I’m back from vacation. This e-mail came my way a few weeks ago and I was busy with final edits so I didn’t get a chance to respond sooner but I think many of us struggle in similar ways with certain people in our lives. Forgive the lengthiness of it. I felt background was needed to make the things I advise appropriate.
Question: My mother and I have had a difficult relationship for many years due to her alcoholism and abusive behavior. As a Christian I’ve always been torn between seemingly conflicting pieces of Scripture and lessons to “turn the other cheek” and “honor your mother” with “admonishing the unruly” and “speaking the truth in love”.
I read your book, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship and felt it was written just for my situation. You knew my mother. As an adult I haven’t lived in the same town as her so contact was sporadic and she started AA 13 years ago. She seemed to be healthier and was doing her AA steps, so when my family moved back to my hometown 3 years ago, we purchased a home with a suite for her in it. Talk about act in haste repent in leisure…Within months I saw hints of old habits coming back and in the last 10 months things became so toxic my husband and I turned to professional mediation in our efforts to make peace.
Heartbreakingly however, she is blind to her brokenness nothing could be resolved and for the sake of my sanity and my family we asked her to move out. My sister is also struggling with Mom and she’s also “taking a break” from her. My husband and I have taken ever effort to shield our two young children from this ugliness despite our mediators concern that Mom might speak inappropriately to them. I didn’t think she’d stoop so low. I was so wrong.
When I went to pick up my children after I allowed a visit with her at McDonalds, my 6 year old said, “We’re mad at you, why did you lie to us? Why are you kicking Gramma out because you don’t like her. Are you going to kick me out one day too?” Sadly the scene got worse when she started swearing at me in the restaurant and screaming in tears at me as the children and I walked across the parking lot.
I have not spoken to my mother since. I assumed she’d get the message that she would no longer have access to the kids due to her behavior in McDonalds. However she just e-mailed me and wants to see them. I have tried speaking up and stepping back. Now she wants to see my kids and I’m not sure how explicit to make my statement of “stepping back” and how to explain she needs to do things differently in order to be in fellowship with us and our children. Can you give me some guidelines?
Answer: Sadly your situation is not all that uncommon. For those readers who are unfamiliar with my book, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship, in the section on how to stop a destructive relationship, I give three steps that one can take to initiate change. The first one is speaking up. If you have never told someone that something bothers you, to stop doing something, that you need more privacy, or that what they are doing hurts you, that becomes the first step.
In previous blogs, I give lots of illustrations on how to speak up in a constructive way. Speaking up does not mean blurting out your negative thoughts or feelings when you can’t stand it anymore. It means you give very deliberate thought and prayer as to the best way and the best time you can approach the person to initiate a healthy conversation about change. Sometimes, when you do this in a humble and sincere way, change can begin to happen. Of course people fall back into old habits but then just a gentle reminder is often enough to get things back on track.
In difficult or destructive relationships however, speaking up often falls on deaf ears. You may be mocked, ridiculed or told you are being too sensitive, unsubmissive, or worse. When that happens, the next step is to Stand Up. You are not only standing up for yourself and the health of your relationship, but you are standing up against injustice, cruelty, and abuse of power. Jesus tells us in Matthew 18:16,17 to go and talk with someone who sins against us. But if he or she refuses to listen, then you take the next step of telling someone. If they continue to refuse to listen, they lose the fellowship of your company. Jesus says to treat them as a pagan or tax collector. That doesn’t mean have nothing to do with them; it means you don’t trust them or closely fellowship with them.
After you have spoken up, stood up and nothing changes, you may need to step back. This does not mean that you turn your back on the person especially when he or she is a parent or spouse. In those relationships we are biblically commanded not to turn our back. But it may mean that we recognize that we cannot be in close fellowship with him or her, nor do we try to. We meet their needs as best we can but do not share our heart, have any expectations, or spend lots of time in their company.
That said, let me give you some guidelines on communicating with your mother at this time. Perhaps you need to keep it all in writing, so that you can have a written record of your words and hers.
You can start with a brief history, “Mom, from our perspective, we have done all we can to communicate with you our feelings, thoughts, needs and requests. Consistently you have disregarded them and disrespected our feelings. That is why we eventually had to ask you to leave our home. However, we have always wanted you to have a good relationship with our children and have never interfered in that. However, your behavior at McDonalds was unacceptable. You should not have told our 6 year old the things you did, and then when you didn’t like what was happening you cursed at me and started screaming. You embarrassed me, you embarrassed yourself and you frightened my children.
I am their mother and I cannot allow this to continue to happen. I would love for them to have a good relationship with you but it will not be possible if you cannot learn to control your tongue and temper when you are unhappy and upset, especially around my children. At this point I cannot allow unsupervised visits with them. I do not trust you.”
From here you can put in the specifics of what you would allow if anything at this point and what kinds of things you are looking for her to rebuild your trust and to keep her accountable. For example, if she is willing to work on things can you contact her AA sponsor and in order to share some of your concerns? Is she willing to go for professional help? Take medication from if she needs it? If not, then her contact with the children may not be possible, or needs to be short and regulated. If you arrange something, (like a lunch at McDonalds again with you present) or she’s invited to one of their birthday parties, she needs to know clearly the rules and if she breaks them, the consequences. You need to be ready and willing to enforce them so she learns that she cannot behave in cruel and disrespectful ways and continue to maintain the pleasure of you and your children’s company.
These kinds of situations are very painful to impliment and be prepared to be accused of being unChristian, unloving and hard hearted. You need lots of support and I'm thankful you're husband is 100 percent with you on this.
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