Setting the ground rules for relationship with difficult mom
Q: Here's our predicament: Mom spent her childhood being emotionally abused by her father, then her adult life being emotionally abused by her husband (my dad). It would be a miracle if she were not affected by this, and indeed, no miracles going on here. She is negative, snippy and generally mean to us (more to my wife and teen girls, actually).
Multiple times I've suggested (strongly) that she should talk to someone about how angry she is. She insists she has absolutely no anger and, in fact, is happier than she's ever been in her life.
Her behavior does not compel us to arrange frequent get-togethers, and she simply refuses to approach us with suggestions of things to do together, so any interactions are completely on our shoulders. When we do get together, she projects subtle and not-so-subtle inferences that we don't get together enough. We're wondering how to get out of this death spiral before we get to the point where we just cease making plans to see her altogether.
A: Victims are easy to embrace with compassion; perpetrators are (relatively) easy to dispatch through estrangement. It's the people who are victims and perpetrators both who strain our coping techniques. And don't most troubled people turn out be both?
The more mindful you are of your mother's dual status, and the more mindful of it your wife and daughters can be, the easier it will be (again, relatively speaking) to remain engaged in your mother's life.
But first, that's the goal you need to establish at home. Gather your wife and kids for a conversation, and explain to them that you don't see cutting Grandma loose as an option, and the alternative feels like snuggling up to a porcupine. If you haven't spelled this all out with them already, give the nickel history: Abused child becomes abused wife becomes abusive grandmother. It is not changing and it is darned sad.
If this is openly understood, then skip to the part where you say, the victim in Grandma needs regular visits from her son and his family. The perpetrator in her means those visits will be infrequent, but not rare; they will be controlled, and they will be brief.
Then you all decide together: How often can the family schedule — and the family nerves — accommodate these visits? How short a visit would be insulting or counterproductive, and how long would be so long that the veneer of goodwill would get chipped?
Not only are your daughters old enough to have some say in the planning, but their cooperation also will make this a collective endeavor, not unlike a regular family commitment to charity — think of it as a monthly gig pulling weeds at a local park, or cutting onions in a soup kitchen every other Sunday.
Once you're all in, you all know why, it's on the calendar no matter what, and you really rally for these visits (and if you, ah, reward yourselves for every mission accomplished?), then the death spiral is done for, and the weight of the issue is off.
The burden of the visits, of course, will remain considerable, but that's what "darned sad" means — and such burdens are also what the love of good families has always been summoned to lift.