Dear Carolyn: My mom can’t shut up about my ex-boyfriend at family gatherings. I broke up with “Andrew” nearly four years ago. We were together for more than a decade from the time I was 21. Though we’re now friends, he could be quite cruel at times. I deeply regret spending the best years of my life in that relationship.
Every time there’s a family gathering, my mom waits until she has a maximum audience and then asks me at the top of her lungs, “So what has Andrew been up to?” I REALLY hate when she does this. It gives people the impression that we’ve gotten back together, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I don’t really want to explain my reasons for still being on friendly terms with him, either.
I’ve asked her repeatedly to stop asking me about my ex in front of other people. I’ve told her she’s free to ask me privately if she cares to know, but I don’t want her to do it before an audience I see only a couple of times a year. Whenever I make this request, the conversation ends in a huff. I text her before family get-togethers to repeat this request. Yet she does it without fail. My sister has also told her to knock it off.
It’s really frustrating because the relationship sapped me of every ounce of energy I had for so long. Since I ended it, I’ve accomplished things in my career that I never thought possible.
But my mom is a person who can’t stand to be alone. I think she sees it as a failing that I’m a single woman in my late 30s who has never been married or had kids.
How do I get my mom to respect my boundaries? Or if I can’t, how can I avoid giving her whatever reaction she’s clearly looking for?
— Really Frustrated
Really Frustrated: If I read this correctly, only you and your sister know your mom’s seemingly innocent Andrew questions repeatedly, ritually — and contemptuously — defy explicit requests for her not to do that.
Why are you shielding her from the consequences of her own actions?
What she’s doing is bizarre and rude. It’s okay to respond accordingly.
That does risk giving her “whatever reaction she’s clearly looking for,” and with it an opening to garner the sympathy of the onlooking relatives. Specifically, if you treat this as a gambit to shut your mother down, then you open yourself to becoming the other half of a transaction that obviously gives her some satisfaction — a sense that she’s doing her job as your mom, maybe. That she knows better than you do what’s good for you.
So it’s important to look at any actions you take solely as shutting down your own participation completely, leaving the transaction incomplete. If you can regulate your emotions and deliver the message kindly and calmly, then say, “Oh, Mom, you know I don’t like that question.” Conveniently, it’s true, it’s your prerogative, and there’s nothing shameful about it. It’s also pretty tame in the moment, but gains power and impact with repetition — verbatim, every time she asks.
You: kind, calm and firm.
Mom: still asking that same question.
In front of everyone. Time after time after time.
It’s not her best side, and she’ll be the one choosing to show it. A quick shrug and a change of subject can also dispatch her follow-up attempts to pin the “problem” on you, if she goes that route.
If you’re not collected enough for that kind of exchange, then respond instead with five syllables of nothing: “He’s … okay, I guess?” The interrogative form does all the work of asking aloud — with none of the actual asking — why mom still thinks you can speak for a four-years-ago ex. Leave center stage open for the full absurdity of her quest.
Now, these are all just strategies for your own self-restraint, so you don’t complete the transaction and over-explain everything/disingenuously make nice/get emotional. That means you won’t be addressing the fundamental problem between you and your mom that drives her to push.
It may be too that you can’t address it, because she won’t let you. Fair enough, and her loss.
But you have a powerful tool for that problem, as yet unused: “Why?” You’re telling her over and over what you want (a natural impulse) but you’re not asking her what she wants so badly that she’s zombie-crossing your boundaries to get it. Clearly she wants to be heard and hasn’t found a way to besides this dysfunctional path.
So even though you don’t owe her another word on this, it is a viable option just to hear her. Not indulge, not obey, not respect even — just hear. “Mom: You keep asking about Andrew, against my wishes. Why?” Point to the functional path, and see if she can take it. If she still “can’t shut up,” then stop being there to hear it.
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