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Dealing with a mother who shares secrets and then lies about it

Q. Over the years my older sister, my younger sister and I have given personal, confidential information to our mother only to have her pass it on to family members and friends of the family. When confronted, however, she swears that she never said anything about it to anybody, even though the people she told had already given us an account of their conversation with her.

They think it is a shame for a mother to talk about her own children the way she does, and so do we. It has even made us, as well as members of her family, stop talking to her for long periods of time and also made her lose most, if not all, of her friends.

Nevertheless, I’ve been very good to my mother and have done my best to keep the peace. She’s treating us the same way her mother treated her, after all. Plus, she’s getting up in age, and the family is important to my sisters and me.

My mother crossed the line, however, when she gave some of my important personal information to my younger sister (and perhaps to others as well) and then lied about it.

I don’t understand what my mother hopes to gain when she does this. It seems to me that she would want to get along better with us and with her grandchildren instead of causing so much tension and making herself look so bad.

(Hadley Hooper/For the Washington Post)

How can we have a relationship with our mother? She can be a good person, but she is also vindictive and for some reason likes to cause trouble. But why?

A. Gossip, even if it’s true, hurts the famous, the infamous and everyone in between, but it hurts the one who spreads it most of all. When your mother gives away your confidential information, without your permission, she is stealing from you, which is sure to eat into her soul, and into your soul, too. We all have the right to our own secrets.

Why your mother spills your beans so freely is another question. She may say negative things about you and your sisters because that’s the way her mother talked about her. She may like to be the bearer of news, whether it’s good or bad, because gossip is her currency, the way kindness or gifts or smiles might be your currency. Or she may be so unsure of herself that she’ll say almost anything if she thinks it will make her sound more interesting or more important than anyone else, and then she lies about it because she’s afraid that you or your sisters will get really mad at her if she tells the truth.

It’s interesting to ponder the cause of your mother’s behavior, but it’s irrelevant. Your mother is who she is, and she is almost surely too old to change. You, however, are not too old to change, and neither are your sibs.

As much as the three of you might want to tell your mother about your news, your worries and your dreams, you need to wait until you’re ready for the whole world to know what they are. And if you can’t wait? Make a pact that you’ll write your mom a nice long letter whenever you have some confidential news that you want to share with her and then lock up the letter until you’re ready to throw it away. If you don’t confide in your mom, she won’t have anything to tell or anything to lie about.

Even though you won’t be telling her your secrets, try to call her often and visit her, but talk mostly about her, rather than you. Ask her about her day. Ask her how to make the lasagna that you used to love as a child. Ask her who she thinks you should vote for in the primary. The lighter the conversation, the easier it will be to keep your confidences to yourself. You’ll also find it easier to change the subject when she tries to give you someone else’s news, and you’ll be more apt to keep your mouth shut rather than make her admit that she had once (or twice or thrice) spread your news and then lied about it.

If you think you might give in to these temptations, however, leave your mother quickly and buy “The Joy of Conflict Resolution” by Gary Harper (New Society, $20). It will teach you and your sisters how to treat others better and more kindly than your grandmother treated her daughter and her daughter has treated you.

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Check out a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly. Her next chat is scheduled for Feb. 23.

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