My mom suckers me in

I keep falling for her bait-and-switch routine!

By Cary Tennis
Published March 30, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Here is my question for you. How do I keep myself from being suckered? Specifically, by my mother, who will dangle a monetary treat in front of me (e.g., cash, a material good I've been prizing but am too poor to buy) and then snatch it away. I feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick the damn football.

She will say, "Oh, your father would SO much like to pay for your wedding!" And then when I say, "Wow, that would be really appreciated since my fiancé and I are poor right now," she'll counter with: But we're only going to pay for "your half" of the wedding and, by the way, the location you've chosen is too expensive and exotic. You should get married in [nearby city] and then honeymoon in [conventional honeymoon spot].

She did the same thing with college. Oh, we'll pay for any college you want! And then when I got into a bunch of elite New England schools, the tune was, "Well, that's too expensive, so we'll only pay for you to go to the state university." By that point it was too late for me to apply for financial aid or get loans, and as my parents are very wealthy, I don't know if I would have been able to qualify anyway.

I've realized my mother is controlling, and that she uses money to try and make me do things the way she wants.

My problem is: Why do I keep falling for it? I know the sweet offers are a front. I know as soon as I take the bait she'll turn on me and start putting conditions on any "gift" she gives me. Even after my parents paid for my education (at the state school I never wanted to attend, and was so bored I racked up nearly three BAs in four years) she will constantly hold it over my head what "nice" parents they are for having paid for my schooling, and how much I "owe" them. Even if I paid back every dollar of my education, guaranteed it would still be held over my head. And if I reject her money, she acts insulted and says things like, "Our money isn't good enough for you."

How do I get out of this cycle? I love my mother, but I don't like her. Honestly, if she wasn't my mother, she wouldn't be the kind of person I'd have in my life at all.

Sucker Punched

Dear Sucker Punched,

If your mother says she's flying down to Palm Springs for a week and she'd love for you to come along, don't say, Gee, Mom, that sounds nice. Say, No thanks, Mom, I'm all booked up.

You know what will happen if you say, Gee, Mom, that sounds nice, flying down to Palm Springs with you. She will say, But of course you know the cabin is full so you'll have to ride in the cargo hold.

Your mom is not going to stop doing it. So it's up to you.

Don't take the bait. No matter what you actually feel, don't take the bait. Practice saying no. You have to make it automatic, like in self-defense, where you practice the same countermove over and over. Practice it while you are in the car. Practice saying, No, thanks, Mom.

We could get into why it's happening but the important thing is to adopt new behaviors. It's not easy to adopt new behaviors. The first time you say no to your mom it's going to feel strange. It may feel like you're going over a line, displeasing your mom. You may feel like the bad girl. Maybe your mom will give you a look. Maybe you will have a staring contest. Hold your ground.

And by all means, resist the temptation to have an honest conversation. An honest conversation isn't going to work. Not yet. First you have to show some strength and make things uncomfortable. Later maybe there will be a time when your mom will be ready for an honest conversation. Right now, honesty would look like capitulation or attack. Either way, she would turn it against you.

So whatever she offers, say thanks but you've got it covered. Remember: You are way too booked up to go with her on trips or be flown anywhere by her or accept any interesting gifts of food or wine or luggage or anything.

When you refuse her bribes, she may start acting hurt and needy and asking for your help. It's harder to refuse to help your mom than it is to refuse her offers of free stuff. But you are learning discipline and you are learning courage. Tell her you would like to help her but you can't get away, and find someone else to help her.

Keep doing that. Things will change. Down the line, you may be able to work on the emotional dynamic between you. But one thing at a time. For now, stop getting suckered.

Don't take the bait.

January 2011 Creative Getaway

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Cary Tennis

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