Q. I have read all about divorcing your mother. Now how do I start the process?
A. Divorcing a mother is a bit like divorcing a spouse. You don’t have to get a lawyer, file paperwork or fight about custody, but it hurts just as much.
And unless you divorce the whole family, you’ll see your mother at graduations, holidays, weddings, emergency rooms and funerals, which will make it hurt a little more. If she is on her best behavior, you might even wonder why you left, for doubt can creep in after the relief (and sometimes the euphoria) of divorce has faded.
Although divorce is a drastic step for anyone to take, you’ll know it’s right for you if your mother is abusive — verbally, physically or sexually — or if she is still addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling or other dangerous behavior, despite all the help you’ve given her or if she is simply too controlling, too self-focused or too difficult for you to bear any longer.
You shouldn’t divorce your mother simply because she won’t listen to your opinions or because she orders you around like a child. Some parents have never learned that children should be respected, in word and in deed and at every age, which is a great pity. Bad manners have probably wrecked more families, more relationships and more marriages than anything else. As a wise friend once said, “There are times in a marriage when only sex and good manners can hold it together, but with children there is only good manners.” And sometimes with mothers, as well.
If good manners are lacking in your family, it’s better to solve the problem now than to walk away from it, for bad manners can always be fixed. And they should be fixed because, underneath it all, your mother loves you; because you will feel bad someday if you didn’t do everything you could to make things right and because you may gradually start acting like your mother and then someone will decide to leave you.
This won’t happen if you can manage to change your behavior about five percent — which is about as much as anyone can change — because it will make your mother change, too. Human nature is like the rest of nature: it abhors a vacuum.
You’ll make these changes best if you set boundaries for yourself and your mom but don’t discuss them with her beforehand or she’ll fuss. Instead, write a few rules kindly and clearly, give a copy to your mom and go for a long walk — alone.
She has to know that arguments — new or old — aren’t permitted anymore; that you must be as polite to each other as you would be to your teacher or your boss; that you can no longer raise your voice, say “Shut up!” or denigrate each other or anyone else; that you must apologize whenever you do or say something hurtful and without laying any blame on the other.
When your mother breaks one of these rules, just smile and say, “I see that it’s time for me to leave” and then go to your room — if you’re still living at home — or leave her house. And do this again and again and again, staying away a little longer each time. But when you come back, don’t talk about the behavior that made you leave or demand an apology for it. Instead, start anew, without rancor or recriminations, and let each encounter be a separate chapter in your relationship.
If you live at home, you can ease the tension even more by cooking at least one dinner a week; by thanking her for anything she does for you and also by making your bed in the morning, putting your gear away at night and cleaning up any mess that you make soon after you make it.
If you think that good manners can hold this mother-daughter relationship together, read “Making Up With Mom” by Julie Halpert and Deborah Carr, Ph.D. (St. Martin’s; $25), but if not, you should read Victoria Secunda’s classic, “When You and Your Mother Can’t Be Friends” (Delta; $17) and also “The Breakup Bible,” a new book by Rachel A. Sussman, L.C.S.W. (Three Rivers; $15). Although it’s about breaking up with a partner, instead of a parent, it may help you get rid of your pain a little faster.
Questions? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.