#962: Mean grandparents and the middle ground.

Dear Cap,

I have an issue with one set of my grandparents – my mom’s dad and stepmom.

Backstory: my mom is a single mom. My dad never paid child support. My sister’s dad pays child support, but for a year or so there he didn’t, and he pays a lot less now than he used to. She’s not careless with money, but we’ve lived paycheck to paycheck my whole life.

A few years ago we were living with her boyfriend and his kids. He’s kind of an idiot, and my mom was very unhappy and wanted to leave him. Financially, this was almost impossible. So she asked these grandparents if they would loan her some money – loan – to help her out, and make it easier to leave this guy. As it was, when she finally decided to leave him, the only place for us to go that she could afford was to live with my other grandparents (her mom and stepdad) in their spare room. These grandparents heard my mother’s request for a loan – the only time she’s ever asked them for money, by the way – and said no. And then asked why she needed money, and to tell them what it was she spent all her money on. As though she was secretly hiding some habit, or was a compulsive shopper, or something – as though she couldn’t be poor just because she was supporting two kids on her own. My mom was very upset, and that was that. They didn’t give her a penny.

Fast forward to now. I was talking to this grandma about the car accident I was recently in. She asked if I’d gotten a settlement yet, and I explained no, my lawyer wants to wait until I’m done with treatment. And she said that she hopes I’m wise about my money if I get a settlement. “You don’t have to spend every single cent like your mom does whenever she gets money,” she said to me. And I said nothing. I didn’t want to start something. So I kept quiet, and she went on and said she just hopes I make better choices than my mom has.

Captain, I’m tired. I don’t enjoy spending time with these grandparents. They’ve always been kind to me but they don’t treat my little sister well. They said this shit about my mom. And when I was in my car accident? They called after they found out, and I didn’t hear from them again for weeks. This was a bad accident – my car was totaled, I had a concussion, bruised ribs, back stuff – and I’m a poor grad student. My mom told them I’d been hit with a lot of bills right away and if they could, I could use some money. My other grandparents sent me money, aunts and uncles – fuck, tumblr friends sent me e-giftcards. Radio silence from my grandparents – not even a ‘how are you feeling?’ text. It stung. And now these comments about my mom?

But since “family is the most important thing,” I feel like I have to keep trying, I have to go to visit them and call them. I know I can’t cut them off.

I don’t know if I should tell my mom about what my grandma said, and I’m worried the next time I talk to them they’ll say similar stuff to me. Advice on how to handle this?

Defensive Daughter

Dear Defensive Daughter,

I wish you speedy healing from your accident.

As for your grandparents, and for other readers who are struggling with strained and exhausting family relationships right now, there is a middle ground between “Work Hard To Maintain A Relationship At Any Cost To Yourself” and “Cut These People Out Of Your Life Like A Dodgy Lesion (And Deal With The Flood of Guilt And ‘But Faaaaaaaamily’ Friction).”

That middle ground is…

Take A Break From Trying To Fix It.

Phones work both ways. Roads work both ways. Kind words of encouragement can be sent both ways. The people in our lives have choices about how they treat us. If you’ve been doing all the work of keeping a difficult relationship going, earning only stressful interactions for yourself, what if you gave yourself the summer off?

You don’t have to make a permanent decision about what to do going forward.

You don’t have to make the relationship different from what it is.

You can give yourself permission to stop trying so hard to connect. 

You have enough information to know that money + your grandparents = no help/not enough help/judgment/lots of ugly strings attached. You also know that your mom is willing to swallow a lot of pride and eat a lot of shit from them in order to survive and take care of you.

Summer is almost here. What if you spent that time focused on healing, being nice to your mom, and to cultivating a good relationship with the relatives who have come through for you?

What if you didn’t call your grandparents or visit them for a while? If they call you, you can make five minutes of small talk. If they don’t, you can enjoy the break from stressing out about them. You don’t have to tell anyone that this is your plan. No big decisions, no big announcements, just, stop taking initiative where they are concerned.

Not to punish them, not to make a point, not to teach them a lesson (they 100% won’t learn that lesson and you’ll waste precious energy) but just…hey, they stress you out, and they aren’t very nice to you, and you don’t need that extra stress of trying to please them or prove something in your life right now. You don’t have to grind yourself up on the expectations of these people. You don’t have to fix the unfixable thing right now.

There’s no need to pass their words on to your mom. It will only hurt her feelings. But you don’t have to keep it a secret, either – if they lay into your mom for how you haven’t been in touch, you could tell her, “Grandma said some mean things to me about you and our family and I took a little break.”

Additionally, next time your grandparents say crappy stuff about your mom, you can be ready for it and in a better headspace to deal with it. “Wow, Grandma, that’s a really mean thing to say about Mom, and it also happens to be totally untrue. Everything Mom did when I was growing up was to keep us safe and take care of us, even when times were very hard for her. I don’t like hearing you talk about her that way. I’m going to get off the phone now, goodbye.”

If you say this to your Grandma, the story may become about how rude and ungrateful you are, which, so what? Her opinion of you can’t possibly be lower than your opinion of her right now, and the world will not end if you fail to respect your elders when they act like jerks. Her statements about your mom say more about her than they do about your mom. You could use that as a script, too: “Grandma, the mean stuff you say about my mom says far more about you than it does about her. Let’s change the subject now.” Also, good job for recognizing that being kind to you but mean to your mom and your sister does not equal “My grandparents are kind people.”

If you do decide to take a break from dealing with them, every few months you can re-evaluate and see if the break is a good idea for you. If you miss them, you’ll know what to do. If you don’t miss them at all, that will be good information, too. Periodically, if you’re feeling up to it, and you want to or as a favor to your mom if you think they’ll bug her about it, spend a few $ to let the Greeting Card Writers of Earth deliver some generic pleasantries in their direction.

About Greeting Cards: Do not underestimate these commercial feelingsdelivery services! A card from my Great Auntie Aura with $5 tucked in it when I was in college was a deeply loving gesture. I know she worked very hard to find the perfect cheesy poem and that $5 was a week’s treat for her passed directly to me with the instruction to “Spend it on a little something for yourself, kiddo.

You could send the same exact “Thinking of You” card with the exact same cheesy poem for reasons of “I am dutifully observing the forms and trappings of connection to substitute for actual connection” or “I am generously leaving a door open between us though my expectations are lower than sea level” and your grandparents would not know the difference. They’ll just think “Yay, postal mail that isn’t a bill!” and you’ll be good for another 6 months.

Whatever you decide, you’re allowed to take a break from worrying about these people. You’re allowed to do the bare minimum. You’re allowed to put your energy into the family relationships that nourish you back. You’re allowed to make this easier on yourself.



63 thoughts on “#962: Mean grandparents and the middle ground.

  1. LW, the captain’s advice is good here. I’m in the same boat, only the sails are different; instead of money, substitute marriage and babies. Send a greeting card every three or six months or so, and save your energy and capital for being as good to yourself as you can be in these circumstances. You have a lot more to deal with right now than one set of cranky old people who will never, ever be happy.

    (FWIW, with mine, I call once every month or so, when I’m driving to (a close) store, so I have a definitely end point on the conversation. Otherwise, I’m busy, facebook hides me, work is so much right now, we’ll have to catch up someday, and someday will probably never happen. I’m OK with this.)

    1. I just wanted to say that I love the idea of calling when on the way to a store, so you can do the convenient “whoops, sorry, need to hang up the phone so I can buy groceries now” or whatever. Awesome idea!

  2. Oof, LW, that relationship sounds super stressful and the Captain is 100% right that you are allowed to take a break from that if you want to.

    If it helps with the guilt around not treating family as the most important thing, maybe think of it this way: you are part of your family, too. So taking care of yourself is taking care of the family member you spend the most time with. And if taking care of yourself means not spending a lot of time on people who are mean to you and to members of your family? Well then. You’re taking care of yourself and supporting your family by spending that time and energy somewhere else.

    Captain, I adore your approach to greeting cards and it makes me want to buy more stamps.

    1. Indeed!
      ALSO – you are part of the family and your grandparents don’t seem to be treating you awesomely, and they’re definitely not treating other members well (ie your mum). Clearly they have difference expectations of family.

  3. we’ve been raised by television and movies telling us that family is this magical bond that pulls everyone together and will always make everything better. This is reinforced by many people in real life saying the same thing. Some are lucky that this is true and put on blinders and assume it’s true universally and others use it as a way to manipulate people. Some people have amazing families, some do not. Some have a mix.

    First thing you needs to accept is that just because someone is family does not mean you have to be best friends with them, be around them, like them or even love them.

    Captain’s advice is great but you’re gonna feel guilty about it, it’s normal, look yourself in the mirror and say: I’m not responsible for my grandparents, they’ve made their choices, I need to do what’s healthy for me.

    1. Logged in specifically to +1 your response. Yesterday was super sucky for me because my mother is not one of those types of people that everyone under the sun seemed to be praising on FB, etc. I wish it was different, but it’s not. For the record, I’m in my 40s – so it’s been like this for a while. Sometimes you just need to keep family at arm’s length to lead a sane life.

    2. This x infinity. “B..b..but faaaamilyyyy” is a manipulative device. The giant, happy, perfect family is as much a media myth as everyone having a million friends, everybody living in the perfect home, and bad/mean/spiteful characters getting their comeuppance, and learning a ~Valuable Lesson®~.

      If these people did not share DNA with you, or were not related to you, would you choose to spend time with them? They’ve treated your mum like shit, they sound creepy and controlling, and you don’t enjoy seeing them – so don’t. It sounds like you have enough stress right now. Like Captain says, let Hallmark take care of things for a while.

      I hope you heal quickly from your accident.

    3. The way I think of it personally is, family is indeed a very important thing, but family is only incidentally and coincidentally related to DNA. And there’s a correlation with ‘who you grew up with’, but it’s not a 1:1 correlation and is also not a reliable predictor of who your family really is.

      YMMV, this makes sense to me.

  4. My grandparents got divorced when my mother was about 3, and when she was about 8, my grandfather remarried, and his second wife (let’s call her Real Grandma) was far more of a mother to my mom and uncle than their birth mother (let’s call her Original Grandma) ever was. And my siblings and my cousins really think of Real Grandmother as our grandmother even though we all knew Original Grandma.

    Anyway, Original Grandma used to try to say nasty things about my grandfather and – particularly – Real Grandma. And my mother’s response was “You are allowed to believe whatever you like, but you are not allowed to say those things to me.” And Mom enforced it, too – one time actually threatening to leave Original Grandma’s house and take us kids with her. Original Grandma backed down. She tried the same thing but in a more subtle way with me once I became an adult. But anyway, the point is, once any of us said “You are not allowed to say those things to me,” she did back down. And if she didn’t, well, what was I going to lose? An uncomfortable relationship with someone who said nasty things about people I love? No big loss.

    But I suspect, LW, that like Original Grandma, if you give your troublesome grandparents a clear directive – “It’s not OK for you to say mean things about my mother” – they will probably back down, too. You might have to say it more than once, but I suspect that a couple of very short phone calls that end with “I’m sorry, but when you say bad things about Mom, it upsets me, so I’m going to hang up now. Talk to you later” will probably do the trick.

    1. I had to use a variation of this with my Grandmother. “Gramma, you’re my grandmother and I love you. But he’s my father and I love him, too. Don’t put me in the middle.” Repeat over and over “you’re putting me in the middle again and I’m not going to stay there” followed by getting up and leaving. Sometimes I’d have to mention, “Dad tries to put me in the middle, too, and I don’t let him do it either” just to reinforce the idea that I’m not going to choose sides between them.

      It took a LONG time, but she finally got it – that I was putting up a boundary. I flat out will not be drawn into the middle of their shite.

      That is the beauty of being an Adult. You’re allowed to draw a line. You’re allowed to give, even your elders, a what-for when they need it. You’re allowed to contradict and correct their version of the facts. It’s hard when you first start doing it – but once you give yourself permission, boy do you save your sanity!

      1. Exactly. And it feels so much more…honorable, too. Unless you can enthusiastically agree with someone’s nasty comments (and I most emphatically did NOT agree with Original Grandma on Real Grandma), it just feels so slimy and awful listening to those nasty comments. Finding a way to stop them is a very special form of freedom.

  5. I had a not-so-nice grandmother and a totally fantastic dream grandmother. Dream grandmother got more of my time and energy. Aunt and uncles got more of my conversation at family parties than not-so-nice grandmother. I didn’t have the ability to call her out when she was not so nice to me as a kid, but when I got older I always did. Her “Your [9-year-old] cousin is fat. I tell her that all the time.” Me “Grandma, that’s mean, you shouldn’t say that to her.” Her “Well, someone has to tell her or the kids at school will” Me “I don’t think you understand your role as a grandmother.” I have to tell you – reaching an age/mindset where I had the confidence to respond like that was quite satisfying.

    Luckily my family is not over-prone to drama so basically I could just call her out in the moment and move on in the conversation to other things and there was no blow-back from anyone else. This might be more trouble than it’s worth in another family. But try it once or twice and see how it feels. Honestly for me, it really nullified the effects of her critical comments and I enjoyed her company more as a result.

    1. “I don’t think you quite understand your role as a grandmother.”

      oh my gosh

      you are a badass

    2. It was exhilarating to finally be old enough and assertive enough to shut down rude and hurtful things my grandmother says. It’s amazing what a deadpan “Wow” or a straight forward “That was a mean thing to say” can do. It does cause a little drama sometimes, but after so many years of putting up with casual insults, condescending chuckles, and weird scenarios where I’m supposed to agree/comply with things I’m against, my Field of F*cks is barren. Just because elders are older and share DNA with me does not mean I am never allowed to counterattack their BS.

    3. Ah thank you….I wish I were that badass more often. I was quite pleased with myself for coming up with that quip in the moment, true, but I was able to say it because I knew my extended family would agree with the sentiment even if they wouldn’t call her out themselves. We are very lucky that none of not-so-nice grandmother’s 5 children adopted her critical nature when it came to raising their own kids/interacting with nieces and nephews.

      But I have let offensive statements go when made about people considered “other” by my family collectively and still stew over my silence in some conversations. Fortunately this isn’t common place, but when it does happen I find myself at a loss for words more than I’d like.

  6. Friendly wave from over here in the land of barely even doing the bare minimum of maintaining a relationship with their grandparents! Both sets of mine are also mean, critical of my parents, and emotionally absent. I didn’t have a wreck, but I did lose most of my belongings in a house fire right before I started grad school. Nary a peep from the grandparents, although like you I had friends sending me gift cards and replacing all my Harry Potter books. Events like that show you where you rate in someone’s life, and if you’re in crisis and someone isn’t willing to even send a kind word your way, its clear you don’t mean very much to them. In a way it’s almost freeing to realize “oh, actually, you know what? they don’t care.” You don’t have to care, either.

    And ya know what? It’s fine. I see my grandparents on occasional holidays and make the occasional phone call, but I never go out of my way. They get none of my emotional energy. And it’s just fine. You can let go and you will be just fine, too.

    Wishing you a speedy recovery.

  7. the world will not end if you fail to respect your elders when they act like jerks

    Saying it louder for the folks in the back. Wishing I had this in my younger, navigating parental divorce days. Also when dealing with inappropriate family comments during my eating disorder days. Captain, you are the best.

    1. Someone I like very much once told me that ‘respecting your elders’ was all very well and good, but that the statement implied that the elders BE worthy of respect.

      1. Exactly this! Respect goes both ways, and in order to get respect one has to be worthy of it not just by virtue of “I’m older!”

        This plays into an attitude I’ve seen among some very faaaaaaaamily-oriented folks I’ve known: they’ve “paid their dues” to faaaaamily when younger, and now it’s *their* turn to cry “Faaaaaamily!” and have the younger folks pay them THEIR dues. It’s like a faaaaamily pyramid scheme of sorts.

        1. “It’s like a faaaaamily pyramid scheme of sorts.” Ha! I love this – perfectly expressed.

  8. It sounds from the letter that much of the tension is around money. Maybe money should be a taboo topic with these grandparents. They may feel like money is the only thing they have to offer. Good luck.

  9. Oof. LW, I hope you are recuperating and I’m glad that you have so many supportive people in your life. Somewhere else on this site someone said of a tough family relationship that they really only controlled 50% of the relationship- if the other person wasn’t making an effort or was being mean, no amount of dedication or communication or contact from their own side was going to fix it. Maybe that thought would help you as you refocus on healing and your other more positive relationships? Your grandparents have a lot of options as to how they interact with you and your mom, and that has consequences for how close you guys are. You don’t owe them an audience if they’re being mean.

  10. I’m going to second the Captain’s advice on sending a card. For a variety of reasons, I’m not especially interested in being close to my grandmother, but the circumstances of my life (grad school being partially paid for by family members, intense Irish Catholic family) mandate at least some degree of performing that relationship. I’ve found cards to be a great way of doing this: they’re quick, you write a few relatively impersonal things (“Happy milestone birthday! What an amazing life you’ve lead!” or “sorry to hear about your illness, I hope you feel better soon!) and put it in the mail. No awkward phone calls or anything of the like. Plus I’ve found my grandmother really likes cards; she’s 85 and saves everything but can’t manage email very well and then can show all her friends the nice card I sent, which seems to make her happy. It’s a fairly low-cost, easy way to act like you’re putting effort into maintaining a relationship you’re not really interested in.

    1. This works for well-liked grandparents as well. When my granddad died and my grandma was left alone she was really happy with a card every now and then (I live too far away to visit more than twice a year). Of course it helped that she had 20 grandkids and most of us sent cards “every now and then” so she always had something new to show and tell visitors.

    2. Yes to a card-based relationship! My Dad and I were not close growing up but now he wants more and I am…less interested.
      Instead I send a postcard with a joke on it once a week which then gives us something to talk about once a month. He loves it and I feel way less guilt with much less time invested. Every few months I make up a new batch so that it is super easy to just drop one in the mail.

  11. Doesn’t have to be just grandparents! I have an aunt, uncle, and 3 cousins that I don’t contact. Make up excuses to not see them. I don’t even have phone numbers for some of them. They get the obligatory Christmas card annually, but that’s it. If they ever decide to stop treating my family like crap, I’ll reconsider the situation. Hasn’t happened yet. My life is better without them.

  12. I had a mean set of grandparents (dumped us 100% after my dad’s suicide when my brother and I were 6 and 10 years old, and they were barely pleasant once a year before that even while lavishing love and attention on my three first cousins by my dad’s sister and while living miles closer to us than to my cousins) and have a controlling mother who is on time out right now (I usually choose framing it as “she’s giving me the silent treatment” because this is true, but I am also deliberately not groveling for her approval and chasing after her).

    As a side note, the money thing is very familiar. I deal with this with my mother, with the addendum that she often promises to help me with something expensive to get me to do something she wants me to do, then reneges, My mom values money more than she values me, projects greed and materialism on me (when I was unemployed, looking for work, and eating one pack of 10 cent ramen per day, as that was all I could afford), accuses me of poor money management (she’s not entirely wrong, but mostly my outgo simply is greater than my income, I have had health issues, wrecked vehicles and lightning frying everything with a plug in my house when already poor, and so during times of prosperity I have to play catch up, and interest absolutely kills any gains I want to make), and so on. What I’m seeing here is your grandparents being selfish with their resources (I assume you wouldn’t ask at all if they couldn’t help) and rather than acknowledging that they are being selfish and unhelpful, they have chosen to project false reasons why they are not helping their child financially so excuse their unhelpfulness. All the noise about how your mother is a spendthrift, a moneywaster, bad at budgeting, whatever: that is clearly not true, but that’s their story. It’s like people who refuse to give a panhandler a dollar because they convince themselves it will be spent on alcohol or drugs, not for food or towards shelter for the night. They can’t say “I am too selfish to part with a dollar,” so they make the panhandler the bad person, a person who will spend anything they are given foolishly. Your grandparents’ story is that your mother won’t use any financial help wisely, even though that isn’t true, because otherwise they are deliberately refusing to financially help their own child who is struggling to feed, clothe and shelter their grandchildren. And that’s mean. And selfish.

    Anyway! You don’t owe mean people who make up mean stories about you or your loved ones ANYTHING that will help them to protect their own self-image as “good people.” You certainly don’t owe them any of your time or attention, which just makes it easier for them to buy into their own mean tales and faked-up worldview.

    Eventually you gotta do you and start valuing your own emotional health. If guilt over being thought of as a bad grandchild is holding you back, consider who you are trying to avoid criticism from. Maybe mean people’s opinions about whether you are good or bad are irrelevant? Maybe reducing the amount of time you have to deal with mean people (who have wrong and offensive opinions about your mom and don’t mind expressing them to you, knowing you are caught in the middle) is not just OK but actually really healthy and self-caring? Maybe it’s OK to start refusing to be their Golden Grandchild so they can maintain the fiction of being awesome grandparents while they are mean to your sister and mom?

    Whatever you choose, LW, realize it is absolutely OK to choose not to interact with mean people. It’s OK to take a time out. It’s OK to cut phone calls short when they are mean. It’s OK to stop being put in the middle. It’s OK to enjoy your other grandparents, who aren’t miserly and mean and judgmental, instead.

    1. Wow, your mother sounds SO MUCH like my mother (who is wealthy, but would like to believe that I am spendthrift and careless, rather than recognize that I’ve had to leave my profession because of the disabling effects of my genetic disorder, and am struggling to get by while raising a daughter with the same disease.)

      She also does the extreme-favoritism thing — while I had to work my ass off as a single parent and often struggled financially, she *paid my brother’s wife to stay home with their three children,* while my daughter had to go to daycare that I paid for.

      I’m sorry that you have had to deal with so many family difficulties. *Jedi hugs if desired*

      1. Thank you. I don’t understand why our parents, and the LW’s grandparents, seem to enjoy being mean. They miss out on so many possible positive interactions by choosing to be nasty instead.

    2. Millions of Jedi hugs to you! My mom was much the same, albeit less severe. She had her own issues from a childhood that was worse than she let on. And I think she would have been happier childfree, but Back In The Day being married and childfree wasn’t really an option. (The Pill and other birth control existed, but there was no concept of “I can choose not to have children at all, ever.”) I think she turned to money and stuff as a risk-free, demand-free source of affirmation and love, or “love” because stuff can’t love you back.

  13. Ugh, LW, your grandparents are being really awful. I’m sorry they missed the memo on How to Not Suck.

    I want to chime in and second the Captain’s advice here. I have relatives who, in my opinion, offend basic standards of kindness, cleanliness, and human decency. While I can’t cut them out altogether for reasons, it felt really, really freeing to block them on social media, stop responding to texts beyond “yes” or “no” information that had to be conveyed, and, yes, mail a card for holidays and birthdays with just the bare minimum: “Happy birthday” + signature.

    You’ll find so much peace once you move jerks to the periphery of your life.

    (And also? It seems like if “Family before everything else” was so important to them, they’d make an effort to treat their family better, so… I think you’re officially allowed to show them as much regard for “family” as they’ve demonstrated thenselves.)

  14. After you stop working to contact them, it starts to feel like freedom.

    Looking at them as ridiculous may help.
    They have also made so many bad choices themselves (not even a text to check on you?!?!) that their opinions are clearly bad.

  15. Add me to the chorus of people saying it’s OK to relax the relationship. My one grandparents I only spoke to long-distance and only saw once a year. They had a bigger impact on my life as an adult than the ones I saw every week.

    Another set I wasn’t what they wanted or expected. I was “too good” for them when I went to my own denomination’s church instead of theirs. (I’m Catholic. they weren’t.) Everything I did was criticized or disparaged in some way. When I was punished by them because my SO failed to write them a thank you note, I let the relationship go.

    And it’s OK. Not all relationships last, you know? As a good friend of mine reminded me, every relationship eventually ends.

  16. LW–just because you share DNA with them doesn’t make them family. My father’s parents and sister always treated us like they resented our existence–how dare we intrude! I stopped talking to them years ago, and I have never regretted this. You don’t have to completely cut them off, but you’re not required to tolerate their BS either. Like Yolanda B. said, show them as much regard for “family” as they’ve already demonstrated. Don’t waste your emotional energy on these people, they’re not worth it.

  17. “family is the most important thing”
    Fuck that noise.

    Or redefine family to mean “people who love me and are kind and supportive.”

    The Captain’s advice to take a break is spot on. Take note of the changes in your life when you’re no longer in contact with them, and then decide whether you want to re-engage.
    Best of luck!

  18. I took a break from being the only one working hard on a relationship with my Grandma. I found out later she was dealing with alcoholism which explained at least some of her behavior, but I don’t regret it. I just couldn’t deal with the one-sidedness anymore where I put in all the effort driving miles and miles with my family so she could meet them and she often still didn’t show up at all even though she promised everyone in the family (not just me) she’d make it. So I stopped trying to reach out. If she sent me a letter or card or whatever, I responded politely, but I didn’t reach out first. I heard through the family grapevine that she was upset she hadn’t seen my twins yet, but I explained to my Mom that I had made the effort in the past for naught and we’d run into each other at a family event soon enough. We did and we’ve rebuilt the relationship a bit now and I’ll probably make a trip to see her as she’s moved a little closer to us now so it is more feasible, but putting things on hold was the right decision and it didn’t end up being permanent for me.

    Did I feel some guilt at first, for sure! FAMILY was ingrained in me as a child as the most important thing. I do still think family is important, but I have to make sure I’m taking care of myself and my husband and children first. And if family is toxic/stressful, then it is ok to limit contact as much as is needed. I’ve not been too upset since the last election that I’m distant from some extended family that I know are Trump voters, political talk has always been difficult with those folks, but it is probably unbearable now :/

  19. Family is one of the most important things. But ‘family’ is made up of the people who offer you care and support and love, and who you offer those things to in return. It’s a support network, it’s an emotional home base, it’s the warmth of knowing these relationships will be here for you no matter what else is going on. Shared blood, on the other hand, is not one of the most important things–it’s not necessarily an indicator of kinship or home or love or any of the things that make family so crucial, and you can choose to ignore it and move on if you want.

    It sounds like these people have never acted as family towards you. They didn’t help care for you as a child (the “it takes a village” thing is super true regardless of how wealthy the parents are or whether both parents are in the picture, and they weren’t part of your village, financially or otherwise). They didn’t help care for you after your accident, when either some financial assistance or some loving words or both could have gone a long way. They don’t treat your shared family members (your mom and sister) as family either. And it sounds like your relationship is based on you calling them, you reaching out–not them trying to stay connected to you.

    I think you should try the Captain’s advice. Don’t go out of your way for them for a couple months–don’t call, don’t stop by, etc. See how long it takes for them to reach out. Maybe I’m wrong, and they do care about their relationship with you and put in the effort to call. But my feeling is that they won’t. If I’m right, you deserve to know that, and you deserve the chance to decide how much you really want to put into a relationship like that, and how you want to define family for yourself.

  20. Would you tolerate that behavior from a friend? From a stranger? Then why tolerate it from “family” ? Best of luck, LW. You got this. Get well soon.

    1. Amen. Why tolerate from family behavior that would get them punched in the face if they said/did those things to a stranger on the bus?

  21. Yes, it can be very freeing to just Stop Doing The Work of staying in contact with people and let the chips fall where they may. My parent divorced when I was really young and my bio father had only been in sporadic contact with me throughout my childhood. After I had my first child in my early twenties I decided to let bygones be bygones and reach out to him. He was thrilled and made lots of noises about wanting a relationship with me. But you know what? He never called me. It was always me who had to reach out to him. One day I called and told him some news and he seemed to be pretty mad that he was finding out this information “late.” I remember thinking, “Maybe if you had called ME sometime, you would have heard about it sooner.” I never called him again, and he still never called me. I haven’t spoken to him in at least eight years? I don’t miss him.

    Good luck, LW. You don’t have to perform the Dance of Happy Families for people who treat your mother and sister as less-than.

  22. Oh LW, I’m so sorry you’re going through this. It sucks, a lot. My own grandma was somewhat similar- she made it very clear my dad (her son) was her least favorite child, and never had a good thing to say about my mom. Still, I tried so hard to be a good grandkid, even when she started saying mean things to me, too. She lived with us as her body started to give out well before her mind, and my mom became her primary caretaker. The mean things she said kept getting worse. And then she kicked my mom in the stomach which nearly killed her (mom had multiple operations there prior, which grandma knew, and knew how dangerous it was to hit her there). I stopped speaking to her. It was rough. I got a lot of “but faaaaamily” and push back from my dad and aunt. But I just couldn’t do it. About three months later, grandma died. And you know what? I was sad. But not for the loss of her, but the loss of the grandmother she should have been.

    Give yourself the break. Make it permanent if you need to. And allow yourself to feel the grief/regret for the grandparents you should have had, and move on with your life. Your grandparents are not being “grandparents”. They’re being awful people who happen to be related to you by blood and some DNA.

    Jedi hugs if you want them, and best wishes on your healing.

  23. It might help to frame this as “family is very important, so I’m not going to listen to anyone say nasty things about my mom.”

  24. Hi LW. I’m thinking your letter must have been hard yo write, and to see here. But, isn’t it a strange relief to see these hard truths run through other’s lives as well? Clearly, your family and its dynamics are not your fault.

    I’d always journaled; the pages were the only one who would accept me. But it wasn’t until I sat down with a real long-form writing app called Scrivener- all the photos, revelent emails, pdf files organized into folders- that I really saw the big picture on how my family operated. Out of the immediacy of a conflict, it was easy to see the long threads of abuse stretching like hot cheese from one to another, bending and sagging without ever breaking. Why my mother was abusive ties to her abusive mother, and back to her own mother, choosing to be cruel. Playing favorites, abandoning and enraging each tier of siblings so that they couldn’t band together to turn and fight.

    You are blessed and lucky to have an ally and friend in your Mother. How she was able to step away and stay sane under all that pressure- it was not something my mother was successful at, and the mental illness took her life. So, the stakes are high. Writing with all the data, it became clearer to me that my mother and at least one of her sisters were incest survivors, and that their mother had abandoned them. And why would that be? I now think that those women were also abused. It’s both ghastly and stabilizing to see that that evil disappears over the horizon of generations, with the abused becoming the abusers.

    In 12-step groups, I hear it said, “I didn’t cause it, I can’t change it and I can’t cure it.” This helped me, in my solo life. I cut contact with my incestous father and the family who rejected shamed and ridiculed me.

    I did not trust myself to stay free of becoming an abuser and the idea that I wouldn’t have children became a vow when I was eleven. I broke the chain.

    Your Mother is a hero.

  25. LW, I’m sorry – I come from a family with similar icy/strained relationships on both sides (I have a relationship with my maternal grandmother but she’s estranged from my mother, and I have no relationship at all with my paternal grandmother for reasons that existed before I was even born) so I sympathize with you.

    I don’t have much to add to the Captain’s excellent advice, but I find that having my paternal grandmother on the relationship setting of “sends a Christmas and Mother’s Day card, doesn’t expect a response” works perfectly for me.

    I do want to give you one piece of advice from personal experience, though. I only have one sibling and we’re pretty much estranged. I also have a pretty emotionally distant relationship with my mother although I see her fairly often because we live close by, but we’ll never have the “calling just to see how you’re doing” relationship that my friends have with their parents.

    My relationship with my mother is much more peaceful since I accepted that I could never have the type of relationship I wanted with her. I allowed myself to mourn the relationship I wished I had and I stopped trying to have that relationship because I was the only one putting effort into it. I wish my mom wanted a closer relationship with me. I wish she cared in the way that I want her to care. But it’s not going to happen, and trying to make it happen just causes more pain.

    Give yourself permission to accept that your relationship with your grandparents will likely never be what you want it to be, let yourself mourn for it, and move on to a place of peace.

    I’ve had to do that with my sibling and my parent and I am honestly in a much better place than if I continued trying to have a closer relationship with people who have made it clear they don’t want one with me. It’s hard, but what’s harder is being injured over and over again.

    It does sound like money is kind of a flashpoint in this relationship. It sucks that your grandparents did not want to help your mother or you when you needed them. But it also shows that they are not people you can go to when you need that type of support. It is awesome that your aunts and uncles and friends stepped up. They sound like a good Team You, and if I were in your position I would put my time/love/energy towards cultivating relationships with your Team You instead of throwing it after people who don’t want it.

    When I’m feeling bummed about the situation with my mom or sibling, I find it helps to reach out to the folks on my Team Me and take a minute to tell them that I’m glad we’re friends.

  26. LW, if I use my imagination to be really charitable with your grandparents for a second here, maybe your mom’s relationship with your grandparents is really fraught and your grandparents could have valid reasons to be upset with her. Maybe some of your mom’s choices have affected your grandparents more than you realize now (or vice versa).

    Even if that were true, your mom’s relationship with your grandparents, your grandparents’ relationship with you, and your relationship with your mom are each their own thing. It doesn’t matter what your mother did or didn’t do: your grandparents should not be speaking poorly of your mother to you. That is F-minus grandparenting on their part. I’m sorry they’re missing out on a good relationship with you by insisting on spitting poison at you.

  27. Your first duty in this is to your mother. And since she is a wonderful mom and you love her, your other duty (to yourself) is to stand up for her. I add this on top of the Captain’s advice.

    1. My strong feeling is that LW’s first duty is to themself actually; surely everyone’s clear first duty is to themself until/unless they have children (and even then it’s a muddy issue). Their second duty can be to their mother if that feels right to them.

      And I reckon LW’s duty to their grandparents currently ranks around #7,000,000,000,042, right under their duty to dung beetles.

  28. Sorry if this story doesn’t feel relevant–I somehow feel like it is and will try to keep it short.

    My dad is mostly a good dad but used to go on rants if he had a problem with something I was doing and you just couldn’t get him to shut up. The last of these was in the month approaching my wedding, when we announced to him that my husband wanted to take my name. He had all these reasons that was terrible (which boiled down to “you’ll embarrass me in front of my friends”) but the main thing was that during the rant he said the words “I don’t want you to have my name.” This from a guy who told others proudly about my achievements, printed and bound and sold my college poetry and called me a “world-class poet” (I’m not really), etc. I actually did realize it wasn’t personal. I also realized 1) the depth of his sexism and 2) the fact that the sound of his own voice making dramatic statements was so sweet to him it could blind him utterly to wtf he was actually saying to someone he cared about.

    I didn’t “deal with it” with him or make it OK. Instead I used it for myself, as the final cut freeing me from his expectations. I wrote a nice letter to give him on my wedding day, I still love him, I talk to him plenty, I always find his conversation interesting just like I used to, but I don’t care if my life and career fulfill him, and if he ever starts a rant on me again (he hasn’t, perhaps because I’m married now? patriarchy) I will give him one warning and hang up the phone. The level of our relationship has changed. I didn’t announce it. I just live it.

    I think here is what I’m saying. You can cut off or write off a part of someone. When you’re old enough to identify with clear eyes what is the terrible part of someone, you can cut *that* part out of your life. You can treat them with kindness and respect until they take Terrible Part out of its cage for a walk, and then you can roll your eyes, give them the stone face till they change the subject, give them a warning and then end the conversation, whatever you choose–you can treat them the way Terrible Part deserves, because that is what is looking at you right now. You can accept that you have a certain kind of relationship and not another kind.

    And yes, you can definitely change how much effort you make to reach out based on the reality of the relationship.

    1. This post also reminded me of my dad, who is, at best, emotionally distant, and at worst a narcissistic racist alcoholic. There are many things I do love about him, he’s my dad after all, but I finally had to just – let go. I haven’t cut him off or anything, but I stopped trying. I stopped reaching out, or calling, and I stopped expecting him to really care. He is what he is. I send cards and texts at the appropriate intervals or holidays, and I’ll answer the phone if he calls but otherwise – eh. (As a side note, he hasn’t called since I finally lost my temper with his racist remarks about Obama and all liberals – and told him to stop being an asshole or I wouldn’t talk to him, and then put a moratorium on all talk politics because I just can’t.) I haven’t talked to him since well before the election last fall other than a few texts, and frankly it’s kind of nice because I don’t have to deal with any anxiety inducing conversations with him (or know whether or not he voted for 45).

      LW – sometimes taking a break gives you the space to figure out just how much you want these people in your lives, to come to terms with the people they are (because they’re not going to change), and let go (and sometimes grieve for what could have been). You don’t have to flat out cut them out of your lives, but you can definitely scale back on how much interaction you want to have with them (and what kind of conversations you want to have) because that’s what adults get to do. (P.S. Thanks to this place I now know how to do that and that I can!)

    2. “2) the fact that the sound of his own voice making dramatic statements was so sweet to him it could blind him utterly to wtf he was actually saying to someone he cared about.”

      Yup, this. I started dating someone who was raised by a ranter and would start ranting (they have fortunately pretty much broken themselves of that happen) and would literally not.realize.what.they.were.saying because they were so hypnotized by the sound of their own voice. It was kind of amazing to watch. Sort of like someone having a drunk argument. My sibling does the same thing, really horrible hurtful things that he says “in the moment” are supposed to be forgotten/forgiven because ‘he was angry.’

      Sorry, nah. You are accountable for your words and their consequences no matter what*

      *unless you actually have a for-real mitigating circumstance, like you were in psychosis or had brain trauma. Being angry? not the same!

    3. Omg. #2 is so true. I also hate/hated when mine does what I call the Condescending Chuckle. That’s when he brings something up that he knows we do not agree upon, I politely, directly, quickly say what I feel, and he just chuckles at me and says something condescending, like my views are silly and childish compared to his conservative ways. Ugh.

      Also, what’s up with older relatives struggling with last names so much? I swear. My spouse and I have been married for almost 9 years. I have had discussions with Paternal Grandmother and MIL about me keeping my name at least once a year, when they ask the same questions about it over and over. And then they still address me with the wrong name anyways. Like, c’mon, People! lol

  29. LW,
    I never liked most of my grandparents.

    There’s a cultural narrative in which grandparents and grandchildren are allies. It never worked for me.

    It’s ok if you withdraw from them. You don’t have to withdraw temporarily, as the Captain suggests, you can drop them.

    But really: the Captain’s advice is golden.

    Jedi hugs if you want them.

  30. I keep in touch with my mean family by way of cards, too. They all live in the same state, not far from each other, and I am halfway across the country. Cards are perfect for us! I don’t go home for the holidays or anywhere near as often as my parents would like, or give gifts to anybody but my brothers’ kids, but I am meticulous about sending a card for each birthday plus Mothers’ and Fathers’ days. That way I don’t have to talk to them about anything that could get serious, like religion or politics, but I can wish them a completely sincere happy birthday or other relevant holiday.

  31. I’m just commenting to agree that one does not have to accept ill-treatment from someone else just because the other person is a relative.

    In my own case, one of my mother’s brothers turned on my mother (after I was an adult) and started cussing her out over a disagreement about vacation plans. She decided that she didn’t have to accept such treatment, so she just “dropped the rope” and no longer made any effort to maintain contact with him. He never called or wrote her, so once she stopped initiating contact, that was it.

    I had stopped writing or calling that “mean uncle” before that, because I realized that I was doing all the work to stay in touch with him. (Although he would answer my phone calls and speak with me, he never initiated a phone call or wrote me a note himself.)

    Once, a few years after college, I went back to my mother’s hometown to visit my nicer relatives there. One of my mother’s sisters INSISTED that I simply MUST visit the mean uncle. In her mind it was completely unacceptable for me to be in that town without going to his house. So, I allowed her to drive me there.

    The very first words out of my mean uncle’s mouth when we walked in his door (after not seeing me for a dozen years) were: “Damn it, you are so fat and so bald! Look at you!”

    I decided right there that I didn’t have to put up with that. I made small talk with him that evening to appease his sister who had driven me there, but once I walked out his door that night I never again made any effort to contact him. He never ever made any effort to initiate contact with me, so that was it.

    I was very careful in future years to NOT ever bring my wife or my children around him, too. (Why subject them to him?)

    [I did see my mean uncle twice at funerals over the years. Both times I greeted him in a sort of polite but distant tone, made small talk for a moment, and then moved on to speak with someone else. When I received a telephone call informing me of his death a few years ago, I told the caller that I was sorry to hear the news but I was not going to travel for the funeral.]

    LW, if you are reading the comments, I just want to say that you do NOT have to accept ill-treatment from someone just because that person is a relative! It is your CHOICE whether or not to be in contact with your mean relatives. You can make a choice to stop contacting them or to cut back on contact as other have suggested. You do NOT have to accept ill-treatment from them if you do not want to!

  32. Oh hey a soapbox!

    But since “family is the most important thing,” I feel like I have to keep trying, I have to go to visit them and call them. I know I can’t cut them off.

    LW, I 100% believe that you have really good reasons for not cutting your mean grandparents off. This is more for people in similar situations than it is for you, although I hope this comment might be useful to you too.

    First of all “family is the most important thing” is bullshit. Many other commentors have said the same thing, but it bears repeating. Family is important to me, but blood means nothing. Family is the people who have chosen me and who I have chosen in return. Family is the people who help me move, who listen to me complain about my shitty day and tell me a funny story to cheer me up. Family is the people who know when my birthday is (unlike the sperm-donor, who is blood but otherwise nothing), what I do for a living, what I do for fun, hell, where I even live.

    Many many people have a lot of compelling reasons for not cutting off mean relatives, and in a very sad number of cases it just isn’t worth the hassle. It’s always up to you, though. You are the only one who gets to decide whether not taking a mean relative’s calls is worth the fallout from other relatives. You absolutely do not have to keep calling and visiting, the bad grandchild police are not going to come and take you away. You may decide that removing mean relatives from your life isn’t worth it, but that is a choice only you get to make. Nobody else ever ever ever gets to tell you that you have to call or visit anyone ever for any reason ever.

    Also even if you do decide to stop taking a relative’s calls or letters or even visits, that doesn’t have to be forever. You are allowed to take a temporary break and explain it or not explain it as you see fit. I think a lot of people get freaked out by the idea of cutting someone off FOREVER and don’t take a break that could be really good for them. I’m going to be honest, I hope that a temporary break is a stepping stone to permanently removing a mean person from your life, but if a temporary break is all you need, that’s great! If you do just take a temporary break, “Sorry, work was a mess/friend had a crisis/I had to move and I was ridiculously busy” is a great excuse.

    Over all, I think a lot of people skip over “is it worth it to me to stop dealing with this person?” and go straight to “I can’t cut them off, ____ would be so disappointed.” You can do things that suck, readers! You don’t have to put up with jerkbag relatives! You may choose to put up with their shit, and that may be the best choice for you (especially if you need their financial support! don’t punish yourself for their jerkery!), but that absolutely does not mean you don’t have any choice at all!

    For me personally, cutting off contact with my abusive mother was a huge weight off my shoulders. I complained about her letters to my friends so much I got sick of my own whining. Thanks to a lifetime of societal training I still feel weird on mothers day and her birthday, but that in no way changes the fact that my life is better without her in it. It sucks, and I wish I had a mother who loved me, but in the absence of an ideal world I’ll settle for my life sucking less.

    1. Also, sometimes cutting someone off for a time can help reset the relationship. This worked for me with my parents. After 19 months I got an email from my dad saying “What can we do to heal our relationship?” which was, shall we say, a noticeably different approach from their previous position, and allowed me to bring my terms to the table from a position of strength.

  33. If you want some “lowkey cutting family members out of your life (for now)” solidarity, I am here! I have very fond memories of my grandmother from when I was growing up, but as I got older I found out a bit more about the way she treated both my dad (her son) and my mum (her daughter-in-law for about 30 years, though no longer) which changed my opinion of her a bit. I’ve also realised through small incidents and comments that it would be an uphill battle getting her to accept that I’m not straight, and I’ve decided it’s easier to just let it go.

    The last time I saw her, last year, she told me I was never going to get a boyfriend with “all that metal in your face”. At that point, I had a single facial piercing and a non-male fiance. I laughed really hard and said “What if I don’t want a boyfriend?” It’s the closest I’ve come to outright telling her I’m queer and there was an awkward moment of silence where she pointedly didn’t ask and I pointedly didn’t explain and then the conversation moved on.

    At the end of the day, I barely have the spoons to maintain relationships with the people who actually treat me and my family well. I don’t want to cut her out of my life entirely, but I also have no interest in spending my energy on people who don’t make me feel good. It doesn’t have to be a big drama, just privately decide that you don’t need to work hard on reaching out to them when you know they won’t support you in the same way.

    I highly recommend the captain’s advice, and I hope things get better for you soon.

  34. + 1000 on the greeting cards thing here. And I just want to put in a shoutout for my personal favorite, ecards. I shell out $14 annually to a subscription for an ecard website and it is one of the best (and cheapest!) things I have ever done to manage dysfunctional family dynamics. Animated cards for every awkward occasion, your choice of sailboats or butterflies or puppies or flowers or whatever, music and pre-chosen greetings and you don’t have to do anything in advance (or alternatively you can set up periodic/holiday cards in advance and then forget about it). I do this from my phone (sometimes crying and with a glass of wine!) when I am full of complicated feelings the night before some birthday/holiday/anniversary and don’t have the spoons to go to a physical store, buy a physical card, try to find an address, find a stamp, etc. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Highly recommended if your family uses email.

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