By Hara Estroff Marano, published on December 4, 2007 - last reviewed on January 30, 2008
My mom just divorced my stepfather for the second time recently. Since then she has been Internet dating. I'm worried because she rushes to meet men. If they live an hour or two away, she sometimes stays at their house even if she is meeting them for the first time. Rushing into relationships is what she has done her whole life. She has been married to three different men and two of them she divorced and married a second time. All were abusive to her. It's as if her life is worth nothing if she doesn't have a man. I've tried to encourage her to take some time to get to know herself—maybe by developing some hobbies. I've tried to talk to her about her self-destructive patterns but she says that she's lonely and wants to find a nice guy. I think she's presenting herself as just plain desperate. I love my mom but she needs to learn that if she doesn't love herself, no one will. Any suggestions?
You sure seem to have an accurate fix on your mother. Although she hasn't learned any lessons about love over the years, at least you have. It is sad, though, when kids have to function as parent to a parent on relationship issues. Nature didn't design it that way. Your mother's shame over the generational reversal of wisdom may be a big source of her resistance to your message. Her frenetic behavior—not just the rushing out to meet guys but hurling herself into dating before the ink is dry on her latest divorce—is driven by her inability to tolerate her own being. It's not hobbies that are going to fill her up, although they may help her use her time more productively on her own behalf. It's learning how to be comfortable and satisfied with her own presence and to value it. Somewhere early in life she unknowingly acquired or was given the message that she (and perhaps women in general) has no human value unless attached to a man. It seems that almost any man will do. She doesn't even devote a moment of time discerning a man's character.
Abuse is one of those tricky situations. No question, it is always the responsibility of the abuser. However, some situations pave the way for abuse more than others. Abuse thrives where a power imbalance exists. Not everyone will resort to abuse under such circumstances, but the barrier is so low that many otherwise decent people do. Your mother creates a power imbalance by handing over responsibility for her own well-being to her partner. While a partner's dependence may be appealing to a man at first—it may make him feel more manly—it eventually becomes burdensome and most guys come to resent the burden. That doesn't excuse abuse, but it would take a person of exceptional character not to resort to it when angry or frustrated. So your mother's mating strategy of desperation and dependence sets the stage for her own poor treatment. It might help if you sat down and explained that to her in a kind way.
Your mother isn't getting any wiser through sad experience. Nor does she seem inclined to pause and reflect on her own actions and consider why she is impelled to behave in the same ways that keep ending so unproductively. Likely, her behavior is driven by a set of hidden beliefs about herself and men and relationships.
Obviously, she doesn't know how to get out of the cycle of disappointment she is stuck in. But you can start the ball rolling in getting her unstuck. You need to get her to expose and challenge the very unproductive beliefs she is operating on without being aware of them. You don't want to ask questions that are too global such as: Why do you rush out to see these strangers? Instead ask ones that get at her hidden beliefs: What do you think will happen to you if you don't go out with anyone for a week, or for a month? What is the worst thing that could happen? What is so terrible about being lonely? What are three things you could do when you feel lonely that would make you feel good? See a funny movie? Join a book club? Try contra-dancing? Encourage your mother to come up with her own list.