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Ask Sahaj: My mom won’t stop venting to me about my dad

(María Alconada Brooks/Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Hi Sahaj: My mom keeps venting to me about her arguments with my dad and how he makes her feel bad — but I feel like she’s putting me in the middle or like I’ll start to resent my dad. I don’t live at home, and my parents moved back to their hometown in Mexico now that my dad has retired. I talk to my mom on the phone twice a week, and I talk to my dad most weekends. When my mom vents, I try to give her advice that I would give to any friend. My siblings also hear the same things from my mom, and we vent to each other, but we don’t know how to solve it.

I feel like I’m in the middle of a problem with my parents. How do I deal with this and get her to stop sharing these details with me?

— Stuck in the middle

Stuck in the middle: You are in a difficult position. You’ve been responding to and providing for your mom’s emotional needs but at the expense of your own.

If this is a recent development, it may be as simple as having to set some boundaries with your mom. However, I sense that this may be a deeper seated issue that has been around for much longer. A consistent lack of boundaries, overreliance and confusion in roles can indicate enmeshment in a family. This makes it difficult for the children to develop a strong sense of self, and it can lead them to feel responsible for their parents well-being.

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If there is concern for your mom’s safety, then intervening may be necessary; however, it seems like you and your siblings have been standing in and providing the emotional intimacy your mom is not getting from your dad. And while it may not be conscious on her part, by expecting you to listen and oversharing about your dad, she is releasing her emotional burdens onto you.

I can sense how bonded you are with your mom, and how much you love her, but even if you feel close to her, she is still your mother and your relationship should look different from a friendship. The goal is not necessarily pulling away, but instead, figuring out what you need and what you’re not okay with so you can redirect the relationship to a healthier place.

Two people contribute to a relationship dynamic and since you’ve been giving her advice, you’ve been encouraging her vent about your dad to you.

Your mom may not be aware of how this is impacting you, so I'd encourage you to tell her. Start with: I love you, and I know this is hard for you. I want to be there for you but I’m realizing that when you talk to me about Dad, it has a negative impact on me.

You may deal with pushback, so you can also set explicit parameters around how long she has to vent about your dad, before changing the topic. I’m happy to listen for the next 15 minutes but then I’d really like to tell you about my week.

I’d suggest also having a frank conversation with your siblings to discuss how you can navigate this together. This can help you feel supported as you explore how your relationship with your mom needs to change and your role in initiating that.

You may feel guilt because you want to be supportive, but remember that being emotionally supportive of your mom is vastly different from being emotionally responsible for your mom.

Support can look like helping her find resources for therapy or encouraging her to talk to your dad. It can look like motivating her to connect with new or old friends or nudging her to pick up a hobby so she can have something for herself. Support is not managing her emotions for her, resolving conflict on her behalf, or rejecting your own mental health to be there for her.

It can be hard to witness people we love experiencing hardships and not want to step in and fix it. You want to “solve” this, indicating a level of responsibility that you are burdened with that is in fact, not yours.

No matter how much you love or care for your mom, you cannot do any of the work for her. You can only control how you support her and how involved you are in discussing these issues with her.

Sahaj Kaur Kohli, creator of Brown Girl Therapy and a mental health professional, is answering questions about identity, relationships, mental health, work-life balance, family dynamics and more. If you have a question for her, please submit it here.

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