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Can I stay friends with the mother of my abusive ex-partner?

Group Therapy is a relationship advice column that asks readers to contribute their wisdom.

Each week, we offer a problem for you to weigh in on, then publish the most lively responses, with a final word on the matter delivered by our columnist, Lynn Coady.

A reader writes: My ex and I split up 16 years ago but I am still friends with her mother (let's call her Martha), who's known me since I was a teenager. The breakup was ugly. My ex was a condescending control freak who called me "stupid and useless," helped herself to my inheritance and had other lovers. Now, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to be around Martha, who takes the occasional dig at me and has, as far as I know, only heard her daughter's side. I've had therapy to deal with why I stayed in an abusive relationship, and I promised 16 years ago never to talk to Martha about her daughter and me, but I feel like I need to unload some of this resentment and enlighten her about how things really were. Is this possible without killing our friendship?

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One of the reasons we stay in abusive relationships is that we are afraid of loss. While you successfully extricated yourself from the relationship with Martha's daughter, I wonder why you chose to retain the connection with Martha? To want to unload your resentment is understandable - but better to find a safe place to do that, where it will be possible for you to also understand why you stayed connected.

There are many times when ending a relationship is a gain rather than a loss. Letting go is easier when we trust that there are prospects for healthy connections. Begin to trust.

- Janet O'Brien, Toronto


Perhaps the little digs are Martha's way of saying that she wants to hear your side. She likely has a pretty good idea of who her daughter is and is aware of the fact that she's only heard her version. Your ex's mother is not the person on whom you should unload resentment, but you can calmly and factually tell her the details - once - and ask that she stop with the digs. If Martha is mature enough to receive it the way it is meant, your friendship will likely survive. If you do nothing, it won't.

- Patty Maguire, Toronto

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I stayed in an abusive rela-tionship for 23 years, and

am only now finding my way out. Like you, I sought counselling, and had hoped to continue to count among my friends my former mother-in-law. But it has been made clear that the only relationship she is interested in preserving is with her grandchildren. I've learned the parental relationship trumps any other, and

if I am truly her friend, I must recognize that her rightful priority will always be her child. But if, unlike my situation,

you and your ex do not have children, why are you hanging on? You will never be fully

free of your abusive partner until you break up with Martha, and as long as you refuse to do that, your ex will continue to control you through her mother.

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- Liz Smith, Vancouver


My first reaction after reading your letter was to wonder why you would still be friends with your nasty ex's mother. I wondered this instinctively because it's a little weird, frankly, and I was looking for the easiest way to answer your question. The easy answer can be found above, courtesy of Janet and Liz, thoughtful though their responses may be: Break up with Martha.

Martha will always be your ex's mom - check. Martha, therefore, will always take your ex's side - check. Martha, undoubtedly, has been treated to the Fox News version of your breakup, and if you have taken such scrupulous care not to provide her with the genuinely fair and balanced details, you're going to have to accept that Martha has swallowed her daughter's story bones and all. Hence the "occasional digs." Check, check.

Furthermore, your relationship with your ex was, by your own accounting, long, unpleasant and humiliating. To remain friends with this woman's mother is the emotional equivalent of obsessively picking a scab. Let the ravaged wound that is the legacy of this lousy relationship heal over already. Check? Check.

But now that all these points have been addressed, I have to acknowledge that if giving the boot to Martha was as easy as it sounds, you would have done it already. Patty in Toronto grasps that you haven't come to Group Therapy asking for a list of reasons to end the friendship - those reasons are manifest. You're writing because Martha's friendship is important to you and you want to know how you can maintain it.

What's required, then, are ground rules. Next time Martha lets loose with one of her "occasional digs" is the time

to establish them. Explain

to Martha that she has only her daughter's side of the

story and, although you don't wish to go into it, it bothers you to hear this one-sided and deeply unfair account reflected in her remarks. Say that for the sake of your friendship, you think it best not to discuss her daughter or your shared past with her, under any circumstances.

Stop there. Don't elaborate. Refuse to pick the scab.

Next week's question

My boyfriend is of the mindset that he does not have to do anything romantic, pay attention to me or be inquisitive about my day in order to ensure we have a healthy intimate life. Click to read the rest of the question and to share your wisdom or submit your own dilemma.

Lynn Coady is the award-winning author of the novels Strange Heaven and Mean Boy, with another one currently in the oven.

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About the Author
Relationship Columnist

Lynn Coady writes the Group Therapy column for The Globe and Mail's Life section. She is the award-winning author of the novels Strange Heaven, Saints of Big Harbour and Mean Boy. Her most recent novel, The Antagonist, will be released this September. She lives in Edmonton, where she is Senior Editor of Eighteen Bridges magazine. More

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