Dear Dr. Michelle:
My birth mother gave me up for adoption when I was a newborn. I am now 24 years old and connected with my birth mother and her family two years ago. At first, it was great to meet the extended family and learn more about my birth story. However, I am getting more and more uncomfortable with our interactions. My birth mother seems to be very moody and wants more contact than I am prepared to give. She can lash out emotionally quite easily and I have learned that she has a lot of mental health issues. I don’t enjoy this relationship and don’t have that strong of a connection to her. How do I back away without hurting her feelings?
It is insightful of you to understand your limits in this relationship and thoughtful for you to worry about your birth mother’s feelings. Unfortunately, there may be no way for you to back away from the relationship without hurting her feelings. You have no control over how she thinks or if she will be offended, but you do have control over how you tell her. Being kind, respectful, and honest can go a long way in helping her manage her feelings.
Even though she could be potentially hurt by your decision, it is important for your own health to make your needs known. Think of “backing away” as setting boundaries for yourself, which is a healthy way to handle a challenging relationship.
Before you talk to your birth mother, you need to be very clear about what you want. If emotions get high, you need to be able to rely on a firm decision to help you communicate more effectively. Do you wish to end the relationship altogether or is your wish is to minimize the frequency of contact?
If your desire is the latter - to simply minimize contact – spend time writing down all the things you will need to maintain this relationship. Answer the following questions for yourself and be prepared to communicate your expectations.
Questions To Ask Yourself
- How frequently do you want contact? Once a week, once a month, 2 times a year?
- What form of communication are you able to give? Texting, emailing, video chat, in-person, letter/cards?
- Who do you want to initiate contact? Can she initiate contact or are you expecting all contact to be initiated by you?
- What topics are you willing to discuss? Do you want to keep it light and superficial and do a minimal check-in or do you want deeper conversation about your lives?
Setting Clear Boundaries
Once you have a clear understanding of your own expectations for the relationship, develop a script to help you communicate your intent so that your boundaries are clear. An example of a script might be:
“I am so glad we connected. You have helped me understand my history and discover who I am. Some things are going on for me and I need to change the nature of our relationship. While I don’t want us to cut off all contact, I need our relationship to change and get some more distance between us. If we can set up some different parameters for our relationship, I think I can maintain contact. I would like us to reduce our contact to X times per X, only have contact through X, and for the time being, I would like to be the one who initiates all contact. When we do communicate, I would like to keep things light and do a brief check-in. If my wish is too difficult, or unfair for me to ask of you, or if you are unwilling to maintain a relationship with me under these circumstances, then I will understand if you need to end all contact. Thank you for respecting my decision to change the nature of our relationship.”
If your desire is to end the relationship, you need to be very direct in your communication so as not to mislead her. You can say something like:
“I am so glad we connected. You have helped me understand my history and to discover who I am. I am finding it difficult to manage this relationship and the rest of my life. Because of this, I’d like to end our contact, which means that I will no longer be reaching out to you. Thank you for respecting my decision by not reaching out to me in the future. I really need to take this time for myself and process all that has happened in my life over the past two years.”
I recommend you communicate your intentions and requests through an email. Email is a more distant and removed form of communication and expressing yourself in this way will role model what you expect and will be more congruent with your intentions.
If you have had frequent contact with your birth mother’s family, make sure you have a plan on how you want to handle those relationships and inform them likewise, or communicate your intent with them if it is different.
Dear Dr. Michelle blog posts are informational in nature. The posts are not meant to take the place of consulting your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health providers regarding your well-being or the well-being of others. Submitting a question does not establish a client/therapist relationship.
Submit Your Question on mental health and/or family relations to Dr. Michelle K. Murray.