How to Cut Emotional Ties with Controlling Parents

I recently got a question about how to cut emotional ties with a controlling parent in response to my article on How to Recover from a Controlling Mother. I know a lot of guys struggle with the conflict that happens when we begin to break free from our parents during adolescence, and this can keep us emasculated for years while we continue to seek a controlling parent's approval. It helps to know that the conflict that arises when we individuate is a perfectly normal process; albeit one that controlling parents often over-react to.

Mike writes:

I'm a 20 year old man.  I was adopted, my sister wasn't.  Yes, I've grown up with a controlling mother.  I have always been musically inclined and have had a passion for music.  After high school, I wanted to take a year or two off to pursue this and generally dick around with my friends while I was young, and maybe figure out what I wanted to do with my life.  I had left high school with scholarships and an 88 average.  3 years later, I'm a third year University student in History (I had to take something in University, forced into choosing a major, she's paying for it) I'm struggling to maintain a 75 in my University courses, I've been experimenting with drugs, and I have no clue with what I want to do.  I'm disillusioned with pretty much everything.  I have always been extremely emotional and have latched onto relationships (a few that have been unhealthy for me) and have generally been in more relationships than I have been single.  My mom has never liked any girl that I have ever been with and constantly scrutinizes every single one that I date.  I think she realizes (as I do now) that my relationships were just a constant attempt to rid myself of her or replace her.  I have had sex with these girls.  My mom hates it (she finds out through lurking my shit).  I have no 'morals' or 'values' and she 'brought me up better than this' and won't be happy until I'm chaste till marriage, 'just like she was', so I have been having to lie about where I stay at night when I sleep over with my girlfriend.  The problem is, my mother goes to extreme, crazy lengths to find out when I'm 'lying'.  If I leave my phone lying around or facebook open, she will lurk undoubtedly all my texts and messages.  Last summer I lied about my girlfriend getting fired so I could lie about staying at my friends house instead of going out with her, and my mother called her previous employer to ask if she was still employed in order to 'catch me in the lie'.  I told my girlfriend this and she doesn't want anything to do with my crazy mother, which is another contentious issue because my mother wants her to be 'part of the family'; I told my mom that my girlfriend knows about all the crazy shit she's pulled and I get chastised because it's supposed to stay 'within the family', and now constantly wants me to find a girl with 'family values' that I can bring home to her.  She says that I don't bring my girlfriend around because she's not the kind of girl I would want to bring home to my parents; rather, my family is the kind of family I would not want to bring my girlfriend home to - there's a difference. I guess this fits in with the shame aspect of your article.  Regardless, I moved out this third year but she insisted I come home every weekend and I complied - she wants me to be, 'part of the family'.  Well, I have nothing in common with 'the family'.  I have been making efforts to go to movies and go out to dinners with them but its painful for me.  Yeah I get that she wants me to be successful, but she doesn't realize that she's being controlling.  Maybe I'm being ungrateful - she's paying for my education and just wants to see me succeed - but I feel like I'm being controlled and demasculated.  This wasn't what I wanted to do with my life, and I wasn't ready for post-secondary education.

I realize I forgot to mention my father. My disagreements with my mother have gotten so extreme that we generally do not go a day without screaming at each other. My father, who used to take my side, does not approve of the way I treat my mother, and in arguments with my sister, who is probably the most sane member in this house, he continuously takes her side. The only real ally I have in this house is my mother. As it stands however, I do take advantage of them. My mother hands me money freely when I could be working more, and my father gives me rides places where I could just as easily take the bus. I would easily give up these perks for a little freedom. I just don't want to have to cut ties with my family in order to gain my independence... I mean, they raised me and I want them to be a part of my life, but at the same time, I don't. I had a huge argument a few months ago about moving out completely - my mother flipped - she said she and my father would never speak to me again and gave me the works. I decided to stay for the summer and move out in september as a compromise, but now I'm rethinking my decision as she's slipping back into old habits - I'm not allowed to stay over at my girlfriend's house on weekends. It's absolutely maddening. She gets called a slut and a whore, as do I. My mother attacks her family and her mother for not having 'morals' and 'values'. I get told that I'm going to be a garbage man for the rest of my life (although an embarrassing position, the salary isn't too bad in Ontario at 20-30 dollars an hour, but definitely not what I'm looking for). I get guilt tripped about every single thing that I do. And I know that I'm talented in music, I could have pursued it and at least had a chance. But I was constantly told I wasn't good enough to make it. I guess I'll never know now. Argh. I just want to scream.

Hey Mike, firstly I have to say that I feel for you; it sounds like a really rough situation for you and it must feel like your whole life is going down the tubes. I can't say I've been in exactly this situation, but I do want to emphasize that what you're going through is normal, and that the problem isn't you. In fact, you sound like a pretty switched on guy who has his head together, but at the moment you're just not in a healthy environment and that's why you're feeling miserable.

You may need to cut your emotional ties to a controlling parent if you want to be free to live your own life.

You may need to cut your emotional ties to a controlling parent if you want to be free to live your own life.

Some parents can take a long time to grow up, and controlling parents are the worst offenders. When a boy reaches adolescence and begins to individuate, it's natural for conflict to arise between you and your parents. You want to live your life your way, and they want to maintain control. This is perfectly normal. At the same time that you're wanting your freedom, your parents are going through a grieving process because the boy they once knew is no more. Insightful parents have the self-awareness to recognize that their own inner turmoil isn't about you and make reasonable compromises; controlling parents however get overwhelmed with anxiety which they then project onto you, turning you into a victim of their unresolved emotional baggage. This is one reason it's a great idea to deal with the emotional baggage from your childhood before having kids of your own.

The problem right now is that you're still enmeshed with your parents: emotionally and physically. You can't change your parents, but you can change the nature of the relationship you have with them, and this involves you breaking the childhood emotional ties that you have with them and reestablishing an adult/adult relationships with them. The ambivalence that you feel between wanting them and their controlling ways out of your life, while still wanting contact with them, is perfectly normal. It's all part of the dance we do during adolescence that establishes what sort of relationship we would actually like with our parents as an adult. Again, parents often resist this because the transition is painful for them, and raises a controlling parent's already high level of anxiety about life. They project their stuff onto you and try to control you, because that way they can avoid feeling their own anxiety about life.

The secret is for you to break free of their control by cutting your emotional ties with them, not to stop them trying to control you. The only reason they can exert control over you is that their opinions and actions have an emotional impact on you. As you grow to be your own man, you want to be free to do what is right for you and drop your concern over what your parents think. This is an ongoing process and something I haven't fully mastered yet either, but it does get easier the more you work on it by facing up to what you really want and doing it regardless of what they think or say.

It's hard to cut emotional ties when there are still physical and financial ties. I doubt that the money your mother hands you is really given freely; more likely there are control strings attached. If you have the ability to work and become financially independent of them, I recommend you do it. Moving out to your own place sounds like the right move to make; but don't expect that your parents will necessarily support you. Even if something is right for you, your parents may react against it if it causes them pain, anxiety or shame.

It also sounds as if your parents play each other off against you, or perhaps aren't aligned in their thinking about how to treat you. This will just add to your confusion whenever you're trying to keep them happy. I recommend you stop trying to keep your parents happy. This is a golden opportunity for you to learn that you don't always have to do what other people want or to try to keep them happy. Part of your parents no doubt want you to be happy, but they don't trust you to make the right choices for yourself. This too is normal, though perhaps exaggerated in your situation. The only way your parents will learn to trust your choices is when you start making them for yourself, and stop listening to everything they say about you. Ironically, when you start standing up for yourself and making your own choices despite what they say, they are likely to start treating you with more respect. Controlling parents are like little children who have never grown up: they need to have boundaries set for them, and one boundary is in not taking all their advice on board. You don't have to argue with them when they tell you want to do, you just say "thanks for the advice" and then go do what your heart tells you is right for you.

At 20, it's certainly not too late to change careers. Your adult life is still only just getting started. Here's a general rule: do what you enjoy, and stop doing what you hate. If you love playing music, do it. If you hate what you're currently studying, stop. You can always go back if you change your mind. Don't expect that the right choice for you will always be the easy one, that it will always pan out smoothly, or that it will always be obvious. Life is full of opportunities and choices, and sometime we'll fuck them up and get it wrong. You can't learn how to make good choices until you feel free to make choices for yourself.

Your parent's conservative attitudes to sex are also driven by fear. Be sensible: use protection and don't get anyone pregnant. Parents are naturally squeamish about their adult children's sex lives and although she's crossing the line by prying into yours, you are giving her the opportunity to do so by being there and accepting her hand-outs.

If it's painful hanging out with your family, stop doing it. Contact them when you feel the urge to connect. Stop visiting out of obligation. It sounds as if you're spending a lot of time with your family, and they're taking that for granted. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. The less time you spend with your controlling family, the more appreciative they will be of you when you visit because you want to, not because you have to. Of course they won't like this at first, but giving them some space will also give them the opportunity to grow up a little. What you currently describe is a older-child/younger-child relationship between you and your parents, and the only person who is likely to take determined action to change that to adult/adult is you. Expect this to be a little painful for all of you; but you end up getting the life you want so it's worth it.

I suggest you stop lying to your parents too; not for their sake, but for yours. Lying to them is just a way of avoiding their judgement and controlling influence, but it undermines your integrity and tells you that you have to resort to subterfuge to get what you want. Work on breaking your emotional attachment to what they think of you instead so their influence is lessened. It would be better to tell the truth, and learn to face whatever criticism they level at you. Don't take their criticism personally; it's just a projection of their own subconscious baggage. Obviously you don't have to tell them everything; the more physical distance you have between you, the less they'll find out anyway. You can be selective in what you tell them, but it would be better to say "I don't want to discuss that" or "I don't want to answer that" than to tell them a fib. Put boundaries on what they know about your life and avoid areas where you know they'll criticize, but don't outright lie to them.

Finally, the key to breaking out of being a victim in difficult situations like this is to ask yourself the question most people are afraid to face:

How am I contributing to this situation?

Most people stay victims because they aren't prepared to face the truth about this. You already have some insights into your contribution, like taking money from your mother, doing a Uni course just to try and please them, compromising on what you want, and latching onto unhealthy relationships with women. Look for more. The more ways you can find that you are contributing to this mess, the more opportunities you have to change the situation for the better. When you take full responsibility, you end up with the life that you want instead of you parent's anxiety-based ideas of what is good for you; which as you can see only lead to disillusionment.

It can be tough helping parents grow up, because you're doing the hard work of three people instead of just one. But it's worth it in the long run. Remember that you can't change them, but you can change the way you respond to them so you're not under their thumb any more. In the process, you get to grow up. Having support from a therapist or coach can be invaluable for this, so if you're interesting in talking to me via Skype, please drop me a line.

About Graham Stoney

I struggled for years with low self-esteem, anxiety and a lack of self-confidence before finding a solution that really worked. I created The Confident Man Program to help other men live the life of their dreams. I also offer 1-on-1 coaching via Skype so if you related to this article contact me about coaching.
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11 Responses to How to Cut Emotional Ties with Controlling Parents

  1. Stephanie says:

    So, I am a 36 year old female, who needs some advice. I lived on my own for awhile during and after college, and then got married and had a child. My relationship at the time was not working, and felt I needed to move back home to go back to school. My parents never liked my husband, but say they accepted him for me. I finished school and have yet to find a good paying job. I decided to purchase 15 acres with them so I could build a small home and they could do whatever on their part of the land. I am staying on the land in my RV until I can build...brutal winters here.
    My ex-husband has a drinking problem which is why we have split up and gotten back together many times and I know my parents are sick of it. He has been sober now for only a month but its a start. Anyways we hang out so my son can see him when he's sober and because we are still best friends. My son was sick and wanted his daddy so he came over and when my mom found out she was very mad and we exchanged words and then texts. We are not good at talking things out as she gets so defensive as its only her way and then I get defensive. Anyways she said I didn't consider her feelings and she is not ready for him to visit here. Yet, she also says we need to think of my son. Because my ex is on disability he is not able to financially contribute to the situation which they resent. They have helped me and my son out tremendously, but then use that against me for control. I have money saved to move away and forget about building. Also, they are very conservative, Christian people, so all my life I have felt like I can't survive on my own and have to tip toe around them. Yes, I have run to them for support, but now that they have invested so much I feel obligated to make them happy.
    Should I just move out and sink or swim? Also, because my ex has been in and out of my life more than they want, I feel that I can never live with him again as they would go so far as to pile on the guilt by letting me know how disappointed they are in my decision.
    Help.

    • Hi Stephanie. Sounds like you're really feeling stuck in a complicated no-win situation. My suggestion is to talk it over with someone objective who can help you make the best decision for you and your son. If someone just tells you what to do though, they're just repeating the pattern of your parents. You need to learn to make your own decisions and as you say "sink or swim". That, I could help with if you'd like to contact me about coaching. Cheers, Graham

  2. Rory says:

    I would like some thoughts on my current situation.
    I too have a controlling mother and a passive father. A few years back (say 4) I met a girl online. Last June/July I flew 24hrs to see her and spend 2 months with her. I won't go into details about the situation but I love her and intend to spend the rest of my life with her. I recently went back over christmas for 2 months.

    My parents do not approve and constantly provide opinions, advice and put my fiance down in front of me. I am currently 23 and work in a field that allows me to afford to support her and a child overseas. Unfortunately this means I cannot afford a place for myself while I am long distance.

    My situation at home has got to the point where I do not want to spend time with the family here because I would feel sick or I just have no positive attitude so I spend what time i do at home in my room. I work or study at university 6/7 days of the week.

    I have, after the advice of my fiance, began to write a journal and help build my self confidence up so I can stand up to her controlling ways. And I am seeing some improvement in myself over the past few weeks.

    What I would like to know is anyones opinions on how to best handle this situation. I plan to move to our apartment overseas after I finish my degree (looking like 2 years for this point). I feel like I cant and dont want to spend time in this environment but financially have no options to move out.

    Thanks for listening.

    • Hey Rory, sounds like a challenging situation; especially if you're still living with your parents. Check out the recent article on How To Cut The Emotional Umbilical Cord With Your Mother; it's just as relevant to your father too. I'd start by questioning your assumption that it's really impractical to move out, because the emotional cost of living there needs to be factored into the equation too. That physical feeling you get is telling you something important. Either way, it's time to start setting some boundaries by allowing yourself to feel the anger you feel towards your parent's negativity and express that in an assertive way. See page 3 of the article I mentioned, for example. Remember that control is about anxiety, and when we stand up to controlling parents they unconsciously get the message that we can fend for ourselves, which often lessens their anxiety and allows them to release some of their control and negative judgements towards up. Good luck! Graham

  3. Virginia Nelson says:

    some spots I left out some words, before I posted it.

    What I meant to say about my son I want a relationship with him.
    The other part is I meant to say it stays in mind. I should have already gotten over this issue, I'm in my sixties and this problem still haunts me.

  4. Virginia Nelson says:

    I was in this situation for awhile, but I broke my ties from my mother, and moved to another state, but she stilled tried to control me even though I was not close enough.

    I have a situation that I am trying to figure out, I have a friend and his mother treats him like a little boy. This man is sixty years old and his mom still wants to control him and tell him what to do, if at any point someone starts to talk about him which I did and he told me, if she heard his name around town she would move him, I thought he should have stood up to his mother but it is hard I know, I want to help and he wants to come to me but his mother will not let him do it, so we are separated because of his mother. I care about this man very much and I know he cares about me, but I do not know what to do, and how to help him, he doesn't live here anymore and his phone number got changed his mother doesn't want anyone to call him, so when he calls me he uses a different phone number or the number is unknown. I was hoping this year we could be together.

    • Hey Virginia. Sounds like a really painful situation for you. The simple answer is for him to face his fear of standing up to his mother and break the cycle. He's enabling her behavior, and as painful as it may be for you to accept, the reality is that his fear of her is simply greater than his love for you. I suggest you stop treating him like a child who is unable to stand up to his own mother too, and move on to a guy capable of a healthier relationship. Cheers, Graham

      • Virginia Nelson says:

        I'm not treating him like a child his mother is, when I talked to him on the telephone he is a grown up, but I had discuss with him he needed to break the tie to his mother. If there is anything being said about him, which his name should be kept private if not she moves him to another town, for him to live in.

        My situation was similar I had a hard time standing up to my parents, my dad made me feel like a child, even though I am grown and they wanted to take control over my son, which they did, when my dad passed away it was just my mother and my son, and my mother told my son some things about me, now he has resentment towards me, he will not talk to me on the phone or chat with me, so there is this hole that is not resolved. I am an only child and so is my son, but I let him make choices as he grew up, until my parents made me move out of the house where I was living with my parents and my son. When my dad passed away and I went to the house and my son asked my mother who was here and she said Ginger not your mother. I have more anger or resentment towards my mother she wanted to raise him, and made a mess out of him, he knows I am his mother, but what hurts now is that I have grandchildren that I haven't seen in 4 years and I do not see this improving any time soon.

        Like I said earlier both of parents are deceased. But I guess you can see that I was where he is now, I'm trying to help him but he doesn't live here any more. It is up to him, I have been by myself lets say for a while and no one help out with anything. I have issues with my health.

        • I hear that you're in a lot of pain Virginia. One of the problems with controlling parents is that they give us an overdeveloped sense of powerless victimhood, and until we learn to heal that, we tend to play victim in our relationships with everyone. We can't do anything about your ex since he's not part of this discussion, but what action can you take now to address the pain in your life so that your future doesn't just continue to be a re-run of your past?

          • Virginia Nelson says:

            The man that I wanted help with is not my ex, he is a man that caught my heart, and wants to have a relationship with me.

            Back to my problem, how do I get over the re run of the past, I don't have the money to find someone to talk to about this situation. It stay in mind and I try to let it go, but my son I want a relationship with him, but he needs to get well also. He thinks drinking a glass of wine at home or whenever they go out. I was out at his house in 2010 he couldn't handle it because I was there, I do not know what he was feeling at the time.

            I have autoimmune diseases which is not active right now which I am so happy about, I even told my son about it, and he asked me who diagnose it and of course I said a doctor. He is not part of my life I sure wish he was, but he has been avoiding me, at all cost and will not talk to me, if he wants me to know something he tells his wife, I do not hear it from him, I just wish he would tell me instead, this gets me frustrated because I can not hear from him.

            Is there anything I can do, to get better.

  5. Giselle says:

    You know this is very important especially to parents and to the young adults as well.. Anyway, I am glad you have shared this post to us..

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