I have had a strained relationship with my mum for many years. She is emotionally abusive, verbally aggressive and completely self-centred. For as long as I can remember, my needs (and those of my dad and brother) have had to be pushed aside to cater for hers. She has outbursts and uses me as an emotional punchbag. Then when she’s got it all out of her system she just expects me to go back to normal, even though I will still be reeling.
After lots of soul-searching over the past couple of years and some very stressful recent experiences with my mum, I’ve decided I can’t have her in my life any more. I no longer contact her but she still bombards me with aggressive emails. I know ending this relationship is the right thing to do for me, for my wellbeing and my future, but how do I actually do it? How can someone walk away from a family member?
Eleanor says: Deciding you don’t want a relationship with your mother isn’t like any of the other ways we can realise a relationship has to come to an end. We can recognise that partners, bosses or friends are cruel, and walk away in the hope that the separation will make room for a better version of the same connection – a better boss, a better boyfriend, a better friend. But you don’t get another mum. That means this decision must have taken a lot of bravery – but it also means that what you’re dealing with is a kind of grief. Every other goodbye lets us imagine what we’ll get to greet in its place, but this one may just feel like “goodbye”. That’s an enormously difficult thing to say to a living parent.
It might be helpful if I point out everything you’ve already done, so that the final step feels like less of a leap. You have already made it through what sounds like many hard years of conflict. You’ve recognised that these outbursts are not yours to prevent – you’re not trying to marionette the chaos by wondering how things would go if you tried this personality or preempted that need. You’ve examined the way your relationship makes you feel and come to the difficult decision that, no, it’s not worth enduring in order to keep the peace. Each one of those steps takes significant strength: many people don’t take even one.
So although it might feel like enacting your decision is the part that takes a really big, grunting lift, don’t discount the amount of strength you’ve already shown. If the question is one of resolve, you already know you have it: it’s OK to take your time and process your grief for the relationship you weren’t able to have.
It’s also worth knowing in advance that if you do sever things entirely, the responses of the person recently cut off can be every bit as difficult as the behaviour that led to the decision. They can be recriminative, wheedling, flattering, or any shade in between. It can help to have one rote phrase that you just do not deviate from: “I understand you’re upset, but as I’ve said, I won’t be responding further.” If you can demonstrate that no other response will be forthcoming, they eventually (hopefully) stop trying to provoke one.
It can help, too, to have somewhere to put the feelings stirred up when you hear from them – somewhere completely separate from your decision-making self. You can be like Odysseus: don’t deny the emotions you know you will have, just make sure to get away from the steering wheel in time. When you get an email, close the computer, remove the phone, and then write everything it makes you feel – all the anger and painful hope – and eat it or jump up and down on it. A therapist or a support group could be invaluable for you here: learning how your experience resembles other people’s can give you readymade strategies and vocabularies for coping.
Nobody cuts their mother out of their life lightly, and it would be shocking if you were able to do it in one attempt. It will be a complicated, chaotic process in which a bit of simplicity could act as driftwood you can hold on to: to stop having something in your life, you have to stop having it in your life.
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org
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