My mom was married to “Joe” for 19 years, my entire childhood, and they had two kids together. Their relationship was… tumultuous, largely because of Joe’s selfishness, sexism, short temper, and complete inability to manage money wisely, among other charming qualities. He has a rather large extended family and kids from his first marriage, and they were present for my childhood, but I wasn’t really close with any of them. About 7 years ago, when I was 21, he and my mom (finally) split up, and I didn’t keep in contact with him or his family, although I would occasionally hear from my siblings what they were up to. My mom remarried, but that relationship ended about 18 months ago, when she and Joe reunited. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t changed. I quietly hoped that this new go-round of their relationship would implode within a year, but that hasn’t happened, and at this point, I’m pretty much resigned to having him around. I’m polite when I encounter him at my mother’s house, but that’s it. I haven’t made efforts to reconnect with his extended family.
This summer, Joe’s mother died unexpectedly. I knew this was hard for my brother and sister, and I had always liked Joe’s mother, even if we weren’t especially close, so I made sure to stop by the wake (although I didn’t attend the funeral; my husband and I already had plane tickets to visit his family in another state that weekend, but I wouldn’t have attended anyway). This was the first time I’d seen most of Joe’s family since he and my mom reunited. (I’d seen some of them at my sister’s graduation – post-divorce, pre-reconciliation – and we were mutually polite but distant.) At the funeral home, several of Joe’s relatives seemed surprised but happy to see me. I received (and awkwardly accepted) a few hugs, I got called “sweetie” by Joe’s dad, and one of Joe’s brothers introduced himself to my husband as “Uncle Alex.” Later, one of Joe’s sisters got my current address from my sister. I kind of felt like I was being welcomed back into the family – except, I don’t want to be part of this family!
I’m sure this won’t be the last time I’ll be together with Joe’s family members – I wouldn’t be surprised if his older kids started showing up at my mom’s during the holidays, and my brother recently announced his engagement, so there will be events related to that. I know I’m worrying about events that haven’t happened yet, but I don’t want to be caught off-guard in the moment. How can I draw boundaries with Joe’s relatives (and Joe, and my mom) to make it clear that I don’t consider Joe or his relatives my family?
— Not Your Daughter (she/her pronouns)
Dear Not Your Daughter,
“How can I draw boundaries with Joe’s relatives (and Joe, and my mom) to make it clear that I don’t consider Joe or his relatives my family?”
I like your question.
You want to do the right thing.
You want to prevent hurt and misunderstanding by making some kind of blanket statement so that everyone’s expectations are in the right place and you’re not bothered with all these feelings of guilt and filial obligation. You’re being proactive and in control!
The thing is…it’s hard to really prevent people from inviting you places or being happy to see you when you do a nice thing like drop by a wake for their dead relative. You can’t send out a “BTW, I Don’t Consider You Family. Please Don’t Ever Talk To Me” cards without becoming the jerk in the story. This is going to be handled over time on a case-by-case basis, which might mean fielding some more awkward hugs or well-meaning invitations that you don’t want for a while until things find a new normal. Your beef is with Joe and with your mom for re-uniting with a dude you strongly dislike, not the rest of everybody for being glad to see you for a minute. I promise, you don’t have to send these people birthday cards because you ran into them at a wake.
The main boundary that needs setting here is with yourself. Repeat after me:
“If I, Not Your Daughter, am invited some place by Joe’s relatives that I don’t want to go, I will politely decline the invitation without a second thought. I will not feel guilty or agonize about it or yell ‘WHAT DO YOU PEOPLE WANT FROM ME?’ I will just say ‘No thanks’ and then go on with my life. If they invite me 1,000 more times, I give myself permission to say ‘No thanks’ 1,000 times. I will continue to be polite when I’m at my mom’s house. Otherwise, I will not perform Dutiful Daughter for a dude I can’t stand. If people think I’m distant, let them. Maybe they’ll stop inviting me to stuff. If Joe (or Mom, as his proxy) tries to exhort me to ‘try harder’ I will say ‘I prefer not to’ and leave the encounter as quickly as possible. Most of all, I give myself permission to stop worrying about this. When I was a kid I had to do what other people said, but as an adult I’m free to cultivate my own ‘family’ relationships and let the ones I don’t want die on the vine.“
Once your own boundaries about this are rock solid, the actual interactions with Joe’s extended family will be so much easier. You will like them more when you can see them as kind strangers (vs. extensions of Joe) and can say “Thanks for thinking of us, but no thank you!”
Another way to be proactive over time is to cultivate a relationship with your mom that isn’t at her house and isn’t with Joe (or AT Joe), like a monthly Mother-daughter-lunch-and-a-movie, where you might try to have pleasant, casual, light conversations and make some new memories to push the bad memories out. Eventually your mom might raise the “So, I know you don’t like Joe, but…” and you will say, “No, I don’t. But I want you to be happy, so I will be nice to him for your sake.” And your Mom will say “Well, Uncle Alex was asking about you at Joe’s birthday dinner…” and you’ll say “I don’t really think of him as my uncle, but he seems like a nice guy. How is [SUBJECT CHANGE] going?” If the subject change doesn’t take and she comes at you with the full ‘But faaaaaaaaamily’ play, here is one possible script for adaptation to your own words:
“Mom, I’ve tried to avoid talking about this, but since you won’t let it go, we’re going to talk about it one time. Okay? Okay. I don’t like Joe. I don’t have happy memories of him from growing up. I don’t think he was a good stepdad. I don’t like the way he treats you, and if he weren’t back in your life, let’s not pretend that he would be in mine. Since he is in your life, for your sake, and [siblings]’s sake, I will be pleasant and polite and do my best to make no waves when I have to be around him. The thing you could do for me in return is to stop pressuring me to feel any certain way about him or to try to bring us ‘closer’ together. How he and I interact now is probably as good as it gets. His [poor behavior, past or present] is not your fault, and my honest reaction to that behavior is also not your fault, nor is it on you to fix. Please, stop trying to make peace here. This IS peace. Thank you for listening. I love these Saturday afternoons with you, and I don’t want them to be all about Joe, so, can we change the subject now? “
As long as Joe is anywhere in your life, things will be uncomfortable, because Joe is uncomfortable. A victory here isn’t getting his rando family members to leave you alone, it’s giving yourself permission to disengage from him in a way that you could not when you were a child under his roof.
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