Q: The common wisdom for how to deal with poisonous people is “Don’t.” I’m inclined to agree, but this answer is simply far too pat to be terribly applicable to reality. There are a number of times where interacting with someone who is a control freak or a rageaholic is totally unavoidable, such as when they are a parent or boss.

A: That’s so true, for children. And if it wasn’t for kids being stuck with grownups who mistreat them in childhood them there wouldn’t be a need for therapists.

Adults, however, have choices even about parents and bosses.

Q Even worse is when these people have any measure of authority they can press. In my situation it is my girlfriend’s mother that is really making our lives pretty difficult. My girlfriend is 20 and still lives at home for financial reasons. Apparently her mother believes this is license to be the house dictator (which is difficult to argue against). This comes packaged with random room searches, constant accusations of being a “whore” or “drunk” (My GF drinks perhaps once per month, and has sex about as much), and vitriolic jabs whenever opportunity arises. The point is there isn’t any way for us to avoid interacting with this person short of her moving out, which is financially impossible at the moment. I would be very interested in hearing any tips you might have in dealing with people that are venomous, but unavoidable.

A: Sorry, but “don’t” is still my answer.

Tell your girlfriend that I said:

1) “Don’t” stay there to maximize your financial situation. If you have to postpone your education a year, or move in with a friend, or take out a loan, you can do it. It’s a top priority to stop being treated that way by anyone – and especially by your mother.

2) If you decide to stay, “Don’t” interact with your mother. Don’t bother to argue with her about her nasty comments. You know her and you know how she thinks. You aren’t going to change her, so her vile opinions aren’t worth your time and energy.

3) “Don’t” think that you need your mother’s approval. Actually, since you are 22, don’t think you need your mother at all. You are an adult. She is an adult. Adults don’t need their mothers anymore – although they do carry memories from childhood of times when they actually did need them. Remember that these are only memories from the past, not current reality at all.

4) What matters in life is how we are treated. There are people who treat us well and people who don’t. Adults take full responsibility for who they choose to spend their time with. Whether it’s your mother, or your boyfriend, or your boss, or somebody on a bus – “don’t” give nasty people a chance. Move away from them physically (by changing seats on the bus, or by moving to Guam if that’s what it takes).

I’d suggest that your girlfriend read these four ideas over at least once a day for a while – for six weeks or so. When she first reads this, she’ll probably have some quick response such as “I can’t do any of this stuff.” But if she thinks if over regularly she’ll see that she has many, many behavioral options in daily life that help her get away from people who mistreat her.

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