Dear Carolyn: My mother has been in a verbally and emotionally abusive marriage for more than 20 years. She calls me several times a week (I live out of town) to complain about how awfully her husband has been treating her. She is depressed.
However, she refuses to do anything about it. I have offered to set her up with a divorce lawyer, to go over her finances to figure out if she can afford to move out, to let her move in with me, to find her a good therapist. She has refused all of this. Her church also intervened to set her up in a new home with roommates who were also leaving bad marriages, but she refused that as well.
The only thing she wants to do is complain. The first thing she tells new people about herself is that she is in a very unhappy marriage and her husband is a jerk. The more sympathy she gets, the better.
If I tell her I don't have the energy to spend another night talking about how unhappy she is, she accuses me of not caring about her and of throwing my happy marriage in her face. She has alienated almost everyone because this is literally all she wants to talk about. If I cut her off, she will be left with no one.
But I cannot continue as her emotional dumping ground. I don't want to abandon my mother, but I can't go on this way. My husband is at the point where he doesn't want to be around her at all. Tell me what to do here.
— At a Loss
At a Loss: This may be obvious, but seeing it spelled out can bring some relief: Your mother’s sickness is beyond your ability to heal.
Now use that as a crowbar to pry apart your two purposes in these phone calls: to help your mom, and to make sure she isn’t “left with no one.”
Since you can’t accomplish the former, it’s okay to limit yourself to whatever accomplishes the latter while keeping you from the abyss.
So, okay, keep taking her calls. But set your terms: Don’t pick up every time, for example; pick up X times a week and leave others to voice mail. Or, screen everything and call her on a set schedule at set times when you’re at your strongest.
And, most important, set and enforce clear limits. Say them once upfront: “I am not qualified to help you, and I believe my willingness to listen has made it easier for you not to get the help you need. When you’re ready, Mom,” assuming it’s possible logistically, “I’ll drive you to counseling myself. Until then, I’m here to talk about possible solutions.”
Not complaints. Not anymore. So when she starts up again: “What do you plan to do about that?”
She, presumably: some version of “nothing.”
You: “I can’t help you, but a therapist can. Are you ready?”
She, presumably: some version of “no.”
You: “I’m sorry to hear that.” New topic, or “Bye, talk soon.”
Every time, till it’s over or it’s a “yes.”
Her you-don’t-care wails are manipulation, not fact. Healthy people don’t resort to blackmail.
Nor do they acquiesce to it: Good counseling can help you with this, too.