You are 35 years old and your mom is still trying to run your life. She doesn’t approve of your boyfriend. She thinks your best friend is taking advantage of you. She comments on your weight. She “suggests” that you rearrange your living room and “insists” that she doesn’t want to be a bother — but — why haven’t you called her in the last 48 hours? She feigns illness, goes helpless around household chores you know she can do, and implies you aren’t a good daughter if you have other plans for your weekend besides going shopping at the mall with her.
You know she is able to take care of herself. You know that she isn’t sick. At 60, she manages a demanding full-time job. She is still strong enough to keep her woodstove going in winter and to give the entire house a good cleaning in the spring. So why does every conversation with her leave you feeling guilty or angry?
It would be too easy to call her “controlling” as if that’s an explanation. It’s not. It’s a label that may reflect your angry feelings but may not at all describe what is going on. Before searching the Internet for ways to put her in her place, there’s more to consider than an amateur diagnosis that results in setting rigid boundaries and distancing her from your life.
Possible Explanations for What Looks Like Controlling Behavior
Maybe she is lonesome and can’t admit it to herself. If she is widowed or if your dad is distant and uncommunicative, she may be longing for your company. However close her friends may be, they may not know her as intimately as members of her own family do. If she acknowledges her longing for closeness, it would make her feel too angry at your dad to live with him peacefully or too sad about where her life is ending up. As a member of the family, she feels more able to impose on you than on other people she knows.
She may be grieving. If your father died within the last 5 years, she may be having difficulty with the loss. Yes, some people move on within a year or so. But some people grieve for three to five years following the death of someone significant in their lives. Some people never seem to get through it and need professional help. Being with you may distract her from her grief.
People don’t have to die in order for someone to be grieving.
People don’t necessarily have to die for her to be grieving. If your mom is taking care of her 80-something-year-old parent who is failing or if your dad is sick or if a disabled sibling is suffering early dementia, for example, your mom may be having difficulty managing the new reality. If she is losing her closest friend to cancer or is trying to cook and clean for people she cares about who are ill on top of managing her job and home, she may be overwhelmed by both what’s called “anticipatory grief” and by the added chores. Feeling so out of control of these events, she may be exerting some control where she can — on you.
Perhaps she has an anxiety disorder. People with social phobia are fearful of judgment by others or that they will embarrass themselves in some way if they are among people who don’t know them well. As long as she has a child or two with her (even an adult child), a socially phobic mom can keep the focus off her and on you. If she is agoraphobic as well, not having a companion when she goes places puts her in a panic. Unable to make friends, she leans on you for conversation and company.
Maybe she really is sick but either doesn’t want to face it herself or doesn’t want to burden you. You don’t see her every minute of every day. It may be that it takes her hours to do things that used to take her minutes. You see the woodstove burning or the clean house. You know she gets to work every day. You don’t see what it costs her to do it.
Possibly she is pointing out things that you don’t want to admit might be true. Having been the guardian of your emotional and physical health for a couple of decades, she may not be able to give it up just because you are a grownup. (Even grownups can be unwise.) Maybe the boyfriend really is a loser. Maybe your best friend isn’t looking out for your best interests. Maybe you aren’t seeing in the mirror what she sees when you walk in the door. Perhaps she could be more tactful but just maybe you keep wearing those old jeans because they have stretched out enough that you don’t have to face that you have put on two sizes this year. Proud of how skinny you are? Maybe she is right that you have gotten carried away with your exercise routine. If you’re trying to avoid an issue, it’s not fair to be mad at her for caring enough about you to point it out.
Or maybe she really is the problem. Of course, there is the possibility that she has an untreated personality disorder, that she’s a mean alcoholic, that she is one of those sad people who only feels significant if she’s making other people jump, or that she simply has never been a nice person (so why would she be one now). Maybe she plays favorites, makes threats, and tries to buy alliances in the family in a desperate need to count. In such cases, “controlling” may be an appropriate word.
Analysis of a Situation Is Important
Good analysis is key to knowing how to handle the situation. One size doesn’t fit all. Stop labeling. Start analyzing. Take a huge step back and think about what your mother may be dealing with. There may be more hints than you’ve allowed yourself to see. Reflect on what goes on in her typical day. Are there some legitimate needs being masked by what looks like demanding behavior? If so, compassion and action is more appropriate than annoyance.
Consider whether what you are calling “controlling” is something relatively new or if it has always been a part of your relationship. New behaviors speak to a change in someone’s health or circumstances. Think about what may have changed in her life or yours that could account for the shift. Sometimes dealing directly with such changes settles a person down. Old behaviors, on the other hand, speak to an enduring personality type or dynamics in a relationship that have become habit. In that case, it’s more likely you can only work on acceptance, change how you react, and maybe offer going to therapy together to improve your relationship (if she’s willing).
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2011). Understanding and Managing Your Controlling Mother. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 8, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/understanding-and-managing-your-controlling-mother-2/0006708
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.