Today we have a question from a reader about what to do when controlling mothers are involved in the breakup of otherwise seemingly promising relationships.
As always we thank the reader for permission to publish the question and our response and welcome your questions. Contact us and please let us know if we have permission to post your question – with any changes necessary if you wish to protect your anonymity – along with our response.
The reader writes:
I met my now-ex back in January in a college class we were both taking. I’m a second-degree student at the age of 32; she is a first-degree student at the age of 21. We became good friends and eventually developed feelings for each other. The relationship moved slowly, but very naturally, in my opinion. We fell in love during the summer, but the problem is that she lives with her mother who immediately had a problem with the age difference.
At first, the mother said she wanted to meet me first before we went on official dates (we’d had lunch dates and practically talked every day). I had no problem with this, but she dragged her feet with meeting me. I even wrote a letter to her, introducing myself and that I cared about her daughter and only had the best intentions for her and her future. Long story short, it took nearly two months for her mother to meet or talk to me, and this was finally just last week. However, it was in a less than ideal setting (a police department – I was there to help my girlfriend and be supportive because she was having some issues that required a police report). I briefly met the mother then. We also had a date planned a few days later, so I still needed to get her mother’s full approval. Anyway, my girlfriend told me later that her mother was impressed with me and thought I was well-mannered, but she still wanted to talk to me about this date. I had lunch with my girlfriend the next day, so we called her on the phone during lunch, and I explained what the date was, where we were going, what time she should be home, etc. (it was going to an observatory about an hour away, something my girlfriend really wanted to do). Her mother made a comment about her daughter and me remaining only friends (the age gap was too large, she said) and then said she’d talk about it later that night with her daughter (she said it was okay, though). Anyway, the next day, her mother changed her mind last minute and ended up not letting her go, and both my girlfriend and I were upset. I overreacted and said that I didn’t know if her mother would ever approve of us, quickly regretted the comment, and said that I didn’t want to end the relationship. My girlfriend was still upset, though, but we talked the next day, and she said we were okay.
All this past week, contact was limited, but I figured she was busy because of school and work. However, the other night, she broke up with me on Facebook, saying that her mother would never approve of us, that it was unfair to me, and that I deserved better. She said she couldn’t see me in person, that it was too hard, but that she “had to do this.” Her mother and her were constantly fighting about us, and it was stressing her out (in addition to other non-relationship things).
Needless to say, I’m devastated. The relationship itself was fine, but her mother didn’t seem to want to even give me a chance (she could only view the age difference). I’m not sure if there’s anything I can do to fix this, because, honestly, I’m not sure if her mom would eventually come around to the idea. I’d really like to sit down with her mom and talk, but I really don’t even know how to bring this up since my girlfriend has broken up with me.
I’m really just looking for guidance. I really love this girl, and the age difference never played a factor between us within the relationship itself. I’ve also never been married, and I don’t have any kids, so that wasn’t an issue, but I have had several long-term relationships. However, both my girlfriend and I were committed to doing this long-term.
One final note: my girlfriend does have a history of drinking problems. This started in high school, but progressed to a brief time in rehab/detox back in June. She had been doing well, but has been drinking more lately (she went out and got drunk after our date was canceled because she was upset). She does feel she’s slipping, but the relationship ending itself had to do with her thinking her mom would never approve.
And our response:
Thanks for your question.
First, let me say that I always have a little skepticism when there is an age gap like this. I discussed what these age gaps can indicate in a recent post responding to another reader entitled “Reader Question: How to Handle a Painful Breakup with a Younger Woman Co-Worker?” In your situation, there are some things that ease my mind that the age gap itself may not indicate a problem, as well as some things that set off red flags. On the easing side, you mention that you have had long term relationships before, so it isn’t quite the same as the other reader’s situation where he had experience well below the usual for his age. On the worrying side, you mention that this girl has a somewhat significant and recurring substance abuse problem. That combined with the age gap – and especially combined with the issues in her relationship with her mother that we will soon discuss – means that this situation and your response to it may indeed be influenced by some of the maturity issues discussed in response to that other question. So at the very least I encourage you to read through that post and think about how some of the things mentioned there may apply to you and consider checking out some of the resources recommended there if you feel they might help.
Now, to get to the possibly more central issue of controlling mothers and what they represent and how they impact a situation like this.
This woman you were involved with is 21 years old. So she isn’t 16, but she isn’t 25. It’s kind of a gray area based solely on age as to what her mother’s appropriate role might be. I think at 21 it’s certainly reasonable for her mother to make her feelings known and offer advice, especially if her daughter is less, rather than more, mature for her age. However, I think it’s somewhat of an unhealthy sign that she appears to micromanage the relationship and interfere to the extent of overriding her daughter’s ability to make choices autonomously. I understand the notion that if she is living at her mother’s house, her mother can use that as leverage. But I’m not so sure that in a healthy situation, when her daughter is 21 years of age, that she really should want to do that.
A lot of what the mother did seems reasonable to request, but not reasonable to insist on. For example, it’s ok that she’d like to meet you. But it’s somewhat overbearing to require this in order to give “permission” for you two – two adults, not children – to go out with each other. The fact that she then isn’t even prompt in agreeing to the meeting makes things even worse.
The fact that you met the mother in a police station where the girlfriend is involved in something only adds to the overall picture of drama pervasive in this whole situation.
And then there is the fact that her mother, from what you say, is inconsistent and goes from apparently approving of you to not approving of you as dating material overnight.
So the whole situation has all sorts of red flags and, as I advise all our readers, it’s important for you to consider – possibly with the use of some of the books we recommend – why you are attracted to a situation with these kinds of dynamics (ie: invasive controlling mother, substance abuse, police involvement, etc.) Why does a situation like this feel comfortable and attractive rather than possibly unsafe? What about your own past sets you up to feel familiar or intrigued by this? And I am not saying you shouldn’t feel these things or that you can snap your fingers and not feel them. I’m only saying that they are things you can use to learn about yourself and possibly gain a more accurate perspective on what went on here.
Now let’s talk about the biggest elephant in the room here. Who is really responsible for this breakup ultimately? In your email your subject was “Breakup because of her mother.” But let us be honest. This is a 21 year old woman. She may be stuck in a bind having to live with her mother and deal with you if her mother does not approve. I can even imagine her having to tell you that for the time being she can’t go out with you, but she definitely is interested and wants to pursue this further once she moves away from mom. But she did not do even that. She gave in to her mother’s will completely, almost as a younger teenager might, and then didn’t even have the maturity to talk to you about it face to face, but broke up with you on Facebook.
I would submit that all of this means that, though the relationship may have felt wonderful at times, it was never really “fine” underneath it all. It was always on a very very shaky foundation. The real problem is that your girlfriend apparently is quite enmeshed with her mother and unwilling or unable to make her own adult choices. And I suspect that this kind of enmeshment has very deep roots and would have shown up in many ways throughout your relationship if it continued further. As disappointing as that is, perhaps it can also offer a bit of comfort. I highly doubt you missed out on a fantastic problem-free situation. I think more likely you saw only the tip of the iceberg of what you’d be up against for years to come. When people are enmeshed with controlling mothers, without taking steps to resolve that dysfunctional connection, the dynamics can cause problems in every aspect of their other relationships, from inconsistency in making decisions to passing down the dysfunction to your own children if you were to have them together.
So while her mother seems to have control issues, and has probably affected her development quite a bit because of them, it is your girlfriend’s own refusal to set boundaries and assert herself that ended this relationship in the long run. It is a sad situation. But again, I highly doubt you would have had a healthy or smooth relationship with that kind of enmeshment involved. Your girlfriend basically screamed at you “I’m not as mature as you thought I am and I’m not ready to be an adult or be involved in an adult relationship.”
In order to get closure, if you feel the need for that, you might want to simply explain to this girl how you feel about her, that you understand that her relationship with her mother puts a lot of pressure on her and that in the future, if she is ready to separate and make more assertive choices, regardless of her mother’s approval or disapproval, you would be interested in being there for her at that time. That’s really most likely all you can do. Pressuring people to separate from their controlling mothers when they themselves are not ready or willing to take the necessary steps to do so often only backfires on you.
In the meantime, consider the fact that there is often a great deal to learn by investigating the chemistry of why we are involved with someone with certain family dynamics. The fact that you are deeply attracted to a younger woman with a substance abuse problem that is exacerbated by her enmeshment with mom should make you consider your own family dynamics, especially as it relates to enmeshments or abandonments and see what you can work on healing. There is no guarantee you will find anything. But it’s worth considering.
There is one other possibility here. Perhaps her mother is not just inherently overbearing, but rightly recognizes that her daughter has some serious issues that make her truly unable to make decisions at a 21 year old level. If this is the case, and the daughter has a very real substance abuse or mental health issue that deeply impacts her capacity to mature, then the controlling mother’s unusual amount of control might be justified. But if that is the case, then the outcome for you would be the same – to recognize that you never were with someone capable of an adult relationship right now – and your response should probably be the same: to let her know that when she is ready and able to grow you are interested in being there for her, if that is actually the case.
Either way, once you make your feelings known, you’ll have to assess the wisdom of putting other relationships on hold to wait around for this person who may not mature for a long time. And if she comes back wanting to try again you’ll have to assess whether you believe she will be consistent or will go back and forth in this cycle between you and her mother many more times.