Carolyn Hax: ‘I’m 28 and mom won’t let me move out’

Carolyn Hax
Columnist March 22

Hi, Carolyn: I’m 28 and mom won’t let me move out. I just finished up a master’s degree, I have a job, good friends and outside of work I have an online business that is starting to take off. Despite all of this, I don’t feel like an adult at all because my mom has guilted me into continuing to live at home with her and my younger sister, with whom I don’t get along. Because of this I’m not as happy, social or independent as I’d like to be.

A few years ago, I found a great apartment, but decided to ask my mom’s opinion before signing the lease, even though I suspected she’d freak out. Lo and behold, she began crying, yelling and arguing that I was abandoning her, leaving her in a financial tough spot (I pay her $600 a month in rent and buy most of the groceries) and that the apartment I selected was overpriced, too small, etc. The fight was so bad that I had to stay home from work that day and didn’t bring up moving out again for a long time.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

Now anytime I gently bring up possibly moving out this year she coldly responds with, “Do whatever you want to do, I don’t care anymore,” or, “I don’t want to get into it now,” and gives me the silent treatment for the rest of the day.

How can I gain the confidence to really move out this time without hurting my mom too much or damaging our relationship? — Stuck at Home


(Nick Galifianakis/The Washington Post)

My keyboard won’t let my forehead go unsmacked.

I appreciate that your confidence has taken a beating at your mother’s hands. The language of manipulation is all over her responses as you describe them, and I don’t doubt that she pours on or withholds her approval based on how closely you stick to her vision of how you should live your life. It’s very difficult in those conditions to recognize where she leaves off and where you begin.

But your own phrasing offers a way to start. She won’t let me, you say. Really? Are there bars, locks or limb restraints involved? Weapons? Are you a minor?

Presumably, there’s just this: The actual or implied threat that she will Get Very Upset and accuse you of doing her harm.

So, rephrase accordingly: “My mother won’t let me move out” is now, “My mother won’t let me move out without making a huge stink about it, and possibly holding a permanent grudge.”

That’s truth, there. So much easier to work with.

That’s because you can now lay out your choices clearly before you: Either you keep living with your mom, even though you’re an adult with the means and desire to live independently, or you move out knowing it will upset your mother.

We can even go further, with some mild editorializing: Either you sacrifice your happiness for your mother’s or you pursue your happiness and trust her to sort out her own.

Or with heavier opinionating: You stay put, ceding the last word on your life to your mother, or you move out because the belief you feel you cannot compromise is that your life is your own to control. And because there’s something fundamentally off in a family dynamic where grown, educated, wage-earning adults are expected to submit to parental control — and to sacrifice their happiness for a parent’s.

I’m walking you in a clear direction. Do you agree or disagree?

Maybe you flinched, because you think leaving will estrange you two. But staying might, too, if you feel trapped and resentful.

Or, maybe you think her needs do take priority. Hypothetically, let’s say your mother genuinely fears she will go bankrupt without your rent money, and she’s too communication-challenged just to say that and instead lashes out.

Using this hypothetical, what do you see as your responsibility: to abandon the moving idea immediately? To ask your mother flat-out whether your leaving will break her financially? To move out and keep sending money? To move out period, because she, too, is an adult, and therefore it is on her to articulate such a need?

Focusing on your initial choice of words, and expanding the sentence piece by piece with more information, draws a map of each crossroads you reach, with each path you select taking you to other crossroads. It’s less a map, maybe, than a biographical flow chart. With each decision, you’re not just deciding where you live or whom you upset or how, though each of those choices is significant; you’re also figuring out who you are, as distinct from who your mother pressures you to be.

It is a painstaking, even painful, process, one often smoothed by a good therapist and buoyed by a sense of liberation. However you do it, though, this is how confidence gets built — choice by choice by choice, spelled out, made, owned.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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