a person who believes and supports abuse victims. I just don’t. There has to be another way, one that doesn’t push you out of your own life as the price for honoring your mother’s. Your boyfriend is kind. Your mom is not always kind. That matters, too.

Above all, please hold onto this:

What happened to your mom when she was a kid wasn’t her fault.

What’s happening now isn’t your fault. 

It isn’t your fault for loving somebody. It isn’t his fault for having a particular face. Your mom’s pain isn’t your fault, her history isn’t your fault, what she does about that history isn’t your fault. Hold onto that, please, and don’t accept the narrative that you are the mean one here, especially in a story when someone was so obviously and so consistently  mean to you.