Dear Carolyn: I was raised in a single-parent, unhappy home, and my mother was abusive. I grew up hearing I was stupid, worthless, and it sticks with me. As an adult, I tried to make peace with her only to be blamed, mocked, laughed at. She even called me a crybaby and infant, so I just gave up.
I now severely limit contact with her for my own sanity.
My boyfriend of a year doesn’t seem to grasp the severity of the situation. He has gotten the bright idea that my mother and I need to meet and “kiss and make up.”
When I tell him how abusive she was, he responds that I just misunderstood her or she can’t really be all that bad, that she and I just need to “talk it out.” Maybe he means well, but his refusal to acknowledge the abuse makes me feel like I’m being gaslighted. Of course, he tells me I’m overreacting when I get angry.
I want to give up on him but I already feel like a failure because I gave up on my mother, even though I know it’s not my fault. But still, I don’t want to fail again.
Carolyn says: Not all endings are failures.
Or they are and we’re all failures, too, because we all part ways with someone eventually. Or they with us.
Plus, sometimes our only failure — I prefer “mistake” — is not ending a relationship sooner.
Given how much grief your mother gave you just for caring, maybe your only mistake was to wait as long as you did to get out.
See if this version of events seems fair: You made a mature attempt to reconcile with your mother; she responded with more abuse; you looked at those results and concluded that peace was not something she was willing or able to offer you. Note — concluded, not quit.
I think it’s sound.
And it applies to your boyfriend problem, too: You made a mature attempt to explain why his “bright idea” didn’t apply to you; his response was to negate your experience and criticize your feelings; you looked at those results and concluded that respect for your judgment and feelings was not something he was willing or able to offer you.
You also concluded that a man without those things isn’t welcome in your life.
Concluded, not quit.
Because that’s not failure, that’s strength. And self-knowledge, and courage, and a willingness to face a difficult transition to meet your own emotional needs. Some endings are triumphant.
And some experiences need to teach us to honor ourselves, not hold on to people who hurt us.
A good therapist in these moments can be your guide and guardrail both — and, alas, an option not readily available to all. (The National Domestic Violence Hotline offers alternatives: thehotline.org.) In the meantime, a to-do list:
• Don’t fail to see your needs as valid.
• Don’t let your nerve fail you if your boyfriend resists taking “goodbye” for an answer.
• Do forgive yourself when you fail at these despite your best intentions. We all buckle sometimes.
• Do treat any such failures as temporary and correctable, always, starting with the next decision you make.
Try, fail, forgive, repeat — if human frailty had a bumper sticker, I’m guessing that would be it.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.