Hi Captain Awkward!
I have a younger sister (very close in age – Irish twins). She is beautiful, talented, intelligent, witty and fun — one of those life of the party types, kind of universally beloved. I am more of an average person, and had a tough time growing up under my sister’s shadow. My family is very competitive and I always came up short. One hilarious/tragic example is that my first two (TWO!!!! BOTH OF THEM! as if this happened more than once!) high school boyfriends both told me that they only started dating me to get closer to my sister since she’s the one they were actually crushing on. Other high school kids called her “the hot one.” I was not. People in my grade would invite her to parties but not me.
This was not her fault! She didn’t ask other people to be cruel. She did kind of act like your typical popular teenage girl, though, and we were pretty bitchy to each other — but I don’t think it was any worse than normal teenage siblings. I just took it really hard. My parents tried to be understanding, but they also have very high expectations and growing up I just always felt out of place, didn’t feel like I belonged or was valued.
Anyway, the result is that in my midtwenties, I now live very far from the rest of my family and try to limit my time with them. I see them three times a year at major holidays. I call my mom almost every day and I have a good relationship with her one-on-one, but I always feel sad when I have to spend time with my extended family — in fact, the sad feelings last for a couple weeks even after I return to my home in a different city. I also notice that when I’m with my family, I have trouble being my best self. After moving away I became an outgoing, happy, well-adjusted, confident person, but as soon as I get home I turn into a shy sad little clam (although I think they would describe it as sullen and ungrateful).
My sister has grown up into an accomplished, non-teenage jerk-y person, and she has a GREAT relationship with the rest of my family — they all live in the same city. The issue is that my mom regularly bugs me about why a) my sister and I aren’t closer (we don’t talk to each other apart from holidays, although it’s definitely always civil); b) I don’t come home more often; c) why I choose to live so far away.
My question is just … how to deal with this?? For my own sanity, I’ve kind of taken the “run awaaaay!!!” route and it’s worked for me. I’m happy when I’m not around them. I’ve got a great “chosen family” of friends that I’ve made since leaving home. But I realize that a lot of my family drama is my own issue now, and my mom’s feelings especially are hurt that I don’t spend more time with them so we can be a happy close family that does all kinds of stuff together. For example, soon I’ll be in their area for a weekend with my boyfriend (for a non-family event), and my mom keeps asking “but I just don’t understand why you won’t just stay with your sister?!?? they have a spare room!” (he and I have booked a hotel room instead).
It’s hard for me to just say “Hey, I’m just going to be home for Christmas for a couple days but then I’m going to travel” when it’s not really THEM that’s dysfunctional, it’s me. I think my mom is getting increasingly twitchy about this because we’re approaching marriage and baby-making age, and also she and my dad are getting older so she worries about us staying in contact when they’re not around anymore.
Do I have the right to just set these boundaries for myself even though I’m pretty sure I’m the messed up one here? If so, how do I do this kindly and appropriately while still taking care of myself?
Sibling Rivalry Up the Wazoo
Dear Sibling Rivalry:
The scripts you’re looking for are:
a) Why aren’t you and your sister closer? “You’ll have to ask her!” “Sister is welcome to visit me anytime.” (i.e. Phones, roads, and planes work BOTH ways). “We have a pretty good relationship, I think.” “This is working for us right now.”
b) Why don’t you come
home to visit more often? “Three visits/year are about what I can schedule. You’re welcome to visit me sometime, though!” (Phones, roads, and planes, work BOTH ways).
c) Why do you live so far away? “I like it here.” “I’m happy living here.” “This works for me.” “My job/school/friends/life is here.”
Bonus: d) I just want you and your sister to be close, you know, when your Dad and I are gone. “That’s understandable, and I’m sure we’ll be glad to lean on each other then.” e) Why can’t you stay with your sister? “She didn’t invite us.” “A hotel is more comfortable for us.” “This works better for me.”
Answer the questions quickly, automatically, the same way every time, and without apologizing or getting drawn into a discussion about how dysfunctional and awful you are. You do not have to defend your actual life against your mom’s fantasy of what her family is like. Make it very boring to talk about this stuff and change the subject a lot. Your mom isn’t gonna change how she feels (or whether she asks) but you can get to subject changes more quickly and skillfully with some practice and time.
220 thoughts on “#868: “Why don’t you visit more?” “Idk, why don’t YOU visit more?””
My little sister and I didn’t get along at all in school , and just didn’t really interact for years after. Now that we’re both in our 30s we get along just fine, but we still have the occasional unintentional reversion to teenager dynamics, and we live nearly a thousand miles apart and rarely talk, especially since she’s been taking a break from Facebook.
What I’m saying is that you’re not broken, and your relationship with your sister isn’t broken. It’s pretty normal, just like it’s normal to behave differently in family situations than in your own adult-life situations. It’s absolutely your right to set the boundaries you need in order to feel happy and comfortable.
I think “reversion to teenager dynamics” is the key to understanding LW’s perceived change of behaviour around family members, as evidenced by this:
“I also notice that when I’m with my family, I have trouble being my best self. After moving away I became an outgoing, happy, well-adjusted, confident person, but as soon as I get home I turn into a shy sad little clam.”
Family dynamics can change, but it takes work. Everyone who has moved out may experience situations like this on returning home. *You* may have grown, evolved, learned, readjusted yourself, but your family picks up the thread right where you left them & continues to behave as if nothing had changed & thus the old pattern re-establishes itself. You may try to go against it, but then you’ll encounter backlash, because suddenly you don’t fit into the role they envisioned for you anymore. This is my reading on LW’s dynamic with their family.
This thing can also happen in friend groups. I met up with a group of friends from my high-school years & it was no fun. People had not outgrown the habit of picking on each other & treating others with sarcasm. When I responded negatively to this, people didn’t understand what upset me & why I reacted harshly towards the one dishing out the sarcasm, who was “just being friendly”. Apparently my role in the group was that of willing victim for poor treatment & when I decided I didn’t deserve that, suddenly I was the one that rocked the boat.
“Family dynamics can change, but it takes work.”
And it takes work from EVERYONE.
I sometimes get really pissed off when I’m w/ the family, because my brothers fall right into the “pick on Toots” mode that they used to be in. I get really exhausted pretending it doesn’t sting.
I’ve brought it up, but they either don’t think it’s important, or they forget.
It wouldn’t surprise me, Letter Writer, if some of that old family dynamic comes right back–and I don’t think it’s you that’s broken.
One thing I might suggest: Visit your sister, just her and you. No Mom. No Dad. None–be rigid about that. A short trip, with something specific to do, instead of just hanging around her house. See if you find one another more enjoyable, and see if you can rewrite some of the dynamics that are just between the two of you.
I know that when I’m w/ my brother, and it’s just us, it’s much more pleasant, and we’re grownups instead of “kids in our parents’ family/house.”
I once had scheduled a trip to visit my little brother’s family, and my mom called to say they were going to go for the holiday a week before my planned visit. “If you didn’t buy your tickets, I wanted to offer you to chance to be there with us. But if you want to go without us, I’ll understand–sometimes the dynamics are different when Mom and Dad are there, and you might enjoy being grownup siblings, without worrying about the childhood dynamics.”
Guess when I went?
My mom was very wise.
Cosigning your suggestion… I only really started to develop an adult relationship with my brother when I started visiting him away from the parents. It’s so easy to revert to the familiar habits from teenage years, and it’s even easier if you’re in a familiar environment surrounded by familiar people.
Agreed. Especially if your parents are invested in midwifing a relationship with you and your sister. One of my sisters is VERY invested in “helping” me and Other Sister build a better relationship (we don’t get along AT ALL, but maybe kind of want to now), and her commentary to both of us, while positive and encouraging makes everything we do to try build a better relationship anywhere around her have a performative element that really gets in the way of actually building a relationship. We do much better on the (very rare) occasions when we’re alone.
And as you point out, it’s especially hard to change dynamics if the person who is changing them is the designated patient, the scapegoat, and/or the victim.
Everyone else has a vested interest in the status quo.
I met up with a group of friends from my high-school years & it was no fun. People had not outgrown the habit of picking on each other & treating others with sarcasm.
yyyyyyyep. I went through this when my high school group re-formed fully for the first time in almost a decade: I was on good terms with certain individual members, but once the whole band was back together it was a total reversion to screamingly boring nitpicking and inability to have a relaxed conversation. I ended up straight ignoring several people yammering endlessly about minutiae at one end of the table and spoke with their girlfriends instead, who were totally lovely.
I absolutely agree that your relationship with your sister is in no way irrevocably broken. Sister relationships can be hard. I have two sisters, six and nine years younger than I am. My middle sister and I are very different people, with very different values and ways of looking at life, and in all honesty I would not consider her friend material if we weren’t related. There was some very bad blood for many, many years.
However, now that I’m in my 40’s and we both have kids that are very close in age, and we live far enough away that we have some space, we’re finally, FINALLY starting to grow closer. We text and chat on the phone sometimes, and visit each other (although not for too many days!). People grow and change so much even once they are adults that anything is possible. Keep the lines of communication open.
I would add that, since you mention the impending mom-twitchiness due to her idea that you’re approaching marriage/baby-making time that the Captain’s general advice is also a great way to deal with those every-annoying, “So have you and BF thought about getting married?” “So when are you two gonna settle down and have kids you’re not getting younger and I’d really love to be a grandmother” type of questions. Also, should not not want to be married or have babies at this time or anytime soon or never – that also, does not make you dysfunctional. It also, unfortuntley, doesn’t stop annoying questions from coming.
And maybe cut back on the every day phone calls. It’s got to be draining getting those types of questions on a near-daily basis!
And maybe cut back on the every day phone calls. It’s got to be draining getting those types of questions on a near-daily basis!
^^^YES!^^^ I used to do the daily calls to my mother. Then I stopped. I talk once a week at most now. The first thing I noticed after stopping the daily calls was I was in a better head space every day. The little voice that constantly compared me to my sisters was gone because it wasn’t being fed ammunition from my mother every day. 🙂
I adored my mom. She was my favorite conversationalist. We couldn’t talk every day–we ran out of things to talk about!
My parents quit demanding we travel 2 hours each way by train (not counting being picked up at train station) with a small child when I started inviting them to spend 2 hours round trip traveling to visit us. Shifted the burden a bit. We have other issues going on but that one is pretty much solved. Good luck letter writer!
Bridgidkeely- ugh this. And I’m luck I didn’t have a small child! But the “why don’t you visit so much – why do you need a minute to yourself when you get here? You’ve just had 2 hours to yourself on the train!” Stopped when they started using the train to come down to visit a bit more….
LW, YOU ARE NOT DYSFUNCTIONAL! Your mother’s idea of How To Daughter/Family Correctly is not the only correct way. You have found what works for you! A+++ GOOD JOB.
Seconding this – you are not dysfunctional. You grew up with a dysfunctional family dynamic and there is no reason you need to be close to people who treated you that way.
I don’t think it is necessarily a dysfunctional family dynamic? If the LW feels it is, then I totally support her, but I read it as “just normal family dynamics”. Sibling rivalry and different levels of popularity and parents who are a little too invested in “the perfect family” and it taking a few years to learn a new dynamic with your siblings are all very much in the “normal non-dysfunctional family dynamic” to me.
LW, I’m only 18 months older than my brother, and the way we dealt with that was that he did everything I said until I was five and he was four, and then he spent the next twenty-odd years doing everything he could to differentiate himself from me and generally being contemptuous of everything I was and everything I stood for. We fought constantly in our teens, had very little to say to each other in our twenties (and when we did talk to each other, very quickly went back into our teenage dynamic of him winding me up and me getting incredibly frustrated and furious in about two seconds flat), but got much closer in our thirties (we’re 37 and 36 now.) For me, the big turning point was that I asked him and our little brother to give a speech at my wedding, which they did beautifully, and I went, “Holy shit, you’re – proud of me?” Relationship-defining moment. We were also all lovely to each other when our mum died, and as the trust built up between us I suddenly started conceptualising a lot of his teasing of me as good-natured, and realised how baffled he’d always been when I flew off the handle so quickly. (From his point of view, he could hardly say anything to me without me going into a rage and screaming at him, even when he was trying to be nice and friendly.) He still does some of the stuff that really really annoyed me too, but I suddenly realised when I was about 29 that I didn’t live with him any more, and I could just roll my eyes and let it go!
Anyway, my point here is that I’m not sure how old you are, but I’m guessing from the fact that you’re talking about “a few years” that you might be in your twenties. If so, your adult relationship with your sister may not be fixed and “final” yet. It might continue developing and changing all the way through your thirties and maybe beyond. If it does stay the same, there is NOTHING WRONG with your relationship, and you are not dysfunctional, and you don’t need to apologise, and you’re allowed to have boundaries. But you might also find it changes as you get older – and perhaps you get more secure in your boundaries and don’t feel that your sister is testing them – and that is also cool.
I also strongly second “hey, why don’t you come and visit me?” This works both as a tactic to shut down the nagging, and also is a really helpful thing if you would actually like to form a closer relationship with your sister (you don’t have to want that! But you might!) Seeing your sister on your home turf and out of the old family home and showing her your grown-up independent life might be a really great way to help you develop a new dynamic.
This is the big red dysfunction flag: “The issue is that my mom regularly bugs me about why a) my sister and I aren’t closer (we don’t talk to each other apart from holidays, although it’s definitely always civil); b) I don’t come home more often; c) why I choose to live so far away.”
When they tell you over and over that they just don’t understand why you persist in living your life the way you want to instead of the way they want you to it has nothing to do with understanding.
I grew up in foster homes and so I have been the person who was constantly coming up short in families where adults though it was appropriate to treat children like competitors. I was also in families with incredibly popular children who always included me in everything I wanted to be included in.
It is unfortunate that you and your sister are not friends but it seems to me that your competitive mum has a lot of nerve to complain to you about it at this late date.
Seconding everything you said. There are ways to family that don’t mean that one sibling gets left out; the parents set the tone, and then somehow expected it to change when everyone was an adult (??? like, how, even?). LW is doing the traveling, but is not the only one who can; doing all the work and then getting complaints anyway would make me want to just stop visiting, but that’s a me thing.
Soooooo much this. All of it. *emphatic pointing*
Also, LW? Even if you don’t agree with thebewilderness’s criticisms of your parents — even if you truly believe that you don’t have a good reason for not wanting to be close to your sister or your extended family — you *don’t want to be closer to them* and that is fine! Your feelings are totally reasonable and okay, no matter why you’re having them! You did not choose your family. You don’t have to like them or hang out with them. And if you like some of them and hang out with those folks, that doesn’t mean that you have to like all of them or spend time with all of them.
Also I think it was so smart of you to move away and find your people elsewhere. This sounds like a pretty toxic environment to grow up in, and there are a lot of bits of your letter that made me go “Wow, I’d find it pretty freaking hard to be my best self around these people too, given how they behave.” But even if I were wrong about that, even if this was a totally healthy and functional family and even if there was no good reason why you didn’t thrive there, you weren’t thriving with these people and you were so so smart to see that and get out. Go you!
That behaviour would also fit “loving parent who is still in the process of adjusting to having adult child” to me, if LW is still relatively young. For me it would be dysfunctional if the LW had tried to set boundaries and been shamed for doing so, or if her mother had repeatedly stepped over those boundaries. But it’s not clear to me that she has done that yet. So yeah, red flag for dysfunction, more information needed, but that’s not the same as “this is clearly dysfunctional”.
Not all dynamics that make people feel bad are dysfunctional and set to remain so, IMO: sometimes they are worn out patterns in the process of transition, and the point of “feeling bad” is the motivation to change. But we may be defining dysfunction differently.
“Seeing your sister on your home turf and out of the old family home and showing her your grown-up independent life might be a really great way to help you develop a new dynamic.”
This fits with my suggestion upstream–I really do like the idea of having her visit you, because simply being in your old town might be enough to trigger some old family dynamics.
And heck–if your sister is a reasonable, non-jerky person, TELL HER that you’d like her to visit you once, because when you come home, it triggers some old family dynamics that make you feel sort of sad and inadequate, and that you’d like to try to remove that from your relationship.
LW states that she is in her mid twenties. I slid past that the first time I read it too.
I do tend to see dysfunction here but it’s not a guarantee. What I haven’t seen anybody say yet, exactly, is “dysfunctional” is a spectrum. LW (or anyone’s) family might not hit “so dysfunctional the best choice for me is to limit contact” but can still be dysfunctional in as far as being terrible for their mental health.
Many parents who reinforce unhealthy dynamics really love their children, including those where the issue matures into mildly exasperating all the way up to narcissists.
I find it difficult to see “My family is very competitive and I always came up short” and “I turn into a shy sad little clam (although I think they would describe it as sullen and ungrateful)” as being 100% adjusting to children entering adulthood. I think it’s an unhealthy dynamic that may be changeable but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
LW, if you’re reading this: you’re not dysfunctional! It’s normal to struggle with changing roles from both sides. It’s up to you if you think your parents perception of you is just a pattern they haven’t changed yet or one they’re likely to struggle to hold onto. You’re allowed to not want to stay with your sister or do all the travelling without it being childish or selfish.
I hope you can feel better about yourself as someone who’s growing and learning and is understandably struggling with high expectations on your time for a goal you’ll always fall short of (since what your mother really wants is for you to live closer). I think spending time with your sister one on one without having to stay in the same house is a good idea if you want to do that, as well as the [i]people can visit you[/i] advice.
When I was 24, I was at home at my parents’ house for about five nights over Christmas with my two brothers. We were 24, 23 and 21. My parents went away for one night, and phoned up to check how we were getting on. I answered the phone, and said something like, “fine, fortunately *I* don’t mind doing the washing up!” I thought I was making a joke, although it was a “I am making a joke about something I am mildly irritated about” moment.
My parents got home the next night, and nagged my brother about leaving all the washing up for me. My brother screamed at my mum that they always took my side. My mum turned to me and said, “That’s true, you shouldn’t have told tales, Mary.” I shouted that it wasn’t fair, that I’d meant it as a JOKE, oh my God, and I’d never ASKED her to mention it to my brother! Then I stormed up to my room, slammed the door, flung myself on my bed, grabbed my teddy bear, and thought, “Dear God, I’m twenty-four.” I still remember it, nearly fifteen years later, because it was such a ridiculous “everybody go into their roles as if we are fourteen and thirteen and the division of family chores and my parents’ arbitration and attention is Very Very important.”
My mum came up half an hour later in tears to apologise. I told her I was sorry and that we’d all been ridiculous, but she kept crying. She asked what she’d done wrong and why we were such a dysfunctional family. I laughed at her (nicely!) and told her that she had three grown-up children who were all making their way in life very well, living independently, with plenty of friends, figuring out relationships and jobs and boundaries, and, really. Put us all back under the same roof and it turns out that we still fought, but “can live together under the same roof and never fight” is not actually the definition of a successful family.
LW, my mum was excellent, and my family is excellent. You know your family best, and if the comments about your family being dysfunctional strike true to you, then they *are*. But everything you’ve said is also stuff I could have said about my family in my mid-twenties. The whole adjustment from “parents who are the ultimate authorities” to “parents who do not always know best”, and from “kids in their teens who are forced to live together” to “fully realised grown-ups with independent adult sibling relationships” took the best part of a decade and a half. Your mum is still trying to control everything, and if she’s like my mum, she is probably using “my daughters’ relationship with each other” as “yardstick for whether I Succeeded At Life”. She might well grow out of it! Especially if you do some good grown-up boundary setting, using the Captain’s excellent scripts! There is a Mark Twain quote which is something like, “when I was 15, my father knew nothing. When I was 21, I was amazed how much he had learned.” It’s supposed to be an ironic comment on how the child has grown to appreciate their parents’ wisdom, but you know what? *Both* my parents grew up enormously between when I was 20 and when I was 30! Honest to God! There’s a conventional belief that the teens are the rocky period as we re-define our roles with our parents, and that by the time we’re 21 it’s all done, but I think it takes a lot longer than that.
You are not wrong for anything you are feeling, and you are entitled to boundaries and hooray for you having a great life and a Team You. And if you feel that your family are actually dysfunctional, then that it totally fair because I am going on nothing more than a 5 paragraph letter and you know you best. But it is possible that there is nothing majorly wrong and this is just the normal process of defining your own adult existence and how you relate to your family. Either way, you are doing just fine and keep doing it!
oops, this was supposed to be a stand-alone comment. Sorry!
When I was 24 and in the week before my wedding, Dad wanted to talk about the speeches order with me. But I just didn’t care about the order of the speeches. Dad interpreted “I don’t care” through a teenage winging lense. We had a MASSIVE screaming fight, the kind we hadn’t had since I was a teenager because I didn’t care, but he insisted a did and should stop being so childish.
I think that parents need to adjust to treating their children like adults, peers and friends. It’s a massive transition for them and us. I get on really well with my parents, but we’ve had to have a few chats about our dynamic, I’ve had to readjust my attitudes toward them several times, it’s taken years. I’ve noticed times when I still slip into acting like a teenager around them because it’s familiar and I take my parents’ grown up responsibility for granted.
Now that I’m 30, I really like the relationship and dynamic we have.
I’m so glad to hear a kid acknowledge that it’s a huge transition for parents too. (Can you tell I’m a parent of a newly minted adult?)
Kids have their own part, which is to stop caring about what your parents think. And we can’t really help you with that. We can back off a little, but even if we back off a LOT, you have to deal with the voice in your head that says, “I know my mom wouldn’t be pleased.” You have to figure out when to turn it off, when to turn it down, and when to turn it up.
As you get more confident with that, it’ll be easier for a well-meaning parent to adjust as well. It’s a seesaw, or a dance, in which each party’s adjustment (or lack thereof) triggers the other party’s.
I definitely saw my mum going through that transition! I think in many ways it didn’t help that we got on really well when I was a teenager: we sang in lots of choirs together and socialised together quite a lot, and I really looked up to her, and I don’t think we did as firm a separation as many mum-and-daughter dyads do, if the daughter is “naughtier” and there’s more fighting. When I got to my early twenties and came out as queer, and did things like dyeing my hair (!), my mum was horrified and took it really personally as a rejection of her. And was then horrified at herself because she could see that she was being unreasonable, and sometimes she’d take that out on me and I’d call her on it and she’d catch herself on and apologise.
I think in a lot of ways it was probably easier for me than her, because I was in my twenties and “my relationship with my parents” was only one aspect of a busy life establishing myself as an adult. For my mum, “I am fucking up my relationship with my daughter” was a much scarier and more overwhelming fear. But she’d given me the tools I needed to assert myself and set boundaries, and I had faith that she loved me enough to get over it and get with the programme.
I’m definitely not saying, “you have to accept abusive behaviour from your parents”, but I do think that parents are also allowed to fuck up and be a bit crap about adjusting to their children’s adulthood and choices. Like every other relationship, the key difference is whether they respond to you setting boundaries and can own their bad behaviour and apologise, or whether they continually push back and violate boundaries or try and shame you for having them.
Bless you, Mary!
This is true, in my own experience:
That fear can be overwhelming. I’m just hoping that my kid will have faith that I love her, and will do her part to assert herself and confirm her boundaries–without taking it out on me nastily!
I also think it is usually easier for kids, at least in healthy families. The kid is going on to new and exciting things, and adding things to their life. The parent is having something go away from an already-established life. It’s a big change.
Ugh, the week before we were married, my dad expressed his anxiety about his oldest leaving by having a meltdown, which was pretty par for the course with my dad. Dad interpreted a fairly simple banking issue as me not caring about my finances and screamed at me about not taking my adult responsibilities seriously. He yelled that DH and I didn’t have any idea how to budget for ourselves, that we were going to waste our money, and DH and I shouldn’t expect to move back in with my parents when we went broke.
I sat there in a frozen panic because my dad was yelling at me, and then I realized I was 21. I had my own apartment. I had a career. And I was getting ready to get married. And I said the first thing that came to mind, which was, “Who the FUCK do you think you’re talking to? I’m not a 12 year old. I’m an adult!”
which may have been a little harsh.
But it got my point across. My parents had to learn that I was an adult and they couldn’t speak to me like I was their dependent child anymore. They couldn’t expect me to stand there and be their emotional surrogate on which they projected their insecurities.
By the way, a year into my marriage, we had saved enough to buy our first house and were taking an international vacation to celebrate our anniversary. We had a carefully planned budget, Dad just didn’t bother asking about it.
@TootsNYC, not caring about what my parents think has been one of my BIGGEST hangups as I’ve grown into adulthood and even middle age. I’m very close with my parents (more so one than the other) and it makes me very nervous about disappointing them somehow, even though they have been nothing but supportive even when I’ve made decisions that they questioned. (To be clear, in the past decade or so that hasn’t even come up more than once or twice.) I’m sure they treat my sibling the same way.
I appreciate the perspective of a parent who thinks that kids need to be more confident about striking out on their own, parents’ opinions be damned.
Beautifully put and I agree 100%.
In fact, in building a Team You and a life where you feel you CAN be your best self, you have done something wonderfully functional. IT IS OKAY not to want to spend time around people whose vibe drains/dampens yours, even if those people are also relatives.
And even if those people love you and want the best for you. You’ve found what is the best for you, and that is awesome. Go you! A+++ functional adulting!
I had written a massively long post about my own situation, but I’ll just cut to chase here.
Let’s just call this “Stuff I learned and Started Doing When I Left Myself Finally Be an Adult.”
People have no excuse for treating others like crap, no matter who they are. Blood relation is an accident of birth, not an excuse.
Furthermore, you owe no one any explanations for anything regarding your feelings. Why did you stay with your sister? Because we preferred a hotel. Why aren’t you closer with sis? Because you don’t want to be. Because it makes you uncomfortable. Keep the answers to questions like this short and concise (unlike this post) and make your statement the beginning and the end of any argument/debate/whatever. If mom wants to try to argue, just repeat the same answer and add, “This is what I’ve decided and the topic is not up for discussion.”
It won’t be easy, and people will try to argue. Don’t even let them start. If mom (or whoever) won’t drop it and accept your position, end the conversation. Hang up. Leave the room. If you need to, tell them, “I am an adult, this is my life, and this is my decision.”
They might call you selfish. Let ’em. I think a lot of women in particular need to try being a bit more selfish. I look at it as taking care of myself first, so that I am capable of doing other things. Quit worrying quite so much about other people’s feelings getting hurt and look at how your own have been treated in the past first. Frankly, if they’ve been ignoring/disregarding your feelings in the past, then you certainly don’t owe them the same courtesy.
It sounds like your sister is a pretty decent individual, and you already acknowledge that the discomfort you feel wasn’t her fault. That doesn’t mean you owe her or your mother a close relationship.
I have some definite mental health issues, and the one thing I keep having to explain to those who don’t is this: Just because I know exactly what the problem is and often some ways to fix or improve it ****doesn’t mean I’m actually capable of doing it****. Just because you know it wasn’t your sister’s fault doesn’t mean you can completely forget or ignore the aftereffects of what happened to you.
Dear LW: I want you to consider that you are not the one with the problem here.
I come from a family with similar dynamics, though expressed differently. I am the eldest. I am much older than my only sibling. I left home at 17 and have spent the last 23 years living mostly more than a day’s drive away from my family, and 6 of those were actually spent in another country. I have a reasonably functional relationship with my father that happens over the phone/text these days, and a civil but distant relationship with my mother. My sister and I interact daily on social media and text, sometimes on phone (I hate talking on the phone) and visit occasionally.
I am perfectly happy like this. This is exactly what I want from my relationships with these people. I would love to have close familial relationships, but for that to have happened I would have had to have a different family. It is not something I am glad or sorry about; it is simply something that *is*. This is the situation, and these are the accommodations I have made to make the situation work for me.
You say “a lot of my family drama is my own issue”…but is it? I think that “you’re just being selfish/unreasonable” is the thing that families say to us when we refuse to continue squashing ourselves to fit into an unhealthy family narrative. A healthy family narrative wouldn’t demand that you be someone different than your happy, confident adult self. You wouldn’t be pressured to spend more time than absolutely necessary doing things you don’t want to do. You wouldn’t have your actual life that you actually chose and actually enjoy balanced against “but faaaaaaamily”.
Also…why are you the one expected to do all the heavy lifting in these relationships?
Seconding all of this!
I also got a vibe from the letter where LW is a-ok away from these people, and the glimpse of how these people are acting isn’t great (especially the “why aren’t you the same person as your sister?” song). LW is welcome to blame herself. But… she doesn’t sound like the problem. Either way though, the scripts don’t change.
Your family sounds relatively loving but mostly insensitive to the hurt they (inadvertently and unthinkingly) inflicted on you over the years. Of course, you don’t want to spend too much time with them. Alas but oh well.
Yes, you can set whatever boundaries you feel YOU need, and no one has to like or approve of them. (Ha ha, no, you must continue to behave the way your family – most likely Mom, amiright? – wishes you to, until you are all dead, and then you must continue to do so in Heaven!!!!)
With all respect to your no-doubt very nice family, you sound like the only one with any self awareness. And you’re doing a great job!
Agreed so much. A family who cared about you wouldn’t write you off as “sullen and ungrateful.” They’d ask, genuinely, if you were okay and be concerned that you feel like a “sad little clam.” They are contributing to the dysfunctional dynamic as much as you are, if not more so.
Although it’s also possible that her family wouldn’t dream of describing her as sullen and ungrateful, but that that perception is in LW’s head because of that one time when she was fifteen and someone said it. That’s one of the ways family dynamics work, IME: sometimes your family does actually fix you in your particular “role”, forever and unchanging, but sometimes you do it to yourself by not realising that the rest of your family’s perception can also have changed!
I know we recommend therapy constantly around here, but this is why therapists are so very helpful for family stuff. They can help coach you on changing internal narratives and also give you good strategies for testing them to see whether the pressure is coming from you or your family or some combination of the two.
Yes, agreed! I think a lot of people do eventually get there by themselves, but a good therapist can definitely smooth and speed the process.
This has been true for me. My family stresses the bejeesus out of me, so my therapist gives me permission to not visit them. Fortunately, they don’t seem to miss my presence much.
Your therapist can give you a reality check when you start feeling guilty for not going home.
“Why are you the one expected to do all the heavy lifting in these relationships?”
Right on the money. LW, it sounds like you have built a good life for yourself and are doing the best you can with the family you’ve got. I get a lot of these types of questions/comments from some family members, and I totally second the strategy of polite deflection+they’re welcome to contact/visit you! If they really want to connect or have a closer relationship, they can put in some of the work (if you even want a closer relationship).Your mom is working out her feelings about how her family may not look exactly as she’d hoped; but it sounds like she contributed quite a lot to that happening and her feelings aren’t yours to solve anyway.
I grew up in a nuclear family with a healthy family narrative.
And this statement above is absolutely accurate. My parents were happy to see my happy, confident adult self. They didn’t pressure me to come “home,” (I moved half a country away), though they made it crystal clear that they loved to see me.
(In fact, my wise mother flat-out said, “Don’t feel that you have to spend your precious vacation time and travel money to come see the family. We love to see you, of course, but if you wanted to go to Mexico or something, you should not have the slightest guilt.”)
And, they came to see me. (Well, none of my siblings have, but Mom and Dad did)
(In fact, my wise mother flat-out said, “Don’t feel that you have to spend your precious vacation time and travel money to come see the family. We love to see you, of course, but if you wanted to go to Mexico or something, you should not have the slightest guilt.”)
^I LOVE this and am going to steal it to say to my own kids when they are older. Especially with technology being what it is, there are so many ways to stay in touch if you want! But also, just, your mom: GREAT STATEMENT.
I think the Captain’s advice wonderful as usual, my only comment is about your heartbreaking line that, ‘the sad feelings last for a couple weeks even after I return to my home in a different city.’ I had a rough time in middle and high school due to problems with my peers, and though it is many years later, I am just starting to realize that my secret self actually agreed with their horrible judgements. In other words, at a deep level, I saw a bunch of idiot 7th graders as the ultimate arbiters of my self-worth.
The ‘run far, far away’ approach is absolutely fine if it is working for you right now, but when you feel secure enough, you may want to look at those feelings with a therapist, not to heal anything in your relationship with your family, but rather with yourself. You most are not and never have been second best. I’m finding that my self-esteem is improving as I get rid of some of those buried, outmoded and false ideas about myself and I hope the same may be true for you.
LW, you say things like, “it’s not really THEM that’s dysfunctional, it’s me,” and “I’m pretty sure I’m the messed up one here?”
I don’t think this is a case of “everything’s perfect, why can’t you enjoy it?” I think there are some bees here, because while you’re doing your best to see the best in everyone, your family sees you being quiet and interprets it as “sullen and ungrateful.”
It sounds like you’re responding in really reasonable ways to a family that made you feel like you were never valued. I think it sounds like you’re doing the right things to take care of yourself.
Also to emphasize: you’re not “the dysfunctional one.” Something about your family’s function is making you feel like crap when you visit them, and that’s not on your shoulders. It’s not your fault that your relationship with your sister is still very tender and perhaps unhealed, and it’s not your fault that your mom is trying to poke it a bunch.
Tw for slight wound imagery: you were really hurt throughout your childhood in the place in your soul where your relationship with your sister is. You’re healing around it, and so is your sister, but your mom keeps trying to poke at that spot and examine it and get it to heal faster. Maybe it will heal perfectly fine, but in twenty years, or maybe it’ll kind of scar over and you won’t speak much to your sister for a really long time. But that’s ok, and someone else trying to get up in that business never helps a wound heal faster or better.
You’re already protecting yourself really well. It’s not your fault that this place in your heart is still really tender, and you are so totally entitled to protect that place from your mom, even though she’s just trying to help.
“It’s not your fault that your relationship with your sister is still very tender and perhaps unhealed, and it’s not your fault that your mom is trying to poke it a bunch.”
Such vivid imagery, and accurate I think. (And nice that it doesn’t really place a lot of blame; there’s probably some there, but it’s not helpful to dwell on it too angrily.)
Maybe one time when your mom starts in, you ought to say, “You know, Mom, it won’t get better if you pick at it.”
(I love the wisdom of Mrs. Cosmopolite.)
This is so vivid, and probably very accurate: “It’s not your fault that your relationship with your sister is still very tender and perhaps unhealed, and it’s not your fault that your mom is trying to poke it a bunch.”
Maybe the next time your mom starts in, you should say, “You know, Mom, it won’t get better if you pick at it.”
(I love the wisdom of Mrs. Cosmopolite.)
But if not that, then maybe say, “Mom, please don’t pressure me, and please don’t get so invested in the relationship between us sisters. That’s our relationship, for US to create, and your pressure and your prodding are actually counterproductive. I’m going to ask you to drop this topic for good.”
It’s OK to say that to her.
Ha, I understand that perfectly. Except its my older brother, not a sister. He’s just perfect: aggressive, outgoing, smart, everybody LOVES him, went into the military and did great things, just married and now has three kids and a wife that earns major money, lives in a huge house. The rest of my family positively fawns over him and me? I’m the mentally ill fuck up, introvert, never-followed-a-social script artist who still needs support from the parents, is working part time and gets the, ‘do you think she’s too old to marry?’ ‘oh, a pretty girl like you shouldn’t have any trouble getting a boyfriend’ except for the part where I’m a feminist, have a lot of loud opinions and think modern relationships are mostly a one-sided deal that favors men.
Ohh yes, I understand perfectly that gnawing, terrible feeling when you are in the same room with your perfect sibling and you become invisible. Luckily, he lives on the other side of the country so I only have to deal with feeling like a complete loser only a couple of times a year.
I don’t know what to tell you except to do what you do best. Remember that you can do things that she can’t. You have friends, you have people who think you are just fine, you have talents all your own and REMEMBER IT, repeat it when you feel like the world is shoving you aside in favor of your sibling.
Concerning your mothering haranguing you into playing Nice Family’s I can’t add anything that hasn’t been said.
Are you me? I have this brother and parents who fawn on him. I married older & refused to reproduce and am (gasp) a difficult feminist. He is fun and generous and holds their values. Ugh.
And yet, were I at a party with the two of you, I’d be far more interested in learning who you are and what your thoughts are on things. Your life has an authenticity that your brothers’ story lacks in your telling. He never made a misstep? How will he know what to do when something bad happens?
Your brother has no wiggle room from the vise of perfection your family has him in. I have seen other people in similar situations crack in the most surprising ways.
Parrots are by definition, not thought-provoking speakers, though it’s a cute parlor trick.
I would like to attend this party.
….deciding that the family dynamic is OK, just exactly backwards, so that the ‘perfect’ sibling is actually an unlikeable person who will soon be punished by karma, is not necessarily the best way to address someone’s feeling low in this situation, y’know?
It is easy to project a lot of those negative, resentful feelings about parental dysfunction onto that ‘perfect’ sibling and assume they buy into it lock, stock and barrel and are convinced of their own specialness and their siblings’ unworth. Sometimes, that is in fact so. Other times, they have simply reacted in a different way to being in a messed-up family dynamic – they’re never *allowed* to be less than perfect, or to admit to doubts or fears, or to fail in any way. They may have been cast in the iron-clad role of The Good One, the Normal Kid who never, ever makes unpleasant demands or to disappoint their toxic parents in any way, let alone to express contrary opinions or deviate from expectations.
This isn’t a comment on devicat, or on anyone else’s situation specifically; just that I know an awful lot of folks who grew up as the Perfect Kid on the outside and are broken glass on the inside, now, because they were never permitted to fail or take up any oxygen in the room because “your brother needs us so much” or “we’re exhausted dealing with your sister’s problems”. And being hated and resented by their other family members for that survival mechanism is just a counterpunch.
Yes, a thousand times yes. Carrying the Perfect Child flag and the weight of all of the family’s expectations is in some ways harder than being the Screwed Up Kid. It’s more restricting in the long run and far more difficult to escape. It also often means the Perfect Child is the one who is expected to keep the peace and who gets the brunt of the anger and frustration. Because the Perfect Child also tends to be the Reliable Child. The Safe Child You know, the one who would never just…run away.
Oh lord, has anyone read Maskerade by Terry Pratchett? Agnes is the helpful person with a Good Personality (always Capitalized like that) who is ultra competent, always keeps her head in an emergency, never swears, and no one EVER assumes she can’t cope.
She hates her life so much that she escapes into a new personality, Perdita, who sneers at people, is willing to leave them in the lurch, and wants to have a more interesting life.
Thank you for referencing PTerry. I really need to go back and read them all from the beginning…
You know, I get this–I totally, totally get where this is coming from, and I am not trying to minimize the pain that the “perfect” sibling goes through–but this comment has been nagging at me, and I wanted to offer a thoughtful reply.
I spend a lot of time thinking about power differentials–I write and talk a lot about racism, sexism, ableism in my professional life–and I think there’s a power differential issue here that needs to be addressed. Yes, the “perfect” sibling is in an often-difficult and often-painful position, and yes, it is the parents who put them into that role. When they are children, yes, 100% sympathy to all children always. Team Children. But in this case, we’re not talking about children. We’re talking about adults. Yes, these are adults who are, at least in the LW’s case, unwillingly reprising childhood roles. But not all adults do this unwillingly. The fact is that the “perfect” child gets a lot of benefits from this role. This is certainly part of the problem and part of what makes it so difficult and often painful. The parents dole out emotional and even material carrots to create dynamics that ultimately benefit themselves. It’s gross. I get that. 100%.
At the same time, though, these benefits often come at the expense of the “problem child,” and the harm to the “problem child” is deeper. Yes, it’s bad to be locked into the “perfect” identity. Being locked into the “screwup” identity is worse. Believing oneself to be fundamentally flawed and inherently incompetent is worse. This is not to say the first one isn’t bad. It is! The “perfect” child is definitely injured. But the “screwup” is broken.
Further, as adults, everyone needs to be held accountable for their behavior. The “perfect” teen gets a bit of a pass, but adults who remain complicit don’t. At a certain point, the “perfect” sibling is responsible for recognizing the pain they’re causing and for using their relative power (because they are more powerful than the “screwup”) to stop participating in the Perfect vs. Screwup narrative. The “perfect” is in the best position to make the nonsense stop, and if they won’t at least make a space for a new narrative, that’s on them. I think it’s awesome if the “screwup” wants to consider their sibling’s feelings, if they have the spoons for it and want to spend them that way. But in most cases, that happens *after* the “screwup” has been through a lot of healing and has recovered their power and identity. When the toxic narrative is still in effect, the low-power party has no obligation to consider the needs of the high-power party ahead of their own.
Finally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with validating the person trapped in the “screwup” role as an interesting, valuable, worthwhile person, even when it’s done in contrast to the “perfect” sibling. I think it’s okay for the “screwup”–who isn’t a screwup at all–to finally get a win.
TL/DR: With sympathy, the “perfect” sib is the privileged party in this messed up dynamic. Not all “perfect” sibs are reluctant, and “screwup” sibs don’t need to put the “perfect’s” needs ahead of their own.
The gender piece is also interesting to explore, I think, with respect to specific “perfect”/”screwup” pairings cultivated by parents. In your experience, when the “perfect child” is a woman, is she more likely to get saddled with heavy duty caretaking responsibilities as the parents age? (I think there’s evidence that this tends to happen with adult female siblings across the board, regardless of specific family dynamics, but maybe you can fill in with more information!)
(And conversely) in some of the male/female “perfect”/”screwup” pairings people have recounted, it seems like when the perceived “screwup” is a woman with a male sibling, a lot of gender expectations come to bear on crafting that story!
LW, it’s NOT you that’s dysfunctional. I don’t necessarily think it’s them, either. Sometimes people aren’t close to other people, including blood relatives, and that’s okay.
I relate to your letter in a lot of ways. I have a younger brother who is much cooler, outgoing, and in many ways more successful than myself. I am a woman, so I think for me some of the potential sibling rivalry was mitigated by the fact that our genders are different. My brother and our parents currently live in the same city on the east coast of the US, and I live on the west coast of the US, about as far away from all our family as is possible without crossing international borders.
I often feel disconnected from my family and keep them at arm’s length for many of the reasons you describe here. I love them, and my parents aren’t bad people, but it’s just easier for me to be my best self when I’m not around them. This makes me sad sometimes, and I know it’s potentially surmountable–but doing the surmounting would require a boatload of therapy and counseling and confronting my parents and fighting and renegotiating and you fucking know what? I don’t want to put that kind of work into it. I just don’t. If that makes me a bad daughter and sister than the god I don’t believe in can judge me for it when I die. My life is rich and I have a great chosen family, and I’m okay with how things are.
It sounds like you are pretty okay with how things are, too, actually. It’s your mother who’s not okay with how things are. But you know what? That’s her problem. I can see how it’s sometimes difficult for a parent to deal with the fact that their children aren’t close to each other, but it’s on your mom to get a therapist and figure out how to live with that, not for her to try and nag you into living the life she wishes you would.
“it’s just easier for me to be my best self when I’m not around them. ”
I’m a little terrified that this is going to be true of my daughter. And I’ve tried to be not be that kind of mom.
I really like how generous the comments are to both the LW and the family.
One thing i have to keep reminding myself is this: that it was true of me.
I loved my mom and dad–i think they were as close to being perfect parents as it is possible for a human being to be. I loved my siblings, even when they were annoying.
But I was not my TRUE self until I was out on my own. It was much the same as my childhood self, but it was different.
I feel like the biggest problem for our Letter Writer is that her mom just isn’t adjusting well. and, because Sis has settled so close, Mom doesn’t realize exactly how incredibly lucky she is, nor does she realize how UNUSUAL that it.
She thinks that’s the norm, the default setting, the “right way to be.”
Maybe my own mom never had that problem, because every one of her siblings moved to a completely different state. And she knew that none of us would *economically* be *able* to stay in our hometown.
Wow, amazing food for thought! Do you think that coming into what you’re calling your true self could have come about when you were a child at home with your family under different circumstances? Or do you think it had more to do with the process of having grown up and separating from them? (You know, just asking b/c I’m a newish mom – 18-month old! So far, I cramp his style by brushing his teeth and asking him to put his dirty socks into the hamper.)
My older brother and I have very little in common except for our parents and past history, and only see each other at holidays and when I visit. We’re now at the age where we do need to work together a little to care for our parents, and it turns out we have a perfectly good working relationship, and that’s enough. I think your relationship with your sister isn’t odd at all – a friend of mine describes growing up sharing the same room with her sister, and that still didn’t give them a close emotional connection, so she learned to let go of the fantasy of what a family should look like.
I do hear you on the visiting part, though. I felt dysfunctional for years for not being closer to my aunt and cousins – they were my extended family! Why couldn’t I make it work? Until I noticed as an adult that in the past 25 years, they’d visited my family exactly twice, and their idea of faaamily involved me and/or my parents being the ones to always make the 600 mile drive. That realization was a total guilt buster.
Hi, are you me? I’m in a very similar situation: not exactly close to my brother, not but really distant either. There’s some not-pleasant history between us, which I’ve chosen to forgive, and now we get along fine. Also I live in the same city as a bunch of my cousins, who (I was told) apparently quite often remark on how sad it is that we never meet up. They’ve yet to ask for my phone number to make a coffee or beer happen, though.
I got the cousin guilt a lot…especially around the holidays. All of my cousins tend to celebrate at my mother’s house and since my little family unit (husband, kids and self) are fiercely protective of our holidays we don’t do the big gatherings with them. I would get the calls from my mother for at least two weeks prior to the holiday and at least a month post holiday. “So and So was asking about you and wondering why you are so anti-family” It wasn’t even worth it to argue that I’m not anti-family, that I’m anti-forced family celebrations, but a few years ago I tried to tighten those family bonds. I called, texted, and emailed all my cousins trying to schedule a fun, adult night out. Nobody bit. I tried to plan things one on one. Nobody bit. So I tapped out. I tried to create a bond that didn’t involve a holiday or family tradition. It didn’t work. That means these are people that have no interest in me outside of that dynamic and since I don’t like how I feel in that role, we don’t see each other. Now when my mother tells me that everyone missed me, I tell her to hand out my phone number and have them call me. She does, they don’t, and it’s all okay.
This letter makes me so sad for you, LW. Of course you don’t want to spend time around people who never valued you. Why would you? That’s not dysfunctional – that’s the absolute opposite! Why would you want to spend time in an environment that hurts you? What’s healthy about that??
If your mom wanted a fantasy happy family she should have tried, you know, paying attention to both her children. That ship has sailed and you are entitled to live your adult life in whatever way seems best to you. Pay as little heed to her feelings as she seems to have paid to those of child you.
This video changed the way I looked at my family dynamics (totally messed up from a variety of angles, AND don’t have either the power or the responsibility to fix them). Can love your relatives, can also need to love them from very, VERY far away.
Dear LW. There’s this thing about families sometime . . . they may not be bad, but they don’t always fit “you”. That doesn’t mean dysfunctional on anyone’s part. You can love people and even like them, but not like the dynamics that result from your time together. I’m one of those kids that was always rather seen as the odd one of my sibling group. I used to try to figure out when we got the whole family together for a change why it was that within a few hours I was sullenly ‘hiding’ out in the bedroom reading. It’s not that my sibs are bad people, but they got used to a certain dynamic in how they treated me . . . and even though I’ve changed and gotten bolder and different, they keep trying to define me according to how they knew me then–and it puts me back in the same painful roles I was in then. My sibs, for all that I love them have very different social circles and interests than I do. If they weren’t my sibs, while I would be perfectly happy to know them, we would probably not be spending oodles of time together.
I think the Captain’s advice is spot on. Mostly I just felt the need to tell you that you aren’t alone in this kind of thing and it’s NOT about being dysfunctional. Sometimes where a person fits best is a place they have to find in their own patch of sun. Don’t sell that short. Making your own space and boundaries when you do come home gives you leverage and permission not to fall back into a person you don’t want to be.
My sibs, for all that I love them have very different social circles and interests than I do. If they weren’t my sibs, while I would be perfectly happy to know them, we would probably not be spending oodles of time together.
That is exactly how I describe my relationship with my sister. I think of us like work friends – we have a few things in common, and we get along fine when circumstances dictate that we’re together, but we don’t often seek each other’s company outside of those circumstances. Once I started phrasing it like that, I got a lot less pushback from the “Oh, it’s so sad that your not BFFs with your sister!!!1!!!” crowd.
My dad became a lot more comfortable with his daughters when we reached an age where he could treat us like junior colleagues that he feels a moderate obligation to buy presents for.
Your mom’s inability to recognize that other people are people (or maybe just you – some parents have an especially hard time recognizing that their offspring are separate people) with their own needs and desires, not a subservient cast of characters she can direct to act out their lives in whatever way she personally wants, is her problem to deal with, as are her hurt feelings in response to not getting to dictate your behavior. This is decidedly NOT your own issue, but your mom is trying to make it your issue by treating you poorly in an attempt to coerce the behavior she wants from you (whether she consciously realizes it or not). Note how you’re doing perfectly well when you don’t have someone harassing you about how you’re choosing to conduct your life and relationships:
A few other thoughts:
She doesn’t need to understand; this has exactly nothing to do with her. The Captain’s response scripts are great; “because that’s what I want to do” is enough of a justification for most behaviors (excepting those that directly harm other people – and hurt feelings about unjustifiable expectations that go unmet are not actual harm).
It is them, not you. That’s a great script; you have every right to only want to spend time around people who don’t behave in ways that make you feel terrible, sometimes even for weeks afterward!!! That is not okay!!! Your emotional responses here aren’t disordered, they’re working really well and raising a big red flag about your family’s treatment of you. Listen to what you’re telling yourself! Based on what you’ve said – particularly your closing questions – and the fact that you’re writing in at all, I suspect you already know most of this on some level. Give yourself permission to consciously acknowledge it (you don’t actually need ours, though I hope the validation of CA and the Awkward Army helps).
The Captain’s closing advice is key; I’ll just add that on the chance your mom won’t ever let the subject drop even when you’re making it really boring and changing the subject, be prepared to say something to the effect of, “Mom, I like talking with you, but I have nothing else to say about this. You keep bringing it up, so if there’s nothing else you want to talk about, I’m going to go. Have a good day/night, say ‘hi’ to dad for me, and I love you. Bye.” Conversations require the assent of all parties; if your mom absolutely refuses to have conversations in a way that works for you, you have every right to withdraw your assent and disengage.
All of this. I kept agreeing mostly with people sayin that nobody is dysfunctional, except there’s the part where your mom thinks she gets to drive your behavior to her liking. I’m sure she means well, but that is a dysfunctional way to treat another autonomous human being. It will become fully functional when she learns not to do this, which is where the boundary setting comes in.
My parents tried to control my behavior on my birthday a couple years ago; they had more presents for me once I did a particular financial adulting thing. It was something I needed to do, but it was on my birthday card on my 35th birthday. (I handled it, didn’t tell them I had, and told them to keep the extra presents.)
It made me question how good my family’s boundaries were, and I took a step back and pulled my communication and visits with my parents back. Doing so enabled me to identify the dysfunctional patterns in my family and how they effect me. This was healthy, and I stand by it. My parents feel hurt over this, and while I’m sorry that it hurts them, it is healthy for me and they get to handle that however they want that doesn’t involve putting it on me. It’s also enabled me to be okay with the idea that my sister and I are different people, that she doesn’t make me feel like my best self, and that it is likely we will never be very close.
Boundaries are important. LW, you get to have them. You get to take care of yourself. You should treat your family with kindness, but that is NOT synonymous with having the amount of contact with them that they would like you to have. You can visit infrequently and for short duration. You can also decide not to talk to your mom every day if it would work better for you. This is your life, that you get to live in whatever way helps you be your best self. You deserve it.
i think it may be less that Mom is trying to drive our Letter Writer’s behavior, and more that she’s just lamenting out loud to the wrong person.
But you are right in this message of hope: “it will become fully functional…”
This is not necessarily a permanently dysfunctional thing. Mom just needs some training, and maybe even some opening up from the LW. It can come.
And, the LW also needs to stop caring whether her mother is happy; Mom’s a grownup, she can cope with disappointment, and the LW is not responsible for any of that.
Yes, this is an excellent point. Mom is allowed to vent about how she wishes her daughters were closer and one of them visited more… AT SOMEBODY OTHER THAN THE LW AND HER SISTER.
To someone who has the good grace to NOT turn around and berate LW for “treating their mother badly”/”making her sad”.
It isn’t your responsibility to be uncomfortable so that you can participate in someone else’s ideal story of themselves. This is the angle I take with my own family, with whom I am not close. My mother really REALLY wants the story of “I’m an amazing mom, and my daughter loves me, wants to spend time with me, and will be by my side as I get old.” For me, this is a fictional story, and I don’t participate. I’ve found I can’t actually change my mother’s story, but I don’t have to say my lines or go on stage when cued, if I choose not to.
You only need to participate in your own story, which seems great and sounds like it goes something like this “I reached adulthood, found my stride and comfort in a group of friends, and feel that the kind of relationship I’m comfortable with with my family is a 3 short visit a year relationship,” (which, by the way, actually sounds a lot like my own story).
I totally get the super awkwardness of when the two stories come crashing into each other. What do you say when your mom says “Why don’t you want to spend more time with me?” I don’t want it to be part of my story to be the daughter who says “Because I hate you and being around you gives me so much anxiety it affects my health.” For me, I just put this phrase on repeat: “I’m not coming to visit then. No, I’m not doing that. No, you may not stay in my apartment at that time. I’m spending 4th of July doing X, I’m not spending it with you.” I just stick to the facts: I’m doing this. I’m not doing that. We don’t owe explanations, as much as someone might try to convince us we do.
Oh, and P. S. there’s nothing dysfunctional about the way you feel. It’s just the way you feel.
“I’ve found I can’t actually change my mother’s story, but I don’t have to say my lines or go on stage when cued …”
This is great.
My mom tried to pull some of that on me (why won’t you talk to your sister more?) for years, until the day I finally forwarded an email where I had offered my sister three options (I can meet you in X place on a weekday with kids, or I can meet you in Y place on a weekend without kids, or you’re welcome to come here) and sister threw a full on meltdown including ‘you don’t really want to see me!’. Your sister sounds less melodramatic, but it’s still a bad interaction with mom.
I’m going to suggest you do some more things with your family/sister that YOU want to do. You’re getting trapped in their same-city dynamic and you’re getting unhappy feelings from it. Maybe you want to go hiking instead of visiting with great aunt Dolores! Maybe you and your partner want to check out a new restaurant! Maybe your sister could go with you! Maybe there’s a hiking trail none of you have ever been down and you can explore it together! I think you may need to have *new* experoences with your sister, that she doesn’t already own, to give you the ability to feel your dynamic with her has moved on.
Good luck, LW.
This is brilliant.
I think you may need to have *new* experoences with your sister, that she doesn’t already own, to give you the ability to feel your dynamic with her has moved on.
LW, this gives me an idea. I know you describe your sister as amazing at all the things, but surely there’s *something* you do better than she does? Why not invite her to do that thing together? Let yourself have the feeling of being the more accomplished just once.
Bonus of doing something you like: at least there was SOMETHING about the trip that was enjoyable! I took this approach to dating as well. On the second date with Now-Spouse he taught me to throw a football effectively.
My sister and I get along well, but we’re not super close. We enjoy each other’s company when we see each other at family gatherings, but we rarely seek each other out otherwise – we love each other, and even like each other, but I wouldn’t say we’re “friends.” And you know what? That’s totally fine with us! We do what we do, we interact and get along in our own way, and it’s all good. There’s no rule that says you have to be BFFs with your sister, regardless of what your mother thinks.
But I realize that a lot of my family drama is my own issue now, and my mom’s feelings especially are hurt that I don’t spend more time with them so we can be a happy close family that does all kinds of stuff together.…is 100% your mother’s issue, not yours. You have found a great way to take care of yourself, and you have set really good boundaries on your relationship with your family. Your mother is the one who is pushing against your clearly defined boundaries, and trying to guilt you into something you are not prepared to do. She is the one causing the drama, not you. Keep that in mind as you repeat the Captain’s scripts – there’s nothing wrong with you, or with your relationship with your sister. You own the boundaries, and let your mother own the drama and the issues and the crashing up against them. Good luck!
LW, your choices sound like very logical, healthy decisions based on your family background. You’ve found a way to be a kind, dutiful daughter while still prioritizing your own needs. Just give yourself permission to enjoy it!
LW, you say you’re the dysfunctional one, but that isn’t true – your whole family IS dysfunctional. They have chosen to revere your sister while constantly dumping on you. THAT IS NOT FUNCTIONAL. I’m sorry to say that it happens in a lot of families, though – I can understand your feelings a lot. My older sister is also the shining star with a perfect life who never does anything wrong and is universally celebrated, while I am the “loser” who didn’t choose the “right” husband, didn’t have children in the way that I “should” have, never comes to visit (because I can’t afford it, at all, not even a little bit) and so on and so forth. All of this was pretty much set in stone since we were born, when my family decided that my sister’s personality (extroverted, fearless) was “good” and my personality (introverted, anxious, painfully shy) was “bad.” It sucks and it isn’t fair and I’m so sorry that your family has convinced you that this is all your fault. It isn’t! You grew up and you did what you had to do to protect yourself from THEIR dysfunction, but they’re still punishing you because you won’t play their “happy families” game. Don’t spend one more second feeling guilty about this. Use those scripts and keep living your happy life, away from them and their judgment. Good luck, LW.
Seconding this so hard. I have always felt the way you describe, LW – like a dim second best in the shadow of my sibling, who is more popular, better-looking, and just generally always seems to have a better time in school and at life. Sibling and I are really close, so it was easier for me to blame the disparity in how we were perceived as my not-being-good-enough + jealous to boot.
One time when I was home, I found a letter to a sympathetic aunt that I’d written when I was like nine, describing all the reasons why my parents loved Sibling more than me. And it was shocking, because there were some very insightful observations written in that letter.
Things like, “Mom listens to Sibling’s stories and says they are great but when I tell a story she yells at me and says my stories go on too long and never go anywhere.”
“Whenever Sibling is sad, Mom comforts them but when I am sad she tells me I’m never happy.”
“Whenever Sibling pesters me, Mom tells me to ignore it, but then Sibling pesters me more or even hits me, and when I defend myself I get in trouble.”
It’s like death by a thousand little cuts. Individually, easily brushed aside as being petty, but taken all together…the overwhelming feeling that one sibling is favored over the other, and therefore “better.” I’m going to echo the chorus of other voices here, LW, and say that it’s not you. You never were less than. You were just different, living in a family culture where your sister was the favorite because she reflected more of your parents’ hopes and dreams for what they wanted in a kid. It wasn’t your fault, and it’s perfectly normal to feel sad for weeks after a visit where you try to make yourself as small as possible so you don’t take anyone else’s light, and everyone around you seems to feel most comfortable with Small You. You’re bigger than Small You, and better, and it is a fucking tragedy that your family is not more invested in getting to you know the awesome person that you are.
(In getting to know the awesome person that you are.) Grammar fail! Sorry.
Aw. Sending Jedi hugs to nine-year-old Guava, in case they’re wanted.
Thank you for the hugs 🙂
Sibling and I (I’ll call them Mango) had a bonding moment a couple of years ago, when Mango unearthed their elementary school report cards. All of Mango’s teachers’ comments from every grade said things like, “Mango’s mother seems oddly preoccupied with Mango’s sibling’s academic prowess, wants to know why Mango doesn’t score as well as Guava on standardized tests.”
It seems our mother was not the best at helping us to feel special for who we were.
Pro tip to the LW: It’s not you.
I see a pattern here where extroversion is lauded, and introversion or god-forbid shyness is abhorred. Let’s all acknowledged the amazingness of introverts and the thoughtfulness they bring to the table, even if our families do not. Introverts you are special and smart and observant and awesome, and the world -and your families – need you.
…Unless your parent is an introvert and the cardinal sin in your house is attention-seeking behaviour (I lived this). I think it’s just a matter of who you are vs. who your family members are.
Another factor is this: extroverts are usually just easier to parent. Being human, we all tend to gravitate toward the things that are easier for us to do.
In my childhood, my twin sister was easier for everyone to love. And I spent years resenting it. Then it struck me one day, like a bolt, that maybe my lack of popularity wasn’t her fault. Maybe people hadn’t liked me because I actually hadn’t been as likable a person during my teenage years — being self-obsessed and self-conscious aren’t particularly attractive personality traits, after all.
Later, as a parent of two very different children, I found it quite challenging sometimes to find out what my son was thinking and support how he was doing, while his sister was chattering away so glibly filling us in on everything about her day and telling us whenever she needed any help or guidance.
Sometimes — probably more than I ever realized — he got short shrift in the family just because he wasn’t as easy to talk to.
When my son started grade 7, he told me nonchalantly he was glad that now he would be able to use the main washroom at his elementary school again. I asked him why and thats when I found out that a group of boys two grades older had terrorized him in the main washroom when he was 6, so he waited for these boys to graduate before using the main washroom again. He had been afraid of these boys for SIX YEARS and I didn’t know anything about it at all.
I don’t think extroverted children are always easier to care for, especially if you’re an introvert yourself. They can also be more exhausting, or can have a communication style you find more difficult to deal with. And it can take some skill to figure out how not to get overwhelmed, and how to get enough time for yourself, without making them feel rejected or like there’s something wrong with them.
Yes, I think it’s a more matter of parenting someone who makes sense to you (whether you’re an extrovert parenting an extrovert, or introvert parenting an introvert, etc.) makes it easier. That seems to be a decent generality across the board (although there’s also the issue of, “We’re too similar and we clash!”), although not 100%.
Stay in your not-hometown-town for at least a few more years, possibly forever.
I lived very far away from my family for a while and many issues became much easier to handle. BUT, they didn’t solve themselves right away, not by any means.
Maybe one day your parents will stop asking these questions.
Until then, one way to speed that up would be to make interacting with you contingent on their good behaviour.
In this case that would mean that you hang up the phone and find reasons to be too busy to visit for a good interval.
Then, next time you talk, if they start up the “WHYYY don’t you (insert complaint here)” speech, you hang up/don’t reply to the text/leave the room.
You don’t have to explain why. Be consistent. Be normally pleasant when they are not asking these things, as long as they treat you like YOU, not like a person who is somehow failing to be what they imagine for you.
This could also mean planning to spend some of those family holidays elsewhere. Plan a trip, visit boyfriend’s family, stay with other friends, stay in your town for a home-holiday, offer to work holiday hours, do some volunteering, whatever works. You never need to explain, just say “This year I’m doing this instead, have a nice holiday!”
It’s not easy, but it WORKS.
(Apologies if this was already suggested)
I don’t have anything practical to offer the LW outside of maybe trying the typical CA diversion scripts with you mom when she starts harping on this. Usually works between me and my mom if after the second or third re-direct I basically just say, “Look, Mom, I don’t want to talk about X subject. If that’s all you have left for me today, then I’ll talk to ya later. Love you byeeeeee” The end. You really DON’T need to justify your adult decisions / relationships / where to live choices to anyone, even your mom.
Generally I’m in solidarity with the idea that so many families (parents) get this idea in their heads about what FAMILY looks like, does, behaves, that it entraps the people who are actually in that family from being who they are and living independent, happy, healthy lives. I wish families of letter writers would let go of this idea of eternal (e.g. “what will happen when we’re gone?/? how will i know you’re doing what I want EVEN AFTER I DIE?”) control and just let people BE. We’re all happiest in those relationships where we feel unconditionally supported, even if our decisions aren’t EXACTLY in lock step with how that other person would do it or wishes it was. I wish people’s families could be that for them, but oftentimes they’re not.
LW, I hope from the Captain’s letter and these comments you divest yourself of any notion that your life or behaviors need fixing.
Hey, LW, like you and others in this thread, I too moved quite far from my family, and I found it got expensive to travel there for major holidays. And stressful, very stressful—when I had that distance, like you I realized how torqued I was when I was there. I never seemed to be allowed to carve out enough time to spend with the good friends I had in the area.
So I stopped going. I no longer attend those major holidays. Or minor ones. I visit at non-holiday times because it is less stressful for me and it is a big deal when I go back. The infrequency of the visits (and the short duration) make it really hard for things to get a hook in because with the lessened exposure, the patterns become more obvious and more alien. (Also, I rent a car and I can use it to go do anything I want to do: I control my schedule, no one else.)
If you want to cut back your exposure and make yourself scarce (and scarcity does increase value, it seems), remember it is up to you how you spend your money! If you want to bag on three family trips in a year and make one to Paris or skiing or on a road trip to places you’ve always wanted to see instead, do that. It is part of being an adult that you get to spend your time and money where you choose.
I think that for a lot of people there is a kind of slow breakoff phase with the family after adolescence/college. Your pattern of traveling back a lot is typical. It isn’t necessary. You’re leading your own life now, not folowing as a a subordinate adjunct to that group.
The things your mom says… if you really are fed up with that, ending the call immediately after she starts with the closeness-nagging is a teaching option. “Why don’t you ask her? —Oh, hey, I’ve got to go! Sorry, I’ve got to end this call. Bye for now!”
I second everyone who is saying you’re not dysfunctional, LW, and that your family is not as well-adjusted as you’re giving them credit for. While your mom’s dream of Full House-style family closeness is sweet, she’s the one who needs to understand that her grown daughter has a life she is happy with, even though it doesn’t look like the life she envisioned for you.
My family situation is different from yours, but there are some major similarities. I have two older brothers, and have always been the shy, quiet one in my family, the one who tries hard not to make waves. While I was living that role, I was very unhappy, but assured myself that I was at least being a good sister and daughter. Because that fake version of me was able to uphold the never-argue, close-as-can-be family dynamic my mom has always wanted her kids to have.
Then three years ago, my partner and I both came out to each other as transgender. And then we both came out to my family as trans. And they have not been nearly as understanding and accepting of that as I had hoped or (extremely naively) expected of them.
I’ve had more arguments with my mom and my brothers over the past few years than I think I had in my entire life up until now. (I’m 33, for the record, so I feel a lot of social pressure to “act like a grown-up” by putting my own needs aside and my mom’s desires first. The more I think about that, the more I see that as acting as my mother’s child, not as an autonomous adult, who knows what’s best for me and asserts those needs. It’s not easy, but reminding myself of that helps.)
It’s been very hard changing the way I interact with my family, and the way they see me, my life and my choices. And it’s very much still work in progress. It probably will be for years yet — from what I’ve observed in my life, these things go slowly. But I’m lucky that my family does love and respect me, enough to listen when I say, “[Family member], I love you, but the way we interact is hurting me and making me feel like you don’t see me as the person I’ve grown into, the person I am today.”
I hope your family, especially your mom, will be willing to listen and revise their ideas of who you are and how you make choices about your interactions with them. It may take some time, and a bit of acting like a broken record, using the scripts that work for you over and over until she finally heard you.
But you deserve to be heard, because you have *every* right to draw *any* boundary with *anyone* in your life that feels like a good boundary for you. Including your family, including your mom. It’s so hard not to feel like a “bad kid”, defying your parent just to act out. But you’re not: you’re an intelligent, self-sufficient adult who knows what you need to be a happy, healthy person. And you deserve to be treated that way by your family.
Good luck and take care.
…I feel a lot of social pressure to “act like a grown-up” by putting my own needs aside and my mom’s desires first. The more I think about that, the more I see that as acting as my mother’s child, not as an autonomous adult, who knows what’s best for me and asserts those needs.
Yes. This is profoundly insightful into that pressure’s real purpose.
LW, reiterating everyone’s first and most important comment: You are not “messed up” or “sullen and ungrateful.” (Sullen and ungrateful kids usually don’t call their mothers almost every day, am I right?) Your resentment about the box your family put you in is totally legit!
You mention that you and your mom are close, but you don’t indicate whether you have ever tried to talk to her in a more revealing way about your feelings. I’m assuming that you just don’t see that as an option. If that’s because you know she won’t understand or because the emotional work involved is just going to be too taxing on you, I totally get it — you mention taking the distance approach for sanity’s sake. But if it’s maybe also underneath because you think said feelings are not something you deserve to have, my advice is to at least mull that over a bit. You don’t have to tell your mom anything you’re not comfortable telling her. But if you DID want to, you’d have every right to do so!
I have to scamper off and get ready for work so I haven’t been able to read all the comments yet, but I had to pop in and say that OMG, it’s not a problem with YOU that you “took it hard” in high school when people were jerks to you. You are not a messed-up person! It’s probable that no one in this scenario is actually “messed up”, IMO, but you definitely are not.
While I’m not in exactly your situation, I do know what it’s like to finally face up to the idea that you never be your mother’s Ideal, that it’s her weird problem, that you are in fact a worthy person as you are. It’s not a switch you can just flip, suddenly realizing that it’s all your mom’s problem and you can go, tra-la-la-la-laaaa on your way being awesome. I got there, but I had to grieve. There’s no other word for it — when I finally let the whole Mom’s Ideal thing dissolve, it meant grieving over that nasty, seductive, beautiful hope that someday I’d be good enough and she’d finally love Perfect Me. So, go ahead and be sad. I think it’s better to accept that it’s a loss, then live/work through the sadness so you can come out the other side even more comfortable with who you are.
I’m also The One Who Moved Away. planes etc go both ways is key. I’m in my early 30s now and I’m still figuring out how to convince my dad that my house is a home he can actually visit even though I can’t afford a super expensive detached house in the expensive city I live in. I suspect refusing to visit my hometown for a while will be my only recourse which will be sad bc I will miss my family.
In terms of your relationship with your sis, maybe a noncommittal line to say to your mom could be, “Yeah, sis and I are still working on having our own relationship as adults with different lifestyles.” Say it like it’ll probably change as you get older even if you think it won’t. If she offers suggestions like, “well at least call her more,” say something like, “thanks I’ll think about it,” and change the subject.
So much this! My mom’s fantasy about “what a happy family we are” ended the day she told me about her drunken sister’s abusive rant. I simply said, “It wasn’t really happy, was it?” She agreed and then she cried; she was 80 years old.
Aw, this makes me feel so sad for both you and your mom. It’s funny how “what a happy family we are!” can be a defense mechanism. It actually makes me more sympathetic towards my own mother, who has only ever wanted a happy family and came from a terrible, abusive one. Her attempts to force it in my brothers and me make more sense in that lens.
(Not saying you have to feel this way about your own mother, I don’t know your life/experiences!)
My sister and I are actual twins. Growing up, I was in much the same position you are – I was the disabled oddball, and my sister was the popular one who got along with our older brother. (True story: when we were nine, we were playing outside, and Brother said he was adopted. Sister said she was adopted. Something something “How about we just say OYG is adopted so neither of us have to claim her?” “Works for me!” Yeah…that was Sibling Life in a nutshell.)
Now Sister and I are 22, living half a country away, sharing an apartment for another two weeks, and it’s been good. Neither of us talk to Brother, and neither of us want to (he’s still in the 14-year-old “any reaction means I win!” phase of life, along with being an MRA and an all-around jerkwad). We get along well with our mother, less so with our father. This works for us. (Although if we keep sharing space for much longer, it probably won’t.) Mom and Dad are sad we’re so far away, but there’s not a lot they can do about it – we’re not dependent on them anymore, and they don’t have a say in what they do except for the “I trust your opinion so what do you think of X?” way.
You get to decide how much you want to participate in Mom’s Family Dream. If it’s not at all, don’t participate at all! If it’s only at Holiday X, and only for 4 hours at a time, then you only have to fake it for four hours once a year.
If your relationship with your sister is bugging you (not your mom, but YOU), might I suggest maybe trying to chat with her, say, once a month? I know you’re not close, but once-monthly phone calls or IM sessions may help you get to know her as the person she is now instead of the person she was as a kid. And if you decide you still don’t like her, great – stop calling. If you find you do like her, also great – it might help heal some of that hurt you still feel.
Other than being a broken record with your mom, being able to say, “I called Sis yesterday, actually,” might appease her enough to make her back off for a while. (Or she might double down – I don’t know your mom, so I can’t say for sure.)
Any way you want to play it, make sure it’s the way YOU want to handle things, not the way someone else thinks you should. Best of luck.
“Other than being a broken record with your mom, being able to say, “I called Sis yesterday, actually,” might appease her enough to make her back off for a while. (Or she might double down – I don’t know your mom, so I can’t say for sure.)”
There is also this…when my mother used to nag me about “being closer to my sister”, she did it in ways that were, I realized later, *absolutely calculated to divide us from one another*. She *said* she wanted us to be closer, but her actions suggested that what she wanted was to emphasize how disappointing we both were. This worked on my sister, who frantically appeases, and doesn’t work on me. I realized some years ago that this is a reiteration of her pattern with her own family of origin, where she does all the emotional heavy lifting, desperately trying to appease people who clearly don’t like her and never did. It is unfortunate that she is shaping my family’s narrative into the same weird pretzel of shame and disappointment that she grew up in, but I’m an adult, and I don’t have to participate. So I don’t.
“weird pretzel of shame and disappointment”
Perfect mental image. Pretzel-shaped family… and I’m a pretzel stick.
my grandmother (who I adored) used to, when her kids were small, carry tales from one child to another so that her children would argue and fight and resent each other.
then she was all astounded that, as adults, they were split into factions and some of them weren’t particularly close. since she died, some of them only talk to each other at all at family funerals (not even weddings, because they mostly don’t get invited to weddings. Only 1 of my aunts has been to any of my sibs’ weddings). she’d nag them to be closer and then call around to them and carry more tales. she was so astounded when some of her daughters stopped playing that game with her, but by then so much damage had been done.
Oh LW, I’ve been forced into the exact same role in my family, and it is why I have not spent time with my core family alone in a decade. I, too, am my best self without them. I, too, feel sad and unsettled after spending time with them. And thanks to the benefit of distance, and finding friends and colleagues and lovers who don’t put me in that role, I’ve realized it’s not me. It’s them. They WANT me to be the shy sad clam. That is my role, forever and amen, and they like it. It makes them feel better about themselves, even as they gripe about it, and act like they want me to be different. Otherwise, why would they punish me when I slip? One of the hardest things to realize is that the people who are supposed to love you may not have your best interest in mind, whether deliberately, or because they’re too self-involved to understand. So stick to your guns, LW. Live your best life, the one you’ve clearly fought to build. You deserve it.
I want to add to the chorus saying you’re not dysfunctional. Honestly, the idea of the “functional” family is mostly a myth, in my experience. I get along great with my relatives, but my family (my sister and our parents) have always been the “least important” branch, compared to my mom’s siblings and their families. I think my maternal grandparents have been to our family home (2 hours drive from their place) maybe 2-3 times in 30 years.
I don’t hate them for it, nor do I hate my cousins (who are actually great people, and we get along well when we’re together). It’s just the way it is. I shrug, have my friends, and move on. Families are made up of people, and people are individuals. No family is going to be the same as any other.
LW, bluntly, if your family actually wanted a close relationship with you, then they would have made you feel loved and valued just the way you are.
You are under no obligation to perform a “good family relationship” to make them feel better, and the fact that they are pressuring you about it indicates to me that_you_ are not the source of dysfunction here.
I’d add that even with the best legal plans in place for your parents deaths/end of life care; there is no way to know who will be geographically close or how your siblings will deal with that situation. I have seen harmonious families fall apart in the face of losing a parent and I have seen the most estranged families grimly and efficiently her things resolved. Things your parents can and should do (keep an up to date will, look after their health etc) are their responsibility. There is no reason for you to manufacture a faaamily closeness and start planning who does this work – because usually the black sheep of the family gets enlisted into the emotional labour of faaaamily while the fun loving siblings are merrily oblivious. Don’t get sucked into this ‘when we are old and gone’ stuff. Your parents choose the kind of relationship they have while you are all alive to have it. They are choosing this current dynamic.
My family is not close because my parents made shitty choices and abuse happened and is being covered up. They still want to be close but only on the terms where I pretend to be someone with no needs and wants. It is sad and I certainly haven’t made my peace with it. Like you, I notice how much happier I am at a distance and I try to view my strategy with my family thus; I am not holding out on them, I am simply investing in my own life. A healthy family would encourage me, as my friends do. I am not doing the healthy distance *at* them on purpose to hurt them. If they decide to drop the House Of Denial act, things may change. But right now the family members making a choice are them – they choose to make closeness impossible. I have nothing to work with in terms of rebuilding. It’s really sad but undeniably true.
First, I agree with everyone else who is saying you are not dysfunctional.
Second, if you do think you’re the “messed up one” here, it’s pretty clear who messed you up. You don’t owe them the opportunity to keep poking at your wounds so you can’t heal.
And even if the dysfunctional relationship was nobody’s fault, you would have the right to protect and take care of yourself. You are a happy and healthy person when you’re in your home and away from your family of origin, and an unhappy one when you visit them. Think of it as self-care, like not eating something you’re allergic to.
LW, the story you’ve been telling yourself of Everybody Has Bad Experiences, So Why Did I Take It So Hard: Confessions From A Whiner is straight fiction. True: lots of people have shitty experiences growing up. And you know what? Those people were upset and hurt by those experiences! It’s not unreasonable to be like, “I was bullied and belittled and my adjacent sister was treated well, and that dichotomy made me feel less than.” It’s not unreasonable to be like, “I saw someone very similar to me achieve positive results while I only got negative ones, which left me confused and broken.” In fact, it’s to be expected.
When you’re treated like a waste and an afterthought, you get it in your head that you’re a waste and an afterthought. That’s normal. That’s okay. And the fact that you’ve extricated yourself and found a life where you’re not a waste OR an afterthought just means that you’ve made it, dude. A lot of people haven’t done that. A lot of people haven’t figured out what works for them. But you did. You pulled it off, kid! And that shows that you’re smart, capable, and introspective.
Additionally, you’re a beacon of hope for all the wastes and afterthoughts who haven’t moved across the country yet. Who think they’re just going to be Wrong for the rest of their lives.
I don’t have any advice that isn’t verbatim what the Captain told you, but I do have endless reservoirs of respect and understanding for you. I also have anecdotal evidence that shows that someday you’ll feel distance between yourself and those unpleasant experiences, and you’ll see in sharp relief all the ways you didn’t deserve it. Keep up the good work.
When you’re treated like a waste and an afterthought, you get it in your head that you’re a waste and an afterthought. That’s normal. That’s okay. And the fact that you’ve extricated yourself and found a life where you’re not a waste OR an afterthought just means that you’ve made it, dude. A lot of people haven’t done that. A lot of people haven’t figured out what works for them. But you did. You pulled it off, kid! And that shows that you’re smart, capable, and introspective
This paragraph was like salve to my soul. Thank you.
LW, I am someone who has also (a) moved very far away to get away from family and (b) has a younger sister who I am not close to, and I just wanted to express my solidarity. The thing to remember about your mom’s desires in this situation, is that she is trying to fulfill her fantasy of what a “happy family” looks like and there is no way to fulfill that fantasy without hurting yourself. It doesn’t seem like anyone (including your sister and you) wants to do the hard work of unpacking of history and family dynamics necessary to change your family into an actual happy family, so the best alternative is the one you’ve chosen, which is to have a happy you and start letting your mom own her own fantasy. That’s not “dysfunction”; that’s FUNCTION.
Just a suggestion that you might not want to call your mother every day.
It sounds like you have gone out and made a great life for yourself… and yet, there are these daily calls which constantly remind you of what you perceive as YOUR failures and YOUR shortcomings and that is simply wrong.
However, it is very difficult to remember that when you have a daily reminder of this troublesome spot in your life. If you think that is what is going on here, see how reducing the call schedule makes you feel.
Whoa. I had missed that LW calls Mom every day.
I know that the integration of cellphones into life have made this kind of keeping in close, close touch more normal, but checking in with Mom every day gives Mom way too much power and far too immediate a feedback opportunity. It’s a leash on you.
Yeah, do think about weaning her from that habit, LW. It’s good that you like and get along with your mother. It’s not really actually necessary to phone every day, especially if she’s popping these little guilt bombs on you.
Best o’ luck. You did the hardest part by moving, just keep disentangling.
Also, weaning from those calls will tell the LW a lot about her mom.
I did a similar weaning a bit over a year ago, after my mom did something that hurt me. and my mother, after apologizing for upsetting me, has quietly accepted the reduced contact. (this is, frankly, astounding, because mom has never been good with boundaries). as a result I’m back up to 2-3 short calls a week.
if LW’s mom accepts the reduced frequency (and it can be a gradual reduction, not a sudden one — like, start by picking whatever day you’re busiest each week and don’t call that day. then start not calling Mondays as well. or whatever) and doesn’t press, it’s probable there’s a lot of Learning To Relate To LW As An Adult going on in the dynamic, and mom will learn eventually. if LW’s mom is all BETRAYED and WHATEVER, then, LW, you have a dysfunctional mom on your hands.
I missed that too. 😦 And yes, I agree–cutting back on the calls is probably an A+ idea!
Family can be wonderful and terrible, and usually not at the same time. Growing up with a “normal” nuclear family and having parents with high expectations, it took me YEARS to understand how much power I was giving them over my ability to feel OK about my life and my choices. For some people baby steps work fine and others find they just need to cut the strings. I ended up moving cross country for the wrong man because it was the only thing I could think of that would put enough distance between my parents and myself for me to separate out my own wants and needs for my life and my parents’ wants and needs for my life. Eventually I got better at making my own choices, but still let myself feel bad or shamed if my parents didn’t approve of those choices. It wasn’t until I was in my 40’s that I was really able to shut down the voice in my head that said nothing I did was going to be good or OK if Mom and Dad didn’t like it. Thing is, you don’t owe anyone any explanations for why you live where you live or do what you do (or don’t) do. When you set the boundaries you might find some push back or you might be pleasantly surprised; when I started setting healthy boundaries with my parents it was absolutely amazing how our relationship improved and how much better I felt about myself as a person and as an adult.
“This works better for me.”
This and variations of this have been lifesavers for me. Memorize that sentence or a variation like “This works best for me” or “I prefer this” so you can just say it without hesitation. Anyone who presses you again should just get: “I don’t have to justify my decision to you,” said in a kind but matter-of-fact voice that implies “C’mon, you’re old enough to know that.”
Maybe this is just my family, but I would say no, no, no to using the phrase “she didn’t invite us” unless you are angling for mom to run around behind the scenes and secure you an awkward invitation you then have to detangle from.
Agreeing with this.
Or, in my family’s case, this response is then used to divide us…”well, your sister said…” It wasn’t until 40ish that I realized my (likely Narcissistic by all evidence) mom was trying to divide us all while saying she wished we were closer. Same mom who has the closest, will deny/defend every type of abusive thing they have done over two generations relationship with her “favorite” sibling. Who harangues me for not mending fences with my emotionally abusive, violence threatening sibling. Who also says, “look at your cousins, how they visit their parents so often.” Me: “Their parents also visit each of their kids at least yearly.” Her: “Yes, but we don’t have grandchildren to visit.” Oh, and I was the golden child, but also ruined her life whenever I did something that differed from the picture in her head.
I didn’t get the sense that LW’s family was this level of dysfunction (and dysfunction is a continuum not a binary!), so this is more of a cautionary tale and perspective from further up the dysfunction spectrum! I have also taken the live furthest away and visit infrequently route, since it is common to have to emotionally recover/practice weeks of self-care/need therapy after a visit. While I’ve learned many people need a day to de-stress or vent after family visits, most don’t have the two weeks of sad like myself and LW; I would say that’s an indicator that their is at least a bit more dysfunction than the “every family has some stress” comments you might get from people with generally healthy family dynamics.
Sounds familiar. My mum was like this as well, whining about how my sister and I weren’t close when we were 7 and 14, for pete’s sake, and she wanted us to be bestest friends–and bonus, she never hit my sibling and I around the other one, so each of us thought we were the only one being physically abused.
LW, this, right here –> “my mom’s feelings especially are hurt that I don’t spend more time with them so we can be a happy close family that does all kinds of stuff together”
Is NOT your fault. Do you know what could’ve helped your mom create that happy close family she wants so badly? Not treating you like the also-ran in the family who always came in 2nd to your sister’s teenaged fabulousness. Teaching your sister that conventional popularity/attractiveness =/= good personship. Actually embracing teenage you for the person you were instead of merely “tr[ying] to be understanding” that you weren’t your sister.
Your parents may not have meant to do damage, and they may have been trying to do their best, but let’s be real here – they didn’t do a great job by teenaged you. There are a million reasons why that might be, and those reasons have widely varying levels of intentionality and nefariousness, but at the end of the day, the fact is that their intentions weren’t/aren’t magic, and they don’t get to retcon your teenage years by roping you into being part of the big happy family fantasy now. You’re absolutely not the only one who has a small-doses family that wishes it was a large-doses family, and you’re *not* dysfunctional for not wanting to get on board the happy-family train. Your obligation to your family (and to anyone, really) is to have the type of relationship with them that best preserves your own mental health and feels most authentic to you – whether that’s visiting 3x a year or 3x a week, doesn’t matter, as long as you’re being true to your own feelings. They can accept or not, but they don’t get to badger you into giving them more of yourself than you’re comfortable giving.
Uggggghhhhhhhhh. The parental burden of “my kids don’t get along and it is a) a reflection on my parenting skills, b) my business, and c) mine to fix.” SO MUCH UGGGGGHHHHHHH.
Look, sometimes you don’t get along with your siblings as an adult. The resentments of your shared childhoods are still too strong, or the dynamic can’t be repaired, or you just don’t get along because you’re people and not every human is required to like every other human, even the ones who are genetically/familially related. Sometimes especially those.
My brother and I don’t have a lot in common. In some basic, core beliefs we couldn’t be any more different, actually. So we mostly just stick to funny, lighthearted stuff and drink together at holiday functions. I don’t hate him. Neither of us are broken people. We just don’t have much to talk about. Our relationship is what works for us. And yet our mom seemed really perturbed by it. She’s got a lot of guilt issues because reasons, and she sees our relationship as a failure on her part.
I don’t know what the dynamic is with your mom, but one of the things that helped her back off was some gentle ribbing. “Mom, you are totally responsible for fixing the relationship of two totally grown people. This is all on you. I’m disappointed you haven’t fixed it yet.” “You’re right, Mom, we should be closer, but if it weren’t for all the terrible torture – mostly the thumbscrews, though – that you visited upon us, we would be best friends.”
And actually, it was her realizing that she was having a relationship with her own siblings completely by herself, that was one-sided, and that it wasn’t anyone’s fault nor in her control, that forced her to look at the way she views faaaaaaaamily. Are there family members you can call to mind with whom your mom doesn’t have a super close relationship for no real reason other than just she doesn’t? It might help. Or people she just lost touch with who aren’t family? Somewhere we got this impression that family is close unless something terrible has happened, and it’s really damaging because when we aren’t close, and we don’t feel the need or desire to be close, we feel like the problem is us. You’re not broken, LW, because you can’t help but fall into the patterns that were deeply ingrained super early on. You’re a human being who has a sister who you’re not real crazy about spending time with but you feel pressured to, and a family who misinterprets your unhappiness as some sort of character flaw. Yeah, that would make me not real crazy about visiting either.
Live your life, LW. Family making you feel shitty about not having the relationships they want you to have only confirm your decision to not have close relationships with them.
I may be projecting here, but I’m wary of the “planes go both ways” advice. Maybe LW doesn’t WANT mom/sister in her new space. I very much have the 2-3 visit a year relationship with my mother, including her wanting us to be together FAR more. Now that she’s retired she would happily spend MONTHS at my house, but I don’t want her there for more than a week (and honestly a week is extremely stressful as it is). And that’s ok. (Actually, I keep telling myself that’s okay, I still struggle with guilt).
Another important thing: just because you feel sad or bad or whatever when you turn them down or don’t live up to what they want does NOT mean you are doing the wrong thing or you need to be working harder to fulfill their fantasy.
I don’t know your situation, but personally I find it’s best not to frame things in terms of “I am dysfunctional” or “they are dysfunctional” but just as “this is what works for me”. Am I dysfunctional for being an introvert that needs a lot of down time, or is my mom dysfunctional for being an extrovert who talks ALL THE TIME? It doesn’t really matter, what matters is trying to put together a relationship that works for both of us.
“Do I have the right to just set these boundaries for myself even though I’m pretty sure I’m the messed up one here?”
YES, one thousand times yes. You have the right to decide what boundaries you want.
+1 to this. Even messed-up people get to have boundaries. ESPECIALLY messed-up people, in fact.
LW, you might find it interesting to look into some of the work around the roles people take on in a dysfunctional family, particularly that of the “identified patient”. Essentially, the dynamic in dysfunctional families often causes one individual to be the designated acter-out of the whole dysfunctional system, while everyone else can claim to be Perfectly Normal, Thank You and pin all of the problems on the acter-outer. Often, the “identified patient” is the one who ends up seeking help/getting away etc.
It might not fit your situation but then again it might, and if so, it might help with doing away with the idea that you’re the dysfunctional one and they’re all fine, because it really doesn’t sound like that’s the case!
Yup. The scapegoat, as they call it in families with an NPD parent. (Not internet diagnosing; this is my family, I’m the scapegoat.)
Indeed. Though the Scapegoat/Black Sheep is generally thought to be the fortunate one – because they get to escape. Golden Child too often gets locked into the misery and dysfunction.
Curiously, as an only child to severely dysfunctional parents (sperm donor almost certainly NPD, mother not full-on but severely messed up), I got to play ALL the roles at different times, sometimes several times in one day, to the same parent (though usually if I was Golden Child to one this week, I had to be Devil Child to the other – the only person they both resented even more than me was each other). It was like being one of those dolls with interchangeable bits. Sometimes I’m amazed I’m vaguely functional.
Escape is imperative – though I don’t recommend what I did, which is get married to the first person who takes an interest in you.
Yeah, I did the same thing. Also not recommended, although I did get a great kid out of the deal and my ex and I are still on speaking terms, at least.
Cyber hugs to you LW, I have very similar struggles. It helps to frame the question a little bit like “what do I do with the fact that my family is not very happy about the life that makes me really happy?” And “what do I do when my family gently suggests they don’t think I’m the best narrator of my life and preferences, or that theirs should rule the day?” The struggle is slowly coming to really, really, really believe as an adult that your life is for you and not for them. And it is nice when you can line both your and their happiness up, but what your mum and everyone else would like is for you to either make choices you are slightly less happy with, or for you to be a slightly different person who wants different things, so that they could be slightly happier or more satisfied with their lives. They don’t want that because they’re mean or bad, and you can love the hell out of them and wish sometimes that things were different, but it is useful for me to remember that that is ultimately what they would like. And that – the fact that my family still in many ways does not accept my own story of what makes me happy, what I need, who I am and how I wish to live my life/cut my hair/play my music – that’s the thing that’s always left me feeling slightly out of sorts and the reason I’m far away in the first place. One thing that stands out to me from your letter is that you do your very best to see the best in your family, and I suspect you’re right that no one is trying to be mean or bad to you. But they have still let you down sometimes, hurt you, failed to accept you or support you. They are still doing it – putting the onus on you to fit in in a particular way, through particular behaviours. Saying out loud, if only to yourself, the ways they make you doing you harder, or apply gentle pressure on you to satisfy their desires rather than your own, might make your need for/right to boundaries a little clearer to you as well as making clear to you that the dysfunction isn’t on you. It also might keep your mom’s requests from triggering a guilt-storm and help you frame them as requests that you slice a bit of your own happiness off to help them get a little more happiness. Which is a pretty easy request to turn down..
Great advice from the Captain!!!!
I refuse to subscribe to the idea that people I’m related to should have a hold on me simply because of DNA. Growing up all I heard from the people related to me was how I was selfish, self-absorbed, rude, nasty, etc. My mother’s favorite expressions to use were to tell me that life wasn’t a one way street or that I needed to get rid of my holier than thou attitude. (Seriously, just writing those out made me angrier than I’ve been in a long time!) These were usually told to me when I expressed an opinion, or a thought that was disagreed with. I was constantly compared to my two younger sisters and always came up on the losing end of the comparisons. One sister was helpful and loved to cook for my mom,the other was so smart and popular and why couldn’t I be like them? I hated my family. I hated myself for feeling that way.
When I was in my 20’s I moved 300 miles away from my family. It was the best thing I did for myself. I made friends that didn’t know my family. I was just MrsLoki instead of sister or daughter of those other women. I learned to rely on myself and I started paying attention to things like how people didn’t tell me I was selfish for asking them not to do my laundry, or how asking my roommate for her rent money didn’t end with a conversation about how I was living on a one way street.
Now I’m in my 40’s and I still reject the idea of family as this special bond that should keep us tied to people who make us miserable. My husband, kids and I have been ridiculously militant in setting boundaries for the extended family that live nearby. Holidays are ours, invitations need to be issued for a visit to our home (despite the fact that I live only 10 minutes away from them), visits will be cut short once insults or comparisons are made. My friends are the family I’ve chosen for myself. My kids refer to our friends as aunts and uncles and cousins. Do you know that I’ve been friends with some of these people for decades and never have they called me names or made me feel bad about myself just because they could in the name of family? I get up in the moring and interact with no less than 20 people a day and NOBODY will call me selfish or self-absorbed but I can’t get through one visit with my family without that happening. I work, I volunteer, I socialize and I still feel happy and full of self love no matter how the day goes. I spend an afternoon with my mother and sisters and it takes weeks for me to pull myself up out of that. I’ve actually started journaling after each visit and the entries are really eye opening.
LW…I don’t think that you’re dysfuntional. I think you need to give yourself a break and keep those boundaries in place. CA is right…communication works both ways so if it was as important to your sister to have a relationship as your mother insists then she’d call or visit or make some kind of attempt. Stay strong and remember that only you get to live your life. Your mother doesn’t get to live your life for you. 🙂
LW, my sister and I do not get along. At all. I read your comment about your boyfriends and it hit me where it hurt; she didn’t steal boyfriends but any of my *friends* that she could she would convince I was an awful person and she was so much cooler. I always “knew” that it was just because I was boring, awkward, a loser, add invectives here. After all, why would anyone want to spend time with the person who was such a non-entity that their father once picked them up at 7.30pm in December when the school closed at 2.30 and said; “I’m sorry (Madb) I completely forgot you existed”. (Yes. I am bitter about that. On the bright side: I’m bitter about it and don’t take it as my due anymore.)
The point being that it was oooooooooobviously my fault right up until the Team Me that I assembled out of people who knew me as “Madb, that person from the internet who talked me into moving away from a bad situation” and “Madb, that person I went on a road-trip with” and “Madb who got together and did art and drank tea with me” etc. started saying, “Woah, Madb, what is this thing where your family shows up and you stop being “Madb: who is pretty dang cool” and start being “Madb, who tries to become part of the wall”?”
And I’d try to explain that it was all about how Madb is an awful person who cannot X to the Y or should be Q and R and if I was *just somehow better* then my family would magically decide I was okay to be the person that I am instead of being a big ol’ failure.
The fallacy there is that if I were XYQR, I wouldn’t be Madb…and people like Madb. *I* like Madb.
LW, people like you. People like the you that you are when you’re not in a family situation that tells you to smile like a pretty doll and take whatever is dumped on you. Boyfriend likes the you that you are! It sounds like *you* like the you that you are when you’re not with your family.
Take all that liking and make it into a suit of armour that deflects as much of the boundary-pushing negativity as you can. *If it helps you* then *do* talk to your friends about figuring out good boundaries with your parents/family; I’m willing to bet money that at least some of them have a mental path that goes something like “Oh, LW looks sad and withdrawn, I wonder if they went to see their family since I last saw them? I wish I could help.”
My own Team Me still has to bop me on the nose with the newspaper of “no, seriously, it’s not you; your dad is an ***” every now and then (mom is deceased but was definitely part of the problem) but the more boundaries I enforce the happier I am in the long run. As for my sister, well. We can be civil when we are together (twice in the last five years works pretty well for me).
Fist bumping you in solidarity. My mother left me at work on two occasions. The first was because she forgot about me (and told me such) … and the second because she was watching my brother’s little league game and it was so riveting she couldn’t leave, even though she knew I needed a ride home and had plans that night. She left me for an hour that time.
Oh, being left was…pretty normal. If I’d had the ability to just go home I’d’ve done it. Unfortunately my father’s house is about a ten minute drive away from the nearest bus stop sooooo I just had to wait. They were usually no more than an hour or two late. It was the perfectly sincere “I forgot you even existed” that was the slap in the face. The rest of this comment has been self-censored for self-depreciating humour which is a thing I am attempting to stop doing so much.
Being ‘forgotten’ by parents who needed to pick me up was a common occurrence and I got used to getting myself home solo a lot. It never really stood out amongst the other abuse as a painful thing but reading that reminded me how bewildering it was to be a kid and see that parents should be there to get their children home safely but mine didn’t and didn’t try to justify that. In a weird way reading your comment helped me make that link.
All the Jedi hugs, resilli0. It sucks so hard to have to deal with that! I hope that making the link will help you get closer to being able to set that pain where it belongs. Sometimes it’s the “never really stood out” that I find is hurting me the most.
“I forgot you existed”? I just can’t fathom that level of casual cruelty to a child. What a complete and total arse.
I second the recommendation of a “team me”.
What may also help – reconnecting with family members who are not your parents and siblings. I did this after my mother died, and was amazed to hear them affectionately remembering my young self. I was stunned – my parents had always made me think everyone thought I was a troublesome brat, and it was a revelation to hear from people who just saw me as a normal child. It’s great to become your own best self, but it’s also helpful to get some perspective that perhaps you weren’t that much of a fuckup to start with.
Yup. He forgot I existed. It was not the high point of my life.
I’d love to connect with the rest of my family, but my father’s family is made up of severely dysfunctional, mean people or people who got the f* out of there ASAP themselves and my mother’s side all lives spread out across the continent and doesn’t really talk much and never has. I’ve got an adoptive aunt who lives in the same city as me who consistently reassures me that I was never a horrible person/trouble maker/etc. but even she wasn’t around a whole lot. Not because she didn’t want to be, but rather because my parents super hated suburbia so we always lived out where nobody could easily get to our place. As I told my therapist on thursday; I am poorly socialised and learning things other people were figuring out at 12/13 now that I’m in my mid 30’s.
Yeah, it happens. Some parents and even grandparents ‘forgot you existed’, ‘can’t believe you had the gall to live’, don’t ‘understand how you insist on not staying out of sight’. there are some very messed up and wrong-centered people in the world. I read an Ann Landers article once that put it quite succinctly: There are no bastard children, just bastard parents.
LW, I have so many thoughts but one I want to highlight for you right now is this: even if there were no bees, no dysfunction, no sibling rivalry… you’d still be perfectly entitled to choose how and when and IF you interacted with the people you grew up with. Your sister could’ve been a wonderful sister to you and you’d still not be obliged to be “close” to her or be friends or even interact with her as an adult.
Friendship and closeness are not things you can “owe” anyone. No matter how similar your DNA or how many years you spent living in the same house. You. Don’t. Owe. Her.
And you don’t owe your parents whatever kind of adult relationship they want from you just cos they are your parents and they want it. You don’t owe them whatever adult they want/ed you to be. You. Don’t. Owe. Them.
While of course you might be more inclined to *want* to spend time with people who treated you well before and treat you well now and appreciate you for who you actually are… you still would not owe them your time or company!
I know it’s really hard to learn to believe (I still only *mostly* believe it’s okay that I am not the kid my parents thought they’d ordered) but it’s okay. It’s okay not to be “close” to the adults your siblings grow into. It’s okay to live a life your parents don’t understand. It’s okay to have boundaries other people don’t like.
Some practical advice:
if you want to, try interacting with family members in one-to-one settings instead of as a group – this helps prevent people falling into old roles, helps you see the person and not their slot in the family dynamic and can (but might not) help parents see you as an adult and thus (gasp!) an equal
I also really really suggest finding neutral ground – see people if possible literally anywhere other than your parents’ home / your childhood home. if at all possible, see people somewhere outside of the area you grew up in. Again, the change in scenery can shift people away from old dynamics *and* there’s often more escape routes if you meet somewhere public
“I still only *mostly* believe it’s okay that I am not the kid my parents thought they’d ordered.”
Same here. It gets better every year, but sometimes I wonder if it’ll ever be a thought that’s completely gone.
Also, I really like your advice to change the setting. If it’s not the usual stage, the roles can change easier.
Presenting the idea to someone that they owe you love and regard is the fastest way to be sure you don’t get it.
Slightly silly comment:
I have a very large number of siblings, more than double what most other people I know have and it affords me this tiny insight
*I would feel terribly lucky if I managed to be close friends with all of my sibs when they are adults because there’s so many that surely it’s likely I’ll not get on with at least one, right?*
and I reckon that still kinda applies if you’ve only one or two sibs: it’s possible you just won’t get on as adults whether you got on as kids or not. If faaamily won’t magically make you get on with X now-grown siblings, there’s no reason it’d magically guarantee you’d get on well with one.
I also have a very large number of siblings. I am super-close to exactly 2 of them, and friendly, but not friends, with the rest. THIS IS OK. IT IS FINE. None of us are obligated to be friends! Some of us are just too different and we would never hang out if we were not related!
Family doesn’t start or end with blood (thank you Supernatural). Of the biological family I have I am willing to speak to three of them; my mother, my father, & my grandmother. Non Bio family that I can speak to if need be; my stepfather and my grandfather. There are probably quite a few people that I share blood with but will not share my life with for various reasons but biggest reason, when they were in my life they tried to dictate who I ought to be and thought there was something wrong with my solitary day dreamy self. I’m aware of my stepfather’s family and they have finally included my mother but I’m not family and I don’t want to be.
The reason my family list is so small is these people (except my stepfather, but he’s too hard to avoid) they believe me when I tell them who I am. They let me be solitary day dreamy me. They have also completely understood and accepted when I disowned siblings and cousins, and honored my request that no one ever gets my address or phone number.
I’m not saying disown them all, I’m saying that it is ok to really be who you are now when you interact with them.
Your letter sounds like the “lite” version of my family. My sister and I weren’t close enough in age to be competition for each others’ friends, but we absolutely were in competition for my NPD mother’s approval and attention…. and she always won. My mother would still do this back when I used to talk to her, and I would take it, in small doses. Then that behavior started attaching to my kids, and I was DONE. Neither of my kids is less valuable or valued than the other, and I wasn’t about to put them through that.
My mother couldn’t or wouldn’t see that my sister and I are actual people with a right to our own feelings, opinions, preferences, and interests. My sister was always really good at performing to her satisfaction, to the point where I sometimes wonder who my sister actually is under that performance. She was the cute, fragile, straight-A student with tons of friends. I was the troublemaker, smartass, bad attitude, “not working to potential” brat, because I dared to be a person with my own personality and wasn’t the obedient little robot my mother wanted. She actually blamed me for my sister’s migraines during the time I was so busy with school and marching band that I barely saw her, but supposedly i “screamed” at her and gave her migraines. (Yeah, I don’t know either.) Meanwhile, I was struggling with undiagnosed ADHD and depression/anxiety plus walking on eggshells for the next time my mother determined that something was wrong and I was it.
I haven’t spoken to my mother by choice in five years. (I did speak to her a couple years ago when my sister basically ambushed me with her, but it was uncomfortable, to say the least. For me, anyway; she acted like everything was just peachy.) I haven’t spoken to my sister since she ambushed me with my mother. It was really easy to do; I just don’t contact them, and they haven’t contacted me. I guess the work of staying in contact that I was doing was too much once I put it on them. I don’t miss either of them; I have friends that are my intentional family, and they love me, care about me, and support me without belittling me.
I’m not saying you should do the same; I don’t know more than what you put in your letter. It sounds like you have a wonderful life away from your family of birth, and that’s awesome! What I am saying is that pulling back can be very valuable; it allows you to a. appreciate your chosen family and b. see if anyone else wants to be in contact with you enough to do part of the work to make it happen.
You’re not responsible for your mom’s hurt feelings. She’s an adult, too, and adults deal with their own feelings. It was never your job to deal with her feelings, because she’s been an adult your whole life. The fact that she tries to put it on you… well, the Chinese flag corps are showing up to perform their Dance of the Bees, there.
Oof. I relate to this comment so much. My mother has BPD and a host of other mental issues. Growing up with her was an f’ing nightmare. I’m the oldest, and my other used to tell me, from age 5 or 6 on, that I was giving my sister “an inferiority complex” or anxiety, and I was such a mean girl, etc. etc. This was because I didn’t want to play with a toddler and wanted to play with kids my own age. (Sis is 4 years younger. My mother is one of those lazy people who didn’t want to work, so she popped out a kid either right before or as soon as one of us went to kindergarten.)
My sister’s 4 years younger too.
One of my most “wtf?” memories is from about 10 years ago. I needed to borrow a suitcase for a trip, and I was trying to find out when I could get it from my mother. I had gone to lunch with my sister a couple days before, and my mother called me and the first thing she said (screamed, really) was “HOW DARE YOU CALL ME A B****!!”
Naturally, I was like, “Um, I didn’t call you a b****.”
“ARE YOU CALLING [my sister] A LIAR??”
“No. I’m saying I didn’t say that.”
(normal voice) “Oh. Ok. So when did you want to pick up the suitcase?”
Emotional whiplash, whee. (Also, I totally did call her a b****, but she didn’t need to know that.)
I HAVE HAD THIS SAME CONVERSATION WITH MY MOTHER. I would swear that you’re my sister, honestly. My mother doesn’t own a suitcase, though. 😉
(And in my case, I totally called her the b-word, too.)
I’m feeling so grateful to you for writing this. Thank you.
My mother was violently abusive to her children- she’d even tied me to my bed and left me to cry alone in growing rage and disbelief for her to come, laying in my own cold urine. Over twelve hours later I was untied… She’d married a sociopath who’d dumped her and said I wasn’t his kid after sexually abusing toddler me in front of her. She often told us we’d ruined her life.
I got old enough to quit high school and get the hell away from her. We’d sometimes talked by phone after I was working and she was broke, and she’d make me cry when she said she loved me, as she never had. She knew she’d get zero money from me.
I don’t have relationships with any of that family. My mother suicided 30-plus years ago. Her own mother had loved to play her and her siblings against each other for entertainment until they cried and hated each other. One presented as the model perfect person, one now has a revisionist account of their childhood (“I was the favorite”) that is astounding in its unreality.
In just the last couple weeks I’ve had a brand-new thought towards my mother, and it’s that she had the guts to stay wounded, to not present a façade of “everything’s fine.” I’m exploring it in my journaling.
“She actually blamed me for my sister’s migraines during the time I was so busy with school and marching band that I barely saw her, but supposedly i “screamed” at her and gave her migraines.”
Ah, yeah. I get that one. My sister (ALSO 4 years younger) found out really early on that if she wanted something and wasn’t getting it saying “Madb hit/kicked” me got her that thing. It took until I was twenty for my parents to see through it. Not because I was a good person but rather because when she kicked me in the face (still got the scar where my glasses cut my nose) in front of our mother I screamed at her instead of punching/kicking her. Although I was still yelled at for yelling at her.
I’ve never heard “Irish twins” before. I’m disturbed.
Yeah, that term really bugs me.
Seriously? I thought this was a pretty common expression. It means siblings born within within 12 months of one another. The expression seems to have originated with Irish immigrants who seemed to have one kid after another, often with little gap between. I have two older half brothers who are the same age for well over a month. A neighbor of mine has two kids who are literally the same age for 2 months.
I’d never heard/read it before but I knew it must mean “those *&%$ immigrants, how they pop out the kids,” and yeah, ick.
I’ve heard “Irish twins” before, always as a friendly or neutral description, never derogatory—much like the LW used it. The small handful of times I’ve seen it come up in an online space like this, somebody has always objected, and then there’s a debate as to whether it’s derogatory or not. Those who identify as Irish are often the ones to say, “Eh, I use that term myself/don’t have a problem with it.”
The origin likely is ethnic-shaming, which sucks. It’s understandable that people who’ve never encountered the term before now would find it disturbing. That’s a good instinct, really.
Still, once it comes out that people of Irish descent are fine with that language, it feels pretty patronizing to police it. “Queer” used to be an insult too. Why not let this one stay reclaimed by the people who (rightly) think there’s nothing wrong with having kids close together?
Sorry for the derail. It’s just, the LW is the one who used the term, and I feel kind of defensive on her behalf.
Hello. When you say ‘of Irish descent’, do you mean Americans? Because this forum has a pretty big UK readership, and in the UK signs in windows saying ‘No dogs, no blacks, no Irish’ are still within living memory.
I’m not sure this is a call for people ‘of Irish descent’ where that descent is not an indicator of current privilege level.
They didn’t specify, but I’m guessing mostly Americans. There was plenty of bigotry against Irish immigrants in the US too, sadly.
It’s ethnic shaming, along with the once-popular slang for a police van being, “Paddy Wagon.” Signs on Boston’s walls greeted people fleeing Ireland with, “No Irish Need Apply” -that’s an era of American history that I haven’t seen openly spoken of or written about.
Huh, I had heard about the NINA signs but I had no idea about paddy wagon – I thought ‘paddy wagon’ was referring to a make or model of vehicle used as a police wagon (and I’m second-generation Boston Irish).
I think the term ‘Irish twins’ is frankly a little weird; if you’re describing siblings close in age, what’s wrong with just saying that Tim and Jim are siblings that are close in age or that Tim and Jim are X months apart, if it’s relevant?
Have to agree about it being ethnic shaming – I’ve heard similar expressions about .
LW, lots of people (including the Captain) have said smart things. Let me say something I don’t think I’ve read yet.
Not all people are compatible.
I like quiet nights at home and getting up early. If I had married a man who liked raging parties and sleeping until noon, the relationship probably wouldn’t work out. Or it would require some careful compromises and boundaries. It’s not a judgement — no one is at fault or wrong or dysfunctional. We just wouldn’t fit without a lot of work.
Now, we accept, in our social narrative, that we have a choice in our romantic partners. But no one talks about the choices we have with our families, the folks we’re born to. And for whatever reasons, you aren’t compatible with your family. And you’ve made an excellent choice to do what is best for you — setting boundaries and living far away.
When you frame it as a continuation of your childhood difficulties, you are casting blame and assigning judgement values. There’s no blame in this incompatibility, any more than there’s blame in the fact that I’m a lark and couldn’t date a night owl. It’s just the way it is. You are happier and live a better, more fulfilling life, away from your family.
There is some blame is how it’s progressing, however, and it’s blame that falls firmly on your mom’s shoulders. She has a mental image of how things are “supposed to be” in a happy family and you aren’t living up to that mental image. You are clear and firm about your boundaries (and hey, high five and gold stars and chocolate ice cream for you — I’m in therapy to do that!) and she’s *not respecting them.* She’s pressuring you conform to her mental image of a perfect happy jolly family despite your actions to the contrary.
I don’t have better scripts than the Captain’s. But, like others in the comments, I have found that I really DO NOT WANT my family in my space and I wonder if you feel the same way? I think a therapist might offer some different scripts.
(Also…. So, my mother and I used to talk every day, once. And when my wedding and child bearing didn’t go the way she planned, when I didn’t fit into the vision she had in her head of the dutiful daughter popping out a handful of grandchildren and living back on the street where I grew up, she became horrible, vicious, and toxic, not to mention manipulative. I hope this is not the arc your relationship takes with her, but I thought I’d mention it.)
1.) Cut down on calls to your mom. Once a week or every two is perfectly adequate, and will get her to back off. By talking to her daily, she’s getting the idea that you’re close and you could have that with your family, too, if you just lived there!
2.) When your mother whines about you not visiting more, point out that they don’t visit *you*. I’ve noticed an annoying pattern when people dare to move away from family that said family whines and pouts about not seeing the person, but makes no effort to travel to them.
3.) Tell your mother to back off re: your sister.
I moved away from my toxic FOO, and I don’t regret it whatsoever. My mother is too lazy to visit me, thankfully. She threatened to do so on the week between xmas and New Year’s, but I was working and told her that Booth was on call. (Both true.)
OT, but your SN and nickname for your SO are so cute. 🙂
Really OT, but I dated a guy whose real first name was Booth. I hadn’t known that was a real name before that!
Oh, also, if LW doesn’t want their mother to visit, an alternative is to ask them to help finance the trips or something similar. I realize that not everyone can do that, but contributing something appropriate to their situation will at least indicate that they’re willing to meet LW halfway.
My in-laws aren’t rolling in cash or anything, but they contribute as much as they possibly can to help us get out to see them every year. They’re not in a position to visit often, due to jobs and the number of people in SO’s family (he’s the oldest of 7), but it shows that they really do want to see us and they’re willing to make an effort to do so.
Best Boyfriend’s mum and dad are doing a Thing in Halfway Between City later this summer, and asked us if we wanted to come and do the Thing with them. When we said we did (I have not met his parents yet, so this was an opportunity), his mum said, super casually, that they’d gotten a hotel suite with two bedrooms so we wouldn’t have to worry about the expense of a room, just getting out there. She sent us a “happy moving in together” card with money in it “to buy new dishtowels or something”. His dad Likes all my FB statuses and offers dadly advice to questions I haven’t asked, which makes him pretty much like all my friends’ dads.
My parents are currently 18 months into pretending Best Boyfriend doesn’t exist. Guess who it is we won’t be visiting.
This whole letter and response and comments are so validating for me. I come from a family where I was made a scapegoat for like, everything, but my brother could do no wrong. In recent years I had to stop being in contact with brother because he’s been replicating the scapegoat dynamic, and I’m not having it.
We are four years apart, and when we were still in contact, people closer to my age from our hometown would friend only him on social media or invite only him to things. I thought there was something wrong with me for feeling so hurt and angry about it, but in the context of this letter it makes sense now.
LW, that is awful that not one but two bf’s used you to get closer to your sister. You deserve support and empathy for those experiences, and it doesn’t sound like your family gave it to you either.
I eventually chose to quit contact with a parent who enabled brother’s gaslighting and other shitty behaviors, and who enabled the whole original home dynamic, too. I’m not saying no-contact is the answer for everyone, but it’s definitely right for me. It was here in Awkward Town that I was able to recognize many of the dynamics happening, and I chose my course from there. This too was a parent that just wanted everyone to be happy and to make parent feel good about family gatherings, while I didn’t get to be a person worth hearing or supporting or bothering to understand.
And that said, if anyone has any suggestions of how to stop fuming about how wrong the scapegoaters are (with each revelation), how to clear your head and get on with your life free of them – please help. Thanks.
Well, this is basically what therapy is meant for, for starters.
But for me…I had to be sad for a while. And then mad, really mad, for longer than seems reasonable, and then sad again. I leaned on the people around me who could validate my view of and hopes for myself, and remind me that my parents are wrong. And I read Toxic Parents, by Susan Forward, and that helped a lot. Mainly it was a lot of time, and distance, and introspection, and asking for things I needed and growing boundaries and learning to appreciate all the things about me that my mother hated.
And I still get mad, and resigned, and sad. But the feelings aren’t as big as they used to be, because my anger and pain isn’t as big as it used to be. It doesn’t happen as often, because I have made a life as the person I am and not the person they kept telling me was a huge disappointment. And most of the time, I just do my thing and live my awesome life, and *don’t talk to my mother*. 🙂
Thanks Novelator. Yes, there is lots of therapy. I will check out Toxic Parents.
If you ever want to talk about it or wevs, I’m probably reachable elsenet. 🙂
My advice is basically not to try to stop being angry 🙂 That is, be angry until you’re good and done being angry. One of the things that makes me angriest is not even being allowed to feel angry, so giving myself permission to be as pissed off as I need to be actually makes me less angry.
Especially if you’re a woman or perceived/socialized as one, I think it’s really important to say (at least to yourself) that you are allowed to be angry, that it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or that you’re deliberately hanging on to stuff that doesn’t matter, and that being angry is a totally reasonable response to people hurting you.
As for concrete stuff you can do, if journalling works for you I recommend writing down everything you’re mad about until you’re so bored of the subject you’d rather write lines. If some other kind of art works better for you, do that! If exercise works for you, try using your anger as fuel. I run (neither far nor fast) and I’ve gotten some great runs out of being super pissed off about stuff.
Also, LW? You are not messed up or broken. You were in a hurtful situation, you took care of yourself and got out of it. You’ve built a happy life for yourself, and you should be proud of that.
I grew up with a similar dynamic between myself and my sister 3 years older than me. She was always the pretty/happy/social one, while I was the ‘ugly duckling’ who never turned into a swan. We still loved each other and were friends but I struggled with how easily she seemed to make friends/meet boys and the like.
What I learned when we were adults was that inside she was horribly depressed. She felt that she had to be that way otherwise nobody would like here.
We both grew up in a shitty social environment but our responses to it were very different: I was sullen and difficult; she was always friendly and appeasing.
It wasn’t healthy for either of us.
My siblings and I have always been quite competitive and as the youngest I always felt like I was losing. Many years of therapy later I know that while my family is competitive, it’s not to the extent that I thought it was and I am definitely no less of a person for ‘coming last’ (even though on bad days I still feel that way).
I don’t know how things will turn out for you and your sister. Thing may change for better or for worse or it might always be like this. All of that is fine and no reflection on your worth and value as an individual.
I agree with everybody suggesting that you shift some of the ‘visiting onus’ onto your parents etc. Travelling is tiresome and costly and it’s unfair that they expect you to bear the burden alone.
While living our own separate lives, my mum and I are both functional, happy, thriving adults. When we are together, we revert straight back to nagging mother/irritable teenager mode. I’m nearly 30 years old!
You’re not the dysfunctional one here. These feelings are not 100% created by you and only you. It sounds like you had a lot of shitty experiences around your sister! The boyfriends? That’s fucked up. You didn’t feel valued growing up in your family? Also fucked up! You still feel terrible when you go home and the bad feelings linger for weeks afterwards? A sign that things are still fucked up!
I always wonder why parents want their children to stay in contact 5eva. My relationship with my brother improved when I admitted to myself and my mum that, if we weren’t related, I would never choose to hang out with him. He isn’t someone I like, and I’m not someone he’s interested in, and pretending otherwise did not generate good feelings. I am kind of fortunate in that my mum has three brothers and is in sporadic contact with all of them, so I was able to say both “see? you can call every few years and have that be enough” and also “is this issue about me and my brother, or you and your brothers??”
One thing I wanted to add to all these amazing comments.
As a teen I dreaded the Giant Extended Family Gatherings because my father, usually a confident secure and outgoing man, would encounter his brothers. And he would turn into the biggest insecure bratty jerkwad imaginable. He put everyone else down, he postured, he got defensive. He went from a 40 year old father of two to a obnoxious 14 year old middle child stereotype.
You are not somehow failing at life by falling back into old habits around them. It’s like the sound of your name getting your attention even if it’s just from the TV and you know it has nothing to do with you, And just because Family!Wazoo is an unhappy little clam doesn’t mean that Wazoo isn’t real and wonderful and true. And them thinking of you as an unhappy clam doesn’t make that person The Real Wazoo anymore than someone saying Cat on TV is actually talking to Duae Cat instead of another fictional character.
I remember having a conversation with my dad at his 60th birthday party, where my aunt asked his advice about her son (my steo-cousin) going to graduate school, since my dad had been working in higher education for 40+ years. I chipped in, since I worked in the same sector, and we talked shop for a bit and then the conversation moved on. And then I realised my dad’s big brother was staring at us with genuine fascination. He turned to me and said, “Your dad – he really knows what he’s talking about, doesn’t he?” I cracked up, because it was so obvious my uncle still expected my dad to just be his know-nothing little brother, even as he approached retirement!
Agree with many other commenters that it’s your mom that seems to be making the drama over how you aren’t fitting into her Ideal Family fantasy. Poor her, boo hoo, this is not your problem.
A couple of additional suggested scripts, to be executed Broken Record style:
Q: Why aren’t you & your sister closer?
A: That’s between me & sis, Mom, & you really don’t need to get in the middle.
Q: But I just want you to have a good rel’p with her!
A: I appreciate that, but that’s between me & sis, Mom, & you really don’t need to get in the middle.
Q: **some other harping on the topic**
A: **vaguely appreciative phrase**, but that’s between me & sis, Mom, & you really don’t need to get in the middle.
Q: Why do you choose to live so far away?
A: Oh, I love living in MyCity!
LW, your family’s dynamics remind me a lot of my own – and by now you’ve surely recognised you’re not alone in your situation. There’s a lot of us out there – the people who wind up in the role of the “unsatisfactory one” (and oh boy, do our families keep looking for reasons for us to remain in that role). Now there are two options: you can challenge the role they’re casting you in (but not the drama) by attempting to win their approval for things you’re doing, and jumping through all the hoops they set up in order (with triple back-flips and double twists, as required); or you can opt out of the whole drama altogether, say “fine, you do that” and be over somewhere else doing what you do, while they frantically try to corral you back into the whole mess.
Remember: you may love your family, but “keeping the home fires burning” does not mean you have to set yourself on fire in order to keep them warm. If your family (your mother in particular) really wants a group of characters who are going to do exactly what they say and follow precisely the life pattern they demand, I suggest they buy themselves a copy of The Sims (in any iteration) and stop trying to treat you as a character in a live-action version of same.
The casting of one or more children as “a disappointment” and then them spending the rest of their lives trying to prove their worth is a multi generational pattern in my family on one of my parents sides. That parent has even literally told me in words that I should have to do what they did and endlessly attempt to be a child they could be proud of like they do for their own parents. I am a disappointment partly *because I refuse to try to be anything but a disappointment to someone who thinks that I should play a part they have written for me*.
I feel like the LW needs to gift her mom a copy of “Jacob Have I Loved” for Christmas, because all I can think of is that story now.
LW, keep staying away as much as you can, keep things as they are, blow off your mom’s concerns as best you can and distract her if necessary. You can’t live up to Caroline and why the hell should you have to keep trying to any more?
I went through this. (Not saying my situation is/was the same as yours, but…)
I couldn’t wait to leave home, though I couldn’t articulate the reasons why. I went off to college and basically never came back and have never lived closer than 300 miles away since.
Once I started to get mentally healthier (
yearsdecades of therapy, decades of being on my own with at most 1-2x per year contact), I noticed that every time I visited “home”, I would come back feeling horribly dead and empty and miserable and it would take me a month to recover. I think it says something about my relationship with my birth family, but I’m still trying to figure it out in a way that makes a difference.
One data point, though: my mother died 7 years ago, and I’ve never felt any sense of loss or sadness at her death. It was like I’d heard about a stranger dying.
LW – You’re not dysfunctional. And frankly, if you are, you’re not dysfunctional all by yourself.
I live a great physical distance from my family. My mother and her sister, my aunt, are extremely close emotionally, and they wish my cousins and I were emotionally close as well. I would have liked this too, but it’s not all up to me.
Long stories short – Cousin #1 was in big touch about a decade ago when she was off travelling and my tiny apartment was a convenient waystation. The only times I’ve heard from her since are when she thanked me for the gifts I sent for the births of her children. Cousin #2 and I have been at loggerheads since we were small children, but it took the fact that he and his wife took a full year to acknowledge their wedding presents (including the nice one I sent since I was unable to attend) to get my parents to admit that perhaps I was justified in not going into debt to attend.
My parents tell me my cousins say nice things about me and I say, “How nice. Wouldn’t it be nicer if they told me directly.” And then my parents go on about how their problems should excuse them from reaching out to me and I say [paraphrasing for emphasis], “I have problems too, yet you don’t seem to think that’s an excuse for me not to reach out to them. I can remind you what major life events I’ve experienced that my cousins never bothered to acknowledge. So if they have five minutes to say these things to you, they can find five minutes to say these things to me.”
I don’t know why it’s like this between my cousins and me, but there it is. If they wanted to be emotionally close to me they know exactly how to get in touch. We are all adults, have been for some time and therefore capable of choosing who we want to be emotionally close to. The reason my parents pressure me is because they are pretending the family dynamic is this way because I am not physically close to them. If that is the case, then it follows the family dynamic is my responsibility, and not the responsibility of the family. Whereas I disagree. It’s a price I am prepared to pay.
Good luck, LW. It took me a long time to come to peace with this (and do not get me started on my sibling!) but if I can do it, so can you. Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but you’ll get there, I promise.
OMG what IS it with insane expectations about cousins?
My cousin had a terrible and abusive dad who, as part of his abuse, would constantly say “Why can’t you be more like DameB? DameB is much smarter/prettier/thinner/most polite/etc. than you are.” So she hated my stinking guts. Quite reasonably, I understand now, as an adult. As a four year old, I just knew she was mean to me. She got less hateful towards me once her parents divorced, but we’ve never been anything other than polite to each other.
As adults, we’ve achieved a comfortable routine — we say “Hello! How was the drive?”/”Not too bad. Thanks!” at the start of gatherings and “Thank you for coming. Drive safe!”/”Thank you for having me. Be well!” at the end and THAT IS IT.
When I got married, it never even dawned on me to ask her to be a bridesmaid. We literally hadn’t spoken, outside of polite formalities, since we were young teenagers. But my mother still, 15 years later, brings it up as the reason that we aren’t close! “I think your cousin is still upset that you didn’t ask her to be a bridesmaid!” she will say, out of the blue sometimes. I suspect that, as it is with most things with my mom, it has nothing to do with reality. Instead, it’s everything to do with my failure to conform to the Norman Rockwell painting that’s constantly projected in her head. She’s using it as a way to criticize me. (FWIW, I’m willing to bet large sums of cash that she didn’t want to be a bridesmaid.)
Ha. Right? My extended family declined to attend my wedding because I was getting married too young and going to get divorced anyway. After six months, when we were still married, the cousins and my aunt/uncle chipped in together to buy us a beautiful but useless present (think blown glass sculpture) that has remained in my parents’ house ever since, because shipping it to where I actually live has always been prohibitively expensive. They could have given a portable present, or paid for the shipping themselves, but of course they didn’t. And my mother still points to it as proof that my cousins like me. At least she’s getting some enjoyment out of it.
I spent years taking the high road with my extended family but as it hasn’t made a damn bit of difference, I’ve decided the best way to win is to opt out. As an added bonus, my cousin’s kids all really like me. I hope that annoys their parents to death. 🙂
My mother and her siblings really wanted all of their kids to be as close as they were, and put a lot of work into getting us all together every so often. Which I really appreciate! My cousins are all pretty great people and I like hanging out with them. But it took asking my mom, “Well, we’re cousins not siblings; how close are you to *your* cousins?” for her to get that we probably wouldn’t ever be as close as the aunts and uncles hoped, and that’s ok.
Similarly, one of my aunts apparently never even considered the idea that maybe one of the cousins wouldn’t invite everyone [40+ people at this point] to their wedding. My mom brought this up with a different aunt (along the lines of “weddings are expensive, some people might get cut and that’s life”), and Aunt #2 apparently said, “Well, her kids haven’t always been the nicest to some of my kids, I’m not sure they’d WANT to invite them.” And she’s correct, they’d be 100% within their rights.
Does Mother have siblings? Is she close with them? Do they talk on the phone and travel great distances in order to visit? I can’t help noticing that LW didn’t mention the presence of aunts and uncles at these family gatherings. It makes no difference to the advice, but I have found it easier to deal with the family dynamic if I can swallow a smile at evident hypocrisy.
Another possibility when the haranguing about closeness gets particularly bad is to ask Mother: What’s the right number of times to talk to Sister each year? What’s the right number of times to visit? How close am I supposed to live? It might (though I doubt it) shake her into understanding that no matter how often you visited, her answer would always be “more.” You might ask Mother to point to an example of a real family (not a fictional one) that she imagines to be close. I’ll bet there’s tons of issues under the surface civility.
It’s possible that Mother’s questions are her way of saying that loves you, loves seeing you, and misses you and that you’re taking literally questions that are meant to be general welcoming statements (the way “take care of yourself” is a generic way of saying “I want you to be well”), but it sounds like Mother is being, at least subconsciously, manipulative.
As for the difference between the outgoing, social, “good” child– I do believe there are people who are naturally more social than others, but I also imagine a lot of it goes back to our earliest interactions. One baby smiles or gurgles (my brother), and the mother (likes boys), gives tons of attention back. He becomes a people pleaser. The other baby (me, I’m female) smiles and gurgles, and the mother (isn’t as big on girls) pays less attention. The boy has boy friends, and Mother likes boys, and the boys are welcome at the house and paid attention to, and the boy child gets good at social interaction. From the earliest age the girl child gets less practice with kids her own age.
This may be beside the point, but high school boyfriends actually TOLD you that they were using you to get to your sister!? You know I can almost understand how someone could use you for an introduction (lots of girls befriended me to get to my popular good-looking brother), but dating you more than once and then telling you was gratuitously cruel.
Yes to your first two paragraphs. A variation in my family is that one of my mother’s most fundamental feelings about herself is the fact that her childhood and older adult life would have been much happier if she hadn’t been an only child. She grew up in an isolated rural area, and both my grandparents lived until their 90s, so she had a lot of years of caregiving. Needless to say, for her this means families with more children are happier, better, and more loving. And of course, this means that my sibling and I were meant to have big families, and our first priority was supposed to be living nearby and give her the family she didn’t have growing up.
It took her until her 70s to start realizing that having siblings might cause different dynamics and problems, and that maybe Imaginary Siblings would still have left her with all the caregiving, or there could have been an ongoing situation similar to the LW’s. The trouble is that since Imaginary Siblings will never be real, they can always be perfect and exactly what you want, and that’s the hardest thing for her to let go of. It even influences questions like the ones you suggest above, about the right number of visits and times to talk to Sister. When we pose them to my mother, she can only sputter, “well, anything!” (The problem isn’t that we’re not visiting, the problem isn’t that her family doesn’t look like her vision.) That might be something for the LW to look out for even when she’s following CA’s scripts – that her mom might not have a straightforward answer due to her own issues.
An only child myself, and going to co-sign this– I KNOW, intellectually, because I haven’t lived my 26 years in a vacuum, that sibling relationships are often fraught: my best friend has troubled relationships with some of her siblings, as do both of my parents– my mother fights constantly with all three of hers and my father mostly lives his life as though his brother doesn’t exist– but I still in my heart of hearts crave that shared context and mutual reliance that books have told me siblings have when things go well. I still can’t quite reconcile that it isn’t a condition of being an (introverted, anxious) only child (of dysfunctional parents) that I have to build my own relationships and emotional home– that’s what EVERYONE has to do, regardless of how many kids their parents had. I can see how that could set traps for me if/when I have children, because I’ve never had to live the reality of negotiating siblinghood, only a fantasy built to contrast my own life. (Being an only child had definite pluses, and I thought as a teen I’d overcome the yearning I’d felt as a little kid for siblings, but nope! it reappeared in my twenties as an aching nostalgia for something I’ve never had, when my mom and her aforementioned odious siblings came together after the death of their father and traded memories and helped clear out his house.)
I am also reminded of something my therapist said about this idea of how bad a parent has to be before a child can consider them self hurt enough. She said that children who grow up with a consistent healthy parent figure thrive. Children who grow up with a consistent absence of any healthy parenting at all tend to find coping skills and with help can later thrive, although they feel the impact. It is children who grow up in inconsistent levels of parenting (chaotic homes, homes where one parent is in conflict with the other vs healthy unhealthy parenting, or favouritism/playing children against each other) that tend to struggle to deal with the paim this causes. I know I tend to look at unhealthy families as a spectrum with serious neglect and abuse at one end – which is a typical idea of what ‘unhealthy’ is accepted as, and happy perfection at the other. Since my family were not the consistently absent type at what I deemed the serious end; I felt that I didn’t have much cause to feel as hurt as I did in my family. While they are not the worst of the worst, the unpredictable and often contradictory environment where my parents say one thing and do another (abusive) thing on a chaotic basis has affected me in ways I wasn’t conscious of at first. Part of that confusion was my parents unwillingness to acknowledge the chaos and stop pretending to be happy perfection.
My childhood was pretty bad, and my parents are, respectively, a terrible person who doesn’t mind doing terrible things, and an actually pretty nice person who just couldn’t be arsed if it caused conflict, and so I essentially grew up as though I’d been raised by wolves. And over and over again from people who legitimately had abusive or neglectful parents I hear “it wasn’t that bad, why am I so fucked up?” And I tell them the truth: it doesn’t have to be as bad as it can get to be bad enough to hurt you.
As bad as child abuse can get kills you. For the rest of us, it wasn’t as bad as it can get–and that doesn’t mean we have to be grateful that our parents didn’t kill us or let us die, it means that any amount of abuse is too much, because any amount fucks you up.
At this point I’ve heard so many horrifying stories from people who also said “it wasn’t that bad” that when I hear that, I automatically assume it was definitely, absolutely, 100% THAT BAD.
And even it is wasn’t THAT BAD, I want to second the idea that “it doesn’t have to be as bad as it can get to be bad enough to hurt you” as hard as I can. I don’t fucking care if it was subtle, your pain counts. I don’t fucking care if it was only sometimes, your pain counts. I don’t fucking care if there were good times too, your pain counts. I don’t fucking care if they were doing the best they could, your pain counts. I don’t fucking care if someone else had it worse, your pain counts. I don’t fucking care if you were “difficult,” your pain counts.
I assumed for years that “happy perfection” didn’t exist, so if X or Y or Z never happened to me I should feel lucky. And for years I did– I thought my upbringing was beyond reproach and was honestly confused why I felt so depressed all the time and why I felt this breezy hostility intermingling with the affection I felt for my parents and why I felt so sad I could cry for hours if my dad said he loved me or was proud of me. I’ll give you a hint– it’s because that’s not how this works. We’re not obligated to feel lucky because X or Y or Z didn’t happen. We feel how we feel because of what did happen. And X, Y and Z might not have happened to you but H, I, and J did. Or neither thing happened but neither did A or B or C, which would have been wonderful things you might mourn.
That’s stuff that affects us for lifetimes, whether our childhood stuff was The Worst In The World or not.
What jumped out at me with this one LW, is that it’s your mother who seems to have an issue with the fact that you and your sister are not very close (at least in your mother’s estimation). Is your sister satisfied with the relationship the two of you have? If so, this is your mother pushing her expectations on the both of you, which is not cool. So i might even go with a script of, “The way things are between sister and I work for me. And since she hasn’t said anything to me, I’m guessing it’s working for her too.”
Now, maybe your sister isn’t happy with the way things are. But if so, then she needs to talk to you about it herself. She shouldn’t be complaining to mom in hopes that Mom will play intermediary — which is the other possibility of what’s going on here. Even if your sister is unhappy with the way things are and she gets the message and talks about it directly, you’re firmly entitled to say “Sorry sister, but I’m comfortable with the way things are between us right now” if that’s the way you really feel. But if that’s a conversation that needs to happen, that’s a conversation that should be between you and your sister, not between you and your sister by way of Mom.
Either way, the bottom line is that your mother would do well to leave your relationship with your sister up to, well, you and your sister.
I go through the same thing with my mom. She is very worried about the fact that my sister and I are close, while neither of us are close to our brother. So much of it based on her own insecurities and hurts. Her brothers rarely talk to her, despite the fact that she reaches out to contact them regularly. She usually finds out there has been a family gathering involving all the aunts, uncles, and cousins, when she sees the photos on Facebook. She is so afraid that my brother will feel left out like she does that she harasses my sister and me pretty regularly about “reaching out” to my brother and frets that he’ll spend all of his holidays alone after she and dad pass because we won’t invite him. (He’s not married, no kids.)
She fails to recognize that my sister and I have a close relationship because we each reach out to contact the other. We express an interest in each other’s lives. We don’t behave like jerks when we see each other. Mom says we have to “reach out” to my brother because he’s “too insecure” to contact us, because he thinks we don’t like him. According to her, it’s the woman’s job to maintain the family relationships, because men can’t do that for themselves.
I tell my mom, “Mom, we’re not children anymore. It’s not your job to mediate our relationships. Communication is a two-way street. It’s unfair to put all of the burden on me because Brother ‘won’t’ call or text me. He’s CHOOSING that behavior so he’s CHOOSING not to have a relationship with me.”
And then I remind her that consistently reaching out to her brothers hasn’t exactly created a close relationship with them for her. Sometimes, relationships just die out. My brother will always be invited to our homes for the holidays, as long as his behavior remains merely jerkish and not toxic, but we’re not going to beg him to remain in our lives the he doesn’t seem to want much to do with us.
Just wanted to mention as well that it’s pretty typical for teens and young adults to move from “family is the center of my life” to “friends are the center of my life”. In one of my health classes ages ago, we talked about how most people start with their family as the most important, and then they transition to it being friends, and then as they start to have children, parents get older and need care, etc., it often (although not always) will transition back to family again. So no matter what happens down the road, or what the family dynamics, you’re normal here for wanting to focus on friends more than family.
Also, as someone else who has moved a distance away from my family and so is usually the one who travels because it’s easier for one person than for everyone (they do sometimes come visit me, but for *reasons* [such as stairs in my place and an elderly adult with mobility issues, for example] it generally works out that I do the traveling), I want to say that it’s okay to figure out how much you can travel and then let your family be okay with it. I live a bit closer and so can go every other month or so for a weekend, but there are times when I have to say no because of the energy/cost of gas/busy schedule/etc. That can make my family sad. That can make ME sad. But I recognize (as do they) that we have chosen to live our lives in different places for *reasons*, and part of what that entails is not seeing each other as often as we would like, and some family get-togethers involve me being there only by phone (or not at all), and I DON’T get to be my niece/nephews’ primary babysitter (I like them lots) or go to preschool Christmas pageants or what-have-you. And that’s hard at times but it’s okay to have boundaries and say no, whether your reasons are, “These people do not bring out my best self,” or, “These people are too much work and I don’t have enough spoons right now,” or, “The Unexpected Thing was too expensive this month and I can’t afford gas,” or, “I’m volunteering at Place every weekend this month because of Grand Event and I have no free time for visits.”
I’m a little bothered that you think the problem is all you. Your feelings when you think about visiting are, IMO, a kind of canary in the coal mine. They’re warning you that you’re about to do something harmful to yourself by going to visit them. You did not establish your family dynamics, and I think maybe your difficulty in protecting yourself from those dynamics now without feeling like you are doing something wrong is part and parcel of your role as family scapegoat. Your feelings matter, your boundaries matter, and your role in the family is not your fault. It’s also not one that you have to play forever, though, and your discomfort is telling you how harmful that role is for you. Sending you a lot of love and support. You are allowed to be comfortable and happy, and you are not sullen and ungrateful if you chafe at sacrificing your comfort and happiness because that’s your assigned job and your mother just wants you to pipe down and do it so that she can have her “happy family” fantasy fulfilled.
LW, there is nothing wrong with you. Basically, it sounds like everyone was fairly happy with the family dynamics growing up except for you. Now that you are out of a dynamic that isn’t working for you, of course it’s not fun for you to go back to that, even though you do feel love towards your family. Dynamics CAN change, but it takes work and everyone has to put in some effort. The rest of your family seems pretty comfortable with the current dynamics, so they aren’t likely to change spontaneously. Also, it’s very normal to fall back into old patterns when around old friend or around people you grew up with, even if those patterns are not necessarily pleasant. They are comfortable and easy to fall back into, I do it too for sure.
I’ve had a few times where me and my husband or me and my siblings have had to enforce boundaries very strongly with my parents because the current family expectations were not working for us and quite frankly weren’t reasonable. It was UNCOMFORTABLE, but so, so worth it as it did change things. Sometimes just enforcing a boundary over and over until they get you are serious works, they may not like it, but they usually get used to it with minimal grumbling. If that isn’t working, sometimes a “I need to address these things” e-mail has had to come out because boundaries were not being respected even when they were made clear. We tried not to be harsh, just “Hey look, we can’t keep visiting if you are going to do X, Y & Z with our child when we have told you that is not acceptable.” Basically are parenting was being undermined consistently on each visit and our oldest child was a wreck for a week or two after each visit with them, ugh. It was done from a place of love for their granddaughter, but it was NOT working for our family. Anyway, we laid it out and they respected our boundaries. Do they still mess up at times, sure, and we reinforce the boundary, but mostly they’ve gone out of their way to not overstep. If they didn’t, we would absolutely cut visits short or whatever was needed to enforce our boundaries.
So I would start with addressing things in the moment as matter-of-factly as you can per the Captain’s advice, but if it makes sense, sometimes laying it all out there can help too. We had boundary issues with my parents before kids, but we mostly just said “Huh, well we are doing this. (When their expectation was something else, like they thought we should still attend all extended family events after we got married, but we weren’t going to, etc.)” But once kids were in the picture, it got worse and we felt like we had to do more because it wasn’t just us suffering, it was our kids too.
And if you do want to reach out to your sister outside of your parents, I would encourage you to as the dynamic between the two of you will probably be much easier to change without them hovering. But if you don’t want to, you don’t have to, there are no rules (despite what society/your mom says) about how to do family. My siblings and I were pretty close growing up, but I was not that close with my sister, but now that we are all adults with kids, we are all much closer and enjoy getting together with just us siblings. We get together with Mom & Dad too and they are great, but the times they aren’t there the dynamic is so different.
As many others have said already, there’s nothing dysfunctional about your response. I see my parents three times a year at most (largely because they’re able to visit me), my sister once a year at most. Twice a year was as much as I ever managed to get home under the best of circumstances. Nobody called me selfish because of that, or even thought it unusual.
Oh, and this is a situation with zero baggage. I’d be perfectly happy to see them more often, and this is STILL all we get.
You know, LW, every once in a while you just meet someone who doesn’t bring out the best in you. There are people I know that aren’t bad people and don’t do this intentionally, but they bring out things in me I don’t like – an inner mean girl, a weird insecurity, abrasiveness, a jealous streak, whatever.
When that happens I do make a good faith effort to do some introspecting (introspection? wevs) and figure out if what’s happening is My Issue that I need to deal with, and sometimes it is, and sometimes that person just isn’t a great person for me to be around.
You just might be related to someone like this, and it’s not your fault, and just because you’re related doesn’t mean she can’t be a Small-Doses Friend.
Echoing everyone who has said this: LW, there is nothing wrong with you and no-one (includng you) should be making you feel guilty about liking life better with some distance between you and your family. In many ways you could be describing how things were between me and my sister, except that she was “the popular one” rather than “the hot one”, and there was an undercurrent of jealously between us (in both directions – I was “the clever one”, in a social context where that was NOT valued, but it still left her cast as “the stupid one”, which she’s not). To this day, we are able to be better to one another if we have only occasional contact. If that works for you you are perfectly entitled to stick to it too.
What does strike me now, with hindsight (and it may not be the same for you) is that I don’t think the whole thing originated with our parents, though there were ways in which they probably could have managed / confronted it better than they did. The most annoying thing, when I look back over my upbringing, was how EVERYBODY seemed invested in enforcing the division between us – distant relatives, friends, teachers, you name it. Even in trivial things: my sister has always been a great cook, and I came later to it, but I’m not bad, though I say it myself. And still, decades after I left my old home town, I go back to find people acting surprised that I’m capable of making a batch of cookies to take with me. And no doubt they’re giving her the same disbelief about being able to balance her bank account, when legend had it she was no good at maths.
It’s a pattern I can see repeated right down my family: my two aunts, two pairs of cousins (one pair brothers, so it’s not just women), two great-aunts I remember visiting from Australia when I was a kid… one the designated popular/sensible one, and one the designated dreamer. One of the aunts even told me she thought it was some kind of hereditary thing – that there’s one like me (and her sister) in every generation (!!!) But it’s nurture, not nature: as I’ve got older I’ve seen it in other families, including between adopted siblings who aren’t biologically related. It’s a pattern society seems determined to impose, and I’m blowed if I can think why. What is it with people that they can’t see two siblings without having to cast them as one another’s opposite? Is it just a branch of general stereotyping / social laziness?
Anyway, coming back to the original point, before I start ranting: LW, this is in all likelihood something that was laid on you from a very young age, before you had had time to grow the skills to ward off its baleful effects. You have done really well since, both in recognising it and in working out for yourself what you needed to do / where you needed to go to be the happy, confident, well-adjusted person you can be. Be kind to that person now: stop thinking of yourself as “messed up” when you’ve actually made great strides (greater than I have, though I’ve had longer to try) in un-messing yourself. Cut yourself a little slack! And consider cutting a little *less* slack to those whose interference, even it if is well-meant, tends to undermine you.
This – this came up in another thread, I think the one where the LW was a teenage girl whose mother was nagging her about her weight? It was a conversation about the boxes that people get shoved into as children.
I think it’s incredibly dangerous – I was the smart, clumsy one, the introverted reader. I was clumsy because I was nearly blind and didn’t get glasses until I was 11, when I should have had them probably at 4 or 5, because hey, I was just clumsy, right?
And after several years of lackadaisical home schooling (really no schooling at all) when I returned to public school and was hopelessly behind in math, I got no help or tutoring, because I liked to read and therefore I must be smart and therefore didn’t need any help, right? I did horribly in math all through high school and followed a specific degree program because it didn’t involve math, which meant I now have 2 pretty useless degrees, when in reality, I would have probably done very well in a STEM program had I just had some fucking help with long division in 6th grade and not developed a freezing phobia of having to do math that I still struggle with.
Tl;dr, I still carry a lot of bitterness over that, and for the parents on this thread, please, please, be careful about how you refer to your children and labeling them as “the X one” or “the Y one,” or acting completely gobsmacked when your kid wants to try something new that doesn’t jibe with the role they’ve been shoved into.
This. And when those boxes involve value judgements about the character of a child–X is The Good One and Y is The Bad One–they have a particularly pernicious effect. I grew up as The Good One, and my sister was The Bad One, and then I exited pursued by a bear at 17, and my sister suddenly became The Good One, and it SERIOUSLY FUCKED WITH HER HEAD.
Whereas I did not care about being The Bad One because honestly, the difference between Good and Bad in my family was very minimal, so it was just another reason for me to be glad I was out of there.
Different families organize doing the family thing in different ways. The visiting conversations remind me that in some families it is similar to the question of whose office the meeting takes place in. Were you called to the office of a superior kinda like you were in school? Do you alternate visits with peers, or is there one place or person that is the hub? Did the d00d say come here and you went, or did you say huh, you’ve got legs, you want to talk to me you can walk over here or eff off with your male dominance display. There is a lot of dominance and submission posturing going on in these dynamics that can be very hard to sort out given our lifetime of conditioning.
It’s complicated, innit?
LW, I feel you. Growing up, my sister and I fought in normal sibling ways – or so I thought. When we reached our mid- to late-20’s and were out of the house/graduated college (this is the key!), our relationship began to improve drastically. We rarely fight at all – the closest we get are civil disagreements where we can both admit that we simply don’t agree and move onto a new topic.
With this improved communication, we were able to figure out that our mom had been /creating/ additional, unnecessary conflict FOR YEARS. (It is truly monstrous some of the things she did to my sister.) When we began talking about it, we realized just how much she did and how it caused us to fight and basically hate each other. But we were hating an image of the other person – not whom we actually were. I viewed my sister as the younger, spoiled, favored child who got away with everything even though she didn’t try as hard at school. She viewed me as the older, bossy, favored child who she could never live up to because she was never good enough compared to me.
Reality: my sister was younger but she only “got away with more” because she “got away with” different things than I did. As for not trying as hard at school – she constantly struggled because she is more of a hands-on person rather than an academic-minded one like me; also, she got stuck with some pretty lousy teachers while I got super lucky and had all the wonderful, awesome teachers.
Reality for me: I’m not bossy per se – I just do not tolerate the bad behavior of others. I was good at school so grades were easy, but I always struggled more with the social stuff than my sister did (but being good at school was more valuable than social skills in our family).
What I found out was that my mom had been comparing my sister to me throughout school. Anytime I came home with an A+ whatever, I was so proud (and so I should have been!) and wanted to share it. What I didn’t know was my mom would later isolate my sister and say, “your sister got an A+, what did you get on your whatever? B? Why didn’t you do better/try harder/etc.?” She actually compared our freaking SAT scores! So for me, I had been baffled for years why my sister resented my academic success and she wondered why I would be so cruel to “rub it in her face” all the time. Needless to say, we realized that our mom was the center of most of our fights.
I no longer tolerate our mom’s behavior (nor our family’s enabling); my sister has not reached that point. But what I have found is that whenever the two of us visit the family home alone, our parents try to force us back into our high school roles – trying to make us people we never were, not even 10+ years ago. It leads to serious fights. Like you, I limited how often I visit and when I visit, I will not go to their house unless my SO is with me for protection (they behave better around non-family members). I too, get the whining of “why don’t you visit more”/”don’t you love us”/etc. nonsense. It’s manipulation, pure and simple. I have been following the Captain’s scripts for years and they really work. Their constant questioning will die down when they realize your answer will never change. They are just pushing your boundaries because they used to be able to.
Be strong, LW, and know you are not alone!
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