An Examination of Emotional Manipulation

My husband brings in the mail. “There’s a letter for you,” he informs me. “Who is it from?” I ask. “It’s from your parents,” he says, and puts it on the table in front of me. I look at my mother’s handwriting, and my heart rate starts to rise. I feel my stomach twist, and I want to do anything but open that letter.

My cell phone rings and I look down at it. It’s my mother calling. I feel my pulse rising and I mentally ask myself if there’s anything she could have heard from a friend or sibling, anything she might have seen on facebook, any reason I might be in trouble. My stomach tightens, and though I want to do anything but, I answer the phone.

The funny thing is, today nine times out of ten the letter contains nothing troubling at all. Nine times out of ten, the phone call is completely innocuousness. But I’ve been burned too many times for that to matter. I know what my parents are capable of doing to my sanity, and to my heart.

The period of time that I lived at home between when I started asking questions and when I left home was pure torture. The tears, the pleas, the anger – it was emotional manipulation laid on strong. In the period between when I left home and when I married this problem continued. Phone conversations meant tears followed by a week of jolted emotions, and letters were pure agony. I responded by never calling home, and sometimes I would leave letters unopened for days. My parents didn’t stop, because they believed it was their responsibility to bring me back – especially because they believed that even as an adult I was still under my father’s authority.

When I married, that all changed dramatically. The heavy stream of emotional manipulation lessened as they no longer believed that I owed them any obedience – now, they believed, I must obey my husband. In some ways, marriage was a way for me to escape. My parents do still apply the emotional manipulation, but in some sense I am now sheltered from it by my husband. (This is of course ironic, as my husband is in no way my head and we have a marriage based on equality and mutual respect.)

I think part of the reason I haven’t yet addressed the topic of emotional manipulation head on is that have very little experience with how a functional family operates. While I don’t remember facing heavy doses of emotional manipulation until I started asking questions (before this I had done my best to be everything they wanted), there was still an odd sort of enforced conformity. There was only so much difference allowed in belief and practice, and if you crossed this line you were seen as a problem. Sometimes that meant parental action, and other times it meant spontaneous shaming by the rest of the family. I made sure to never cross this line – and honestly, I never wanted to – but I saw what happened when some of my siblings tried to. Then came college, where I crossed this line in a big way.

Another reason I haven’t addressed this directly is that my parents are great people. Sometimes I’m not sure they’re even aware of how what they say affects me. I don’t think they sit around strategizing about how to emotionally manipulate me, it just sort of happens. And amazingly, it’s done in some way out of love. There’s also the reality that they think their way is functional and any other way is dysfunctional. Those parents that let their kids choose their own beliefs? Those parents that let their daughters take the lead in their romantic relationships? Those families that let their kids have secrets, and don’t demand complete transparency? Those parents are failing their kids. So it’s not that my parents are doing what they do out of malice or ill will, and this makes grappling with it complicated.

While the intensity of the emotional manipulation has lessened in the years since my marriage, it hasn’t disappeared completely. Last spring my mother hijacked a phone conversation to bring up the past. She twisted my brain into a pretzel, put my heart through a shredder, and left me in a tail spin that lasted several weeks.

What is emotional manipulation? Put most simply, it’s any time someone uses your emotions as a weapon against you. If you finish a conversation feeling like an emotional wreck, or feel emotionally drained after reading an email, chances are you’ve been emotionally manipulated.  If you start to dread time alone with someone for fear of where conversations might go and what might be said, you’re probably dealing with an emotional manipulator.

My experience with emotional manipulation comes from my relationship with my parents, but most everyone experiences some level of manipulation from someone at some point in their lives. Emotional manipulators exist around us in a variety of contexts, and we have to learn how to deal with them. What follows is an analysis of some of the ways my parents have emotionally manipulated me over the years, but these sorts of statements and tactics are more universal than anyone would like to admit.


“Can’t you see all the pain you’re causing your father and I?”

“Remember everything we sacrificed for you!”

If someone can turn any issue around into how you’re hurting them, you’re dealing with emotional manipulation. An emotional manipulator can twist any situation to make themselves out as the victim, and you out as the aggressor.


“I’ve been around longer than you have.”

“Let’s go to a coffee shop for some alone time. There’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about.”

Emotional manipulators are very good at looking down on and cornering their victims. They assert that they are older, stronger, wiser, thus putting down anything you might think or say. The cornering effect is also very powerful – if you’ve ever found yourself stuck alone in a car with an emotional manipulator, you know what I mean.


“Don’t you remember when you said/promised X?”

“You may say that, but in your heart you know that what we’ve taught you is true.”

“You’re just following physical pleasure and your pagan peers.”

Emotional manipulators will hold you to anything you’ve ever said, even if you said it years and years ago, and deny your ability to change, form your own beliefs, and grow as a person. An emotional manipulator may even view you as frozen at age 14. Furthermore, an emotional manipulator may pretend to have the ability to read your mind, and deny that you have any agency or ability to make choices for yourself. An emotional manipulator uses these tactics to dismiss your views, experiences, and perspectives.

Conditions and Threats

“Unless you do X things will never be right between us.”

“I’m worried about the kind of example you’re setting for your siblings.”

In healthy relationships, there are no threats or conditions set, but the emotional manipulator is not above such tactics. In a healthy relationship there is give and take, cooperation and attempts at mutual understanding and mutual problem solving. This is where the conditions emotional manipulators set are so pernicious: they’re completely one sided, and they contain implicit threats.

Tears and Anger

“We still love you.”

Emotional manipulators are not above using tears and great emotion in order to rip your heart into little pieces. And they do it because it is very effective. The other side of the coin, of course, is anger. My father has only once ever yelled at me, but it was traumatic enough that the threat of such anger now colors my every interaction with my father, whether he realizes it or not.

So, what to do?

One thing I’ve learned is that pointing out the emotional manipulation to an emotional manipulator does not always work. I’ve tried, and my mother’s response was that I “clearly have a guilty conscience.” Yes, that’s right: she essentially told me that if the emotional manipulation is working, it shows that she’s in the right and I’m in the wrong. So unless you are dealing with a one time offender, approaching an emotional manipulator with his or her emotional manipulation in all likelihood isn’t going to do any good.

Furthermore, emotional manipulation works as well as it does because the emotional manipulator generally knows every weakness of his or her victim, and is a master at using these weaknesses to elicit a response. The most successful emotional manipulators are frequently someone close to you, a parent, a sibling, or a significant other, and this closeness and intimacy only makes it worse. So it’s not enough to say “just stop letting it bother you.” Sometimes, such as in the case of an emotionally abusive boyfriend, the solution is to leave the relationship entirely. Other times the solution may involve putting distance between yourself and your abuser and cutting out the intimacy. When emotional manipulation is inflicted by a relative, though, simply cutting off the relationship is rarely an option (though that might be necessary in extreme situations).

How, then, is one to cope with emotional manipulation? I don’t have all the answers by any stretch of the imagination, as I’m still figuring this out myself, but I’ll offer a few tips that I’ve gleaned over time.

First, realize that the guilt tripping is completely illegitimate. When my mother speaks of the pain I have caused her, and cries as she does so, I have to remind myself that none of this is my fault. I haven’t caused her any pain, her beliefs and her unfair expectations have caused her pain. It’s not my fault, and I am not responsible for her pain.

Second, it takes two to tango. Some time ago I told my mother that I did not think conversations on X, Y, and Z topics were healthy for us. When she brings them up, I will refuse to discuss them. If she won’t stop trying, I can always walk away and hang up. After all, it takes two to carry on a conversation. The same goes for being cornered – I make sure to never be alone with my mother, and to always have a sibling or two around as a buffer.

Third, you don’t have to be completely transparent about everything. This has taken me time to realize, because I grew up in a family where no thoughts were personal and everything was up for conversation. But the truth is, there’s no rule saying I have to tell my parents about my political leanings, or what I think of their conception of God, or what my future plans are.

Fourth, actions have consequences. My mother thinks she can say anything she wants to me because I’m her daughter and can’t ever stop being her daughter, but the truth is, actions do have consequences. My therapist suggested I try saying “mom, when we talk about that, it makes me not want to call home,” or “mom, when you say things like that, it makes the idea of coming for a visit unattractive.” It’s not a threat, it’s a mere statement of fact, and a way to make my mother aware of the consequences her actions do have.

Fifth, remember that you have every right to form your own beliefs and to make your own decisions. And you know what? You don’t have to justify them! There is no rule that says you have to prove anything to anyone, least of all to an emotional manipulator.

While my parents have decreased the level of emotional manipulation since my wedding, I have also gained more confidence and learned to better identify and diffuse emotional manipulation when it does happen. This is not always an even process, and I experience moments of elation when I think I can take on the world and moments of weakness when I feel like retreating into a bunker and never going out again. But on average, I’m maturing and growing and learning to deal with my parents in a more healthy manner.

Feel free to offer any additional tips you might have on dealing with emotional manipulation, as well as additional tactics emotional manipulators use. This is an important topic, and the more knowledge and understanding about it there is, the better.

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Why I Take My Kids to the UU Church
Monogamy Isn't Biblical, It's Roman
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Verity3

    I sometimes feel like I can't really be part of the conversations among people who grew up in Quiverfull families, because I didn't. I just, like lots of people, ended up in a family with a more watered-down version of patriarchy than the previous generation had.But the emotional manipulation was in full force. Maybe it was partly my sensitivity (which I no longer am prepared to concede is a bad thing), but the message I received was that I had no right to an internal locus of control. Not in those words, of course, but when I first read about "locus of control" I understood immediately what had happened to me, and what I had given up.Now I am convinced that everyone, religious or not, needs to operate from an internal locus of control. It seems to me that the people screaming the loudest for others to give up their will, are the people in most need of learning self-control.In my case, trying to talk with my mom about how I experienced our family growing up led to a tumultuous relationship with her over eight years or so. She really wanted to understand, though, so she kept trying, and I did, and even with all that it was truly messy and painful. We still haven't got it all worked out, but I think because of my persistence, she eventually accepted (whether on a subconscious level or otherwise) that I wasn't going to be simply guilted out of my position.But every relationship is different, and I'm not trying to say persistence will always work. I can't imagine trying to go through that with someone who isn't even trying to understand.I'll probably pop in here from time to time, but I'm afraid I'll say something insensitive to someone coming from a Quiverfull experience. So please let me know (nicely, if possible!)when I'm missing something that's causing my words to be hurtful, because that's the last thing I want to do.

  • Anonymous

    I grew up in a very non-religious family (mother who was a nominal christian, father basically an atheist), and experienced emotional manipulation from time to time. I think it it pretty common. My parents are both really good people, so it is difficult to distinguish when the line is crossed. And I do it myself from time to time to my husband, and vice versa. The most frustrating situations for me usually involve being caught between them, such as making decisions on where to spend holidays (his parents live far away, so usually aren't a factor).

  • Jason Dick

    (Phew, boy, this was a long one! I'll have to split it up to fit within the submission limit!)Oh, yes. These all sound horribly familiar to me. Though fortunately I haven't had to deal with that much of it.When I was a child, I was always very shy and reserved. I was always the "good kid". I wasn't a Quiverfull child by any means, but my parents definitely are conservative evangelical Christians (Young Earth Creationists and all that). But still, being a shy kid, I was pretty much always in the position of letting others control my life. And speaking with my children about issues where I think they are wrong is always a difficult proposition, even though I am a guy and wasn't brought up in nearly as difficult a situation!Anyway, the main things I would suggest are the following:1. Shortcut their misconceptions. Make it clear, if possible even before they make the accusation, that you aren't doing this because you somehow "want" to, but because you honestly believe it is the true and right thing to do. This is done best if you don't simply say, "X isn't true." In fact, it's best if you don't say that at all. Instead, focus on something else that is true, especially if it's something that is easy to check, and that completely undercuts their preconceptions.For example, in order to head off the idea that I was an atheist because I was angry or the like, I made extremely sure that my first conversation about my deconversion with them was extremely cordial, and I focused very strongly on the fact that my belief that Christianity is wrong is based upon the evidence. This wasn't just about saying that it was about the evidence, but in how I said it. For instance, I would use the word "incorrect" to talk about certain Christian beliefs in an attempt to make it clear I was approaching this in an academic rather than emotional manner.When a person believes something they are told something dogmatically and repeatedly, the best way to get them to realize they are wrong is to sneak the truth in sideways, in a way they aren't expecting. I wouldn't hold out any hope of convincing them their whole religion is wrong, but at least there is a chance of convincing them that their misconceptions about the reasons people leave it are wrong in your specific case.(continued)

  • Jason Dick

    2. Don't let them take the authoritative ground. This is really hard when dealing with your parents especially. Here, I think, it helps to have a lot of experience in dealing with religious discussions. I was helped greatly by the significant amount of time I spent talking about apologetics on, for example. The religious really do have a very small number of talking points when it comes to these discussions, and having good replies to all of them, replies that you would be comfortable making to your parents, can help tremendously. Now, your situation is different from mine, but I'm reasonably confident that it's the same in that the number of talking points is rather small. So thinking about how to respond to their talking points should really give you a leg up!It also helps me that I now have a Ph.D. in physics, specifically in early-universe cosmology, so they don't have a ghost of a chance of claiming any sort of intellectual authority. Obviously few people are going to have that bonus, but one of the reasons it helps so much is that a lot of our discussions end up being about my areas of expertise. So if you can find engaging ways to talk about your areas of expertise with your parents, if you can get used to having an advantage in conversation (and them used to being at a disadvantage), especially about things their conservative religious background doesn't automatically conflict, then this will give you a huge leg-up when the conversation goes to religion. This is especially helpful all involved enjoy the discussions about your areas of expertise. I don't know if this is possible with you, but perhaps it's something to think about.And remember, your goal when the discussion shifts towards religion isn't to convince them of much of anything. Your chances of convincing them are slim to none. Your goal is to get them to stop talking about these issues. So I wouldn't focus on thinking of responses that show the flaws in their logic or the like, but instead responses that demonstrate that their statements won't work on you (even if they [i]do[/i] work it's important that they don't know it!).(continued)

  • Jason Dick

    3. Look to your own experiences. Chances are you are a champion emotional manipulator in your own right! Being around and dealing with that for so long as a child would, I would think, rub off to some extent. Now, I really doubt you have much exercised that ability, because I think you're a much better person than that! But what I would recommend doing is drawing a line in the sand (that you don't tell them about), and the moment they decide to cross that line, open up with everything you've got. As long as you can maintain, in your own mind, your control of the situation, you should be able to very effectively use their own techniques against them. You have the added benefit of the fact that they only are going to have a limited number of talking points which you should be able to come up with replies to when you are feeling more calm away from them.The main thing I'd suggest here is to bear in mind that once they have crossed the line, once they have done something you consider unacceptable, even though it is almost certainly done with the best of intentions, they are the ones who are in the wrong. They are the ones who have injured you, and you need to make it absolutely clear that it isn't going to work and they aren't going to come out of it feeling good.This doesn't necessarily mean getting angry (though that can help too!), but it does mean that at that point you consider the health of your future relationship with them to be more important than hurting their feelings right now. And if they continually come back at you trying to bring you back into the fold, your future relationship is not going to be at all pleasant, if it can continue at all. Your only hope of having a good relationship, really, is getting them to stop trying to convert you again. And that may, unfortunately, mean hurting them.Finally, the reason why I suggest that you should never tell them what this line is is simply that if they know what you are doing, it makes it so much easier for them to counter it. If they stop trying to bring you back into the fold without even realizing they're doing it, then you have won, utterly and completely. If they realize that you've gotten them to avoid the subject, then you've only won so much as they aren't creative enough to come up with a counter. And even if you do get them to stop talking about converting you, if they know how you did it it may make them angry at you, making them think more about cutting off your relationship entirely (though, unfortunately, this is always a consideration no matter what).Anyway, that's what I have to offer. Some of it may be bad advice, but there it is!(Yay, finally done! Hope some readers like it!)

  • QuicksilverQueen

    I've gotten various forms of a bunch of those, yeah…all before I left of course. In some ways I'm glad I haven't had to keep dealing with that…but I think as I get stronger I'm more ready, if something happens.Really really good analysis.

  • Disillusioned Ex-Homeschooler

    Great post! And thanks, Jason, for your comments. It must be peculiarly satisfying in your shoes to have a PhD in physics/cosmology. :)

  • Exrelayman

    Very sorry that you must live in fear of being alone with your mother. I am on the outside looking in. Perhaps what I say is totally worthless, but as I do not know this for sure, here goes:1) Mom, I know that we think differently now. I can love, respect, and cherish you, without trying to change you, even though you do not agree with me. Can you do the same, and stop trying to change me?2) I have thought long and hard about what I believe. When Hell is threatened for being wrong, you must think long and hard. I cannot force myself to believe that which is now unbelievable to me. Please allow me to be me as I see fit, as I am not a child any more, and must follow my own light.

  • Jason Dick

    @Disillusioned,Thanks :)It is sometimes satisfying, but mostly I just feel privileged for having the opportunity to do the work I do (which I very much enjoy!).But in the context of discussions with my family, I largely just think it's useful. It gives me something to talk about with my family that we all enjoy talking about, while at the same time being something I am expert in. This gives me a nice leg-up on not feeling like they're the authorities if/when it comes to the situation where they want to proselytize to me (which, fortunately, is few and far between…and getting more rare all the time).

  • Libby Anne

    Exrelayman: I tried (1) and she said "no, not as long as you're wrong I can't." I tried (2) and she said "inside you know that I am right, but you are lying to yourself so that you can follow pleasure and be like your pagan peers."

  • Chatterbox

    "i dont care what you say, you KNOW in your heart its wrong!' Thats my mums line – eg living with someone before marriage, gay/lesbians etc etcI had an epiphany one day as she said it and replied, 'no, mum, YOU know in YOUR heart that its wrong, my heart knows no such thing'. She didnt really have an answer for that one expcept for an exasperated tut lol!

  • Jason Dick

    @Libby,Wow. These days, that level of condescension would would totally bring out the asshole in me. For example:"Hahahahahaha, really? Holy crap are you full of yourself!"Fortunately, I haven't had to deal with that level of condescension from my family (yet). I don't know whether it's because they think it would be rude to say it to somebody's face (because I certainly remember them saying it about other peoples!), or because they have somehow learned that there's no way that it would work on me.

  • barefoot n crazy

    Really great post….. and lots of great feedback. I hate to just add to the long list of advice, but I just wanted to say that sometimes you just need a break. My mother was incredibly emotionally abusive… and honestly, it is so f*cking hard to deal with her (and my emotional response to her) very often. It drains me, my husband, and subsequently my son. So, a few times I have told my mom that I need some space… and that I will call her when I'm ready to talk to her. She will cry/guilt trip/threaten/call me a million times, but then she gives up and we don't talk for a few months. BREATH OF FRESH AIR. It gives me time to heal, and gain some clarity, and then I can deal with her again. Of course I miss her and feel bad a lot, but I really enjoy the time that I can focus 100% on everything else in my life. Best of luck. You are not alone. :)

  • Laura

    I'm sorry you have such a painful relationship with your mother. There are people who have had to sever that relationship but they're not happy about it, and of course one doesn't unless one can't see any other way.I'm interested to read your list of emotional manipulation techniques because I am the mother of a wonderful 24-year-old woman and I know that she listens carefully to everything I say. I am super cautious, when I tell her what I think she "needs" to do, to say that I am offering her advice only, that she has always exhibited good judgment, that whatever she does will surely be all right. I still worry that when, as today, I end by saying "you are a grown woman, do what you want to do," and change the subject, it seems abrupt to her, as if I am displeased.My own mother was raised in very much a patriarchal situation, just by virtue of being born into a poor Mississippi farm family. I remember her telling me, when I left for college, that if I was able to cut the apron strings and live an independent life she had done her job. That is incredibly liberating and I have tried to pass that on to my own kid.

  • Libby Anne

    Good for you, Laura! That's what I plan to do with my daughter as well. Giving advice to adult children is fine – but ultimately those children should be allowed to make their own decisions without worrying about facing anger, guilt, or displeasure. My grandfather once told me that his definition of good parenting was the ability to produce independent adult children who leave, marry, and lead productive lives without coming back asking for financial support or needing help with every little thing. Hearing him say that was SO helpful, because by that definition, I am a major success. :-)

  • Melissa

    Great post! I have experienced so much of this, it was such a part of my life that I didn't even understand it was happening until I moved 1000 miles away and after a year of detoxing, started living without depression for the first time. I'd write more about what I've experienced, but since I've been hit with more emotional manipulation lately (since the discovery of my blog) I'm too tired to talk about it detail. :)

  • Exrelayman

    I was afraid of as much (your response to my last).Since then nothing you say can reach her, don't even try to reason with her or justify yourself. You have already tried. That didn't work.This does not mean failure to assert yourself. You assert yourself by letting her know that she is hurting you and you will no longer be drawn into painful topics. I realize this is unlikely to affect her, but having said that piece, you have explained and justified your continued unresponsiveness to her manipulations.I continue to realize that the ability to see your siblings is at stake here, and that what I have said may be all wrong. You have to assess for yourself in your situation. Perhaps when there is an unpleasant interaction, you can do the old 'count your blessings' thing. You know, having good health, a loving companion and child, a clear and good mind, relative financial well being, even 'this too shall pass'. Any way to focus on something brighter than the manipulation coming at you. A wise teacher put it like this – when you are upset about what you don't have, you cannot enjoy what you do have.It is such a shame. I only know you through cyber space, and I am so proud of the mind you have displayed and your journey out of mental bondage. While the nearest person that should have the most joy and pride in your happiness and strength is hurting because of it and being hurtful to you.I hope I am not being tedious. It remains true, as Don Marquis said, "There is always a comforting thought in times of trouble – when it is not your trouble."

  • Naomi

    I could so relate to this post! Sadly, all these manipulative techniques were the status quo as I was growing up. Like you, though, I didn't get the brunt of it until I dared to question.In one of the letters my Dad sent me after I left home, he drew a picture of knife plunged into a bleeding heart. The intent was quite clear–I was plunging a knife into his heart. I was upset, but it's only with time (and more perspective) that I see how ridiculously manipulative that gesture was.

  • Anonymous

    " When my mother speaks of the pain I have caused her, and cries as she does so, I have to remind myself that none of this is my fault. I haven't caused her any pain, her beliefs and her unfair expectations have caused her pain. It's not my fault, and I am not responsible."Developing this perspective has helped me immensely. Until I did, I felt responsible for my mother's emotional state and deeply resentful for it. I consider this great advice.I've also over the years mostly used avoidance of religion and politics in our conversations in order to prevent confrontation. Problem was she would go along with this only to an extent and then would blindside me with one of her stunningly inane comments when I would least expect it – putting me in the position of having to stifle a response in order to maintain peaceful coexistence. That got very old and irritating. This technique, however, was especially useful when my kids were younger. Now that they are grown, I find myself more inclined to confront my mother with my perspective on her beliefs and find myself wishing I could have done so long ago – not that it would have changed her. It did help me to finally tell her not long ago that her religion had caused me plenty of grief. What leaves me wanting though is the knowledge that she has no capacity for empathy with my personal grief.When I was younger and always having my cognitive autonomy under threat from my mother's emotional manipulations, anger was often my primary defense. It would make her back off and give me space. I wish I could have had more rational conversations with my mother about her religious and political views, but I'm not sure that could have been possible.I truly appreciate your describing this experience of emotional manipulation in this context as it has been a lifelong issue for me.

  • africaturtle

    wow, a lot of comments! hopefully i'll have time to read through more thouroughly later ,but just wanted to throw out there my reaction. As i read down your list, i was thinking this is what i heard my whole life in CHURCH (speaking for God, of course). It is not just your parents who talk this way. obviously it's more hurtful coming directly from an individual than an institution…but then that just means we also get a "double dose"! The whole "gospel message" is shrouded in this kind of "talk". Of course not EVERY line would apply, but the majority of it would…and that gives me some food for thought.

  • Rosa

    I didn't talk to my dad for 10 years. About 7 years ago, to make my grandmother happy, I started talking to him very, very occasionally. In some ways it's a lot better – knowing I might cut him off again has him on best behavior, the very best he seems capable of. But sometimes I think i should have spent those ten years desensitizing myself instead, because I have that same fast heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, tension and dread about his phone calls and emails. I think other people achieve that kind of distance without being quite so literal about it – not sharing information, keeping a neutral affect, making content-free comments (the Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense calls that "computer mode"), even telling lies – they are all ways of keeping emotional distance from people that upset you. One thing you left off your list is not letting the person put you in a triangle – instead of telling you how she feels, she's telling you it's about the other kids, or God, or some other third party that is conveniently not there to speak for themselves, so you are stuck arguing with/about something other than your relationship with her. I did learn not to let my dad do that – "That's personal between me and X". But as long as your siblings are minors, you can't do that with your mom, so I don't have any actual advice on how to break the triangles. Just that it's an important part of keeping those boundaries.

  • The Elephant’s Child

    I just wanted to say, this is one of the most balanced, emotionally mature treatments of this difficult situation I've ever seen. I'm so happy to have found this blog. You are a first rate writer and teacher!

  • Kelly

    I’m so glad I found this blog! It’s such a relief to know I’m not the only one dealing with this issue. I am 54, and have played the role of the idiot daughter my whole life-even though I have two degrees (only one in the family) and am respected in my community. My brothers never understood what my problem was between my mother and me and I have spent most of my life feeling angry and guilty and like the worst daughter in the world. Mom and my brothers are quite close. I’ve been lashing out at the members of my family the last few years- telling them to bugger off, leave me and my family alone, stop saying awful stuff to me, or about my kids, etc. oh, the list just goes on. Of course, in their eyes I’m menopausal, or depressed.
    Mom and I never fought, until recently. She said whatever she wanted and I ground my back molars to nubs. I no longer speak to her on the phone (we live far from each other) but we only communicate through letters and emails. That’s actually worked out better because she has to use some sort of filter before she communicates to me. As I’m getting older I just can’t keep silent when she or any other members of my family says or does something awful and/or manipulative. I don’t always do it graciously, in fact I’ve been a real cow on a couple of occasions, which is sort of embarrassing but also feels kind of good.
    It’s so good to know that other people have the same problems.
    Mom is old, sickly and probably not long for this world, and I’m wracked with guilt for not going to see her, but what can I do? It takes my weeks to recover from family interactions and I have a job and my own family to care for.
    I always think of Douglas Coupland’s novel, “All Families Are Psychotic” whenever I deal with my family. He hit the nail on the head!

  • sk

    Firstly, so glad to know there are so many who struggle with this… it took me years to understand what is being done to me, and only after personal healing, some measure of personal success and great distance between us could I even see it, and not allow myself to be used as a tool to used to stamp on and be manipulated. Still doesn’t work specially if I have to be a child in the home again! As long as I approach the relationship as me Adult, my mom, Child… it is saner. But it does keep your inner child bereft of parental love.
    I feel she also ‘competes’ with me. She always wants to show me down and prove how much better she is than me… I do try and feel for her and let her have her moment of glory… but it’s sometimes on every single thing… clothes, looks, books, every single thing! Sometimes I get so tired! I’m trying to be nice and not be mean but when someone is showing you down or treating you badly it really gets difficult! Even if its your own mother.
    Now my problem is that my father passed away and I have to help my mother cope… and now she is swinging even more. She plays the helpless widow but underneath she is made of steel… definitely she will need help with the trauma, but how to separate the drama from the real suffering… and how not to get hurt or affected myself in this process is the challenge!!

  • aklab

    Thank you so much for this post. I’m dealing with some issues with my fundamentalist parents right now, and it’s so very hard to find someone who understands the dynamics of these kinds of relationships. I’ve printed out your five guidelines and no doubt will refer to them often in the coming days.

  • Jess

    I am so happy to have found this blog I love my mom but everything comes with terms and conditions and I have suffered with depression because of the guilt. This is such a release to realise I am not a bad person.

  • Helen

    How do you deal with someone who will actually deliberately injure themselves to get sympathy and attention, and to make someone feel to blame for everything they believe they have suffered. They take no accountability for their own life, just use and abuse someone because they think they have a right to.

    • ako

      I’d say it’s important to recognize that they have psychological issues of the sort that requires professional help. (Even someone who self-injured for attention has serious psychological problems). Also, it’s not your responsibility to fix their problems, and you have a choice in terms of how much energy you want to put into the relationship. It’s always okay to leave an abusive situation.

      If you want to stay and help, I’d suggest setting “I can deal with this much and no more” boundaries, and pushing for some kind of professional help for them. Beyond that, it’s all a bit complicated.

  • TJ

    I too am glad I read this. Not many people understand having to deal with people who are supposed to love you the most, make you feel the worse. Both of mine have emotionally tortured me (knowingly or not) since childhood. I’m 46 years old and it hasn’t stopped, only now with my children, it seems to provide more ammo for them. Sadly, NO ONE ever sees this but me because no one has lived it. It’s total manipulation all the way around. My father has lied to me, on me, and about me to other relatives who are just as twisted. My mother has always known he’s done it and never stood up for me (not as a child, nor as an adult), but she deems it necessary to let me know some of the things he’s said. I realized it’s all a game several years ago. I keep going back to my childhood because the behavior hasn’t eased. My children (grown now) have always seen/felt it, so I’ve had the dilemma of how much contact I wanted them to have with them. They are both emotionally and mentally draining. I’ve always been blamed for EVERYTHING wrong and have never heard “Good job!”. It may sound trivial, but this is 40 years of mental torture. My remedy to it all is to handle them like I would anyone else who disturbs my peace. I communicate with my mother ONLY if she calls me, simply because I don’t discuss any personal matters with her, so…don’t have a lot of conversation. My father, I have completely cut off. My reasoning is simple…anything they say now is based on absolutely NO merit, and I can’t care about it. Sadly, I feel no remorse, guilt, bad feelings…nothing. If they passed away today, I don’t even know that I would cry. That’s how bad my life has been and none is outwardly visible which makes my resolve worse to those who can’t understand it.

    I’ve pretty much rambled here, but believe most here totally understand what I’m saying. The resolution for each individual will be different because the dynamics are different, but bottom-line is there comes a time when you have to do what keeps you sane and at peace. I don’t feel I have any obligation to communicate with people who literally suck the life out of me.

    My 2 cents…