A few months ago, my mother changed her home phone number to an unlisted number essentially to cut off any communications with my father’s side of the family. (Past issues angered her and Dad and her way of dealing with these things is to walk away from them, burning bridges as she goes.) She decided that she no longer wishes to have Dad’s family contact them and doesn’t care if she ever talks to them again. My father has allowed her to do this although he admits he would like to stay in touch with his brothers and sisters. Very recently, my mother’s father passed away. She has been harboring ill-feelings against her brothers for some time due to their lack of assistance and support in caring for their elderly parents—as she has done (in a martyr-like way) almost solely for seven years. Her anger and resentment toward them and their wives has intensified since my grandfather’s death and Mom no longer wants to have contact with her brothers either. I have always listened to her complaints and tried to support her feelings, but her hatefulness is poisoning our relationship. I can hardly stand to be with her or talk to her on the phone. She has suffered from undiagnosed depression for a number of years and her stress manifests itself in intense migraine headaches which she experiences several times per year. I don’t know whether to be concerned for her mental health, her physical health, try to continue to be supportive, or give her some space and time. She would not be open to the idea of therapy or anti-depressants. I worry that she is going to have a stroke or a breakdown. What can I do?
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Family therapists talk about relationships in terms of boundaries, enmeshment and detachment. Boundaries are psychological and social barriers that define relationships by determining what sort of information stays within and what sort of information may travel through. Good boundaries are supposed to be permeable (meaning “flexible enough to allow passage of information”), but also rigid enough to act as a container so that real limits can be set. Some stuff that happens between married people isn’t always good for children to know about, for instance, no matter how much the child would like to know, or a parent would like to tell the child.
Enmeshment and detachment are extreme ends of a spectrum of boundary permeability. Detachment describes a situation where there is no relationship – no information transfer between one person and another, because there is no communication. This is what your mother is aiming for with regard to her siblings and sibling-in-laws. Enmeshment, on the other hand, describes a situation where boundaries have become overly permeable and the normal limits that should restrict certain kinds of information from passing between people aren’t respected. Enmeshed relationships can result in people getting overburdened with responsibilities and secrets that they were not meant to have. In reading your message, I have a sense that the two of you are overly enmeshed with each other, and might benefit from better boundary setting between you.
I’d say that the important thing to do in your situation is to respect the adultness of your mother and the parental decision making boundary as much as that makes sense to you. It’s fair game for you to express your opinions regarding the wisdom of their decisions if she asks you for your opinion, but if she doesn’t want to listen to you, that is her decision too. Vice versa, your mother needs to respect your own boundaries and not invade you with her negativity. You need to assertively defend your own boundaries with regard to your mother. If talking with her on the phone is poisoning you, you need to (nicely) assert your right to not listen to her talk about that stuff. This may mean that the two of you agree to talk about something else, or it may mean that you need to talk to her less (if she can’t or won’t respect your needs).
It is a tricky situation when it comes to taking care of aging parents. On the one hand, there should be a strong boundary around the parental relationship that excludes the children from marital decision making. If your mother wants to burn bridges and your father is too passive to protest, that is their business and not yours. On the other hand, aging parents sometimes become disabled and need the assistance of their children to manage things that they would have formerly been able to handle themselves. When this happens, there is a role reversal, and the children start becoming more parent-like, and vice versa, the parents more child-like. Boundaries aren’t something that get set once and then cannot be renegotiated. Rather, they are constantly renegotiated. Experiment with limit setting with regard to your parents, and let your gut – your emotional reactions – guide your path. When you feel more at peace with how you are communicating with them, you will know you’ve improved things (even if she continues to be negative, which sounds very likely).