About five years ago I discovered that if I didn’t want someone in my life, I had the ability to say “Nope!” and walk away, even if that person was faaaaaaaaaaamily. Since then, I’ve exercised this option four times with family members, never lightly but without regretting the decision either.
Three of the four family members were people I did not have a good relationship already who exhibited patterns of incredibly inappropriate, harmful behaviour (with myself and other) and showed zero insight or awareness into why their behaviour was awful. I feel safer and happier with these people out of my life.
The fourth was…. different. A beloved cousin turned out to espouse absolutely terrifying, hateful beliefs, the kind that conjure up associations with white supremacist groups. I don’t know what the hell happened there (it came up on Facebook one day, it’s definitely not something my cousin talked about when we still lived in the same city several years ago), but living three timezones away and having no regular means of contact with this person, I didn’t feel able to intervene. After trying to challenge these beliefs and getting a response that *I* was the one who wasn’t seeing clearly and if I just would read these various resources I too would see the light and understand [insert horrifying white supremacist conspiracy theory garbage], I bailed. I cannot countenance having any more contact with this person. According to my mother, my cousin is sad and confused by my reaction and subsequent blocking on Facebook. I am agog.
Anyway, none of these estrangements is likely to resolve, ever. I’m okay with that (sad about the beloved cousin, but I can deal). The challenge is what next? My grandmother is having a milestone birthday in a few months, and I’m already planning to avoid the group celebration (which will have 3 of the 4 in attendance) and do something special with her one-on-one (mercifully living out of town makes this possible with minimal awkwardness–I’m just not “available” that day!). Which will disappoint her, but hopefully not too much. My mother is supporting me completely, but she also wonders what the hell I’m going to do about things like funerals, which is something that will very likely come up within the next few years at my grandmother’s age.
Also, what do I tell people? When I was first contemplating just making a brief appearance at the birthday party and then bailing, my mother agreed but also asked me for scripts for how to handle the resulting awkwardness, and I honestly blanked on anything but, “[Child] loves their Granny but doesn’t want to be around Aunt/Uncle/Cousin”, which seems… undiplomatic, to say the least. And not helpful at dispelling awkwardness when the rest of the family are unlikely to be sympathetic to my reasons (very “but faaaaaaaaaamily”).
At least with my dad (estranged family member #4), I feel much freer to say “He’s a shitty person and I’m glad he’s out of my life forever”. But with the extended family members, it feels like I’m not allowed to judge them or be open about why I don’t want to see them. I feel good about my boundaries, but weird about the on-going awkwardness of having them. Help?
-Stranger in an Estranged Land
First, if any of these people you’ve stopped hanging with asked you why you cut off contact, what would you say?
Would it be some version of:
“You did a lot of stuff that made me feel disrespected and unsafe, and when I asked you to stop you kept going. I don’t wish you any harm, but I don’t think I can have a good relationship with you, so I’ve stopped trying. Let’s keep our distance!”
“I watched you advocate for some repulsive and hateful political views and I tried to talk to you about it you doubled down. I’m sorry to lose you, but I can’t be in your life if you think those terrible and violent things.”
Or (with your Dad):
“You’re a shitty dad and a shitty person and I’m glad you’re out of my life forever.”
Remind yourself of the truth. These people know why they were cut off from your life, it’s not actually a mystery! And their shitty behavior is not a secret that you have to keep. If someone in the extended family were to ask about you + cousin, “Why aren’t you talking to cousin anymore? He’s so hurt and confused” you could say “Welp, did you notice when he became a Nazi? It’s not actually confusing, Aunt Jean.” See also the catch-all “We just don’t get along anymore, and I’ve stopped trying to make it work for now. Howabout that subject change?”
Dropping contact with family members really freaks people out. It goes against the Blood is Thicker Than Water/Your Family Will Always Love & Accept You ideals they were raised with. It also raises the possibility for them that if they behaved very badly you might cut contact with them, which…yes? You might? Family bonds are important but you have a right not to subject yourself to abuse in the name of those bonds.
Anyway, the first principle, for you or your mom might be “Don’t start none, won’t be none” aka “If I go to a family event I will not start conflict or trouble, I will just try to quietly avoid the people, but if someone asks me directly about what’s going on between us, I will tell the truth.”
To build on that, what if you thought of funerals and other “the whole family will be there” events as neutral ground? What if you treated the estranged relatives less like enemies and more like strangers?
If you ran into a stranger or an arms-length acquaintance you didn’t like much at a funeral you’d say the minimum polite “hello” and then go talk to the people you came to see. You wouldn’t start a duel or try to rehash relationship troubles, you’d just ignore them. If they approached you trying to have a big conversation about whatever it is you’d say “This is hardly the place or the time to get into this. I’m here to support [grieving relative], let’s drop it for now.”
As for “whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy” scripts, especially for your mom to tell other relatives, why not the truth? And why not give her a way to not be in the middle of it?
- “[Stranger] and [Relative] aren’t in touch.”
- “You’ll have to ask [Stranger] about that, I couldn’t possibly tell you.”
- “[Stranger] & [Relative] had a falling out. You’ll have to ask them about it.”
- “[Stranger] & [Relative] don’t get on. It’s not my business why.”
Your mom doesn’t have to fix this or explain it or convince anyone in the family that it was the right thing for you to do. I mean, I think we should respect the fact that family members have expectations that she will and that she has been brought up with expectations that she will and even you sort of have expectations that she will do the explaining – her anxiety about this isn’t coming from nowhere! So, don’t put her in the position of being your diplomat and do give her permission to let you be “the bad guy” in these interactions. “Mom, I know this is super-uncomfortable but you didn’t cause this and you can’t fix this.” She’s passing on information that the cousin is super sad and confused about your estrangement, so, address that head on. “I’m sad too, but his beliefs are vile and dangerous and my attempts to talk to him about it were met with a stone wall. I can’t fix his sadness and he can’t fix mine as long as he believes those terrible things.” If she says “What about funerals? What do I say when people ask?” and you can say “I’ll go to funerals, etc. as I can and if people ask you uncomfortable questions you can tell them to ask me about it directly. There’s nothing for you to fix here!”
You can also take pressure of your mom by forming your own, adult relationships with extended family members you want to be close to that aren’t mediated through her. Write them, call them, remember their birthdays, send holiday cards (or whatever the rituals of your family are) to the extent you want to. Create bilateral relationships instead of letting Mom be the clearinghouse. Then they can talk directly to you if they have a problem or a question.
The first time or two you go to a family event or avoid a family event will be the most awkward and then a new normal will emerge. It will never be comfortable, probably, but it doesn’t have to be fixed. You can’t fix a person’s bigotry. You can’t fix it when someone treats you badly. You don’t have to convince the whole family of the rightness of your actions. They can think you made the wrong call if they want to. You also don’t have to give up your whole family if you don’t want to. Work to preserve the relationships you value (and that value you) and let the rest go.