Dear Annie, My mother and sister are abusive and bipolar. It’s taken therapy and hard work, but I have managed to live a normal life despite having had a difficult childhood. My therapist helped me to create a strategy, which has included minimal family contact.
I don’t like to talk about them and avoid the topic when I’m getting to know someone. I’ve become an expert at changing the subject or going on tangents when it comes up.
I’ve been dating my boyfriend, Jonathan, for a few months and we’ve never really talked about it. He had a happy childhood and seems to be on great terms with his family.
Unfortunately, we ran into my mother on the way to the movies the other night. It was impossible to avoid her and she was very friendly and chatty—thank goodness she wasn’t in a downward spiral.
I was horrified. By the end of the evening, I told Jonathan all about the horrible abuse that I have suffered through my mother’s ups and downs. I wish I hadn’t, but the encounter shook me to my core.
The problem is that my mother is extremely charming when she’s in her “up” phase, so now Jonathan seems to think that I am exaggerating or making up stories. He had a lot of sympathy for her and believes that I should be more open-minded about my relationship with my family.
I fought long and hard to be free of her destructive influence. I hate that Jonathan doesn’t believe me and doubts my judgment. How can I resolve this without losing him? Adele
I can see that it would be very easy for you to feel defensive under these circumstances. Jonathan’s questions may have felt like an attack, but what if you approached it from another angle?
Rather than assuming that Jonathan is questioning your judgment, I suggest you explore his motives. He may be asking questions because, after coming from a healthy family, he doesn’t have the experience or background to understand your situation.
Give him the chance to think this over so you can calmly talk about it later. In the meantime, provide him with an opportunity to learn more about how mental illness affects the families of those afflicted. Send him links to a couple of well-researched articles about people with your mother’s disorder.
Often, people who have never experienced being around mental illness assume that everyone has the ability to behave reasonably if given the chance. They may find it confounding that someone might be completely irrational at their core. They may not understand that a mentally ill parent might be incapable of treating their child in a loving way.
The next time that you and Jonathan talk about this, do your best to answer his questions honestly and truthfully. I suggest that you also plan to address the following three points:
- Tell him that you’ve had professional support in making your decision about how you handle your family.
- He needs to respect that you’re reacting to the world in a healthy and well-thought-out way. You need him to respect you and trust your judgment if you are going to be together.
- Ask him to educate himself about the effect that someone’s mental health can have on their family so that he can be supportive in the future.
According to 2015 statistics by The National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or 18.5%—experiences mental illness in a given year.
You’re smart to wait until you’ve dated a while to reveal a difficult family history. For the most part, I suggest that you gradually bring up the topic after you’ve dated for a month or so.