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Dealing With Demanding Mother

Question:

My sister died last year and I have had a very difficult time coming to terms with her death. She lived with our demanding mother (after my sister’s divorce). On my sister’s death bed, I even had to keep telling my mother to say "I Love You" to her as she lay dying. She passed away a short time later. Now I see how difficult my mother makes things and drives people nuts. I didn’t live near her because my husband said we would be divorced because of her meddling and selfishness. How do I go on and turn off my mothers constant complaints. She now lives with my nephew (sister’s son and his 4 children he is raising on his own). He tunes her out, but I feel guilt just like my sister did and she did not have a life because of our mother. She complains the house is noisy, not enough attention from the kids, can’t go anywhere, etc… I do go and see her once a month and take her shopping, doctor, wherever she wants to go. If I mention my husband and I want to go on a vacation she guilts me into not going because she can’t go. She is 84 and when my child was small I never stopped her from traveling and going with her friends, but she is always upset if my nephew has a date or my husband and I want a life. How do I get over this guilt about my sister’s death and my mother’s constant complaining? Thank you

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Answer:

Guilt is one of those "double edged swords" in that it is both useful and important but can also become a major detriment to our well being. For example, guilt can be a moral guide that prevents us from committing terrible acts of violence during those times when we are very angry. The guilt mechanism takes over and keeps most of us from enacting our emotional rage. Freud referred to this ability to restrain ourselves as the part of the personality he labeled the Superego. The superego is an "inner police person" that acts to enforce the laws of civilized society. It is within this superego structure that lays feelings of guilt when we have done or planned to do something that violates social taboos.

As you know, one of the Ten Commandments orders us to "honor thy mother and father." Therein lies some of your guilt about your mother. Given the fact that she is meddlesome and that she interferes with you and your husband’s ability to go on vacation and live the way you want, you do not wish to honor her. In fact, you are probably and rightfully very angry with her. There is nothing wrong with that except that you seem to have a hard time with your anger at her. The fact that she is now 84 years old and at the end of her life, probably fuels more of your feelings of guilt towards her.

Why your feel guilty about your sister is less clear to me. It is certainly understandable that you feel grief about her death. Perhaps the two of you were competitive with one another when both of you were children or did not get along well during your adulthood and that is your guilt about her death. If anything you behaved in very commendable ways in getting your mother to tell your sister that she loved her while she was on her death bed. Perhaps you have too strong a superego, as Freud might have suggested?

In any case, the real idea is for you to live your life despite the guilt feelings or any other feelings you harbor towards your mother. You and your husband have every right to travel and enjoy your lives. As you correctly point out, when your children were young your mother traveled with her friends. Don’t you have a right to do the same? I have to agree with your husband and his attitude of not wanting to allow his mother in law to interfere in his married life towards you.

Judith Wallerstein, PhD, in her book, The Good Marriage, and I highly recommend it to everyone, states that a successful marriage depends upon the ability of each partner to separate from their family of origin. In other words, the married couple must establish boundaries in which the marriage is protected from outside meddling. This concept is important for both you and your husband. Perhaps you cannot reduce your guilt but you must reinforce the boundaries that delineate your lives from that of your mother.

Therefore, when your mother complains, "turn a deaf ear," and get on with your life. Your mother does not "guilt you" into not going on vacation with your husband, you "guilt yourself." Well, go anyway. Go on vacation, travel, and see the world, live your life with you husband and stop obsessing about your mother.

Best of Luck and Hoping you and your husband Live!!!

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