I am currently estranged from my sister. Growing up, we were home-schooled together and were extremely close. She was usually awesome, but once we became adults, she would sometimes become obsessively jealous of my time. As examples: she demanded that I apologize for calling my significant other on the phone without including her in a conference call because “it is incredibly hurtful to talk with a mutual friend without including me.” Or, she would not call me for weeks and then, when I wrote to say “hi”, she would lambast me for not contacting her earlier and demand an apology. Or she would demand an apology if I planned a social gathering and then invited her because, if I had REALLY wanted her there, I would have let her choose the activity. She always seemed to be keeping a secret tally of what she expected from me, and she’d either get nasty with me or give me the cold shoulder when I inevitably failed to meet her un-communicated expectations.
For many years, I basically just apologized to her every time she would bully me because I was pretty socially clueless and assumed that I just really sucked at friendships. However, I’ve since decided that this is Not Normal. I’ve tried communicating my problems to her, but she always says I am being too sensitive or unreasonable. After I came out as transgender, it all got much worse until I was definitely keeping her at arm’s length. Then, about this time last year, I invited her to my wedding. She responded with a nasty email telling me that she couldn’t come “this time” (this is my first marriage) because she had a long list of unspecified grievances against me that she had never shared with me before that I should have addressed before I invited her if I had REALLY intended her to feel welcome. When I told her she was being disrespectful, she replied that I was too easily offended and my wedding invitation was obviously just an “excuse to attack” her. I was pissed off and gave up, my wedding came and went without acknowledgment from her, and we haven’t really talked since.
A couple of months ago, after radio silence for almost a year, she sent a postcard with a normal, friendly message in it., apparently pretending that everything is fine. At this point, I’m done. I haven’t responded. Her birthday is coming up next month and I’m not planning on contacting her at all. I’m still angry and I’m absolutely not ready to deal with her. However, I can’t shake this nagging fear that I’m stooping to her level of giving the “cold shoulder” and harboring resentment and grievances that I’m not trying to work out with her. I don’t want to emulate her passive-aggressive behavior by punishing her with my silence. Is it fair for me to just leave the door firmly shut unless she’s willing to approach me with an apology and a real effort to change her behavior?
Dear Not Passive-Aggressive:
People who have secret rulebooks that they never tell you about in advance (but you are always breaking them always), people who are always sure about what you REAL*LY mean, what you REAL*LY should have done or use a straightforward party invitation to discern your REAL* motives make it pretty fucking impossible to carry on any kind of normal, friendly relationship with them. The examples of your sister’s self-centeredness boggle the mind. You are allowed to call whoever you want, whenever you want, and don’t owe it to everyone you know to conference them in to every conversation. You are allowed to make whatever social plans you want and invite people to them, without consulting them on every detail in advance. You are allowed to invite your sister to your wedding (a nice, friendly, kind, loving gesture of wanting her to be there) without being attacked in response.
I don’t know what’s going on with your sister (and this is a good time to remind people reading that we don’t diagnose strangers through internet comments, though I’ve got some book recs further down), but it looks to me like she wants to be the most important, central person in your life without doing any of the work to connect, she wants a lot of validation of that fact to a toxic and unreasonable extent, she wants you to be constantly thinking about her
and what she needs how you may have unintentionally wronged her, she wants you to always exist in a state of pre-emptive apology and do some kind of ritual of abasing yourself before she’ll even talk to you, and she gives you the cold shoulder or insults you to punish you for failing to defer or cater to her sufficiently. You get zero benefit of the doubt, zero credit, and zero consideration.
Existing this way has to be very lonely and exhausting for her. I keep thinking of my childhood Great Dane who wouldn’t stop chewing his bed to pieces and then was sad because he had no bed and would have to sleep in the shreds for a couple of nights until my parents could get him a new bed. And then he’d chew it up again. And again. And again. Your sister wants your love, your attention, to be important to you and to know she’s important to you. But her own behaviors are alienating her from everything she wants, and she’s not really giving you any ways to safely approach her without setting off conversational land mines that harm you. My sense is that the postcard was an attempt to return to normal/nice relations. It’s pathetic, because she has a lot to apologize to you for, but she’s doing the very thing she is accusing you of (spackling over bad behavior and grievances). I bet that in her mind that is evidence of her making an effort, and that she thinks you are a jerk because you did not call her the second you got it.
You aren’t “stooping to her level” by not signing up for this cycle of reproach and exclusion, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting a break from her. You are taking care of yourself by not continually exposing yourself to someone who hurts and berates you.
In my experience dealing with people who behave this way (and I have dealt with more than I’d like), it helps to keep your expectations really, really low. Again, this is my experience, but they don’t get it, and they won’t get it. They don’t apologize. They don’t gain self-awareness, or if they do, they don’t do it where you can see it. That magic day that your sister seems to want from you, where you will come to her and acknowledge all of your “wrongdoings” and maybe you’ll cry a little together and after that you’ll be close, like you were when you were kids? That day probably isn’t coming, for either of you. You didn’t do anything wrong, so if you did something like that it would be a charade. She won’t ever see that she did anything wrong. Logic won’t work, evidence won’t work, because in her emotional landscape reality has become warped, and there won’t be anything you can do to get her memories or perceptions of events to match yours.
You have a few options, but you do have options:
1. Go low/no contact. She can’t have the cycle of lashing out/apology/fake forgiveness/reconnection if she has no audience for it.
2. If you decide to communicate, find the medium that brings out the best/avoids the worst. It sounds like emails are not her forte – they give her too much room for her to write down her mean thoughts. But postcards and greeting cards might work? They are short, they are one-way communication, and they don’t require a response at all. I once had a boss who always said yes to things if I asked him in person and drowned me in maybes if I emailed him the same question, to the point that nothing would get done. I had another boss at that same job who wanted all pertinent details to be emailed so she could think about them, and then she’d send a yes or no. So I learned to get the verbal yes from him, and then email him the details, like, “Great news about your decision to do x. Next steps are….”, but email her all the details up front, and then follow up verbally. Sending them both the same email did not work. We all have friends who hate talking on the phone, so we text them instead, etc. etc. Find the medium that works best for you and your sister. Maybe you and your sister will send each other trite Hallmark Greeting cards once a year for the next decade. Maybe that is the level of communication your relationship can handle just now. Updated to add: If she does go off on you, it’s not because you chose the wrong communications method, she was gonna do it anyway. This is about increasing your chances of a better interaction/reducing both effort invested and potential harm to you.
3. Be very blunt in setting boundaries if you do talk on the phone or interact in person. You: “Happy birthday, Sister!” Her: “A likely story. If you REAL*LY thought that you would have called sooner (abuse abuse abuse.)” You: “I thought about it many times, but my feelings were really hurt when you didn’t come to my wedding, and it’s taken me a while to want to talk to you again. But I got your postcard, and it seemed like a good time to reach out.”
Likely responses will be pulled straight from the emotional abusers playbook:
- “You are misremembering that/blowing it out of proportion.” Subtext: You are an unreliable narrator of your own experiences, only my memories count.
- “You are too easily offended/too emotional.” Subtext: “I wouldn’t have to be so mean if you weren’t so weak and crappy and wrong.” Also, this is classic projection. She is the one who gets angry when you don’t conference her in on a call with your romantic partner, but you’re the “emotional” one? Mmmmkay.
- “Oh yeah? Let’s talk about the bad things you did/do/are/You’re just as bad as me, if not worse!” Subtext: Misdirection. If you are calling her out on bad behavior or telling her she hurt your feelings, that’s an opportunity for her to apologize or address it. If she then has issues with you, she can bring them up, but not until she closes the circuit on your initial point. You wrote: “However, I can’t shake this nagging fear that I’m stooping to her level of giving the “cold shoulder” and harboring resentment and grievances that I’m not trying to work out with her.” This is the part of your letter that made me go “ooh, ooh, I know! I know!” when I read it, because you are questioning whether you are being just as bad as she is if you take steps to protect yourself from her. You aren’t.
- “Oh god, I guess you think I am a terrible person. Why are you even talking to me if I am such a monster, then?” Subtext: If you apologize or reassure me that I’m not terrible, then I win, and I get to hold onto my idea of myself as the victim in all of this (and maybe distract you from making me feel bad by pointing out my own bad behavior).
5. Don’t argue with her characterizations or projections. If you get into a point-by-point rebuttal, you will lose (even if you are right), because you are stepping onto the terrain of her constructed reality and sinking time and energy there. “You’re too easily offended.” “Yes, I guess I am very easily offended. So, doing anything cool for your birthday?” “Well, god, if that’s what you think of me why do you even talk to me?” “Sometimes I don’t know the answer to that myself, but, here we are. Watching any cool shows lately?”
6. Literally end the conversation when it gets mean. “Welp, good talking with you, have a great birthday.” :click: Filter emails, do not answer calls.
7. Go low/no contact until or unless you feel up for it again. ABORT! RESET! Honestly, the default setting when it comes to dealing with someone like this. This is the one situation where you know you won’t be abused by them. And people who don’t respect logic, or reason, or empathy sometimes do learn to respect the message “I can live without you, if necessary, especially if the alternative is putting up with how mean you are.”
And yet, we don’t (I don’t) all always cut every difficult person we know out of our lives forever. Sometimes cutting contact permanently or indefinitely is the healthiest possible choice, and if that’s what you need to do for your own safety and peace of mind, then do it without guilt. If people wanted you to stick around in their lives, they’d be nicer to you. But sometimes there are compelling reasons to engage. Because: Shared history. Because: Ties with other family members. Because: Hope and optimism and love and wanting it to be better. Because: Small doses can maybe become manageable over time. Because: We have financial and care-related entanglements that we can’t just walk away from.
If you do wade in again:
8. Have a sounding board who is on your side. The person who led me to piece together this particular set of coping behaviors is a close family member. I cannot tell you how much better it makes it to have friends accessible by text or email during visits or having my boyfriend there to witness what happened and what was said. Interacting with this family member makes me feel crazy (disoriented, out of control, out of balance, like my grasp of reality is shaky, prone to tears, stomach in knots), and it’s very, very valuable to have someone who can remind me what is real.
9. Silently add “you think” on the end or beginning of every mean or untrue thing she says about you. “You are so selfish” ==>”You think I am so selfish.” This is a gem from commenter delbelcoure and it’s especially useful for keeping that sense of reality if you have to interact with your difficult person often. Remind yourself that they aren’t telling you deep truths about yourself. It’s all just opinions.
10. Identify a few safe, neutral topics of conversation. I have probably written some variation of “set the boundary and then change the subject” 1,000 times on this blog. Change the subject…to what? Try to find a TV show, an author, an interest in robots or recipes or rainbows that you have in common, so you have somewhere to go when you change the subject and a reminder of something you do have in common. And sometimes you have to literally say that’s what you are doing. “This is getting uncomfortable for me, but I do want to keep talking with you and not fight. Can we change the subject to that “Forever” show and how it’s exactly like the love child of Castle and Elementary with extra supernatural stuff added in?” They may not take the bait, and a really difficult person can make discussion of socks into a weapon if they really want to, but it gives you a strategy.
11. Keep expectations very, very low. It is unlikely that you will ever forget an instance of your sister’s mistreatment of you. Ever. And it is unlikely that you will ever fully relax around her and trust that an interaction won’t get sour sooner or later. But, since she is incapable of this, it might help if you can try to approach every time you interact without bringing old stuff into it. Think of it as modeling the behavior you want to see from her. Every new interaction is a chance for things to be cool, for you to make new positive memories to drive the old ones out. You know how it’s likely to end, so protect yourself from that, and disengage before she pulls out the Football Of Setting You Up To Fail. Then, take whatever time you need, and if you choose to interact again, treat the person like you expect them to be cool. With time it might get better. You always have the option to withdraw if it doesn’t.
We are not diagnosing, but I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the debt this post owes to Dr. Karyl McBride’s Will I Ever Be Good Enough? and Dr. Eleanor Payson’s book The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping With One Way Relationships in Work, Love, and Family, especially the parts about how you cannot logic someone who behaves this way into seeing your point of view. If this post contained a recognizable cluster of behaviors for someone you have to deal with, those books may be of aid to you with or without a diagnostic label.
*REAL = not actually real
243 thoughts on “#637: Am I being just as mean to my mean sister if I ignore her for a while?”
Ugh. Replace “sister” with “mother” and that’s my life.
Love this: “I can live without you, if necessary, especially if the alternative is putting up with how mean you are.” I may just scratch the last part.
It’s reassuring to know that so many of us seemingly have the same mother.
OMG. Your mother(s) is a man and I was married to him for the worst ten years of my life. No contact was the only solution, because he couldn’t respect any boundaries at all.
Yup, I feel you on the “mother” thing.
I’d have cut mine out years ago, but while I wouldn’t mind zero contact with my parents they control my access to my special needs brother and I can’t stand the thought of giving him up =/
Practical question: can they legally stop you from seeing him if he wants to see you? Obviously if he lives with them it may be impossible to see him without having some contact with him; I’m talking about a situation where they might want to cut off contact out of a fit of pique because you’re not doing what he says, or whatever.
(I know that in the UK it’s illegal to stop adults from seeing their friends even if the adult in question lacks mental capacity to make decisions, but I have no idea where you live.)
I believe yes, because they are his legal guardians even though he is over 18. Aside from that they are also his means of transportation (he cannot drive). He also cannot speak, so even though we know he enjoys spending time with me, there isn’t really any way for him to verbalize that he wants to see me, or wants one on one time. And the no talking means no phone calls, and while he can type simple sentences he’d need my parents help to send me an email or something. Mentally I think he’s about 6 or 7 and has a lot of physical limitations.
(While my relationship with my parents is horrible and they treat me like trash, I do feel that they are doing very right by my brother and have made good choices regarding his care and education. If I hadn’t felt that way I would have counter-sued when they went for custody. So I am grateful to them for that but it still makes a yucky situation extra tricky)
I was about to write the same thing. The book the Captain recommends “Will I Ever Be Good Enough?” literally changed my life. Shortly after reading this book, I got the ovaries to stand up to mother and after sending me a series of hateful emails, she vowed to ‘get out of my way’ Turns out that means not talking to me anymore. It’s been such a relief to not have to deal with all the shit and every now and then if I wonder if I should have done something differently or should start doing something differently, I read something like this and feel reassured that I’m doing the right thing. Thanks Captain, bang on as always. Just for fun I might read that other book you recommend.
LW, right now I don’t believe it’s even possible to work out these things with your sister. I think you can come to terms with your own feelings, identify your grievances, and find your own personal sense of settling, but I don’t think there is any process that involves your sister and can reach those same positive ends.
It’s not passive-aggressive. Before this, you & your sister had an established dynamic of communicating: you reach out, she engages in attacks, you apologize, and she feels better. Lather, rinse, repeat.
What you’re doing now isn’t being passive-aggressive, it’s trying to change the existing dynamic. Your sister will resist this (because the existing dynamic works great for her!) but the objective truth is that what you’re doing, breaking the pattern, changing the dynamic isn’t bad or good as much as it is different. The reasons why you’re doing it, for a more healthy relationship, to preserve personal boundaries, these things are actually good reasons to change how things are.
Reframe this away from your sister’s terminology to more neutral, or even positive language.
I agree with your assessment. I think the letter writer is trying to break out of the cycle that is established with the sister. LW has to do what is the best for them. I think engaging with sister is not good for now.
Also – LW, you have been ‘trained’ by your sister’s manipulation to view any acts of self-care or self-preservation on your part as ‘selfishness.’ When, in fact, taking care of yourself and protecting yourself is not selfish at all. You’re trying to change your part in a dynamic that has been in place for years. It’s going to feel really wrong at first, and you might feel really guilty. That doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is wrong. Jedi Hugs to you.
Oh yes, so much THIS. Isn’t it a coincidence how doing your own thing over there away from the mean person is “selfish?” You don’t want to drop everything to be my verbal punching bag? SELFISH!
I agree with the advice given, but just want to emphasize one point: If you decide not to ever contact her again, that is a completely reasonable and fine course of action. You need to decide which is best for you, but you do not owe her contact. If maintaining no contact is what you decide, you aren’t doing anything wrong. You are taking care of yourself.
The answer puts a lot of focus on what to do if you do contact her, because that path requires a lot more care. So, the useful information about it is really good. But just because not contacting her again doesn’t occupy as much of the answer doesn’t make it a worse path to choose. Being simpler, it simply needs less written about it. But give serious thought to which path you prefer, and if that is not contacting her, tell yourself you’re being a good person by doing what protects you – since that will be true. Either choice may make sense, and only you know which one you most want. But neither is inherently better, just one path will be better for you, and you are the best expert at figuring out which one that is.
This is so important. It took me a long time to realize it. But you ARE allowed to cut people out of your life if they are causing you more harm than good. (Granted if you find yourself cutting everyone out there might be other problems.) Learning to use the ‘unfriend’ and ‘block’ on social media has meant more to me than any other life lesson. If you do not want to talk to her you do not have to talk to her. Yes maybe it is ‘rude’, but she was ‘rude’ first, and in a seriously awfuller, more confrontational way.
Yep! When I was setting boundaries and limiting contact with my parents, one of their many angry reactions was, “You make us feel like you only want to spend the bare minimum of time and effort interacting with us.” I laughed and said, “Actually, the bare minimum would be to not interact with you at all.”
So much this.
You don’t have to feel guilty about removing toxic people from your life. You probably will feel guilty, and that’s okay, because your feelings are what they are and you will feel how you feel. But you’re doing nothing wrong.
This is such a timely post for me. I just had a childhood friend pull similar stuff on me, ending with a facebook drama-show-down that ended with hir unfriending me and cutting off all contact. Because I have “my side” and hearing that was enough for hir to snap.
LW, I have no advice, just jedi hugs and a solidarity fistbump of confusion. Thank you Captain for this post and I´ll be following the comments with interest.
Ditto. For me it was a close member of my family who went off on me and my mother after he interpreted something we’d discussed on Facebook as a grave insult (which it was in no way meant to be; god, Facebook is a great platform for misspeaking and misunderstanding and torpedoing relationships, isn’t it?). But this was just the latest in a decades-long line of accusations and blow-ups. I finally sent a goodbye email, blocked him from everything, and have ultimately lost all contact with their six-person family unit as a result. It’s hard. “Could I have let this one slide? It wasn’t AS bad as Fight X or Fight Y; did I overreact?” But yeah, sometimes there comes a point when you have to look at the sum of a relationship’s parts and decide if you can bear waiting for the inevitable next blow-up. (I’m sorry you had to cut off a friend in this. *Jedi hugs*) The LW shouldn’t feel bad about self-care here. Some people, intentionally or not, are toxic, and all we can do is take the measures we need to keep ourselves from drowning in the poison.
Bless you, LW, for writing the letter I’ve been afraid to submit.
“Interacting with this family member makes me feel crazy (disoriented, out of control, out of balance, like my grasp of reality is shaky, prone to tears, stomach in knots), and it’s very, very valuable to have someone who can remind me what is real.”
That’s exactly it! Every time she gives me the ‘I see who you REALLY are!’ talk, I question my sanity and it’s like the whole world reels around me.
After one particularly bad episode, she kept texting me more and more messages about what’s wrong with me and how I’ve screwed up my life— I told her that she was bullying me and I wasn’t going to take it. Months later, when we were talking again, she emailed me to say how PROUD she was that I’d stood up for myself! Against her viciousness, which she considered totally justified. What the hell was I supposed to say to THAT?
I don’t want to lose the wonderful things about our relationship, but I don’t want to be Charlie Brown.
Sometimes I’ve had friends that are not as assertive as I am stand up to me when I say something out-of-line – it’s a character flaw I try very hard to work on – and it often surprises and pleases me. A) it lets me know that I need to work harder on self-correction, so I’m sad I need it but happy to be able to stop it B) these are often friends who have a hard time standing up to anybody, so I’m always like, yay that they got to practice on me! (I’m generally very positively responsive to being called out, as a result of running my mouth faster than my brain) although boo that I did something that needed to be called out!
But then I see that you say she thinks her behavior was totally justified, so she probably thinks she’s just toughening you up, which sucks. I’m sorry.
A script, maybe, in response: “This has actually been a recurring problem in our friendship, so I’m glad you listened to me and understood where my problem was. I love/like/admire you, but I’m beginning to see bullying behavior as a dealbreaker and I really needed you to listen to me when I said no more.”
Wow. Yes. That line spoke volumes to me too. For me, it’s my father’s wife; not exactly my stepmother since he married her after I had grown up and moved away, and over these 20 years I’ve been in her presence maybe ten times? which might have been more except for, haha, just how freaked-out some of those occasions became.
My last therapist, bless him, responded to the most recent incident with a suggestion that both my father and I might read up on Borderline Personality Disorder (q.v.) for some potentially enlightening resources. But I consider myself extremely fortunate that the path of “just stay away from her completely forever” has been a viable one, and in fact the one that my dad encourages as healthiest for all (!).
To be clear, my immediate family member is lovely, brilliant, charming, and hilarious about 80% of the time. But every few months she becomes completely furiously vicious and hateful to someone (the target alternates), and comes to believe they’ve been lying to her, they hate her, they’re out to get her, and so on. When you’re on her Hate List, it feels like being flayed. This is not a recent development, she has been volatile all my life.
She believes herself to have Borderline Personality Disorder, but was awaiting a formal diagnosis last time we spoke. I want to help her and be supportive— when she’s herself, she’s GLORIOUS. But when her dark side takes over, it’s hell for anyone in her path. She needs love and understanding, and I want to help, but—– the bees, the bees!
She knows she has these….what, spells, interludes? When she IS having one, she doesn’t recognize it as part of a lifelong pattern.
I DO have weaknesses, absolutely, and I can imagine a good friend try to help me improve my character or our relationship by bringing these faults to my attention. This is not that scenario. Even when she tells me things I KNOW aren’t true of me (that I’m a liar, that anyone can buy me off, that I’m conspiring against her), my whole sense of reality distorts and I’m floored every time.
TR, I think you’re right, I think she was simultaneously proud of me for becoming more assertive and sure that I deserved the treatment. I did send her a calm, reasoned message months ago, gently defending myself and encouraging her to keep looking for solutions. I’ve been on eggshells around her for almost thirty years, so even if/when she gets serious help it’d be hard to build a relationship where I felt safe with her… I’d better bookmark this post!
eschultz72, even your dad encourages that path? Whoa! It sounds like we’re dealing with similar situations… from a safe distance.
Yes. yes yes yes. I have a family member like this. She can be very thoughtful and gives wonderful gifts but is also a ticking time bomb of verbal abuse. It’s terrible when she directs it at me, but it’s almost worse that I am not her favorite target; when she is (horribly) mean to others in our family or out of it, she will turn to the rest of us for validation. True story: she carried around the birthday card another family member sent her as some kind of proof that they didn’t really like her and were trying to send her a message of avoidance and distaste, to show to me with an aim for badmouthing that family member behind her back. I have tried to be unwelcoming of this sort of conversation by paying attention to LITERALLY ANYTHING ELSE.
My husband’s aunt is like this. We used to have a nice relationship…then, one day, I did not agree with something that one of her adult children did, and she turned into the Eye of Sauron. Having zero contact with someone has never felt so good.
My late father’s ENTIRE FAMILY is like this and there is very little predicting when one or another of them will go off or what you might do to draw the anger. (I drew my aunt’s on Facebook once by a)finishing a half-marathon and b)posting a finish-line photo of a sunny day when it was still snowing at her house. This prompted a seven- or eight-comment rant about how all my life choices are wrong.) My relatives form constantly shifting alliances of crazy fueled by alcohol, social media, and judgment about whatever is going wrong in the current target’s life. Navigating this is, well, a minefield. My mom and I get the cold shoulder because we actually attempt to ignore these and get along with everyone and it’s like “Does not compute.” The thing is that when they are not being idiots like this, they are sharp and funny and proud of each other and whatever all else. I never understand why the crazy is like oxygen to them.
I totally get this! I had a friend I moved in with after a highly emotionally abusive relationship, and little did I know, I was walking straight into another one. She did all the things listed above, and has done since childhood. And her rationale whenever I would say she was being harsh or unkind was that I was just being overly sensitive, or she was just being honest, and I deserved an honest friend, or that she was helping me learn how to set boundaries. !!! She would gaslight and yell and redirect conversations and arguments all the time. She was also excellent at projection.
When my own Darth relationship ended, she offered me a room at her place, and things still felt OK. I realized later that maybe she somewhat enjoyed that I was essentially homeless and a bit of a broken puppy, because that suddenly made her the “better” one in terms of having her life together, so the well-meaning advice started steamrolling in.
She’d been abused as a child, so she was the AUTHORITY on how to recover from it, and if I were to heal, I should do it her way, because it was the best and only. I understood the good intentions behind it, but it started to become a niggling issue the less I modeled my decisions after hers.
When I started dating my now incredible, supportive, partner, she started to turn. When she lost her job, it got worse. More and more she was picking on me, being passive-aggressive, being randomly and silently angry with me for no reason, criticizing me, etc. When I would attempt to question or stand up for myself, it would launch a three-day passive-aggressive silent treatment that eventually devolved into a horrible argument. She would jump up and down, flapping her arms, yelling, running in and out of the room, all while I sat there watching. She would then accuse me of doing all the behaviors she’d just done. Alternate reality.
After our last big fight like that, I decided I couldn’t fight with her anymore. It wasn’t worth it, she never really heard me, and it usually ended with a detente and me buying her some ice cream.
I say all this because this letter really resonated with me in regards to the guilt you feel when you decide to cut out someone who had previously been so important in your life. I think it’s simultaneously sad and liberating to finally wake up from that trance of emotional abuse and realize you have to get out. I haven’t spoken to this girl in almost 6 months, but I miss her and I’m still dealing with the anger, pain, sadness, frustration, and guilt that comes with a friend breakup.
“…how PROUD she was that I’d stood up for myself!…” as if she gets ANY credit for it. Wow. Just…wow. I personally, am IMPRESSED that you didn’t punch her (via e-mail no less). Jedi hugs and high-fives to you.
So glad I commented! It’s usually so hard to talk about this relationship, because either people can’t imagine anyone behaving this way or they believe I should stick with my family no matter what. YOU understand. This blog is the best.
Sometimes two acts may look the same to an outsider, but it’s all about the motivation behind them. Your sister is withholding contact to manipulate you and get her way later on. She wants attention. You want to be left alone and not be jerked around anymore. There’s a huge difference.
If you decide to not contact her (which I’m in favor of, not gonna lie) I say you’re just reacting to how she’s treated you earlier. It’s a natural reaction to being burned one to many times.
That ” too easily offended ” BS = what, do you actually have boundaries? Do you expect to be treated with respect, like you’re another person with their own value? What’s next, you want me to ask how you’re doing every time we talk? GOD! *flailing*… you don’t need that in your life. You can have it if you want, you can control how much or how deep of a relationship you have but you don’t NEED to take her BS.
“Too easily offended / too sensitive” is my number one Asshole Detection Phrase. Uh, we’re talking about LW’s sister, so no offense. But it is my unfortunately frequent experience that people who say this are either:
b) Otherwise nice people who are, for some reason, behaving like assholes
It’s universally a way for them to excuse themselves from any responsibility by making the consequences of their behavior all your fault.. Not how consequence works, buddy! But in my own personal algorithm for deciding whether I need to do more to save a relationship, the utterance of this phrase is a major sign that no effort of mine will save it.
“Too sensitive” was like, the MAIN phrase my parents used to describe me growing up. And for most of that time, I bought it. And then I started realizing that my dad? Probably emotionally/verbally abusive. My mom? Probably enabled him. And then as an adult now I look back on what I was being too sensitive about, and it was stuff like, oh, being six and being screamed at for my Barbies being out and not picking them up right, which was pretty much only indicated by “dad is not screaming anymore” (I once got screamed at for trying to line them all up in bed and tuck them in. It seemed logical because I WAS SIX). And preemptively bursting into tears over anxiety at being screamed at. And being screamed at over not being able to function due to said paralyzing anxiety (very clear memories of being yelled at to do something “by the time I come back” and sitting and crying over not being able to do it). So I’m now untangling the idea of how sensitive I am and realizing that I am not sensitive; I am not good with being terrorized.
So yes, back up your “too sensitive” being an amaaaaazing indicator that someone is an asshole.
…oh my gods.
Um… thanks for this comment, because so much just clicked into place..
Of course. Hugs, though, for having a similar experience.
Yeah. I may have mentioned this on another thread long ago, but my spouse and I have realized that we were very similar as children. And her chilled-out, yoga-doing, retiree parents treated her like she was the easiest kid in the world, while my stressed, alcoholic single parent constantly told me how difficult and oversensitive I was (my family likes to “joke” about it. ha. ha.). It was a major lightbulb moment for me.
Yeah, the more I look back, the more I realize how many of my childhood behaviors were as a reaction to being yelled at and the fear of it happening again. My parents were about the age I am now, and it boggles my mind that they didn’t see it then and refuse to acknowledge it now.
Saying someone is too sensitive, much like frequently saying someone overreacts, is definitely a red flag for me, and also sometimes an indicator of a total lack of awareness. Crying because you’ve been screamed at for something that’s probably accidental and/or not a huge deal is completely reasonable (certainly when you’re six, but often even when you’re older). Screaming at a six year old for tucking their Barbies in bed does not sound like a reasonable reaction in the slightest. Unfortunately, six-year-olds who are getting screamed at don’t usually have the perspective or the resources to point this out.
I wasn’t even allowed to call it yelling till I left home and realized what bullshit that was. Talk about minimizing.
Commenting here because I can’t comment lower in this line: @the painted lady: Oh my god yes. I’m still now “allowed” to call it yelling when mom yells. I tried using “why are you yelling?” or “there’s no need to yell” when she started yelling to try to head off the inevitable long yell-fest but she always responds by yelling “I’m not yelling!”
It’s like… yeah. Yeah, this is yelling, this thing that you’re doing right now. I knew what yelling was when I was a kid, I certainly know it now in my 30’s.
The boy is a much more sensitive person than I have previously dated. His reaction to me speaking sharply is to wilt and be miserable.
My reaction to discovering this was not to tell him he was too sensitive, it was to *learn to stop snapping around him*. That’s what you do when someone you care about is more sensitive than is allowed for in your current behaviour!
Oh…I thought I was being so wise to try to figure out what the “rules” were even at six. Obviously I was very bad at remembering which is always why I didn’t do things the right way and then got shamed yet again…and so much crying and tantrums because I was both so upset at the situation and also at myself because I was often really trying to do things right and I messed it all up yet again! Nope, the rules were only in my mom’s head and it was only after I got older that I realized they changed at whim (not whims to her mind you…no these were absolutes which she had happened upon and so naturally everybody else “should have had” the exact same correct knowledge of the moment!) The stuff in the books the Captain recommends: such eye-openers!
Another one who’s been called “too sensitive” or “overemotional” or words to that effect by family – and that story about being screamed at about the Barbies just about sent me into a flashback. To this day I can draw a line between my stress/anxiety issues and the ridiculous things I got hollered at over (and sometimes got the belt for) as a child. It left me feeling like there wasn’t much I could do right, and that my main goal in life should be to never upset those in charge. To this day, if I get summoned to a meeting with my boss, my stomach will still knot up like it did when my dad was upset with me. Even though I’ve achieved a lot and have won awards and am pretty senior where I work, there are times I still feel like a screw-up who’s one step away from being hollered at. That terror has never really left me.
I’m so sorry this happened. I’m in a similar place – for the past few years I’ve been really coming to terms with how truly unpleasant my childhood was, and the fact that it’s at the root of most of my mental health stuff.
“there are times I still feel like a screw-up who’s one step away from being hollered at. That terror has never really left me.”
Could be me. I really want to work to try and lessen that terror, because right now I have difficulty with a lot of stuff and basically it’s just that I’m afraid of being yelled at. It’s a much bigger feature of my life than I’d like it to be, and I’m just – not sure how to fix it.
Jedi hugs. It’s good to know there are more of us out there.
I wish I didn’t relate to this so much…I feel like I could have wrote this. I’m sorry you’ve had to go through this.
“…there are times I still feel like a screw-up who’s one step away from being hollered at. That terror has never really left me.” Me too! And I’ve yelled at myself in the SAME WAYS (mean, hurtful, disparaging of my intelligence and worthiness-to-exist). I’ve had to literally go somewhere that I can be loud, and yell SENSIBLE things at/to myself (THAT WAS A MINOR MISTAKE! NO ONE DIED! NO ONE HATES ME! NO ONE’S GONNA FIRE ME! I’M SAFE!) to drown out the voices of the past. A therapist I had once taught me to “oops.”. Realize the (lack of) magnitude of most of my mistakes (typos that can be corrected, flubbed greeting on the phone “Welcome to… I mean, thank you for calling…”), and just say “oops”, ’cause it’s not gonna hurt anyone.
So yes, very with you (and Vorvayne below, too, and everyone else with hurtful scripts).
I just wanted to pipe back in and thank everybody who’s shared similar experiences and extended sympathies. It helps to know it wasn’t just me and that I’m not the only one who struggles with the aftermath. It’s a diabolical thing because so much about my childhood was pretty great and I remember a lot of things with happiness, but some moments left some damage, especially when I caught grief for an incredibly trivial reason, or when all I’d done wrong was just be a kid who had no way of knowing better.
Anyway, thank you all. It really helps to know I’m not alone.
Did we have the same parents? Good grief.
“So I’m now untangling the idea of how sensitive I am and realizing that I am not sensitive; I am not good with being terrorized.”
Wow. You have no idea how much I needed to hear that.
This applies even if you *are* more sensitive than “normal”.
I learned a few things as an adult: the “highly sensitive person” checklist hits a lot of my traits, and (though I don’t have a formal diagnosis) the generalized anxiety disorder checklist does as well. (The anxiety management tips also help, so another point for that being what it is.)
My mom was not abusive, just insensitive, but told me I was oversensitive and overreacting a lot, to the point where when a boyfriend started telling me those things, I accepted as inherent truth that my perspective was wrong. *He* was the emotionally abusive one, but my mom, through her lack of understanding, set me up to be extra-susceptible to that type of abuse. Then she couldn’t understand why I put up with his shit. (Why? Because all my life if I object to anything I’m overreacting, never mind if the thing I’m objecting to is actual crap or my anxiety talking.)
A thought: if a friend seems to you to be overreacting, rather than tell them they’re overreacting, maybe acknowledge that the thing bothers them a lot and ask why that’s the case. You may not get an answer, but if the person knows and can articulate it and trusts you enough to tell you, you might – and that might adjust your expectation of what a reasonable reaction is. (For an example probably familiar to most everybody here: lots of dealing with sexist microaggressions can lead to “overreacting” to a “minor” or “joking” sexist statement.)
It hurts to be called out on your stuff, but how people respond to that is an excellent litmus test for how seriously they take your feelings. A little distress in the moment does not necessarily disqualify someone from being a member of Team You, but it’s important how they frame it: are they upset because they don’t want to hurt you or to be the kind of person who hurts you, or are they upset because you dared to question their behavior? If they do not handle that initial moment perfectly, do they later apologize and show that they believe your feelings to be valid by taking into account what you said (i.e., not calling you “baby” because even though they mean it affectionately, it’s not something you like)? Anyone who expects your feelings and interactions to be all about them, all the time is not on Team You. Tread with caution.
(Cue personal reminiscence of “your birthday party is in the wrong city and you didn’t tell me about it soon enough and I don’t like that restaurant and that’s awfully late this is very inconsiderate of you TO INVITE ME TO YOUR BIRTHDAY PARTY”– ah, good times.)
I’m still boggling at the invitation examples that were given here (by you and LW). How the hell can it be inconsderate to invite someone to something? (Rethorical question) You really have to achieve a high level of self-centeredness to decide that’s an appropriate remark.
The variant I got was “You’re obviously stressed.” When I told a close friend that a thing she did had hurt me, she replied that if I reacted that way it must be because I had a lot of stress in my life (her diagnosis). She had a longstanding pattern of reading my mind for me and never accepting responsibility, but this was just the last incident that convinced me it was hopeless to expect better from her. I’ve cut her back to a small-doses friend and things are good.
There’s a corollary here that I haven’t seen addressed yet: people who identify as “too sensitive” and mean “likely to take offense.”
Oh wow, this is exactly what I needed right now! I’m starting to tentatively, hesitantly, allow my mother a little more inroads into my life, and I’m terrified that any minute now the rules are going to change out from under me and I’ll be “the bad one” again. And today I see this post, reminding me that it’s totally normal to feel that way because she WAS so abusive to me in the past. Thank you so much!
LW, you’re not engaging in the same behavior as your sister. You said yourself that she tends to “give me the cold shoulder when I inevitably failed to meet her un-communicated expectations.” Well, you’re clearly trying to communicate your (entirely reasonable and not batshit insane!) expectations for basic respect and common courtesy in the interactions you share with your sister. So I don’t see your behavior as passive-aggressive like hers is.
What you describe of your sister’s behavior is so sad and so angry making that I’m at a loss for many words.
You will not be her as you defend yourself. You are and will remain a good person who deserves well if others.
The “am I just as bad” trap is an easy one to fall into. I even had a THERAPIST pull that one on me once – asking me how my refusing to engage with an abusive ex was any different from their practice of giving me the silent treatment until I figured out what I’d done “wrong” and atoned for it somehow. She was not my therapist anymore after that session.
(Point is, your sister is already working hard on making you think you are ‘just as bad’, even if she doesn’t consciously realize that’s what she’s doing. And anyone else who takes her side should probably not be in your circle of trust right now. You are doing the right thing for you and there’s nothing wrong with that.)
Ack, anyone who doesn’t see the difference in those two situations doesn’t have the right to be near other people, much less counsel them.
Oh yikes, Carly, did we have the same horrible therapist? Dr. Unethical used to ask questions like that in group therapy sessions all the damn time. Glad I finally realized NOPE, NOT THE SAME AT ALL.
Excuse me a second while I indulge in my fantasy of fixing that therapist with the iciest of icy glares and responding to her idiot question with “The ex was doing it to punish and manipulate Carly. Carly was doing it to protect herself. I’m sorry, did they not cover that distinction during your training?” And then keeping my icy glare nailed on the therapist while she stammers her way through some feeble response. OK, I feel better now.
Honestly, your sister doesn’t sound mean, so much as a drama queen or a disordered personality. She wants you to chase her affections and attentions, degrade yourself and throw yourself at her feet so she can feeling like she has the upper hand in the relationship. She always has to be the one forgiving you, making demands of you. At it sounds like she has some serious boundary issues – “leaving her out” of phone calls with your significant other? REALLY?
The best way to stop a tug of war is to drop the rope and walk away. You’re doing the right thing, going no contact. Preventing someone who is consistently abusive and rude to you isn’t “mean,” it’s self-care and self-preservation.
LW, Jedi hugs to you!
Another thing to think about? As you realize what’s going on, be prepared for the fact that you might grieve the closeness you had with your sister and need to recover from the hurt of being abused.
Awkward Army, a piggyback question if I may? I’m going through the process of setting boundaries with my emotionally abusive mother. She also has cycles of being nice/mean. As I try to establish boundaries with her I notice I also go through cycles of being able to stand some closeness and other times where I suddenly need lots of space again. Sometimes I need space because she’s done something, other times its just because of what’s going on in my head. If I need space after letting her close my Mom will say that I’m being confusing or unfair, and she’s hurt by my distance.
In my gut, I know she’s wrong. I still worry about flip flopping from near/close makes me passive aggressive instead of assertive. Thoughts on how to deal with this trend?
if i’m reading you correctly, it doesn’t sound as though you really like/trust the closeness part of the cycle. what if you worked toward a more consistent level of interaction that felt ok for you even when you needed more space?
Yes, this is an apt point.
It sounds like your baseline, overall comfort level with your mom is a lower level of closeness/time spent together/attention than you’ve been having.
So, if you want to keep a consistent level of communication, what could you commit to doing that’s comfortable for you? Like, maybe a phone call or lunch together if you’re local once every month? That way you can deflect all “stuff” to that time. “Oh mom, let’s not talk about this now, but we’ll talk at lunch.”
Emotionally abusive people earn themselves the non-apology “Sorry you feel that way, I’ll call you when I’m ready to make plans tho” – apology.
I think changing the language you use might help you to feel more comfortable with this pattern. You’re not “flip-flopping”, you’re “making your emotional needs a priority, and resetting boundaries as necessary to keep yourself safe and healthy”. This is a really common and normal thing to do! You get to change your mind about where your boundaries sit. You get to be the authority on what you need. You’re only seen as “flip-flopping” if you look at it from her perspective, or the perspective of someone who doesn’t think your mental/emotional health is worth protecting.
Oh yeah, I can sympathize with this. It’s a weird place to be, and it’s a similar place to where I am with my mom now too.
I wonder if you mean “close” as in seeing each other often, or in sharing details of life, or in some other way. I find there are different kinds of closeness and some of them I’m fine with (most of the time) and some of them I’m honestly never fine with as far as she is concerned. I’m fine with seeing her physically once or twice a month. I’m never fine with talking about my health or body. I’m fine with sharing funny stories about life with my husband and kid. I’m never fine with discussing my relationship with husband or details of my plans for raising the kid. Some of these are quiet boundaries (in that I’ve never said to mom “I’m never discussing my medical situation with you” but I go vague and change the topic whenever it comes up), some are more concrete, but knowing the specifics for myself has been really helpful for me in finding a way to balance spending time with her and not wanting to hand her the tools to try to hurt or control me.
If you can figure out which kinds of closeness are okay with you most of the time and which ones are never okay you can create a consistency in your behavior that you can recognize. Even if she doesn’t recognize the consistency you will know it’s there and it can help fend off feelings of guilt or flip-flopping.
All that being said, if you have a history of junk from her that you’re still trying to manage then go ahead and flip-flop. There are things happening in life all the time that will affect your energy levels, your patience, seasonal events will happen that bring up old memories that you don’t really want to revisit but now you’re stuck with them. You aren’t a perfectly stable robot with the same situation every day. You’re a human being, and you can have a no-mother-no-way afternoon or day or week. Or month.
(also, if your cycle of see/avoid corresponds to her cycle of nice/mean then I really don’t think there’s any way to see that as your fault or anything that’s on you to fix)
Rereading this just now and endorse the idea of different levels of closeness. In my case it came from growing up in a small town and learning the hard way that anything was fair game for conversation/gossip. My family has never realized that some things about others’ lives deserve privacy and respect, and it had an awful lot to do with why I moved far away from there. There’s some resentment (the “if you loved us you would trust us with the details of your life” guilt-trip) but I know too much what happens. There’s also the perception that no matter what I may achieve I’ll never be seen as an adult, and I can do without that, and so I ration what I tell them. When we get together as a family and can have reasonable conversations I open up a little, but only on my terms and never on anything sensitive or deeply personal. It doesn’t completely stop the gossip circles (the next time I hear “[family friend who knows you only because of your parents] saw you at [location] the other day” I really want to respond with “not only do I not care about [family friend], but have you ever thought about how creepy that is?”) but I do what I can. The philosophy of never sharing on social media anything you wouldn’t want the whole world to find out? That’s easy for me, because where I grew up was a perfect training ground for it.
One of the most honest moments I had with any family member was the most recent time we were over for a visit. During a one-on-one conversation with my mother I said “the reason why I had to move so far away was because I couldn’t stay here and become who I needed to be.” She said “I know.” After all these years it was a hell of a thing to hear that acknowledgment.
One of the things that I personally have found most difficult in the setting of boundaries toward the abusive assholes in my life is the guilt I get, both self-induced and also from the affected parties about how I am also punishing them. My mom gets all “But that’s not faaaaaaaair!” when I change the subject from Shit Dad Has Done, or if I choose not to partake in family activities that have historically prompted asshole behavior in him. The thing I keep reminding myself of is, she chooses to stay married to him, and that’s fine. I can’t tell her how to live her life. But she stays married to him knowing that he’s kind of awful, and she keeps delivering ultimatum after ultimatum and never acting on it. She chooses to be miserable. I choose not to be. She is welcome at my birthday, Christmas celebration, Mother’s Day, but if she chooses to stay with someone who treats her like shit, I will neither tolerate it from him nor watch her continue to allow it to be done to her. I am making myself unwelcome at these celebrations. There are a million other ways that manifests, and ultimately what it boils down to is, my dad and I are actually totally fine keeping our distance, but other family members – my mom especially – are not at the same place I am, and I have to be constantly vigilant about not letting that get to me or influence me before I’m aware of it.
Also, speaking as someone fortunate enough not to have an emotionally abusive mother, what’s wrong with changing the patterns of how you interact? Many people do this all the time with close family and friends, and they accept it as part of how life is. I might go for weeks without being in touch with my parents, and then see them several times in a couple of months. They would never dream of criticising me for that (and vice versa). This isn’t meant to be as boastful as it sounds, I’m just frustrated for you and hope comparison is helpful in some way!
From your description, I’d assume that you may agree to a level of closeness that is primarily what your mother wants when you feel like you can do it … and sometimes you just can’t. At least that’s how I would probably handle it.
I think the recommendations here are very good, that it could help to establish a lower baseline level of closeness, which you can always handle and which may even be closer to what you are comfortable with when you are not steamrollered. (Projection going on, so ignore if it doesn’t fit.)
My mum isn’t abusive, but she is REALLY bad with boundaries, and has a habit of always going just a teeny-tiny step over the line. In trying to create some space for myself I found myself doing a lot of back and forth too. I would set limits, and she would skillfully circumvent them to extract just a little more information, time, or closeness from me. She would stick to the letter and not the spirit of my stated boundaries. And then I would ask myself whether it was my own fault for giving her an inch and then being surprised when she takes a mile. In the end I tried to accept that the sweet spot of perfect, peaceful balance between ‘close enough’ and ‘too close’ just doesn’t exist for me and her.
It can be really difficult, and it’s ok to not deal with those difficulties in a manner that looks consistent from one day to the next.
It often IS quite consistent, though. Closeness is a fine idea until the boundary-crosser crosses a boundary, then you withdraw. Whether or not you could plot it neatly on a calendar doesn’t mean the rules changed. “Friendly as long as I’m being treated respectfully” is VERY consistent, and so is “social until my mental health spoons run out” or some other concern. Trying to make it seem like you’re being flaky for following a very clear rule/pattern/natural response is just another way of discrediting you.
Caveat lector: my restructuring of my relationship with my emotionally abusive mother started after she finally left a soul-crushing career she hated and resumed an earlier one which paid less but suited her better. So she was (slowly) changing in ways that made her happier, which probably made a big difference.
That said, the method I used when I needed space for reasons unrelated to her was to tell her so. Sometimes honestly, in person or on the phone, saying that there was some weird/difficult stuff going on inside my head, not your fault, I’ll call you in a few weeks. When that didn’t feel safe, it might be an email or a postcard saying that there’s some time-consuming stuff going on at work/school, I’ll check back in once things have calmed down.
Whether that’s safe for you to do, I don’t know. But it worked mostly okay for me.
My dad and I got along on the level of goofy conversational banter, which I loved (and still do, just with other people). Beyond that, he was cold, self-centered, incredibly critical, unhealthily obsessive over parts of my life that had nothing to do with him, domineering, and could go off at any minute with no warning. He claimed that his mom had Done Things to him and that’s why he was fucked up, which meant any complaint I ever voiced about his behavior became a story about his tragically unhappy childhood (which, to be fair, I’m pretty sure was accurate). Also I apparently look like a lighter-complected copy of his mom, which triggered his issues, which Wasn’t His Fault (the fact that it wasn’t mine either NEVER EVEN OCCURRED TO ME, because of reasons, most of them his). He once called me a pig to my face when I was sixteen and visiting him.
He didn’t hit me or inappropriately touch me, but that’s literally all I can say for him on that front. He was especially obsessed with my weight (I’m fat, which was a HUGE–no pun intended–disappointment to him), and with my lack of success (he constantly quoted cheesy Tony Robbins-type “inspirational” advice at me; “quality time” with him was like listening to a nonstop graduation keynote speaker) and expected me to turn into a slinky babe in an Armani business suit who ran Wall Street (there are NO WORDS for how Not Me that is).
Because my parents were divorced from my early chlldhood and he moved several states away, I (luckily) wasn’t around him a lot. MANY years later I read “Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them,” which, romantic/sexual portions of it aside, opened my eyes to his emotional abuse like nothing has before or since.
So that when, during the summer when I had lost a decent but horribly dull full-time job and was stuck doing two barely-renumerative part time jobs, and he told me he was coming to my area and it would be nice to see me but OK if I was busy, and I (gratefully) said I was booked up that weekend, and he sent me a pissy email back that said (from memory) “Wow. Your self-centeredness, callousness, and disregard for family are only exceeded by your self-centeredness, callousness, and disregard for family. Dad doesn’t live here anymore” I LITERALLY LAUGHED OUT LOUD. I said in my mind, “Suit yourself, pal!” and I’ve never talked to him since. Don’t regret it a bit.
About seven years later he sent MY MOM a letter (complaining to her about what he didn’t like about me was his go-to move) detailing how hurt he was and how “in this post 9-11 society, [Mercutia]’s lack of care for family is upsetting” (or something like that). Mom just rolled her eyes; she only let me read it after I asked her. Bear in mind that when 9-11 actually happened, he, who knew that I knew he flew a lot for his job, DIDN’T EVEN THINK TO CALL ME. He was in his office and acted kind of bemused and annoyed that I was bothering him at work.
So yeah, cutting people off? THE DELICIOUS FREEDOM. Can’t over-recommend it if you’re at your wits’ end.
another person who cut off their dad here. he’s cold, lashes out, gives the silent treatment, can’t handle being contradicted, and takes it for granted that the women around him will put up with him and explain his behavior away to the rest of the world. i feel incredibly sad about the lack of a relationship with him but grateful beyond measure that i don’t have to be in his orbit or rely on him for anything anymore.
Seconding that the ability to cut people off is so wonderful, I can’t over-recommend it.
Adding that cutting someone off doesn’t make either of you evil or bad. You can even cut off good people, if you don’t happen to be good fits for each other.
Its important to make a good faith effort to resolve differences with others, and try to avoid cutting people off. But, LW, YOU HAVE DONE THAT ALREADY. You’re free. You only stay if you choose to. If you don’t want to stay, then leave. Leaving hurts, but doesn’t speak badly of either of you.
Re: “you only stay if you choose to”
YES. A very great thing we have, here, is the knowledge that you *can* cut contact. You can. You need to take care of yourself. If cutting off your (dangerous) sister is what that takes, then you can do that. It does not make you a bad person. You have our support totally.
But also: you don’t have to. Us selling the virtues of this lifestyle does not mean it will work for you. It just means that you have options and you aren’t trapped. You have the freedom to dictate that. Your sister has spent her life making you feel like you don’t, but you do. You get to decide. Even if you decide to keep contact with her, that option is always there, and it might help you panic less.
+1 to the recommendation! You can cut off good people! You don’t need a 100% solid waterproof logical argument for why they’ve been “bad enough” to warrant not talking to them. You can also cut people off temporarily. In fact that’s something that’s often recommended after breakups, here: “I don’t like where this is at right now, I need a few months of no contact and then we can see how we both feel about it.” I think in the context of family we tend to see it as more dire, nearly traitorous, than it needs to be. In any other social situation, this is a very normal thing to do!
“You can cut off good people”—this line of reasoning helped me cut off contact with my older sister. In retrospect, I think she’s a really skilled gaslighter. In the moment, I couldn’t ever figure out what she did wrong—but I knew I always felt shitty around her, and I knew that that was reason enough for me to cut contact. Life’s easier.
Oh wow yes. When my abusive sistermom realized that I was too big to slap around and shake anymore, she started giving me the silent treatment as punishment instead.
Oh. How awful. I had to keep not looking at her so she couldn’t see my HUGE GRIN.
I’ve been disowned a couple of times by my mum. She finally stopped, I think because she realized it was never going to have the effect she wanted.
I have a friend with a sister who sounds very much like that. Also, her whole family is very much like that. It’s exhausting, confusing, and worst of all, bathes your entire life in the glow of guilt and makes you second guess your own worth. My friend has found Al-Anon to be really helpful for her. Even though it is primarily for people who have family with addiction problems, some people also go for problems with family members who manage to be extremely difficult without the help of substance abuse. It might be something to try if you feel like you need some help managing or relationship, or non-relationship, with your sister.
I got nothin’ except “I wish I had cut out the toxic people in my life 20 years ago, family or not”. Circumstances forced me to endure some of it, which was what, in the end, helped me decide to do the cutting once I could. Being trapped in that situation really made me realize how bad it was. I was willing to gnaw my leg off to get out. That wasn’t something I wanted to subject myself to if I didn’t have to.
There are a lot of good reasons to preserve contact with difficult people. That said, you have more than enough reason, based on what you have said, to never speak to her again. If she tries to make you give her an explanation, do not do so. Do not engage. Just . . . shut it all down. That’s what I’d do in your situation, I think.
A useful book (series, actually) to look into if you are suffering from these kinds of verbal attacks is “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense” by Suzette Haden Elgin. I think a copy of this should be given to every person from a difficult family, or who has difficult friends or co-workers, or whatever. Basically, I think everyone needs to read this book. It teaches you to recognize verbal attack patterns and respond to them in a way that will not escalate the situation, and which often de-escalates it and helps both parties actually achieve useful communication. Cheap copies are pretty easy to come by. Some of the example conversations are a little dated (cutely, I think) but the information is solid. It kept me functional through dealing with the toxic relationships in my life.
LW, I wish you the best. This sort of thing is so hard to figure out! I wish I could offer you the physical gesture of affection you most prefer, whether that is a shoulder-hug or a cookie or a stuffed bunny. I wish you peace and clarity, and I hope that the road you choose makes your life a happier and easier one. You deserve to have a happy, easy life free of people who attack perfectly reasonable behavior, and make everything about them in the worst possible way. 😦
this is such a nice supportive reply to the LW, I want to give you a fist bump of solidarity or whatever gesture of “right on, you” would be most preferable!
The one book of Elgin’s in that series that I’ve read was about verbal self defense at work. It relies a little too much on gender stereotypes and basically tells women that they need to be more like men, but on the whole I also heartily recommend the book or any of the books in that series.
I also firmly recommend An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments. You can read it on the author’s website or order a hard copy. After reading that one a few times, I was a lot better about being able to put my finger on the problem with a bad argument. I liked it so much that I ordered a copy so I can reread it until I know it by heart. That one helped me recognize the problem with those kinds of attack arguments, and Elgin’s book helped me figure out how to react to them.
Going anon because I sent a question in about this back in June which I don’t think is going to be published at this point (which is okay–I know not all of them are), but in case it is I don’t want to link it with my regular name. Anyway, I’m still struggling with this and this is the first post that has touched on very similar themes since I sent my question, so if it’s okay and not too derailing, I’m going to piggyback my specific situation in here in case the commenters have anything to add.
I recently cut off all contact with a narcissistic and abusive dad. This blog and all the books & articles recommended by Cap and the commenters were really helpful in being able to do that and know that it was the right thing and also helping me feel prepared for if I do come into contact with him again. (There are still a lot of extended family ties that I’m not going to give up on just because he’s terrible.)
What I’m struggling with now though is trying to salvage a relationship with my sister. She is not even remotely as abusive as my dad was (not even close, or I wouldn’t be trying). But since learning about my dad, I’ve realized that she did pick up on some screwed-up ideas about how relationships work and that’s affecting how we are together. Her biggest issues are boundaries–not accepting the fact that I am a separate person from her, that I get to make my own decisions about where I want to live and how I want to look, that when I don’t agree with her it’s not a personal attack, that we can be sisters who love each other and get along without always being on the same “team”. She doesn’t attack me but our expectations of how people behave in healthy relationships are completely out of alignment and neither of us is satisfied with how we get along because we feel much closer to each other than we can actually be right now.
I think part of the issue is that she fully accepts that my dad abused me, but she does not acknowledge that his very different behaviour toward her (I was the scapegoat, she was the golden child) was also boundary-violating and abusive (and I’m 99% certain crossed the line into emotional incest). She frequently has male friends who set off HUGE abuser red flags for me (her current partner is amazing though), and when I point their inappropriate behaviour out she minimizes it and makes victim-blaming comments. She has a lot of anger toward our mother that I strongly suspect is partly because she blames our mother for being weak enough to be abused (she has verbally equated “toughness” with the ability to not be abused and she repeatedly refers to our mom as weak for various reasons, like being spiritual). She’s a big proponent of the missing stair (http://pervocracy.blogspot.ca/2012/06/missing-stair.html) approach to handling abuse in social groups.
This is an extra big deal because I’m about to move to the same city as her for the first time in a decade. We’ve worked really hard to recover our relationship with each other over the last ten years, but we have plateaued. We don’t fight quite as often and she’s learned to accept (or at least tolerate) most of my differences, but we’re still walking on eggshells around each other and finding ourselves in blow-out screaming matches unexpectedly. The more I learn about what codependent and abusive relationships look like, the less willing I am to believe that our problems are just because I’m too sensitive or difficult. I’m afraid that when I move near her and we try to work on our relationship more, we’re going to hit a wall and have things fall apart further.
This relationship is incredibly important to me though. While I will always put my own safety first, I still want to do everything I can to save it. I feel like I’m much more able to deal with the dealbreaker-type abuse that my father dishes out, however. I know how to shut down his behaviour and assert my boundaries and I know exactly where I stand with him and have no motivation to put him and our relationship over my well-being. Things with my sister are more complicated because I know she is capable of change, but she’s not necessarily on board with what needs to change and doesn’t share my perspective on what constitutes abuse. She has a lot happening in her life right now too (huge debt, physical health problems, recovering from depression) and I think she is much more comfortable viewing me as the weird one, the damaged one, while she’s the one who got over it. I know she believes that she has no negative effects of our childhood at all, that she hates therapy and sees it as pointless, and she believes that some people are always going to be jerks and you just need to tolerate it in order to have any relationships at all. When I assert my boundaries with her or challenge her on things, she feels rejected and judged. It feels like an impossible gap to bridge, because I can’t make her be ready for something she isn’t and I can’t sacrifice my own self for her. But I believe that there have to be some things that I can do to try to tip the odds of a healthy ongoing sibling relationship in our favour and I’d be grateful for any suggestions at all.
If it was from June….I’m not gonna ever get to it, sorry. Backlog is something like 500+ questions. 😦 I’m glad you asked it here, and I always recommend that people take things to the forums at friendsofcaptainawkward.com if they need someone to respond in a reasonable timeframe.
Something like this was one of the first ever questions on the blog. It’s closely related to this, which I think might also fit your situation, especially with regard to old roles, perception of herself vs. you, and the attraction/difficulty of being with someone who has known you for a long time.
The same advice as the current letter applies, with some tweaks:
1. Find a routine way of keeping in touch with her that is comfortable for you. Lunch every now and then. A phone call once a month or once a week. Something that doesn’t bring you into her social orbit, since it sounds like those people suck. Something predictable.
2. Build it around a shared interest or hobby that you have now, NOT the past.
3. Accept that you won’t really get answers or resolution for the past. You make your own closure. She doesn’t have any to offer. Focus on what you have in common now.
4. SMALL DOSES.
5. Pull back when you need to.
6. I’m gonna say it again: Small doses. Let go of the “close sisters” or “like sisters should be” picture that you have from movies or other families. Grieve it and then let go about it. You don’t have that sister, you have a sister you see every now and again where you do your best.
7. Find and stick to safe topics. She’s not someone to talk about abuse, therapy, mental health, etc. with unless you have the energy for an argument right then. It’s okay to say “Huh, interesting” and move on when she says something designed to light you up.
8. It’s not all on you to make this work. If you are behaving reasonably, and she’s not, you’ve done what you can do. It might not be fixable.
9. I think if I remember from that letter you were going to maybe stay with her for a while while you found a place. Maybe…don’t do that?
Also, keep expectations low. Every time one of you says “but you’re my sister, so you should ______” , either out loud or in your brain, it gets a little harder to come back from it. She is your sister, but you shouldn’t and you don’t and you won’t and you can’t. Your relationship isn’t like that. That shit has to be earned.
Success right now is “Successfully ate lunch/talked on phone with no one saying anything triggering for 45 whole minutes” not “rebuilt shattered relationship into close one.”
True story: Last month I talked to my brother for the first time since 2011. We made it 20 minutes before he tried to convert me to his religion, said judgmental stuff about my life (that he knows nothing about, since, we don’t talk), and threatened me with hellfire and damnation. That was pretty good for us! May talk again in 2014. Maybe not.
Thank you for this. And no worries–I knew that you got a lot of messages and guessed after about a month that you weren’t able to get to my specific one, which I was prepared for. This column is a _lifesaver_ for me and I’d never begrudge you looking after your own needs and boundaries! 🙂 But thank you for this reply. It helps to see it all written down and I think that will help me stay on track. Those older posts as well… I think I’d read them both at one point, but never thought of them in the context of this particular relationship.
Good luck with your brother. My sister and I have gone from “screaming at each other every time we’re left in a room together for 15 minutes” to “scream at each other maybe once per visit and sometimes get through a whole visit with minimal screaming.” And, well, it only took a decade and a continent’s worth of personal space.
Thank you for your closing comment here — tonight I’m scheduled to talk to my brother for the first time since Christmas and I’m freaking out about it. This will help manage my expectations. I too struggle with the trope of, “but we’re siblings and we should be close”. But we aren’t…and that’s ok
Tangent: I didn’t see a contact link on the friendsofcaptainawkward site, so can this message be passed along to whoever manages it? I typed the domain into my browser and it had a redirect, but the redirect was to /main’ (trailing single quote) which caused an error message. Taking away the single quote went to the correct page.
I think you should give up on trying to make your sister view her childhood as abusive. It’s her childhood and she gets to define it for herself. Even if it is causing her issues, you can’t be her therapist. Besides, you’ve told her your view, she knows it, so now she gets to make up her own mind for herself. You two shouldn’t need to hold the same views and beliefs to be able to get along. If getting her to agree with your view is very important to you, then I think you should think about why and what it will be like if she never does agree. Because I don’t think any good comes from trying to make her agree with you.
In fact, as this is likely a painful and delicate topic, it’s probably best you two avoid discussing it and stick to safer topics. Changing the conversation if it comes up and not bringing it up seem like good ideas. If you want to connect with her, I’d recommend finding ways to connect related to the present, not your shared past. Find out what shared interests/hobbies you have. Find out what different interests/hobbies you have, but might still enjoy discussing with each other. For most of the problems you have with her, the advice that has been given in various posts about boundary setting is good. I just think that to increase the positives, not just deal with the negatives, you need to find the things currently that you can enjoy about each other.
You’re right, I don’t want to make her view her childhood as abusive. It would be worthless to try to define her experience for her and it would lead to even more rifts between us. It’s more that I feel bad because I see her continually running into problems with things that I believe have a root in what she thinks is okay and what is not okay in close relationships. And that also means I can’t trust her as much as I’d like in our relationship which is a barrier to us being as close as we want to be. But dealing with all of that would mean confronting a lot of painful things (I know from first-hand experience now!), so that would be a huge deal and something she needs to do on her own time in her own way, if she ever gets there. I’m not planning on pushing her on any of that and I haven’t brought it up with her at all. So I completely agree with you on that score.
I know the feeling of having had some kind of revelation and then you see it everywhere around you and you feel so much people could have a better life, if they only understood that their problems are caused by x. The thing is: This is never any of your business. And I’m not saying that in a cutting way, it’s somewhat reassuring in fact: You cannot make your sister see or believe anything and you don’t have to try. Part of having healthy boundaries with her is also recognizing what is her issue to deal with and what is yours. It can be frustrating to accept that you do not have any influence on this area of her life, but it’s a controlling impulse and it’s good to let it go.
Another thing I see in your question is the discrepancy between what you want and reality. I think you could benefit from “building from the ground up”. Right now, it sounds to me like you are focusing on what could be, what you want to be. But this is a really difficult way to live because you always compare what you’ve got to your ideal relationship. This could make the relationship with your sister feel like some kind of struggle, always pushing to get closer to each other. So I think the Captain’s advice is very sound to look where you actually are, keep expectations really low – not day-dream about the relationship you two could have – and work with what is really there. I imagine you will have to face some heartbreak when you try to figure out what your relationship is like and what you can expect, but I think it would lift a considerable weight of your shoulders to try to make it work perfectly.
Just to clarify for a second time, this is not actually a thing I am doing. I am _not_ trying to convince my sister that she was abused. I haven’t broached the topic with her and don’t plan to. I am very much aware that this is something I have no control over and should not have any control over.
@anonymiser Yeah I read that, but I’m speaking about the impulse itself. I’m not saying “Stop feeling like that” because that’s an impossible thing to do, but I wanted to show that’s it also totally okay to let that go.
Hey – I don’t know how to fix this, but I sympathise. My mother is emotionally abusive, and the family member I have the most trouble dealing with. But when I visit, I still find my dad and brother have some pretty terrible behaviours. Sometimes my dad is a passive aggressive jerk who minimises other people’s emotions. Sometimes my brother happily joins in with the mean comments they all make to each other. And my brother has become trapped in my mother’s disfunctional web and he doesn’t actually function as an independent adult as a result and it breaks my heart and I want him to see and understand all the things I’ve learned about emotional abuse and get free of her (he lives at home still). So he’s not abusive to me the way your sister is, but I want so badly to get him to see my mother’s behaviour clearly.
And I can’t. And neither can you alas. 😦
Everyone’s advice re managing the relationship is probably good (certainly you don’t have to take her boundary swamping). But I will add that I’ve had some luck in educating my Dad about some things, such as gaslighting. His family is a mess of terrible abusive behaviour (I guess that’s how he doesn’t see the problems with Mum) and he’s been open to learning stuff about their disfunctionality when I’ve leant a sympathetic ear and given him reading materials. I am not without hope on that front. What I have learned though is that the elephant in the room cannot be addressed successfully – you have to edge around it and hope some of the information seeps through to the main issue.
Honestly – step back and look after yourself – your family is still embedded in your Dad’s reality distortion field, and that’s extremely difficult to work around.
Thanks, and you’re right. I have had some success with planting a few seeds of ideas and then letting other people she encounters in her life really help her understand (her current wonderful partner is very much an introvert and she credits growing up with me, also a huge introvert to her extrovert which was the source of a LOT of conflict between us, for helping her get where he’s coming from). Just because of all the messy history and the family baggage and the power dynamics, it’s hard for her to hear things from me directly, which I have accepted, but sometimes after we have a big fight about something, she’ll come back to me months (or years) later having processed it and come to a new understanding. More than anything I want her to find a support network _outside_ of our family and existing friends who would open her to a new perspective. But that’s wishful thinking too and well beyond my sphere of influence. Mostly what I can do is keep working on myself.
Yeah the problem with getting through to people in these circumstances is that they firmly believe the abuser’s behaviour is normal and to some extent OK. They might not think it’s great or pleasant, but they believe it’s just part of everyday life and that everyone has bad days and etc. etc. My dad and brother complain about terrible difficult stuff my mum does all the time, but they are extremely resistant to the idea that it might actually have crossed a line into totally unacceptable territory. My attempts at boundary setting? I’m just difficult and start fights. The abusive person becomes like bad weather – totally out of everyone’s control and why are you arguing with it?
Except of course it’s not bad weather, it’s a person choosing to behave in a way that’s harmful to others, and setting boundaries is entirely reasonable.
Alas, for the people who come to see the behaviour as normal it’s really easy for them to start replicating it.
Everyone in my family says really mean, inappropriately cruel stuff to each other all the time, with a thin veneer of “joking”. It took living in a different state and only seeing them a couple times a year for a while for me to even be able to see and start to find it disturbing. When I last visited I acted shocked every time they said something over the line, and said something like “wow that’s a horrible thing to say”. But it didn’t filter through – everyone was all “nah it’s just a joke”. Only…no…those are not just “jokes”.
If I had a special brian-ray that would beam the truth into people’s heads so that they could see abusive behaviour for what it is I would definitely start a kickstarter for mass production and would be talking to Jennifer right now about promoting it here to the Awkward Army… but no. Alas there is no such thing.
I know Captain already responded, but I wanted to add that your sister doesn’t have to be your “primary” or “worst” abuser – you don’t have to identify with those terms at all – to justify cutting her out if you need to, she just has to be doing you more harm than good.
I know you say you want to salvage a relationship with her because she’s not as far gone as your father, who has been worse to you. My situation is pretty similar – my brother makes excuses for our dad’s abuse despite experiencing it himself, doesn’t seem to acknowledge that he’s been hurt, and likes to play me up as rebellious and childish whenever I make a life decision (including coming out as trans!) despite the fact that we’re both adults. Really, comparatively, telling me the abuse that he saw wasn’t that bad, or comes from a source so pathetic that the “adult” thing to do is ignore it is nowhere near the level of horrible that it took to make me cut my father out. But I don’t talk to my brother either. I understand where he’s coming from, and that this is how he’s processing his own abuse, and that we used to be closer, but it doesn’t make it my responsibility to help him grow (an uncertain outcome) by letting him be a jerk to me. The same can be said of your sister. Even if you care for her it just isn’t your job to let her use you as a punching bag until she processes things. That’s something you can’t force her to learn, a journey you can’t force her to go on. If and when she comes around, she can contact you. You don’t have to be there getting screamed at until she realizes screaming at you is wrong. Even if you’ve endured worse. Even if she’s endured worse. Letting her be cruel to you isn’t helping either one of you.
There’s a lot of advice in here about going forward carefully, in small doses, to protect yourself. I know you would prefer that kind of approach rather than any sort of absence. I’d just like to suggest what I use with people who haven’t done any of the textbook evil wrongdoings that make these “do I still talk to them?” choices more black and white: wait for an apology. If someone does something that hurts me, I tell them so and that I’d like an apology, and then I don’t talk to them again until they apologize (an actual, “what i did wrong + why it was wrong + don’t repeat it” apology). For some people this takes ten seconds, and for others it’s forever. It’s not really meant to be a rigid system of score-keeping if it sounds that way (and I definitely adopted it in response to bigger offenses/boundary trespasses rather than minor rude behaviours so I don’t know how it would apply there). I’m suggesting it as a way of giving the decision to cut her out over to her instead of you. The price of knowing you is apologizing when she hurts you. The door is open as soon as she’s able to do that. You don’t have to think of it as coldly as “cutting her out,” since she’s someone you feel compassion for. If she can’t even see that you’re hurt, it just might be a while.
Thank you. You’re right, of course–ultimately if the relationship is bad for me, I need to cut it off. To be honest, I find cutting relationships off a lot easier than trying to mend them. This situation is extra difficult because over the last ten years, things have improved a lot between us and she has actually done a lot of positive things (the screaming is also mutual–we trigger each other’s worst sides in a way that no one else can). I came out as trans to her last year and while she still doesn’t understand much about what that means, she’s trying really hard to be supportive. I’m just not sure if things have changed enough (and can keep changing) that we can actually get closer to having the relationship we want, or if this is as good as it gets, which may very well be the case. Time will tell.
It took me a while to figure this out — but it is such a balm to hear it repeated — you are never going to get an apology, self-awareness, a sense of fairness and proportion, from certain people. Among them my ex. During our marriage, we must have had the conversation
Me: “hey I wanted to talk about [issue]
him: “I COULD SAY THE SAME ABOUT YOU ACTUALLY YOU ARE MUCH WORSE OKAY I’M DONE THIS CONVERSATION IS OVER”
me: tears, apologies, belly-crawling, followed by resentment and a certainty if I could just explain it properly he would *see* it and *get* it.
over, and over, and over, and over.
Now — and it is hard sometimes, but getting so much easier — it’s more like this:
him: ridiculously selfish behaviour
me: huh, whatever.
He’s been sort of upping the ante but I feel like he’ll knock it off eventually when he doesn’t get the “dance monkey dance” reaction from me that used to be standard and I am pretty sure *very* gratifying for him.
We have to keep interacting because we have a kid together.
But just realizing, oh, he’s never going to apologize, have a revelation, see things the way probably most people would see them, has lifted such a burden of frustration and anguish. The _Wizard of Oz and other narcissists_ book helped a lot with this.
It is kind of terrifying to think about what my kid is going to have go through when she kind of hits the wall of this (she’s quite young) — but at least it won’t be happening in her home, she’ll have a safe retreat from it and hopefully learn to enjoy the charming parts and just detach from the rest of his interactional style.
Yes indeed. When you like someone and want them to like you back you get sucked into the weird dance of trying to express your needs without upsetting them (which is impossible, because the fact that you have needs upsets them). When you can see them as an unpleasant person you have to deal with it gets a lot easier.
The catch is making that step. It’s not easy to accept that you can’t fix a relationship you care about, that actually the ball is in the other person’s court and they will never ever pick it up.
“which is impossible, because the fact that you have needs upsets them”
oh my god. this is the part i keep bumping up against in my current situation, and seeing it articulated here … well, it might be what i need to let go and accept that i can’t fix it without complete self-immolation. which means i can’t fix it.
my roommate/ex-partner is post-breakup of a newer relationship and struggling. i feel awful for her, but i’m also in a new relationship, and i’d like to enjoy it. her strategy before i started seeing my girlfriend was to monopolize my time, talking about her breakup for hours as if i were her therapist (literally five hours one night, from the time i finished work for the day to the time i had to go to bed). now that i’m not in the house as much, she has been sending me nasty texts, has unfriended me and is apparently vaguebooking about me, and has started breaking my stuff–ripping apart books, breaking games and DVDs, etc.
she’s my roommate, so i have to wade back in at some point, but right now i’m staying with my girlfriend and going home when i know she won’t be there. i keep trying to figure out a way to reengage with her so that she has someone to talk to, because she is legitimately lonely and hurting. but my need for safety is being completely disregarded right now, as is my need to have time with people other than her. those are pretty basic needs and i can see now that if she doesn’t respect those, she’s not going to respect any of my needs.
Wow. You know, even if you were her ACTUAL therapist – as in, you had agreed to take on the job and she had agreed to pay you an appropriate sum of money in return – this behaviour would be so totally unacceptable that you’d need to terminate the therapy, as the therapist/patient relationship would have been destroyed by this.
It is not your job to deal with the emotional needs of someone who treats you this way. It is not your duty. It is not your obligation. It just isn’t.
Oh dear. Betterpast I was thinking about how I’ve certainly listened to people for 5 hours on a work night before and it’s rough but not outside the realms of reasonable behaviour for an upset friend (in some circumstances anyway) and then I got to the part where she’s sending you nasty texts and unfriending you and destroying your stuff.
That’s way, way outside the realms of reasonable behaviour. She is not your friend. She’s either pissed because you stopped devoting every waking moment to her or there’s something else going on but either way she’s way out of line. I’d say move as soon as you possibly can. And before that time ensure you have collected all your most important stuff and moved it somewhere safe. And perhaps try to avoid being alone with her, especially if you are telling her you’re moving out or if you’ve just recently told her. Because the part where she’s destroying your stuff is a red flag for her being genuinely unsafe to be around physically as well as emotionally.
I’m sorry to say you’ve found yourself in the flat share of evil bees. Remember that it’s possible to put all your stuff in storage and crash with your girlfriend or a different friend or a family member while you look for a new home. I hope there are no sucky financial reasons why this can’t happen because: bees. Evil bees.
Yeah there’s no way to reengage with someone who is literally destroying your stuff. Please move out when she is not home.
Thank you for this. My brother recently tried to use the ball metaphor with me. I did call him a while back to have a sibling breakup conversation because he’s been either absent or a shithead for our entire lives, basically. But once I told him and our parents I was done, well, he decided he had to salvage his rep with them by nagging me back into contact. He finally gave up (I hope) in a huffy, insulting email, in which he told me he’s done trying, and the ball is in my court! Obviously he doesn’t even know which ball I’ve been trying to play with! Not only will he never pick it up, as you say – he wouldn’t recognize that damn ball if he tripped over it!
This part “they don’t get it, and they won’t get it. They don’t apologize. They don’t gain self-awareness, or if they do, they don’t do it where you can see it. is really upsetting to me, because it sounds exactly like my mom.
A couple of days before the end of my vacation in August, I had sent my family a Dropbox folder with about a hundred photos from the trip. I had also been Facebooking the same photos, and although I had my dad friended, he was set to Limited and couldn’t see them; I don’t have my mom there because she has a history of going through mine and my brother’s Facebook pages and make comments about photos/friends to us. This would seem innocent to most people, except that our entire history since I was 12 is pretty much this: “…wants your love, your attention, to be important to you and to know she’s important to you. But her own behaviors are alienating her from everything she wants.”
I had sent my family a shared Dropbox folder because that way, mom would not be forwarding my private photos to her friends (I later got a Dropbox access request from someone I didn’t know; I am confident my mom sent it to her friends, and one of them actually requested me to grant her access, which – as if!)
(It may seem silly to have a falling out over Facebook, but my mom has a history of making me feel uncomfortable by being overly-interested in my life in a way that feels like I’m getting spied on; she’s previously said that as my mother, she is my first and best friend (right…), and when I’ve brought up issues in our relationship, she has said that hasn’t she been good 51% of the time and bad 49%, and didn’t that come out a positive?)
Despite sending me so many Facebook friend requests I’d denied that I finally blocked her, my mom got my brother to give her access to my grandma’s page, Friended me, and then proceeded to Like a bunch of vacation and other photos. I realized what had happened when I talked to my gran. I blocked my grandma’s and dad’s accounts on my FB (with my grandma’s assent – my gran is amazing, but she hates conflict), and called my mom to ask if she had done this. When mom said yes, I told her I was blocking her (i.e. grandma’s) account because she didn’t respect my privacy. Privacy is kind of a hot button topic with my mom; she hung up on me immediately, and tried to call me back 5-6 times (most of which I couldn’t have picked up – I was on the subway to see my therapist), after which she sent me the most scathing email I have ever received in my life, accusing me of ruining her own upcoming vacation, of bullying her, and telling me that I wouldn’t be able to do that “to her family” any longer (effectively telling me I’ve been cut off by delineating a family that didn’t include me). I almost called her back to apologize but decided to wait till I saw my therapist; she read my mom’s email, confirmed that it was not normal, used the term “emotional abuse”, and said I had nothing to feel guilty about (because my mom will take any boundary-setting as a slap in the face).
A couple of weeks later, mom called me and acted like everything was fine (another thing she does – it’s not that she’s hurt you, it’s that you’re just too busy to talk! So, so busy) and I told her I didn’t want to talk. She hung up on me. It’s now been over two months since we’ve spoken, and she hasn’t apologized. I went home to see my family for Thanksgiving, and I avoided looking or speaking to her – I don’t feel I have a choice, because acting aloof but civil will be read as “Daughter is just too busy and rude to be nice, but everything is fine!”; with such a shallow relationship, even being civil is seen as acquiescing to carpet-sweep everything (without any apologies, naturally) – which I do not agree to. My dad later called after to tell me how disappointed my mom was in me for not hugging her at Thanksgiving.
I don’t feel my mom is capable of having a relationship with me despite clearly wanting it so badly. She will pry (and subtly insult me) and if I am civilly cold, she will act like it’s because I’m busy and/or a distant (i.e bad) daughter. She has never apologized for anything she’s said to me, despite demanding an apology for the things I’ve done and said to her (which are always useless, because she either stays mad – or doesn’t – without any apparent effect from an apology). To be honest, I don’t know what to do beside keeping her on low contact and working with my therapist.
The saddest thing is that she genuinely seems to want me to be (very, very) close. However, everything she does to that end is pretty much designed to push me away. She will nag me for not visiting more often and then acts surprised that it makes me want to visit her even less. There really doesn’t seem to be a way to fix this beside protecting myself and maintaining my relationship with the rest of my family without her.
Oh my, this could be my mom. She’s set up Google Alerts on my name, which maybe ought not to feel creepy, but it is *so* creepy. It says “you may not want to tell me everything that’s going on with you, but I will find it out!” It says “you don’t get to choose your boundaries.” And no, she is definitely not my FB friend and she obliquely complains about that a lot.
It’s sad that you’re in this situation, but I’m selfishly glad that I’m not the only one. It’s really a hard thing to discuss with people who haven’t been there (and folks who are parents hate hearing it unless they went through it themselves). Yes, it is creepy when you get several years of “my daughter is my best friend” cards when you know that the only thing she knows about you is that you’re alive and working at Employer X.
A word of warning from someone who has dealt with this for decades: there may be times when the boundary crosser seems to act more respectful of your boundaries. My default response is to throw down my boundaries and start sharing…and that inevitably leads to meanness. I’m trying to learn how to move very very slowly. A lack of mean comments means that the boundaries get lowered a centimeter and then they stay there for a while!
Oh wow. Yes, same here about behaviour seeming more respectful only to lure you back. I think I was in my mid-twenties when I realized that it wasn’t worth it.
With all matters of family who act in inappropriate or flat out abusive ways, to some extent your worst enemy is always your own desire for a “normal” loving relationship with that person. It took me a long time to realize that I had to perform a feelings-ectomy in order to interact with some of my family members, because that longing was always going to make me betray myself. I keep a strict wall of separation between all important information and my family. We text about our pets and our sports teams and that’s all I’m comfortable with.
Even now that I’m older and I see my mother plainly wishing for a closer relationship, I know that I can’t let her have it. Like the scorpion, she would sting me until we both drown. It’s in her nature.
I am right there with all three of you, because my mother is just the same. But I feel all this guilt because I’m all my mother has (my brother cut off contact with her 20+ years ago, should have been my first clue).
Every time I think I should give it another try, because maybe THIS time she’ll respect my boundaries, I’ll have a dream where she shows up and physically assaults me. I take that as my subconscious telling me it’s a Bad Idea, and I’m not quite ready yet.
I think it’s not fair to you to frame it as “you’re all your mother has”. Even if you’re the only person she’s relatively close to still, she still has her coping skills, her adult skills, some kind of government support etc. Even if you’re the last person she can talk to, it’s still her responsibility to figure out how to live a fulfilling (or better) life – and how to find people she can be close to.
I would also point out that you are, in fact, one of at least two people (and I suspect more, but definitely at least two from what you say) whom your mother had a shot at having in her life and who are now choosing not to be in her life as a direct result of her unacceptable behaviour. The fact that your brother reached this conclusion before you did does not leave the ‘all she has’ mantle resting officially on your shoulders to deal with. It just means that your mother is going to have to deal with the consequences of her own behaviour. You get just as much right as your brother to decide that you don’t want to have to deal with her shit any more, and, honestly, if she wanted you guys to stay in her life she had the option of treating you with a bit of decency and respect in the first place.
I hate to make you feel worse, but y’all are actually making me feel better. My mom has an issue with boundaries to the point where I created a separate FB account for family and one for friends. But she’s nowhere near this bad. She’s just more in the kinda nosy mom, can’t understand that being nosy makes us kids withdraw more, viscous circle type. This reminds me that things could be so, so much worse. So . . . thanks? And y’all have my sympathy.
What’s almost more upsetting is that a week before all of this happened, I had a heart-to-heart, tearful talk with my mom, telling her about why I had trouble trusting her, how abandoned I had felt by her as a teenager, and how hurt I’ve felt by her. My mom told me about all the ways in which my dad was a terrible partner and how hard that made it for her to protect and be there for me and my brother (which I don’t deny, but she never took responsibility for her part in it), and said she would work hard to earn my trust again. And then a week later, I got the proof that all of that has amounted to nothing.
Sounds like a major non-apology on her part. “Yes I agree it was bad and only your father was at fault.” doesn’t mean much. On top of it, she’s dumping her (adult) problems on you.
My thinking is that if you were withholding contact in order to punish someone or to manipulate them into doing something, then that would be passive-aggressive and mean. But that’s not what’s going on here at all. If you’re avoiding contact with your sister because interacting with her is frustrating and exhausting and harmful to your health, then not interacting with her is a perfectly reasonable way to proceed. It’s the same reason I cut off contact with my sister 10 years ago, and I don’t regret it one bit.
For those who feel guilty about not being consistently close with their relatives, trust me when I say that there is no way you will ever maintain enough closeness to makes them happy. There will always be some gesture they think you should have made. There always be some need you didn’t meet. There will always be something you should have thought of, bought, planned, mimed, etc. Because these people are a swirling bottomless hole of need. No matter how much energy you throw into the hole, nothing will ever fill it up. You’re better off not even trying.
Yesssss well said. Everything you do for them will be taken for granted as -at most- the simple baseline of decency no matter what it is, and there will always be something else you should have done as well or differently or more.
“A couple of months ago, after radio silence for almost a year, she sent a postcard with a normal, friendly message in it, apparently pretending that everything is fine. At this point, I’m done. I haven’t responded.”
I’m gonna be the “cut her off (at least for a little longer)” advocate and say, good. Don’t contact her.
It sounds like she misses her verbal punching bag and is trying to lure you back in. Dollars to donuts if you strike up a conversation with her, she’ll slip a few passive-aggressive zingers in there, just to see if she can still needle you.
Obviously I don’t know you or her, but if she’s like other people I’ve known, that card is not a friendly gesture.
Yes. I’ve heard this called “pushing the reset button.”
Interesting. A friend I used to be very close to tried to do this. She was the one to African Violet me, to gaslight the hell out of me when I tried to ask her what was happening, and the one who chose to go after all my friends *and even my family members* as new friends, in places where she knew I could see it, while ignoring me. Aaaaaaand then, after a YEAR, none of that had ever happened, apparently, and I got a very similar, conversational message to the LW’s postcard. And when I deflected she just decided to pretend it had worked anyway, and commence talking to all our now-mutual friends about me as if we were still BFFs and always had been BFFs and Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. Which meant a lot of friends who’d known about the breakdown of our friendship ended up unintentionally hurting me by bringing her up in jarring ways, or inviting her to places I terribly didn’t want to see her, because they assumed from the way she spoke about me (which she was apparently doing a lot of!) that there’d been some big reconciliation.
I’ve settled at an unspoken truce of: “Okay, we will be friends at parties, but no I will not meet you alone, no I will not tell you anything about my personal life again, ever. I have done going out of my way to either meet or avoid you.” It’s going to have to be good enough, but even that sometimes feels like colluding in an artificial reality where she gets to pretend everything is fine and I get confronted over and over with the memories of being hurt so badly. They are much, much less painful now, but still.
1+ for the 1984 reference. A friend of mine recently attempted to restart the Cycle of the African Violet (she will African Violet for minor reasons that she won’t disclose and then revoke the violet and pretend like nothing happened even though she’s been ignoring you for *months*), but this time I decided, “nope, this African Violet is *mine* and I’m keeping it!” and she’s now started pretending we’re friends to other people. It’s…weird, but I’ve blocked her on social media and filtered her email address, so if she wants this African Violet back, we’re going to have to have an actual conversation about it.
Goodness. I feel like I could have written this comment! I had a “friend” do the same thing to me. However, our friendship was already heading down the “this is ending naturally” spiral (in my opinion, anyway) and I’m pretty sure she did it because she saw that was happening and wanted there to be a reason we weren’t as close as we were. She is a very drama-prone person in nature, so she just injected some into the natural death of our friendship. And then when I didn’t respond the way she thought I would to her actions (I think she wanted begging and pleading to save the friendship), she went off the deep end and made it a giant blowup, ignoring me pointedly but always showing up to things if she thought I’d be there, speaking to our mutual friends as though nothing was happening (so they were all confused, because something was clearly happening), and weirdly fixating on me and the things I was doing with my life without her in it.
After about a year of silence she called me up crying about how she missed me and our friendship was so important to her and she had always pictured herself as one of my bridesmaids (something I had not entertained for years at that point) and so on, and tried to reconcile, but I made a conscious decision to keep her at arm’s length and not let her become close to me at all. I know she can sense it, because I can tell it bothers her — sometimes, she’ll be extra sweet and nice, and sometimes she’ll still be strange and cold, depending on what’s going on. Our friendship has not been the same since all this. I basically consider her someone I see at the convention we both attend once a year and someone with whom to share an occasional casual conversation.
I do have to thank Captain Awkward; I’m pretty sure I would have handled this far worse than I did had I not been reading this blog for some time by that point. Learning to distance myself and do what’s best for my own mental health is not something I’ve always been able to do, but thanks in part to the Awkward Army, I’ve learned how to keep my boundaries strong.
About a year ago I was going through some horrible guilt over wanting to scale back a friendship that I felt obligated to maintain because we’d been very close a few months before and I didn’t seem to have a “good” reason for changing my feelings. The person in this case wasn’t abusive or bad, we’d just gotten to a point where our differences outweighed what we had in common and I wanted to step things down and she wanted them to keep escalating. I was wracked with guilt to the point of depression and self-harm. It took another friend stepping into remind me that I never, under any circumstances, _owed_ someone my feelings and my company.
At the time I was deep into self-destructive rationalizing at how I was a horrible person for not wanting to spend more time with this first friend, so my buddy gently challenged me by reframing my rationalizations as if they were about a romantic relationship and sex instead of a friendship. So when I said, “But she’ll be hurt if I don’t hang out with her!”, my buddy said, “But he’ll be hurt if I don’t sleep with him!” (Of course, people DO use the latter rationalization on themselves, or are subjected to it in abusive relationships, but in this case it was enough to snap me out of assuming that the rules for friendships were somehow different than the rules for relationships in general.) It was too late to save the friendship on any level, but it did help me finally end the guilt spiral before I did myself some serious physical harm. I’m still ashamed of how much harder I made things for this person who didn’t do anything wrong, but the only thing that would have made that better is if I’d been more honest up front instead of trying to suppress my feelings and then forcing her to deal with the inevitable messy aftermath.
The reason I’m describing all of this even though it’s in reference to completely different relationships than the LW is talking about is to reinforce the point that it doesn’t MATTER what the nature of the relationship is–friendship, filial, romantic, abusive or not abusive–you are NEVER obligated to give someone your time, your company (sexual or otherwise), your feelings, anything that you don’t want to, and you don’t need to have a “good” reason to not want to (though let me tell you, as far as reasons going, “you’re being abusive and mean” is a DAMN good one). If your mind and body are telling you that you need space, then that’s what you need, and you’re not a bad person for it.
Oh, my. This comment has eerie similarities to what I went through last year, only as the one who was let go. My friend and I were close and had shared a lot (including an unforgettable day in NYC), so the out-of-the-blue e-mail from her about parting ways made me hurt for many months after. But one day it finally got to me that if she’d stayed with me out of obligation instead of genuine desire, it wouldn’t have been friendship. Once that and a couple of other things clicked, I stopped carrying the grief around and life got a lot better. Every once in a while I miss her, but most of the time I’m at peace about it.
The same is true in your case: letting her go may have been difficult (and you may wish you’d gone about it differently), but you did what your mind and body said you needed, and as you wrote that doesn’t make you a bad person. A relationship that becomes an obligation isn’t a relationship, it’s a job.
Ohmygod Ohmygod Ohmygod.
Thank you for making me feel five million times better for wanting to end a friendship.
I guess I need to write her a letter
It’s been going on for so long and the slow fade hasn’t worked. To make things worse we used to joke about spring cleaning your friends… and I know she thinks I’m horrible for cutting someone out. Oh, btw, the person I ‘cut out’ had already cut me out.
There is nothing like when there’s someone you want to have a good relationship with, who finds what you do as wrong at every turn, no matter what the heck you do, and even the kind things you try to do become targets of anger and/or derisive scorn. To say different seemingly-innocuous words, contact them earlier, apologize sooner, etc etc etc… it’s a temptation to try to ~solve the ~puzzle and find the thing that does not result in fury, anger, or coldness, but it seems like no matter what you try, you never seem to find it. LW, I’m so sorry you are going through this. (And I’m sorry so many other people commenting have gone through this, too, jedi-hugs for us all.)
I don’t think you can expect a heartfelt apology or promise of changed behavior; as CA says, what you *can* do is interact, if you choose to, in the ways you can handle.
The “nagging fear” you mention is not your conscience, or the voice of reason, or anything like that. It is a fear brought on by her behaviour toward you – because she would (will?) likely say those things, and possibly much, much worse. That does not mean it is true. Just because she says it does not mean it is true. I am adding my name to the list of all the commenters to tell you, and help you remember: The mean, hurtful things she says are not the truth of you.
So, I have a similar but much less severe situation and am wondering if I am at all in the wrong, as the LW obviously isn’t.
The first paragraph of this letter perfectly describes my sister, down to jealously of time i spend with/on a significant other, friends, work, with our parents and complaining about plans that she did not make (accusing me of planning things I knew she wouldnt like or with people she doesnt like/know/know well enough to be comfortable with; which is not true). She is will text me daily with things like “Hi” and if I don’t respond within 10-20 minutes, I will begin getting responses like “…..” and “???” and associated guilt trips like “You dont seem that excited to talk to me” “Why are you going home to mom and dads when im not going to be there”, and “Don’t bring your boyfriend to thanksgiving because then you wont have time to focus on me!!”. My sister has not crossed into the extreme behavior described later in the letter, but I think I am younger than the letter writer and have less time for my sister to have behaved as such.
I am extremely busy with my job and attempting to have a life. I don’t have the time/desire/energy to talk to my sister on the phone more than once or twice a week, especially since getting off in less than an hour is challenging and associated with guilt trips. My sister was not happy in college and has been challenged transitioning into the young adult work force, struggled to find a job and make friends. I love her, and I know she wants and feels she needs more time from me but I am just not really up for it, and her antics make me want to be less involved with her anyways.
Am I being selfish (like my sister often accuses)? Or do I just need to set boundaries like the LW?
I suggest that you set a weekly “sister chat” date for a few minutes, and deflect all other communications to that time. “Can’t talk now, let’s talk about it when we catch up on Sunday.”
If you set up and keep a predictable schedule, you give her something to depend on and look forward to. She will test the living shit out of your boundaries for a while, but if you stay true and follow through (by not getting sucked into arguments betweentimes, and actually talking to her when you said you would) she’ll learn and your relationship will likely improve.
It should totally be a T-shirt, Boundaries don’t make you a bad person, they make you a healthy person.
Am reminded of “the second thing” mentioned in this letter: https://captainawkward.com/2014/06/11/587-renegotiating-a-friendship-with-velcro-victor/
You are so not wrong. I honestly cannot imagine a reason to call it “selfish” to decide to introduce your SO to your family, or to catch up with your parents–even though your sister isn’t there! You are living your life. It’s okay to be a part of hers! It is not okay for her to demand that you prioritize playing support for her life over your own life.
A lot of fantastic advice, I wanted to add one thing.
It’s ok to be mad. You can look back at the rageasaurus posts, but if you have a little voice in your head that starts screaming insults and profanity when she tries to contact you? That’s normal. That’s the way you protect yourself. It’s not a secret sign that you really are a terrible person. When someone hurts you, it’s ok to be mad.
Now obviously if it’s bleeding over into a lot of other parts of your life it’s not helping, but you get to choose what to do with that anger. You can choose to putting it into protecting yourself and taking care of yourself and not being lured back into “But what if I really am everything she says and I should try to make it up to her?”
I have a question about cutting people off. My grandmother is very mean to me to the degree that I don’t recall a single conversation with her that didn’t contain a putdown or backhanded compliment. her big focus is my weight, appearance and social/romantic life (or apparent abscence of both). Earlier this year I wrote her a letter explaining that my body was my own goddamn business and if she couldn’t find another topic of conversation I wouldn’t talk to her or write to her again. She didn’t respect my wishes and I cut her off.
That entire side of the family jumped on my back, attacking me for “how badly I’d hurt Nanna” and begged me to begin talking to her again. She would harass my dad to “please convince (Charlie) I’m not evil”. This whole situation is further complicated by the fact that my grandmother is a diagnosed schizophrenic and so according to my family had no control over the cruel things she had said to me and according to her, had never been said at all but transmitted into my head by the voices. I gave up and began talking to her again.
She hasn’t changed at all and talking to her causes me anxiety to the degree that I get strong, physical reactions whenever the phone rings. Whenever I am trying to be more health conscious about my weight talking to her or having her find out about whatever diet I’m on directly sabotages my attempts (last time I requested nobody tell her but they did anyway). My resentment for her is increased by the fact that I’m non-binary transgender and am effectively waiting for her to die so I can come out to the rest of the family/begin transition because I know her reaction would be beyond awful and horrible for my health.
So my question is how do you deal with family/friend group pressures to let people back into your life? And what do you do if it proves impossible to cut them out? My grandmother calls several times a day (and leaves multiple answering machine messages) so the only way to avoid her is to not answer my home phone at all.
Unfortunately I think the only way to deal with family in this situation is to seriously cut back on contact with them as well. If telling your family things is the same as telling your grandma things, then you have to cut them all out. You can make that an explicit boundary with them. I’m telling you this and I don’t want you telling grandma or anyone else. If you tell you will be showing me that I can not trust you, and I will not be telling you things in the future.
And then enforce the boundaries.
It stinks that you have to deal with secondary crap from your extended family on top of the crap from you grandmother.
http://narcissistschild.blogspot.ca/ This site deals specifically with narcissism but a lot of what she writes about it applicable to any toxic relationship. The particular parts that would apply to you are what she calls “flying monkeys,” by which she means other people in your life who have been trained by your abuser to aid her in her abuse or to continue her abuse in her absence. She has written a lot about dealing with these flying monkeys in her family, things she’s tried, things that worked or didn’t work. It’s good reading and hopefully it could give you some ideas to try out.
CN for the site: for some reason she is vehemently anti-vegetarian. I’ve only seen it come up infrequently in comments but it’s there. Also the site can be very triggering for survivors of physical and emotional abuse as she is very open with her experiences.
Ah, just wanted to add: her illness is not a free pass to abuse you. No one ever gets a free pass to abuse you. It’s unfortunate that she has that illness and I’m sure it’s a terrible thing for her to have to deal with. However, it does not mean that she gets to abuse anyone because of it.
It may be that she has no control over what she says. But YOU have control about how much access she has to you. Don’t feel badly about exercising that control. Treating you like crap is not making her better, is not increasing her quality of life. So removing yourself from her access is not diminishing her quality of life. You are not harming her by withdrawing.
Yes this. The thing is, you can be as understanding as you want about her illness, but if you get anxious everytime you may talk to her (and oh god would it be bad for my anxiety if then phone rang all the time), you are basically making yourself sick for her health. As boutet said, it’s not actually making you better, it’s only making you worse. So there is no point, really, in talking to her.
Also phone: If you think there would be any technical means/through your phone company, I’d recommend looking into it if you can block her number. That can be such a relief.
* it’s not actually making her better
Agreed with boutet. And I’m sorry for the sucky situation you’re in. That’s awful. It’s sad your grandmother is schizophrenic, but that doesn’t mean in any universe that you therefore should subject yourself to unwarranted abuse.
Whether they intend it or not, by passing on all the things your grandmother is saying (and arguing on her behalf/for her), your family members are participating in her ill-treatment of you. In general, you get to question someone *once* about a big decision, and explain why you’re concerned because of xyz reasons, but then that’s *it* (unless massively game-changing new information comes to light). Even if you totally disagree with the decision and think it’s a terrible thing to do, part of being an adult is realising that people have the right to make their own terrible mistakes. By choosing to keep badgering you about your relationship with your grandmother (yes, they’re family, but a relationship that they’re not a person in is still none of their business) they are being unreasonable. You are not in the wrong.
Captain has some good scripts for this sort of thing in a few other posts–I suggest you browse a bit and find/modify ones that suit you. I think I’d go with something like, “You already know how I feel about and have made your point many times already. Every time you talk about this it just makes me feel hurt. Please drop it or I’m ending this conversation.” And follow through (leave the room, stand up and walk out of a restaurant, etc.) until they get it. It unfortunately might take a while, and it’s a good idea to practise by yourself first (or with a good friend) because it’s hard to keep a cool head and do the right thing when everyone else is being unreasonable but acting like *you’re* the one being ridiculous.
I hope you have a therapist or someone similar you can talk to about this, because that’s a really unfair situation you’ve been put into. I hope things eventually get better.
Schizophrenia doesn’t make you mean.
There are plenty of diagnosed schizophrenics that manage to maintain their lucid conversations to mutually agreeable topics. And if your grandmother really can’t control what she talks about with you but doesn’t enjoy causing you pain, she should *welcome* your efforts to protect yourself.
Change your phone number and don’t give it to your family. And be honest with them. Tell them, I can’t let you have my phone number, because I don’t trust you to not let my grandmother have it. And that is bad for my health and well-being. So, until I can trust you to not actively harm me, you can’t have my number.
That would get you your phone back and should decrease some anxiety around it. Then you see if they can start adapting to helping you keep distance between yourself and your grandmother. Shut them down every time they try to bring her up. Tell them you refuse to discuss the topic. Leave if you have to. If it’s through email, do not reply to any content about her. Feel free to edit it out from the text included when replying. Act as if it does not exist until they give up.
I’m rather worried about you, because you’re putting off transitioning for an unknown length of time. That is deeply unfortunate. I really hope you can find a workable solution where your family isn’t a danger to your transition. That’s a very big life thing to put on hold because of a toxic family member, so I hope you can find some peace and safety from her.
One of the factors that I failed to mention is that my grandmother is very unwell- it’s probably breast cancer but because she’s confined to a nursing home they haven’t gotten around to testing her and it wouldn’t be worth treating at her lifestage. Which is another factor for my family pressure “She’s old and sick, why are you being so awful to her?”. However, people and medical experts have been saying that she’s not long for this world for the last 35 years so I don’t really hold much certainty when it comes to that.
I should also clarify that I am a uni student and I still live at home with my Dad so I don’t have any control over the phone number. I do have a supportive psychologist though (although one who is fairly clueless about gender diversity although open minded).
With my family they were initially supportive of my decision but gradually became more guilt-trippy towards me as she started to harass them about me more and more. She also feels entitled to discuss my weight to other people regularly which I hate.
Honestly, when it comes to my transition, I can’t imagine a future where my extended family could be anything but toxic towards me. My immediate family are supportive but my extended family are conservative Catholics and very invested in their idea of me as a girl because there are so few young women in our family.
It’s sad that your grandmother is old and sick but, just as others mentioned regarding her schizophrenia, that doesn’t mean you have to accept or even tolerate her behaviour. (Also, she’s obviously well enough to be awful TO YOU, so. But even if she weren’t, you get to not be in contact with someone no matter the circumstances.)
…and I just read this about the phone, making my stupid advice useless. I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this, but just like schizophrenia, impending death is not an excuse to treat other people like crap.
I would like to add that, if it’s possible on your phone (smartphone, etc.), assign your grandmother/family a special ringtone. That way you will know when your phone rings whether or not it’s them. It will take a while to recondition yourself, but as someone who has a special ringtone for a person who sucky but can’t be totally avoided for family reasons, it’s been nice to know that no, it’s not Annoying Dude on the other end of the phone.
Blergh. I recall some elderly friends of my mother’s parents, who were always invited to all family functions because they were childless and thus my mother felt obligated to act like a daughter to them. The catch is, they were horribly racist. And they were of the opinion that anyone of my generation shouldn’t dare disagree with them or talk back. They were extremely unpleasant people and they treated me as if I was a stain on the floor whenever I disagreed with one of their appalling rants about people who were not like them (for added irony, they themselves were post WWII refugees from Europe, who none the less hated refugees and didn’t think they should be let into Australia – because those refugees weren’t white like them). And of course when I disagreed openly with them I was seen as the one making trouble and constantly encouraged in hushed conversations to keep the peace (which, BTW, has now become a major indicator to me that the stair is indeed missing).
Anyway. One day I told my mother I wouldn’t go to any event they were at. She secretly invited them to the next event anyway. I came in, stayed for 5 min, and then went home – since the event was an hours drive away she was hoping I would just stay I guess. And eventually she stopped inviting them. Occasionally she would whine about how I was forcing her to choose and ruining Christmass and etc. etc. and sometimes she would try to just “forget” to mention they were coming, but I started asking explicitely, and I did, in fact, succeed in cutting them out of my life.
I tell this rambling story because it does, in fact, sound like you might like to cut your Grandmother out of your life, or at least cut down contact to very infrequent and certainly not multiple phone calls a day! Obviously not answering her calls will eventually cause her to stop calling, but it sounds like the ringing phone is causing you major stress in and of itself – it might be possible to get her number blocked on your phone service? Something to speak to the phone company about anyway – I know it can be done in Australia for nuisance calls. Then you don’t have to hear it ringing. Likewise, you won’t get tempted to answer it to “get it over with” – all that does is teach her that she needs to ring you five times a day to get through to you.
Technological solutions asside, you might also have to face setting boundaries with the rest of your family, which can be super difficult and draining but might be worth it to get some peace eventually. You can tell people you don’t want to talk about her, and then when they do – two attempted subject changes followed by getting up and leaving the conversation. Again people will go nuts about this and try to mow down your boundary for a while, but if you stick to it, they may well learn not to bring her up. Likewise people who pass on your private information to her? Those people are not safe to confide in.
All of this sucks! Especially when you have your own difficult stuff to deal with. But I can definitely say that cutting toxic people out of your life can be a massive relief.
I am in Australia so I will look at getting her number blocked, thankyou.
If I was in that situation, I would seriously consider changing my phone number 😦
Hey Captain & commenters, I have questions about the emotional abuser statements: I can very much see, and have experienced, how they can be used to abuse and manipulate, but I have also had conflicts where those statements are exactly how I felt about the person I was in conflict with. Is that fucked up? Is there like a non-fucked up translation or way to go about those situations? (I don’t think I’ve ever said any of them outright, for the record.)
For example, is it always emotionally abusive to tell people that they misremembered something they are angry about when I am 99.99% sure that I didn’t say that thing/do that thing? I don’t want to discount their experience, or assume that my experience is totally right, but it feels weird and insincere to give an apology for something I really don’t think I actually did, and I’ve also been in a lot of situations where I’ve been gaslighted into apologizing for things I didn’t actually do wrong, so I am very wary of this. What is the right thing to do when there’s this kind of disagreement on the facts of what happened?
Also, for the “too easily offended/too emotional” statement – is the basic answer that if I ever feel this way about someone, I should really just take a big step back from the relationship? I’m pretty sure I’ve never told anyone that they were too easily emotional or too easily offended (because wow), but I have definitely felt that way about some people for whom it seemed like everything I did bothered them and they took everything I did in the worst possible light.
I think with people you have a reasonably healthy relationship, you can tell them that your memory of events is different. I find that sometimes the problem in these situations is that both people are wrong in a particular way. That is, you remember saying X and they remember you saying Y. What you actually said is usually a paraphrase of what you remember that they interpreted as Y and then remembered closer to their interpretation of it, since people remember meaning more than details. Often what is best is to just both state your memories and for you to say that you certainly do not agree with the statement that they remember you making. That’s generally a workable compromise, since they were hurt by the idea of you meaning that and you do not mean that.
But when it comes to people who seem to take everything you do in the worst possible light, I think the right solution is to have more distance between you. There are various possible scenarios for this, but none of them are good. Maybe you just rub each other the wrong way. Maybe you have some cultural difference such that you come across negatively to them. Maybe they like framing you as bad. Maybe they don’t trust you and have a deeply negative view of you such that they assume the worst. You can keep coming up with scenarios, but they still boil down to the idea that you two aren’t good for each other. It doesn’t sound pleasant for either of you, so fewer interactions is ideal, if that is a workable situation.
The nice thing is, you don’t need to do a blame or guilt diagnostic to figure out who did what wrong. You can conclude that you don’t mesh well with someone without needing to blame anyone. I find this is often simpler. If you find you have problems with almost everyone, then it’s worth doing some serious analyzing, but if it’s just a few people, then it’s generally better to just try to decrease contact and increase contact with people you get along with better.
Something similar to this is like when someone was compeltely out of line (e.g. “I can’t believe you are moving in with your boyfriend, you ET are a prostitute”) and I’ve responded like “What the F, you are an effing b****”, and then all they *remember* is the “Omg you were so rude to me ET, you called me a b****”.
So frustrating. I actually have a pretty civil relationship now with my mom now. Mostly down to being able to move out and therefore close down conversations by leaving the house/hanging up the phone. My mom has learned that if she says something I find acceptable I will just leave. So now she makes jokey digs like “you love your mother-in law more than me” and I can respond by saying “maybe you need to see a counsellor about that” and we then comment on the mushrooms that have sprouted in the garden.
Also, for the “too easily offended/too emotional” statement – is the basic answer that if I ever feel this way about someone, I should really just take a big step back from the relationship?
I’d say it’s a warning sign if you feel like that about a lot of people.
My father-in-law has 90 years’ worth of broken friendships and family estrangements behind him, and if you ask him about any of them, his answer will be something like, “Eh, he could never take a joke” or “You had to watch every little thing you said, with her.” He doesn’t see the pattern at all.
Having said that, some people are offended or hurt more easily than others, and I guess that if you find that you hurt someone over and over without meaning to, it would be a good idea to back off that relationship.
I agree. Unless you see a lot of your relations in a “bad” light (everyone misremembers things, everyone is too sensitive) you’re not being the problem. Think of it like the old litmus test of a man who describes every single one of his ex girlfriends as “crazy”.
I have someone in my life who takes everything personally. It’s not that they are “oversensitive”, it’s that they are self-centered. They think everything is always about them, one way or another. There is a huge difference between being told you are too sensitive because someone is actively hurting, minimizing, or manipulating you… and pulling stunts like LW’s sister does, like getting upset because LW did not include her in private conversation with LW’s partner. Remember to make that distinction!
I am dealing with this exact problem. It is becoming more and more clear that my partner and I experience very different realities. In hir reality, I am an abuser who is intentionally trying to isolate and control hir. Which makes me laugh-cry because I am regularly setting up play dates with other couples, encouraging hir to reach out, encouraging hir friends to reach out to hir. And I don’t regulate how zie spends money or how zie spends hir time. But every time I try to talk about the status quo and how my needs aren’t being met, well, that’s me being ableist and trying to keep hir under my thumb and in service to me. Zie says that I accused 2 of hir friends of raping me. WTF? One of them did sexually assault me, and I shared my ambivalence about the whole thing because I didn’t know how to say no at the time (20+ years ago) and wondered whether it would be worth discussing with the person, who I consider a friend today. The other, I don’t even. And yet, when I brought up these accusations and had a discussion with hir and pointed out that I’d never accused anyone of raping me–then I am questioning hir reality, and this is the cost zie pays to share anything with me, and it was a nonconsensual dialogue. I guess I am trapped in questioning things point by point or am supposed to just let it go. But this is my intimate partner–we need to either work it out or walk away :<
LW, I wish you good luck managing the relationship with your sister. It sounds very difficult and heartbreaking. At least you do have the option of cutting her off without also creating massive upheaval in terms of home and finances.
Jedi hugs, solecism. That sounds frustrating and sad and rough.
That’s a really hard place to be in. It’s not something I’ve gone through personally, but I’ve had people close to me in this position. And ultimately… they broke up with their partners, I’m sorry to say.
There’s a double-standard here though, where when you both remember something differently, you are ‘violating your partner’s reality’ but they aren’t violating yours? I don’t know your partner’s side of this, but this sounds like a very unhappy situation in _either_ reality. Either your partner is right and zie is living with an abusive partner, or you are right, and zie is living with someone zie _believes_ is abusing them, which is a little better but not much. If I were zie’s friend, the first thing I’d be doing is gently asking them why they feel the need to stay with someone who hurts them. (And if I were yours, I’d be gently asking why you are staying with someone who believes you are hurting them no matter what you do.) Neither you nor your partner deserves a relationship that either is or feels abusive.
I’m assuming you love your partner and have committed a lot to this relationship and that there are positive aspects of it that you don’t want to let go of. But if you and your partner can’t regularly agree on something as fundamental as whether or not you are abusing hir or not… that’s pretty scary.
(I do have some experience with this. I am dating someone who has been in abusive relationships before and when they are triggered they can get very scared that I’m abusing them. Or, depending on how they’ve been triggered, that they’re abusing me. Most of the time they’re completely aware that there’s no abuse going on, or can be reminded if their attention is drawn to what specifically is happening and how it’s different from their past relationships, but their triggered emotional reality is very powerful. But this is a temporary situation and they understand how their perception of reality is affected by their trauma and have means of coping with it on their own, as do I. It’s still really hard sometimes but that is what makes the difference for me.)
Solecism, a favourite trick of emotional abusers (well all abusers actually) is to gasslight their partners into thinking they’re the abusive one, or at least that they’re responsible for half the problems etc.
It might not be the case in your situation, but the red flag is there in your comment about how every time you try to talk about getting your needs met you get shut down with an accusation of ableism. Also it is seriously skeevy to throw your experiences of sexual assault in your face like that and accuse you of inflating them. :-O
Also. I recognise that feeling of confusion and frustration that permeates your comment. I have been there. That feeling that things are wrong and bad for you but talking will just make it worse and the constant wondering if you are maybe the cause of the problem.
You get to look out for your own needs regardless of your partner’s particular challenges and difficulties.
Thank you all 3 of you (Rana, anonymiser, Anisoptera) for the words of support. Anonymiser, I did point out to my partner at a different point that if zie truly believes that I am abusing hir, then we need to not to be together. In couples counseling recently, zie threw that in my face as something else that I am doing wrong, I guess, and why zie doesn’t want to communicate with me.
And yes, my trust in my partner has now been so eroded that I am vigilant about whether the situation feels like zie is gaslighting me, grooming me to be compliant and denying my own needs, etc. I really can’t tell anymore, or rather, I can’t make the assumption of good faith on hir part. We just walked away from our couples counselor because zie felt unsafe and the only one put on the spot in session. I will try with one more couples therapist, I think before deciding it just isn’t getting better.
Yes, there are many fine qualities in my partner, and many ways that zie is tremendously supportive on a day to day basis. I am sharing my worst moments, when it feels like we are living with a giant elephant, and I am not allowed to mention the elephant, or how it’s making a mess that somehow I have to clean up or somehow provoked it into making, or how I feel squished against the wall most of the time, or any other acknowledgment that the beast is there and seriously affecting our quality of life.
I’m standing in the doorway now, vacillating between quitting and beginning the long painful process of disentangling our lives (and giving up on our shared dreams), or being patient just a little longer now that zie has finally begun crawling out from the depression and is getting help for the cPTSD in the hope we will reach a place where we can talk about this shit. Truth be told, it’s only now, 7 years in, that I’m putting serious effort into educating myself about bipolar, depression, childhood trauma, disability, etc. So I recognize that I have work to do too, either way. I’ve set a deadline for myself to make a final decision. And I’ve started contingency planning. But I am so, so sad and already grieving.
Oh Solecism that sucks so badly. 😦 I know what it feels like to have lots of good things – every terrible relationship has good things and reasons to stay. It’s why we don’t leave. I was in a terrible emotionally abusive relationship for 11 years, and though it shames me to admit it he left me not the other way around. I’d become very sad and angry and depressed and no fun after a decade of the gaslighting and weirdness and lack of respect, and new lady was fun and cheerful and not crushed. Anyway, it was really only after he left I realised how abusive it was, because suddenly my life got so much better. And after the initial grief and hurt started to fade my depression lifted. And magically it was really easy to get stuff done and plan stuff and have energy for stuff.
I really recognise that feeling of there being a giant elephant crushing me into the walls. And I recognise that feeling of thinking about leaving but waiting for just one more attempt at fixing things, and thinking about how he had reasons and there were extenuating circumstances and and and. And I spent like…8 or 9 years of the 11 trying to fix it?
The key point is that no mental health issues or life experiences justify emotionally abusing your partner. And from what I’ve read of abuse (Lundy Bancroft is I think the source I got this from) abusers who fix their own issues around mental health or addiction or whatever don’t tend to stop being abusive – they just get a bunch of ammunition about how they’re better now so you must be imagining it, and they pick up some of the language of psychology to improve their gasslighting.
Anyway, I’m so sorry you’re in this position! I hope I am wrong regarding how fixable your situation is, or that you find your way out of it.
I have had this person as a friend. You have all of my sympathy, LW. I eventually had to completely cut off contact and while I regret having had to do it (she was really fun when she was fun! but just awful when she wasn’t fun!), I do NOT regret not having my gut clench every time I go to check my email or get a text.
I haven’t read all the comments yet (though i will be because omg the comments here are as wonderful and remind me that I am not alone. THANK YOU commenters and captain! You have helped me so much, through your honesty and clear thought.)
But I wanted to second the rec for ‘Will I ever be good enough?’ which I read over the summer, and which has been helpful regarding my own personal shit show with my mother and sister.
LW, it sounds as though you’re unpicking how you want to handle your relationship with your sister moving forwards. The Captain’s advice is great, as are all the personal experiences others have shared – I hope they help you to decide on how you want to approach things. The one thing I wanted to chime in with is a thought on timing – you mentioned that your sister’s birthday is coming up soon. It would be 100% OK if you decide you’re going to cut off contact entirely, or manage it in one of the many ways that have been suggested; but I’m just thinking that you may have relatively little time to process that and think about how you want to approach things before you get to the point where it’s her birthday. So, if you’re still weighing things up at that point, it might be worth sending a small gift/greetings card expressing appropriately bland sentiments.
I say that not because I particularly care about her birthday-card haul, or think you ought to be worried about that either, but because it’s exactly the sort of thing someone might take badly and return to, at length, to criticise you: “You didn’t even wish me a Happy Birthday”. If you think you might want to go with one of the ways of handling contact with your sister that’s a managed process rather than a total withdrawal of contact, then sending a greeting on her birthday keeps that door open. Is that a bit passive? Yes. But I’m not suggesting it as your only course of action (“shut up and keep sending presents” is not the most functional approach to relationships!); just as a holding action if you don’t feel ready to decide on how to deal with her just yet.
I totally get what you’re saying, but the thing is, if LW’s sister is anything like my sister, and it appears that she is, there’s no winning anyway. If LW doesn’t send anything, the response will probably be along the lines of “You couldn’t even send a card?” and if it’s just a card then “You didn’t even think to send me a small gift?” and if there’s a card and a small gift then “All you sent was a card and a cheap thoughtless gift!” etc. I mean if LW really wants to send a card and/or a gift, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s probably not going to change anything about the relationship one way or the other.
Absolutely. Even if LW showed up at her door with airline tickets to the place of the sister’s dreams, a new car and a diamond necklace, showering her in flower petals while a hired band played sister’s favorite song in the driveway… it still wouldn’t be enough and it still wouldn’t change anything about the relationship. There is no gesture that can fix this, there is no act that can minimize the problems in the relationship.
This is totally the crux of it.
Honestly, I think sending anything with the motivation being, this will keep somebody from attacking me so much, is the wrong thing to do unless your physical safety or that of others is in jeopardy. If any sort of healthy interaction is to be created, it needs to be from the letter writer no longer feeling like the sister has created a threat that requires compliance. Far better to try to a small doses method of contact and if the sister starts complaining that the letter writer didn’t do enough, then the letter writer stops all contact again for a time to send the message that being treated that way is not okay. Even in small doses, it is important that the letter writer not have to be constantly aiming actions out of fear of punishment. If the letter writer wants to send something for the birthday, it should be because the letter writer legitimately wants to send something.
I was in a very similar cycle with my mother when I called her bluff basically and cut off contact about 9 years ago. By call her bluff I mean I didn’t cave when she threatened some vague dramatic “something” if she didn’t get her way on every little thing.
I won’t lie: this was initially difficult and traumatic because I spent a lot of time worrying that I was doing the wrong thing (even though I knew I was right) and because everyone else in the family was upset with me because they were conditioned (as I was) to believe that if we didn’t do what she wanted and cave in every time that it would be a disaster. It wasn’t a disaster. As an aside, how nice that my family spent so much time basically begging me to sacrifice my happiness for their convenience, or what they had come to believe was convenience. That was fun to untangle.
It turned out to be a very freeing time for me and it was eventually freeing for the rest of the family. I can’t say it was freeing for my mother. She isn’t particularly better and she hasn’t really learned. We have only reconciled because an opening to interact presented itself a couple of years ago and she took it. Nothing has been discussed or resolved, but things are civil and cordial and tension is ratcheted way down. I don’t believe for one minute that it couldn’t go to hell again but for the sake of peacekeeping, everyone is making nice and it is okay. The second it gets weird, though? I am outta there again.
All that is to say that it is definitely okay for you, LW, to set the boundaries that you need to set. I’m just so sorry you are dealing with this.
Passive aggression, as I understand it, is when you get angry at someone and try to ‘punish’ them or ‘send them a message’ or control them, while pretending you’re not, and maintaining the outward fiction that you’re being nice and friendly and pleasant. So, sure, you may want to be careful not to slip into that – it’s often very easy to start consciously or unconsciously copying the unhealthy behaviours of people you’re interacting with.
But to me what you’re describing doesn’t really sound like that, from your letter. It sounds more like you want to reduce or cut off interaction with her because you genuinely honestly want to reduce or cut off interaction with her. Which is a different thing. And you always have a right to choose who you spend time with.
That makes sense to me. I think it was on a different forum that I saw a thread on “giving passive aggressive people what they [say they] want.” For example, if someone passive-aggressively says “fine, don’t spend the weekend with me” to try to get you to change your plans after you mention that you’re going to see someone else on Saturday, you wouldn’t respond by suggesting getting together on Sunday, you do as they literally asked and not spend the weekend with them. It’s not passive-aggressive to say “OK, have fun this weekend with so-and-so” if you actually mean that. And it’s not passive-aggressive to refuse bait.
My ex reaped the rewards of passive-aggression when I was contemplating bringing home a dog who had been abandoned at my work. “Do whatever you think is best.” So I did, and that dog was a damn sight better companion than he ever was.
College boyfriend used to discuss all my faults in one big heap every few months instead of speaking up when I did something that annoyed him. I’m pretty sure the goalposts moved regularly, and that the things he thought were deliberate slights were definitely tiny oversights on my part, but…
One night instead of “Jenna we need to talk” he said ” Jenna I think we should break up.”
And I agreed.
He backpedalled hard, of course, to the point of saying that he couldn’t live without me, but, that barn door had been opened and there weren’t enough horses in the world to drag me back into that barn.
Ha, this is super great.
From CA’s item #11
Nor should you. In fact, IMHO, it would be skydiving-without-a-parachute foolish to “forget” what she’s done to you all these years. We have memories for a reason.
It’s conceivable (but not likely) that she will one day try to have a healthier relationship. But to do so, she would have to climb over the Himalayas of rubble that her abusive behavior has built up between you, which would be impossible if you “forgot” that history. You can’t free yourself from history if you forget it. (Post-racialists, “equalist”, etc., take note!)
This bit: “If you get into a point-by-point rebuttal, you will lose (even if you are right), because you are stepping onto the terrain of her constructed reality and sinking time and energy there” really was so important to me. I wish I’d read it earlier. It took me years to realize that I was never going to get my mom to acknowledge …. anything. And that if I engaged with her in her reality, I lost. I still forget sometimes and try to explain things.
(Funny story: We tried “couples counseling” (her words, not mine) to deal with our constant fighting and during sessions, she kept telling me that I was making stuff up. In fact, she brought my dad in to refute my stories during her one solo session. That was the day I decided that I gave up.)
LW, I found this mantra helpful when dealing with my mother: “Her reality is not yours. You’re never going to convince her. I have given up on changing her reality.”
That is my mom too. She also accuses me of making things up! And she has this whole other warped perception of my life — and of me — that is super insulting and hurtful, and she is 100% invested in not letting go of that perception. Your mantra is awesome. Would it be OK if I borrowed it?
Go right ahead. I hope it helps. And internet hugs if you want them.
Right back at ya! And…”her reality is not yours” is just so brilliant. I’ve walked out of movies with my mother, and she starts ranting about the plot, and I’m thinking, “did we even see the same film?” Never really thought about how her view of me must be equally skewed until now. Major lightbulb moment. Thanks again.
THIS. The warped, insulting perception of me my mother has! In the past few years her hearing has started to deteriorate, so often she only half-hears what I’ve said and fills in the rest for herself. Seeing her react to what she imagines I’ve said has been… very revealing. No one else in the world thinks I’m as stupid, nasty, and trite as my own mother does.
“But sometimes there are compelling reasons to engage.”
Eh, idk I’ve tried engaging because ‘shared history’ or whatever and it’s…Never been satisfying, the ‘lower expectations’ advice just sounds like walking on eggshells/having to modify your behaviour because you can’t expect basic shit from the person. Wouldn’t recommend it.
“We have shared children” is a legitimate reason to engage with someone you would otherwise cut out of your life, at least for me. If there is one legitimate reason for this choice, there may be others. There may not be such reasons in your life, but it sounds really dismisive of other people’s reality to suggest that there is no sich thing as a legitimate reason to decide to continue to engage with a poisn person.
Totally. Sometimes you can’t legally just cut people off (shared children). And with shared children, you have to let the children form their own relationships with the other person, even if your experience with that person is aw00ga red flags. Hopefully it will be better for them, they have a place to go if it is not, but you don’t get to decide in advance on their behalves. Ergo, ongoing contact in some measure.
In my case I have other family members I don’t want to cut off, who live with the abusive person. Likewise it’s not actually easy to decide to never see your own mother again. People do, and I respect that, but for me managing the contact is the compromise I’ve chosen so that I don’t go scorched earth on my entire family.
There are many other reasons too. Financial stability and a support network can be big ones.
This is so true, and it has helped me the most of all of the great and helpful stuff in this response. There is NO point in trying to engage in normal, reality-based discussion because these people don’t live in reality. I really need to take this to heart, but it’s so hard! Best of luck to you! 🙂
Good luck, the situation sounds difficult.
Let’s be clear about what it actually means to be passive-agressive. There’s a difference between “giving the cold shoulder” in order to send a message that you expect someone to apologize and atone for their wrongness, vs. withdrawing because you don’t like how you’re being treated and you *don’t* expect the person to change. One of these is manipulation, the other is setting a healthy boundary.
LW, not wanting to punish your sister is a fine instinct; not only is it kind, but “punishing” would still be a form of investment in the relationship, so not punishing keeps you out of a cycle of crazy. Therefore, when you take space, frame it (in your head) as taking space *for you* instead of taking space *at her*. Then don’t worry any more about whether you’re being passive-agressive. You’re good.
I would like to tatto “not punishing keeps you out of a cycle of crazy” on my forearm. Thanks for that simple phrase.
I think another way to clarify this distinction is that when people are being passive aggressive, their needs generally are not communicated. If you say some version of “I don’t like being treated that way” and then leave the room/cut off contact/etc it is not passive aggressive; you stated your boundary and that you won’t stick around if it’s violated. Passive-aggression tends to spring up seemingly out of nowhere, where you’re expected to guess what you’ve done wrong and start the endless task of reconciling for something you “should have known to begin with.”
Yes, this. It’s also not passive-aggressive if you become withdrawn and sullen, but you explain why or say you’d prefer to talk about it later when you’re asked. An encounter with a passive-aggressive person goes more like this.
Friend: *glare* *sulk*
You: “Is something wrong?”
Friend: “No, not at all.” *glare*
I guess I worry about it a bit because I have never sent an Official Sibling Break-up Message that says “I am not talking to you, x, y and z are the specific reasons why I am not talking to you, and a, b, and c are what you need to do to reconnect”. I’ve considered, but that would mean opening some sort of communication and I’m just not sure I want that. Plus, I doubt it would do any good in actually informing her about her issues because I’m sure she’ll just respond by arguing and telling me how crazy and ridiculous I am being and how sorry she is that I am clearly overreacting and being offended by nothing and I just… don’t… think… I can DEAL with that without turning into a Hulksmash.
I guess I’d love to be able to communicate bluntly to her what the problem is, but I also don’t think any communication I attempt will actually get through her skull, so I feel like it would be pointless. Thoughts?
I think you should trust your instincts on this. Like other commenters have said, there is no Magic Explanation that will suddenly make your sister understand. If she can’t understand why her behavior is now and has in the past been hurtful and wrong, then she’s never going to understand why you no longer want to speak with her.
It’s okay to just not engage. In fact, it’s probably better to take this approach because if you send her any communication at all it opens up that channel. If you send her the message that says “We are no longer speaking, and here is why,” how much do you want to bet you’re going to get a message back along the lines of “BUT WHYYYY, YOU ARE SO WRONG, HERE IS AN ITEMIZED LIST OF WHY ALL YOUR REASONS ARE BAD AND YOU ARE ALSO BAD”?
It’s a little cheesy, but remember the ending to WarGames? “The only winning move is not to play.” You *know* how everything will play out if you initiate any contact with your sister, and there is no way you don’t get hurt. There is no way you don’t lose, here. It’s okay to not play.
It’s not wrong to protect yourself, and to prioritize your own health and happiness over your sister’s. ❤
I would worry less about what’s best for the situation and listen more to what you want. Whatever you end up doing, you already know it won’t change her, so if you wanted to send an “I am taking time away from our relationship. Please don’t contact me” kind of email, it would probably not affect the ultimate outcome. It would, however, probably result in a lot of BS from her. So what’s best and kindest for you? If you didn’t feel obligated to do things the “right” way, what would you do?
So in your comment here, LW, there’s one piece that’s like “I didn’t give official notice of not talking to her, and doesn’t that put me in violation of our relationship contract?” If I believed relationship contracts were a thing, I’d say this one got broken and nullified long ago. But instead of speculating on whether your decision would hold up to the scrutiny of an imaginary Emotional Abuse Tribunal, I find it more useful to think in terms of what you want, and what she wants, and whether you can negotiate over those needs in a healthy way.
My logic is: Since she refuses to negotiate, there are no good-faith commitments between you. You don’t owe her an explanation. The flip side (and what actually makes this fair) is that she gets to feel however she feels about your withdrawal. You won’t be able to control that. You won’t even try to control it, even though you’re normally quite skillful with words.
(Also, if she really does want to know what’s going on with you and how to reconnect, she could ask. Nicely.)
But there’s a second part where you’d actually *like* to express yourself and be heard about what the problem is and what you’re doing about it. Of course! This completely makes sense. But as others have said, maybe trust your instincts. If you don’t think her skull is receptive, the being heard and validation and closure you seek can come from elsewhere. You can get it from yourself and your Team You.
I think you’re right in thinking there’s nothing you can say that will get through to her, and I’m adding another voice to the chorus of commenters who know that providing REASONS won’t convince her and will provide her something to apply her charm to convincing you are false. You certainly don’t need to give her a list of steps to take to reconcile – you might not even know what they are, and they might not work, and she could go through the “steps” half heartedly without any understanding just to demand forgiveness, AND if she had reached a level of understanding and consideration of you she would know how to proceed without you explaining how an apology works to her. You cannot force a person into self-awareness. I don’t really think it’s worth it to tell her what the problem is if she’s been unable to see it clearly by now. I think it has a low chance of success and a high chance of turning you into the Hulk.
If you feel odd leaving without a message stating that that’s what you’re doing, you’re allowed to just say “Please don’t contact me. Thanks” if she ever messages you again, and then not reply to the “BUT WHY”. But you shouldn’t feel as though a message is necessary.
I’m definitely in the “don’t contact her” camp. It seems like you are too, but you’re afraid of that being “wrong.” There isn’t a wrong answer, and please remember that you don’t need a perfectly sourced and cited airtight explanation for why you don’t want to speak to her, and you definitely aren’t obligated to share that reasoning with anyone.
I just want to say, it really means a lot to me that you, CA, and all of the wonderful commenters took the time to respond and encourage. 🙂 You’ve given me a lot of perspective, both on my sister’s behavior, and on the behavior of other members of my family. I feel like I should point out the absolute most important thing that I’ve learned from this.
“If you get into a point-by-point rebuttal, you will lose (even if you are right), because you are stepping onto the terrain of her constructed reality and sinking time and energy there.”
That is so true and I need so badly to work on it. And this is true for my parents as well (whom I have also recently cut all contact with, because I’m a transman married to a woman and they suck). I consider myself a fairly articulate, reasonable person. I am also a physics educator, so I really enjoy and have a passion for putting complicated ideas into carefully-crafted, precise, explanatory language that people can understand. As such, I always think I can explain to them with clear wording, non-confrontational language, simple examples, and precise definitions what behavior I do not accept, why I do not accept this behavior, and what behavior I do accept. I will put lots of time into making sure every boundary is clearly drawn, my reasons are given, and I offer acceptable alternatives for their behavior that would not be hurtful or disrespectful.
And you know what? It. Never. Works. …Ever.
I always get deflection or blame or evasion or accusations that I’m being irrational or I can’t handle disagreement or I’m trying to impose my values on them or (my mom’s personal favorite) just a back-handed surrender that goes: “well, I really tried to understand you, but I guess it’s just impossible.” And all of these things are promptly followed by the family proceeding to knowingly trample over the boundaries that I just took great care to lay out and explain. Because my reasons for the boundaries I set will NEVER be good enough for them and my reality will NEVER make sense to them because they simply don’t live in reality. They live in magical bizarro world, where adult children are expected to obey and agree with their parents in all personal matters and beliefs, where telling your adult son “you treated your purity like garbage” (?!?!?!) is a good justification for shunning and emotionally abusing him, where saying “since you are no longer Christian, you have no morals” is not offensive, and where repeatedly violating someone’s specific requests and boundaries does not result in lost trust. And no matter what I say, they will only see it through their distortion lens and my reasons will NEVER get through that. They don’t want to hear it, and they won’t hear it.
With my sister it is often worse. She is a very charismatic person, and if she tried to convince you that down is up, you’d probably start to doubt yourself. I know that I’m very susceptible to this. I have several times entered a discussion with her with a very clear idea of my own position and, by the end, I feel bewildered and unsure of myself. After stepping away for a while, my senses will come back and I’ll realize “no, actually, what she said makes no sense whatsoever” but when I’m there, I get completely lost. Honestly, this is why I limited contact to email-only; talking on the phone gave her too much influence to fuck with my head. Things she has managed to convince me of at some point in time: It’s rude not to include Sister in private phone calls. It’s cruel to hang out with a friend or significant other without inviting Sister along. Even if parents are wrong about something, it is an adult child’s duty to obey them. Anything that a pastor says is a command from god that you should obey, even if the pastor is wrong. If Sister interrupts your phone call by asking if you will go for a walk with her, it is rude to say “sure, after I finish my call.” If Sister tells you that she will Never hang out you and your girlfriend, you should invite her to activities with your girlfriend anyway. And many more.
Engaging in argument with her is utterly futile, but I still do it. I need to stop. I really do. Does anyone have some good ideas of soothing things to tell yourself to help resist the urge to engage in an argument? With my mom, I’ve taken to sometimes writing out what I REALLY want to say on my blog, but not sending it to her. Any other ideas to help calm that urge?
Again, thank you so much Captain, and everyone else. It has really helped to have someone unrelated to the situation to give me some perspective!!!
LW, I think you’re doing a great job under very trying circumstances. There are a load of angry bees in that house!
I know what you mean about trying to argue with people who turn you all around. One mental image that I use is arguing with a cat. Ever tried to explain to a cat why peeing behind the desk is Not Good? All that happens is that you get worked up, and the cat is confused. Watching “My Cat From Hell” may be useful here.
A person who has determined that you are Wrong and they are Right is less perceptive than cats are (who do like to comfort their humans when they are upset). There is literally no word that you can say that will convince them. All you can do is to remove yourself from the situation so they are deprived of their punching bag.
“Punching bag” is apropos. Some people view all conversations, or conversations in certain settings, or all conversations with a certain person, as zero-sum games. They don’t want to converse; they want to win.
A recent thread over at Making Light, titled “Dysfunctional Families, the Role-Playing Game,” uses the analogy of a really bad gaming group. (Found the link: http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/015853.html) The game, called a Narrative, is run by a Viewpoint Character, who is (views hirself as) the master of the game. The Viewpoint Character hands everybody a card that describes their Role. You don’t get to choose or adjust your Role. If you want to interact with the Viewpoint Character at all, you have to stick to the Narrative, which is written and dictated word for word by the Viewpoint Character. Also, the VC insists that there is no other game to play, anywhere, at all. And on top of that, the VC thinks that the point of a role-playing game is to win over everybody else.
I suspect that your Role card reads like this:
Role: My Appendage, The One I Use For Stress Relief
Consistency: high (added in red pen: WTF, appendages don’t act on their own, am I falling apart?!)
Capability: high (added in red pen: NON FUNCTIONAL NOT WORKING WHAT)
Charm: low (used to be pretty high, but then he forgot his role in life and went off script)
Tapes tagline: Where are your buttons? You used to have buttons!
Destiny: Silly question. Appendages don’t have destinies.
Oh my goodness – I love this analogy! My interactions with my brother indicate that he’s the Viewpoint Character in “Ryan: The Douchebagging.” All of my interactions with him in the past 10 years have followed this track. I got The Screwup Role card early on in our twenties because I went into debt earning 2 degrees instead of entering the workforce, getting married, and popping out two kids right away.
Now that I’ve got a awesome job with the government (BECAUSE of my English degree – suck on that, haters!) and have qualifications for some really top-notch positions that pay more than decently, he makes “jokes” about how I’m a waste of the taxpayers’ money. When I tell him off, he tells me I’m overreacting. But he baits me every single time I talk to him. Frankly, it’s exhausting, so I’ve begun to avoid regular interaction with him. It’s pretty sad.
Yeah, due to Stuff I was shuffled off onto two sister-moms most of the time, so I got to play The Pebble in the Shoe of My Life for two Viewpoint Characters. And now the one who never admitted that she had been a lousy sister-mom wonders why I keep forgetting to return her e-mails. Been there, played that, all done thanks.
Back on topic: It’s totally OK to get up and leave the gaming table if the only game allowed drives you nucking futs. There are other tables, other games.
in my experience, it gets easier with time, especially once you are conscious of the dynamic. Now you kind of know what is going on when your willpower fails, and you take the bait — like “I’m going to point out how mean and selfish that thing they said / did was” (75% of the time: they already know! They did it on purpose! The purpose was to get your goat! You fell for it arrgggh! 25% of the time: they don’t know, but your pointing it out is not going to make them think, oh sorry. It’s going to make them defensive and they’ll come back at you hard — argggh).
So you fail, and you are like, oh, right, that ended in arggggh. As usual. But the difference is, now you see what is happening, so it’s not pure arrggh it is “learning arggh” which is nicer 🙂
But other times, you succeed! you don’t respond. Mostly, nothing happens. You don’t scratch the itch, and the itch goes away. It’s not satisfying in the short term, but in the long term, it’s like, you get calmness and serenity and pretty soon the offers of bait are like, oh yeah, I see, bait. it is never tasty, not biting it this time.
It’s not “satisfying”, really — just after a while you get used to the calm pleasures of not looking for satisfaction. It is a teensy bit melancholy when you think about it, but also, I have found, kind of gives you skills that you can apply elsewhere — like you start to recognize more and more scenarios that are just best walked away from.
I am also a physics educator, so I really enjoy and have a passion for putting complicated ideas into carefully-crafted, precise, explanatory language that people can understand. As such, I always think I can explain to them with clear wording, non-confrontational language, simple examples, and precise definitions what behavior I do not accept, why I do not accept this behavior, and what behavior I do accept..
Biology educator here, and I totally get where you’re coming from! I pride myself on being able to convey difficult concepts in clear, simple language, and I’m a stickler for facts and evidence. I’m really bothered by people making statements that I know are patently false. My mother sounds an awful lot like your sister, and I spent So. Much. Time. just thinking that if only I could find just the right words/phrases she would admit and correct her mistakes, and maybe even apologize for all the hurtful things she’s said and done over the years. Nope. Not gonna happen. It was hard, but I finally admitted a couple years ago that she’s never going to step outside of her magical bizarro world view, and even if she ever does admit to herself that maybe, just maybe, she did something that hurt me or others – she’s certainly not going to admit it to anyone else!
As to soothing things I tell myself to resist the urge to engage? I just use a mantra along the lines of “keep calm, carry on, it won’t help,” and honestly I just tune out. She’s so busy talking *at* rather than *to* me that she doesn’t even seem to notice if I completely zone out. For example, last time I went home she started into a lengthy, and completely whitewashed and misrepresented, history of her relationship with my late father during his last few years. All of her abuse of him during that time was completely disappeared, which made me so angry that I was literally biting my tongue. Instead I pulled out my smartphone and started surfing online – and if she even noticed she didn’t say a word. Saved both of us!
Oh man, this is so me. I’m a biomedical science student and I was talking to someone who took a science communication course recently and they learn about that – the tendency to think if you explain it *just right* they will think like you, and it’s not going to happen.
LW: you sound super cool, and I hope you can get to a place where you feel OK about your relationship with your jerky family. I certainly am another huge fan of cutting people off – and I recently reformed my relationship with my father (though not in what most people would think of as a parental relationship, but that’s well off the table with both parents), though that only works because he is actually willing to own his bullshit.
Resisting the urge to argue with someone irrational is SO. HARD. A couple of things I do with my own difficult/punitive/unconnected to actual reality family member that have helped me gain enough distance to deal with him without engaging in argument:
1. I turn our conversations into my own private version of BINGO. Basically, every time something I know he’s going to do happens, I award myself a “point.” Five points is BINGO. (Mansplaining? POINT! “Jokes” about my weight? POINT FOR EACH JOKE! – also, not sure if you’ve ever seen Chris Hardwick’s “After Midnight,” but the voice in my head awarding me points sounds exactly like his “Points!!” on that show.) My reward for BINGO varies based on the setting (usually it involves a cookie, since I generally see this person on holidays only, but the actual makeup of the points system is up to you). I’m so busy racking up points, it makes it easier to keep a distance from the content of the conversation. Why argue when I can earn delicious cookies instead?
2. I approach the conversation the way I imagine an anthropologist or a research psychologist or similar would approach an interaction with a study subject. “Let’s observe MeanDude in his natural habitat. Observe how MeanDude mansplains ::insert offensive and incorrect thing here::. Note that MeanDude reacts by attacking his conversation partner’s weight and physical appearance when he has no facts or logic with which to refute her.” and so on and so forth. It’s kind of similar to BINGO, but emphasizes even more the feeling of being a disinterested observer, rather than an active participant, in the dramz.
3. I respond to every point made at me with “Interesting, I’ll think about it.” Because it IS interesting to me that MeanDude believes that ::insert whatever offensive thing here::, and I WILL think about it – that thought will be “wow, MeanDude is not only sexist but also racist, who knew?,” but hey, I’m thinking about it, right? Bonus points – MeanDude gets really confused about how to respond to this phrase, because I’m not disagreeing with him or trying to refute him, and it SOUNDS like I’m giving him a fair hearing, so there’s not much to pick at. He still tries (“You don’t mean that! You’re just shining me on! Grumble grumble grumble! I’m the most rightest right person who was ever correct in the history of correctness”), but, especially when there are other people around, it’s harder for him to pick a fight when all he’s getting from me is “Interesting, I’ll think about it.” (Alternate version of this statement is “You make quite a point there” – because it is quite a point. Quite wrong and absurd, but I just leave that part silent.)
I know it’s so hard, but strive to accept that there’s no version of the world where you “win” an argument with your sister, because, as far as she’s concerned, there’s no version of the world where she’s ever wrong. Your best bet is to take whatever comes out of her mouth for what it is – a description of an alternate universe that you don’t live in and never want to have to visit ever again. It’s not about you, even when Sister claims that it is – it’s about her needing to impose her universe onto you. If you argue with her, you enter her universe, and she wins no matter what the outcome of the argument is. When you feel yourself about to launch into arguing with her, try to take a second to think “do I want to hang out in Sister’s universe today?” My guess is the answer to that question will ALWAYS be “no,” and framing it that way may help you step away from the argument.
Last piece: In my own personal experience, I’m more inclined to argue with MeanDude when other stuff in my life is out-of-whack – maybe I’m unhappy at work, or in a bad romantic relationship, or not seeing my friends enough, or not spending enough time on the volunteer activity that I love, etc. I can handle him okay when all of my defenses are up and strong and at-the-ready, but if my shields aren’t firing at maximum capacity, trying to interact is a disaster, so I avoid situations where I’d be forced to interact with him when I know I’m already vulnerable.
Oh wow, you play insult bingo too?
A similar game I’ve played, when I’m just sitting eating my lunch or whatever and someone comes up and has a one-sided argument (i.e. I literally just sit and eat my sandwich, doing a crossword or something, while they stand next to me and just rattle off insults for ten minutes without me even looking at them) is to pick a favourite song or tune. Instead of a bingo point, you mentally play one note of that tune. First insult => play the first note. Each subsequent insult causes a subsequent note to be played. If you get through the entire song (especially if you don’t talk, look at them, or act like you realise they exist in any way and they still keep going) then congratulations! You have a horrible, horrible abusive meanie in your life. Not much of a prize, actually.
And it is SO tempting to sit and discuss something with someone when they start a conversation about it, even when you know they will turn it into an awful argument no matter what the facts are. One thing I’ve found that helps, apart from your point #3 (so useful!) and just flat-out avoiding them, is to later on have a shadow argument by myself. I’ll say what I wanted to say to them (explain whatever the issue is, etc.) and then I’ll imagine what they’re likely to say in response. Not what is reasonable, but what they actually would say. I keep going until I’m kind of forced to realise that there just isn’t any point–no matter how well the thing is explained, they’ll still be nasty about it. I mean, I knew that already, but it’s hard to really internalise, you know? But the next time they try to suck me into an argument, it’s a bit easier to resist. This worked wonders with one of my siblings. After I did it enough, there was absolutely nothing they could do to get me to argue. I had completely trained myself into responding to their bait with an overwhelming feeling of “not worth it.”
Writing down a rebuttal and not sending it is definitely the best way for me to deal with it. I have so many unpublished drafts on my blog that are just laying out arguments . It gives you the opportunity to lay out why they’re wrong but without actually continuing the conversation and giving them the chance to use their weird alternative universe logic against you.
Yeah, this. Just escaping from this exact kind of toxic relationship, and whenever I have the “oh shit, wait, how did they convince me that this behaviour was okay?” moment, I write it in my blog or on my notepad – so I can look back and remind myself of how utterly crazy the situation was (and how I should NEVER EVER GO BACK OH MY GOD).
It’s so EASY to believe their constructed reality, especially when they, like LW’s sister, like my ex, are charismatic and compelling types to boot.
I’m trans as well, and one of the things I use is that if they misgender me, I don’t have to listen to anything they have to say about me. It’s a free pass not to engage, since they are CLEARLY trying to talk to someone who does not exist. Even when I’m tempted, the wrong pronouns thing hits me like a freight train. Oh yeah, they don’t live in the same world as me!
When I get tirades or poor-me emails or suicide threats from abusers I don’t talk to anymore, no matter how wrong they are about any particular point, I remember reading some piece of advice somewhere (maybe here?) that said for every message you send you buy yourself another 6 months of contact. So far that math hasn’t been exactly tangible; 2+ years without sending one of them anything and I’m STILL contacted regularly, but I know it would be much worse if I tried to engage on any level.
I also think it’s useful to remind yourself that the apology you want is never coming, as has been said here already. You CANNOT explain yourself sufficiently. They are not listening.
I think the time before they give up is hard to calculate. It very much depends on the person. That no-contact rule is talking about what would happen if they finally decided to give up – which in your case, they unfortunately haven’t yet.
My family still misgenders me two decades years after my coming-out and transition (my dad, for instance, keeps thinking it’s “just a phase” and doesn’t take it seriously, and part of his issue with it all is “I’m embarrassed by what (plumbicon) did because what will other people think of me?”, and since the rest of my family takes its cues from him…I’ll let you do the math). My dad will tease me about how a blue-collar job or farm work will make a man of me, and so on, and you can’t argue him about it because he’ll either say you’re overreacting or he’ll play the Authority Card. Not long ago he said “sir?” to me on the phone when he wanted me to repeat something, and he got icy silence in return, and for about half a second I think he realized he’d crossed a line…which, of course, hasn’t stopped him since.
And yet he gets sad I don’t have more to do with him or the family than I do. I love him and I love my family, but I’ve long since accepted they will never ever get it. They now have to accept my decision to ration myself and my time with them.
I sometimes go into situations where I think people are going to be having types of conversation I don’t want to engage in (e.g. diet talk) with a mental list of completely neutral topics for me to raise when this happens. I acknowledge that I’m completely changing the subject, but I don’t say that it’s because I’m uncomfortable – instead it goes something like ‘hey, totally off topic I know, but I have an amazing fact about trees! You’ll never guess it! DID YOU KNOW …”. Then I direct all my enthusiasm at the new topic and usually the conversation follows for long enough to drop the previous line of conversation. I don’t even bother matching this to the people I’m with, I just pick something I like and care about.
I don’t know if this would work one on one, or if someone’s doing reality-distortion on you – I’ve only ever used it to escape from conversations that other people find ‘neutral’ and I find hard. But I think deciding that I’m not going to let the conversation ‘happen’, I’m going to be willing to be seen as a bit weird or awkward in order to not be in a situation which is bad for me, has been a really helpful skill for me to learn which is not unrelated to the skills you need to disengage from someone who wants to have that kind of argument with you. Just a thought! Good luck 🙂
I still accidentally argue with my mother from time to time (which is a pointless whirlpool of stress and madness) so I’m not perfect at this. But I’m getting better. One of the things I’ve done (which applies to any behaviour you’re trying to change) is to remember that you’ll screw up occasionally and that it’s fine to just change what you’re doing when you realise and not beat yourself up about it. It takes time to reset habits.
So for example if I catch my temper rising in the middle of some terrible discussion and suddenly feel the urge to defend myself, I’ve definitely already gotten more drawn in than I want to. But as soon as I see it I’ll remember to disengage – say “OK, I’m just going to get a drink” (or whatever) and walk away. I’ll remind myself that I’d decided not to get sucked in.
I also remind myself before I walk into an interaction to be on my guard and a) expect seriously aggravating comments and b) not to reveal to much of myself if she’s in nice pleasant mode (those things come back to bite me later).
Early on I would forget all the time and keep getting sucked in, and then gradually I formed new habits of conversation. So don’t get discouraged if it takes a while to stop buying into whatever weird game is being played.
“One of the things I’ve done (which applies to any behaviour you’re trying to change) is to remember that you’ll screw up occasionally and that it’s fine to just change what you’re doing when you realise and not beat yourself up about it. It takes time to reset habits.”
This is the hardest and truest thing. It’s not “all or nothing,” it’s “try, forgive yourself, fail better next time maybe.”
You know, this reminded me of the film ‘Meet the Robinsons’. There’s a scene in that where the kid is trying to repair something for this family, and he gets it wrong, and stands there feeling like a loser because that’s what his life so far has taught him… and, to his astonishment, the family are absolutely delighted, congratulate him, tell him how wonderful it is that he failed. He’s puzzled, so they explain to him that you don’t learn anything much from success, but you do from failure, and without lots of failures you never get anywhere, so it’s wonderful that he failed! That seems to me to be a pretty cool attitude to apply here. Or indeed anywhere.
Oh, here – I found the scene on YouTube. Great one to have playing in your head as your mental response to getting something wrong!
Umm… about #9
“9. Silently add “you think” on the end of every mean or untrue thing she says about you. This is a gem from PFC Marie, and it’s especially useful for keeping that sense of reality if you have to interact with your difficult person often. Remind yourself that they aren’t telling you deep truths about yourself. It’s all just opinions.”
That was me.*
February 23, 2012
LW, here’s another coping technique. You could try thinking “you think” when he says ugly things. Like, if he says “You are so awkward” repeat it in your head as “You think I am so awkward”…”
I feel weird posting this, but it was such a high point in my life that Captain Awkward said something I said was genius.
Also, in retrospect, I see needing to do this with someone as a red flag. Someone who talks that mean to me isn’t someone I need in my life.
*I post under another name now, since I’ve had a lot of upheaval in my life, due to realizing that I lived with a cruel person and acting on that knowledge to get myself out of that situation.
Sorry to misattribute this! It’s great advice. Would you like me to correct it to your old screenname or to “a commenter” and keep your anonymity?
If you would put it under my old screen name, I would appreciate it. Thanks!
HANDLED. Thank you thank you again for correcting me!
The only thing that soothes my rage is the knowledge that I don’t have to ever speak/email back again. She is allowed to be wrong. She is allowed to be cruel. I’m allowed to never interact with her again.
As far as “not engage in an argument goes”, sometimes it only takes 1 person to have an argument. You can be completely reasonable and someone may just start arguing AT you. I’ve tried “don’t speak while at home” and “swallow all my pain” and many many other things, but nothing stops THEM initiating an argument about my facial expression or posture. You can avoid interacting with them, or not give a shit what they think of you (this is HARD when they’re directly attacking your agency as a human being or individuality), or disengage quickly, or learn what shuts them down. But if you’re near them, arguments may just happen.
The climax of my parallel badness was me telling my sister “I need you to stop treating me like mom treats me” and after getting an accusatory “what’s wrong with how mom treats you?!” and my explanation, then getting a “Well, what are you gonna do if I don’t stop, KILL YOURSELF?” in a sarcastic tone. I replied in a irritated or flat tone (its hard to read my own tone for me) “don’t flatter yourself. I’ll just leave. Its not like you’re worth dying over.” and that shut her up and set her off in tears (which I did not comfort, I took it as the time to reinforce reality and then leave the conversation). Note that I kept getting shitty stuff like this from her for nearly a year before breaking contact (each time improving slightly, but by the time we did email-only contact and it finally got to “bearable”, I’d already lost any respect or love I had for her, so I’ve just stopped interacting). Shutting it down doesn’t mean it won’t happen again, but being able to shut it down in the moment is a relief.
The other shut down that helped was “my thoughts on X are not negotiable”, for example “my relationship with our mother is not negotiable” or in your case “My decision to call my spouse without your input is not negotiable”. Then interrupt the next “logical point” with “NOT NEGOTIABLE” and just keep saying “No” or “Its insulting that you seem to think this is still negotiable” until she stops talking. If she asks why its not negotiable, keep saying “its not negotiable. You don’t need to know anything else”. i.e. never negotiate. You know she’s good at abusing any negotiating room you give her, my sister was too. You can no longer tell when its reasonable to negotiate with her, so, perhaps she’s lost the privilege to negotiate ever.
If you want to keep communicating with your sister, you might try to find whatever it is that shuts down the conversation (or practice disengaging, and try to view a disengage as winning). For me, shutting down comes from “you seem to think you’re more important to me than you are” or “your input isn’t welcome here”. For you, it might be different, such as “I disagree. See you later!”. Keep it honest; you’re not TRYING to hurt the other person. But, the time for sugar coating it is long past. My sister ISN’T important enough to me to commit suicide over. Your sister ISN’T important enough to include in your phone call with your wife. And, if you get a “that comment really hurt me”, I’d reply with “I’m sorry you’re hurt. I wouldn’t say something hurtful unless it was actionable. In this case, its actionable because your expectations of me are out of bounds and you need to update them if you don’t want to keep getting hurt” and then disengage (walk away, hang up the phone, etc).
She will probably never acknowledge that she was wrong. My sister hasn’t, really. And, if she can’t acknowledge, she can’t apologize. And, if you’re like me, if she can’t acknowledge and apologize, you can’t trust or forgive. But, if you know you have the power to shut it down, or the power to be not hurt or swayed by it, or the power to avoid interacting with it, it REALLY helps feel better about choosing to not initiate your own arguments with them.
I’m so sorry your sister treated you like that.
Yes, this exactly. I tried the ”don’t say or do anything, in fact be a robot, robots are cool and don’t get their feelings hurt”-method growing up with abusive siblings. I kept a chart and a journal to make it scientific and how a robot would do it. (Idk, I was about 8?) After 6 weeks I got something like 30% less abuse thrown at me by refusing to engage and just standing there. Not worth it.
Especially when you take into account how exhausting it was to ”ignore” everything they did to hurt or get a rise out of me. In fact, I took it a bit too far and lost contact with my feelings for a while there. Lesson learned for young!Kellis: Better to be a human with feelings and listen to them and avoid people who make you feel like shit than to make yourself into a robot who can’t cry. Better yet to cut off the siblings when I cut ties with the rest of the family.
Brains are funny things. They can learn adaptive tricks, sometimes. The problem, of course, is that once it has a tool it wants to apply it. Not every problem is a nail, and not every painful situation is best handled by shutting down.
My brain learned a trick to help me survive chemo which involved a huge blind spot. Pain or pain incoming? DUCK! look over elsewhere! Nothing here! Problem solved! Great for chemo and radiation. Not good for personal finances or relationships. I’m trying to retrain the brain to not use the new tool on EVERY painful problem.
Your description of your brain’s trick sounded so VERY familiar.
“Just leave if trying to fix it 2 times doesn’t work” and “Just leave if it at all resembles the situation with my family after zero tries” are two tricks my brain has learned that I need to be careful with.
I’m so sorry you got similar mistreatment too. 😦 Thank you SO MUCH for sharing your data! I envy your methodical approach, and brainstorming abilities!
The lecture from my father and sister of “Your feelings don’t matter, only mom’s. Do whatever it takes to make her happy, and keep your unhappiness to yourself” was actually what initiated my roughly 5 year attempt at being a robot when I was in my twenties. A 30% reduction sounds about right to me, but I don’t have the data to back it up.
The last year of interacting with any of them I did keep a journal though. I got “look, I could tell something I did offended you. That offends ME, so I have a right to try to hurt you. Its just human nature. If you don’t want to get hurt, cover up your offense better.” in December, and then “its not MY fault you’re hurt because I didn’t know anything was wrong. If you don’t tell me, I can’t do anything about it.” in January, and “Your individuality is SO important to you, just get over it and do like I do and be exactly who mom wants me to be” (which, lets be f’ing honest, involves a LOT of blatant cisgender privilege when you know your sibling is trans and your parents have said a lot of trans-phobic shit) and “just don’t let it hurt you! That’s what I do!” in March. The anvil on the camel’s back was the blatant inconsistency and the lack of respect and gratitude for the hard work I did trying to never express my unhappiness because only mom mattered to them. In retrospect, them only considering nega-mom’s feelings should have done it, but, no, it was the lack of recognition for my hard work that did it because I had already been taught that my feelings didn’t matter, but my work ethic did.
Thing is, of COURSE they’ll never respect this hard work. In their hyper-entitled universe, only her feelings matter and it is the responsibility of the rest of the universe to figure it out and tow the line. Why should I deserve a cookie for taking longer than average to figure this out?
So, anyhow, yes, I think “avoiding the argument” isn’t worth it because its thankless, impossible, and costs your soul. Shutting this shit down and HARD, or never interacting with them at all, or learning to walk away as soon as someone starts arguing, or respecting them so little that their opinions of you matter none, that’s all that I’ve seen work for people (and, frankly, I can’t make the last one work for me. I respect them about as much as I respect gum on the sidewalk, but I’d still go at the gum with a flamethrower if it was attacking my right to exist and my right to personal agency).
I think the last one is only useful, if you really feel it in yourself. I feel good for people who are not fazed by assholish opinions, but I am not one of them and will therefore alsways choose another strategy to protect me.
Oh wow, that is quite familiar. I tried to be a robot too up until this past summer, though it was for dealing with my father and occasionally my mother. LW, take it from someone who has been there and done that for way too long and is still so out of touch emotionally and internalized so much nasty shit that I still have trouble feeling anything, and pain and anger are still my default settings. It’s to the point that when I’m not sunk deep in that hole (aka when I’ve been away from them and their “expectations” of me) I seem practically manic in my happiness. It’s something I’m going to be working on now that I’ve realized just how bad it is because like Kellis said, it’s extremely exhausting to do in general and after you get used to it, it’s really hard to not just disassociate from all your emotions. Plus, if you’re anything like me, it just makes it even HARDER to talk about when something is wrong, because your brain has been trained to go “shut up! you feel nothing! Shhhh! Don’t make them mad at you for being upset about some totally reasonable thing!” and that’s also really freaking hard to stop.
Please don’t try to be a robot and just let it roll off of you for the sake of the sisterly closeness you (completely understandably) feel obligated to have. Let yourself be upset and sad and angry and ignore her, whether it’s by leaving or hanging up or never emailing or writing back. Your feelings are valid and deciding to stay away instead of opening yourself up to her abuse is definitely what I would recommend. Sure trying to be a robot was a very important survival strategy for me, since arguing was not an option and walking away was ABSOLUTELY NOT ALLOWED unless I wanted to invite even worse things down on my head, but the cost was very very steep and looking back I wish I had the options you have now.
“Its important to make a good faith effort
to resolve differences with others, and try
to avoid cutting people off. ”
I’m not actually sure that IS important. Yes, if you find yourself cutting people off frequently, then there may be a pattern in that to watch out for, and yes, often if you try to resolve differences then you will later be glad you did.
But I don’t think you ever ‘owe’ another person _yourself_, as some kind of duty. Life is short. Spend it with people you choose to spend it with.
Agreed. There is no obligation to make the “good faith effort” in the face of someone who can’t even have a single conversation with you without being awful.
If the “good faith effort” has been made in the past, there is no obligation to continue it into the future when the other party continues to harm you.
Personally, I don’t believe there’s any obligation even the very first time. I don’t think you’re ‘obligated’ to try even once to work things out with someone you don’t want to have in your life. There are lots of good reasons, both practical and emotional, to try to work things through with people, and most relationships you have with people have enough good in them that it’s healthy and good to make some effort to work through problems.
But ‘obligation’? I just don’t agree with that. If you feel like never speaking to someone ever again, you always have every right to do so, for whatever reason, unless there’s an actual ethical obligation involved (e.g., if children would be affected).
You don’t need to justify it to the universe or have a ‘good enough’ reason besides ‘I don’t want to see this person again’.
“”You don’t need to justify it to the universe or have a ‘good enough’ reason besides ‘I don’t want to see this person again’ “”
I think this might be a cultural difference between our cultures (in which case, the culture you live in sounds superior to the one I live in, and I’m really jealous).
In the culture I live in, there is a social cost to cutting someone off. It makes that person sad. In the case of family, the rest of the family is sad, and has a harder time getting together as a group. In the case of a work environment it makes it harder to get work done. In the case of a social environment it makes it harder to get the band back together(1). This all adds up to a large social pressure to not cut people off, because there are social consequences for cutting people off that the whole community pays. And, even though my work environment doesn’t pay any social cost when I cut off my family, my coworkers are still kinda aghast when they find out (unless they’ve met my family), because there is a benefit for the community to pressure individuals to not cut each other off. And, it is up to me to make them feel better about me cutting someone off, or to pay a reputation hit as someone who can’t be trusted to stick around.
So, its important to at least try to resolve your differences in my culture. Then you can say “look, I tried X, Y, and Z. Having tried those, I got back a, b, and c. Its reasonable that I gave up.” and being able to say this has gotten me a LOT of mileage of the sort “okay, that sounds sane. I can trust you to not cut me off without warning, so I am willing to invest in trying to have a relationship with you”.
This isn’t morality for me so much as self protection within the herd. If your culture sees nothing wrong in breaking things off without attempting to fix them, (or, this social cost isn’t a big deal for you), then power to you! 🙂 I agree, life is too short to waste time on this dance.
(1) Strangers aren’t included because there is no social expectation. Likewise, “slow fade” with ex-coworkers or friends is normal and not a concern. “Too busy to keep in touch” is also okay with non-family people. But, even just “out of touch with family” seems to carry a social cost in my community.
I can’t seem to nest any further, but I totally agree that there are loads of powerful reasons to make an effort to repair relations with people. It’s just when it’s expressed as an obligation, which to me has a tinge of morality or ethics to it, that I object. But there are usually costs, yes, totally.
She is living her own life and changing like anyone does and there’s always the chance that someday you will be capable of having the relationship you’d really like with each other.
BUT, that’s not something you can control or make happen, and it may very well never happen (in fact hoping for people to change is usually a longshot).
So the question I’d ask myself is, if this never changes, if she is always going to act how she acts, what would your ideal level of engagement with her be? Meeting a few times a year? No contact at all? Exchanging cards on special occassions? Doing something together one evening a month? Etc. What do you think would actually make you happiest? What is the relationship you want with this person – not with the ideal ‘what she could potentially be like if she were different’ person, but _this_ person?
Being clear of that in your own mind may help you decide what to do next.
LW, I don’t have a lot of good advice here, but I do just want to assure you that there IS a big difference between not contacting people who are mean and possessive of you to protect yourself and not contacting someone in order to punish them.
The differences are: purposes (you’re protecting yourself, getting sanity checks, realigning your boundaries vs she’s trying to make you get jumpier and jumpier and feel bad and apologize to her), methods (you are going to be polite vs she does angry silence), and results (you feel better/get more perspective/recover vs she justs gets madder and madder until she explodes).
I’m sorry to say that so often, I’ve been the passive-aggressive person. It’s really awful, it’s really embarassing, and it’s really hard to change.
Like, I’ve understood it’s a problem for about 10 years of my life; but it would be inescapable. I tried to think or will my way out of it but it doesn’t work like that. A hard or hurtful situation would come up, and I would snap out, or say something irrational and then wallow in it, trying to understand what I had done, maybe justifying it in my head. I never apologized, cause I would still be in the heat of the moment/this sort of tunnel vision, but slowly I realized it was not ok. I’m getting therapy now, I meditate, and I still snap (though I think a little bit less), but now at least I quickly and sincerely apologize for it, which is so little, but yet I couldn’t even do that before.
It took a lot of time to sort of come and see that my behavior was not ok. I grew up with some deep passive-aggression in my father so he basically distracted my family from calling me out on my shit ever; later, I guess my friends were too nice to note it. I think when I really realized it is when my sweet sweet ex-boyfriend did something and I lashed out and he looked like the saddest puppy. In my experience, that’s really what started bringing the point home. The secret is that passive aggressive people love aggression, so if you defend yourself or try to rationally reason with them that they’re wrong, they’ll be on home turf or arguing and love it. But truly expressing feeling, simply and sincerely — what you did there hurt me and I am not sure I can see you again — is terrifying and painful for the passive aggressor… and that’s when something might click.
One final note; the therapist noted to me that this sort of behavior is typical for mildly depressed people. (Maybe more depressed people as well, but I’m not sure; the point is, people who seem to function fine but secretly do have some pervasive depressive traits.) And it’s true. I know it doesn’t help and this is not at all to defend your sister, but everytime she would throw a shit fit about you not letting her pick the venue… it’s kind of like a terror that she can’t articulate. A terror of being left out, of having to deal with life in an uncomfortable venue. I’ve thrown internal shit fits about venues so. many. times. It’s like a terror that manifests itself into a psychotic need to control for me. Same thing with the wedding.. probably tied to a fear of losing you, etc. Again, this is not to defend her… but I do think it’s important to try to plant the idea of therapy in her mind. I mean, in retrospect it’s amazing to me that I was so emotionally inarticulate that I could not even apologize when I knew I had been bitchy or mean. So it’s really hard to learn that emotional language and how to use it so your fears don’t pop up in really ugly, nasty, hurtful ways.
It’s interesting trying to see things from this perspective. I am trying to think of times when I have felt similarly, but, I was raised to give way, be “reasonable” and to put others first. Snapping is something that happens when I am feeling helpless and then feel like I should be grateful for something that someone thinks should fit my needs but it does NOT!
My realizations were that I needed to figure out what I wanted and needed, that I needed to ask for them(no one is psychic. If I didn’t tell someone I needed something, then not getting it is ALL on me) AND that people who could not hear/would not hear my needs were not necessary to be around. Fortunately, the problem was one person not listening, and not me not communicating clearly to multiple people. In other words, my problem was with one person, not with all the people around me, and therefore was more likely to be his capability for listening, and less likely to be my communication skills.
Note on this: I’m 46, and learning to figure out what I wanted took a surprisingly long time. Sometimes prizing out the bits of “this thing makes me feel insecure and unhappy…why!?!” Is a long, hard project. It is a valuable bit of information, though, and extremely helpful in navigating relationships once figured out.
I have been the crazy person. The person who responded to reaching out and trying to connect as if it was an attack. The person who wanted to be the center of attention and the most important person around and the person who got included in everything because didn’t I deserve it? The person who used my own emotional insecurity as a reason to abuse my housemates. I was entirely awful to live with, and while I managed to apologize (usually), I had the hardest time stopping the behavior. The boundaries that my housemate drew to protect themselves became further attacks against me. As someone said upthread, it was a really sad and lonely place to live.
Nothing my housemates ever did was going to change how I behaved.
I don’t know why I started that phase of my life. It wasn’t something I had done before. And I don’t know why I stopped. And I don’t know why it was just that house and those housemates that got caught in this. But what I knew even at the time is that there was nothing my housemates could do to fix the relationship. They could have poured themselves into the gaping hole that was me until they were drained dry, and it never would have been enough. They could do everything I told them I needed, said everything just right, and it never would have been enough. Never.
LW, you can’t fix the relationship with your sister. She someday may be able to reset herself enough that talking to her is something you want to do. But you can’t make it happen.
And even if she starts being a person you would like talking to if it was anyone else – you get to decide if you want to go there, and she doesn’t get to force you.
Passive-aggressiveness is a common response when certain feelings are “not allowed” — either because other people punish them or because they’re not consistent with that person’s self-image.
There’s a reason why you see a lot of passive-aggressiveness among women, because the (stupid and repressive) ideal of femininity says that proper women don’t get angry and don’t do anything selfish. So that’s where you get women who won’t say, “I wish you’d have the party somewhere other than a sports bar; I don’t enjoy sports bars, because I don’t drink and I’m hard of hearing” — but instead grit their teeth and say, “Oh, no, I’m not angry that you made this decision. I’m just wondering if you won’t regret it later on. But I’m sure you know what you’re doing, and the advice of an old bat like me is the last thing you need to listen to.”
I appreciate you being honest about this — I know I have been this person too. Not passive-aggressive, really, but aggressive-aggressive, like, “if everyone sees how much they hurt me and how terrible they are they’ll feel bad and apologize! But first, moar yelling and lashing out!”
When I read Lundy Bancroft’s book _Why does he do that_ I recognized a lot things I had encountered in relationships. But also, uncomfortably, I recognized a few things in me, like stuff where I was like oh crap. I’ve done that. I think I’ve gotten better about just letting other people feel their feels and do their thing, and it’s been really nice 🙂
“The Gift of Fear” calls talks about the ‘scriptwriter’ personality. This is the person who makes up their mind what you meant when you said X and what your motivations were when you did Y, and NOTHING YOU CAN SAY OR DO will change their opinions. I’ve recently dumped a friend who was like this. He’d attribute all sort of fucked-up motives to my behaviour then accuse me of being irrational when I tried to explain things. He’d demand apologies for the things he thought I’d done wrong, and tell me that I needed help if I refused to admit to things I didn’t do. He was trying to be my friend, apparently, but it was SO HARD because I was constantly unreasonable and/or over-emotional. Yeah…. It just got too tiring to deal with this crap all the time.
My ex-friend is suffering from mental health issues and maybe your sister is as well but (and this is the important bit) THAT DOES NOT EXCUSE TREATING OTHER PEOPLE LIKE SHIT. It might be a reason they react this way, but it does NOT make their behaviour okay, and it does NOT mean you have to sit back and take it. It is absolutely all right to cut someone out of your life if their behaviour is causing you damage.
Oh god, I could have written your post. Much sympathy.
LW, I’m sorry you’re struggling with this. It sucks. BIG TIME. I have been going through something similar (for umm… my lifetime) and up until recently have only just started to erect and protect my boundaries. Distance and my husband (Team Me) have really helped me. It’s still hard and I still find myself getting sucked into that dreaded “no-logic-all-fuckery” wormhole from time to time. May I suggest re-framing any distance between you as actually, a really good thing. Because when you really think about it, it’s probably the healthiest your relationship has ever been. To paraphrase some advice from the Captain, your sister will be horrible and irrational to you if you do the “right” thing, or if you do the “wrong” thing, which is pretty freeing and empowering when you think about it. Just play it by ear, if you’re not comfortable with totally cutting her off. If things progress, great! If they regress, back off and don’t beat yourself up about it.
Ah, if only I had this kind of a resource 20 odd yrs ago when I decided to stop talking to both my parents. Then it took me five years to realize no amount of me would fix a problem that was not about me, and then five years of guilty depression. I wrote it all down and on re-read I realized how badly they sucked, and just let it go and started to grow up on my own.
My rule now for identifying assholes is how often shit that goes down is my fault. Once is possible, twice in a row is troubling and three times is a pattern and I bail. We all make mistakes but mostly not that often.
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