We have explored No Contact and its pros and cons. The anticipated backlash from the NParent can be intimidating and may cause some people to shy away from it. Others may find No Contact to be unworkable in their personal situations: they may have sickly family members they feel they must stay in contact with and it can’t be done without the NM being involved, they may still live at home due to youth or economic pressures, they may have NM living in their homes or have some financial link with NM that cannot yet be broken. The reasons one cannot (or will not) go NC are as varied as the people who back off from it.
But there is a saying that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing, over and over again, expecting to get a different result. If you want something to change, then you have to change something, and this goes double when you are dealing with an NM. So if you can’t go No Contact—for whatever reason that motivates you—you might want to try Low Contact.
Unknowingly, I went LC with my NM when I was still a child. I did what I had to do—chores, listening to her diatribes, whatever else she demanded of me—then I disappeared to my room. I found ways to make her willing to leave me alone by observing what things I said or did that resulted in her giving me space…and then I did them. One of the things I discovered was that she would not bother me if I told her I was doing homework. Even if I was reading a novel, I would tell her it was for a book report, which made it homework. For some reason, when I was holed up in my room with “homework,” she left me alone. She would also leave me alone if I was sleeping. So I slept very late on weekends, even if I didn’t feel like it…just to minimize contact with her. The secret, I realized many years later, was to find something she respected and then do that (or say I was doing that). I got many peaceful hours at the library by telling her I needed to access their research section for a school paper.
I learned early that “out of sight is out of mind.” If you have an ignoring NM, making yourself scarce just puts you further out of her mind. When you are present, when she can hear and/or see you, she is reminded of your presence and that can trigger anything from her besetting you with petty complaints to putting you to work to finding yourself at her mercy for some real or imagined flaw like your hair, a pimple on your face, or some other thing you would be better off if she didn’t notice. I cannot tell you how many awful home perms I had to suffer through, how many boils on my legs she forced me to submit to her squeezing, how many lectures I had to sit through about my inadequacy as a daughter or as the household help…nothing I did was ever good enough—and neither was I—and her awareness of my presence could trigger anything from being ordered to do additional work to outright abuse. I spent a good part of my childhood hiding from her.
Engulfing mothers, I think, are a different species and need to be handled differently. I have no personal experience with an engulfing mother—just about everybody I knew had “normal” mothers (which was one way I could tell mine was not), my grandmothers and aunts (save one clinically depressed aunt) were all pretty much normal as well. I really cannot know how the daughter of an engulfing mother could escape enmeshment except through tactics like those I employed with my own ignoring NM: to be out of sight as much as possible. Our positions as children in the household severely limited our ability to challenge their abnormal behaviours, had we even recognized their unhealthy conduct for what it was.
Engulfing mothers, I think, may be more difficult to manage than ignoring ones. With an ignoring mother you can disappear for extended periods of time without notice, whether you are a child or an adult. With an engulfing mother, I suspect you can’t do that without her hunting you down and forcing contact. Many DoNMs are enmeshed to the degree that they don’t know what they want or how they feel, as they are mirrors or echoes of their NMs and have never individuated. Others have to engage in stark rebellion in order to individuate—I have a friend who went through a Goth phase and very overt rebellion—and it didn’t do any good. She has gone NC with her smothering mother and even years into NC, her NM will take the tiniest crack in the NC as a sign that all is back to “normal” and she swoops in, trying to take over my friend’s life yet again.
Low contact is probably easier to maintain with an ignoring mother than with an engulfing mother. But the process and rules are the same, regardless of your NM’s type—it may just require more effort on your part to establish and maintain if your NM is an engulfing type.
First of all, there is no LC letter to consider. You don’t write one (unless it is for yourself to remind you of what you are doing and why), you don’t announce you are going LC, you just do it. Your NM may start questioning why you are suddenly too busy or not around so much—you owe her no explanation. And that is the very first step of LC: for you to realize that you owe her nothing: no explanations, no excuses, none of your time or your attention or your soul. You owe her nothing and you can give her as much or as little time as you want to give.
This is huge. This is the very core of Low Contact: turning the tables so that you are in control of the relationship, so that it is based on your desires and willingness to spend time with your NM. And that means all kinds of time, not just face time. It means telephone calls, emails, texts, letters, visits, lunches out, shopping expeditions—it means all forms of contact. It means that you take control of those contacts, rather than allow her to drop in and disrupt your life at her whim.
How do you do it? Well, you start with recognizing that she is not going to like it, no matter what method you employ and you prepare yourself for it. Depending on the type of NM you can get anything from tantrums and threats to pathetic self-pity as a response. You know your NM better than anyone else…project what she is most likely to do when you tell her “no,” and prepare yourself for it.
The next step is for you to figure out what is an acceptable amount and form of contact. Suppose your NM calls you four times a day for petty reasons and keeps you on the phone for half an hour each time: that’s two hours a day she is sucking out of your life, two hours that you could (and probably should) be using for other things. So, when she calls, instead of hanging on the phone waiting for her to get tired of yakking, you say “Mom, I can’t talk right now. Can you call me back at 11…I think I can spare 10 minutes for you then.”
She won’t like it. She may talk over you, ignore you. She may go all bombastic on you, or pathetic and whiny. She may tell you she is busy at 11. Ignore it. She is negotiating with you and you are not going to negotiate. Interrupt her…yes, interrupt her…and tell her, “Mom, I have to hang up now. Call me at 11,” and then put down the phone. If she calls back, don’t answer. If you are at work, pick up the phone and put her on “hold” without even saying “hello.” Do not answer until she calls at 11.
If she calls at the designated time, be prepared for a diatribe. Interrupt her (you will be doing this a lot in the beginning) and say “I told you I couldn’t talk then and I only have 10 minutes now…what did you call about?” When the ten minutes is up, tell her firmly, “I have to go now, Mom. Talk to you tomorrow.” Then hang up. Do not take any more calls from her that first day.
On the next day, she will call you and be furious (or, depending on the personality, hurt and bewildered and guilt-inducing). Now is the time to clearly set your boundary. “I just don’t have time for all those leisurely chats anymore. I can set aside about 10 minutes in the morning for you around 11, but that’s it.” Allow her to negotiate a time that is better for her if it works for you, but don’t let her negotiate more time. Expect her to want multiple phone calls, expect her to want more time, expect her to want to be in charge. But, just like dealing with a greedy toddler, you have to say ‘no’ and you have to enforce it.
If she starts texting you in place of the phone calls, send her a message that limits her texts: tell her you will read her first text of the day and, if you have time, you will respond to it, but subsequent texts you will delete unread. Then do just that, ending your one response with “No more texts or calls today, Mom…I have too much going on.”
At some point she will want to know why you are suddenly so busy that you don’t have time for her. How honestly you respond will have to depend on what kind of reaction you can realistically expect from her. Some NMs will take “I just don’t have time for chitchat on the phone and keep up with the house and the kids and the job…” well, others will feel insulted that washing dishes and changing the cat box is more important than they are. You have to tailor your answer to the kind of response you expect to get. Just don’t tell any blatant lie that she can check up on because that will end up being circulated around the FOO and will eventually be busted, making you untrustworthy because you are a liar.
NMs will drop in unexpectedly and unannounced. You have to use the same tactic: “I don’t have time to visit today, Mom. Can you call first so you don’t come over for nothing?” Of course, when she calls, you will be unable to accommodate her. To make this work, however, you need to actually invite her over every few weeks or so, when you do have time to entertain her for a short time. When you invite her, expect she will not want to leave, so try to make it late in the day so her visit does not usurp your entire day or make it an invitation for coffee in a public place where you can’t linger for too long.
Some NMs try other tactics: one friend of mine found her NM presuming she could stay at her house while she was in town on a business visit—expecting to use my friend’s house like a free hotel with no consideration for the imposition it might pose. Another friend found her engulfing NM planning an overseas trip for the two of them, completely ignoring the fact that my friend has a husband, two young children, and her own business. NMs will try to find ways to inflict themselves that look not only innocent but generous, making the daughters look selfish or spiteful for refusing. What if NM offered an all-expense paid trip to Disney World or some other such child-magnet, the catch being she would be part of the party (or the catch being you now owe her attention in return for the largesse)? Your kids would be upset, your friends would be appalled, if you turned it down, even though you know it to be just one of her insidious ways to weasel more attention and time and contact with you. Be prepared to set limits for anything and everything because if one thing works, she will repeat it over and over again. If Disneyland worked, then tickets to a concert, Cirque du Soleil, a Broadway musical—whatever she thinks you cannot turn down—will be next. She will refuse to understand than you simply need less time with her and more to yourself, or that you need to be able to schedule your time without her barging in and seizing control of it.
Low Contact is about one thing: putting yourself in control of the relationship instead of her. As the mother of an adult daughter and sons, I invited my kids over for holidays and birthdays and I waited for invitations from them to visit. I grew up in the old days when it was considered impolite to drop in on someone unannounced and unexpectedly, and it was bad manners to overstay a visit. Since those particular points of etiquette seem to have fallen by the wayside in today’s society, you are going to have to revive them for people who disrupt your life and impose on your time, including your own mother.
You have to make a decision about how much contact you are willing to have with your NM and then set limits and then enforce those limits. I would guess that most of them will, at least initially, resist because they don’t like their power taken away from them. They act like spoilt, thoughtless children, imposing on your life with no thought of what you have on your plate, and they resent limitations and boundaries imposed on them, especially by you, whom they view as their subordinates…they have never let go of the once-legitimate role of them being in charge and you being obligated to submit to their rule. And they won’t let go until you force it upon them.
Low Contact, in my opinion, is harder to pull off than No Contact for two basic reasons: 1) you must remain in contact with your NM so you are constantly reminded of the difficulties she imposes on you and 2) because you remain in some contact, she will invariably do whatever she can to sabotage and disrespect your attempts to control that contact. NC is tough, especially in the beginning, but eventually is eases off as all parties become accustomed to the lack of contact, but LC is a battle that keeps on being fought.
For some of us, however, LC is the only way we can go if we are to remain in contact with our dementia-suffering father or to continue to see siblings, nieces and nephews, to participate in family traditions and continue being part of the family. For some of us, it is worth it…for others of us it is not. Only you can decide which is right for you.
Next: The ABC of Boundaries
It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.