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MzHeather

Behind a cut for mention of child abuse, sexual abuse, and abuse from a therapist. See also, bullying about weight and fat-shaming. Basically a bingo card of triggering, problematic shit and a very awesome Letter Writer trying to handle it all gracefully. ❤

Dear Captain Awkward,

I (31/she) started seeing my partner/boyfriend (33/he) in January 2018. We are in a very committed and loving relationship, and he’s only ever been an absolutely wonderful partner to me. We plan on getting engaged eventually and marrying. I absolutely adore him.

My mother has hated him since day 1. The first year of my relationship, we had many loud, hours-long fights about how he didn’t have a good enough career (he’s an editor), he’s not good-looking enough (I’m very attracted to him), he’s not personable enough (he’s a bit socially awkward, but warms up), and the list goes on. She couldn’t find one nice thing to say about him ever. He’s only ever been polite/kind to her, and he made it clear the first time he met my parents that he’s smitten with me. She was extremely unkind and horrible to me during this time period and our relationship suffered terribly. But I kept in contact with her by phone and in person no matter what (I see them every couple of weeks and we talk 5-6 times a week).

She claims she’ll never be in the same room with him again after only meeting him 3 times in these last 16 months. She finally cracked during one of our last arguments in November 2019 (when I was trying to set boundaries and explain that her irrational behavior was no longer allowed) and told me that she had been molested when she was 16 and my boyfriend looks similar to the man who did this to her. To say I was absolutely shocked is an understatement. I never knew she had been through something like that, and then to find out my boyfriend resembles him…I didn’t react very well. I shut down and stopped talking.

In February of this year, we finally revisited the subject and I told her I thought she should seek therapy since she had never done so before for this trauma, claiming she had worked it out on her own. Then I found out it was her therapist at 16 years old who molested her and she doesn’t want to see therapists because of this trauma.

I don’t know what to do. This is something that I never knew about and that came out almost a year after we started dating. She spent that whole year convincing me she hated him for the most superficial reasons and saying that if I “just lost weight” and I just “stopped settling and cared about myself more” then I’d find a better partner. Aka she said rude and cruel things to me. Now it’s all because she was molested and the other stuff she previously said “is still true but not her ultimate reason for hatred”. I’m confused and feel like I’ve been jerked around.

How can I choose in this scenario? How can I do right by myself and by her?

Signed,
Smothered by my mother and her past

P.S. A potentially helpful detail: I have NOT brought him around her/my family since she told me about the resemblance to the molestor in November 2019. But my birthday is next month and I’d like him to be involved in these types of big celebrations with my family (Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc…).

And if I have to keep them apart, do I tell him the real reason why? Or just say she doesn’t approve?

Dear Smothered:

Let’s absolutely assume your mom is telling the truth about what happened to her as a teenager and how it’s affecting her now. That’s traumatic, upsetting, messed up, painful, all of those things. I sincerely hope she finds a way to deal with it someday, whether it’s working with a trauma-informed counselor (maybe look for female providers only for this and do a lot of screening and due diligence), talking to the good people at RAINN (a thing you might benefit from, too), revisiting whatever strategies have worked for her in the past to “move past it,” reading books about trauma, or maybe investigating treatments designed specifically for trauma like EMDR. We can’t recommend any specific treatments, so I’m just throwing out that there are options other than “You immediately break up with your favorite dude in the history of dudes.” None of them are easy ones, especially since your mom’s therapist was the source of the abuse, but it is possible that this doesn’t have to feel this bad nor does it have to completely rule her relationship with you and your partner forever.

The thing is, your mom didn’t level with you in order to apologize for how she’s been mistreating you and your partner all this time, she did so to justify it. I’d be answering a very different letter if she’d said, “I realize I took an irrational dislike to [PARTNER] from the start, and as a result I invented/focused on all these reasons that I didn’t like him and that he was a bad fit for you, and I’ve just realized why I was doing it, and I’m so sorry I said all these terrible things about him and about you ‘settling’ or blaming your body shape for how I was feeling. He reminds me of something very traumatic that happened when I was a kid, and I realize that it isn’t his fault and that neither of you had any way of knowing that. I’m going to need some time to figure this out, and while I do, what I need from you both is X, Y, and Z*, but I wanted you to know that I’m working on it and I’m very sorry for how much pressure I put on you to break up with someone who makes you so happy.” 

*Possible Values for X, Y, and Z, above:

  • Advance warning if he’s going to be somewhere she is also going to be so she can make a good decision about whether she’s up for engaging or plan whatever coping strategies she needs.
  • No judgment or friction if she feels overwhelmed and needs to bail from an event.
  • Scheduling solo time with your mom without your partner sometimes, just for the two of you to hang out.
  • Understanding and compassion for what your mom suffered in the past and why it was so hard to identify and talk about before now.
  • Some time to figure all of this out and find a new normal where everyone can peacefully coexist.
  • Ongoing conversations about boundaries, like, is it okay with your mom if the you share this info with the partner or is it important to her to keep that private? You asked for advice about whether to tell your partner, specifically, and this is where I would follow your mom’s lead. “I don’t want to disclose your story to [Partner] without your consent, is it okay if I discuss it with him? It might help him to know that there’s a reason underlying all the weirdness and that it isn’t his fault.” 

Unfortunately, your mom didn’t tell you this to apologize, ask for understanding, accommodations, or help finding a way forward where you could be happy with your chosen person and she could be more comfortable. Instead, she dropped this on you like the Queen of Spades in a game of Hearts, like, “Ha! Now You Have To Break Up With Him!” at the end of a long campaign of insults, manipulation, and being incredibly mean to you. [“She spent that whole year…saying that if I “just lost weight” and I just “stopped settling and cared about myself more” then I’d find a better partner. Aka she said rude and cruel things to me”]. Checkmate, right?

Your mom didn’t have a choice about what happened to her as a kid, and she didn’t choose to have a visceral reaction to your partner’s face and the reminders it brought up, she may not have great tools for reliving a terrible life event, and that has to be just so difficult and awful for her, but the fact she chose to be so consistently mean to you about this is A GIANT PROBLEM. 

From what I can tell, your mom does not want to fix the situation or find a way for your partner to be included. Rather, she wants you to accept responsibility for reminding her of what she experienced long ago and making sure she’s never reminded of it again, she wants you to end a relationship that she knows makes you happy, she wants to double down on all the mean stuff she said about your partner, and I don’t see her being willing to do anything at all to work on this on her end. It is a painful truth that a person can be both a victim of a terrible crime in the past and be emotionally abusing and manipulating their adult child in a way that’s completely unacceptable in the present, and I’m sorry to say, that’s the dynamic I see here, so that’s where my advice is coming from.

Our traumas are things we shouldn’t have to carry. They are not ever a license to be mean to people or control them. I mean, when we talk about generational trauma and not passing stuff down to the next generation, it’s rarely so literal, but let’s get literal: I don’t think you have to automatically wreck your happy life because a stranger wrecked your mom’s life once upon a time. The fact that she thinks sharing her story is the one true way to pressure you to do a thing she tried a ton of awful, mean, manipulative tactics to make happen, and the part where she sees guilting you about a thing that isn’t your fault as the solution to her problem (vs. a recognizable, treatable problem for her to work on) does not sit right with me. I know you don’t want to be the person who re-traumatizes your mom, even accidentally, but you don’t have to automatically assume responsibility for her feelings about her own history nor do you have to implement her suggested solutions, especially without anyone exploring the many alternatives to find a way where everyone can co-exist peacefully, especially when her motives are…let’s say…complicated.

You are looking for a way forward that’s respectful to your mom but where you still get to have your wonderful partner in your life. I want to help you find that way. Time for action steps and scripts!

Before you do or say anything to your family, please get some things clear for yourself. You can be understanding, sympathetic, offer certain accommodations, but you have certain boundaries, starting now:

  • Your partner is here to stay. Right? Right. If the love of your life was the guy who actually assaulted her, I’d be like “Eat shit, Kevin, it was not nice hardly knowing you,” but that is just completely not the case here. You are not required to break up with a good, kind, person who makes you happy for something that isn’t his fault and that literally has nothing to do with him. Whatever your mom does next to take care of herself, she should proceed with that fact in mind. Her story isn’t a new bargaining chip, it’s a problem to be worked on and hopefully solved.
  • You are not agreeing to permanently keep your partner on the sidelines of your life in order to participate in your family. This all may take a long time to resolve, but since you’re planning to be together forever, good news! There is all the time in the world to sort this out in a way that works for everyone.
  • You are not going to listen to any more “concerns” (insults) about his looks, his job, his personality, any of it. He treats you well, he’s polite and kind to your family, and he makes you happy. Unless one of those things visibly changes, your family can keep their concerns to themselves. Their concerns are noted. Your mom told you the real reason she doesn’t like the dude; she can drop the other ones, forever, and she can stop being mean to you about this, forever. 
  • Worth repeating: Your family is not allowed to be mean to you about your choice of partner any more (or your weight, or anything at all). Ever again. You can withstand disapproval and disagreement, but you won’t tolerate unkindness.

Let’s talk about your birthday celebration in a month. There’s a pandemic on, so, whatever party you were planning isn’t happening, right? There’s no safe way to have a bunch of people who don’t live together all in the same room, which is a huge bummer celebration-wise but also a highly useful face-saving excuse Mom-wise for at least the rest of 2020. It’s (genuinely!) so sad that all the people you love can’t safely be together in the same place to celebrate you and holidays and other milestones, but heck, there’s a pandemic on, what can we do. It’s not that your mom hates your boyfriend and has been willing to say literally anything about him or you that might get you to break up with him for the past two years, it’s that you don’t want to get anybody sick so it’s best to Just Not. Voilà!

Since she won’t have to see your partner for a long while, this is probably the perfect time for your mom to work on her reactions to and feelings about him, knowing that she’s entirely safe from his company for the time being. However she wants to do that is between your mom and your mom. If therapy is off the table, she’s the boss of herself, hopefully she can find some way to feel better about all of this.

Here’s the thing, though! You, her daughter, are obviously waaaaaaaaaaaay too close to all of this to be the person she talks to about it. You’re deeply involved with the person who is accidentally triggering all of these awful memories, and while you’re glad she felt she could trust you with the real reason she’s had such a terrible reaction to this guy, you’re certainly not the best person to dig into the details or be her sounding board on an ongoing basis. For everyone’s good, you are literally the last person to process this with her. You hope sincerely that she’ll find someone she can safely talk to or the right resource.

This may or may not apply to your mom, but it’s worth mentioning: While I accept that therapy is not useful for everyone even if it is accessible, I harbor a skepticism toward people who insist that therapy doesn’t work, can’t possibly work, they just don’t see the point of talking about feelings, but also, they clearly love talking about their feelings as long as they get to do it with you (and only you), for as long as they want, as much as they want, any time they want, and also treat you any way they want because of those feelings, and also, hey, this person is regularly mean to you and puts you down all the time, but you still have to listen to their feelings for some reason? Your mom doesn’t have to ever get a therapist. That in no way means that you have to consent to becoming her de facto therapist.

So, your partner is here to stay. And that’s your script, honestly. “Mom, [Partner] is here to stay. I’m so sorry that happened to you, and I don’t want to upset you, but I’m also not going to break up with the love of my life for something that he absolutely didn’t do and that isn’t his fault.”

This is an awful situation, so please do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself, take all the time and space you need, and let me know if X, Y, or Z [see above bullet-pointed X, Y, Z list] would help you. I’m happy to give you lots of advance notice if he’s attending something and be understanding if you need to nope out or cut visits short for whatever reason to take care of yourself. Maybe by the time the quarantine lifts, we can do a reset and try this all again.” 

Once you put boundaries in place and communicate them, I can’t promise things will get easier. Your mom may escalate the conflict a lot and dump a ton more shame and blame on you, you may find yourself needing to take breaks from talking to your mom so often and enforce boundaries by changing subjects and ending calls when things get out of bounds. It might feel like you have to choose your partner vs. your family, she may issue ultimatums or deputize other family members to carry the story of how you chose this vile interloper over Your! Own! Mother!

In response, you might have to keep saying, “Mom, I’m so sorry that happened to you, and I want you to find peace, but it’s really unfair to make that about me & [Partner]. He didn’t hurt you, I didn’t hurt you, and I need you to find a way forward that doesn’t make me choose or place the blame on us. You definitely can’t say mean things to me, so I’m going to hang up now.”

In other words, it might get a lot worse before it gets better, and you’ll probably definitely write in again at the wedding planning stage of things. 😉

The thing is, the way to deal with hard things is to deal with them. Say you break up with this partner because you don’t want to risk re-traumatizing your mom. What happens when the next guy is also [too ugly][insufficiently ambitious][an outward living symbol of your poor self-esteem][whatever other insults your mom can cook up]? I believe that your mom was assaulted. I believe that it was her therapist. I believe that he may have resembled your partner, or, at least, I believe that *something* is really setting her off about him if “hours long screaming fights about him for 16+ months” are a thing with him in a way they haven’t been for past datefriends. We lose nothing by taking her at her word about this and taking it very, very seriously. But she didn’t seek help or clarity or honesty about what she was feeling, instead she abused you routinely for two years to get you to dump him. Given how quickly she jumped on insulting your weight and your looks, I’d guess it’s not the first time she’s ever been a bully or tried to control you. Her consistent, ongoing, chosen behavior toward you is a part of this story just as much as anything that happened to her long ago is, and I’d certainly weigh it at least as much as I would weigh unfortunate, coincidental passing resemblances before I made any big decisions.

We’ve all had that dream where we fight with someone we love and then we wake up and we’re angry at them for the stuff they did in the dream. The anger we feel is real. Punishing somebody for what they did in our dreams is still not okay. Or, since we’re talking about physical resemblance, I’m reminded of a very beloved friend who was repeatedly abandoned and abused for decades because his mom said “he reminded her too much of his (late) dad.” Did her relationship with said dad go badly and end worse? Oh yeah. Does he physically resemble his dad and have a similar affect? So much. Does his mom have a lot of painful, traumatic, and untreated…stuff…that has made her life very hard? I would certainly guess so. Is his mom a vile, evil, abusive b-word whose eventual funeral I will attend just to make sure she’s completely dead? Yes. With A Fancy Hat On. And A Craft Cocktail In Each Hand. And Possibly A Brass Band To Mark The Occasion, P.S. Does Anybody Know A Good Skywriter.

Like the painful truth that someone can be both a victim of harm and a perpetrator of it, the harm that we do when we are triggered or traumatized still causes harm. What was my friend supposed to do to make his mom feel less bad so she wouldn’t mistreat him? Do they even make “Face Off” plastic surgery for little kids?

You’re being asked to give up your future happiness because of a coincidental resemblance between two strangers that jarred something in your mom’s memory. Triggers are real and the things that are “all in our heads” can harm us, so I am not saying that in any way to deny or belittle your mom’s experience, but I am saying that the harm that we do in the present when we are triggered or acting out of past trauma is also real harm. If you end things with your partner or make some kind of devil’s bargain to never, ever bring him around your family, I do not think it will actually restore a harmonious, peaceful relationship with your mom. She may feel some relief, knowing that she won’t see him again, she may get something out of knowing that she “won” and her daughter will choose her (eventually) (if bullied into it enough), and she might be magnanimous and as sweet as pie in her victory and wait at least a few months before trotting out the “I told you he was wrong for you” gloating, but just the same, all the bad things that happened to her long ago will still have happened to her, the same way all the mean things she said and did to you for the past two years to get her way will still have happened to you. The heartbreak and grief you’ll experience after ending a loving relationship will still happen to you, the resentment at your mom for forcing this choice will still happen to you, or, should you stay together, the stress of having every single celebration, holiday, and family milestone be a negotiation between your mom’s hostility and wanting to include your partner will definitely still happen to you. 

Your mom’s ongoing hostility and her revelation mean that there are hard things ahead, no matter what you do about your romantic relationship, so I think it’s important to stop and ask: Why, exactly, can’t those hard things be any of the constructive, healing kind of hard things that lead to a someday where you celebrate your birthday with your friends and your beloved and your family and your mom is there and she has found a way to be at peace with all of it and supportive of you? Why can’t the hard work be done in service of your happiness? You can’t choose your mom’s path for her, but you can ask why does the only possible way you can be supportive to your mom (according to your mom) just happen to be the one that is maximally controlling of you, maximally costly to you, maximally unhappy for you, and also the one that fits so conveniently with the thing she’s been abusing and berating you about the whole time?

I don’t think you have to accept that bargain as dictated by your mom in order to be a good daughter, a good person, or a person who believes and supports abuse victims. I just don’t. There has to be another way, one that doesn’t push you out of your own life as the price for honoring your mother’s. Your boyfriend is kind. Your mom is not always kind. That matters, too.

Above all, please hold onto this:

What happened to your mom when she was a kid wasn’t her fault.

What’s happening now isn’t your fault. 

It isn’t your fault for loving somebody. It isn’t his fault for having a particular face. Your mom’s pain isn’t your fault, her history isn’t your fault, what she does about that history isn’t your fault. Hold onto that, please, and don’t accept the narrative that you are the mean one here, especially in a story when someone was so obviously and so consistently  mean to you.

MzHeather

Behind a cut for discussions of food & compulsive eating.

Hello,

This is probably a really, really petty problem, but it’s driving me up the wall.

I live with my mother and she’s been eating my chocolate. She’s been doing this ever since I was a little kid, and every single time she’s replaced it and apologized but, y’know. She also disapproves of me hiding chocolate in my room but if I don’t, SHE FUCKING EATS IT.

Most recently, I bought some chocolate and some mini eggs to make cornflake nests. I put them in the baking supplies so I wouldn’t mistakenly eat them. It took me a month to get round to making them because the fridge was full. I went to make them and found all the chocolate was gone. She admitted to eating it and told me she ‘didn’t think I was going to make any’. Like that gives her the right to eat my stuff. She bought some replacement chocolate and I had to special-order mini eggs online, and I made the cornflake nests. I also told her she’d already had her share but she still tried to get me to give her one and eventually I conceded. I guess I’m just a fucking doormat or something. There was some chocolate left over so I put it in the fridge. Guess what. She ate some of that. She ‘didn’t think I’d notice’ and ‘thought it was excess’ and she ‘bought it anyway’. (Yeah, to replace the stuff I’d bought!)

I also bought a box of fancy chocolate biscuits that I really like and don’t get to have very often because they’re pricy. I was planning to hoard it, but she found it before I could put it away. She asked if she could have one. I’m OK with her having some of my chocolate if she asks first. Anyway, I went to have one and I’m pretty sure there were more missing than there should be. I reacted badly. I’ve taken the biscuits and hidden them in my room, and I grabbed some of her clothes and threw them across her bed. I admit this is immature, but I want her to know what it feels like to have someone do whatever they want with her stuff. (I didn’t want to actually permanently damage anything of hers, just mildly inconvenience her.) I dunno how she’s gonna react, she’s out right now.

She’s pretty sure she’s got some kinda compulsive eating disorder, which I’m sympathetic to, but she ‘manages’ it by not keeping any snacks of her own in the house and eating mine instead. It also feels like she’s taking advantage of my generous nature. Like, she knows she’s going to have to deal with me being angry with her until she talks me down and then buy another bar of chocolate, so her stealing my chocolate is NBD to her. Whereas to me it feels like a violation of trust and it’s also disappointing that I don’t get to have the treat I was looking forward to.

Also, I don’t want to have to keep hiding chocolate in my room. I know it’s not healthy behaviour, and my room is the hottest one in the house so in summer I wind up with melted chocolate.

Do you have any advice to get her to stop taking my chocolate and also what feels like the piss?

Stop Eating My Chocolate (he/him)

P.S. Update: I managed to get in touch with mum and she says she didn’t eat the biscuits. I’m choosing to believe her, because she does tend to own up when confronted. I’ve also cleaned up the mess I made in her room because it’s not fair to punish her for something she didn’t do this time.

Advice would be appreciated though because as you can see it’s still driving me up the blasted wall. Thank you.

Hi there, Stop Eating My Chocolate:

You call it a petty problem, but it isn’t, really. How we get food right now is complicated, the few treats we manage to concoct or squirrel away are important, and the safety and comfort of our home environment is important. As adults we learn to modulate the primal DON’T TOUCH MAH STUFF feelings we screamed out as toddlers, but it doesn’t mean we don’t still have them. And for folks with eating disorders and/or stressful baggage around food, the removal of usual safe outlets and comforting support mechanisms is making it even harder to manage that stuff. [I recommend A Letter For Anyone Living Through The Pandemic With An Eating Disorder at SELF for some compassionate words about that].

I have lived with a roommate who routinely ate my food. Multiple conversations about it didn’t work. Labeling it clearly didn’t work; once he ate a box of cereal that I’d wrapped in gaff tape and paper with little cartoons of him getting stabbed if he ate it all over the box and the words DON’T EAT THIS, [NAME] IT’S NOT YOURS taped over the box flap and a similar gaff-tape message taped over the bag inside the box. More than once he ate all the actual food out of my leftovers and put the containers back with just a residue of broth or gravy, so it looked like the food was still there, but when I’d come home from work all psyched to eat the thing I’d cooked the day before, surprise! I was in grad school, I didn’t have a lot of money or time, cooking for myself was like, my one nice thing, and there was a special kind of infuriating despair about coming home at night after everything nearby is closed and finding nothing to eat in the house even though I’d spent all day yesterday making absolutely sure there would be.

Like your mom, he’d always replace whatever it was if I asked him to (but only if I asked him to), and like your mom, I sensed there was something compulsive or not-entirely-deliberate at work since he was a great roommate and friend in many other ways. There wasn’t room in my tiny room for a separate fridge or food storage, and like you, I decided against keeping food in my bedroom because it’s the principle of the thing, dammit, so, he ate my food consistently for three years.We lived together for three years. That is the math.

Here some of your math: Since you were a child and even more right now, your mom manages what she “is pretty sure is a compulsive eating disorder”* at least partly through you and at your expense. (*We can’t diagnose her but we can accept her self-description at face value.) More specifically, she’s gaslighting both of you with “I don’t want there to be snacks in the house (unless they’re YOUR snacks).” Since she’s eating your snacks, it’s now your fault/your responsibility somehow, and you become a participant in whatever cycle of secrecy/shame/conflict/apology happens next. She can also refashion her scary feelings about eating “bad” foods into judging you and your food [“you bought an excess”/”you shouldn’t keep food in your room”/”you need to share”] instead of owning her behaviors. It’s really messed up and not “petty” on your part to be uncomfortable with this!

Diet culture, even absent a diagnosable eating disorder, brings out a lot of strange behavior: Consider the person who won’t order their own dessert/french fries/whatever but will eat some if you do, the person who wants dessert but can only it if you order dessert, too, the ritual assurances (that no one asked for) about “having had a salad for lunch” or “I haven’t eaten all day” before eating anything in front of others, the weird association of certain foods with moral virtue and other foods with “sin.” People who behave this way are in a state of constant negotiation with themselves and with a sexist and fat-hating culture that wants women, especially to have to justify and pre-apologize for every fucking bite they consume literally forever. It is dehumanizing and exhausting, and the project of regaining a healthy relationship with food in a world that wants to undermine everything about that is an enormous and difficult one that requires an incredible amount of unlearning.

Please know that I have a ton of compassion for your mom. Even if she didn’t have a self-described compulsion, the culture and family she was raised in probably means she’s  never felt “allowed” to buy and have her own chocolate in her whole damn life. It’s very unlikely she is self-aware of the dynamics here or doing this on purpose to upset you. She has work and healing to do to get to the “all food is just food!” and “a person can have chocolate sometimes, as a treat” place. In the meantime, her relationship with food and her relationship with you have gotten mixed up together in this fucked up way right now, and you’re starting to react in ways that are unhealthy and dysfunctional for you, from counting biscuits to messing with her things as revenge. Not okay!

Recognizing that there are limits to what you can do about another person’s behavior, here are some things you can try:

1. You can have a serious, honest conversation and level with her completely. “Mom, you’ve mentioned you think you have a compulsive eating problem. Have you ever tried working on that? Can you try/try again? I want you to feel better, and I have to be honest, it’s really affecting me, too. It makes me furious when something I’ve specially saved up for or set aside as a treat goes missing, plus you have me keeping food in my room, you have me counting biscuits, you have two grown adults fighting about who ate the chocolate or had their hand in the cookie jar. I’m sure the stress I feel around this is a fraction of what you do, but I do not want to have to count biscuits or feel like I have to be vigilant and stressed about this, and I don’t want to fight with you about this ever again!”

She’ll have some things to say, I’m sure. Listen, and if you get stuck, ask her how she wants to handle this from now on. She may not have a good answer, or even an answer, but when we’re locked in a conflict with someone there are worse strategies than asking them to advocate their own best-case scenario.

2. You can recommend resources where she might find insight, help, and comfort. I’ll put some links at the end of the post.

3. You can set some boundaries both with your mom and with yourself.

One that comes to mind: Have you ever told her “no” when she’s asked for treats that you didn’t actually want to give her? What would happen if she said “Can I have one of your birds’ nests?” and you said “No, I’m saving them, sorry.” Would she eat them anyway? Would there be a scene? Would you be “in trouble”?

Whether you actually start saying “no,” I think it’s worth thinking about  whether the word “no” can ever be respected and normalized in your house or in your relationship with your mom, about anything. Isn’t that the heart of this conflict, really? Chocolate can be replaced, your mom’s feelings about food are her feelings, but the feeling that nothing is actually yours and that you can’t trust her is the big deal here.  When I moved into my own place eventually after living with the roommate who ate my food, there was a palpable relief in knowing that everything in the fridge was just mine and that anything I put down would still be right where I left it when I came home. Ahhhhhhhhh. I liked him so much better when this weirdness wasn’t between us! When you don’t have that feeling in your house it’s hard to relax and ever feel safe. With that in mind, don’t mess with her stuff ever again. That’s the first chapter in How To Lose The Moral High Ground In One Simple Step. 🙂

Another possible boundary: You don’t have to accept shitty apologies. Meaningful apologies have distinct steps: 1) Acknowledging the specific harm done and accepting responsibility 2) Making restitution, where possible, and 3) Not repeating the offending behavior. Your mom says “I’m sorry” and she does eventually replace what she took, but #3 is a total fail so far. “Mom, don’t apologize if you’re just going to do it again. If you were really sorry, you’d stop!” When someone apologizes, we’re conditioned to reassure them and forgive pretty immediately, like “It’s okay!” and then everyone hugs. Do you find yourself saying “It’s okay” to your mom when it’s not okay with you? What if you let it stay as Not Okay as you feel for a few hours or even a few days? “No, you can’t have a birds’ nest, and I’m still mad at you about this.” 

Boundaries aren’t mean. You’re allowed to eat whatever you want and to expect that the people you share a house with will respect your stuff, that’s not selfish or weird or “excessive” on your part. When someone is having a hard time regulating themselves, having a loved one be able to calmly and consistently point out where their own guardrails are is a form of care.

Sharing every morsel of food is not obligatory. It’s routine to share meals as a family and/or a household, but it’s also okay to have some things that are just yours.

[Confidential to the people who wrote to me because friends and new date-friends always want a bite of your food or to split things and you don’t like sharing food: Try “Hey, I don’t really like sharing food or splitting things, can we not?” (“This is a quirk about me you should know!”) and also add “But you should totally get your own!” (“I am not going to judge you for eating food, we don’t have to play that weird shame-game”) and see if things get better. In February, when I reunited with some very old friends, it was awesome to see the automatic, friction-free, zero-judgment “oh, right, Mikey doesn’t like sharing, let’s get 2 hummuses!” still held fast after 20 years. 🙂 People can’t know what you never tell them, but they can absolutely adjust once they do know. If they won’t, maybe they aren’t the most compatible dining companions for you.]

4. You can make conversations about food direct and boring.  

Label things you are saving as yours. Do it every time. I agree, you shouldn’t have to. Do it anyway. Make it very clear that it is not community property. “Oh hey, that’s mine.” “Don’t eat that, it’s mine.” 

“Mom, I’m ordering some chocolate, what can I get you?” “Oh, nothing, you know I don’t like to keep snacks in the house.” “Okay!” Take her at her word, don’t fight about it, don’t remind her of what happened last time, don’t make snide comments. Treat it like a very normal, routine thing to ask. Treats are tasty and eating them is fine. Repeat your offer every time. She has choices about how she handles this and how she treats you: She can say yes, she can buy her own, she can respect your stuff. Keep offering her the choice to do the reasonable thing.

If she eats something of yours, make that conversation as neutral and direct as you can. “Mom, I can’t find ____. Did you eat it?” “Yes (+ a bunch of feelings, probably)” It is okay to interrupt her feelings download, shame spiral, justification, denial, accusation that you had excessive chocolate so she was just relieving you of some for your own good (that’s for billionaires + their wealth, not you + your snacks). Interrupt her! “Mom, whatever, just, please either replace it today or give me $X so I can, that was mine.” You don’t have to pretend it’s not happening or hide that it pisses you off, but if you can stay very matter-of-fact you can possibly remove some of the drama and tension from the situation.

5. Never, ever comment on what she eats or how much. If she tries to do the dance about that in front of you – “Oh, I really shouldn’t eat this” or “This is positively SINFUL” or “I won’t be able to fit into anything if I eat this” or whatever (ughhhhhh) just don’t engage with it. Be really, really boring about it. “Huh, if you say so. Pass the salt?” “You’re the boss of you. How’s that book you’re reading?” This is partly about not taking on her relationship with food as your own, and partly about making it safe for her to eat with you and in front of you. Nobody is monitoring her, judging her, observing her, shaming her, you literally don’t give a shit what she eats (as long as it’s not yours).

6. She’s not allowed to comment on your food either. Push back on any judgment of you about what you eat or where you keep your food. “Mom, we’re not talking about me, we’re talking about you. I’m okay with how much chocolate I buy/eat. I’m not okay with keeping my food in my room, but it’s better than fighting with you about it so we all make compromises.” “I don’t want you to eat my food or comment on my food. Both are off limits.” 

7. Practice saying only kind things about food and bodies, especially when you’re around your mom. Part of decolonizing our brains and bodies from harmful diet obsessions and body hatred is being aware of how we talk about media figures, people we know, and our own bodies. We just “met” so I don’t know where you are with your relationship with all of this, but I can bet you’ve picked up some harmful ambient messages about bodies and eating because they are so prevalent in the world, and being raised by a parent who has a lot of shame and weirdness about her own body and food habits is only going to magnify it. This is fixable, with some effort. For starters, don’t insult people or compliment people because of their weight or how they eat. Don’t talk about “good” food and “bad” foods if you can help it. Don’t say mean stuff about your own body or judge yourself for eating certain things, especially in front of your mom. You can’t fix her relationship with all of this but you can do your best to not pass it down through the generations in your family.

8. Non-discussion strategies for accepting difficult realities.

Letter Writer, what if you’re expressing yourself just fine, you’ve always expressed yourself just fine, and there is no conversation or tips that will convince your mom to stop eating your chocolate? What if she’s just like this, and she’s going to be like this until she fixes her own relationship with food or decides to change her behaviors?

What would you do if you knew for sure that she’s going to keep eating your stuff even though she knows you hate it, and it’s clearly labeled, and you asked her not to? Whether she can help it or she can’t, she isn’t helping it, so let’s deal with that.

I’m going to be honest, I hate defaulting to tech-support solutions for interpersonal problems, but when reasonable conversations don’t work, sometimes that’s what we’re left with. I told you about my former roommate, and that the situation never changed no matter what I did. Here’s what I’d probably do if I found myself in that situation today:

  • I wouldn’t try to dig into why my roommate was doing any of this. It’s really his business, the way my food is mine. He needed to know my needs and boundaries, like, “Don’t eat my food” and “If you eat something of mine, replace it the same day.” I didn’t actually need to know “Why are you eating all my food?” to need it to stop.
  • I’d get a mini-fridge and keep it either in my room or in my office or the basement storage area. I’d try to bring it into the house & install it when I knew he wasn’t home and I’d dispose of all the packaging immediately. If he notices, he notices, it’s not like we’d never talked about the problem or that it’s a secret or anything to be ashamed of, just, I’d try to buy myself some time to adjust to a new normal without additional conflict or comment if I could.
  • I’d install a lock on said fridge. You can’t eat what you can’t see. I’d also get a small airtight container with lid for dry goods.
  • I’d still use the communal fridge for most things, but I’d put anything where “If this gets eaten, my day will be ruined” in the new, more secure storage.
  • Now and again I’d buy decoy cereal (or, in your case, decoy chocolate). Yes, I’d absolutely buy some extra of the cheap stuff and leave it in “my” cabinet shelf or fridge shelf as I usually did and label it as I usually did. If he ate it, I’d still make him replace it, but over time it would be a rotating stock of the stuff I didn’t actually care about.
  • I’d resent every dollar and every minute spent on any of this and be grossed out by the thought of food in my bedroom, but I’d also weigh it against the advantages of shared expenses, a beautiful apartment in my favorite neighborhood, and a roommate who took out the garbage consistently (not my strong suit) and was a dear friend in so many other respects. There’s a reason you’re living with your mom and not somewhere else, so, can you try to remind yourself of that when the going gets tough?
  • I’d (hopefully) be free of the daily worry and stress of my food going missing and (hopefully) of fighting about it.
  • Specific recommendations for you, Letter Writer:
    • Probably do not stock up on things you know your mom is likely to munch on before you can get to them. Buy treats in smaller batches and use them up quickly. I know, I know, she shouldn’t eat it, but since you know she is likely to eat whatever you have around, you can actually minimize the damage to your wallet and your relationship if you plan slightly more.
    • You can also utilize the “decoy snack” recommendation and make it explicit rather than implicit When you shop, buy one extra of certain things, and label it “Mom” when you label your stuff. I know (I know!) she said she didn’t want to keep snacks in the house, but obviously she does want there to be snacks in the house, so could you remove the pretense and be real about it for a second? She doesn’t have to eat it, she won’t even find it she’s not snooping through your shit in the first place, but when and if she does, she can snack guilt-free (or at least free of the tip of the guiltberg marked “filial guilt at stealing her son’s preciouses.”)

Should you have to do any of these things? Should you have to manage your mom’s eating issues and disrespect of your stuff? Should you have to do something you find gross and upsetting like keeping food in your room? NO. Absolutely not. It is unfair that you have to.

That said, as long as you live with her, accepting the reality of the situation and taking realistic steps to manage it is a way that you can take care of yourself right now, even if she’s not doing the best job. Our parents are just people and they don’t know best about everything all the time.

 

I’m not opening comments on this, but if anybody needs resources about compulsive eating or other eating disorders, here are several:

  • National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). They have a helpline, referrals to local resources, and notably, they’ve instituted several virtual programs like online support groups during this pandemic. NEDA is USA-based but online programs are worldwide as far as I can tell.
  • If you refer to “cookies” as “biscuits,” good news, I also found this list of eating disorder organizations in the U.K.
  • The Ellyn Sattler Institute – Lots of articles, resources, and guides around “eating competence,” it’s especially good for parents who want to raise kids who have a relaxed, enjoyable, healthy relationship with food.
  • Friend-Of-Awkward-Blog S. Bear Bergman recommends Geneen Roth’s books about emotional eating, calling her “Ellyn Sattler, but for grownups!” and full of friendly, encouraging, compassionate, non-judgmental, nurturing advice on identifying and breaking patterns around, say, hiding food.
  • The Fat Nutritionist – Michelle Allison is a registered dietician who works with clients, she is also a great writer with a wealth of material on unlearning damaging messages and re-learning eating competence.
  • Lindo Bacon’s books Health At Every Size and Body Respect remain supportive, encouraging resources about managing relationships with bodies and food, I recommend them to everyone.

This is not a comprehensive list, nor will everything work for every person, hopefully this gives people a place to start narrowing the search for something that fits just right. I’ve tried to go with things that people I trust have personally recommended and resources that talk about healthy eating and healing relationships with food for all bodies, without advocating dieting or weight loss.

 

 

 

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