I am an adult who was seriously abused as a child. I’m married to a wonderful man who puts up with me. I have tried many times to set boundaries with my mother, but I always seem to be unable to enforce them. What am I missing? There must be a secret I do not know, or I’d be able to stick to my guns with her. She’s ruining our other wise happy marriage. My husband says, “Just do it.” But it’s not that easy. Can you help? ~ Christi
Dear Christi, it is difficult enough to set a boundary with a controlling person; but it’s very difficult to enforce it the first few times. After you learn “the secret” and practice it, it will become easier. I will try to explain it visually so you can see what I’m talking about.
Because you were abused, and your mother is controlling, you have never learned to set a boundary – to say, “You come this far, and no further.” And you do not have the self-confidence to enforce what boundaries you do set because it feels like you are little David and she is Goliath. You keep forgetting you have a sling shot!
Picture a triangle, Christi. And keep this in mind: the triangle is the trap. You know it well, it feels normal, and yet it produces self-hatred in you. You have learned to run this triangle much like a hamster runs the wheel, and you learned it in the abusive home you lived in during your formative years.
Now let’s run the triangle so you can understand the process.
– First, you set a boundary. Let’s say the boundary is You may come to our house when we invite you, but you are not to show up unannounced. OK, simple enough, and entirely reasonable, especially given that the controlling mother believes she can invade your space at will. You feel very good about yourself for articulating that boundary to her, even though she laughs at you.
– Three days later, there’s the controlling mother on your doorstep. She seems too strong for you, and you let her in. You enable her controlling ways, even though you don’t want to. She belittles you, tells you everything you’re doing wrong, and leaves when she feels like it. You feel demoralized and then you begin to feel angry and victimized. You tell your husband about it, and he shrugs his shoulders and says, “I told you so. You should have left her on the doorstep.”
Now you’re really feeling victimized, and the more you think about it, the angrier you get. You’re angry at your husband for not sympathizing with you, angry at your mother for “making” you feel like you’re nothing; but most of all, you’re angry at yourself for being such a wimp. So what do you do? You act out your shame by beating up on yourself!
You binge on ice cream, you smoke three times as much (if you’re a smoker), and you tell yourself how stupid you are. Then you really feel the shame. Then comes the next step.
– You begin to seethe with anger. You connive ways to “get even” with your husband and your mother. You’re cold to him, and you scream profanities at your mother. You tell her you hate her and never want to see her again. Or you cut yourself off from both of them, not speaking, not answering, not acknowledging their presence. (This way is crooked because you’re not telling either of them how they hurt you. You’re “going in through the back door” with your anger.)
Then you end up, eventually, at feeling bad about what you did, and you start the triangle all over again by “rescuing” them or “enabling” them at the expense of your own feelings and needs. And, like the hamster, you just keep running the triangle with no end in sight.
As you look at the triangle, do you see how you are trapped by it? It’s never ending and as long as you continue to run it, you will be trapped.
So next time you tell your mother she’s not welcome unless she calls first and you agree to the visit (or invite her on your own), and she shows up on your door step, do whatever you have to do to keep from answering the door. Turn the television up, take a shower, go out the back door and drive away, or slide a note under the door that says, “You’re not invited today. I’ll call you later.” But don’t let her in! You will feel guilty afterward, especially the first few times you stick to your boundary, but eventually you will begin to feel proud of yourself. Just don’t set any boundaries you know you will not keep, especially “boundaries” made in anger. Those are walls, not boundaries.
I would strongly suggest you find a counselor who could help you. Or, if you can’t afford counseling, join CODA (Co-Dependents Anonymous). It is similar to AA, another 12-step program, but it’s for people, like you, who have not learned how to set boundaries and stick to them. It costs you no money. Co-Dependents Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women whose common purpose is to develop healthy relationships.The only requirement for membership is a desire for healthy and loving relationships and a willingness to work towards that goal.
Which ever step you take towards emotional health, I wish you God’s blessings, Christi. He created you to be healthy and whole, so go for it!
(c) 2000 April Lorier