Posted by fxckfeelings on October 10, 2011Share This Post
Whether you feel you’re in the right or in the wrong, defining your moral position in terms of someone else’s feelings is going to get you lost. If you feel you’re in the wrong, you don’t have to win forgiveness to make it right. If you feel wronged, trying to get an apology will probably making the wronging worse. If you’re doing what’s right, it won’t matter how people respond; having confidence in carefully considered choices will keep you on course.
I was a terrible mother to my kids when they were younger—I yelled all the time and even hit them, and my husband had good reason to divorce me and allow nothing but occasional custody. Still, I love them dearly and I’ve always wanted to make amends; we’re all older now (they’re in their 20s), I’m a lot calmer after a lot of therapy to work through my anger issues. I’d do anything to help them, but one of them threatens to stop talking to me if I mention the fact that she drinks too much, and the other is polite but pretty distant. I feel I can’t get through to either of them because the mistakes of my past have ruined things forever. What can I do to mend our relationship?
I don’t doubt you want to help your kids, but that help comes with a high price– forgiveness for being an asshole when they were younger.
That was years ago, though, and you’ve continued to care for them and pay for them while learning to control your behavior (their being older probably helped). So before you ask how to get their forgiveness, ask what you have to do to forgive yourself.
Sure, an abusive mother is probably the most stigmatized villain in the world. What people forget about mommy dearest, however, is that some people have very little control over their tempers, including those who would really, really like not to be assholes.
Depression and bipolar illness can make people very irritable while weakening their self-control and their ability to see themselves. Some people are born with terrible tempers, so the personality you got is the personality you got and it’s what you do with it that counts. That you’re trying to do the right thing is commendable.
You’ve taken your lumps without blaming others or backing off. You can’t help having the temperament of an asshole, and you’re still trying to be a good mom. That takes strength, determination, and good values. Taming one’s temper is never easy, so be proud.
What you shouldn’t focus on is whether your kids accept your transformation and apology. (If one is alcoholic, she may not accept it unless you give her a drink). You goal isn’t to get absolution from her, but to be a good mother, despite the distance between you and your kids.
So instead of repeating your apologies, let them know you’re proud of what you’ve done with motherhood, in spite of a terrible beginning, and that you’ve got good love and good advice to give, if they want it.
That said, you won’t take shit, either from yourself or from them; asshole behavior, be it internal or external, will not be tolerated. If they can agree to those terms, then you will be there for them, anytime, free of charge.
“I wish I didn’t abuse the kids, but I can’t change the past. I’ve done lots of good things, too, to protect them from myself and help them grow up. Now what they need is not more apologies, but the knowledge that I’m here with good, safe parenting to offer. If they don’t take me up on it, I may feel hurt and cut off, but that happens to lots of good parents. I won’t let those feelings make me retaliate or grovel. Good parenting sometimes means waiting.”
My husband is a good guy, but sometimes he seems to take me for granted, particularly when his family asks him for help and me and the kids are expected to agree to being a lower priority. The other day he informed me, without saying please, that he had to leave me with the kids for the long weekend because he needed to drive his sisters to another city to visit his dying aunt. I let him know I don’t like the way they seem to come first and wondered where that leaves us. I think I’ve got good reason to gripe, but I can’t seem to get him to see what he’s doing wrong. What can I do to get him to see that it hurts me and us when he’s over-responsive to his family?
You know that getting your husband to see that he’s in the wrong won’t work. From his point of view, he’s on a mission of mercy and you’re needy, competitive, and lacking in compassion. You lost the argument before saying word one.
In addition, you may not be sure that your position is right. After all, you’re reacting to the fact that he didn’t say “please,” not to whether or not his weekend trip is necessary. He may have neglected to say please because he was nervous about possible criticism, thus making the criticism more likely. You don’t want to get drawn into a personal injury war over his tone of voice, when he might be right, and you might have to agree, about his actual choices.
So ignore his impolite presentation and examine the necessity of his making this weekend pilgrimage. Ask yourself how much good his trip is likely to for his aunt and her sisters, whether it will give him some good time with his aunts, and whether there’s no one else who can help them out. Obviously, it’s less necessary if his dying aunt is already in a coma and her sisters have other ways to travel.
If, after examining the facts, you think the trip isn’t worth it, let him know you appreciate his good intentions but that you’re questioning whether the outcome of his good deeds outweigh the burden on the rest of the family. You’re on the same side—you know he’s a responsible dad who also cares about his aunts—but you’re hoping he’ll do what he thinks is right, rather than be overly responsive to his aunts’ emotions.
Once you’ve created a context of respect and made the issue of his weekend commitment less personal, you can also tell him you wish he’d take you into his thinking before making decisions that affect your partnership. Your intention is not to trigger a conflict of loyalties nor to make it a question of whom he loves more, but to urge a method of decision-making that will benefit both of you with no arguing at all.
“It feels demeaning to be told, not asked, to do double weekend duty by my dearly beloved while he tends to the needs of his aunts, but he’s a good dad, and a good partner (usually), so I now have an opportunity to suggest better ways of communicating if I can just keep my anger out of it.”
More advice from Dr. Lastname