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Carolyn Hax: Scared of a controlling mother

Dear Carolyn: My fiancé is starting a nonprofit and does not have a high or stable income; I also work in the nonprofit field. We will not be wealthy, but I think we will be able to have a stable life. My mother, however, has expressed her concerns about his ability to provide for a family, and let it be known that if she had her way, I wouldn’t be marrying him. She, and thus my dad, clearly do not like him.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve stood up for my fiancé strongly. He has stopped talking with my parents, and tells me I should threaten to cut off relations with them unless they apologize and become much kinder to him.

My mother especially has long been controlling and rarely sympathetic or kind, and I am scared to stand up to her. Should I threaten to cut off my parents? How can I gain courage to stand up for myself when I am basically afraid of my controlling mother?

– My Fiancé Blames Me

A: These are decisions and actions for an adult, and, unfortunately, you’ve been denied a chance to become one.

A controlling parent sets the agenda, makes the decisions, draws lines on what others should and should not think, plans the events – and cultivates in her family an abiding fear of her displeasure.

So, what practice did you ever have as a child at making your own decisions? Expressing your own opinions, defending your own choices or arguments? Reconciling your preferences with the conflicting preferences of others? The last one alone is a huge part of navigating the adult world: We all have to find a way to share space – a home, a neighborhood, a workplace, a country, a planet – with those who passionately disagree with us on something.

The easiest way to learn these skills is in small increments from a very young age, in the safety of home with parents who let you know their love for you is not conditioned on your doing everything perfectly to their liking, and who give you enough room to make your own, age-appropriate choices.

Learning firsthand from the consequences of these choices, good and bad, is how you discover who you are. That, in turn, gives you the self-knowledge and confidence not only to make tough decisions, but to stand up for them while remaining open to new information.

This is the easiest way for kids to gain experience, but it can be the hardest for parents. It requires two kinds of letting go: on the micro level, where you let go of goofy outfits as kids learn to dress themselves, or of messy kitchens as kids learn to feed themselves; and the macro level, where you accept that your child might not reach adulthood believing what you believe, valuing what you value or doing what you expect.

This is what an insecure parent fears most – and that fear is the root of controlling behavior.

I won’t advise you which side to choose here, especially since a fiancé who insists you do X is hardly an emotional step up from a parent who insists you do Y. As right as he is to be outraged at your parents’ disrespect, his asking you to cut ties to your parents takes that frustration too far. And, more important, it fails to address the underlying problem, that you’re not strong enough to advocate for yourself, much less for somebody else. Which means that marrying anyone at this point is premature.

What you can do, difficult now but easier with time, is get help – and get that education your mother was too cowardly to allow you. A good, reputable family therapist can serve as that safe place as you learn to tune out parents, fiancé, friends and a lifetime of expectations long enough to identify your own voice.

Your honesty says you have some courage; you just need your own convictions to show you when and how to use it.