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,

My mother and I are very close because it has always been just the two of us in our family. My parents divorced when I was a child and I have spent my whole life with my mom. I have no aunts, uncles, or grandparents, which makes my predicament even harder to deal with.

My mother has always struggled with finances due to the divorce. We often lived paycheck to paycheck and I grew up knowing that money was a constant issue. A few years ago, when I was in my early 20s, my mother had a serious health scare and came clean that she opened credit cards in my name when I turned 18, and was using them to pay bills. She swore that it was only three cards and that she was paying off what she owed on them.

Recently, as I was finishing my last year of graduate school and looking into my student-loan debt, I asked my mother for information on those credit cards, which I thought she had paid off. For the next few weeks, she kept changing the subject. After I finally threatened to run a credit check, she told me that she opened about eight cards in my name, and that she owes more than $10,000 on them. I have tons of student debt, and now all of this on top of it.

Whenever I ask her to pay off more, she replies that we don’t have a lot of money, and that’s why she opened these cards in the first place. I can’t even put money toward the debt on the cards, because she refuses to give me the account information and I do not know how to obtain it without actually reporting her. She knows I can’t go to the police, because she’s my mother and I don’t want to file criminal charges.

When I try to tell her how I feel about what she has done, she plays the victim and tells me that she doesn’t want to listen to “my abuse,” and that she’s going to have a heart attack if I keep pushing. She evades anything I ask her by not answering or by calling me names. Often, she will say she “did it for me” because I needed things growing up, but she opened these credit cards when I was in college.

I love my mom but I can’t ever trust her now. I don’t know how to make her understand what she’s done to our relationship—no crying, yelling, or trying to talk with her rationally works. I cry myself to sleep thinking about how deeply she’s betrayed me. Part of me thinks she doesn’t care. How can I get through to her when nothing seems to work?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

I’m sorry that your mother betrayed you and continues to do so. I say “continues to do so” because there are actually three betrayals here: the first is the credit-card fraud; the second is her dishonesty in her account of the fraud’s extent and her claim that she would pay off the cards; the third is her refusal to take responsibility for the damage her actions have done to your credit report and your relationship.

I don’t know much about your history together, but when a person deceives and manipulates in the way your mother has done here, generally there have been other instances of this kind of behavior as well. Your mother seems to have played the victim for quite some time by blaming others for her predicament—in this case, you.

When people play the victim, it serves them in several ways: You don’t have to take responsibility for anything that isn’t working in your life; you tend to get a lot of sympathy, which makes it more likely that people will do things for you; and most important, you don’t have to feel your sadness or pain. Pointing at the culprit—that person, this circumstance—is so much easier than looking inside and doing the work of healing earlier wounds. The result is that this person becomes a master at deception of both herself and others.

What your mom has done here is this: She has turned herself into the victim of a crime that she herself committed. Suddenly, you are “abusing” her by bringing up a subject she doesn’t want to talk about. If you think back to your childhood, you may recognize more instances of this kind of behavior, so that the credit-card incident, while outrageous, makes more sense in the context of who your mom has always been. Recognizing this might also help you come to terms with the fact that she may not be willing, at least right now, to let herself see how deeply this betrayal has hurt you both emotionally and practically. But the good news is, you can become aware of the choices you have so that you don’t slip into the helpless-victim role yourself.

First, look at the ways you use the word can’t—you write that you “can’t” go to the police to reclaim your financial identity. Of course, you absolutely can, and while you might want to try something else first, the idea that reclaiming your financial identity is a betrayal of the person who betrayed you is exactly the kind of upside-down logic that martyrs use to turn others into victims too.

Second, you can communicate differently with your mother. Crying and yelling aren’t generally effective approaches, and trying to talk rationally often falls on deaf ears with somebody who distorts reality to remain in the victim position.

Instead of presenting yourself at her mercy—why won’t you pay back the cards? Why can’t you understand how you’ve hurt me?—you can set a boundary that might look like this: “Mom, I know you don’t see how stealing my identity and lying to me in the aftermath have wreaked havoc on my finances and deeply damaged our relationship and my ability to trust you. My greatest hope is that one day you’ll be able to take responsibility for your actions and we’ll be able to repair our relationship. In the meantime, though, I need to repair my credit. To that end, you’ll need to do X or I will report this crime to the police.”

“X” might be “pay such-and-such amount each month” or “borrow or open credit in your own name to pay off my cards in their entirety by such-and-such date.” It might also be “provide the account information so that I can pay off my cards for now, and we will set up a five-year payment plan for you to pay off your debt to me.” Prepare for your mom to turn up the guilt and play the martyr even more—expect cries of helplessness, along with dramatic accusations of ingratitude, lack of love, and (ironically) betrayal. Don’t let this sway you. This is how martyrs reel people in, and as hard as it is to resist the old pattern, you’ll find that doing so gets easier over time.

Best of all, taking these steps will show you what it’s like to be neither victim nor victimized—and this, in turn, will set you on a path for healthier relationships going forward. As unfortunate as it is that this happened, there’s a gift in here, if you’re willing to take hold of it.


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.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.