Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
My 86-year-old mother was widowed last year. Throughout my life, she's been very controlling, yet, I've always loved her. Now, her personality has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Last year, she told my brother to "drop dead" and said other hateful things.
My husband and I are Mother's only advocates. We only want her health and happiness. Alas, I can't disagree with or interrupt my mother without receiving hateful phone messages. Often, I feel physically ill after speaking to her. I can't seem to say the right thing. When we disagree, she'll say I'm not the daughter she raised. The hurt is sometimes unbearable.
My friends want me to end this "toxic relationship." I can't, however, as I feel that it would be cruel. I wouldn't want anyone I know and love to turn their back on me, even if I were a miserable person. Can you help me figure out how to make this right?
-- Anonymous, via email
I got lots of mail about my column on honoring parents. Your painful question illustrates how hard observing the Fifth Commandment can be when our parents develop corrosive personalities.
Your friends are right, but not in the way they think. You must,
indeed, end this toxic relationship with your mother, but you can do this without cutting yourself off from her completely.
The solution is to think of your mother the way you used to think of your young children. You love her like you love them, but I'm sure you didn't tolerate rude or disrespectful behavior from them. You gave them time outs when they didn't behave like civilized people. You explained that they needed to behave in a manner that sustained the respect and love upon which all families are built.
Your mother must be held to the same standards.
I believe deeply in the spiritual value of letter writing. The writer cannot be interrupted and can develop a clear and loving context for what might otherwise sound like brusque and cruel criticism.
I encourage you to write to your mother. Begin by telling her how much you love her and why. Tell her all the things in your life you're grateful for that have come from her. Then, tell her directly and in no uncertain terms that she's damaging your loving relationship by insulting you.
Explain that her insults are not only wrong but also deeply hurtful. When she says, for example, that you're not the daughter she raised, explain to her that she's revealing herself not to be the loving mother who raised you. Then, you must begin trying to alter her behavior.
Tell your mother you'll call her in the next few days, but if she insults you again during the call or in a phone message, you won't speak to her for two weeks.
If after two weeks, she insults you again, explain that you won't speak to her for a month. She'll get the message.
Explain clearly that you don't want to cut her off, but you can't allow her to abuse you emotionally; the toll it takes on you is too great. Your mother must be helped to understand that how your relationship develops or dies is her decision, and hers alone. She must know that you want to keep her in your life, but she surely also wants to keep you in hers.
Send the letter with flowers or chocolate, or chocolate flowers. I think this will work.
The fact that your mother apparently leaves most of her insults on your answering machine shows me she's not interested or able to blow up her relationship with you directly.
I pray you can find this or other ways to find each other.
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