Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

No one likes my mother. She is loud, obnoxious, negative, and self-involved. She doesn’t listen to people when they talk, or look them in the eye. She doesn’t have any common ground with most folks, since she’s mostly interested in her own stories.

All of this means being around her difficult. She has instigated arguments at family gatherings, making things very uncomfortable. My aunts, uncles, cousins—her siblings and nieces and nephews—keep their distance when possible, not inviting her to game nights, birthday parties, and other gatherings. This makes me feel obligated to host events so I can ensure she’s invited, but during and after, I’m resentful that she puts me in that position. My husband also gets angry that I feel the need to create times when she can socialize, since he and I also don’t look forward to being around her.

I want my mom to be more likable. I want to be able to have my mother around when I have children. I don’t want rifts between me and my husband about her coming over.

I’ve directly told her what I think she could do to improve her relationships with her family and suggested therapy, but she doesn’t see a problem. She doesn’t realize she’s being left out as much as she is, either. She believes she’ll always be welcome at my house. The truth is she’s not, but I feel so guilty when she’s not invited by anyone else in the family.

Presuming that I won’t be able to change how my mother acts and that she won’t change on her own, how do I move past the guilt tied to attending and hosting family events that she’s not invited to, and preserve my marriage and relationship with my extended family?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

One of the hardest things about having a difficult parent is managing the conflicting feelings that often arise. On the one hand, you find being around your mom unpleasant and don’t want to spend much time with her. On the other, she’s still your mom, and despite her difficult personality, your feelings are more nuanced. You can imagine a version of her that you’d like to have in your life—a mother who’s less self-centered and more self-aware, one who feels safe and predictable. Maybe you’ve even seen glimpses—a memory, a moment—when she was this version of herself, and those experiences, however limited, inspire a hope for more of them. And despite how abrasive you and others find her, there may also be a part of you that feels compassion for her, and that compassion makes you want to protect her—to save her from herself.

The reality, though, is that you can’t save another person—not your parent or child or partner or best friend. What you can do instead is be respectful and caring by being honest with that person and with yourself. Doing so lets her make whatever choices she wants and allows you to make whatever choices you want.

A term often used in the context of parenting also applies in adulthood: natural consequences. A natural consequence is something that happens as a natural result of an action versus something imposed by others as a punishment. For instance, if your daughter neglects her schoolwork, a punishment might be that she has to miss the party everyone’s going to that weekend, whereas the natural consequence is that she’ll get bad grades on her report card. The beauty of natural consequences is that they give a person freedom to make choices based on what naturally happens, which avoids a power struggle with the people who might impose artificial consequences from the outside.

Now, if the abrasive person weren’t your mom, but were instead your child, you would do your best to offer helpful feedback: Hey, when you create drama with your friends, they want to hang out with you less. That might be why Stella has been avoiding you. You wouldn’t host events at your home in the hopes that your daughter’s friends would show up, or try to orchestrate invitations from others, because that wouldn’t help her at all—she’d just keep engaging in self-defeating behaviors. The best thing you could do would be to let her learn from the natural consequences of her behavior: If she acts that way, people will avoid her. Now she has a choice—continue to create drama and be left out, or become more aware of the effect she has on her peers, and be more included. What she decides isn’t your responsibility—it’s hers.

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.

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