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Ask Ellie: Mother's confounding behaviour a form of gaslighting

Get the help of a psychotherapist/psychologist to end family or other “controlling” relationships
Advice columnist Ellie Tesher.

Dear Ellie: My friend’s mother appears to be very nice and friendly. But she withholds items, important messages and her own feelings, from her daughter.

She insists to my friend that “I already told you” about something. My friend says her mother has always been like this, leaving her feeling ignored, confused, and hurt.

Recently, the daughter recently learned that her mother had given away jewellery to various people but not to her. When she asked her mother, “Why didn’t you ask me if I’d like a particular item,” she was dismissed.

Also, a relative’s wedding invitation was never mentioned by her mother. My friend, never told, didn’t respond or attend.

Can you help my gentle friend understand why a mother who appears warm and generous to others, is consistently mean to her own adult daughter?

Complex Mother

It’s a form of “gaslighting,” the term initially used in a 1930’s play, Gas Light (later a movie) in which a husband manipulates his wife into questioning her own sanity.

In your friend’s situation, the parent creates confusion to maintain control of their mother-daughter relationship. She denies her daughter’s memories of facts/events, to exclude her, effectively distancing her from other family supports.

Such harmful psychological tactics are described in the website Your friend needs mental health resources/individual therapy to disengage from her mother’s directed threat.

Dear Ellie: In my early-20s, my neighbour became my “frenemy” over a guy living in our student building. She hadn’t disclosed to me her crush on him.

Having met in the elevator, he suggested we get something to eat together. We “dated” for only a month but my then-friend said she’d never speak to me again.

Now, in my mid-50s, with grown children, I often think of my former friend and regret our break-up. We’d both enjoyed university, were eager to travel, and hopeful of finding a great partner. But I recently learned that, like me, she’s divorced.

Should I initiate contact and hope we can re-connect?

Lost Friendship

Search your own mind before reaching out. Consider what’s prompted your feelings about this long-ago breakup: Loneliness? Recent unrelated hurts?

If unsure, this feeling of loss may come from mid-life reflection on your own life. These are common in the 50s age group, and can be positive urges to do better in many aspects of life, including opportunities to help others, and/or to clear former misunderstandings.

Once you’ve honestly assessed the original falling-out, reach out with a first contact. Start with an apology which acknowledges how much you hurt her. If she’s still listening, allow her time to respond. Then, express hope that you can talk again, and try to meet in the near future.

FEEDBACK Regarding the new mother whose husband’s smoking interferes with helping her with their baby (Aug. 30):

Reader — “Yes, smoking, one of the most difficult addictions to quit, can harm the baby. But anger and reminders won’t help her husband quit. More helpful to both is for her to suggest some of the excellent smoking cessation courses or aids.

“I understand that she wants to protect herself and their newborn. His smoking outside is one step in the right direction.

“She could ask more directly for help in their house, e.g., “please help me now to have time to shower.”

Reader No.2 — “I read Allen Carr’s book, then read it again just before I quit smoking. I haven’t smoked again in 14 years.

Smoking Cessation Programs & Services Nicotine Dependence Clinic (CAMH) offers a variety of commercial tobacco cessation treatment services by a team of medical/nursing/pharmacy/social work and addiction therapy professionals. Check for their programs.”

Dear Ellie: My father-in-law who’s 79, always makes fun of my clothing choices, drops in without notice, and monopolizes any family-based conversation with political pronouncements he knows his son and I don’t support.

My mother-in-law died eight months ago and he seems to have no other person/place to air his views.


He’s “lost” in a lonely/empty time for which he was unprepared. It’s a common shock to many aging seniors who’ve ignored the reality that their lives could change overnight.

He needs “connection” with varied social contacts, of similar ages, and/or matching interests, etc. He also needs outings (usually arranged by seniors’ or community associations, or faith-based communities, for a change of scene and people to meet.

Kindness and understanding can improve both his outlook and your “new” family relationship.

Ellie’s tip of the day

Doubting yourself repeatedly can signal having been “gaslit.” Get the help of a psychotherapist/psychologist to end family or other “controlling” relationships.

Send relationship questions to [email protected].