Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Girlfriend must deal with emotionally abusive mother
Emotional Abu, SE: My girlfriend's mother is emotionally abusive. What can I do to not hate her? She's skilled enough that she appears to not do it in my presence. However, she actually pulls Girlfriend aside to say hurtful things and then acts like all is hunky-dory. When called on her actions, she will deny deny deny, and it's possible that in her mind, the event never happened.
I believe she will be a destabilizing force in our life and our relationship. I believe she already is.
Do I have obligations to be in her presence? What can I do to support my girlfriend without feeling like I am enabling abuse? Whenever I listen to her and offer a shoulder, I just get angry. Girlfriend has lately made sure to shield me from her feelings about Mom, and I appreciate it.
I feel that Girlfriend should not have a relationship with Mom but I also feel that may not be fair. Girlfriend and I have tried discussing the situation repeatedly and it's never productive.
Carolyn: Whether you hate your girlfriend's mom is mostly beside the point. This problem is about Girlfriend's relationship with her mom, and your relationship with Girlfriend (let's call her Susie). The solution is not for Susie to shield you from her mom, or from her feelings about her mom — the former just makes a priority of the relationship that doesn't matter (yours with the mom) and builds a brick wall in the middle of the one that does (yours with Susie).
Because the heart of this is Susie's abuse at the hands of her mother, the first step is for Susie to deal with the problem. Not talk about it, deal with it. You can listen and offer shoulders and support without enabling and all that good stuff — or you can stick your head in the sand, if that feels better — but none of this will accomplish much unless Susie is empowered to act as her own advocate, to adopt strategies that allow her to interact with her mother without being diminished by that interaction, and to understand and thereby inoculate herself against the abuse.
If she has tried standing up to Mom on her own without success — which seems to be where we are right now — a good, reputable therapist can help her come up with these strategies.
Is strategic limit-setting a perfect system? No, but this is well-traveled family territory, and people are managing to hold boundaries under similar, difficult circumstances.
Unless she does this, you're right — the mother will be a destabilizing force. So for Susie to have a strong relationship with anyone, it's important that she be willing to deal with the problem. That will show that she's ready to take the controls from her mother and run her own life. Then, she won't need to hide her mom-sickness from you, because there won't be any (or, realistically, as much).
As for where you fit in, ultimately, you will be more helpful to Susie if you understand the mom — and the only way to understand her is to acknowledge her humanity. But this will matter more when you get the first step out of the way.