ERP 121: How To Get An Unsupportive Parent Onboard
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“I’ve been listening to your podcasts and they’ve been really helpful thank you! I am thinking of approaching my partner about your program in the near future because I think we would benefit from it greatly.
Moving forward, I have a question for your podcast. For a bit of context, because I was working and undertaking law school at the same time I didn’t really date and have never had a boyfriend until recently. My mother is the biggest influence on my life and before I moved in with my now boyfriend of almost 3 yrs, I was living with her. I met him on Tinder and hid the fact that I was seeing someone and I didn’t introduce him to her until we decided we were official. She was hurt that I didn’t tell her about him earlier and the first thing she said to me when she met him was that while he was nice, I should see other people. I respectfully told her that we were already committed and that I didn’t want to see other people.
I believe that no one will ever be ‘good enough’ in my mother’s eyes and since then, while she is polite and even charming in person – she has continued to give me grief about choosing my boyfriend and choosing to stay with him. Most of our arguments revolve around him in some way because she never fails to bring him up and make him ‘an issue’ for even something as petty as my boyfriend not driving a flashy new car.
My question to you is, I probably haven’t been authentic or completely honest in my relationship because I haven’t told my boyfriend that my mother doesn’t completely approve of him so… should I tell him? Or at least share with him the burden of this knowledge because by protecting him from it, I’ve been hurt and I’ve lied. I don’t want him to dislike my mother because I love and respect her at the end of the day but I’m tired of pretending we just ‘had another argument’ and that I’m ok because I’m not. It’s also a very lonely experience. I have close friends who support me and know about the situation but my boyfriend is not aware of this.
I look forward to any advice you can provide.”
Please listen to the podcast episode or read the transcript to hear stories, explanations, and examples.
Check out the Connected Couple program to develop happy, lasting love: For a limited time only, you can use this coupon code for a 20% discount: fall2017
Dr. Jessica Higgins’ response:
Thank you for submitting your question. I imagine this has been an extremely difficult circumstance, and I am hopeful that you can improve the dynamic greatly.
A few questions to start with:
- How come you did not want to tell your mother about your relationship to begin with?
- Were there patterns in your relationship with her that you are already uncomfortable with before you started dating your boyfriend?
- It is possible that on some level you were anticipating the dynamic to be challenging?
Understanding your reasons for not telling her initially could be revealing and helpful in getting clear on what your needs and boundaries are with you mother. Gaining insight to this will also help in communicating your needs and boundaries with her, as you will have a more solid ground to stand on.
Some possible reasons could be:
- Needing to find your own way. Feel your own identity. Make your own decisions without being so heavily influenced.
- Or simply wanting more space. Not being so connected to her along the way. Not having her be so involved.
- Or maybe she has had a history of displaying negativity for your individual pursuits. For example, does she get anxious and worried, and not trust you to make decisions for yourself because she wants to protect you. Or maybe she feels a little threatened that she will lose you. Or possibly she wants the best for you, but sometimes puts her judgment and opinions on you.
It is interesting that you waited 3 years to share your relationship with your mother. You waited until it was serious enough (moving in together) to tell her. It almost seems as though you didn’t want her input until the relationship was already established.
From the sounds of it, it doesn’t sound like your mom gave him much of a chance. If she had gotten to know him and then was expressing some objection, then maybe I would suggest giving her an opportunity to express her perceptions and judgments. However, this is not the case. She didn’t give him a chance.
Taking in feedback from family and friends can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is great to get perspectives from people you know and trust. On the other hand, they are definitely biased and not a neutral party. Therefore, they may not see things as clearly as you would like and their opinions are often clouded by their own agenda.
In regards to her statement about “seeing other people,” do you know what this was about for her? For example:
- Is it her stuff (see above examples)?
- Is she thinking you should get more dating experience?
- Is this her first impression, and she wants more for you in that she thinks you can do better?
1. Address the issue.
Since you and your mother have been arguing about the issue, I am assuming she knows you are not happy about the dynamic. Although, if you decide to move forward with some new ways of relating to her, it might be helpful to clearly and specifically state your issue with her.
For example, “When you talk in ways that suggest I should not be as committed to my boyfriend or when you point out negative aspects of my boyfriend, I feel hurt, scared, angry and uncomfortable.”
2. Help her understand:
It is possible she may still be grappling with the fact that she has been out of the loop for so long. Maybe the only explanation she is coming up with is that you had something to hide… that you were not proud of your boyfriend or your relationship.
While you may be trying to protect her feelings, I doesn’t sound like it is working for you or for her. Try to help her understand your honest experience to the best of your ability.
For example, “You are such an important person in my life. I respect your opinion so much, and yet sometimes I wonder if I have relied on your input too much. I really want to be able to make more own decisions and learn for myself what works for me and what does not work for me.”
“I do want to include you in my life. However, I may want some space and time to figure things out on my own first.”
3. Let her know your discomfort and pain.
Again, clearly and specifically state your issue. For example: “When you talk in ways that suggest I should not be as committed to my relationship or when you point out negative aspects of my relationship or partner, I feel hurt, scared, angry and uncomfortable.”
- Hurt that I don’t feel your support, trust, and belief.
- Scared about the possibility that you may never accept him and it will negatively impact my relationship with you, your relationship with him, and our possible future together as extended family.
- Angry that I continue to feel so upset by the whole dynamic. It doesn’t feel okay to me.
- Uncomfortable because I feel divided in my loyalties.
For example: “When you speak poorly about us or him, I feel as though you are speaking poorly about me. It hurts me. I love him. I have chosen him. It is as if you are telling me what I love is bad, not good enough or that my decision is not good enough.”
“He is my person. I am loyal to him. He is becoming (or is) my family too. I feel super uncomfortable and divided when you speak negatively about us or him. I do not want to feel as if I have to choose between loyalties. Loyalty to you as my mother and loyalty to him as my boyfriend.”
4. Let her know your limits and boundaries.
Assuming you already know your limits (from your question, it sounds like you have a good idea of what is not working for you. Although, if you still want support with this, see below for additional resources. Also, may want to do a general google search on “how to set boundaries with a parent”).
For example: “Moving forward, I will not engage in negative talk about my relationship or my boyfriend. If you want to complain or express your worry or concern, I will politely excuse myself from the conversation or interaction.”
5. Give her some guidance:
If her current input is not what you are wanting, then perhaps it would be a good idea to tell her what you DO want from her.
- “I would love for you to give him a chance. I would love for you to get to know him, look at his positive traits, and try to see why I love him.”
- “I would love for you to respect my choice in a partner. Even if you do not agree or totally get it, I would love for you to support my decision to be with him.”
- “Ideally, I would love for you to see his goodness and start to let him in and develop a relationship with him.”
To your specific question: “My question to you is, I probably haven’t been authentic or completely honest in my relationship because I haven’t told my boyfriend that my mother doesn’t completely approve of him so… should I tell him? Or at least share with him the burden of this knowledge because by protecting him from it, I’ve been hurt and I’ve lied.”
6. Communicate your actions steps if she breaks your boundary.
I would communicate with your mother what you will do if she crosses your boundary. This will help her know what she can expect.
You may let her know that up until now you have been holding her disapproval privately. However, you are no longer willing to carry the dishonesty and burden of the inauthentic behavior. You can tell her that you will not be keeping this a secret any longer. You will no longer be willing to lie or deceive your boyfriend. As uncomfortable as it is to set a limit with her, this dynamic has been too painful.
I would give your mother a chance to adjust to your boundaries. Even warn her when she starts to cross them, and then make sure you follow through. This is the most important part. If you do not assert your boundary, then your mother is likely to continue on with her behavior.
What if she does not change?
If she continues to express her disapproval, even with your setting boundaries and removing yourself from the interaction. Then, I think it is really appropriate and healthy to bring your boyfriend into the fold.
“I want to talk to you about my mother. As you know, my mother and I have been very close in my life. And since I have not dated very much at all, this is a new experience for her. I have been struggling with how to deal with her and how this all gets very complicated. As you know, I did not want to include her at all at first. I wanted to protect our relationship from her antics. I am still working out with her what her issues are whether she feels scared of losing me or what.
I feel terrible that she has not been more supportive and respectful. I have been setting limits with her and I will continue to do so. I will no longer protect her. If she does something unsupportive or disrespectful, I will remove myself from the situation. I will do my best to take care of our relationship and you.
I would like for you to know how hard this has been for me. I feel sadness and grief that she has not been easier to deal with and that she hasn’t truly welcomed our relationship or you with open arms and a warm heart.
I don’t want to feel hurt you. I understand this might be confusing and even feel like a betrayal. For she seems to approve when we are together, and then expresses her disapproval when you are not around.
At some point, I would love for you to understand this is more about how my mother treats me and our relationship than it is about you. I would love to be able to turn to you and let you know how much it bothers me and upsets me that she cannot be supportive in the way that I want her to be.”
What if he thinks negatively of her?
Your mother has made some choices about how she has shown up in this situation. This is reflective of her and her experience. As much as you can try, you cannot control her or her behavior. If you set limits and boundaries with her, help her understand your parameters, than you are not betraying her. She is making a decision based on the information and boundaries you have set. Your boyfriend is going to experience what is real. It is important for him to know what is really going on, so that he can learn how to deal with the situation as well. You can not do this work for him. He will have his own process. You cannot continue to pretend for her. It is hurting you too much. You are not responsible for her behavior, and it is not okay to ask you to lie and pretend for her.
I truly believe this dynamic will improve greatly if you can find your position and communicate your limits and boundaries clearly with your mother…AND take action to follow through in honoring your own boundaries.
Let me know how it goes and if I can be of any support. Check out the Connected Couple program to develop happy, lasting love: For a limited time only, you can use this coupon code for a 20% discount: fall2017
Click on this link to access the transcript for this episode: ERP 121: How To Get An Unsupportive Parent Onboard [Transcript]
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