The fear of causing pain is not a reason to stay in someone’s life. It is a reason to run.
Divorcing my mother is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Even though we had been mostly estranged for four years, the decision to end contact with her was difficult, and it has left me grieving.
What made it so difficult is that my mother is a woman in incredible psychological pain. She was the child of a violent alcoholic father and a bipolar mother. The family violence she witnessed, the sexual assault she experienced as a child, and her mother’s death left my mother emotionally handicapped.
Anyone with compassion couldn’t help but feel sorry for her.
The problem is that the internal noise created by her emotional agony makes her unable to hear how she hurts other people. She is one of the least self-aware people I have ever met.
Her lack of self-awareness comes close to delusional when it comes to mother/daughter relationships. She once told me that if her own mother had lived, my mother would have had been so grateful that she never would have said an unkind word or neglected her mother, even if her mother had been abusive.
My mother has never broken past her child’s imagination of what life would be like if only her mother had lived. And that has created her expectations of what the mother/daughter relationship should be like. I should treat her with the same abject devotion that she believes she would have showered on her mother.
It is as if my mother made a contract with me when she was a pregnant teenager and I was still a fetus: I would make up for the loss of her mother by giving her the love and self-affirmation that she needed.
In my mother’s mind, nothing about our relationship is optional. I owe her the nurturing that she did not have as a child. It was my job to heal her most primal wound, the loss of her mother. And I was supposed to be her atonement. She would make me be so good, it would wash away the self-loathing she felt. I was supposed to be her redeemer, to retroactively undo the pain of her tormented childhood, and to wash away the shame she had internalized during decades of abuse.
My religious devotion has always been non-optional. She still claims that she beat me often and viciously not because of something broken in her, but because she believed our religion told her to do it.
Of course, this leaves me with the horrible knowledge that she will always sacrifice me to her god. Her need for me to “live my life for Jesus” has never diminished. In fact, she tells me regularly that it is all she wants for me. She does not hope that I am happy, or that I do work that makes the world a better place. She hopes only that I continue the sacrifice that she started.
About four years ago, I initiated a trial separation. In my mind, it was not permanent. I believed that my absence from her would give me the space in which to acquire skills, or perhaps a Teflon hide, that would allow me to be a part of her life without becoming the ball of tension and pain that her presence invokes.
What I did not know is that trial separations show people two very important things: (1) How their life feels and works without the other person in it; and (2) who the other person really is. You can truly learn who a person is when you break up with them.
My life started going infinitely better. My anxiety went down dramatically, and my family said that I became a nicer person.
Still, it was an incredibly hard thing to do because I felt so guilty. And what made those feelings worse was that I realized I did not miss her.
What stopped me from letting my guilt guide me right back into a relationship with her was her response to our separation. She yelled, screamed, cried, wrote long letters, and even brought in third parties trying to shame me into renewing our relationship. It became a cycle: She would respect my boundaries for about six weeks and then explode for another two.
Eventually, she threw fewer fits. So on a couple occasions, I reached out to her. But every time I gave her the proverbial inch, she breezed right past the mile and took the entire Eastern Seaboard.
A couple weeks ago, I reached the end of the road with her. She called me late one Saturday morning while I was enjoying a peaceful and snuggly time with my husband and dogs. The instant I heard her ringtone, I went rigid with fear. My whole body shook.
Then I got angry.
For the rest of the day, I couldn’t stop talking about it—how frustrating and triggering her calls were for me. Everyone I talked to asked, “So why haven’t you ended it?” And I didn’t have a solid answer.
Mostly, it was because I could not bear the idea of hurting her. I understood that while our break was good for me, it caused her great suffering. Divorcing her would cause her pain that I believed was completely disproportionate to the pain I had suffered from her abuse and continued to experience in our relationship.
“You don’t understand how much this will hurt her!” I kept saying to a friend, “She isn’t like normal people. This is the worst thing that could possibly happen to her, worse than even my death.”
But it eventually dawned on me that my mother’s kind of extreme emotional pain is not something I can ever fix. And the fear of causing pain is not a reason to stay in someone’s life. It is a reason to run.
Stay or go, I would still be causing her great pain.
So I decided to let it go. Let her go. Let go of the lifelong quest to be good enough, to be strong enough, to be connected enough to ease her pain.
That night, I called and ended my relationship with my mother. I did it kindly, which is to say that I came up with a reason for our divorce that she could live with. I didn’t tell her my truth. I told her something that would allow her to feel good about herself. I told her that I loved her, and just before I said goodbye, she said, “Honey, I love you. And you know that all I have ever wanted for you, all that I want for you now, is to live your life for Jesus.”
I hung up and was overwhelmed by grief. My childhood dream of somehow having a relationship with my abusive parent was over.
We don’t get to pick our parents, but we do get to make the choice of whether or not we keep them in our lives. And sometimes, the kindest thing we can do, the thing that will ease everyone’s suffering in the long run, is to divorce them.
Lynn Beisner writes about family, social justice issues, and the craziness of daily life. Her work can be found on Role Reboot, Alternet, and on her blog: Two Parts Smart-Ass; One Part Wisdom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.