Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Her Mother Is a Sociopath

Once upon a time people used to ask: Can this marriage be saved? Today’s letter, addressed to therapist Lori Gottlieb elicits a similar question: Can this mother/daughter relationship be saved?

Gottlieb will make a concerted effort to save it, despite the betrayal, treachery and fraud perpetrated by Mommie Dearest. In truth, I sympathize. I think that the default should almost always be to save a relationship.

And yet, this child of divorce, a young woman who says that she has no one else in her life but her mother, will be not only be more willing to try to save the relationship, but also seems to have been the victim of her mother’s effort to cut her off from all other family members, the better to manipulate and ultimately to rob her.

Darling Daughter says that she has no other family beyond her mother. I, for one, do not believe it. Her mother divorced her father when she was a child, but where is Daddy Dearest today? Her mother apparently cut him and his relations out of their lives, leaving the two of them in a toxic dyadic relationship. 

I would not take the notion that there are no other family members at face value. Since I consider it well past time that Darling Daughter take more distance from her sociopathic mother, I would want her to try to get back in touch with her father and other family members. After all, she has graduated from graduate school-- she does not tell us what kind-- and presumably has an adult life. 

I assume that she has a job, has her own apartment, has friends and relationships. And yet, she describes herself as trapped within a dyadic relationship with her mother. It would have been better if Gottlieb had not tried to salvage it… and had pointed the young woman toward people outside of the home.

The issue however is credit card fraud or identity theft or some criminal activity that I do not understand. We do not know about the mother’s work situation or her financial assets. All of which would shed some light on the fact that she has been taking out credit cards in her daughter’s name and has not been paying them down. This has obviously damaged the daughter’s credit rating, among other things. 

As for the proper advice, I am not in a position to give it. Neither is Gottlieb. Darling Daughter ought to consult a lawyer. Someone who is not versed in the law has no business offering advice. 

Now, Gottlieb considers the possibility of reporting Mommie Dearest to the police. In truth, Darling Daughter should take no such actions and issue no such threats without having legal counsel. Since Gottlieb writes for a major publication, she ought to have contacted a lawyer herself and have reported the guidance offered. I suspect that some lawyers out there would have volunteered their time to help Darling Daughter out of her mess.

For my part, I would add that, as a general rule, I advise against threatening people. Issuing threats is bad strategy. It sometimes boomerangs. Mommie Dearest is a sociopath and it is generally a bad idea to threaten a sociopath.

And yet, the amounts in question do not seem to be especially large. But, we do not know anything about Mommie Dearest’s assets. We do not know what Darling Daughter does for a living, so, as often happens with these letters, we are flying somewhat blind.

For your edification, here is the letter, unredacted:

My mother and I are very close because it has always been just the two of us in our family. My parents divorced when I was a child and I have spent my whole life with my mom. I have no aunts, uncles, or grandparents, which makes my predicament even harder to deal with.

My mother has always struggled with finances due to the divorce. We often lived paycheck to paycheck and I grew up knowing that money was a constant issue. A few years ago, when I was in my early 20s, my mother had a serious health scare and came clean that she opened credit cards in my name when I turned 18, and was using them to pay bills. She swore that it was only three cards and that she was paying off what she owed on them.

Recently, as I was finishing my last year of graduate school and looking into my student-loan debt, I asked my mother for information on those credit cards, which I thought she had paid off. For the next few weeks, she kept changing the subject. After I finally threatened to run a credit check, she told me that she opened about eight cards in my name, and that she owes more than $10,000 on them. I have tons of student debt, and now all of this on top of it.

Whenever I ask her to pay off more, she replies that we don’t have a lot of money, and that’s why she opened these cards in the first place. I can’t even put money toward the debt on the cards, because she refuses to give me the account information and I do not know how to obtain it without actually reporting her. She knows I can’t go to the police, because she’s my mother and I don’t want to file criminal charges.

When I try to tell her how I feel about what she has done, she plays the victim and tells me that she doesn’t want to listen to “my abuse,” and that she’s going to have a heart attack if I keep pushing. She evades anything I ask her by not answering or by calling me names. Often, she will say she “did it for me” because I needed things growing up, but she opened these credit cards when I was in college.

I love my mom but I can’t ever trust her now. I don’t know how to make her understand what she’s done to our relationship—no crying, yelling, or trying to talk with her rationally works. I cry myself to sleep thinking about how deeply she’s betrayed me. Part of me thinks she doesn’t care. How can I get through to her when nothing seems to work?


As for Gottlieb’s response, here is a salient excerpt:

What your mom has done here is this: She has turned herself into the victim of a crime that she herself committed. Suddenly, you are “abusing” her by bringing up a subject she doesn’t want to talk about. If you think back to your childhood, you may recognize more instances of this kind of behavior, so that the credit-card incident, while outrageous, makes more sense in the context of who your mom has always been. Recognizing this might also help you come to terms with the fact that she may not be willing, at least right now, to let herself see how deeply this betrayal has hurt you both emotionally and practically. But the good news is, you can become aware of the choices you have so that you don’t slip into the helpless-victim role yourself.

Obviously, thinking back to her childhood is a fool’s errand. It does not matter. Gottlieb should not have suggested that Darling Daughter engage in such a fruitless exercise. And it is not very helpful to see this as a family drama. 

I understand that it is an occupational hazard for psycho professionals to see everything as a family drama, but here, the key is to look outside the family, to triangulate the relationship and not to go one-on-one with her highly manipulative and sociopathic mother.

For my part I do not know whether or not it will take a trip to the police station or a call that cancels the credit cards. But clearly, Gottlieb is correct to see that Mommie Dearest has brainwashed her daughter into thinking that she is powerless to do anything more than appeal to her mother for mercy:

First, look at the ways you use the word can’t—you write that you “can’t” go to the police to reclaim your financial identity. Of course, you absolutely can, and while you might want to try something else first, the idea that reclaiming your financial identity is a betrayal of the person who betrayed you is exactly the kind of upside-down logic that martyrs use to turn others into victims too.

Instead of presenting yourself at her mercy—why won’t you pay back the cards? Why can’t you understand how you’ve hurt me?—you can set a boundary that might look like this: “Mom, I know you don’t see how stealing my identity and lying to me in the aftermath have wreaked havoc on my finances and deeply damaged our relationship and my ability to trust you. My greatest hope is that one day you’ll be able to take responsibility for your actions and we’ll be able to repair our relationship. In the meantime, though, I need to repair my credit. To that end, you’ll need to do X or I will report this crime to the police.”

Again, I approve of the general attitude and I approve of the notion that Darling Daughter ought to learn how to stand up for herself. As for questions of identity theft and fraud and the damage to daughter’s credit rating, these require an attorney. Even if the question is merely how to navigate the criminal justice system or even the civil justice system, Darling Daughter should not be doing this alone.

Beyond that, she ought to put more distance between her and her mother. Silence will speak a lot more loudly than will threats. 


whitney said...

She lives with her mother. The mother says "we don't have a lot of money"

Sam L. said...

"Instead of presenting yourself at her mercy—why won’t you pay back the cards?" She doesn't HAVE the cards. Without the cards, how can she contact the card companies to find out how much is owed to them?