I just got this question about resolving an argument with your mother in response to my article on How to Recover From a Controlling Mother. Steve asks:
I just got off the phone with my mother who was berating me because I had not responded in a timely fashion to an email, which made her ashamed and disappointed. I went to my computer and looked up "how to deal with a controlling mother". Your article looked interesting so I began to read it, and as I did my eyes opened up as if you were speaking directly to me! I would love to speak with her about these things, and also with my father, but her defense is locked down tight: she is a psychologist of many years, and would just discredit anything I had to say. She also insists that my father would not want to talk to me about anything on an emotional level (he really doesn't like to be dragged in between us), and therefore I shouldn't bother. I also run the risk of making her angry, which is VERY easy to do, and then I worry that I'm hurting her. Just writing this really exposes to myself the psychological mire I exist in... Advice?
This is a great question Steve so thanks for putting it out there. Our relationship with our mother can have such a powerful controlling influence over us and really undermine our self-confidence. Most men are reluctant to admit how powerfully influential our mothers still are even long into adulthood, and this can have a massive effect on eroding our sense of self.
Mother issues are a very common problem for men (and women!) who lack self-confidence. Just yesterday I was on the phone with a friend whose childhood was dominated by his mother and other women around him. My controlling mother article consistently gets more hits every day than anything else on this site. It's a big problem.
We grow up emotionally attached and enmeshed with our mothers, and controlling mothers resist the normal detachment process that begins during adolescence. When mothers complain about their adolescent boy's bad behavior, what they're really feeling is the normal pain of separation that parents go through as we individuate and become men. A mother with insight will grin and bear this pain as she allows you to separate; but many parents lack this insight and try to maintain control. A power struggle results, which is particularly intense when each side has their self-esteem invested in maintaining control (for her) and gaining freedom (for you).
You might think that a psychologist would have a better insight into this than most; what I'm talking about is basic attachment theory and she's almost certainly read Bowlby's work on it. But we never see our own emotional responses objectively so the fact that she should be an expert in this kind of thing isn't really relevant. In fact I've noticed amongst my friends with psychologists as parents that they often seem worse at this kind of thing. Your mother may feel extra defensive when her relationships aren't working well since she's supposed to be an expert; perhaps you're projecting higher expectations onto her due to her expertise; or perhaps she became a psychologist in the first place because she had issues to work through and it's still a work in progress. Either way it doesn't matter; forget about her being a psychologist and start looking at her as just another fragile, defensive human being who is herself hurting as much as she's hurting you.
Going through a period of conflict where you learn to stand up to your mother is a normal and necessary part of developing your individual identity as a man. Ideally it happens during adolescence, but in the case of a controlling or hostile parent it's understandable that we avoid conflict like the plague. From my experience, it doesn't matter how long you delay or avoid this conflict: it doesn't go away until you really face it and stand up to her. It seems to be just an unavoidable part of life, but there are a few things you can do to make the conflict more bearable.
The most important thing is to learn to tolerate your mother's emotional state regardless of whether it's pleasant or unpleasant, while you also learn to express how you feel in a constructive way. Over time you can learn to be less emotionally meshed with her and transition from a parent/child relationship to an adult/adult relationship which is more fulfilling for both of you. I've done this really well with my father; with my mother it's a work-in-progress, but it seems to be getting there.
I had a similar experience on the phone with my mother last year where she got extremely angry with me after I rescheduled a lunch outing at the last minute because I had a bad headache. It was very heavy going, and I could see that the anger she was showing me was out of proportion to what had actually happened, so something else had to be going on. For the first time I could remember, I actually acknowledged her anger rather than avoiding going there. All I had to say was “You sound angry” in response to a few of her comments, and her anger appeared to skyrocket. Previously I would have just avoided this and skirted around it, but this time I wanted to face it full-on.
People who are easily angered typically have a backlog of unexpressed and unprocessed emotions which are unleashed on unsuspecting family members when they do something that upsets them. The truth is that you can't make your mother angry. What happens is we do things they don't like, and they have an emotional response. If they're self-aware, they'll own this response and say “I feel angry when you do that”. But self-aware people don't become hostile and controlling in the first place, so you may need to model assertive communication of emotions for her. In my conversation with my mother, I said to her “I feel really nervous saying this, but you sound really angry with me and I'd like to hear what's really going on for you?” She hung up on me three times as I kept ringing back to get to the bottom of the what she was really upset about.
I knew that after 77 years feeling ashamed of how she really felt, my mother wasn't likely to go along with this new way of communicating easily, but it was still really important to me to be direct with her and ask what the real problem was. It turned out that rescheduling the lunch date was just the tip of the ice-berg. She was angry about a lot of things, and most of them didn't even involve me. My mother has a store of resentment towards my father that she projects onto me; it's a dead give-away because she uses his name whenever she's at the height of anger at me. You don't have to study psychology to see that this is displaced anger: my mother is angry with my father, but is too afraid to express it in her closest relationship, so she fires it at me instead where the stakes aren't as high.
The challenge is standing up to dysfunctional behavior from your mother and responding with your true emotions regardless of whether it goes well or not. We build confidence by exercising courage in situations like this. Courage is the willingness to take action even when we don't know how it will go. When I stood up to my mother by acknowledging my fear and her anger, it didn't appear to go well. She went even deeper into her anger and then my father weighed in as well. He's also afraid of her anger, so it's easier for him to get angry with me for “upsetting her” than it is to back me in doing what's best for the relationships between us all: acknowledge each other's true feelings.
You know you're a man when you're isolated like this and doing the right thing by everyone anyway, regardless of their childish resistance. No-one said growing up would be easy; that's why so many men are still children walking around in a man's body.
If you find your mother's emotions overwhelming, you may need to put some emotional distance between the two of you. Many men move cities or countries for a while in order to add physical space between them and their mothers on the pretext of moving “for work”. Don't expect her to be happy about this, but you'll notice how much better she treats you on your occasional visit back home. Stay too long though and you'll probably regress back to parent/child again. Moving away is only a stop-gap measure, but it can give you the space to build your confidence without her constant influence undermining the everyday gains you make. On the other hand, simply running away from the problem won't help because we all take the baggage from our mothers into our relationships with women until we really deal with it.
Note that unless you're doing things that are deliberately hurtful and vindictive, you aren't “making your mother angry” or “hurting her” when you acknowledge her feelings and allow her to feel them more deeply. That's just how feelings work: when another person acknowledges how we feel, it gives us permission to go deeper into our emotions. Not only is this a healing thing, it's also the basis of intimacy in all our relationships.
The normal separation and individuation process we go through in growing from a boy to a man is inherently painful for mothers, and that's part of what she signed up for when she became a parent. You can't tip-toe around this or protect her from it if you want to be your own man. We all have to learn to do what's right even in the face of resistance from our parents, and this is particularly difficult when they're used to exercising control over us emotionally.
When someone affects you emotionally, you give your power away to them. This can be a positive thing when we fall in love with a woman, and it can be challenging when our parents use emotion to manipulate us. But nobody can affect you emotionally without you letting them do so. And the same goes for your mother: you don't “make her angry”. You do your thing and when it triggers her insecurities, she responds with anger because in the past that was an effective way of stopping you doing whatever reminded her of her unhealed pain.
Circumstances that create an emotional reaction in us typically do so because they remind us of an unpleasant event in our past that we need to work through. You can't force your mother to do the hard work of healing emotional pain from her past, but you can't really be free by tip-toeing around it either. The key to emotional healing is to stop avoiding unpleasant emotions, so you're actually doing your mother a favor whenever you do the things that make her angry... provided you're doing them because they are the right thing to do, and not out of malice. Her anger isn't really about you at all; it's just a projection of some hurt in her past. Each time she goes to the pain, she has the opportunity to heal it. If you learn to be steadfast and meet her anger with love, it will soften over time. Even if it doesn't, you'll have learned to stand up for your emotional truth in the face of a woman's volatility; and other women will love you for this.
I don't pretend that this is easy. I was stressed out and tense for at least 3 days after the argument I had with my mother. I'm still learning to unmesh emotionally from her. I also had fallout with my father to deal with: we ended up having a conversation where I told him I was upset with him for getting angry with me, that I wasn't perfect and needed to be free to make mistakes, and that I didn't want to keep relating to either of them by avoiding how we all feel. He apologized and started asking me how I thought he should deal with her moods. Talk about irony. My advice to him was much the same as what I'm saying here: learn to identify how she feels, reflect that back to her, and acknowledge how you feel. Stop avoiding her emotions. This is the basis of emotional intimacy, and it takes time to learn to do it when we're out of practice.
Interestingly enough, despite a lack of apology from my mother, she has been treating me with greater respect since our “argument”. I wouldn't say I handled the situation perfectly, but the main thing I did differently was I acknowledged how she was feeling, and I sought to understand what was really going on behind that rather than getting defensive about it. I suspect my mother felt quite embarrassed about what she said to me on the phone but is too ashamed about it to offer an apology.
I could bear a grudge and feel resentful towards her, but shortly after my conversation I was thinking about how people in my family seem to deliberately withhold what other people want from them. It's like we all know what each other wants, but we don't give it to them because we know they want it. What's with that? I started feeling angry with my parents and siblings. Then it occurred to me that I was doing exactly the same thing with my mother. I know what she wants from me: a quick phone call roughly once a week just to see how she is, with no other agenda. But I don't give it to her.
I had a bunch of excuses for why I didn't do this, but it really boiled down to a self-righteous attitude that she didn't deserve it. She doesn't give me what I want (emotional support, warmth, kindness) so why should I give her what she wants? Pretty petty really. So I thought to myself: what would happen if I were to drop my self-righteousness and just start giving her what she wanted? I began calling her regularly just to see how she was. And what do you know: she started responding to me with warmth and kindness instead of criticism, hostility and anger.
I also recommend that you don't get involved in discussions about your father with your mother, or vice-versa. Don't try to drag your father into what's going on between you and your mother, and don't bitch to your father about her either. The closest allegiance a married person has is to their spouse so if being true to yourself triggers your mother's fear and anger, it's natural that she'll want your father on her side rather than yours. Let it be. Remember that to really be your own man, you need to be able to stand true in the face of criticism, judgment, anger or whatever from your father too. This is part of transitioning from father/son to adult/adult in that relationship. Get support from other men so that your father isn't caught in a parental love triangle; it's no wonder he hates being in this position.
Doing all of this requires self-awareness and emotional healing for your past hurts. Otherwise you remain vulnerable to your mother's moods. I don't recommend attempting this healing with your parents initially; they're too close to the action and are likely to be triggered by your attempts to heal your own stuff. I've done a lot of different types of therapy to deal with the anxiety I inherited from my parents and emotional healing was really crucial for me. Exposing our psychological mire is precisely what we need to do in order to heal the shame that is beneath it, so good on you Steve for going there. Be patient with yourself because this stuff is dealing with really core issues that can take time to heal.
The ultimate destination is to be able to show your mother love and kindness regardless of how she acts towards you. That's what they mean by unconditional love. Any man can love the lovable; it's loving the unlovable that makes you a hero and sets you free. This requires us to deal with our own emotional baggage sufficiently that we don't get triggered and overwhelmed by hers. Then we can be free to weather the storms of our mother's emotional state so that we can act with personal integrity. Hard as it may be to believe, she'll end up being grateful for your ability to do this and you'll end up copping less hostility from her. Or even if she doesn't, it won't affect you as much and this skill will be brilliant in your relationships with women. Either way you're a winner.
You're on the right track, so hang in there. For more on transitioning from a mother/boy to woman/man relationship with your mother, see Step 8 in Confident Man: Forgive Your Mother.