Dear Mary: My mother drives me crazy by constantly badmouthing my dad

My parents have been married for over 50 years now and I love them both dearly. But my mother is driving me crazy because she complains non-stop about Dad.

He's no company for her, he watches TV all day (but sits too close to it since his cataract operation), has the volume too loud (he is a bit deaf), goes to the church three times a day and is not pushed if she doesn't go to morning Mass with him because he goes off to have coffee with some women afterwards or else a pint in the local with old friends and she is left alone preparing the lunch on her own for his return.

When they are together, she nags at him incessantly about anything at all, and it really upsets me. But when I intercede on his behalf, she asks him if she is all that bad and he smiles benignly and says that she is the best thing that ever happened to him. I want to scream.

What am I going to do? If he were younger I would expect that he has a fancy woman somewhere who gives him some peace but he's almost 80 now and I don't even want to consider that notion.

I'm an only child so I can't unload this on a sibling. So please help.

Mary replies:

It is sometimes very difficult to understand what in psychological terms is called the 'marital fit', where shared conscious and subconscious values, attitudes, beliefs and expectations all play their part in making the relationship work. I would need many more details about each of your parents and their families of origin before I could venture an opinion as to what is going on between this couple. But they have obviously worked out a pattern of living that works for them, even though it very definitely doesn't work for you.

And no matter how much you want things to change, after 50 years there is no chance of that happening.

But there is something that you can do to make things better for yourself. Instead of stepping in to support your father and getting nowhere, you can address the effect this has on you, along the lines of 'Mum, it makes me feel very unhappy when you bad-mouth Dad, whom I love to bits, and so I'm now going to talk about something else' and quickly change the subject.

If you are on the telephone to her and she starts complaining about him, then threaten to hang up if she doesn't stop. You will have to persevere with this in order for her to realise that you are not going to collude with her haranguing any longer.

After all, nobody has stopped her in the past so it is pretty much learned behaviour at this stage.

I'm sure you don't want to jeopardise your relationship with your mother, so you will have to emphasise your love for her and that it is only her treatment of your father that you are objecting to.

I appreciate that you feel you have nobody with whom you can share this.

I hope writing about it has helped, as writing has a wonderfully cathartic effect in lots of different situations.

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