Working Through Complicated Relationships After 50

family self-care Sep 24, 2023
Thinking through complicated relationships after 50

It's so funny (not funny).   When we're after 50 we sort of think we've been through it all.    Seen it all.   Have navigated different things and have a full repertoire of skills and tools to get us through any situation that might arise.

And then a new situation pops up that gives us all of the thoughts, feels and emotions, forces us to face it, and come up with a new set of tools, skills, and ways to manage.

I have spent my entire life dealing with a very complex relationship with my mother.   At times, even toxic.   I've gone to counseling to work though issues related to it.  

I was sure I was on top of it and super self-aware (insert eye roll here).

My mother recently became ill.   And I'm now entering the role of caretaking.  I'm her only child and it's on me.

The feelings that I'm immersed in are everything from resentment because I've taken care of her for my entire life to realizing that I'm doing the right thing to anxiety and worry in general about what the future might hold because there is a limit to what I can or am willing to do in this situation.

So, I'm having to be present and self-aware.   Of my feelings - given whatever the situation of the day might be.  

And, if I'm being completely honest, I haven't always been super patient with her or the situation of the day. Sometimes I've yelled.   And, I will probably yell more before all is said and done.

I'm Not the Only One

I'm in several online communities for women over 50 and/or empty nesters and the topic of managing and dealing with toxic relationships seems to be a common thread.   I don't see as many posts or threads regarding caretaking for toxic parents, but I do see many from women who are estranged from their adult children for various reasons as well as from women who are in crappy relationships with their significant others or who are experiencing divorce for the first time in their 50s.

There are many of us in this community who are dealing with various relationship issues at this stage of our lives.   Our experiences will vary greatly depending on who our issue is with and what core belief system we bring to the table.  But we do share some similar experiences regardless of our situation.


  1. Regardless of our situation, dealing with a difficult relationship after 50 creates stress.    Which affects our emotional health for sure, and often our physical health, as well.   Our bodies aren't what they were when we were 25, so this stress can have more of an effect on us after 50 than we realize.  I thought I was totally fine and realized after a few days of going back and forth from the hospital that I was completely exhausted.
  2. Whether or not the toxicity in the relationship is all our fault, partly our fault, or not our fault AT ALL, we can often feel crappy about ourselves because of it.  We feel crappy because of the way we react to the person and the situation.  We think we should be able to manage and deal with it all differently and effectively.  We often can feel inept because of it.   

Depending on how this crappy feeling affects someone day to day, counseling really can be an excellent tool to help come to terms with all of it.  Talking it through in a safe place with someone who is completely objective can do wonders to put things into a different and healthier perspective.


The different ways that we react to or manage these difficult relationships boils down to our individual selves and situations.    Who is the other person?  It's a different set of emotions when we are experiencing conflict with our own child versus conflict with a significant other.  

What is the set of core beliefs that each person in the situation brings to the table?  In dealing with complicated relationships with another adult, both are bringing their own set of core beliefs which can completely affect their interactions, often in an unhealthy way.   At times when I am calm, I am able to consider what I think my mother's core beliefs may be.   Doing this can somewhat help me understand the reasons why she has made the choices she's made or says the things she says.

More often than not, the person with whom we are struggling is not self-aware or thinking about how their faulty thinking may be affecting the situation.  Which can add to the difficulty and toxicity. 

Ways to Help Navigate Complicated Relationships

Find a Community of Others Who Are Dealing with a Similar Situation

As I embark on this caretaking journey with my mother, I reached out to a Facebook group of people who are caretakers for persons with narcissistic personalities.   I'm not sure whether or not that group will be the right fit for me, but time will tell.

Having a community of others who "gets it" can do a couple of things for us:

  • help us feel less depressed and isolated;
  • help us feel a sense of empowerment when needed;
  • give us ideas and resources to help manage our situation.

However, you need to balance the benefits of sharing a struggle with getting bogged down in a sea of negativity. Be sure that there are some positives coming out of your interactions with the community that you choose.    Otherwise, it might be time to find a better fit.

Practice Self Care

It's said all the time but it bears repeating - WE ARE NO GOOD TO OUR LOVED ONES IF WE AREN'T TAKING CARE OF OURSELVES.

It's important to have time each day to be doing something just for you. Something that brings you joy and purpose.  We deserve this time at this stage of the game!   So, as you are working through a complicated relationship, remember to take time for you.   Reward yourself.   Grab a of coffee and people watch.  Immerse yourself in a great book.   Keep writing your book!   Get ice cream with your grandchild.

Whatever your "thing" is - continue to make time in your day for it.

Lean Into Your Supportive and Healthy Relationships

This is so so important.   People want to help.   Don't be afraid to vent, cry, or grab someone to join you for a movie or a cup of coffee.  I'm so sure my husband is sick of hearing my complain, and then I do again, and he gives me accolades because I'm doing what I'm doing.   We should complain!    It's OKAY to complain!

Take people up on offers to help if it's something that would be helpful for you.  I had a good friend who offered to go with me on a visit to my mom and I loved that idea.   If there's a day I feel l need it I will definitely ask her to go with me!   And I know that she'll be happy to!

Lean into your people. It's validating and good for your physical and emotional health. 

Know When It's Time to Cut Things Off

This is really hard, regardless of who your complicated relationship is with.  If it's an abusive spouse, it can be scary.   If it's a child, it's heartbreaking.   If I think about cutting off ties with my mom, there's all kinds of guilt that I feel followed by anger that I feel that way.   The emotions and feelings when we think about cutting a relationship out of our lives are often intensely strong.

But there are times when it just needs to be done.   Being afraid of another person or feeling that you are being verbally abused by them, is a sure signal that the relationship should be ended.   

Perhaps your relationship with this person is negatively affecting other healthier relationships.  That can also be a sign that it's time to step back or set some boundaries.  

Again, it often depends on who the relationship is with.   It's easier to cut ties with a toxic friendship, for example, than it is with a toxic adult child.  But, if your health and happiness is suffering because of that relationship, it's something to consider.

Although I will likely never cut things off with my mother because she's 85 and I'm the only person who there is to take care of her, I will and have started to set boundaries in terms of my time as well as what I'm comfortable or not comfortable doing.  I've become more able to say "no" to certain requests without feeling guilt.  I have put my behavioral background to use and am actively not attending to things that are said in an effort to rile me up. 

Sometimes these tools work and other times they don't.   On the days they don't, I try to give myself the grace that I need.   I take extra breaks or don't visit that day.

Most importantly, I tell myself that that's okay.   And I mean it!