By Esther Mann, LCSW
I’m wondering what you think of a mother who spends her life trying to pit one child against the other. That is what my mother is always up to. It’s a miracle that my sisters, brother, and I even still talk to one another, considering how much damage she’s caused.
I’ll give you some examples.
Just last week, my mother told me, with great excitement, how my two sisters spent the day together in Manhattan with their daughters and had the most wonderful time. She went on and on telling me which play they saw, where they ate out, and how the children had the time of their lives.
Of course my first reaction was to feel hurt that they excluded me from this special day. I was home with my children and we would have loved to join in the fun. But after I finished having my pity party, I asked myself, as I usually do, why my mother would tell me this. I called my sister all upset, and she explained to me that a friend of hers had purchased tickets months ago for a play but at the last minute her children got sick and she wasn’t able to go. The number of tickets she wanted to sell was the perfect number to cover the families of the two sisters who went, which is why the other sister was invited and not me. My mother never mentioned any of this—only the part that made me feel left out and angry.
A few weeks ago, my mother was complaining to me that my brother never calls her. She was able to get me to feel sorry for her, as she is so good at doing, and so I agreed with her that my brother’s behavior was thoughtless. Next thing I know, apparently she had called my brother to repeat my comment, and he calls me up, ranting and raving about how I have no right speaking about him and I don’t know why he couldn’t call her for a few days. The real culprit here—my mother—seems to get away scot-free.
Our mother is always lighting fires between us and seems to enjoy watching the conflict play out, almost like it’s her entertainment. She has even gone so far, at times, as to make up stories simply to keep the drama going. And she seems to love every moment of our feuding.
I’ve tried asking my mother why she would say or do the things she does that cause so many problems between my siblings and me. She either looks at me with the most innocent eyes as if she doesn’t have a clue what I’m talking about, or she’ll turn it around and make me out to be the villain. There is no happy ending to these attempts to show her how her behavior is damaging her children’s relationships. I know she is not a stupid woman, but she acts all clueless, as though I’m talking about someone else. She doesn’t seem to care in the least that we are hurting.
I’m sure you’re wondering if my father is involved in any of this. My father is a quiet man. He works hard, learns every chance he gets, and seems to be in his own world. He doesn’t allow himself to get pulled into any of this. Frankly, I think he couldn’t care less. He does his thing and lets the rest of us fight it out among ourselves.
So my question is twofold. I’m trying to understand what would make a mother behave in such a damaging way. I have children of my own, and I do everything possible to keep them close and loving toward one another. I’m not always successful, but it’s the constant message that I always put out there. I want my children to always remain best of friends. When my older daughter allows my younger daughter to hang out with her and her friends, it fills my heart with happiness. I just don’t understand how to make any sense of my mother’s behavior.
I would also like to know how my siblings and I can succeed in making our mother understand that what she is doing is wrong and dangerous. I worry that someday she’ll create so much anger between us children that there will be no coming back from it. There is already so much bad history between us all, based on countless provoked misunderstandings and fights. It’s hard for us to trust one another now or to feel safe. Are our family relationships too far gone already because of our mother, or do you think there is a possibility for us to reunite?
Making a diagnosis about an individual with whom I haven’t worked is always tricky. There is always the risk of instinctively filling in certain blanks and believing that I have a handle on the situation, which is virtually impossible. Having said that, I will gamble on the following conclusion. It sounds to me as though your mother is a narcissist, exhibiting some of the classic attributes of that personality disorder.
Narcissists are those troubling individuals who tend to be very self-absorbed. They can be emotionally cold, lack empathy, and behave in a selfish manner. What makes them downright scary to deal with is that they can also be quite cunning.
These behavioral traits naturally create chaos within the family unit. By telling each child something different, your mother feels a sense of control over her children, particularly over their feelings.
Since narcissists believe they are superior and do not require any advice, it becomes impossible to change them. So you need to know, straight off the bat, that hoping that you or your siblings may have success in changing your mother’s behaviors will probably never amount to more than wishful thinking.
It’s too bad that your father also seems to display some features similar to your mother’s, in terms of his coldness and lack of empathy for the children. I’m not sure where that comes from. It might be a reaction to his wife; he figured out that his only hope for inner peace is to disconnect from her completely, and unfortunately that resulted in his disconnecting from the rest of the family as well. Where does that leave the rest of you? It sounds like he didn’t bother asking himself that question in his own search for inner calm.
But there is a lesson you can all learn from your father. Ultimately, your best option when dealing with your mother is to protect yourselves and seek out self-empowerment by creating strong boundaries that your mother will be unable to penetrate. You also need to accept the fact that your mother is unwilling and probably unable to give you the love and nurturing that mothers should naturally want to give to their children.
It would be a great idea for you to call a meeting with your siblings and read them this column. Explain to them what is behind the many fights and misunderstandings that have heretofore defined your relationships. And see if you can all decide not to allow your mother to draw you into her creative chaos any longer. Come up with agreed-upon responses to her when she starts up with stories about each of you. And most of all, remember always to give each other the benefit of the doubt.
I wish I had some encouraging news to offer you regarding how to rally your mother to change her game plan. If I’m wrong and I’ve miscalculated the reality behind her behavior, that would be good news for all of us. But if I’m correct, all you can do is manage her. Accept her for who she is, try to remember where the behavior is coming from, and don’t allow yourself to get sucked into the fights that she is trying to stir up. This will require a team effort, but my guess is that your siblings will be as thrilled as you to learn better coping tools so that ultimately you will learn to trust one another and release the negative energy that has been threatening all of you for so long.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.