Dear Therapist: Should I Just Accept That My Relationship With My Mom Is Beyond Repair?

An illustration of a woman mending a dress
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,

I am getting married in February, and I recently picked out my wedding dress with my mom. My mom and I have had a strained relationship for most of my life, but I was hoping to include her in the wedding planning. I made the trip to Florida to go dress shopping together, but that day devolved into a horrible fight that has left me wondering if I should keep trying to include her, or just accept that our relationship is beyond repair.  

My mom is incapable of forgiving others and whenever we have any kind of disagreement, she brings up everything I have done wrong throughout my life—not doing chores as a child, sneaking out of the house as a teenager, losing my temper with her as a college student, and so on.

I am now 30 years old, have overcome a drug problem she ignored, and am in therapy myself to try to become a more tolerable person for others to be around. I support myself and do not rely on her financially or ask her for anything other than a relationship. I readily accept the blame for the bad things I have done, and always apologize. She doesn’t acknowledge any of the things she has done to strain our relationship and has never once apologized without a “but you did [example of my behavior] to cause [example of her behavior].”

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All I want is to be able to have a relationship with her, especially now that I will be going through a major life milestone, and ideally other milestones after that such as having kids. My father (who has been divorced from her for 24 years), my fiancé, and I are paying for the wedding, so I don’t have to include her in the planning. I just want to, because that’s what other mothers and daughters do.

I fear that during the stress of wedding planning she will be unable to keep from spiraling out of control if there is any type of snapping, losing one’s cool, or disagreement on my end. She has expressed that she felt left out when my brother and sister-in-law were planning their wedding, so I am trying to include her. However, I don’t want her to ruin the entire experience for me the way she emotionally destroyed me the day I bought my dress.

What do I do—should I leave her out or keep extending the olive branch?

Anonymous
Baltimore, Md.


Dear Anonymous,

While your question is about whether to include your mother in your wedding planning, embedded in it is a much larger question: What does it mean to have an adult relationship with my mother? To answer the first question, you’ll need to answer the second.

I suspect that this broader question has been percolating deep down for a while, but sometimes it takes a major milestone, like turning 30 or getting married, for it to surface. So let’s consider your question in this context.

Part of having an adult relationship with your mother will involve doing some grieving—mourning the relationship you didn’t have growing up, and also letting go of the kind of relationship you’re hoping for now. You say that you “don’t ask her for anything other than a relationship,” but your request isn’t so simple, because you likely have a specific kind of relationship in mind. Perhaps in this imagined relationship, your mother would understand your pain, validate your perspective, take full responsibility for the difficulties between you, delight in your company even when you’re prickly, and feel nothing but compassion for you when you cite her shortcomings or perceived mistakes in raising you.

In short, she would be a different person from the mother you have. If you want a relationship with the mother you have, you’re going to have to let go of the fantasy mother you wish she were. Holding on to the fantasy leaves you feeling like the injured child you used to be. But mourning that loss might allow you to move forward, enabling you to find some value in a relationship with the mother she actually is. Why? Because you’ll also be able to see the mother you have more clearly, and maybe even more generously.

So back to your question about the wedding. You say that you want to include her in the pre-wedding activities, because she might feel left out and also because “that’s what other mothers and daughters do.” Certainly some mothers and daughters do wedding activities like dress shopping together, but it’s equally true that others—even mothers and daughters with strong relationships—don’t. Some women prefer to do these activities with their partners, siblings, close friends, or some combination thereof. And many daughters who get along swimmingly with their mothers experience conflict and disagreements during this time. If you hold on to the fantasy, your mom isn’t the only one who will feel left out; you will, too.

If you’re able to mourn the loss of the mother you spent so many years wishing for, you’ll also start to see how the adult version of you plays a role in the ongoing tension. Your hope that she’ll suddenly transform into a different person isn’t just hard on you; it’s also hard on her. I imagine your arguments go like this: You communicate to her that she’s not the fantasy mother you want, and she communicates to you that she did her best and can’t change the past. While you’re understandably irritated that she does “kitchen sink” arguing—calling up a list of past grievances in the middle of a current one—you may not realize that you do your own version of this.

For instance, you didn’t just say that you had overcome a drug problem; you added that it was one “she ignored.” And I’m sure this resentment over past events gets communicated, explicitly or not—in fact, this is the same pattern that probably played out while you were dress shopping: One of you made a comment that inadvertently triggered the other. Maybe she said something that left you feeling criticized, or maybe you said something that left her feeling blamed; she defended herself; you felt unheard and tried harder to be heard, which probably came out as you “snapping” or “losing one’s cool”; she felt injured by this; you felt that she was “ruining” your dress-shopping experience like she had “ruined” so many things before (even if you didn’t voice them, she knew that laundry list was running through your mind); and she felt as misunderstood as you did (and felt that you were ruining this mother-daughter experience for her as well).

It sounds like the two of you do this dance often, and although you can’t change other people, if you change your own dance steps, the other person will either adjust and dance in concert with you, or keep doing the same exact steps but have no partner to get tangled up with.

So how can you adjust your dance steps? You can start by doing some grief work in your therapy, and by practicing taking a deep breath and counting to 10 when you feel like a child in your mom’s presence. In these 10 seconds, visualize yourself as the adult you are. Then tweak the song lyrics you’re dancing to, from I have a terrible mom and I feel so ripped off that I have to experience this milestone alone to I have a mom who loves me and wants very much to participate in this milestone with me but sometimes I lose sight of her love when I become reactive despite being an adult who’s aware of her many limitations. In other words, an adult relationship with her means empowering yourself to either focus on her love and good intentions and involve her in whatever ways you wish, imperfections and all, or realize that despite her love and good intentions, you’d prefer to do these activities with people with whom you feel more at ease. If you choose the latter, you can change your dance steps from angrily telling her that she can’t be included, to letting her know in the most loving, kind, and gracious way that because you value your relationship and want it to grow stronger over the years, you’d like to take some time to do this repair without the added stress of a wedding. Meanwhile, you can continue your work to, as you put it, “become a more tolerable person” so that when you do get on the dance floor with your mom again, she can follow your lead.

The wedding won’t be the magical repair you’re hoping for, but it can be the start of a new way of being so that you can have the adult relationship you’re ready for. And you will see, when you become a mother yourself, that you will hurt and disappoint any children you have in ways you can’t imagine right now, some of them similar to what your mom did and some entirely your own. The combination of grace and growing up that you practice for your wedding will prepare you for the day, decades from now, when you’re standing in a dressing room with your own child, and you choose the dance steps your mother hadn’t learned yet when the bride was you.


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.