Dear Rachel,

I am an adult woman who has had a difficult relationship with my mother my entire life. While I was never physically abused, I definitely suffered severe emotional abuse. I have always tried to retain a relationship with her as I actually feel sorry for her more than angry. However, when I am around her I revert to being a hurt child once more and don't feel I can protect myself. I know you are supposed to honor your mother and father, but a part of me feels that it would be best to cut off the relationship. Another part of me wonders if I should pretend to ignore what bothers me and maintain a connection so that she is a part of my life and that of my children. What do you suggest?

Hurt

Dear Hurt,

I feel sorry for her more than angryI don't think there is a mother-daughter relationship that isn't complicated and difficult in certain respects. However, yours definitely sounds much more extreme than the average. The fact that you are able to recognize what is unhealthy about your relationship is already a huge step in the right direction. The big question that needs to be addressed though is if you can have an ongoing relationship that doesn't cause damage either to yourself or your children.

Right now it sounds like you are extremely hurt and vulnerable. So for the immediate future it would seem to make most sense to keep your distance a bit while you come up with a strategic plan of action. It might sound funny that you need a plan, but whenever there is someone who acts in an abusive way, the only way of dealing with that person is to have a clear plan so that you can remain protected.

You mention that you feel sorry for your mother which leads me to believe that while her behavior and actions have caused you tremendous pain, you perhaps do not feel that she is able to control them, and perhaps she has no malicious intent. Is it possible that your mother has some kind of emotional or mental illness that could be balanced through intensive therapy or even medication? Often if someone is unstable they will behave and respond in ways that are quite hurtful, even though they are not fully aware of what they are doing or able to stop such destructive behavior.

While I can't imagine that your mother will accept a suggestion coming from you that she should get help, perhaps she will accept that suggestion from someone that she respects and listens to? If there is someone like that in her life that you feel comfortable speaking with, let him or her know how you feel and how sad it makes you to watch her be destructive both to herself and to you and your family, and how you would like her to get help but don't feel you can be the one to suggest it. It is not clear that she will ever pursue this option or direction, but it is worth a shot.

At the same time, while you can't control whether she seeks professional help, you can certainly ensure that you receive any support or counseling that you need. You clearly are carrying around a lot of pain and issues that should be worked through, regardless of whether you decide to continue your relationship with your mother.

If you find that breaking off your relationship with your is too extreme, I would suggest that you try to make the time you spend together less frequent. A relationship over the phone or through email and letters is often much less volatile than one in person. And if you are to spend time together, try doing so on your turf. Sometimes she will treat you much better when she is in your home and your guest than when you are under her roof and her control.

When a child is being abused, the law of Honoring Your Mother and Father are suspendedNow, if all the above measures don't work: you can't get your mother to receive the treatment she needs, and limiting your relationship isn't an option (or doesn't offer you the relief you seek), then indeed you have to consider whether to terminate the relationship.

While I do not feel that I have enough information to suggest whether or not you cut off all relations with your mother – for that you need to speak to a therapist or perhaps your rabbi – I do want to clarify one very important point: You mention the importance of Honoring Your Mother and Father, one of the Big Ten of the Ten Commandments. There is no question that honor and respect are valued greatly and a huge focus in Judaism. However, there are limitations to this commandment, and one huge exception is when the relationship is abusive, no matter the form of abuse. When a child is being abused, and it is not healthy for that child to remain around that parent, then the law of Honoring Your Mother and Father are suspended, in those areas where according honor would be harmful for the child. In your case, you shouldn't feel that out of respect for her you need to be around her, if being around her is extremely unhealthy for you.

On the other hand, any communication that you do have with your mother, must at all times be respectful (even if you are informing her that you are terminating the relationship, that, too, must be done with respect).

I hope you are able to find a therapist or professional who can help you work through your past issues with your mother and help you create a plan for whatever kind of relationship you will have with her for the present and the future. May you be blessed with strength and clarity as you work through this painful relationship and may your mother find the help she needs to be a happier and healthier person.

All the best,

Rachel