Years ago, I wrote a Q&A column on a matching website. Most questions submitted were about marriage or the spouse-selection process. But some were about other issues. One sister sent in the following question:
Q. I am a 23-year-old female and have had for years a difficult relationship with my mother. She tends to be negative, suspicious, and blaming. I have always endured this behavior by holding my tongue and making du’a that she will one day change her behavior. She in many different ways, sometimes subtle and sometimes blunt, degrades me, my choices, decisions, and actions. She thinks she is just watching out for me, wanting the best for me, and correcting me as a parent should. And she expects me to submit to her opinions and advice, to respect her no matter how she treats me, based on the Islamic teachings about respecting parents. I feel really run down by her negativity and behaviors. What can I do to address this issue with her that will not violate the command to respect parents?
A. It is understandable that the sort of behavior you describe is very difficult for you. While your mother must have reasons in her background and/or in her current life as to why she is so negative, that does not excuse her behavior. Of course, the Islamic exhortation to respect parents is very important. Most know the following verses:
“Your Lord has commanded that you worship none but Him, and that you be kind to your parents. If one or both of them reach old age with you, do not say to them a word of disrespect, or scold them, but say a generous word to them. And lower to them the wing of humility out of mercy, and say, ‘My Lord, have mercy upon them as they brought me up when I was small'” (Qur’an 17:23-24).
However, this exhortation to respect one’s parents and be kind to them does not mean that one should submit to any sort of abusive treatment. As an adult, you are in a position to make clear to your mother that you take issue with her treating you with such negativity. It is, of course, very important to convey this to her in a very respectful way. You should aim to come across to your mother with a calm, confident, and respectful tone and attitude. The following guidelines can help.
Start out by saying something that shows your love and your sensitivity toward her feelings. Let her know that your intention is not to criticize her or make her feel badly, but to protect yourself from the effects of being disparaged on a regular basis and to avoid this dynamic which damages your relationship with her. You then should state what the problem is, according to your viewpoint. This describes your difficulty/dissatisfaction and explains why you need something to change. Then you can make a specific request for a specific change in her behavior.
According to the above guidelines, you could start out by saying something like this:
“Mom, I really love you and I know that you care so much about me. That’s why I want to discuss something that has been bothering me for a long time.”
Then, when you state what the problem is, use “I” statements. For example, instead of saying “Mom, you always are suspicious of me or say insulting things to me,” say something along these lines: “Mom, I feel really badly when I am insulted or there are suspicions about what I do in my life even though I try really hard to be a decent and responsible person. And you know that about me.” You could go on to say, “I really want to talk with you every day on the phone because it makes me feel connected to you and Dad and home.”
Now you state the change you are requesting from her. “What I would ask of you though is that you avoid putting me down or voicing suspicion about me, my friends, or my activities. If you feel that I made some mistake or wrong choice or bad decision, just tell me that and I will sincerely consider your view. But please tell me in a way that doesn’t feel so negative, so disapproving and critical. I know you just want the best for me, but I can hear your viewpoint better if you tell me in a way that keeps my mind and heart open to your message. I know that if you can do this, our relationship will be even stronger and closer.”
Keep in mind that if your mother is receptive to your feedback and request for a behavior change, she will not change overnight or be perfect in her attitude, tone, or words from that time forward and in all cases. None of us is perfect and she is apt to make some missteps. You can practice being patient with her and tolerant of those indiscretions. The main thing that you would want to look for is her willingness to hear your concerns about the dynamic and to make some adjustments in how she relates to you and expresses herself in conversation.
If your mom is completely closed to your concern and request, you have the right to advise her that whenever she becomes insulting, suspicious, or otherwise extremely negative, that you will politely tell her that you are going to end the conversation, and that when she wants to resume and stay within more positive boundaries, that you are open and ready for that.
It is helpful to reiterate this point: when you first tell her about this issue, begin by assuring her that you are not doing this to be disrespectful or to hurt her feelings, but to protect yourself from the negativity. It will probably take practice on your part to do this with a calm yet confident tone, and to follow through by ending the conversation when necessary. It is most important that after ending a conversation, that when your mom next calls you or approaches you, whether right away or sometime later, that you come across as open and happy to engage with her. That means that you avoid conveying any hint of resentment or disapproval of her. It is, in fact, the hurtful and destructive behavior that you take issue with.
If you feel that your mom’s negativity has adversely affected your ability to function optimally in your everyday life, or has predisposed you to more than occasional mild depression, or negatively impacted your friendships and the ability to trust and let down your guard with good friends, talking about it with an imam or counselor could benefit you and help you to resolve your feelings about the situation. May Allah SWT guide you, guide your mom, and facilitate your efforts to improve your relationship with her.