April 8, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

My Mother Complains to Me About My Father

Dear Dr. Chani,

I have a question for you that has to do with the triangular relationship between both of my parents and me. I am a single guy, in my 40s, and I live at home with my parents. My parents and I both benefit from this arrangement since I keep them company and take care of many errands for them, and they provide me with a place to live. Yet, there is one drawback to this situation. I frequently find myself getting pulled into disputes between my parents. I would love your guidance on how to handle this delicate issue.

My parents have very different personalities and sometimes they clash. While my mother is gentle and eager to please, my father has a harsher, more critical personality. Usually, my mother manages to figure out what my father wants and they follow a set routine so they get along. But when my mother makes a mistake or things do not happen as planned, my father can be very derogatory towards my mother. It pains me to see the way my father speaks to my mother when he is upset. To avoid my discomfort, I usually keep a distance or leave the house.

Yet, over time, my mother has been approaching me to talk about different conversations she endured with my father. She will confide in me how negative she feels and how difficult it is for her. I feel bad for my mother but I do not know the right way to respond.

Should I allow my mother to complain to me about my father’s behavior towards her? Does she expect me to intervene or say something to my father? I feel it is not my place to be the one my mother speaks to about my father. I am totally at a loss for how to handle all of this.

I want to be a good son and “be there” for my mother when she needs me. Still, I am not sure how to help her with her situation. What should I do?

Sincerely,

Tani

Dear Tani,

You are being thrust into an awkward role for a son to play. As a son to both of your parents, you do not want to have to take sides in their arguments. At the same time, you want to be a good son to your mother and help her in her time of need.

You might be wondering, “Why is your mother turning to you to unburden herself about the way your father is treating her?” It sounds like the dynamic between your parents has been going on for a while, yet your mother began confiding in you now that you are an adult. One way to understand this is that since your mother recognizes you as a fellow adult, she is looking at you differently than when you were a child. She sees you playing an active, mature role in the household and so she is turning to you because she needs someone to talk to. You are in a unique position to understand what your mother is going through since you live in the same home and witness what transpires. Also, she may be approaching you as a stand-in for your father because she is not prepared to speak with him.

It is unclear what your mother is expecting from you when she confides in you about how she is feeling. At the very least, she is hoping that you will listen to her. Surprisingly, just listening to your mother, without saying a word, can be very cathartic for her and help her to carry on. She can find a lot of relief by being able to express her negative emotions to you, especially if she feels you are the only one she can speak to. This is true even if you do nothing to solve her problem other than listening to her.

It can be helpful to ask yourself, “Why does it bother me when my mother complains to me about my father?” When you understand more what perturbs you, you can better address it.

Is it because it is challenging for you to hear her pain? You mentioned that you find it so painful to hear your father disparage your mother that you sometimes leave the house. Is it unbearable for you to listen to your mother when she vents to you?

Is it also difficult because you grapple with the dilemma of what to do after your mother speaks to you? You ask if you should “allow” your mother to complain to you. It sounds like you are wondering if it is “against the rules” to be your mother’s confidant about her issues with your father and even more so to mediate between them. Perhaps you are considering speaking to your father on her behalf but might feel it is inappropriate to do so.

In an ideal world, your mother would communicate directly with your father about how she is feeling when he criticizes her. She would be able to express herself and your father would be receptive to her feedback. You would not need to be your mother’s sounding board or to intervene with your father.

Would you consider suggesting to your mother that she express her feelings to your father? Even if she has not done so in the past, it is possible that with your encouragement, and after having the experience of opening up to you with her vulnerable feelings, she will be able to share them with your father as well. You might even offer to have her try out what she might say to your father on you so you can give her feedback about how it sounds.

Alternatively, you could suggest to your mother that she speak to a therapist so that she can unburden herself to a confidential third party other than you and explore how to improve her marriage. To avoid hurting her feelings and breaking her trust, you might say, “I care about you and I know this issue is really affecting you. I would love to help you. I think that speaking with a therapist is a great way to sort through your emotions and figure out how to improve the situation. Since I am your child and I am too close to the situation to be the one for you to speak to about this, I feel it is best for you to speak to a therapist.”

Your mother may balk at your suggestion to speak with a therapist. Sometimes, when a dynamic has been happening for a long time, or if a person is not naturally inclined to speak with a therapist, you can help out by researching options for a therapist to speak to and making it as easy as possible for your mother to go. She might need you to virtually “hold her hand” through this process of getting herself the help she needs.

You may wonder why you need to take care of your mother in this way. It might seem unnatural for you, as her son, to have to help her out with her emotional well-being. Children are used to having their parents take care of them; not the other way around. Yet, think about it. Surprising as it may sound, as people age they often turn to the younger generation to take care of them in various ways. You describe how you do errands for your parents. Being a listening ear or supporting your mother through the process of seeking a therapist is an extension of the same responsibility you are already showing as an adult son.

As an aside, you may want to seek your own therapist to explore the triangular relationship you describe. The dynamic between your parents may be affecting you in ways beyond what you can see on the surface. It can be helpful to explore the extent to which your feelings about your parents’ marriage and your desire to protect your mother may be related to you remaining in your parents’ home rather than progressing to your own marriage and home of your own.

Your mother’s instinct to confide her vulnerable feelings to you is a reflection of the close relationship she feels with you. Although it is not easy, you are in a unique position to help your mother and, ultimately, both of your parents by getting her the help she needs so that she can improve her marriage.

Wishing you much success,

Chani


Dr. Chani Maybruch is a social psychologist and relationship coach, specializing in teaching emotional connection and communication skills for over two decades. She coaches individuals and couples, and teaches online courses to help you create your ideal relationship. Get free relationship resources and contact her at www.chanimaybruch.com 

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