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Context:

I am an early 20's British Male. I moved home after University and am suffering from somewhat severe depression.

As I got towards graduating, my mother suggested I moved home instead of finding a place to live, so I could save money while I built a larger nest egg. My partner, who I met at University, lives across the Country and it is my intention to move to live near her once I have built up said nest egg. I pay rent that is similar but slightly lower to myself living alone.


Problem:

My mother always has something to say about me and why I'm substandard in one way or another, always in an accusatory fashion (I couldn't take them as constructive criticism if I tried). She's in her 50's and worked for 10-15 years of her life before retiring due to injury, ergo has been out of the workforce most of her life.

My self care is below average at points, things like hygiene slip, however being aware of depression being the cause of this she realizes they're off limits as my sister was borderline suicidal last year.

Comments I have heard from her:

  • Shouldn't you be in bed already, I'm not getting you up in the morning (I go to bed 15 minutes later than I meant to)
  • It's unacceptable you leaving the house at x time on a morning (leave without extra time to spare because I wanted a proper breakfast or 5 mins to wake up)
  • I feel like a servant, you come home from work and you sit down while I make dinner after I've cleaned the house today (over exaggeration she cleans 1 room every other day on a rotation)
  • All you do is sit and play games on your computer (I'm a programmer + gamer, so my friends are primarily online, which she is aware of, also living at home, my in person friends live in other cities)
  • walking on eggshells was a direct quote (after I asked her to not keep putting me down)
  • Why is it always in a minute, why can't you do something when I ask (she walks into my room, which is private, not communal space)
  • why do you always have to visit her, why can't she come here for a change (we don't want to have silent sex, given we only see each other once a month, also my mom has ostracized her the way she has me, and we can actually act the way we want to, she also suffers from depression)
  • If you actually got up on a morning, you'd have plenty of time to do x (I stay up late instead as they aren't around)

Writing them down, they seem like reasonable enough comments, however they're said multiple times a day and with layers of snide on top, which gives it the context of wearing me down. Sometimes also layered with an expletive.


When she feels like I'm not paying her any notice, she involves my father and they gang up to attack me. He forms an opinion quickly and will only listen to one side of a story, so when I was younger and played the "game", it was always a race to get in our side of the story first.

I let these chips on my ego slide as best I can and I've had a polite conversation with her on two separate occasions. Once on her conversation with me being negative or derogatory, once about her speech volume/tone of voice as she tends to lose sense of volume when in a discussion with someone and tends to put on a shrill tone. Neither conversation amounting to much. Her feelings tend to be "hurt" for a while, she'll blank me, be nice to me for a day or two, the cycle repeats.

If I call her out on it, she says either that I'm ungrateful or something similar to above about being "hurt".


How I act under the criticism, I tend to let her say her piece, mumble agreeably, unless something is outlandish then I say so, I try to keep a neutral tone, but I have been known to argue back if something gets particularly under my skin. I cannot walk away as if I try to do so, I'm called back to listen to the rest, with renewed vigor.

How I act when I call her out, I tend to point out points to the contrary of her argument (i.e. "you do nothing to help around the house", "I did x, y, z"), if she persists beyond reason, I shut down, wait for it to be over, trying to stop my self confidence being undermined any further

How I act when she involves my father, speech is the kiss of death here, commentary or defense of myself will escalate the argument. Sometimes I fight their points, others I accept it. If I do argue, they beat me down until I basically admit I'm in the wrong.

My question is, how do I break the cycle and form a relationship that is less toxic and more equal?

Obvious solutions I have considered without elimination:

  • Move out, I can get my own place, this increases my cost of living to the point where it would take a significantly longer period of time to achieve my goal of moving to be with my partner (6 months increased to 10-12 months).

  • Give her criticisms validation, do what's asked, behave like she wants. I think this might work short term, but would make me miserable and likely she'd find new criticism, as she did when I was young.

  • Have a round of talks with her each time this occurs, I fear this would just reset the cycle described and I would end up acting like her, rushing to get my criticisms in first.

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    Hi and welcome to IPS! You've given a lot of description of how your mother acts, but since answers here will be advising on how to improve your interpersonal skills, can you describe a bit more how you act in these situations? For instance, what does it look like when you "call her out"? What sort of tone do you use, what sort of comments do you make?
    – Em C
    Commented Mar 22, 2019 at 21:00
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    Could you give some actual examples of comments she has made? I know that my own depression often clouds my interpretation of things, so it may be the case that the same for you.
    – Rainbacon
    Commented Mar 22, 2019 at 22:05

3 Answers 3

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Background

During my college years and right afterwards, I was in a very similar situation as you currently are. I was depressed, spent most of my time staring at a screen, and didn't take good care of myself (poor eating habits, sleep schedule, etc...). After graduation, I moved back home for several months before taking a job that required me to move quite far away. Also like you, my mother was a bit hard on me.

A note about parental behavior

When I was diagnosed with depression, it was really hard on my mother. Parents put a lot of time and effort into raising their children. Putting so much into a child leads them to have certain expectations for how that child will turn out. When we talked about it a few years later, my mother told me that it was really hard on her to see me depressed because she felt like she had failed as a parent. She wanted so much for me to be happy, but I just wasn't and she had no idea how to help me.

That's why she was hard on me. She read everything she could about depression and would constantly tell me that I needed to do this, that, or the other thing (and I mean anything; eating certain foods, doing certain exercises, doing chores, going to church, etc...), not because she thought less of me for not doing them, but because she was willing to consider anything that had even a chance of lessening my depression.

What you can do

The first thing to do is to put your mother at ease. Let her know that you appreciate what she's done as your mother. This will lessen her feeling as if she's failed as a parent. I've found that the things which work best for me to achieve this are extremely thoughtful gestures. For example, my siblings and I made our mother a memory box where we wrote out our favorite memories of her. To this day, she still goes back and re-reads those memories to remind herself that she was successful in being our mother. Your gesture doesn't have to be a gift. It could be doing a chore that she hates to do or any number of other things. What's important is that you find something that will be very meaningful to her.

The next step is to help her understand how her comments affect you. It was very helpful for me to explain to my mother what I was feeling. I explained how depression affected me, and then how her comments made things worse. When you explain, be very explicit about it. It took me a couple of tries because I wasn't blunt enough. Eventually, I said

Mom, when you say things like that, it makes me feel like you don't understand what I'm going through.

When I said this, it got through to her that there was a problem between us, and we were finally able to fix it.

One final note

Moving away helped my mother and I a lot. While things were getting better between us, the process accelerated when I moved. If the other information in my post fails for you, moving away could be a good alternative.

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You cannot fight absurdness with logic. Logic has a limit while absurdness has no limits and thus logic will always lose. You have already tried and failed to resolve the issues between you and her on your own. Your mother is being toxic for reasons known only to her, and given the fact that you currently reside in her home - you have no leverage over her behavior. Moving out would be the most optimal route, because for every dollar you save while living with her you will pay with your mental health.

I'm a 28 year old male who moved out at 23 due to relationship issues with my parents, despite the fact that I was working and studying at the time. Study progress was significantly slower because of me moving out. It took me 8 years total to get my CompSci bachelor degree because I could only afford half the course load per semester. Nonetheless I persevered and graduated without debt too!

Do I regret my decision despite the setbacks? No. Mental health is a fragile thing, and as someone who attended professional therapy it's lengthy and expensive to fix.

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Boy, can I relate. My own experiences have very much word-for-word overlap.

These are some significant things that have so far made our relationship way better and more manageable and which allow us to communicate way more proactively if there’s a disagreement between us.

  1. Going on a bunch of medications has helped me be a person both that I want to be and that she wants me to be. I am far more active, productive, successful, and with far more energy to do useful things in the day or things she asks of me. Medications have significantly reduced inner afflictive emotions and allowed me to respond to criticism with much less emotional inflammation and way way more sharp, analytical, balanced, communicative, calm discussion in which I do not meet anger with anger but instead can keep my cool and remain positive and keep trying to show how I am trying to defuse the situation, that we don’t need to get angry but instead have an open conversation about how we see the situation, what we agree and disagree on and actually trying to understand and justify each other’s viewpoints so that we can actually get to some root or foundation of our contrary opinions or beliefs and just get a clearer view on what it is we actually do agree on and what we do not. The short answer is medications have helped me both be more the person she wants me to be while being so much better at navigating conflict towards a genuinely positive and effective resolution; not being reactive or so personally offended which just perpetuates and amplifies conflict. I still want to find new medications that can keep the remaining aversion and stress I feel from my mom down to pure zero ideally so I can handle having a bit of a negative or nit-picking mom without needing to experience any inner affliction whatsoever from it, since it’s simply not ideal to not be able to handle those very common little stressors of life.

  2. Before that, our fighting reaching a peak and me getting extremely angry and resentful against her, as backlash for how condemning and personally negating she was being to me. I did not have contact with my mom for 2 years before she managed to find me, surprise me somewhere and we were able to clear out the anger and problems between us and try to start with a cleaner slate and more positive intentions from both our sides. Of course, I do not recommend you cut off contact; but what I am saying is maybe if you feel so bothered by the situation that you find yourself seeking a solution that is less about fixing her and more about taking a pretty clear stand that you don’t like this and you don’t want to have to tolerate it anymore, it can, under the right circumstances, give people sort of a small crisis where they also have to ask themselves what they really value and if they really want to have a relationship with you they are going to have to try and care enough to meet your needs for the situation to work. What I’m saying is that people act in a certain way when they think there isn’t any disincentive. They can be rude and criticize you because what can you do? You’ll still be there at home the next day. If you take a bit more of a hard line while striving to increase your independence, autonomy and freedom, it makes for a healthier negotiation context where both sides have to think more clearly about what do they truly want, and inherently caring more about making sure to do what apparently the other side wants to try to make that happen. (This is not advocating one-sided, unempathetic ultimatums, it is about not caving in all the time but making it clear to someone what works for you and what doesn’t and genuinely having a different option that you genuinely prefer in case they say they can’t meet any of your terms even a little bit.) It can really force people to change their perspective on what their priorities are and less to way more long term desire or intention to refrain from default-accepted behaviors with the realization that they are actually problematic (at least for the other person).

  3. Communication has helped me enormously, built on top of the above two. I have gotten so much better at approaching situations of conflict and aversion in a different way, with a variety of sort of approaches given different situations. It comes from life experience and I personally think it is way less easy to try to explain social interaction via rules and routines and instead learning through trial and error and experience a range of sort of “muscle memory” automatic ways to approach or engage or respond, which work for you, given your own personality, which may differ from other people’s approaches. But I can give some pretty great (in my opinion) examples, recently, of some management strategies.

My mom to my surprise has gotten increasingly fervent about how I drink too much milk and smoothies in a day and that it’s not good for one’s health and is not a healthy diet. I disagreed. But what helped us hugely was actually engaging rather than repressing my dislike and/or avoiding the situation, or being more stubborn, resistant, even flippant. If I had to summarize what the aspects of how I approach things with her now in a few formulaic kind of “aspects”, my current recipe of constructive engagement, it could be:

  1. Be direct. So much conflict it seems to be is based on people’s indirect remarks. They may often user sarcasm, a certain choice of word, or a tone of voice where it is impossible for a human not to automatically interpret there being some unpleasantness in their tone, some disapproving orientation towards you. It can be so frustrating and personally hurtful when someone insults you but without being transparent, precise, clear and direct; without stating what they think of the situation without adding in extra emotional effects like general insults or name-calling. But every tactical missive they send at you can be grabbed from they air and opened. If they make a comment implying something, slow down and ask them directly what they meant, what they were implying. This is not meant to be confrontational. You can spell out for them what you think their comment means, what it seems to be implying. You are genuinely trying to make sure all of the assertions and beliefs that have, forming a network or a cluster with one another, are merely fully understood between the two of you, so that you can try to understand which of the premises you actually do agree with, which are differences you won’t have to argue about because you can’t find a middle ground but it’s ok to leave it at a difference in viewpoint, and perhaps some remaining critical assertions which really can be changed by providing different information to update their understanding.

  2. Constantly, explicitly, and verbally aim to fix and improve the situation instead of just reacting with offense or injury. As you elaborate on what the various points of disagreement seem to be about, if the argument starts to veer of into slinging accusations and insult back and forth with one another, try to remember, and even say: what is the real point of our discussion, that we are trying to settle? Are we merely disputing this or that fact for no particular reason, or are we trying to find some plan for us that can help us fix some problem we are having? If you have accidentally digressed to arguing about a different point that maybe is tangentially related but does not actually serve to try to settle on and agree on some plan or action that would work for both of you, then do not go further into that topic. Figure out what point is more central and important, in terms of the disagreement, and make a conversation about actively trying, like a researcher or someone working on a project, to figure out what a solution could be for both of you. Try to stick to one point, per discussion, so it doesn’t become a tangled maze of repeated points that never get resolved because you bounce back and forth too randomly.

  3. Make it clear to them - however you want, implicitly, explicitly, through words and actions, etc. - that you want to fix the situation and that you value them and want to meet their desires and for them to be happy. You can soak out all the anger from the situation by turning it into a far more neutral disagreement: we disagree on this topic, but I want us to earnestly try to fix our issue so we can both be happy. Having a very earnest and strong intention that you want to fix the situation, that you absolutely care about what they want and how they feel, is very helpful. It allows you to keep pushing through sometimes quite long conversations without them blowing up. Make it clear to them that your disagreement is far more of a factual one - I think this, you think that - then a personal one - “How dare you say that about me; and besides, you do that other thing anyway!”.

In conclusion (not a proven law, just a bullet-list of advice/paradigms of a certain kind of conflict resolution):

  1. Explicit is better than implicit. Try to have everybody say what they think clearly and factually.
  2. Disagreements (can be / are) more factual at the bottom than emotional. Try to find a way to examine each other’s beliefs, without ever needing to hit back with emotional harm. It isn’t that it’s never a good idea to be harmful; sometimes this is a way to stick up for yourself, against a bully. It’s just that with a family member you aren’t playing a zero-sum game where you’re fine if you never have to see that person again. I feel like converting a dispute with emotions running high into almost like a “theoretical” conversation about each other’s views turns a difference into almost like an opportunity for collaboration, inquiry and learning, together.
  3. Try to break apart the situation into as many distinct, unique, and simple “claims” as possible so it becomes way clearer what the real specific root(s) of the situation are. If your dad doesn’t want you to quit the soccer team, try to break that into multiple factors: why doesn’t he? 1. Because having a kid who is good at soccer makes him feel proud as a parent, especially in front of his friends. 2. Because he believes it is an inherently good thing that people cultivate a hobby, skill, or talent and should maintain and develop any skills they already have quite well instead of discarding that and moving to something they would be a beginner at. 3. Because he feels like you will spend too much time around the house after quitting your actively engaging hobby and he finds it slightly bothersome when someone has too much of a presence at all hours of the day. And so you on. One disagreement can actually turn out to be many, many different assertions. Figure out which ones are the most central points of conflict in the debate, and which ones actually have the potential for both of you to maybe change your view a little and see something in a new way. That is the best way to find a common ground that works for both of you, by figuring out which aspects of the situation could actually be changed and which unfortunately can not right now, but it’s ok because you can simply leave those points where they are and stop fighting over them, at least acknowledging that you simply can’t agree so we don’t need to talk about it further. Trying to avoid repetition of an argument is a really good criteria to be aware of if you’re just running in circles fighting, talking about things you already have, or if instead you are trying to find a solution to the situation in a calculated manner, like an engineer designing a system that they hope will be effective, actually work.
  4. Defuse any emotional aspect of the disagreement. If you disagree, make it clear that factual disagreements do not have to be taken personally. We may disagree on what a healthy amount of milk to drink in a day is, but that does not mean I am mad at you or think the less of you or have to prove you wrong and show that I was right and win the argument. We just disagree on a plain simple fact. That’s ok. It’s not personal. It’s more like a science project. We are trying to find an answer that works for both of us.
  5. Do what you can to improve yourself as independently as you possibly can do you both have more options than being stuck in a situation you do not want but unfortunately are dependent on; as well as having a life that is much closer to your actual intention in your mind for how your life should be, how you would like to be. The more ability you have to act, behave, and live in a way that you feel is as good as possible, many aspects of the conflict can disappear because you can take care of more parts or conditions of the situation far easier, without hindrances or practical problems standing in the way. It could be anything. Does your mom need a quieter place to sleep? Then pay for it for her. Do you wish you could keep your calm better? Then take a meditation class. Or whatever. On top of trying to mediate, negotiate, reconcile, cooperate, and agree on something that works, just try to independently improve yourself so you don’t even have to have arguments or fights about situations that are much more easily resolvable because you have the power, ability, or opportunity to just do, not discuss, whatever honestly fixes it.
  6. It is genuinely important, necessary, and healthy to have a hard line on certain things. If someone is constantly acting in a way that bothers you, there isn’t time to sulk and willer and complain and commiserate and minorly try to explain to them you don’t like something. You have to take a hard line immediately and fast on anything about the situation that is really, really not working for you. You need to communicate to them the second you realize there’s a problem that that is going to be a big problem for you and that although you can totally work things out in a variety of ways, that thing is not going to fly, and it is going to have to stop right now if they want to come to the table with you. If they don’t, then good: you now realize they had no interest in cooperating or finding any resolution to begin with. Then it was only more important as early as possible to put up an impenetrable defense against them than trying to cave in to someone who only wants to win, who does not care or value about you having any say in the situation.

That’s what I can think to say, for now.

I think you can resolve your situation. Good luck.

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  • I am just curious how drinking milk is bad for your health - unless you drink 2 or 3 litres a day.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jan 3, 2023 at 11:42
  • @gnasher729 : according to Harvard, "The exception was milk, but the results showed that only very high milk consumption — an average of almost a liter a day — was linked with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.)" Other sources also give very good advice on how to use the "good milk" vs the "beware of the bad milk". In this case, if Peter drinks more than 2 milk-shakes a day (2 x 0.5l), he then crosses the line.
    – OldPadawan
    Commented Jan 4, 2023 at 12:09

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