June 21, 2009 in Features

By lying, mom divides, conquers


Dear Carolyn: Our 60-year-old mom has five grown children, 22 to 39. Two of us have recently discovered that she has been gossiping, telling stories out of context, spinning the truth, spreading rumors and sometimes telling outright lies about each of us to the others. This has often pitted one sibling against the other.

This has been going on for many years, but we have only recently discovered the severity and the depth of the ramifications. Mom does not like to confront problems and gets extremely defensive if she is called on something. Why is she doing this? What is the best way to confront Mom and to change her behavior? – Frustrated Sisters

The “why” is simple, and sad. By sucking up to each child while bad-mouthing the others, she both secures a child’s individual loyalty and weakens that child’s bond to the other children, thus cementing her power over all of you.

It sounds like an extreme case, but it’s still a version of what insecure people commonly do. Consider the mechanics of gossip: If your greatest fear is of being excluded, then you’re probably going to get a great deal of reassurance from hearing one group member complain about another.

So I would suggest the siblings try these three doable things (with counseling the as-needed fourth): (1) With your mom, gently but firmly decline to take part in the sick dynamic.

“Mom, I’d rather not talk about (sibling’s name here). How are things at work?”

(2) With your siblings, be the one who questions the gossip instead of questioning the sibling it surrounds. Don’t be afraid to say, “I’m not sure Mom has her facts right.”

And, (3) Within yourselves, remain conscious of the discordant seeds your mother plants. You don’t want them taking root in your own families, of course – but, more important, awareness will help you decode your mom as a likely product of these seeds herself.

E-mail Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com.

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