My mother’s secrets weigh too heavily on our relationship

The dilemma I have kept secrets for my mother for many years. She has had several extramarital affairs and I am the only one who knows about these. She has never held back in telling me about her feelings for the people she has been involved with. She despises my father and tells me whenever we meet of his failings and of her disappointments in life. She discusses – and has discussed since I was 10 – leaving him, but she has never gone through with this.

I am now in my 50s. To her friends and the rest of the family, she is considered kind and compassionate. She is, though, a troubled woman. However, my daughter considers her to be the perfect grandmother and has invited her to her graduation ceremony. There are not enough tickets so I will not be able to attend. I am crushed by this. I wonder if I have reached the point where I should cut her out of my life.

I am fortunate to have a happy life, fulfilling work and good relationships with my children, husband and friends, but this relationship is toxic for me. My concern is that to cut ties, I would need to tell people that I have chosen not to have her in my life and as she is seen as perfect, it would seem very odd. I have no desire to reveal her secrets, I do not want to share the damage from her life with my children, but I do not know how to proceed.

Philippa’s answer: Secrets can burn away at you. Someone lightens their load by dumping them on to you and then you are left with the heavy load. No wonder you have had enough. To add to this, for years your mother has been trying to alienate you from your father.

I was wondering, could you tell her how her confidences have affected you? How it feels that she has taken your place at your daughter’s graduation? I realise the idea of talking to her might make you flinch. I expect a part of you has remained 10 years old, defenceless, inarticulate. Maybe you feel by cutting her out of your life you would free this imprisoned part of you.

I feel you need to take back control and re-parent that 10-year-old girl inside you. But how?

You find your mother toxic. What is the poison? Maybe the bombardment over most of your lifetime, with images, hate and stories from her that seem to rot away inside you, so that you do not want to examine it and sort it out. But I think you must. I think you need to list what your mother said about your father, list the stories of the affairs she told you about, organise the secrets she has dumped on you with dates, put them in order. This is how you take control of it, so it isn’t swimming about in you. I suggest you cannot do this all in one go, but in stages, a little every day. Notice how you feel as you document it and how you breathe when you get it out and order it away.

There may have been a generational system in your family that complaints and secrets are never talked about, but often whispered, maybe just to one chosen person. Maybe that person was your mother when she was a child. Maybe she is only passing on what was done to her. This could explain why you do not want to share what has been dumped on you with others, you want to stop this being passed down another generation.

Looking at it from her point of view, I suppose your mother thought she was treating you well by elevating you to confidant status. Maybe she herself had enjoyed that role. She might not realise how inappropriate it was for you to have to carry all this around. She might have seen herself as bestowing favours upon you. It isn’t a healthy way to behave in relationships, but nothing brings two people closer than having a common enemy. This might be how she learned to be close to people. She might not be behaving with malice aforethought, but merely automatically. I’m suspicious this is how she has become close to your daughter.

How has being your mother’s confidant affected your relationship with your father? How much of her vindictiveness towards him is he aware of? Maybe it was because she could dump all her complaints about him on you that she could carry on living with him. This system may have worked well in some respects, but not well for you.

I think after the information is down on paper, it may feel more contained and less overwhelming and you may feel more confident in your next course of action, whether that is cutting her out of your life and telling – or not telling – other people the affect she has had on you or, indeed, talking to her, maybe even building some sort of bridge towards mutual understanding. But whatever course you decide, it would be good to feel in charge of everything that has been put on you, rather than that poison being in charge of you. Organising and taking control of all that information, listing it, will be hard on you emotionally. You may want a friend, or even a therapist, to help you.