So let’s get back to your mom. You’ve offered her feedback, and she’s chosen to ignore it, partly because she can. You’ve protected her from natural consequences by hosting events at which she’s included, despite her unpleasant behavior. If the guilt to do so is coming from her, remember: Just because somebody sends you guilt, that doesn’t mean you have to accept delivery. And if the guilt is self-imposed, try to hold on to the fact that by creating a work-around for her bad behavior, you aren’t helping anyone—including her. The only way she might change her behavior is if natural consequences motivate her to do so. And that means nobody is inviting her out of guilt, but instead because they want (or, at least, can better tolerate) her there.
That said, there’s a difference between holding people emotionally hostage by instigating arguments and simply being self-centered or a chronic complainer (as irritating as those traits are). Even if your mom attempts to adjust her behavior for the sake of being included—say, she stops provoking arguments—she’s not likely to have a personality transplant. Her self-involved tendencies may lessen, especially if she decides to seek therapy, but on some level, they’re probably here to stay. If you want to have a relationship with your mother, as long as she’s not creating conflict, you may have to accept her for who she is—and that goes for your husband as well. Sure, you can see your mom without him for a meal or an outing, but when we marry someone, we marry a package deal. Your husband has no obligation to like or enjoy his time with your mom, but he does have an obligation to be kind and tolerant of her annoying personality traits when he’s around her, and not make you choose between him and her. (After all, his family may not be perfect either.)
This will be especially important when you have children, because often difficult parents can become very different grandparents, and your children may have a much more positive relationship with her than you or your husband do. For now, instead of trying to protect your mom by orchestrating gatherings, be honest with your family members about how hard it is to see your mom excluded even though you understand why that happens. They’ll likely have compassion for your situation, and can support you as you work to shift the responsibility of her behavior to where it belongs—on her.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.