#1135: “My dad wants to fix our relationship, and I don’t.”

Hi Captain Awkward,

Let’s call me Elizabeth. My dad and I have a strained relationship, and was not really much in my life for a good year thanks to my decision to have little to no contact. Why? He’s an emotional abuser, and so for the sake of my health I made boundaries. Just getting phone calls, or even texts were skyrocketing my anxiety. But…slowly…I have begun to interact a little more with him, my placating mother, & most importantly my little sister (who wasn’t speaking to me for cutting off our parents, because she didn’t know my side of the story or see the worse of how our dad treated me).

So in May, to my surprise my dad told me he was willing to go to counseling. In the past I practically begged him to go to counseling with me, but he wouldn’t have it. I talked to my therapist, and they were frank that based off what I’ve shared about my dad and their experience in family counseling that they doubt his intentions are genuine. I tried telling my dad, “how about we see how things go with how they are now, & try counseling if old problems come up.” I wasn’t entirely honest, I didn’t want to go to counseling at this point, I’d moved on emotionally a while ago, but couldn’t bring myself to be that direct (cause dad can be scary). He insisted, and next thing I know I’m looking up family therapists, cause I WOULD NOT let him pick a therapist cause I don’t trust him.

I found a family counselor (still seeing my regular one though), and have been dragging my feet every step of the way. I’ve met the therapist too now, and given their business number to my dad so he could make an appointment months ago, as we’re suppose to start going in separately for them to evaluate our different needs and perspective independently of each other. This was months ago, and dad has not seen the therapist yet, and claims to have called em but “the number doesn’t work”. I checked it works.

I’m now irritated, and anxious over this while trying to make progress in being the best version of myself in other areas but now feel held back. I haven’t even heard from dad in 4 weeks since giving him the number a 2nd time. I need scripts for when I eventually hear from him, or see him again, and he inevitably brings it up. I NEED HELP SAYING A CLEAR AND FIRM NO, WITH PREPARED SCRIPTS FOR PUSHBACK!

-Elizabeth

Hi Elizabeth!

It sounds like you have avoided a trap! Your dad, always the manipulator, can’t even get into the counseling sessions where he was gonna try to manipulate you with an audience, because he’s too busy trying to manipulate you over making the damn appointment. That is quite the self-own he’s got going on there. As you’ve guessed, he doesn’t want to work anything out, he wants you as his waiting audience, as inconvenienced and on edge as possible, doing all the work. Your therapist is wise and you are also wise. Abort!

Was the year of low-contact or no-contact working for you? If so, maybe time to revisit that. You don’t even have to say anything about it to anyone, just, be less available to your Dad. He’s gonna act all aggrieved about it when he figures out that you’re avoiding him again, like, “But I said I would go to counseling, now YOU are the problem – HA HA!” but you can anticipate that and say “Sure, Dad, lmk when you’ve made your appointment and I guess we’ll pick that up again!” (knowing he will probably never actually make it, and btw, even if he does you could say “Oops, changed my mind!” then) or “Oh, that seemed like a really good idea for a while, but after so much time passed, I changed my mind.” 

Sometimes “strained & awkward, with no resolution” is as good as it gets with an emotionally abusive person, because you can’t control the other person or make them behave right or make them apologize or understand their role in why it’s like this. I think the first step in healing from emotional abuse is about removing avenues where the person can abuse you and harm you (i.e. limiting contact, controlling their access to you and your time and attention). Another ongoing/repeatable/probably never-ending step is finding a way to accept that your relationship with Dad is what it is, he has choices about how he treats you, and you don’t have to singlehandedly fix it or even fix it at all. You can’t have a good relationship with people who can’t be trusted. Give yourself permission to disengage. 

Unfortunately, as it often goes in families, you are the young one/the reasonable one/the one with less perceived authority & power. Your mom and your sister are perceptive enough to know that a) something is wrong here and b) your dad is unlikely to change or to respond to their influence, so in order to try to fix the situation they gang up on you, aka The Reasonable One. This makes everything worse, because not only can you not fix your dad, now people who should be your allies and support system seem to be acting like his emotional manipulation Flying Monkeys. Then you have to deal with your dad and also stonewall them out of self-protection, and deal with their “I was just trying to help!” feelings on top of your own. It sucks, and I’m so sorry.

Here’s a script for your little sister: “My relationship with Dad is my own mess to clean up. If you want to make your own relationship with him, that’s just fine with me, but you’re not the boss of how I handle things there. I want to have a good relationship with you, and I think that probably means that we don’t talk about Dad too much. Can we agree to that?” 

Here’s a script for your mom: “Mom, your relationship with Dad is your business, and now that I’m an adult, my relationship with him is my own to manage. I can understand you wishing we were closer, but I have to figure this out myself. If that means we don’t talk about Dad very much, ok! When I spend time with you, I want to focus on you.” 

Bonus scripts for any “but we’re a faaaaaaaaaamily” pressures:

  • “You make it sound like this is all my choice, but Dad is choosing the kind of relationship he wants with me. When he flakes out on counseling, or does [x specific harmful thing], that’s a choice he’s making, and of course it’s going to affect how I feel about him and how we interact. It’s not your job to fix Dad, but it’s also not your job to try to fix me.” 
  • “You don’t have to like it or understand it. I’m just happier when I interact with him less.” 
  • “I hope things with Dad get better someday, too, but right now I need to stop working at it so hard.” 
  • “Mom/Sister, I really need you to hear the word ‘no’.” 

Another shield in your shield wall is to avoid or mitigate triangulation, where your dad manipulates your mom & sister to pass on messages to you and information to him. For example, when you avoid your dad, he might express to your mom how he wishes you were closer and he just doesn’t know what to say to you to get you to let him in. Then the next time you talk to your mom, she passes this onto you and pressures you to “make peace” with him and tell you how much “he’s trying.” If you can anticipate this, you can mitigate it by saying “I’ve told Dad what he needs to do and how to reach me” or “I prefer to talk to Dad directly about Dad stuff, let’s change the subject!” The more you get in a habit of handling conflict directly with the person, the more you can show your family that it doesn’t have to revolve around your dad like he’s the sun.

Obviously, break these down/reword them/recycle/repeat them as necessary in your own words in a way that makes sense to you. Run them by your therapist, too.

As for your Dad, try these:

  • “LOL, the number works, Dad. You’re going to have to find a different excuse.”
  • “I used to think family counseling would really help, but it’s not a priority for me right now.” 
  • “Oh, you still want to do that? Sorry, I changed my mind!” – “I changed my mind” works well because reasons are for reasonable people, this doesn’t give him anything to argue with. You’re not trying to convince him that he’s the reason you changed your mind, you’re just communicating a decision you made.
  • “If you truly want us to have a better relationship, one way you can show it is to give me some space. I’ll get in touch with you when I’m ready.” 
  • “We don’t have to be close in order to be kind and respect each other. Why don’t we try that for a while, and see where we end up.” 
  • This isn’t a technology problem, but there are ways you can use tech to maintain your distance. Filter his emails to a place that bypasses your main inbox, where you can check when and if you want to. You can snooze people’s phone numbers in your cell phone, you can also never, ever pick up when he calls and decide when or if you want to call him back. Engage all your social media filters so that he can’t see your photos or posts. If you need to filter the stuff your sister or your mom sees (b/c they will pass on info to him), filter them, too.

Healing from a parent’s emotional abuse and finding a New Normal that is sustainable for you is a lifelong project, one that you should never have had to take on. It sounds like you’ve got a good therapist and a lot of insight and strength, and I wish you all the luck.

145 comments
  1. SharonC said:

    Fellow person with an emotionally abusive father here. I feel for you. I am sorry to hear he’s messing you about by trying to go forward with your suggestion once you had given up on it. You are absolutely right to dodge going to a therapist with him; you don’t need to have him hear anything of you being vulnerable in front of the therapist.

    I like in particular the mildy-expressed calling out in the first suggested response “You’re going to have to find a different excuse.” In my experience, a polite calling out of exactly what they are up to takes them aback more and stops them trying to push that particular line of attack.

    GMail provides some useful email diversion options. I have one set up to move email into a different folder and mark it as read, and that means I can check the folder when I have enough peace and strength to do so.

    • lkeke35 said:

      Yep! Notice how when he’s asked to go to the therapist by himself, he doesn’t. He wants an audience.

      • purps said:

        oof I think this is a good catch. LW, I think you may have permanently dodged this bullet, so long as you firmly decline if he _does_ find a therapist who meets with his approval and try to get you to go.

        • There is another option if he finds a family therapist. First, the LW is well-within her rights (and good counseling practice) to ask for 1-3 individual sessions with said therapist prior to agreeing to family counseling. This gives her a chance to see if working with the therapist seems practical. Second, Elizabeth has the right to ask the family therapist to work in conjunction with her individual therapists which simply involves signing a HIPPA waiver between her and the two therapists.

          Good therapists appreciate working with good therapists. A quack family therapist will be scared off at the idea of being expected to justify harmful methods to a real therapist.

          • C baker said:

            That’s useful advice.

    • KO said:

      Honestly, if he brought up “going to counseling” again, I’d just tell him “Go to counseling, I’m not standing in your way. See anyone you want, I don’t need to be there and you don’t need my approval. If at some future point I can see positive strides in what therapy is doing for you, we can revisit our relationship. Until then, I’m not your excuse for not doing that work.” And then yes, dial back contact again.

      This is a very nice version of “put up or shut up,” and will be a handy thing to refer back to every time he attempts to reach out to drag you back in. “Oh, you want to be closer? How’s therapy going? Oh, you haven’t started? Huh. Well good luck with sorting that out. Byeeee.”

      YOU DO NOT NEED TO DO ANY OF THIS EMOTIONAL LABOR FOR HIM. You do not need to feel any feelings about not doing it. This is HIS stuff, and HIS responsibility to deal with. He wants better relationships? He needs to do the work to be a better person. It’s not your job to shield him from the consequences of his (in)actions.

      • Noopnope said:

        This! This! This! This! “Go to counseling, Dad. I’ll try again if I think you make sufficient progress. But when I gave you the number for the second time I decided that I’m not going to put any more of MY effort into YOUR suggestion.”

        If you want to, you can set goals. You’ll see a therapist with him if your relationship improves X percent, in your opinion. You’ll see a therapist with him if he goes consistently to his own therapist for a year. Most of all, you got the number, you picked the center, and now it is on him. You will not put one more piece of effort into this. He sees a counselor. He meets your goal for prgress. He then makes an appointment at the center you picked (And, come on, there are a thousand ways to get a phone number. He has the name of the center/counselor. He’s an adult. He can get the number.) He makes your appointment. He sends a taxi for you, and orders one for when you are picked up. It is entirely on him now. You’ve done your part.

        • Jers said:

          +1000. You might try ‘hey dad maybe try that number now we family are all in the same room. No really go ahead you can lv a msg they’ll call you back.’ Of course this might be a bad idea if he gets violently angry at being called out as a liar. And also perhaps irrelevant since you don’t want to go. Also maybe engaging him. But on the off chance the family keeps at you, might illustrate to them you’ve tried and he’s a lying liar about even this? But then do you really need permission to run from abuse? Next time they say ‘family’ try ‘yeah… family… and this is how he treats family’. I told my relatives so often I can’t choose family but I can choose to live free of abuse. Eventually had to go no contact with the abusers and their supporters bc was the only way to get the boundary set.

  2. I'll come up with a clever name later...maybe. said:

    THIS IS 100% FANTASTIC ADVICE!!! My husband has parents that love to emotionally manipulate him and lately he’s been getting emails from extended family members that fall under the “but faaaaaaaaaamily” line of thinking. The scripts here are fantastic and I will be directing him here tonight. 🙂 Thanks!

  3. Leighthal said:

    Oh, the placating mother. I have one of those too. Half her life seems to revolve around not upsetting my father. Personally I couldn’t give a stuff if he gets upset. If unreasonable people get upset at a reasonable thing being done, that is their problem, not mine. If he is being a fhead, I will happily tell him he is wrong. If mum tries to stop me doing something because my dad won’t be happy about it, I tell her that I don’t give a fuck what he thinks, I am doing it anyway, and if she wants to pander to his fuckwittery, that is her problem. My dad is manageable though. He is emotionally abusive in that he has never let me be myself or express emotion or feelings (eg. If I said I had a bad day at school I would get ‘god you’re negative, you never like anything or anyone’), but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learnt to stand up to his shit and fight back.

    Best of luck with your situation Elizabeth. I love the captain’s advice and hope that it helps you to navigate the murky waters. I am very impressed that you have set some boundaries and hope it results in a relatively peaceful relationship with your family.

    • madavis4 said:

      Just wanted to say that my ex-husband used to hit me with this (Me: phew! I had a tough day at work! Him: you are such a negative person! Why can’t you be happy?! You are a bummer and you make me depressed just by being around you) and I’m realizing how emotionally abusive it was. I was never allowed to have feelings because it would disturb his “good guy” image when he failed to empathize with me or demonstrate that he cared. So I was just trained to never express my feelings so that he wouldn’t have to bother to try.

      Thanks for being my light bulb!

      • AnonForThis said:

        And thank YOU for being *my* light bulb towards a similar aspect of my emotionally abusive husband’s behavior. He also cannot empathize with me or demonstrate that he cares (on paper he is a great husband and thinks that’s enough.)
        We currently live like roommates, and I am for sure working towards a divorce, though complicated logistics + executive function issues + disability = slow process ATM…I will get there. The Captain AND the Awkward Army have proven invaluable in getting me through this!

  4. Thank you. Substitute the Dad in this case for
    Mom and I now have my scripts and next steps.

    And yes, it sucks.

  5. attica said:

    My problematic father actually went to a counseling session with my sister. When the therapist asked him if he had any regrets in his life (obvs giving him the opportunity to apologize to sis, or just in general acknowledge his role in our dysfunction), his answer was that he regretted no longer being able to have an erection.

    I don’t know if jaws have yet been picked up off the floor, and he’s been dead a decade now.

    Solidarity thoughts with you, lw!

    • Woooooow. That’s… so wrong, on SO many levels!

    • bad at screen names said:

      My problematic father was for the most part a good dad until my mom died.

      Background: about a year before my mom died, my father had a quadruple heart bypass surgery & my parents had been married 42 years when my mom died.

      A couple of weeks after my mom died, I asked my dad, “What do you think about going to a Widow Support Group?” because I was worried about him. I even offered to go with him.

      As a response he told me (rambled, really), “Well, I think I am doing okay with missing your mother. Even though we had a really great sex life (which you probably knew sleeping in the next room) we hadn’t been able to do that since my surgery.”

      God it was horrifying.

    • Snickerdoodle said:

      Dear God. I think I would have up and left the session, never to return. Obviously, that person only attended therapy to manipulate with an audience. Eesh.

    • goddessoftransitory said:

      Wow.

      Just….

    • MsMildew said:

      Reminds me (on a much lesser level) ofan ex I lived with, who I sat down with one day to talk about the issues in our relationship.
      My issues were the usual women have- not feeling heard or respected, like I did not always get the whole truth, and so on.
      His issues were…I didn’t wear lingerie in bed. 😒😑🙄
      Yes, we broke up very shortly afterwards (and he ended up stalking me, surprise surprise.)

  6. It’s never a good idea to go to counseling with an abuser. This link is from a domestic violence website, and while it says marriage counseling, I’m pretty sure an abuser would do the same things in family counseling. https://www.thehotline.org/2014/08/01/why-we-dont-recommend-couples-counseling-for-abusive-relationships/

    Your father never had any intention of going, it was simply a way to try and pull you back into his web. I’m so sorry you have to go through this LW. Jedi hugs.

    • Snickerdoodle said:

      That’s an excellent point; the ridiculousness of that business about the phone number not working was the first indicator that going to counseling with him wouldn’t have been a good idea anyway.

      My ex was manipulative and verbally abusive and refused to go to couples counseling since he claimed he didn’t think it would work, with the heavy implication that it wouldn’t work *for me* because clearly I was beyond help. In retrospect, it wouldn’t have worked for him because he wanted to be able to tell himself and everyone else that I was the problem. An abuser refusing therapy is an abuser who won’t admit they’re an abuser.

      • bad at screen names said:

        Yes. Notice he didn’t try to confirm that he had the right number or ask the LW for the therapist’s name so could google it

      • Jers said:

        Abuse 101: isolate your victim from sources of support.

    • Jadelyn said:

      I once asked my emotionally-abusive alcoholic father to see a counselor with me. Specifically, there was a family therapist he and my mom had seen before the divorce, and who I had been seeing on my own since I was 17, and I wanted Dad to do a couple sessions with me with that therapist because he knew all the background and stuff.

      My father said he would do counseling, but NOT with that therapist. And I am 100% sure it’s because he knew that the therapist already knew too much of what was actually going on in our family and wouldn’t just side with my dad in trying to “fix” me (meaning, convince me that Dad was always right about everything and I should shut up and stop trying to have opinions about things). I declined to go search out another therapist and we dropped the subject, but I’m so glad I didn’t let Dad push me into finding a new therapist that he could try to use as his ally against me.

    • There are good counselling programs that engage abusers in family therapy, in situations where there’s been an arrest for domestic violence and the program is tied into local law enforcement and the abuse is clearly laid out on the table. But those are pretty new and pretty innovative, and pretty obviously labelled as such. You can’t just walk into any random therapist’s office and get that.

      • Jers said:

        You won’t get it tied into law enforcement but what does that mean? Reports to court? You can walk into any therapists office with the police report and court stuff and slap it right on the table. Though I suspect with those cases it could be a potentially unsafe idea

        • Muddie Mae Sugginsnces said:

          I think Book of Jubilation is probably referring to Batterer Intervention Programs, which are largely individual work undertaken by the abuser. They’re not primarily family therapy. I’m pretty certain they require specialists as well; it’s not a part of the typical MFT program, so you can’t just call up a marriage counselor and tell them you want batterer intervention in your couples therapy. They’re going to refer you elsewhere.

        • “Tied in” means that law enforcement is actively aware that the family is involved in counselling, and they will keep the therapist updated on incidents and arrests as they occur, and the therapist and family are brought into the decision-making process about arrests, charges, sentences, and conditions. It prevents the abuser from hindering the flow of information between the therapist and law enforcement, because they can communicate without needing special permission from the abuser every time.

          So it needs both a special therapist in a special counselling program, and that program’s close partnership with local police departments, prosecutors, and judges. It’s rare and generally limited to extreme cases, like families that stay together despite frequent police intervention for domestic violence, under the principle that if nobody involved is willing to permanently leave, you might as well try to make things better where you are instead of hoping for an impossible solution.

          So it’s not an option in the LW’s case, but I definitely wanted to push back against the concept that “It’s never a good idea to go to counseling with an abuser”. A lot of people don’t know the difference between couples’ counselling and batterer intervention programs, and I don’t want people to be too afraid of the latter because they’ve been warned against the former.

    • Clarry said:

      The webpage makes sense when it says that abuse is not a relationship problem, and I agree that it makes sense not to seek couples counseling in abuse situations, but I also feel a need to call out therapists who do end up becoming tools in the abuser’s gaslighting. Isn’t it their job to know better?

      • MuddieMae said:

        How on earth could they, though? They don’t go home with their clients, so they have no way of knowing if the lights really are flickering or if one person imagined it.

        • Someone, anyone said:

          As a (couples) counselor, it should be pretty much a given that people tell you loads of crap in order to make themselves appear better. Or tell you crap because they lack the introspection. I would think that a counselor’s JOB to read between the lines and punch holes client’s believes, expectancies, prejudices and lines of reasoning. If their clients KNEW where their problems are, or were willing to acknowledge and address them, they probably wouldn’t need the counseling.

          So, yes, I would totally expect a (couples) counselor to be able to tell abuse in at least a good chunk of the cases.

          • MuddieMae said:

            Clarry seems to be asking about gaslighting specifically in an ongoing counseling relationship, not just identifying that some sort of abuse is happening.

          • Jules said:

            Abusers are skilled, and sometimes convince *themselves*, which is really convincing to others.

            An abuser I know has spun the tale to our social group that her survivor was the abuser, using withdrawal and gaslighting. Pure projection, but I think she actually believes it. They were my roommates for a year, I was a first hand witness, and it still took me a couple of months to say, ‘whoa, this isn’t just arguing, it’s one person yelling and name calling and a repeating pattern’.

            I will say, the couples counselor I talked the survivor into seeing did pick up on the abusive behavior and call it out as no ok; abuser stopped going.

          • I’ve seen two therapists deal with family therapy where one person getting therapy was an abusive gaslighter, in my own family of origin.

            In one case, the therapist (who was also a psychiatrist with 30 years’ experience and who specialized in complex family therapy, abusive family situations, and irretrievable marital breakdown) was able to suss out that the abusive gaslighter was an abusive gaslighter, and diagnosed the person with NPD.

            In the other case, the therapist (who was significantly less experienced and did general individual and family therapy aimed at preserving family and/or marital relationships) decided that the VICTIM was the gaslighter.

            I don’t think it’s as easy as you seem to. I think that most people who get family therapy work with the second type of therapist — who is an excellent type of therapist to have for certain kinds of problems! I don’t think that therapist was malicious or a terrible therapist, but they were not equipped for abusive gaslighters. And I don’t think that most people even have access to the first kind (my mother was lucky enough to be referred there by a friend of hers who knew what kind of an asshole my father was, otherwise she never would have found him).

        • Typhoid Mary said:

          There are a lot of clinical signs that a trained therapist can look for; the field of abuse and interpersonal violence is pretty robust, though of course we are still learning. If a therapist suspects abuse, they SHOULD NOT be seeing the couple together, and frankly both parties should probably have their own therapists who specialize in abuse dynamics.

          Additionally, batterers’ intervention programs are very, very new, and unfortunately, there are none out there with a statistically proven track record of success. I’ve worked in some places that are doing really innovative work with abusers, but the evidence base still isn’t there yet.

      • Yes, therapists should have insight into the dynamics between people.

        Here are some reasons a therapist might not pick up on abuse. This list isn’t complete.

        – Abusers are often more organized and appear more rational than their victims.
        – Therapists are people in a society. They are governed by the ruling ideologies too.
        – A therapist may well have picked up on the abuse (mine did), but believe that the target has to feel safe naming abuse. Admittedly, this is more likely – and more acceptable – in individual therapy than in couples counseling.
        – People who are abused often believe the abusers.
        – People in general will try to use the tools they’re presented with. When a couple tells a therapist they have relationship issues, that’s where the therapist starts.
        – Lots of abusers are charming.
        – Some therapists are jerks.

        • Jules said:

          ‘she’s… charming’ is now my deadliest insult.

          • AnonyToday said:

            I literally just wrote down that description of my emotionally abusive Dad in my therapist’s intake paperwork (with a lot of other words of course)

          • Turquoise Dragon said:

            I think of this adjective as a verb. Literally, ‘she is casting a charm.’

  7. Snickerdoodle said:

    I think you should prepare for going no contact again, possibly permanently, and possibly also with your mom and sister since they are placating and not listening to you or supporting you. He’s playing games about going to therapy, which says that he’s not truly ready for therapy.

    As for the number that “doesn’t work” (lol), can the therapist on the other end of that number call him? That’s probably not allowed, but it’s worth a shot. Also, perhaps your mom or sister could call the number with him there, or some other trusted friend who can point out that the number works just fine when you actually call it.

    You described him as scary and said you’re irritated, anxious, dragging your feet, and held back. It sounds like you only want a relationship with him because you don’t want to lose your mom and sister, but that may be a choice you have to make. I cut ties with my mom years ago and along with it ties to every other member of that side of my family because it was the only way to get out. It was hard and depressing and took years to get over, but I did eventually get in touch with the other family members of my generation who had by that time distanced themselves from her as well. I still don’t talk to my mom and never will. I’ve heard tons of “but faaaaaaaaaaamily” from people who’ve never met her, to the extent that it’s tempting to just say she’s dead so I don’t have to hear it, but it’s really nobody’s business but mine. My own relatives get it and just don’t talk about her. She doesn’t acknowledge me and appeared to have blocked me on social media. I blocked her right back. It felt great. That of course may not be the solution for you, but it may help to know that in time your mom and sister may come around on their own terms should you decide to go no contact with your dad.

    • Jers said:

      I used to tell folks my parents were gone. Made it sound like dead bc was easier. Now they are dead which is a relief since I never have to field that again. Go ahead and say whatever is easiest. You don’t owe random acquaintances or coworkers your story. And mostly they don’t want to know either. It’s one of those horrid knee jerk things folks do and maybe if they knew better they’d stop but in meantime, dead isn’t a bad option to lie about.

      • Snickerdoodle said:

        I usually just say that my family is just my dad and me. That’s true, because as far as I’m concerned, I have no other family. My half- and stepsiblings are not nearby, and we talk via social media infrequently, which seems to work for us.

    • kddomingue said:

      Similar story here if you just switch around a pronoun or two. Divorcing myself from my family was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but the stress was, quite literally, killing me.I decided that I’d rather not die on that hill. It wasn’t easy and, like you, it took me a long time to get over it but I did move on. Oddly enough, after the initial storm of feeling had passed, what I felt most keenly was a vast sense of relief….as though a crushing weight had been lifted off of me and I could breathe again. My father died twelve years later and I cried. But it was for sorrow over the family we could have been but never were.

    • Fisswhisp said:

      It’s so hard to explain this stuff to people from fairly normal, rational families where conflicts generally have solutions. When they pull the “but faaaaaamily” card they don’t realize what family is to them is NOT what family is to us.

      • TootsNYC said:

        I still remember, and still talk about, the first time I understood that when some people complained about their parent, they were complaining about a really nasty person, and not just a slightly annoying one.

        It was a major eye-opener.

        I came home from that dinner with my friend’s verbally and emotionally abusive family and thanked my mom for being such a great mom. And I apologized to my friend that I’d ever downplayed her comments about her mom (“I ran into my mom today and it ruined my whole day”–it took seeing it firsthand to realize what it could be).

        • winter_cherry said:

          I have an appalling racist cousin who visits our branch of the family mercifully rarely, and when he does we share him out so nobody has to spend too long entertaining him. Last time he visited, my partner joined us for dinner and after we’d put him on the train Partner said “now I see why you didn’t take him to [our usual restaurant]’.

          Then when Partner’s brother next visited and they got talking, as they do, about their (now dead) mother, who was Darth Vader in a cardigan, Partner suddenly lit up and said “Did I tell you about the dinner with Cherry’s Cousin H???”. It wasn’t delight, exactly, but it was certainly relief to have seen/heard for himself that other family trees have things that poisonous growing on them, and he was so pleased to share it with his brother (even though I suspect it wasn’t a new revelation to his brother, who is older and more widely-travelled)

  8. eraser said:

    “Strained and awkward with no resolution” is an excellent way of putting it; I’m in a similar situation and, truthfully, it is exhausting.

    I wish I had a mother that I could trust not to manipulate and harm me, but I don’t. So I do what I need to do to keep myself safe and psychologically whole (mostly).

    Managing the balance is something that sometimes is easy and sometimes is painful. It’s an active process and the Captain has given some great advice. Best wishes everyone who relates to this letter; remember you’re worth looking after.

  9. DameB said:

    So, another vote for NOT doing family counseling. My mom has serious enmeshment issues and waaaants to be clooooooser to me. She insisted on “couples counseling” (icky insistance on that name. I called it family counseling) and I was too dumb to realize it wouldn’t work.

    It wound up being actually useful to me because all her issues spilled out on the floor for me to see on broad daylight. But because I actually tried, she got new ammunition and new techniques for attacking me. It was several years worth of work to deal with those.

    I’ve put into place really careful stringent boundaries and those work for me. I wish I’d skipped the counseling though.

    • SadieMae said:

      My mom is exactly the same, and she also wants to do family counseling so we can be closer. I am fine as we are – in fact, I need space to protect myself from her swirling vortex of anxiety and need for validation – but I’ve been feeling bad about refusing to go to counseling with her. It is helpful for me to hear your experience, and I thank you for sharing it!

      • dck133 said:

        I went with my mother when I was 17. She vomited out everything that was wrong with me. I got out the words “You aren’t perfect either” before she announced she didn’t have to take this and left. Leaving a sobbing teen with no way home. My dad came to pick me up when the session is over. She sometimes wonders why we aren’t close.

        • Polaris said:

          Did the therapist just leave you crying for the rest of the session? In a perfect world I’d hope that they’d see how awful your mother was and try to comfort you or figure out some coping strategies.

          • dck133 said:

            We had a nice therapy session after. I can’t remember exactly what happened (more then 20 years ago) but it was basically like “okay well that explains a few things let’s talk about coping strategies”. I went to her for another year until I went to college.

        • DameB said:

          Fist bump of solidarity, dcki33. Yes, my mom declared that she felt “Utterly attacked” and stood up to leave once. She didn’t but I think only because I’d driven. When the shrink wanted to have a session with just her, she refused to go alone and brought my father with her to “Prove that [DameB] was telling a different truth.”

          When I had a session alone with the shrink, she gently asked me “Assuming that your mother will never be mentally well, what sort of relationship do you want from her?” I blinked at her and said “You think my mom’s crazy too?” No one had ever really believed me before (except my husband but he was biased). It was really a great moment for me but it sounds like SadieMae knows that her mom isn’t healthy, so she doesn’t need that moment. Certainly the LW doesn’t!

    • FrolickingElf said:

      Ditto here – family counselling just became one more tool for my Mom’s goal of maintaining her enmeshment with me. She only lasted 2.5 sessions… For the last session, she made an appointment with MY trauma-therapist, who I had been seeing regularly all year. She showed up a half hour late, mad as a hornet, and demanded to know why I wasn’t there… the therapist simply said “you made this appointment, so you’d have to invite your daughter. By the way, you are a half hour late, and you’ll be paying for the full session.”

      She was maaaaddd… but never mentioned a word to me. My therapist, however, told me a few little truth-bombs about my Mom’s Cluster B personality type… so yeah… Family counselling only “works” with an abuser if you go back into the fog (FOG – fear, obligation, guilt). Stay strong, I am so comforted by all these comments, we are NOT alone here!

  10. meadowphoenix said:

    Don’t be afraid to have non-sequitur conversations!

    So if you say something like “I’ve changed my mind”
    And you dad/mom/sister asked why, pretend they are asking the only question that has an answer you are willing to let them know. That means you can say “well I changed my mind” no matter how weird that sounds to whatever question they’ve asked.
    “Don’t you think Dad deserved to know your reasons?” “Yeah, I changed my mind about therapy.”
    “That’s wasn’t what I asked.” “I know, but I changed my mind about therapy”
    “Why won’t you answer me?” “Oh because I’ve decided that therapy isn’t going to work for me” eta until you’ve gotten the courage to say goodbye.

    Also, try to distance yourself emotionally from these conversations. This is not your parents and sister berating it, instead you are an anthropologist and your family is displaying some behavior that you’re going to observe and write down.

    • Maddie said:

      “I’ve changed my mind”
      “Why?”
      “Because I said so, that’s why.”

      Even better if this was a phrase your parents frequently used on you.

      Or reach for whatever their favorite non-answer to you happened to be when you were a kid asking questions they didn’t want to answer.
      Because I’m a grown-up and grown-ups get to make that decision.
      I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
      Why do you need to know?
      It isn’t polite to be nosey.
      We’ll have to discuss it some other time.
      You sure do ask a lot of questions!
      Are you writing a book?
      Dad, if you don’t stop asking all these questions I’m going to have to ground you.

      Turn the tables and use their own tactics against them. Don’t budge. You can even do it jokingly. But you DO NOT have to explain your reasoning to unreasonable people – ever.

      • vivinator said:

        “You can’t always get what you want”

        I LOVE this idea. Jedi hugs!!!!

  11. Laura said:

    As someone who grew up in a family that can be very emotionally abusive at times, I have a follow-up question to the excellent advice to limit electronic contact.

    LW has described her dad as “scary” and says: “just getting phone calls or texts has been enough to skyrocket my anxiety,” so hopefully I’m not taking a leap with my assumption here….but I’ve noticed a pattern when I’ve tried to take time away from emotionally abusive people by not responding to calls, texts or emails. I’m not even talking about not responding at all, I’m talking about not responding within, say, a three-day timeframe. I start getting threatening emails, and by the time they amp up to calling me, they’re enraged and the situation has now moved to Def Con IV.

    I know that the point of such behavior is to pressure me to move on from the upsetting incident on their timeframe, rather than allowing me to sit with my feelings and get comfortable with the fact that they’ve hurt me and it’s OK to protect myself. I get that they want to rug-sweep their abusive behavior and get right back to a comfortable level of contact (for them.) But my anxiety ratchets every time I ignore a text, I literally feel sick to my stomach, because I know it’s only going to get much, much worse before it gets better.

    This stress response is not serving me well in other areas of my life, when I try to take space or push back against other shitty people, admittedly when the stakes are lower.

    I sense the LW may be dealing with a similar dynamic. How do you deal with the fallout when ignoring calls, emails and texts carries such high stakes? When you filter calls and emails but then you constantly check the filtered folders to see if you have ticking time bombs in your inbox? Do you sweat it out and not respond? Do you respond with terse, one-word answers reminding the person that you need space and to back off? Do you let them work up a full head of steam and then send them a text telling them that you won’t be spoken to that way and to back the hell off?

    I’m way too old to not know the answer to these questions.

    • JenniferP said:

      In the past I set designated days (for me) where I would look at the Problem Mailbox and respond (or not), and really tried to work with my therapist not to obsess. Basically, if you let them escalate to the angry place and then you respond, it just teaches them that when they escalate they will get your attention.

      • Laura said:

        Got it. I’ve been trying to focus on managing my obsessive feeling of being hunted, it sounds like that might be the way to go. Thank you!!!

        • Anna V said:

          Hey. Just to add to the Captain’s great advice on this: if you are independent from your family financially and have your own living space (it sounds like you do bc: texting), there will come a point where you realize that there is a ceiling to how much they will escalate. I’m not talking about situations where you’re afraid of physical violence, because that’s a whole other level and requires whole other layers of protection, but I can tell you that I also used to experience extreme anxiety when receiving communiqués of any kind from my mother. When I finally decided to cut contact, she showed up at my house and stood outside yelling for 45 minutes. I went to a back room and called the cops. She also threatened to show up at my office. I quietly told security not to let her upstairs if she came. She came. They told her I wasn’t in the office. She left. At a certain point… she just went back to sending shitty emails, by which time I had already set up my special Mom Folder of Hate and could choose to ignore it as long as I chose. You know your family and have a sense of how far they are willing to escalate. If that level of escalation is stressful but not actively dangerous, you may at some point be able to see it as just noise in the wind. My mother harasses me through text and email because *that is now the most she can do*. It’s her only power. I hope things get better for you.

          • Laura said:

            You are correct – at this point in my life I live independently from my family, and there is enough geographic distance between us that them showing up where I live or work is not an option. That’s interesting though…to contemplate what happens on the other side of Def Con IV. I’ve only been there once, and it resulted in a couple years of estrangement.

            These days, I struggle with my anxiety when it comes to limiting contact with people who are lower stakes, but still abusive. Your comment made me realize – they may not escalate the same way my family does. What I’m going for in the situation I’m dealing with now (it’s an in-law situation, not a parent) is strained, awkward distance. That would be a win for me. I’m too angry to do a slow fade, I need a time out. Maybe it’s time to take some of my space back and just give myself the time out I need without stressing out about their reaction to my silence?

          • AnonyToday said:

            @Laura I struggle with the same anxiety even in my work situation (“they’re upset about XYZ that is two items down on my to-do list, oh god, I’ve f’d up, they’re going to be so pissed!” –> it’s literally just “how is XYZ going?” and they’re fine when I say it will happen later today/tomorrow). Telling the scared to death part of my brain that this is not a big deal only works sometimes…
            Just to say, you’re not alone and it sucks.
            Also, I’ve noticed that when I’ve had a few months of no-contact with the abusive person I don’t struggle with this nearly as much. My recent (non-eventful) visit with my Dad has put me in a mental space I haven’t been in for years and I thought I was done with. This is now making me think that at least semi-permanent no in-person contact needs to happen. But shit that makes me feel like a piece of shit who’s making a big deal over nothing.

          • CJ said:

            Does anybody have any tips on what you can do if you *are* financially dependent?

            That’s the situation I’m in right now and it mega sucks. I’m not able to work much right now and the welfare system in my country is… very red-tapey and also gaslighty (Im still trying to get what I’m entitled to but long story short it’s not a consistently reliable income source, and even if it was it probably wouldn’t cover my living costs)

          • My two cents said:

            CJ – I don’t have the time to look through much of the archives now, sorry, but Capt’n Awkward does have some suggestions on other Questions.

            Here is a Question about boundaries (you will have to modify some scripts, but setting any boundaries will hopefully be healthier for you):
            https://captainawkward.com/2017/07/19/967-freeing-yourself-from-constant-contact/#more-37674

            A room-mate situation, but maybe offers some ideas for you?
            https://captainawkward.com/2015/09/19/747-being-the-unwilling-emotional-caryatid-in-your-house/#more-8211
            https://captainawkward.com/2016/02/16/830-831-and-832-boundaries-and-the-power-of-no/#more-11380

            Good luck!

          • Private Editor said:

            @AnonyToday, your comment about assuming people are pissed at you left me nodding like a bobblehead doll because I too do this. “OMG, he’s quiet! That’s always a bad sign…” (Well…. no.)

            My therapist gave me homework: ask for something you want or need without prefacing your request with twelve million words on why your request is really very important, I swear it is, I’m SO sorry to bother you. This feels like part of the same scared-to-death part of the brain as the one you described.

            Ugh, I hope this wasn’t incoherent. I’m super tired. TL;DR Solidarity fist bump!

    • Argablarg said:

      I had problem parents like this, but anxiety-related for them, since if I didn’t reply every day they’d think I was dead or something and try to anxiety-guilt me. I have to say, when I started limiting contact, things got much, much, MUCH worse for a while, but eventually powering through it got me to the other side and things are much better now.

      This is all by way of saying that all of the stomach-churning anxiety is unpleasant but totally normal, and it’s also totally normal that you’d have a learning curve about how to cope with all this. Don’t beat yourself up; you’re doing just fine 🙂

    • Mary said:

      One thing I found really helpful was to label the the special filtered folder something like “FULL OF BEES”. Having it pre-labelled as FULL OF BEES is weirdly helpful in saying to your brain, “this is bad, you know it’s bad, you don’t need to think about it or worry about the specific levels or type of bad. Who cares whether it’s one angry bee or 100 angry bees, they’re still bees.” And it means that when you do open it, you mentally don the beekeepers outfit so you’re going in there somewhat protected: you know it’s going to be bees, it is bees, but at least you are bee-ready.

      It helps me a lot with that thing where an email just ambushes you and demands your full attention because it hits you when you’re in the middle of something else and just looking at your phone for a brief hit of cat memes or something.

      • Laura said:

        That is awesome! My current…problem person…is more of a texter, maybe I need to change the name of their contact to “Kraken,” “Jellyfish” or similar.

        • MuddieMae said:

          A few things you might try:
          – block them on your phone until you want to talk to them. Details might vary depending on the phone. On mine, texts they send will just go into the ether, which may be an upside or a downside, depending.
          – see if you can mute just their phone number, so you won’t be interrupted by their texts.
          – get a google voice number, give it to them as your “new” phone number, block them on your main line, only check the google voice number when you want to

          • Laura said:

            LOL, I am downloading a new OS on my phone as we speak so that I have better filtering options 🙂 The suggestion to mute just their phone number is perfect!

      • Song in my heart said:

        My folder name was “for never”, and I actually managed to ignore it for months at a time.

    • Emma9 said:

      ~I’m not even talking about not responding at all~

      Maybe you should be.

      You’re trying to take steps to distance yourself from family entanglement to safeguard your emotional health. From the perspective of you, I, and I’m sure pretty much every person on this website, that’s a wise and positive thing to do.

      From the perspective of the abusive family members, it’s bad. It’s dangerous to the status quo they’re happy with.

      If they politely stepped back and allowed you the space to figure this out, it would not result in the kind of dynamic they want to have with you. So, they’ve made the logical decision to teach you that setting boundaries results in scary consequences.

      I’m not saying this to defend them, obviously; I’m saying this because I highly doubt they’re experiencing uncontrollable emotional reactions – they’ve coldly and calculatedly decided to terrorize you in order to get their way. When I was in a similar situation, it was a big help to realize this, because it was roughly when I started feeling less frightened and more fucking pissed off.

      The thing that is coming, the thing that will be hard and painful and scary, the thing that in a just universe you shouldn’t have to ride out, is called an extinction burst. (You can find a lot of dog-training articles using that term, and I personally like that reframing.)

      The shitty things they’ve done before, they will do again. If you ignore them, they will get even worse. Knowing that, it can help to take concrete steps to prepare yourself:

      1. Keep up with the blocking and forwarding. The Captain’s suggestion of designating a day X time in the future when you will decide whether you want to plow through the angry messages or delete them unheard/unread is a great one – that way you can plan to have support or self-care options in place afterward.

      2. Also avoid taking calls from unknown numbers or accepting potentially dodgy connections on social media if possible (to avoid them worming around your blocks).

      3. If they know any physical places you’ll be, make sure they can’t access you that way (change your locks if any family member has ever had copies of your keys, have the ‘don’t buzz people up’ talk with others in your apartment building, notify security at work that you don’t want people visiting you there, etc). If attending any social events where they might be, make sure to have independent transportation/exit strategy. Bring a friend as buffer/impartial witness if at all possible.

      4. Have a script in place to use on third-party meddlers – basically anything advised in this thread for use on the LW’s mom and sister can be tweaked to fit your needs. Practice this script at a friend, or a mirror, or a wall, until it’s as boring and matter-of-fact as the answering spiel on a company phone line.

      If you’re able to take those steps, it’s as safe as it can be to trigger the extinction burst.

      • Laura said:

        The thing that’s so hard about this is that, like the LW, I’m OK with a distant relationship with this person. Awkward, strained, rarely in touch but able to maintain the basics of civility when you have to see them…that looks like a victory to me. Going no contact feels like it will automatically blow up the bridge. Past experience with limiting contact has taught me that you either need to commit to riding out a hurricane of bullshit or you need to roll over and placate the bullshitter. I think what you are saying is, I can’t control the other person’s reaction to my need for space. That’s what it boils down to. The only thing I can control is my ability to honor my need for space, and take that space, and do what I can to protect myself from their feelingsvomits about it.

        Your context about what’s going through the abuser’s mind is a really helpful reminder. Thank you.

        • Emma9 said:

          I can understand that – completely cutting someone of can be a drastic step.

          It’s been said elsewhere on this website that the only leverage you have over abusive family members is their desire to interact with you.

          Yes, it’s possible that if you go through with riding out the hurricane – don’t return angry texts and emails, hang up on phone calls if you’re spoken to badly, etc – they will be so infuriated they will never want to speak to you again. In my personal opinion, that’s not likely; see ‘they are not as uncontrollably angry as they want you to think they are’.

          The other possibility is that they will learn (slowly, painfully, no doubt with forays of attempted boundary-pushing to see if you’ll let them sneak back into the old pattern) that they receive the valuable reward of your attention when and only when they behave civilly.

          • Laura said:

            “The other possibility is that they will learn (slowly, painfully, no doubt with forays of attempted boundary-pushing to see if you’ll let them sneak back into the old pattern) that they receive the valuable reward of your attention when and only when they behave civilly.”

            This^^^ This is what I’m hoping to accomplish. Thank you so much for helping me see that!

    • felixthegolden said:

      I don’t know if you would want to do this, but in situations where someone’s anxiety about low contact is this high, I think it’s perfectly justified to move to no contact. I went NC with my mother partly for this reason, and the thing about it, is that once you’ve committed to protecting yourself from *any* communication with them, their rage starts feeling less like something you unwillingly empathize with and starts feeling more like an avoidable nuisance. You stop having to consider what effect your response is going to have on them, stop trying to manage them – it stops being your problem. And on their side, total silence from you will get boring eventually, and they will move onto other targets. Eventually. There’s usually an extinction burst first though.

      • Laura said:

        Having gone no contact with an abuser before, I agree that no contact is much easier for me emotionally than low contact. I guess I struggle with that gray area, where you aren’t ready to cut that person off completely, but want to reclaim your space without burning the bridge.

        • felixthegolden said:

          Ah OK so you know where you’re at. Fair enough.

          • Laura said:

            Thanks for the kind words, though. I wish I could go completely no contact with this person!

    • Blooper said:

      When I was in a similar situation, something I considered was to ask someone else, a friend/trusted person, to go through my incoming emails and to give me notice of anything (ex. upcoming danger) I should know about. I would ask them not to tell me anything else.

      I know this doesn’t particularly work for your situation because you receive texts… and maybe you simply don’t want to involve someone else (because of logistics and various reasons – this is personal stuff!) However, I still wanted to put this suggestion out there.

    • BigDogLittleCat said:

      Whoa, my stomach knotted up just reading your post.

      I’m not even talking about not responding at all, I’m talking about not responding within, say, a three-day timeframe. I start getting threatening emails, and by the time they amp up to calling me, they’re enraged and the situation has now moved to Def Con IV.
      As far as I’m concerned, that’s a one-way, non-stop, non-refundable ticket to No Contact Land.

      But it sounds below like that’s your FOO and the current problem is your in-laws?
      If it’s your in-laws you can’t go genuinely full no-contact unless your spouse also cuts them off. If spouse isn’t able to go no-contact with their family, then spouse needs to be the point of contact. They want to scream at someone because you didn’t email them back? they can scream at spouse. They want you to jump when they text? they better ask your spouse to jump because you’re not going to.

      Maybe it’s time to take some of my space back and just give myself the time out I need without stressing out about their reaction to my silence?
      Absofuckinglutely.
      You can’t control their reaction and if you do do exactly what they want, what they want will have been something else.
      I understand the anxiety of feeling there is a ticking bomb in your inbox. But unlike a Hogwarts Howler, emails can’t scream in your face unless you open them. Is there any genuine reason to open and read their messages? If it’s just a continuation of their abuse, you don’t need to know what they’re saying. You are not obligated to let their stink into your brain. Between being socialized to let others have their say and morbid curiosity, it’s hard to not read messages, but the delete button and paper shredder are your friend. I had to steel myself to get myself to hit delete/shred the first few times, but it came easy pretty quickly. Making it impossible for me to read it even if I wanted to was so freeing. I don’t feel obligated to open every piece of junk mail or spam I get.

      If I were you, I’d ask myself, do I truly need to know what they say in their emails/texts/phone messages? If not, block or instant delete.
      Do you truly need to respond at all? Do *you* need to respond at all? If it’s spouse’s family, let it bee on spouse.
      Do what you need to do for yourself. If they go batshit on you for taking care of yourself after they harmed you, they’ve just proven your point.

      I’m so sorry you’ve got this crap in your life. I hope you have someone on Team You who is helping you work through this.

      • Laura said:

        Yeah, spouse isn’t ready to go full no contact with this person, and there are kids involved – ours and theirs – who have a good relationship. Of course this is one of those situations where Problem Person always contacts me because I’ve historically been the “good cop”; my spouse doesn’t hesitate to tell them off when they are out of line, though he doesn’t always get the subtlety of their manipulation. I like the idea of blocking and deleting until it forces them to go to him. They would hate that, and I would get some peace.

        And you hit it – my anxiety comes from my experience with my FOO. I keep questioning whether my feelings are “real” enough to justify ghosting them until they realize that I’m actually very pissed.

    • TootsNYC said:

      I sometimes wonder if emoji are the answer.

      Some sort of completely noncommittal response, so there’s not NOTHING coming back. But something that means absolutely nothing at all.

      And you can know you responded, and that it will tamp things down. (oil on troubled waters?) And maybe it’ll be easier to mentally move on, because there won’t be anxiety.

      I sometimes use the phrase “Be Teflon”–your goal is not to stop or resist anything; it’s to create an impervious shell that their bullshit will roll right off of.

      the other thing I sometimes think of, when I ponder these things, is how I deal with telemarketers. My goal is to just get off the phone as quickly as possible, to deal with their intrusion on my life in whatever way gives it the least impact.
      So I interrupt to say, politely and without heat, “I’m not interested, take me off your list,” and then to hang up.
      I don’t waste energy and thought on trying to make some sort of statement, or to even be angry about the interruption.

      So, what is the way you can respond that has the least impact on you, emotionally? You don’t HAVE to “stand up for yourself” by saying “I won’t be spoken to that way.” It’s OK to do the equivalent of “I have a boyfriend.”

      The GOAL is to minimize the impact in whatever way works.

      • Laura said:

        This sounds kind of like the grey rock way of dealing with narcissists. Which I’ve employed in the past. I don’t think the relationship with Problem Person would be improved at this point by my telling them why or how they offended me. They know. They don’t care. They’re not going to change. I just need to pull away and make myself very unavailable and boring.

        I like the emoji idea.

  12. Jadelyn said:

    If it helps, OP, you’re definitely not alone in having your family punishing you for trying to cut out an abuser for Family Reasons. I don’t know why it is that so many people are so willing to try to accommodate the abuser by trying to coerce the victim into enabling further abuse, but good lord is it A Thing, especially with family situations.

    When I cut off ties with my dad, I had to cut ties with his entire side of the family because they all took him at his word that I was being a callous b**** (for, you know, having very reasonable boundaries and following through on clearly stated consequences for violating said boundaries, such as “I will not engage in political discussions with you anymore, and if you bring up the topic I will remove myself from the situation until you stop.” or “I do not want you engaging with my social media posts, and since you’ve demonstrated that you can’t be trusted to not stalk me on social media I am using all the tools at my disposal to block you from seeing me.”) and descended en masse to howl “BUUUT FAAAAAAMILYYYYY” at me in some kind of demonic chorus of enabling.

    I pointed out, over and over to different people, that it wasn’t like I’d just woken up one day and decided I hated my father. His behavior over the preceding 25 years had damaged the relationship and I was done trying to fix it all by myself without his help. I kept reminding people that he’s a grown adult who is responsible for his own behavior, and if he wanted to try to repair the relationship I would be happy to work with him, but I wasn’t going to take it all on myself anymore.

    Apparently this was a horrible, unreasonable thing for me to expect, that a grown adult step up and take responsibility for his actions toward his children rather than expecting the children to clean up his mess for him over and over in perpetuity. Never underestimate the ability of an abuser to present their actions as eminently reasonable to third parties and convince other people that their victim is the one who’s being unreasonable.

  13. GreenDoor said:

    My family has a bad habit of never dealing directly with a problem….yet spending hours & hours analyzing and discussing and theorizing behind the backs of those directly affected by Problem. I have made a commitment not to react to anything that doesn’t come directly from the source because 99% oif the time, it’s actually coming from one of these behind-the-back talk sessions. So I second the Captain’s advice not to acknowledge anything about dad coming to LW secondhand from mom or sister. It’s highly likely that its part of his pattern of abuse (using other relatives to help him make LW feel bad) and if he doesn’t thave the guts to actually express his feelings right to your face, it proves he’s not really committed to changing the relationship for the better.

  14. FrolickingElf said:

    Yes to this entire post – a thousand times YESSSS!!!

    As someone who went no-contact with my Dad last year – his emotional abuse didn’t stop… until I stopped it. His Flying Monkeys were non-stop… until I stopped them. Their triangulation was never-ending, until I stopped it. And their “but we’re faaaammmily” battle-cry didn’t stop – until I invited THEM to join me for family counselling.

    My Dad came to family counselling last year, and as the people-pleaser-wanting-a-Dad-codependent… I took the lead. I apologized for MY role, my behaviours, and my choices. In that, I got some much needed closure. But when the time came for HIM to take personal responsibility… he couldn’t… or wouldn’t. And after a few failed attempts at empathy-exercises, my counsellor stopped our family sessions because he just wasn’t contributing anything to the sessions… and if we were to continue, he’d have to get separate sessions to address his own issues. Uh, stop making OUR sessions about YOU Dad. yeesh.

    If you do get your father into a councillors office, I would highly suspect their is an ulterior motive. If anything, he’ll learn the lingo to further manipulate you and your family members. Terms we’ve shared here like “projection,” “discard,” and “Flying Monkeys” can be twisted.. so he can continually remain the victim and “gaslight” you. Also, emotional abusers seem to ONLY go to counselling to further their own script… or when backed in the corner: “Well I TRIED to go, but the number didn’t work, another excuse, must be YOUR fault, but never MY fault.” That, or he’ll hijack the session and make it about HIM (been there, and see a lot of commenters here say the same).

    So my father stopped coming to family sessions as SOON as it was about his culpability for our estrangement. But… I kept going. I found a trauma-therapist who specializes in domestic violence (and emotional abuse IS abuse). worked on myself, developed my own boundaries, and created my own sense of self – apart from my “toxic family of origin.” It was harder than I anticipated, but so rewarding! You can do this, and these scripts are a great start!

  15. Vikki Barnes said:

    Oh wow, this one hits home. When I was a kid, my mum’s foster mum (who was effectively my grandmother) emotionally abused me and I spent years obsessed with ‘closure’. If I got good grades then she would love me or if I sent her a heart felt letter then she would admit the harm she had caused me! But nope. She upped the abuse, turned her whole family against us, and cut off contact like we were the ones at fault. It took a lot of therapists and a lot of practice letters to realise that she just wasn’t capable of the the closure and validation I needed. I had to accept that and mourn the grandmother I never had but desperately wanted. That therapist sounds really sensible and I hope you find a way to process what happened to you. (This is a really long winded way of saying: Some people just aren’t capable of or don’t want to change their ways and there’s nothing you can do to change that. I hope you find a way to extricate yourself from his trap.)

  16. vivinator said:

    I would like to echo the Captain’s sentiment here and say “IT’S A TRAP!” My emotionally abusive/manipulative mother tried to get me to go to family counseling with her, even offering for me to pick the therapist in my area to make it “easier” for me. However, the crucial context to the manipulative nature of this proposal was that she berates me for not serving up my daughter on a platter for her entertainment and is furious that I don’t host her constantly in my home 5 hours away so she can get her fill of baby grabbing. Family therapy was just another stick she could beat me with and would provide an amazing excuse to trample all over my boundaries and stay at my house because obviously “you can’t expect me to drive five hours just for therapy and turn right around and leave without seeing the “baaaaaby”. So yeah. Don’t do it. Go back to low contact with your dad, that seemed to be working better for you. As for your mom and sister, tell them once politely to stay out of your relationship with him. After that you’ll have to get less polite. People who enable abusers are not safe, LW. They know perfectly well how horribly he treats you, they’d just rather you experience it than them.

  17. I'm A Little Teapot said:

    Handy spot if anyone wants it: JustNoMIL, JustNoFIL, JustNoFamily, etc on Reddit.

  18. Convallaria majalis said:

    Dear LW, I wanted so much to send you Jedi hug (if you want one). You are not alone with your situation as you can see from the previous comments – and my comment, too. I have never known my father (which has left me some issues not directly related to this letter) but my mother was volatile and abusive. She has been dead for years and I am still recovering from our relationship.

    If your father for some reason decides to proceed with the family therapy I see one more possibility not mentioned by The Captain (whose scripts I am so going to use from now on): your family therapist you picked can most probably put an end to you going to family therapy together. You mentioned that you had to see the therapist first separately which you had already done but your father had not yet managed to get an appointment. If he surprises you by managing to reserve an appointment after all you can explain your situation to the therapist: I am quite sure they will block your father access to family therapy with you.

    Would it help if your mother and sister went to family therapy with you, instead? I got the impression that your father is beyond any hope, but possibly it could help you, your mother and your sister. I do not know if this thought is helpful or not, you know your situation best. I do hope that your mother and sister will understand what is best for you and join Team You.

    You have been so very brave and strong; cutting contact with an abusive parent is not an easy task and you have already managed that. Fantastic job at taking care of your boundaries!

    Take care of yourself!

    • Jers said:

      Ooooo this is a fantastic idea.

  19. “Sometimes ‘strained & awkward, with no resolution’ is as good as it gets with an emotionally abusive person, because you can’t control the other person or make them behave right or make them apologize or understand their role in why it’s like this.”

    I need this stitched on a pillow, stenciled on a wall, embossed onto my phone case… everywhere in my life until it really sinks in. Because while I’ve finally got my dad on a schedule that works for me (two phone calls and two cards a year; I tick those Good Daughter boxes like clockwork) I do occasionally beat my head against the wall of “what could I be doing to fix this?”

    FWIW, we did one whole session of family counseling, which went a little something like this: “Okay, so it sounds like everyone has some valid points here. Chase, your father gets really stressed when your room is messy, so can you maybe pack up your school books when you’re not in there, even if you’re coming back to it soon? And Dad, can you agree that you won’t hit her anymore?” Cut to car ride home, “THAT GUY WAS A TOTAL QUACK AND WE’RE NEVER DOING THAT AGAIN!” Abusive people won’t participate in any situation where they’re told they’re doing wrong.

    • Kacienna said:

      Yikes! I’m honestly not totally comfortable with the therapist presenting “put your books away” and “don’t hit your daughter” as equivalent needs. I’m glad you have a schedule that works for you!

  20. Prunesquallor said:

    I cut off my parents almost seven years ago now. My sisters still talk to them – one of them still lives with them – and I had to give up on some things. Like, my older sister gave me a bookshelf that she built and needed dad to drop it off so they know my building, which I didn’t want, though not my apartment, which is an improvement from my last address, when she just straight up told him after I asked her not to. They don’t pass on gifts anymore as I kept mailing them back but they still try to invite me to dinners when extended family will be there and won’t coordinate anything where I see that family separately or pass on phone numbers so I can coordinate. I don’t think they are intentionally trying to cut me off from extended family as punishment for me not showing up, I think they just “feel awkward” and I am the acceptable loss. I still hang out with my sisters though and a determined focus on changing the topic when it came to parents and proactively focussing on fun things that have nothing to do with the drama helped reset that a bit.

    The thing that helped me the most when I was still figuring out how this estrangement would work was giving myself delays in responding & restricting access to emails helped with that. When stuff was asked in person, esp by pressuring siblings, I did sometimes cave and I tried once or twice to go to like, christmas things, with the extended family people, and each time my parents assumed it was a total reset, everything was “back to normal” and they would graciously forgive me and change nothing. The possibility that it might be a trial period to see if they could treat me like a human being, or that I wasn’t there for them but instead the cousin who lived out of country and I never got to see literally never occurred to them. It also was a reset in some ways as I felt exactly as miserable and worthless as they always made me feel and panicked and couldn’t set any of the boundaries or say any of the snappy comebacks I wanted to.

    For a while I felt like a failure for not setting boundaries and doing the healthy things to make the relationship work but like…their company wasn’t, to me, worth the exhaustion and frustration and work of setting boundaries with them. Yes, I failed in figuring out how to make it work, but really, that wasn’t MY goal. My goal was not to be exhausted and frustrated and hurt all the time. Building a healthy relationship and being cool and mature and having boundaries wasn’t worth it – when it comes to my interaction with them, that’s just a new reason to hate myself and feel inadequate and a failure. I needed to give myself permission to not be the mature better person who succeeds at having and enforcing boundaries, but instead let my to be the tired person who just wants to restrict company to people who have a 101 level understanding of decent behaviour. You get to do that if you want. You haven’t failed.

    This isn’t really new to what Cap said but just like….solidarity.

    • EllenS said:

      Restricting who you see to conserve your emotional energy and stay in an environment that makes you feel good *is* setting healthy boundaries. Excellent ones, in fact.

      Some toxic people are like salmonella – wear gloves or wash your hands immediately, and you’ll be fine.

      Others are like an industrial chemical spill – keep a safe distance, wear a filter mask, and leave cleanup to the professionals.

      You have not failed at anything. You have succeeded in adapting the right kind of boundary for your situation. When you no longer care about proving you are mature or cool, is the place where actual maturity starts.

    • vivinator said:

      “I needed to give myself permission to not be the mature better person who succeeds at having and enforcing boundaries, but instead let my to be the tired person who just wants to restrict company to people who have a 101 level understanding of decent behaviour. You get to do that if you want. You haven’t failed.”

      Oh my god thank you for saying this. I needed to hear this.

    • Convallaria majalis said:

      Oh, dear Prunesquallor, I am so sorry that your parents were so terrible that they made you feel like an absolute failure. Reading your comment made me want to send you a big Jedi hug (if you want one).

      I just wanted to say one thing: to me it sounds like you have done a fantastic job enforcing your boundaries. Clearly being in touch with your parents does not work for you so in this case not being in contact them and protecting your wellbeing is the right thing to do. You have not failed in any way! It sounds like you have done so much work to keep yourself safe. You can very well be a mature person and not have any contact with your parents; I do hope that you can establish contact with the other members of your family.

      May you have much strength!

      • AnonyToday said:

        Though not directed at me, this is so helpful Convallaria, thank you.

        I just came out of a *non-eventful* visit with my abusive (thankfully out-of-state) Dad and had 1) shame spirals leading up to the visit and 2) just barely avoided a complete melt-down the next day and I’m still trying to get the shame brain weasel to calm down 4 days later. I feel like an utter failure that I’m contemplating going non-contact with my Dad. I want to be able to just “remind myself that he doesn’t have power over me so why am I freaking out?” except that works as well for me as doing physical violence to myself to remind myself of something inane like the sky being blue. It just doesn’t work. Something about his presence just completely bypasses rationality and I hate it. I would turn it off if I could… but I. Just. Can’t.

        Therapy with my new therapist is going to be interesting this week.

        • BigDogLittleCat said:

          Jedi hugs of solidarity (if acceptable).
          I can feel my body changing at even the thought of my estranged family member. In their presence I feel like someone laced my ribs together and is pulling hard and my legs seem prepared to bolt at any moment.

          Something about his presence just completely bypasses rationality
          Bingo.
          When we’ve lived in an emotionally difficult situation for most of our lives, the defense mechanisms become innate, and they kick in before the intellect even knows what’s going on. When we go near a person who hurt us, our bodies can default to fight-flight-freeze.

          “remind myself that he doesn’t have power over me so why am I freaking out?”
          You are freaking out because he *used* to have power over you and your defense mechanisms that kept you alive when you were under his power have not yet learned to trust that he can’t hurt you like that any more.
          Rather than deride yourself for freaking out, recognize that freaking out is your body trying to process a life time of emotions with the Danger-Danger klaxons screaming, and defense mechanisms that served you for probably most of your life cannot be turned off like a light bulb.
          Cut yourself some slack! You had how many years to develop those defense mechanisms? You’re not a failure if you need time to unlearn them and develop new responses more appropriate to the situation.

        • Convallaria majalis said:

          Dear AnonToday, I would love to offer you a big Jedi hug, too (if you would like one)! I am so sorry that your Dad is an abusive asshole. BigDogLittleCat does a fantastic job does a fine job explaining how and why our mind bypasses rationality (that is a fine expression, by the way, AnonToday!).

          When my mother was still alive I remember how she could always get under my skin; she had this way of subtly undermining my life decisions and my worth; she kept body shaming me and her love for me was conditional. It should not be like that between a parent and a child. BigDogLittleCat is right: our mind reacts the way it does because we have a history of depending on the care of these abusive people. Perhaps they used to be different. Perhaps they did take care of us while we were small children so even though we do not have conscious memories of it we are still conditioned to behave as if we still depended on them – or what is worse, perhaps they only cared of us if we behaved in the way they approved of.

          You are clearly doing a good job working with your weasel brain – and you are seeing a therapist! You are taking care of yourself and your own wellbeing! Well done!

          First and foremost, take care of yourself, just like you are doing. Clearly visiting your father right now causes you severe disstress; luckily The Captain gave such a wonderful advice and good scripts. I hope you have Team You to help you to go through the necessary changes restricting your father’s access to you at the moment.

          Best of luck to you!

    • Norawora said:

      Hi Prunesquallor, I respects and admire your decision so much! I am in a similar situation, but only about 3 months in. I struggle to keep in contact with my little sister as she is very loyal to my parents. This ‘ a while I felt like a failure for not setting boundaries and doing the healthy things to make the relationship work but like…their company wasn’t, to me, worth the exhaustion and frustration and work of setting boundaries with them’ resonated with me so much. And I think I still in the feeling like a failure phase some days, but I also feel glad I did cut off the contact most of the time.
      So thank you for sharing and making me feel less alone.

      • prunesquallor said:

        Thanks, and thanks all of you. It took a long while to see it as something other than capital F Failure – viscerally I knew it was what I needed but intellectually I kept doubting myself – but I’ve made peace with it now. I’m still not great at setting boundaries in the moment with toxic angry shouty people but I’m also not great at sword-swallowing and that’s equally as useful for the life I want to have so whatever.

        Also, as it turns out, learning how to have healthy boundaries is so much easier when you’re dealing with people who are actually capable of respecting them! It doesn’t have to be on hard mode!!! Who knew, right? :p

        Best of luck Norawora and everyone else dealing with this…it wasn’t always easy but it was always worth it, for me anyway.

    • Tree said:

      “I needed to give myself permission to not be the mature better person who succeeds at having and enforcing boundaries, but instead let my to be the tired person who just wants to restrict company to people who have a 101 level understanding of decent behaviour. You get to do that if you want. You haven’t failed.”

      You have just given me a gift. I needed to read this and stop beating myself up for not being able to establish a “healthy” co-parenting relationship with my ex. I don’t have to constantly fend off his boundary pushing and manage his behaviour. I always feel guilty about the amount of contact we have … whether it’s low-contact periods (I should be making sure we get along! For the kids!) or periods with more contact (I should be restricting contact because he isn’t healthy for me! Or the kids!).

      Reading this felt like a lightbulb going off in my brain. I can just let it be what it is, what I can handle at any given time, and give myself a break.

      Thank you so much.

  21. Dear LW,

    I have a script to add to the excellent ones the Captain provided.

    Yeah, no.

    It’s like Wow, but less forgiving. It’s my favorite these days.

    This one works by itself, or at the beginning of longer scripts:

    With your father:

    Dad: You’re so [whatever lousy thing he says]
    You: Yeah, no.

    Dad: What about therapy.
    You: Yeah, no. I don’t want to anymore.


    With your mother and sister.

    Sister: I think you should stop being mean to Dad.
    You: Yeah, no.

    Mom: Dad says you’ve been ignoring him. You know he misses you.
    You: Yeah, no. He knows how to stay in touch. How’s your new class?

    • hamsterpants said:

      I love it. Casual dismissiveness can be devastating (and disarming) to someone fishing for drama. “Yeah, no” says “That’s bullshit and not even worthy of a response.”

    • Convallaria majalis said:

      I say “Yeah, yes!” to these scripts. Now the next question is how to best translate them so that the effect stays. Thank you for this fine addition to The Captain’s scripts, Mrs Morley – and I am so sorry that you have had to use this script in the first place.

      • Thanks for the kind words. There’s no need to be concerned about when or how I’ve delivered scripts though.

        While I’ve had two bad exes, on the whole my life has been (and still is) very good.

  22. Cora said:

    There’s a sentence in the Captain’s response that stood out for me: “he wants you as his waiting audience, as inconvenienced and on edge as possible, doing all the work.”

    Two things are happening concomitantly there: first, you can be anxious because you are the inconvenienced, waiting audience; and second, you can be anxious because you care that he knows you’re the inconvenienced, waiting audience. (I hope that makes sense).

    What I’ve learned is that you can eventually choose not to be the waiting audience, but you also have to actively choose not to care that he still thinks you’re the waiting audience. Those are separate. When I was eventually able to not be the waiting audience, I wanted him to maybe notice that? Because it bothered me that he still thought he had the edge over me, and somehow it was important to get him to understand…. but, it wasn’t. It isn’t. He can think whatever he damn pleases, and if he think he’s got the edge, well, he can keep on thinking that. Not only do I not have to be the waiting audience, I also don’t have to work to get him to see that. If he never sees that, it’s still okay.

    • Khlovia said:

      OMG yes! And that second step is a doozy.

    • BigDogLittleCat said:

      This! We want the last word, we don’t want them to think they’ve won, we want to set the record straight, we want the world to know our side of the story!

      Freedom is when we realize that that’s still playing their game and we are not going to play any more.

      In the words of the great Elizabeth Bennet: “And with regard to the resentment of his family, or the indignation of the world, if the former were excited by [x], it would not give me one moment’s concern—and the world in general would have too much sense to join in the scorn.”

  23. LeiaWDaForce said:

    I feel you on the abusive Dad situation. Mine was emotionally, verbally, and physically abusive. When I was 19 he told me I should “choke on your food and die” because I didn’t keep my mother from helping make dinner two weeks after she had a hysterectomy. I didn’t speak to him for two years. Every time I called home those two years my mother tried to get me to talk to him. I was supposed to be the “reasonable” one of course. Stay strong and do what’s best for you.

  24. Sarah said:

    Jedi fistbump of solidarity, LW. In my experience family therapy doesn’t work. I went with my emotionally abusive dad and part of it was me telling him that I didn’t like it when he sprung it on me that he had a girlfriend when I thought I had been seeing one of his friends. He didn’t listen because it was convenient for him not to, and a few years later he sprung it on me that he and his now ex-girlfriend had moved in together as we were halfway to their house.

    I also have people pressuring me to do things with Dad or to see him more or whatever. My mom is the chief perpetrator of this and I am sure it’s because she thinks I need a male figure in my life and a crappy dad is better than no dad. I also have an abusive sister who Mom and family also pressure me to have a relationship with. My go-to scripts are:

    “Mom, no.”
    “I’ll think about it” when I’ve already considered it and decided no,
    “Mom, Dad and I are two adults. Let me manage my relationship with him.”
    “Because I’m not.”
    “I don’t have an answer that will satisfy you. I’ve already told you why, now let’s drop it.” Followed by some anger and boundary setting if they don’t.
    “Stop guilt-tripping me.” to my dad’s ex-girlfriend the manipulator as well as my dad. It worked.
    “If that’s how he is then ok, but I don’t want to be around that.” To my enabling mother after she told me why Dad had his girlfriend handle his relationships for him
    “She might have apologized but she didn’t apologize to me.” It cut off Mom trying to tell me that my abusive sister had apologized so I should stop rejecting her.

    I hope these help. You might also like #1031 that I wrote to the Captain. It’s certainly helped me set boundaries and limits with my enabling mother and also understand why she keeps enabling.

    • Nora Graubard said:

      I would like to give the caveat that if you have a relatively healthy, functional family that family therapy can be transformative. When I was dealing with some pretty severe major depression as the adult daughter of my parents we had a really hard time communicating and empathizing with each other. Given the fact that I was financially reliant on them while I was nonfunctioning and lowfunctioning (and that we’ve had an emotionally healthy relationship in the past) it was extremely important to us to figure it out. We only went twice altogether, and my parents went once without me and it has made all of the difference in the world.

      TL;DR if you’re reading this and not coping with abuse or toxicity, but you ARE coping with some dysfunction – family therapy might work for you!

  25. “If you truly want us to have a better relationship, one way you can show it is to give me some space. I’ll get in touch with you when I’m ready.”

    Wow, that is awesome. I recently went NC with my mother and wish I’d had that script in my back pocket. I’m saving it for future. Thanks so much ; you’re great at empowering people, which is an excellent gift to have and to share. Thank you.

  26. Survivor. said:

    I have a little brother who grew up very much shielded from the worst of the abuse by my parents, who had a *really* tough time with me cutting off our father. As an adult, I think my brother was swirling with guilt that he was kept in the dark about abuses he wished could have stepped in to prevent. I think he also hadn’t had as long as I had to process/accept that my father would always be this way and wasn’t capable of change. Much of my brothers desire for me to keep our faaamily going came from the best of my brothers personality – his kind, loyal, protective personality – so I tried to be mindful of that. I also didn’t want to reveal the sexual abuse because once I told my brother, I couldn’t untell it. He had a lot invested in me protecting him.

    Ultimately, I had to put boundaries in place that meant I was going to cut my father off. I didn’t want to talk about our father. I couldn’t be my brothers sounding board for ‘why can’t Dad be a good dad to me, what is wrong with me?’ talks. Leaving him to untangle that relationship was painful to watch. That said, my brother did finally decide to cut our father off to; and I feel glad that was his decision. Maybe I had to be the one to lead by example. If my brother hadn’t done that, I’d have respected that choice. But it was really hard to witness. When he finally asked the abuse question and I told him, we cried together. It was brutal but freeing.

    I liken it to our family growing up in a dark room. No one wanted to switch the lights on and see the mess we’d made. I did the hard work in therapy to decide whether to switch the lights on and try to fix it OR find that door handle and get the fuck out. The latter was liberating. I still cry and mourn that much of my family are still living in the dark, choosing not to deal with their pain and thus prolonging the suffering. I can’t go back to help them and that hurts.

    The agonising bit is accepting that you can’t do anyone else’s healing for them. It’s natural to want to soothe the suffering and be the strong daughter who magically overcomes abuse via your superpowers of forgiving forbearance. That is a recognised reaction to trauma, one way to go is fantasizing about seeking revenge, another is recompense, but by far trying to prematurely forgive the abuse to make it go away is one women are socialised into. So be kind to yourself for feeling that urge. It’s not unusual.

  27. Alex Beecroft said:

    I echo that ‘it’s a trap!’ and I’m glad that you’re looking for polite ways not to go to therapy with you, where you would be forced to listen to him gaslighting you in front of a stranger. My dad and my oldest sister were the abusers in our family, and it took me until I was in my fifties to break away. Eventually I started going to therapy, and I think it was that that gave me the firm ground beneath me that one day I said “No,” to one of their schemes. My dad was shocked. He said “you can’t say ‘no’.” It had obviously never occured to him that I had a right to my own choices. I laughed and said “yes I can. I’m not doing it.” And that was a just such a moment of revelation and healing for me. Taking back the ability to say ‘no’ with no caveats or excuses, because I was a person who had the right to say no was a moment of power that I still look back fondly on three years later.

    It had costs – my sister is no longer talking to me. But given that every time she did contact me it sent me into an anxiety spiral that gave me heart palpitations, that’s actually been a benefit.

    If you’re in a position in your life where your father has no control over your life, job or finances, I recommend just saying a plain ‘no, I don’t want to,’ to him, and to anyone else who tries to pressure you to get closer to him. Say no, stand firm, and let them figure out how to deal with you for a change.

  28. ohgeeeeeez said:

    I think it’s really important to stay open to the idea that, as gutwrenching as may be, mom and sister might not be safe people for you. My mother cut her parents off when I was small (best thing she ever did) but it took her about twenty more years to restrict her one full sibling to extremely low contact/no contact. For those twenty years he would consistently guilt, shame, and basically torture her for not having relationships or having strained relationships with the rest of their family. It was like he was sneaking into our home in the night and giving her nightmares. This stopped only when he escalated to the point of getting wasted in our home and behaving in an emotionally abusive manner to my mother in front of me. My point is that, I think it’s admirable to want to maintain healthy and functional relationships with your mom and sister. However, I think it’s important to remember that if their goal is not “OP is happy and healthy, whatever that means for them” then they might not be able to play the role you need them to.

    I’m so sorry you’re going through this. Just know that there is another side and, even if you can’t see the light right now, it’s still shining.

  29. Hi I'm New Here said:

    Wow, this letter hit a nerve with me. I haven’t spoken to either of my parents in a couple of years. My father is a bully with narcissistic tendencies who can’t accept responsibility for the strife he causes and wouldn’t apologize even if he did. My mother backs him up and at the same time bemoans the estrangement and says she doesn’t understand the cause (hint: You’re married to him).

    My father can’t accept no when he wants to hear yes. If he can’t force me to do what he wants, he will coax, guilt-trip, pressure, shame and use whatever leverage he has (money, louder voice, anything) to achieve it. If I resist, he will use those same tactics to get his foot in the door because, once he has, he can bulldoze his way in. “Can we just talk about this?” is code for “I’m going to use this opportunity to preserve the status quo because that’s what works for me.” My father doesn’t want a good relationship with me; he wants a relationship that’s on his terms so he doesn’t have to work at it.

    I saw my own father in LW’s letter. I think her* father is using a tactic mine does — the promise that this time, things will be different, when really he just wants to push her back into the role he thinks she’s supposed to be in. That ultimately is less work for him. He thinks agreeing to counseling got his foot in the door. The games he’s playing about the phone number count as bulldozing to me, but ultimately that’s up for LW to decide.

    It took me years to recognize these patterns and problems with my parents, and I’m still trying to make sense of them and how to deal with them (yay for therapy). I have been clear that there will be no more “let’s just talk about this” sit-downs. My parents won’t accept that. They will remain in the no-contact zone until they do. It hasn’t always been easy, but overall, it’s been freeing and peaceful. I think LW should state clearly her rules for engagement and ignore her father until he complies. Maybe do the same with her mother and sister. And keep seeing her own therapist. “Cut them off and get help for yourself” feels like lousy, defeatist advice to give, but I think it works when you’re dealing with unreasonable people.

    *Since Elizabeth is a traditionally female name, I assumed she/her pronouns. I apologize if I’m wrong about that.

  30. Dealing with emotionally abusive people means that you, LW, get to decide whether or not breaking no/low contact works – and when family dynamics mean that the amount of contact needs to decrease markedly.

    My husband’s parents are a hot mess emotionally. My husband has decent coping mechanisms because he grew up with them and learned tricks to deal. I grew up in a more stable family and often have “WTF?” moments when the family dynamics go strange places.

    Around two years ago, I gave birth to an extremely premature son at 26 weeks gestation concurrent with a sudden, severe pregnancy complication that threatened my life. My son survived – and is thriving now – but the first year was really, really hard. My mother-in-law and father-in-law both responded in bizarre, self-absorbed and nearly unbelievable ways. To protect myself, I limited contact to one hour every three months. My husband was supportive.

    Recently, I upped the contact to a few hours a month. Epic fail. My mother-in-law has a way of triggering rough memories from when my son was so ill by making off-the-wall comments that are not meant to be hurtful but accidently gut me. Recently, she informed me in a sad voice that the reason my son wasn’t walking was that he didn’t want to put weight on his legs because he had so many heel pricks as a baby – because she’s likes to seem smart and involved in Spawn’s care when she’s neither. Nope. Just no. He’s never acted tactilely defensive. I held him and watched his monitor during many heel pricks; I don’t think he even felt them because lancets are so fine nowadays. He didn’t stiffen, start or flinch. His heart rate and oxygen sats stayed steady during and after the pricks. When he met with an intensive outpatient PT a few days later, she confirmed that kiddo had super-flexible hips and he had been using that flexibility to avoid using his abdominal muscles. Walking and pulling up are nearly impossible if he refuses to use his stomach – and he’s never had any procedures or pricks on his tummy.

    I know all this – but Jesus Christ – I felt like my heart had been ripped into pieces remembering all of the pricks he needed.

    I’m ramping down to one hour a month again – and my MIL gets to have whatever feelings she wants about it – but the one hour limit per month stands.

  31. Dynamitochondria said:

    “Mom/Sister, I really need you to hear the word ‘no’.”

    Thissity this this this. My mom just couldn’t hear ‘no’ about religion, having children, moving back to her home town, lifestyle, etc, etc…

  32. Do you even need to be there during the hour?

    • One hour a month is infrequent enough that I can keep her on topics that are important for me like “Tell me stories about my husband’s childhood”, “Are there any large family events on the horizon for my husband and the Spawn that need to be scheduled?” and “Hey, look at the kid’s new tricks!” while making sure my son sees her at least enough that he doesn’t dissolve into a sobbing mess if she wants to pick him up when we run into each other in our small town.

      Generally, at least 6 of the times are at massed family gatherings where I can be in the same room as her (which makes her feel like we’re interacting) without having to talk directly one-on-one to her.

      This is going to sound odd – but she’s a good grandmother in spite of being a nightmare of a mom-in-law when she remembers to make time to see my son. As he’s getting older and less “scary” in medical terms, she has lots of playful, fun times with the kid. The weird family dynamics are a non-issue so far because the weirdness revolves around expectations involved in farming 24/7/365 and being a shining example of how great the family is. Spawn’s way-too-young to be deciding a career (unless roaring like a dinosaur while putting blocks in a box is a career path 🙂 ) and he’s unformily admired as a cute kiddo who overcame a whole lot of scariness when he was born.

      I had good relationships with my grandparents who were dysfunctional messes of parents and parents-in-law respectively. If she starts behaving in a way that endangers my son in any way, I’ll cut her off hard – but until that happens, I’m willing to facilitate her being around Spawn once a month and my husband deals with any other times.

  33. Sally said:

    LW, you sound like you are a strong, smart and capable person. You spotted your dad’s attempt at manipulation, and you are protecting yourself. You are awesome! Jedi hugs!

  34. AnonyToday said:

    Wow, the timing of this. Thank you LW for writing in, you’re not alone at all. If I was still anywhere near my parents geographically I’m pretty sure this is a dance that I would have had to navigate (though with a religious counselor because that ended SUPER well last time /sarcasm).

    Over the last couple of years I’ve pulled back a ton from my dad, I do ok seeing him at large family gatherings when I visit my sister + nieces. I haven’t had to see him in a small setting in over two years and never in our new location that I love so much, so when my mom wanted to arrange a visit this summer I thought “I’m doing so much better and he’s been somewhat better, I bet this time will be just fine”. I still set some boundaries, separate cars, no visiting our new place, no breakfast the next day before they leave. And in terms of gaslighting, passive-aggressive bullshit, etc. Dad behaved himself, he gave me space. And I had emotional flash backs and was an absolute wreck the following day and am still dealing with the emotional fall out 4 days later (shame spirals are no f-ing joke). I’m in an emotionally vulnerable place I haven’t been in years and that’s when the time with him went what most people would consider “just fine”.

    Team Me is saying “girl, go no contact – there is no reason to put yourself through this even if he is ‘behaving himself’ – your gut says he’s not safe so he has no right to be in your life”
    I feel like it’s somehow my fault and that I’m defective, cruel for feeling relief at the concept of not having to go through this ever again, that I’m somehow a monster that normal people put up with because of the social contract.

    Thank you everyone commenting, you’re helping me have perspective and strength. There is a part of me that says “even if he is better, I’m not, I’m not healed and he has no right just because of DNA to my energy and presence.” But oh it’s so hard. Especially when he’s the ‘confused victim’ that I know my mom sees, the “Why can’t we work this out?”, the “He’s so much better now!” UGGGHHH.

    • Kaos said:

      I finally told my sister “the fact that we happen to share DNA does not obligate us to communicate.”

    • BigDogLittleCat said:

      I had emotional flash backs and was an absolute wreck the following day and am still dealing with the emotional fall out 4 days later (shame spirals are no f-ing joke). I’m in an emotionally vulnerable place I haven’t been in years and that’s when the time with him went what most people would consider “just fine”

      Your reaction is perfectly natural and in fact, to be expected. You know the visit went “just fine” only in retrospect. You had no way of knowing before or *during* the visit that it would go just fine, so the entire visit your brain and body were on high alert and ready to go to battle stations. Only *after* he left were you able to trust that he wouldn’t try to harm you.
      Spending any time at Defcon 3 will mess with you.

      My response to people who try to pressure me into a relationship I don’t want is to say, “if *you* think it’s so important to have a relationship with X, *you* do it.”
      Usually that startles them into shutting up.

  35. Kaos said:

    OP I just wanted to say that you have a right to just not engage. You can refuse outright to talk about things to anyone or to make any effort whatsoever. If you need permission to do so, you have it.

    No one can make you do whatever they want you to do including your mom and sister. Say “no” (just “no” nothing else) and then walk away/hang up. Do it however many times you need to. Or not. You’ve already said it so there is no need to do so again.

    Move and don’t give them an address. Change your number, email, etc. and don’t give out the information. Lock down social media. Disappear if you want to. Its ok to do those things no matter what anyone, family or otherwise tries to tell you.

  36. Lapis Lazuli said:

    You and your dad are playing tennis and right now all of the balls just keep findig themselves in his side of the court. All of the balls. All of them. Like an entire factory supply of tennis balls just keep bouncing in his court and he can’t be bothered to lift his tennis racket and volley them back to your side of court. He is just sitting in a lawn chair on his side of the court, drinking a beer, and watching other tennis players play.

    So you know what? Fuck it. Grab all them tennis balls, grab your racket, ask your friends out for tennis, and have a fun time with your friends.

    Then when daddy comes by and complains about you ending the tennis game, you can reply, “How can I end a game you never played?” And then if he wants to play tennis, he has to show up with his own racket, balls, tennis court rental fee for the both of you, and a sportsman attitude.

    Tl;dr: I made an extensive tennis metaphor about your dad not putting in the effort to reconcile with you, so why should you? Spend time with the people and leave this emotionally leeching, lazy as fuck mofo in the dust.

  37. My mom is doing individual therapy herself and now keeps insisting on us doing a session together. I have had problems with both of my parents being emotionally abusive (they basically never dealt with their own problems and a lot of it got projected on to me, someone with diagnosed anxiety and depression).

    I kind of feel like it’s too little, too late. I spent my twenties getting over their treatment of me, knowing I would never be able to have a full relationship with them and working through the pain they caused me. My Mom tries but she still does a lot of boundary crossing things, like talking about the past when I tell her I’m not ready, pushing me to give examples of her bad behavior in my childhood (none of which she remembers) and making current problems related to things I have said to her in the past. She also tried to invite herself on a trip I’m planning with my friends (basically my bachelorette party) which may involve some mutual relatives.

    So yeah, I’m not really in the mood to deal with her in a therapy setting, especially since therapy is my safe place nor do i want to meet with her therapist. But that’s not enough for her because she wants to fix the relationship we have (i.e. go back to a place where I was afraid of losing her so I would say yes to appease her over my own mental health).

    • JenniferP said:

      Yeah, that’s a hard no. “Mom, I’m glad that therapy is helping you, that’s great! I find my therapist to be very helpful as well. Let’s not cross the streams.”

    • I feel you. I feel you a thousand times. My relationship with my mother s fraught, and especially your last sentence really resonates with me. The idea of having any kind of face to face discussion with my mother makes me physically ill.

      If you are interested in doing more than blocking (which is a valid tactics. No judging from me) and it is something that could potentially work for the two of you:
      Therapist supervised letter writing. It sounds like both you and your mother have a therapist in your corner to help you work through the letter contents.

      My mother and I have a completely separated the discussion of our past from our present interactions. We don’t speak of the letter to each other. There’s no timetable for when the next letter will arrive. She writes me. I take it to my therapist. We talk about it. I formulate a response. We talk about that. I write the letter. I send the letter. And then I wait for her to write me again.

      Of course if you are contend with the way things are and don’t want to deal with her issues again, don’t hesitate to tell her to fuck off/talk about it with her own therapist. It’s not your job to manage her mental health for her.

  38. HorseOfADifferentColor said:

    I have major background with emotionally/verbally (and some light physically) abusive family. I agree on the whole with the Captain, but want to point out that some of the things she’s suggesting you do is JADE-ing, which in abusive relationships is not healthy or necessary. JADE stands for “justify/argue/defend/explain” as per the book “Out of the Fog.” By JADE-ing to your family members, you’re allowing yourself to be drawn back into a circular conversation that ends with you frustrated and expected to do the fixing of things or you’re left feeling/being perceived as responsible for the situation.

    You’re not. It’s that old saw of the only way to win is not to play or if there is a tug of war happening, the solution is to drop the rope and walk away.

    Who cares if your dad now blames you for not “trying” now? You know the truth. Your mom/sister are blind if they don’t also know the truth, so honestly you need to understand you can’t control his thought process or that of any other person – just yourself. Even if you bent over backwards, you’ll likely still somehow be held up as accountable or at fault by those twisted types like your father, so why fight over it? Just walk away and let him go play on the battlefield by himself.

    So instead of telling family excuses or reasoning or trying to justify your stance to them… you tell your dad he’s welcome to pursue counseling and you think it would be healthy for him, but you’re good with the current state of the relationship. And then change the subject or get out of the conversation. Same answer/response for any other relatives.

    If they want to argue: “I’m sorry you feel that way, but the subject is closed.” and if they refuse; “Nope. Not gonna get into this stuff again. I guess we’re done talking/visiting today since you insist on bring this up. Talk/see you next time” and gracefully and politely exit.

    You are an adult and you are allowed to tell even your closest relatives a big ol’ nope about any subject/action going forward. You’re even allowed to hang up on them, tell them to leave your house, or leave their presence if things are uncomfortable for you.

  39. Indie said:

    “They doubt his intentions are genuine”

    Before I even got to this I was thinking ‘Ah the old “Let’s try counselling then (since nothing else will appease you)” gambit. It’s the preserve of the unremorseful; the remorseful say “what can I do”.

    You were so wise to prevent him choosing the therapist! He totally would have taken you to a talking shop, where zero work takes place = best case scenario and worst case scenario = therapist and dad tag team on the gaslighting.

    Run free and wild into a mansion in the Fuckits! Leave the side door open for sis, but don’t wait up for her.

  40. AndTheRest said:

    This subject is weirdly timely — the other day, I received a nastygram from my father, who I have been no contact with at various times in my life and most recently for the last few years. I guess I have it better than the LW, because the message was all “you’re an awful person, we’re not going to reconcil, don’t come to my funeral.” I could choose to remain silent, but I’m toying with the idea of sending a response along the theme of “whatevs.” I agree on not reconciling, and I’ve already done my grieving for the kind, caring father I never had. His eventual funeral is irrelevant to me, and I don’t care about his will, either. So, yeah. Whatevs.

    LW, I think you have been very smart not to engage your dad in counseling on his terms, and the scripts are good ones. There is a lot of power in “I’ve changed my mind,” especially when explicitly stated. People try to shame us when we do change our minds, but it’s a necessary part of life. You can change your mind about any of this at any time, for any reason important only to you. Maybe no counseling now, maybe no contact later, maybe minimal interaction works best most of the time, and maybe even legit family counseling in the future, if your dad steps up AND if you feel it’s worth the time and money. It’s your choice, now and always; people will be judgemental regardless of what you decide, but they aren’t the one living your life. You are not alone in choosing your own well-being over entrenched expectations of faaaaaaaaaamily.

    Just look at these comments — we are really not alone! This is sort of like a group therapy session, lol.

    One more note: again, I love that your kittens are Daniel and Henrietta, Cap. Mr. Rodgers was literally the last person I saw each morning before this latchkey kid had to lock the house and see herself off to 1st and 2nd grade. He was very much a replacement father for me, and I would bet my piddly life savings that he was a replacement parent for a few million kids. Would love to plan a family reunion for us all, but of course, it’s logistically insane!

  41. PebbleBear said:

    I wanted to thank the LW for writing in, and Captain’s response with the scripts. It’s clearly helped a lot of people, including me. I’ve been reading posts on here for a few months now, hashing out what to do/say about my dad. Since I was a kid he’s used the ignoring me for days to weeks if I did or said something he didn’t like, didn’t say or do something, who knows. Ignoring to the point of I’d ask him a question and he walks out of the room or turns up the tv. He took it to the point of even saying goodnight was met with silence. As a kid I had no idea this wasn’t normal when a parent was mad at you. My parents lived with my husband and I for a few months and when they went to move out he was angry about something and ignoring me for the last week they were here. I guess maybe using the ignoring as a way to distance himself and not be as sad when they left? No idea. Anyways, it wasn’t working this time, my kid just turned 1 and I was done with other people’s drama, kiddo has enough drama, no time for more. So I’d ask “Hey what do you want for dinner?” He’s walk out of the room and I’d just keep talking, “Oh spaghetti sounds great, I don’t know if we have meatballs though.” And just keep sounding positive. He was clearly annoyed that the ignoring wasn’t bothering me and escalated it to ignoring his own 1 year old grandchild. This was a bit much for me to handle and I ended up caving and apologizing for I don’t even know what when they left. I confronted him on the phone about it (they live half way across the country), because both parents keep pressuring me that we should move close to them. 1- Both of my parents smoke. My husband and I don’t, we don’t like it, we don’t want our kid around it. Bringing it up is like I am attacking them personally like they have no choice to stop. 2- My dad’s behavior is not something I want my kid subjected to regularly. So I stepped up and told him that, maybe a mistake. He got angry and said maybe I need to go to a doctor because I’m making up things. I said “yeahhhhh I need to go” and hung up. And it’s been a wonderful few months of no contact from him. I talk to my mom on the phone once or twice a month and she’s starting in on the “but faaaaaaaamily” nonsense. Thankfully at least one of my brothers also recognizes the nonsense that is my dad’s behavior and I was able to talk through it all with him and realize this has been going on a long time and isn’t just me. These scripts will help SO SO much with talking to my mom.

    And yes, I should probably see about therapy (for myself), but sadly I cannot afford it just yet.

    PPS- I love this site and how great everyone is. 🙂

  42. A said:

    Joining the chorus: this post and the comments are very helpful, and it helps to know that there are people who understand what it’s like to deal with this type of parent.

    I’ve had a few “final straw” moments with my jerk Dad, who I’m as low contact as I can be with, considering that my Mom is still with him and my sibling is still in contact.

    I called once to talk to my Mom. He answered, but she wasn’t there and I felt trapped into conversation. He was prying about my final exams, I gave him nothing, as I share as little as possible. Then he tried to convince me that I was going to drop out of law school. (There was no basis for this, by the way – I was enjoying myself and doing quite well). It was just so awful, and such a clear reminder that he does not want good things for me.

    I told my Mom about it. She said she asked him about the call and he told her that we’d had “a nice chat”.

  43. I’ve been trying to remember what the name of the woman was on the first major “but faaaaamily” post here, the one who everyone had to tiptoe around or she’d act out and her name became a thing like the bees and the darth vader boyfriend. It has been bugging me for days. Does anyone remember?

  44. You dodged a huge bullet.
    It disgusts me when I hear or read stories of father’s treating their daughters like crap.
    Your father is the first man you ever encounter when you arrive on this earth and how he treats you does set the standard for future relationships.
    The fact that he has refused therapy is a huge no no. He needs to realise his faults all by himself. I hope you are able to move forward with your life.
    I wish you all the best.

  45. This is great and empowering to read. I’m a middle child and in many ways okay with low contact with my mom. It makes me wonder what is wrong with me emotionally that I am so okay with being low contact with her. But the more contact I have with her, the more I feel she is trying to pull me back into the dysfunction. I validate how hard it is to keep the boundaries with siblings who are don’t have the distance or emotional strength to reduce contact. I find it really interesting to contemplate how many people find it harder to reduce or remove contact from an opposite-sex/opposite-gendered parent than from a same-sex parent. I still feel myself more easily drawn back into the opposite-sex parent dysfunction than the same-sex parent one.

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