Of babies and bathwater ILLUSTRATION: Tim Furey

Of babies and bathwater

Don’t discard siblings who disagree on how to treat once abusive mom

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 12/08/2011

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­­Dear Patti,
I’m in my late 40s, happily live alone and am fortunate to have friends who are like family to me. I’m also extremely close to my brother and two sisters, but a major conflict has emerged. 
When we were growing up, our mother was emotionally and physically abusive. When our father died five years ago, we cut off all communication with our mother. Two years ago, my brother started seeing her again, and my sisters gradually followed suit. I refused.
They’re now seeing her regularly and, along with my brother’s wife, are pressuring me to spend Christmas Day with all of them. My brother is worried about our mother’s health (due to her past excessive drinking) and thinks I’ll have regrets if I don’t make amends before it’s too late. 
My sisters respectively tell me that (1) my absence will ruin Christmas for everyone else — including my nieces and nephews — and (2) I need to learn to be more forgiving or risk becoming old and bitter. My sister-in-law tries the “sweet-as-pie” tactic, cooing about how great it’s going to be when we’re all together. I’ve always respected their decisions and don’t understand why they can’t respect mine. 
I tried many times with my mother, and each time it always ends in heartbreak. No more. I’m getting to the point of wanting to pull away from the whole family. I’ll miss them but maybe not that much. My friends never pull this kind of nonsense. Do you think I’m wrong in sticking to my guns? —Rose

Dear Rose,
Rather than responding to your family group as a whole, let’s look at each family member individually.
Your brother: Is he right in that you may look back after your mother’s death and feel sad you didn’t have some kind of closure? Do you have unspoken words you’ll wish you’d said to her? Have you ever confronted her about the abuse? In order to truly forgive her, you’d need to know that she realizes — and deeply regrets — how badly she hurt you. If you examine the situation closely and feel satisfied you’ve tried your hardest to make a reconnection, you should stay true to yourself and your brother should respect your decision.
Sister 1: Does she have a habit of inducing guilt to get her way, or is she expressing a heartfelt concern of missing you on the holiday? Either way, you might want to make an effort to spend holiday time with her and the rest of the family. It doesn’t have to be on Christmas Day, and it doesn’t have to include your mother. As for your nieces and nephews, they don’t have anything to do with this family dynamic. If they’re bonded to you, you might want to spend an extra amount of time with them separately. 
Sister 2: Does she have a point? Do you have a tendency to not work problematic relationship issues through?  Are you harboring bitterness toward your mother that’s affecting the quality of your life? Do you need to face your rage, grief and pain in order to be emotionally free?
Sister-in law: Sounds like she’s just trying to be helpful. Because she never lived through what you and your siblings endured, however, her response might resonate as dismissive and superficial.
Mother: She was the same parent to each of you, but your experiences and emotional responses are unique and exclusively your own. Take a deep, self-reflective look at your feelings without avoidant and denial defenses. If you need psychotherapeutic support, don’t cheat yourself of the opportunity to heal to the fullest of your ability. Only then can you make the best decision concerning whether you should renew a relationship with her.
I understand you feel disrespected by your family, but rather than throw them all away and leave yourself isolated, talk with each one individually, explain your objections and set firm, loving boundaries. In spite of your childhood abuse, I’m glad to know you have the ability to attach and create meaningful “second family” relationships. That doesn’t mean, though, they can replace your family members, who also love you in spite of the prevailing differences. 

Patti Carmalt-Vener has been a psychotherapist and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site: patticarmalt-vener.com.

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