Dear Thelma, 

I am in my late 20s and have a career that I am proud of.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate the sacrifices my parents made in raising my sister and me. However, as much as I love my parents, I keep my distance from them.

I grew up in a close-knit family in which my mother runs the household. Although I love her dearly, I cannot ignore the damage she has inflicted on us.

She has a violent temper and is used to getting her way. She is unpredictable and flies into a rage at the slightest provocation. During such times, she would hurl insults at my sister and me.

When we were younger, she used to hit us and humiliate us in public. Her temper has earned her a notorious reputation among relatives, neighbours and even her colleagues. She is not on good terms with many people.

We have been raised to abide by her wishes, whether it is the choice of food, the clothes we wear or the people we mix with.

Until this day, I sometimes feel guilty for not heeding her wishes even though I am now an adult.

We are not allowed to meet some people simply because she is not on good terms with them. If any of us should disregard her wishes, she would unleash her violent temper.

As a result, we give in to her demands to maintain peace in the family.

I have moved out of the family home and am living on my own. I visit my parents every month. I am troubled by feelings of inadequacy and lack of trust. I am unable to forge any close friendship or bonds.

I spend most of my time alone and have few friends. I am unable to connect with other people and am haunted by the fear that people may see my flaws or that I may end up with a broken heart.

I shun relationships for fear that I may become like my mother; people often tell me that I bear a close resemblance to her.

My sister and I are fortunate enough to live on our own, but the same cannot be said of my father.

He is a quiet man who has endured my mother’s temper tantrums for over 30 years now. He often gives in to her and as a result, he is now estranged from his siblings. Over the years, he has become a shell of the man he used to be. He has practically no friends.

His likes and dislikes, and opinions are all tailored to appease my mother. He says it is to keep our family from falling apart. He suffers in silence and I can see that my mother’s behaviour is slowly destroying him.

He retired recently, so he spends even more time at home now.

He has told us on numerous occasions to stay away from home and build a life for ourselves.

He often tells us that we are so blessed, unlike him who is trapped in the house.

I am weighed down by guilt for leaving my father to suffer in silence.

I cannot move back as I will lose my freedom and independence. Deep down, I am angry and frustrated with my father for letting my mother have her way, and not standing up for himself.

Please do not tell me to talk to her or get a third party to help her realise the damage she is inflicting on the family. Attempts in the past yielded no results.

In her eyes, she can never be wrong. She will always find a reason to blame us.

I don’t hate my mother. It is just her horrible temper that we can’t deal with. Is there a solution to my family situation? – Lost

Dear Lost,

Just because you love someone, it does not mean that you cannot be cognisant of, and point out their flaws. Doing so does not mean you do not respect them, or that you take lightly the things they have done for you.

Love does not mean keeping quiet in the face of the wrongs done by a loved one. People often choose to keep quiet because they think it is easier. They think it is better to appease their loved ones than to trigger their anger. This is not love.

In the past, family members made the decision to abide by your mother’s wishes to keep the peace. Many others have chosen the same route. Your mother, therefore, has learnt to expect that.

A long time ago, she learnt that she could use her temper – being aggressive and loud – to get what she wanted. She probably learnt this before your father came into the picture.

Anger is very different from temper. Anger is a normal emotion that all humans experience. Temper, however, is a learnt behaviour. It is a “display”. For many, it is carefully crafted to elicit a certain response from the people around them. It is a means to get what they want.

Your mother sounds like a very domineering woman. She seeks to control those around her. What you wear and eat, who you speak to and associate with – everything is done according to her wishes. The temper tantrums, the insults, and many of her behaviours are ways in which she asserts her control over others.

You cannot talk to your mother in the hope that she may come to realise the error of her ways. As a matter of fact, no one can. These problematic aspects of her behaviour which you highlighted seem to be entrenched in her personality. And that is very difficult to change.

Your mother does not seem to have the ability to reflect on her behaviour to understand its ramifications. You, on the other hand, seem to have the gift to do that. You have learnt from your mother how these things can negatively affect your loved ones. This one aspect alone makes you very different from your mother.

When people say you and your mother have similarities, what are they referring to? Can you take note of these and try to change them?

It is not too late for you to seek help to address some of the issues you raised with regard to your relationship with other people. Because the control your mother continues to exert over you is so strong, you will need guidance to overcome it.

You probably have her voice in your head – not in a psychotic sense – telling you not to trust people. This is not uncommon among those who have grown up in a home environment like yours. You can address this. You can change this aspect of your life. You just have to find a suitable mental health professional to help you on this journey.

There is no shame in seeking professional help. Speaking to a mental health professional does not mean you are airing dirty laundry in public. Many people in your situation stop themselves from seeking help because they feel that they are betraying their parents. This is not true. Acknowledging and addressing your parents’ flaws – especially when these affect you and your well-being – is not betrayal. It does not mean you love them any less.

As for your father, your guilt is understandable. However, you also need to acknowledge the fact that your father had, and still has, opportunities to leave the situation but has chosen to remain. Perhaps, when you and your sister were younger, he thought it was important to remain together as a family. What is stopping him from leaving now when you and your sister have become adults who can look after yourselves?

This does not mean that he enjoys the abuse. It means that he has learnt to accept your mother for who she is. Maybe he even loves her enough to look past her flaws.

Do not mistake your father’s inaction to mean that he is doing nothing. He is doing something – probably plenty – to cope in this situation. You can sympathise with him, but do not feel guilty. He made his decisions in life. It is your turn to live your life. He is an adult who is fully capable of making decisions for himself.

You can be supportive of him. Perhaps, inviting him to stay a weekend or a few days with you will offer him some respite. Let him know that your home is always open to him. That will give him some comfort.

Your way out is to accept the fact that your mother is unlikely to change. Hoping for her to change will only serve to make you miserable. When you can accept that this is who she is, you will be able to draw your boundaries where she is concerned.

At some point, you will have to tell your mother that some things will not happen according to her wishes, and that you will have to make your own decisions. She will try to use her temper to her advantage, and you will have to learn to stand your ground.

Until and unless someone stops responding to her temper, she will continue to behave in that way. She may make you feel guilty about it. But you have to learn that love does not mean doing everything one party wants. Love also means acknowledging and respecting the other person’s will and wants. – Thelma

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