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Dear Carolyn: Our 60-year-old mom has five grown children, 22 to 39. Two of us have recently discovered that she has been gossiping, telling stories out of context, spinning the truth, spreading rumors and sometimes telling outright lies about each of us to the others. This has often pitted one sibling against the other.
She says to each of her children that they are her favorites and then confirms these feelings by vilifying the others. Her other M.O. is to tell us we are right about a situation, and then say the exact same thing to the other sibling.
We feel like we don't know who our mom is. This has been going on for many years, but we have only recently discovered the severity and the depth of the ramifications. Mom does not like to confront problems and gets extremely defensive if she is called on something. Her behavior has caused bad relationships among all of the siblings at different times. She has deeply hurt us and our families. Why is she doing this? What is the best way to confront Mom and to change her behavior? — Frustrated Sisters
Answer: The "why" is simple, and sad. By sucking up to each child while bad-mouthing the others, she both secures a child's individual loyalty and weakens that child's bond to the other children, thus cementing her power over all of you.
It sounds like an extreme case, but it's still a version of what insecure people commonly do. Consider the mechanics of gossip: If your greatest fear is of being excluded, then you're probably going to get a great deal of reassurance from hearing one group member complain about another. It's effective, if dirty.
And, of course, it's often temporary. As an emotional oppressor, your mom has made herself vulnerable to a rebellion by the oppressed.
What to do now? While it's natural to want to "change her behavior," that's problematic for all the usual reasons and a few special ones: It's not your place to change others, you typically can't change others unless they want to change, and your mom's defensiveness says it's doubtful she'll want to. It's also possible she'll see your confrontation as a threat, and only intensify her attacks.
On the other hand, this is your mom and your family; you want to salvage your relationships, not write them off.
So I would suggest the siblings — those who are on to Mom's games — try these three doable things (with counseling the as-needed fourth): (1) With your mom, gently but firmly decline to take part in the sick dynamic. "Mom, I'd rather not talk about (sibling's name here). How are things at work?"
(2) With your siblings, be the one who questions the gossip instead of questioning the sibling it surrounds. Don't bad-mouth Mom, but also don't be afraid to say, "I'm not sure Mom has her facts right." Eventually, if feasible given your contentious history, you want to bring the other siblings in on your discovery.
And, (3) Within yourselves, remain conscious of the discordant seeds your mother plants. You don't want them taking root in your own families, of course — but, more important, awareness will help you decode your mom as a likely product of these seeds herself. Her history will show who she is.
Email Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org, or chat with her online at noon each Friday at Washingtonpost.com.
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