When Your Family Doesn’t Respect Boundaries
Updated: Sep 12
Yes, she’s my mother but that’s no longer an excuse.
I have a ‘boundaried’ relationship with my mother.
My mother is a stunningly beautiful woman. Even at 80 years old, she’s striking. She’s also accomplished great things in her life, like being honored with a key to the City in Miami Beach, building her community when she was president at her temple, and leaving Castro’s Cuba by herself with two young boys and me in her womb, to make her way in the states.
She is also a frail, lonely woman who struggles with an untreated combination of closet narcissistic personality disorder, OCD, and a progressively debilitating depression.
We communicate via text. Mostly about logistics — mail and such. I won’t speak with her on the phone. She asks me every now and then to call her (“please call me!”). I say no, or ignore the request.
About a year ago I had an astonishing, to me, download. I was crossing the street and, apropos of nothing, in the middle of a walkway on a rainy San Francisco day, I realized that my mother did not actually deserve to have me in her life. The realization was like waking up in a foreign country. The shift was so large that my eyesight literally sharpened.
I reached the sidewalk on the other side of the street and suddenly saw clearly that her sense of entitlement to me and my energy did not, in fact, equal any action on my part. The realization had me feel free! And simultaneously like I was transgressing upon all the rules.
To be honest, my distancing from her has come in phases; weird phases.
Growing up, my mother witnessed my father beat us for all kinds of things, things such as us not wanting to eat a banana or drink orange juice, or for speaking too loudly, or for not speaking up, or for taking too long to come when he called, or for showing any self-directed will at all. She made excuses for him. After all, she’d say, it was my fault as I was always too strong-willed with him. Besides, in her mind, she was the most victimized person in the household despite the fact he never laid a hand on her.
One bizarre night in California on Christmas Eve, when I was in my mid-twenties, I had a falling out with my mom and dad. My parents had come to visit me while I was on the road performing in a show. I had had the balls to pay for dinner—a big no-no with my dad—but it was my way of saying to them, look! I made it! I can take care of myself now.
My father became furious with me. In the car I could feel him getting ready to hit me, only I was older now. I was making my own money, we were on my turf, in my car, and in my life.
I looked at him and quietly told him that if he didn’t like the way things were going he could walk back on foot to the hotel. He looked at me and realized that he couldn’t control me anymore. He got out of the car and slammed the door so hard that he shattered the glass. When the glass shattered, the powerlessness I had felt with him all those years shattered as well. I began to cry — not tears of sorrow but from the kind of relief one feels when they face down a monster and live to tell the tale.
Afterward, my mother, from the back seat, begged me to make things right with him. Begged me to go after him. Said, “I will need to sit next to him on the plane. I will need to live with him. If you don’t manage him, he’ll take it out on me.”
This wasn’t the first time she had asked me to keep the peace at my expense.
This wasn’t the first time she was more invested in her own skin than the safety of her own daughter. At five years old my father raped me, and during the rape, he put his hands around my throat and almost strangled me to death. Years later, I told my mother what he had done and, after losing her mind for about a minute, composed herself and said, “don’t expect me to do anything about this.”
I got out of the car and went looking for him. I found him sitting frustrated and powerless, for the first time in my memory, sitting on a fire hydrant. I asked him if he wanted a ride. He silently got up and got in the car and I drove them back to the hotel.
I stopped speaking to her for a little while after that. I stopped speaking to them both.
The thing is, I missed her. I missed taking care of her. For as long as I can remember, I took care of her. I was her protector, therapist, and best friend. She talked to me like a girlfriend about her affair, and about her unhappiness with her husband, my father. She talked to me about fashion and took me shopping with her so I could be her biggest fan. I was never her daughter.
But then my father and my brother died and the shit hit the fan. She needed help. We all needed help. So I re-established contact with her.
At the same time, I was also in therapy so I was always trying to establish boundaries. I thought that if I could manage her by making rules then it would make things better. But it doesn’t. Especially with my weak boundaries at the time that weren’t actually boundaries. They were an attempt to control her so that I could still have her in my life. But a person like this is all-encompassing. If I brought up anything that had happened, she would tell me that my father had died and that he wasn’t around to defend himself and so I needed to let it go. Why did I always have to be so difficult? she’d say. Why did I always have to be so unforgiving? She’d manipulate things and I would always end up feeling sorry for her and forget myself.
Off and on for years, I kept trying to put down boundaries (aka control her), but it would torture me. I would feel her pain. I would feel her loneliness. I kept trying to get her to see me, or to force a sense of responsibility from her. But it never came.
Family members would tell me — and still do tell me — that I am selfish. That I am cold and unfeeling because I am distancing myself from her, from them, from everyone. She’s your mother, after all.
Some family dynamics are cult dynamics; they oppose critical thinking, isolate members and penalize them for leaving, seek inappropriate loyalty to their leaders, and above all else, have a no dishonoring the family allowed, rule.
A family member called me out of the blue today. I rarely get calls from family members so either someone was dead, sick, or my behavior needed to be addressed.
My behavior needed to be addressed.
You don’t understand, she’s not doing well. She’s old. She’s depressed. She’s lonely. And we are the ones picking up the pieces. You distanced yourself from everyone and so you don’t see what’s happening, but it’s bad. Eventually you will get old, too. You will be lonely, too. You never had children, so you don’t understand. Sometimes we need to do things we don’t want to do. She’s your mother. You’re not getting it. She’s your mother. And she’s not doing well.
I asked, Is the only success in this conversation one in which my behavior changes and I call her?
It’s not about success. It’s about family. She’s your mother. What are you not getting here? Yes, she’s manipulative. Yes she’s a pain in the ass. Yes she’s who she is — but she’s your mother. Do you think I want to call you? Each time I speak to you I get more and more clear of what kind of person you are. And I feel nothing for you. But I call you to try to get you to understand that you need to call her.
That one hurt. I love this family member. This family member does not love me.
What do you want me to do?
I want you to call her a few times a week.
I said, I am not going to do that. I get that you think that I am a selfish, cold-hearted, unfeeling bitch. But I’m not sacrificing myself to take care of her again. She’s depressed because she’s made terrible life choices and she’s never dealt with that. I am not responsible for the weight she carries because she never dealt with herself or her actions.
…But genuinely, if I can figure out a way to be more connected to her but where I am not stepping over or sacrificing myself, I will do that. I will continue to try to figure out how to do that.
The truth is, they don’t believe in the facts of what happened.
And there is no talking to narcissism. Whatever abuse there was is minimized so much it’s no longer abuse in their minds — or at least, not so bad that it warrants my behavior. Besides, they say, they had it worse and they were able to get over it and move on so why can’t I?
The heartbreak (for me) is that I want a relationship with my mother and my family. I very much want one. I just don’t want one that depends on my abuse or fosters self-loathing.
So I am consciously estranged right now. Consciously ‘boundaried.’ I am 53 years old and I have what feels to me like a miraculous relationship and marriage with a loving, funny, wise, beautiful, soulful man. I feel lucky; I have a business and friendships and a life that isn’t sick with narcissism.
This has taken me an unimaginable amount of work and time. I had to develop boundaries. Real ones. Not coercive angry attempts at control disguised as boundaries. And self-esteem. The kind that doesn’t get knocked around and where I can withstand the ongoing inquiry of, am I being too harsh? Am I actually being a bitch here…?
When I tell people of my boundary, I am sometimes judged for being too hard on her. “She’s your mother and you will regret this when she dies.”
Maybe. That’s a distinct possibility. I wasn’t speaking to my father when he died and I regretted it terribly. In fact, it almost killed me.
But whenever I consider getting back into contact with my mother, my body rejects the notion.
Simply put, I matter to myself too much, now. And throughout the decades, there has been an ongoing effort, on my part and on theirs, to control what has been a normal response to disrespect and abuse while simultaneously never directly addressing, or stopping the disrespect, abuse, or the abuser. That madness, for a long time — too long — erased my sense of worth, my sense of mattering, my sense of agency, my opinions, my thoughts, my consent, my personhood, my rights, my humanity, my feelings, my very self.
But I can’t do that anymore. I won’t do that anymore, yet I want a relationship with them. And so this is the place I live in; mourning and grieving for people who live but who I cannot be in a relationship with without dying myself.