It’s been a long, slow process from “she’s just like that” with a shrug and slight embarrassed laugh to “I know she will never change. I can just change how I respond to it”. It took 18 months with a therapist, reading extensively and repeated, in-depth conversations with me and his father before my husband could begin to see his mother for who she is. Talk about hard work. But the dam that has held back all rational and critical consideration of how he was raised and his mother’s behaviour has been breached. The first little trickles dribble through.
Trickle 1: The marriage counsellor
“I know this is normal for your family, but can you see how it isn’t normal for others?” Yep the Relate therapist really hit the nail on the head with that one. We had one session with her, a somewhat world weary, nicely presented middle aged woman. She was quick to stop me pouring out all my frustrations and give my other half a chance to speak, maybe she thought I was some nagging harpy? But once the various incidences of MIL’s behaviour were laid bare, me with my voice cracking and tears welling she spelled out what the issue was. It was my husband’s relationship with his mother, not so much our relationship with each other. We didn’t go back to her, there was no point.
Having someone on the outside, someone objective to his mind, to spell out that his mother’s actions were not normal was the first step.
My husband’s workplace provided some counselling, provisionally for stress, and beyond that a recommendation from the workplace counsellor saw him visiting a male counsellor regularly. His workplace counsellor was a woman, very blunt, she suggested he see a male therapist. It is hard to explore the psychological issues you have with your domineering, controlling, manipulative mother with a female therapist.
Psychotherapeutic relationships involve projection, the transference of characteristics from the subconscious onto the therapist which the therapist can identify and use their exposure within the session to heal the patient. What do you do if you have an overwhelming, controlling mother-figure in your psyche whom you are terrified of? Projecting aspects of that onto the female therapist would not make for a productive relationship.
Trickle 2: The reading material
The Narcissistic Family: Diagnosis and Treatment by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert M. Pressman was a book I bought for my Kindle which my husband subsequently read. He made little comment on it as he read but afterwards he talked about how many of the case study descriptions within it chimed true with his own family memories.
What I found striking about these same case studies was how many of them started with the patient saying how normal and trouble free their family life was. My husband said this too, he thought he had the ideal childhood, no rows, family together, nice school all in place. No rows. Ever. Hmmm.
The other book he found insightful was Families and How to Survive Them by Robin Skynner and John Cleese. Wittily written it is a dialogue between a comedian in therapy and his therapist about families and relationships, why we choose the partners we do, the stages of development all children go through and what can go wrong if those developments don’t occur on track.
Trickle 3: Family conversations
My husband started a conversation with his father, divorced from his dysfunctional mother, about how she behaved and continues to behave. His father is a reserved, English academic so these conversations don’t come easily. Things which had never been broached were aired. My father-in-law related how his ex-wife had tried to have him declared mentally incapacitated by exaggerating and inventing signs of mental illness then going to his doctor without his knowledge, all tearful and distraught, to beg for him to be diagnosed with dementia. She had read up on it and went armed with material about early onset dementia and expected to the doctor to take her word for it. That is how low she is. My FIL had to endure a psychological assessment and family mental health conference with his ex-wife while the mental health professionals sat and discussed his sanity.
There was more and my husband started talking about his childhood memories and family habits which now seemed, shall we say, unusual. All of it to be honest sounded unusual, from her total control of the household budget (she gave her ex-husband pocket money) to the way the family basically avoided each other under the guise of normal life (his mother and sister would go and lock themselves in their bedrooms for hours, FIL ended up sleeping on a couch downstairs). Slowly the realisation that it wasn’t all shiny, happy families at home as a child started to dawn.
So these things eroded away the dam from one side and I hammered, repeatedly from the other. It still makes me wryly smile that he didn’t consider me an “objective outsider” even though when I first met him and first commented on his mother’s behaviour towards me I was an outside observer of his family relationships. It wasn’t until that counsellor said “I know this is normal for your family, but can you see how it isn’t normal for others?” did he consider what I had been saying to have any merit. Patience is a virtue they say.