#1180 & #1181: Graduation Days

Dear Captain,

I’m graduating from college very soon, and I’ll be the first in my immediate family to do so. This road has been a long one, and I am so happy to finally be done. I’ve had amazing support from key people in my life, aka: My Home Team– a mix of family and chosen family.

In an ideal world, my Home Team would have an exclusive invite to the graduation ceremony/dinner. I have a hard time with Big Life Events, and my last graduation ceremony did not go well, so this is bringing up *things* for me. Having only the people there who make me feel comfortable would help a lot.

There are people not on the Home Team who are expecting to be invited. Here are the problems:

– My mom is currently housing a family member who has some serious mental health/addiction issues. This person would expect to come to any graduation events. I do not want this as this person takes up a fair amount of emotional space and makes me/others feel awkward.

– My in-laws also wish to attend from out-of-state. This would mean they would have to stay at our house, for at least 3-4 days (hotel is not really an option). My in-laws are nice people (and they are very excited for me), but I have difficulty spending time with them, let alone hosting them in my house. They often make me feel uncomfortable with the way they talk to/about me. There are more detailed issues here surrounding money, religion, and general boundaries (in-laws, go figure). Also, they have sort of already invited themselves. My husband would be a buffer for some of this but he can’t mitigate everything.

– I have packaged group of cousins who I’m not close with but who have invited me to their events, and I feel obligated to reciprocate. Some of them are very nice, but some of them are awful (like blatantly racist/homophobic/sexist) and their presence would mean that the other people listed above would definitely have to be invited. It would be an obvious slight if they weren’t.

I feel like I only have a few choices here:
1) Lie and tell everyone that I only have limited graduation tickets so as to only invite the Home Team. This would be a very obvious lie. These things can be Googled.
2) Try as delicately as possible to not invite the people listed above. Deal with the emotional fallout, not just for myself, but for my husband and mom, for whom this would be awkward as well.
3) Suck it up and invite everyone and deal with my feelings on my own.

I have a hard time telling others what I want (even/especially with my Home Team), so the “do nothing and internalize” option feels easiest. In theory, this should be simple. You invite everyone and they show up and stay in their emotional lanes. Instead of focusing on this exciting thing, I feel like I’m playing Emotional Traffic Director when I want to be playing Happy College Graduate.

Are there options I’m not seeing? Am I an immature person for even wanting to not invite people I don’t like? I am being a spoiled ass who needs to grow up and not make this about me?

Thank you,
Sad Grad
*(29 yr old, female)

Dear Sad Grad (#1180),

Like weddings, whenever you combine “public celebration of a milestone event” and “crossing the streams of friends and family” things have potential to get weird. Whenever “I want to celebrate authentically with the people I most want to see in a way that has the most meaning to me!” vs. “I want to invite/include my family and show awareness that I didn’t get here all on my own, even though some of those relationships are not what I’d hope them to be” are incongruent, it’s going to be awkward and painful to be reminded of how far apart those things can be, esp. when you add in the extra load of “Wait, these people just probably want to celebrate with me, am I the jerk if I don’t want that?” guilt.

There’s no perfect way to make everything perfect, but I think there are ways to get closer to the celebration you want.

You could certainly invite only the people closest to you who you truly want to attend to the graduation. What’s the worst thing that happens if you do this? Send out invitations to a small number of people, send out graduation announcements (not invitations) to the rest (these go out after the ceremony so that they/the event is formally acknowledged but you don’t have to worry about people showing up to anything).

One thing you have going for you here: Graduation ceremonies are, on the whole, BORING AS FUCK, and I can’t speak for everyone but I suspect a lot of people want to be included/acknowledged more than they actually want to go and sit through the thing. Some fancy stationery and postage might get a lot of this done for you, consider it strongly. Additionally, it’s normal for tickets to the actual event to be limited, so I think you shouldn’t ever lie about how many ceremony tickets are available, but also, you never have to actually mention how many were available.

If these folks grumble and want to be invited after all, are they even gonna grumble directly to you? (Or are they gonna grumble at your mom, who’s gonna pass it on to you, which is a different problem but not necessarily your problem.) If they do that, what’s the worst thing that happens if you tell your mom “If relatives bother you about this, blame it 100% on me” and keep a more general script of “Oh, hey, thanks so much, I really appreciate your support and good wishes! It’s such a hectic time of year, so we decided to keep the ceremony & events that weekend for a very few close friends and the parents this time” ready to go. They’ll feel about it how they feel.

Second Choice: Invite away (and let the chips fall). You don’t actually have to manage everyone’s behavior or feelings, and there’s no good way to handle invitations that aren’t real invitations or split hairs about this. (My personal feeling is: People are either invited or they aren’t, any time you try to invite someone But Only A Little Bit or invite them But Not Really or invite/disinvite them in a way that is designed to communicate a hierarchy of how you feel about them, shit gets horrible and there’s a bigger chance that you end up doing a ton more work to smooth everything over in the end), so what’s the worst that happens if you invite everybody who expects to be invited,  break bread with all who actually show up to and sit through a graduation ceremony (verily these people are heroes, whatever other graces they might lack), and find a way to gather together with just the Home Team on another day?

To make this less daunting, what if we could find a way to reclaim this celebration a little bit and set some overarching boundaries that allow you to include everyone who wants to be there but minimize the hassle for yourself? What if we made some rules about that weekend that apply to everybody and gave you some breathing room?

Rule One: NOBODY CAN STAY AT YOUR HOUSE THAT WEEK/MONTH. Nobody. You are busy with Graduation Stuff (which usually comes hot on the heels of finals), so you know you won’t be up for hosting guests, time for “here are some lovely nearby hotels, please enjoy those, book early for the best rates!” And if your in-laws absolutely can’t do that, then they should find another time to come visit when you can put them up. Once you make that rule, lots of things get simpler, right? Your in-laws can either come or not come. Not your problem, you invited them to the celebrations, it’s a busy weekend (YOUR GRADUATION) where you are TOO BUSY TO HAVE HOUSEGUESTS. Get on the same page with your spouse and lay down this law. Script: “We’d be delighted if you can join us, but FYI it’s such a busy month that we aren’t having any houseguests! We’ll understand if you can’t make it, if that’s the case let’s find another time that will work better.” Hold fast. The first time you stay somewhere that is not With Family or ask family to stay somewhere that is not With You, it is very difficult, it means busting through expectations and taboos, but I think it does get easier after that.

Rule Two: Everybody in the family who wants to make the trip is invited to the graduation ceremony plus ONE celebratory thing (A dinner or lunch afterward? Casual cookout at your place? Whatever it is: There is one of them.) Good news, during the ceremony graduates usually all sit together so you won’t have to deal with awkwardness from family members during that, they’ll entertain/manage each other (or not). At the post-graduation dinner, the cousins who already know each other will amuse one another, you’ll end up with tight little pockets of people here and there that you circulate among. Whatever the post-graduation celebratory thing is, plan it now, make it clear what it is when you share the invitation to the graduation itself, and don’t commit to anything else during that entire weekend. Script: “Oh, it tends to be such a busy weekend with events around the school, we don’t want to plan too much beyond that since [LW] will be pretty occupied. We’ll see you at [ONE THING] though!” 

Once you put plans & rules like that in place, doesn’t it get easier? No houseguests. One (boring) ceremony where you’ll be sitting far away from everybody, one lunch/dinner/cookout/celebratory thing of your choice, some posing for photos and smiling and saying thanks to everyone who came. Maybe you can organize a quiet friend-breakfast the morning after for your Home Team & friends if you like when you’re closer to the event. (Key words: Last minute. Informal. At a place with limited seating. Make your best-guess reservation and then invite your mom (and people who would be most likely to squawk to the extended family) at the very last minute, like, “We’re grabbing breakfast tomorrow, want to join us?”) Schedule a lot of down time, quiet time where you don’t have to be “on.” DO THE ABSOLUTE LEAST, and trust that people will self-sort and self-amuse.

Also, Difficult Relative is either going to behave or not, it’s not your job or your graduation’s job (or wedding’s job or funeral’s job or christening’s job or quinceañera’s job, or bat mitzvah’s job, or ordination’s job or or or or) to spackle over your family’s imperfections. I hope they’ll do the best they can and feel loved and included. If they don’t, there was nothing you could have done.

Letter Writer #1180, if you read all this with absolute terror, like, “I can’t Just Not Invite people!” or “I can’t tell my In-Laws they can’t stay with us!” please know, I feel you, I understand you, I have been you, and I would guess that you are in a very distinct and important stage of learning to set boundaries, which is balancing: What you know is right for you vs. The possibility of other people’s displeasure. You’re used to, I think, feeling responsible for a lot of other people’s feelings within your family. Maybe this is an opportunity to level up in assuming less responsibility for this?

You’re the boss of you and you get to decide what your risk tolerance is. Sometimes my risk tolerance is “Put a brave face on it, suck it up, go along to get along, it is really not worth fighting about this.” And sometimes my risk tolerance is “This is important to me, and I’m betting that my most important relationships can survive some mild disapproval of the way I’m handling a major life event.” I don’t know your specific family, but my overall question for you in this response is, what if everyone (including you!) could survive just fine if you decided to set a few limits around your celebrations? Which is more work over the next few months, curating a select guest list and keeping everyone firmly at bay or choosing a few places to stand firm like ‘no houseguests’ and letting the rest wash over you?

The one secret I can tell you is that there’s absolutely no way that you can be perfect enough, handle this perfectly enough, say just the right thing, accommodate people enough around this particular event (or literally anything in your life) that magically fixes all the conflicts in your family or makes everything smooth and perfect and comfortable. You can smile and say “okay!” until your face cracks in two and your in-laws won’t become less exhausting, the problematic cousins will keep right on problem-ing, awkward moments will remain awkward, people who are inclined to criticize you will find some grievance to suck on as if their disapproval can make a little pearl inside their pursed, complaining mouths. So, choose your battles. Your family won’t die if they hear the word “no!” and I don’t think you’re a bad person if your graduation is a little bit about you.

My Dear Captain,

Thank you for all the work you do. I have been a devoted follower of your blog for years, and I’m hoping you can shed some insight onto a knotty situation I’m trying to solve.

I (they/them) come from an abusive family of the violent and emotionally terrible variety. I left the house as fast as I could to go to college, at which point they were disgusted with me, disgusted with my life choices, and I cut them off for a couple of years with a smile on my face. Over time I began to re-establish contact on a very limited basis, provided they stuck to rigid boundaries of being polite – your blog helped me work that one out!

As I started a career, and then became extremely successful, they morphed into “proud parents” who had “always supported and loved me, even though I was such a sensitive and unhappy person.” They want to send me money, have me spend time with them, and they keep telling me (and everyone else) the story that they were ideal parents to a very troubled child – they’ve LOVED me coming out as queer because suddenly they have a reason for how hellish my growing up was, and it has nothing to do with them. I’ve tried to walk the fine line of never directly challenging them on the facts of their abuse, but also ending the conversation and putting the phone down whenever they try to tell that story.

Now I’m graduating from my doctorate, in a different country to the one my parents live in, and they’ve gone from “why would we come to your graduation in such a boring place” to “of course we’ll come, you have to give us the dates so we can book an extended whole-family holiday around you.” Captain, I do not want them to come. I want to celebrate this massive achievement that I’ve worked so phenomenally hard for, and I want to share it with the people who have supported me and loved me and made it happen. But that places me in the position of saying to my parents “I do not want you to come,” and then having to explain why, and that’s a fight I’ve been avoiding for decades. It feels like I’m being trapped into either treating them like real parents and living that social script, or smashing the walls down entirely.

Can you give me any advice on how to make that decision? Or how I can negotiate some kind of middle ground where they come, but my friends and chosen family are still the most important and central figures in the moment?

Thank you so much

Dr. NO

Hi there Dr. No (aka #1181), I hope the previous answer helped you with some logistical limit-setting and middle ground ideas if you choose to include your parents in the end. (For instance, you’re not putting them up, there will be a graduation ceremony + EXACTLY ONE celebration thing they attend + that’s where your responsibility for their amusement begins & ends, byeeeeeeeeeeeeeee).

This thing where abusive parents come claim their children once we’re successful enough on paper (and try to retcon everything about the past) is a depressingly common one, so the other things I want to say to you are:

a) You’re not alone. So not alone. I believe you and it’s not your fault.

b) You are 100% allowed to say “Thanks, Parents, it’s very nice that you’d want to make the journey for graduation, but that’s such an intense and busy event that I’d prefer to stay focused on my colleagues. Please find another time window for a visit that works for both of us.” and leave it there.

Shorter version: “Thanks, but no. Let’s find a different time for a visit.” 

Let me be clear: My suggestion that you ask your parents to identify an alternate time window to visit is strategic, only. You don’t want them to visit ever, and the time window for a visit that works for you can be NEVER, but there is no need to show your hand right now. Without the chance to crash your very special party and make a giant dominance display, they might sulk and decide not to come at all. That’s a win for you! If a distraction keeps them away from the important event, that’s also a win. In the meantime, volunteer nothing. Let this question of nebulous “mutually agreeable” dates play out as long and tediously as possible, and do zero work. Keep putting it on them to suggest alternatives, were the answer every single time can be “That doesn’t work for me, but if you have some other dates that work for you I can check my schedule and let you know!” Literally never tell them the correct dates of your graduation (they can Google this, almost certainly, so let them! Giving them dates implies that you want them to be there, and you don’t, so, don’t.)

Important: They cannot be *persuaded*, so don’t even try. Remember, reasons are for reasonable people. Unreasonable people use your reasons as opening points for negotiation and argument. Since this isn’t a negotiation, and your parents don’t need to agree with or understand your logic in order to do the most basic thing (not come when you’ve told them to not come), keep it terse and repeat it like a broken record.

c) You’re right, when you push back on the graduation thing (or anything that implies that they are not the world’s greatest parents and that all your current success accrues from them), they’re going to fight you and try to make you fight them. The opportunity to collect this much reflected glory + an international vacation where they are maximally imposing (and possibly maximally dependent on you for getting around successfully in the country, needing maximum time and effort from you?) Irresistible. And yes, either they are gonna try to make you say whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy you don’t want them there (and then make you comfort them for how hurt their feelings are that you don’t love them or have gratitude for all they’ve done for you) (while they conveniently ellide or outright gaslight you about your own memories about all they’ve done TO you) OR they are just gonna crash the thing.

I mean, there’s always All Of The Above, they can rattle every dollar and second of parental concern they ever spent on you like it’s Jacob Marley’s ghost-chains in A Christmas Carol, they can pretend none of the bad things they did ever happened (or if they did happen you’re remembering it wrong, or if you’re remembering it correctly you need to stop being so dramatic), AND they can crash the thing (or at least threaten to, this works just as well as them actually coming because you get maximum dread but they save money). (P.S. 100 Internet points to whoever had “The ex did not actually send any jewelry” in the comments of this question, ’cause he didn’t, turns out dangling the prospect of it was enough for him and heart-butts cost money).

Your parents are extremely good at finding conditions where you feel like you can’t win, where the “easiest” path would be to just let them do what they want. This hasn’t changed, so if you’re looking for a place to keep your expectations about how they’ll behave and react, start “Under the Basement” and dig down from there.

d) Here’s how you win, a tiny bit, here’s how you at least preserve your truthful memories of what you went through in their house and your ownership of what you survived and how you became this beautiful person and brilliant scholar that you are today:

Become a broken record and be extremely boring. “Oh Parents, I already told you, it’s such an intense and busy event that I’d prefer to spend it with only my colleagues. We’re going to have to find another time that works for both of us, why don’t you send me some other dates and I’ll check my schedule?” 

Don’t fight on the battlefield of the past.

Don’t fight on the battlefield of your feelings.

Don’t fight on the battlefield of arguing your case or making them understand or see.

Don’t fight on the battlefield of what “normal” families do or “what’s expected” in this case.

Fight on the battlefield of consistency and detachment. “I appreciate the congratulations, but as I said, it’s not a good time for me.” Then stop discussing it. “I already told you that doesn’t work for me.” Don’t give the reasons again. Don’t negotiate or re-explain. Get off the phone, change the subject.

Your fight is on the battlefield of following the fuck through. This is tricky but you have some key things on your side:

You cut them off before, and you can do it again if you have to. 

I know you’re not ready to cut contact with your parents and want to preserve at least the idea of a parent-shaped place that might possibly suck less someday, and you don’t want to waste all the scar tissue you’ve built up over the years that lets you interact with them on somewhat civil terms now as they have (seemingly) mellowed, but you already know: If things get bad enough, you can bail. You can insist on a baseline of good behavior if they want to have any contact with you. Some people only understand power dynamics, and you have already done the hard work of teaching your parents important lessons like, “I can live with your absence from my life, and I can live with your disappointment and displeasure, but I cannot live with your unkindness, so behave or get lost.” Time for a refresher?

You don’t have to go full nuclear/no-contact in order to remind them that only their good behavior gets your attention. You’re just so busy these days, way too busy to answer emails or call them back right now, oops, it’s a no-go on graduation but did they have alternate dates? Oops, bad connection, time to hang up.

You can tell the truth about them and what they did.

You told us the truth in your letter, you undoubtedly told loving friends (and maybe some therapists) along the way, and you can tell the people in your life now – colleagues, friends, advisors, university security – the truth about your parents. You can tell the truth, you can ask for help, you can ask people to put buffers and safeguards in place in case your parents do try to override your wishes.

I know this is possibly terrifying, I know you don’t want to bring vulnerable messy family stuff into your hard-won safe professional space, but you didn’t do anything wrong, you’re not the only one whose family makes their shoulders go up around their ears, you don’t owe anyone the whole story. You are allowed to present short, factual editions of the truth to anyone you like, any time you like, with no obligation to make your parents look good or be fair to them.

You don’t have to tell everyone “My parents violently abused me as a child, and while we’re working on making peace as we get older, it’s an unsteady one. I’ve asked them not to come to this, they won’t take ‘no’ for an answer, so time to put the shields up.” But you can. Not wanting people who violently harmed you invited to your amazing achievement celebration is actually incredibly reasonable.

If you do decide to let them attend after all on a limited basis, that could be as simple as enlisting a gregarious friend or two to be the social buffer, and telling them a version of the truth that goes like this: “My parents really stress me out, can you help me by being a buffer and talking to them if I need to get some space? My Dad is into watercolors and my mom likes mystery novels, whatever you do, don’t mention Brexit.”

You can use institutional supports (like security) if you need to. 

For another example, if you tell your parents flat out not to come and you’re worried about them crashing events anyway, you could ask the university: “Some estranged family members have threatened to crash Graduation. What kind of security protocols are available in case we need to have them escorted out?” I mean, who is the ridiculous, “dramatic,” strange one here – A long-time student/colleague who asks politely “So, is there a protocol for making sure events are limited to invited guests only, I have some estranged family who are making odd rumblings” or people who throw a transcontinental tantrum in order to crash a party where the one person they know there explicitly told them to pick a different weekend to visit?

That can be the scariest thing to contemplate. What if people don’t believe you? Or take it seriously? (“But faaaaaaaaaaaamily!” “Surely you aren’t going to call security on your parents?”)

But…what if you knew you really could call Security on your parents if you had to?

You don’t have to give anybody more detail than “Look, I don’t want to go into details, but when I say we’re estranged, it’s for a good reason, and I don’t want the graduation events to be disrupted for me or the other students who have worked so hard. I don’t know that my parents would be violent toward me, but they are very capable of making scenes and being extremely disruptive. You know that I would never ask this lightly, so, what security protocols are in place to keep unwanted intruders out of the building during important events? Has this ever come up before with other students, or visiting speakers?” Technically this is a professional event, you are at work at university events, this is a workplace issue. See related post.

If your parents do decide to actually crash your graduation despite you telling them not to, they are rolling some giant dice called “Dr. No Won’t Tell” and “Dr. No Won’t Risk Making A Scene.” These dice have been shaped and molded and thrown again and again over the course of decades, right? Every time your parents tried to destroy you in private and then sat in the front row clapping at your dance recitals or science fairs or other “public recognition” moments, playing the role of doting, supportive, normal reasonable parents, they rolled these dice. And every time you performed on cue, they felt like they won. They got to feed on your success and they also got to feed on the power and the secrecy they got off on because once upon a time it was “too risky” for you to tell anyone.

Remember: You’re not a kid anymore. You’ve already survived everything these people could throw at you, you’re not going to wither and die because they make it weird at a party.

So does it change the calculus, does it change your fear, if you knew for sure that if your parents crashed your party and you called Security, they would be escorted out of the place? And if you knew that you, their shining, glorious adult offspring could truthfully tell all the other shining, glorious people in the room, “So sorry about that, my parents and I are estranged, they like to do weird stunts like this sometimes, it’s so disruptive and embarrassing for them but they never learn. So, you were saying about your research proposal?” 

Maybe that’s overkill? I don’t know. What I do know is that abusive people depend so much on the shame and silence of their victims to keep abusing and to keep their self-image intact long after the facts have fled their side. Nothing can ever fix what they did, but if you can throw away the shame they tried to burden you with and if you can remove the obligation to keep their secrets that they tried to burden you with, you might regain incredible power in the face of anything else they might try to do.

Maybe University security can’t help you, so, maybe you can hire personal security during that weekend to eject these people for you. Or use a phalanx of friends to surround you with light and love and keep them at a great distance. Maybe you don’t have to make decisions about that this second, so you can keep this all theoretical, a fantasy, or something to be invoked only as an extreme contingency. (And, keep in mind, reasonable people hear, “And if you come anyway I will have security kick you out” and stay home, but abusive people hear a challenge, so I’d never advise threatening your parents with this or even mentioning the possibility to them).

I just want you to know that if you need to, you have rights. Such as:

  • You’re allowed to say “no” and expect others to respect that.
  • You’re allowed to call your parents’ bluff.
  • You’re allowed to allocate resources behind enforcing your boundaries.
  • You’re allowed to kick people, including your parents, out of spaces you told them not to be or deny them access.
  • You’re allowed to protect yourself from being abused again.
  • You’re allowed to fight them in the way that the little kid you used to be could not.
  • You’re allowed to say the unsayable paragraphs, the ones you think they’ll never forgive, the ones that start with, “I got here in spite of you, assholes, not because of you, and while I do want us to be in each other’s lives, we’re definitely not on the kind of terms where I trust you to celebrate my big milestones without immediately hogging all the glory” and ends with “…So if you actually love me and want to be happy for me you’ll listen to me and pick another time to visit, because like I told you, graduation is off limits.” 
  • You’re allowed to maintain polite fictions, imperfect interactions, and hope if you want to. You’re allowed to give it a shot if you want to, to invite them if you want to. You don’t have to fight them, and you don’t have to do it on my terms or anyone’s but your own.
  • You’re allowed to grieve and feel messy and conflicted. You’re allowed to cry, to shake, to feel your feelings.

Please always remember, your parents had choices, all this time, your whole life, they had choices. If they’d made the ones that allowed you to warmly and lovingly and safely welcome them into the room when you celebrate your great achievement, this wouldn’t be a question, they’d be there with bells on, you’d welcome them with bells on, everyone would wear bells.

They made different choices, so here you are in the Fuck-Its, deciding if it’s safe to let your old tormenters in for a few days in the name of celebration and form. It’s scary because you remember how bad it can get, but it’s different now because you’re in charge. You’re allowed to decide that if scenes are to be made, your parents are the ones who will look terrible in those scenes, they’ll be the ones with the most to lose. You’re allowed to decide that they get to plead their case from Parking Lot D while you drink champagne inside the safe, beautiful book-lined place you belong, the place you’ve earned, the place nobody asked them to barge into like a bunch of assholes, the place you gave them every chance to do the right thing (and stay far away from) or do the right thing (and behave themselves). You & only you.

Huge congratulations to both Letter Writers, finishing a degree is a very big deal, and I hope you celebrate and are celebrated as you both deserve.

I’ll leave both of you (and any commenters) with the same instructions:  Resist all attempts to perfect or optimize these situations, to find the only mistake-free and consequence-free way that will never upset anybody. It doesn’t exist. What do you want? What do you need? What do you value? What can you reasonably ask for? What must you defend at all costs?  Only you know the right balance, only you will have to live with the consequences of what you choose. Choose, be clear and consistent with others, and be kind to yourselves.



165 thoughts on “#1180 & #1181: Graduation Days

  1. Even if it would be an easily-discoverable lie to say that graduation tickets are limited, you could say “We are strongly discouraged from inviting more than X people.” (It’s true! I’m hereby strongly discouraging you from doing so!) Or “It would cause problems/complications to invite more than X people.” (It’s true! Some of the people are problematic and/or complicated!)

    X could either be the population of the Home Team, or it could be less than the population of the Home Team (to make it sound like you’re already stretching things), whichever would go over better.

    1. Also, even if the lie is easily discoverable, how many people are actually going to think to look up the number of tickets available and of those people, how many are actually going to do it? And actually, it might seem easily discoverable to Sad Grad because she knows where to look for that information—someone with less familiarity with her university and its websites might find that information more difficult to access.

      I had the reverse problem. My [small, non-American] university held its graduation ceremonies in a small theater (and had multiple ceremonies throughout the week, rather than having everyone graduate at the same time), as opposed to in a massive hall or on a stadium, which is what my sister’s university had done and what my parents were probably expecting. Graduates are/were given two tickets for guests by default, and I was able to get a third so that my sister could come. My mom picked a fight with me because I refused to try to get three more for some friends of hers who were going to be in the country at the same time as my graduation. I suspect she thought I was lying when I said that that was an absurd request that would never be granted, but if she had a way of checking ahead of the ceremony, she didn’t avail herself of it. And I think on the day, she understood why I had refused to try for more tickets, though that didn’t prevent us from having another fight that day.

      1. Yeah, I am used to having two tickets for graduation ceremonies too. Or very rarely up to 3 or 4, but that would usually require special requests or may be dependent on other graduates not using their tickets.

        I didn’t even know this wasn’t standard everywhere.

        1. My sister and I didn’t even attend each other’s graduations. She was away travelling for mine I think, and I can’t remember why I didn’t attend hers but I imagine it was a combination of limited tickets, work, travel distance, and the fact that my own graduation was sufficiently boring to sit through that I had no real wish to repeat the experience at someone else’s.

          About the only point of regret in that is that we’re not in each other’s family graduation portraits. That I have no intention of ever displaying anywhere anyway, so…

          1. Neither of my sisters attended any of my graduations. Even if I had got more than two tickets, it’s unlikely either of them would take a train to another city and get a hotel room/sleep on the floor of my tiny apartment with my parents/?? (Actually one of my sisters didn’t visit me at all in the five years I was in university – we just tried to schedule our visits to our parents’ house to overlap).

            I didn’t know going to siblings’ graduations was common. Most people I knew were studying in another city to where they grew up so it would be unusual for more than one or two relatives (usually parents) to travel. Plus, there weren’t usually enough tickets for that anyway.

            The ceremony itself was mostly for the graduates… It’s nice to have a person there to take a few photos, but a whole group?

            Very different cultures around it, it sounds like.

          2. Can’t speak for everyone, but when you are the first in your family (or part of the first generation along with siblings) to graduate it is probably going to be pretty different from a family where just about everybody has a degree.

            Dr No specifically says they’re the first in their immediate family, so there’s that.

        2. Yes, this. When a friend of mine graduated from a local community college, the ceremony was held outdoors, on a temporary stage, in a large grassy field area with folding seats set up (so, theoretically, less limited seating than a venue with a fixed number of chairs) and they STILL had a limit on the number of guest tickets each graduate was allowed to have.

      2. The two-tickets rule was so strongly enforced at my university that my doctoral supervisor had to resort to shenanigans and borrow an academic robe for my then-boyfriend and bring him as *her* guest to the ceremony.

          1. But this one has fancy new Useful Features™! Sure you need to give the web app access to every permission on your device, but how else are you going to have the app spam every contact you know with your intended destination and an ad for every private firm with which the university has contracted?

        1. I’m having rage-blackout flashbacks from my grad school days, yes, gods, university websites are 100% all designed by Puck, Bacchus, and Chaos, Inc., Sowers of Discord and Madness.

          1. Hey! I, uh. *looks at user name* Resemble that remark! (Tragically, there’s only so much we can do on our end as we must follow the University Standards.)

      3. We got 5 where I went to university, and then there was a lottery for the small amount of extra tickets. It’s pretty standard.

      4. My school gave me 4 tickets. I wanted my (serious) boyfriend to have one, and gave the other 3 to my parents and younger brother. My parents insisted I give them five tickets, which meant no boyfriend and I had to enter a lottery for the extra 5th ticket. Then on the day of the picked me up 15 minutes late due to a fight my dad was having with my brother. Car was oppressively quiet (my family fights cold). No grandparents. I had to ask where they were —they had ‘other plans’ and couldn’t come. Right after the ceremony they drove straight back to my apartment dropped me off and they went right home. No celebratory lunch, because they were all still mad about the argument and didn’t want to celebrate anything. I never found out what the fight was about.

        1. Wow.


          This sounds depressingly familiar to things my mom would do. In college, my then-boyfriend made a huge effort to get to my parents’ house despite having no money and no car and him living a city away, and she spent the entire day moping around the house in a bathrobe, then told me to return all the presents we had gotten her because she and my dad were fighting about something.

          Guess who has never spent another Christmas with her parents? This person! Guess whose Christmases have been way better as a result? This person! My mom has not yet figured out that when you are shitty, people don’t want to spend time with you.

        2. Whoa.

          Excellent example of how life experience teaches you to give less and less of a fuck about the entitlement of family with each passing year.

          It’s…rarely rewarding.

      5. My mom picked a fight with me because I refused to try to get three more for some friends of hers who were going to be in the country at the same time as my graduation.

        I don’t even want to attend the graduations of the people I love! I would be horrified if someone expected me to go to a stranger’s graduation.

        #NoMoreGraduationCeremonies #ThatIsMyVow

    2. It is super common for seating at these things to be limited or to be discouraged from bringing more than X people, even if it’s outside, so I think this is a very good cover. Tell people that tickets/seating is limited, and then make it seem like you are doing them a favor – because the Capt. is right that these things are so boring!

      “I only have three tickets for it – and one of them I got from a really nice friend, I don’t think it will be possible to get any more for you – but these things are so boring, and it’s going to be really long – I don’t want you to have to sit through that just for me! We should do something fun to celebrate next time I’m in your town though!”

      and then talk about fun things you can do the next time you might see them. Give them the old razzle dazzle and distract them from graduation day.

    3. At one of my graduations, we had, in theory, an unlimited number of guests, but we were still told that it was a good idea to not bring more than six people. So I invited exactly six people (my parents, my two siblings, my boyfriend, and a good friend). Most people brought less than six people. In the end, everyone fit in the indoor theater comfortably, which was the point of the limitation: even though they COULD fit in more people, it was a BETTER idea to be limited to guard against overcrowding.

    4. I remember at my high school graduation all the students got X tickets, period, and although I don’t remember what that number actually was I remember it was way more than I needed and way fewer than some of my classmates’ immediate families. I gave a bunch of mine to other kids, a lot of us did. So, LW 1180, it might be worth looking into that.

  2. To Dr NO, if you don’t mind straight-up lying to your parents, you can also tell them that you’re planning to graduate in absentia and will be travelling/job hunting/doing something else that they can’t join you for during all the graduation festivities. If they’re in another country and you’re careful about social media (or if they don’t have access to your social media), they will have zero ways of checking this story. If it ever comes out that you went to your ceremony, you can tell them it was a last-minute decision and the cost to them would have been prohibitive, so you didn’t tell them to spare them the cost and stress of trying to get there (and potentially missing it anyway).

    Full disclosure: I’m not someone who places a premium on honesty (I do value it, but not to the extent that many others do—or claim to, anyway) and I’m aware that following the above plan would bother a lot of people. However, I believe that in this situation, the balance of best-case scenario (Dr NO gets to enjoy their graduation day without the stress of their parents being around or the stress of having to explain to them why they don’t want them around) vs the worst case scenario (Dr NO’s parents find out and are hurt, leading to another estrangement and/or the discussion about why Dr NO didn’t want them there, which they wanted to avoid in the first place) along with the vanishingly small probability that Dr NO’s parents ever would find out the truth are worth it—or rather, they’d be worth the risk to me. Dr NO’s own assessment may be different.

    1. And if it feels better, you can edit it a bit to you ‘aren’t sure yet’ if you’re going to be attending in person, or you ‘might end up having to’ graduate in absentia.

    2. I firmly believe that honesty is for safe people just like reasons are for reasonable people. If somebody wants to be told the truth, then they have to make it safe for you to tell them.

      1. I like this. It’s certainly not my only consideration when deciding whether or not to opt for complete honesty, but it’s a good one, and certainly applicable to this LW’s situation.

      2. This…is a paradigm-shifting statement: “honesty is for safe people.” It helps me so much. Thank you.

        1. Yeah, me too. I actually shared this with a friend of mine who believes I should tell my parental units the truth and let the chips fall where they may. Uh, no. Just no.

      3. One of the all-time best pieces of advice I ever received, in my entire life, was permission not to trust a person with the truth when they had demonstrated that they could not be trusted.

        ZOMG. Biggest epiphany of my life.

      4. WOW. I think you just blew the top of my head off, or my third eye opened, or something like that. That is a truly terrific way of putting it and I plan on taking that forward into a lot of interactions coming my way over the next few days.

      5. “Honesty is for safe people” needs to be on a tshirt or needlepointed on a sample as soon as possible, please. Or at least somewhere where I can see it and be reminded of it daily.

      6. Disinformation isn’t just how we win the important battles, it’s how we prevent a lot of them from coming to a fight in the first place. If someone is a known enemy agent you absolutely don’t have to tell them the truth.

    3. Graduations are so incredibly boring that not attending your own is a perfectly reasonable act, and very believable. This cover is almost perfect, except for the fact that LW’s parents are obviously unreasonable and who knows what they might conclude. But that, unfortunately, can’t be helped.

      1. True. There is always the possibility, LW, that (if you take this course) they will treat your decision not to attend your graduation ceremony as a slap at them. But you will still have enjoyed your graduation ceremony without them. (Just, if that happens, mute your phone!)

      2. This one is only applicable to Dr No, but a lot of people in my grad class didn’t go to our ceremony because it’s very common to start a job in a remote location right around that time.
        Maybe this is a thing in your field too. Maybe you’ll be busy with a short research project during that time (like let’s see how relaxing this ceremony is without your parents in attendance). It’s sure a busy time of year isn’t it.

    4. I’m going to second this plan, honestly. I’ve come to believe that people who treat me poorly do not need to be extended the same levels of consideration and respect as everyone else, and that this goes double for shitty family members. “I have plans that day, sorry” is often employed, in which my plan is to not be at your thing/not pay through the nose to see you for two minutes because we live really far away from each other/not actually have to see or interact with this person more than I’ve already allotted for.

      You ‘might have to travel for a job interview,’ or ‘the conference I need to present at conflicts, and the conference is a better place to network with potential employers,’ or ‘my department’s doing a separate thing that’s more important to me and not open to families, I don’t think I’m going to bother going to the actual ceremony’. Just like reasons are for reasonable people, honesty is for people who value honesty. Your parents seem like they don’t- the rewriting of their history of abuse and violence being the primary offender here- so why should you place a premium on it in your interactions with them? You’re not changing the baseline level of honesty in those interactions, you’re just lowering yourself slightly towards where the actual honesty level is.

      Props to you for kicking ass and getting a PhD. This is your (freakin’ amazeballs) achievement, and it’s okay to not want your shitty parents to come and try to steal your glory.

      1. I very much second this idea, but want to add: If you do go this route, practice to yourself or a trusted friend until you can put forward these excuses matter-of-factly and non-apologetically.

        I say this because I find that, on first trying excuses like this, it’s natural to get very apologetic about it and offer the excuse up in a cringing tone that suggests it’s up to the other person to give or withhold approval. (In fact, this is the case even when the excuse is perfectly true.) You can probably picture just how well that’d work when tried on people like your parents. I mean, ultimately it doesn’t matter as long as you can stick to your guns about it… but it’s still best, easiest on yourself, not to give them any chink into which to insert their Crowbars Of Manipulation. If you tell them that you won’t be at graduation, or that they can’t come, or whatever, you’re not giving them that information in order for them to grant or withhold permission for this to happen; you’re giving them that information because this is the information on which they should be basing their plans. Talk as though you expect that to happen.

        Also, congratulations to both LWs on graduating, and very best of luck for the future.

    5. This. Some people can’t be trusted with the truth about ourselves and/or have shown that they don’t deserve it. I’m a stickler for honesty where it is due, but it is *not* due to abusers/random strangers. I’m sure someone more genius than I am has beautifully stunned up why and how lying is really bad except when it totally isn’t.

    6. Yeah, I think this is what I would do. If Dr. No is worried about pictures appearing on social media, they can tell their parents on the day of when it’s too late for the parents to attend. Text a happy picture from the ceremony with a short message – you ended up being able to go, you’re so excited, you’re sorry they couldn’t be there – and then turn your phone off. Deal with the fallout later.

      Like the Captain says, you have something they want – access to you and your success, making them feel like great parents – and unlike in your childhood, that gives you power.

    7. I second this. “Not attending the ceremony/out of the area” is a great lie, but if Dr NO can’t/won’t do this particular lie I definitely recommend lying about the non-ceremony events which are dear to them (after-parties, breakfast with so&so, etc). They are boring icky but necessary things, rehearsals, an appointment to clear up some administrative paperwork, definitely not parties that are special to you. At my own college graduation there was a legendary party held every year that I dearly wanted to go to that meant more to me than the ceremony itself, so I let my parents know ahead of time that I absolutely would not be available for that evening. Any other time that weekend/week/whatever! So my parents, who had perfectly flexible schedules, drove across several states, surprise-arrived at exactly the time I said I wasn’t available, guilted me into spending time with them because they drove so faaaar to see meeeee, then left soon after. Just after all my friends and classmates had left the state and I never saw them again. I should have known better because they also surprise-arrived just in time for my high school graduation party and guilted me out of attending, and later tried to lie to my sister to have her arrive just when I had told her I was unavailable because I didn’t want to miss a party with my friends before a wedding ceremony I’d flown overseas just to attend, thus guilting me out of attending. (when confronted about the wedding thing: “whoops! you mentioned it but how was I supposed to know you actually wanted to GO to that! Oh well, can’t reschedule now.” I called sister, it was super easy to reschedule.) It’s a thing, it happens. My point is, don’t say “no matter what you do parents, don’t show up at X day and time!” Guess who is going to show up or enthusiastically threaten to show up.

      Also, “people who are inclined to criticize you will find some grievance to suck on as if their disapproval can make a little pearl inside their pursed, complaining mouths.” Amazing.

    8. extremely believable! Like half the people in my class missed graduation because it coincides with conference season or already moved on to postdocs at faraway universities.

  3. I would love to highlight the Captain’s advice to be BORING. This is worth tattooing on your forearm as a reminder. The biggest thing I learned from teaching middle school was the value of being boring in conflict. The natural human response is to mirror the emotions of your conversational partner, so it can be realllly hard not to get spiraled up with an unreasonable person. A lot of the good teaching (and parenting) books recommend having some sincere, pre-prepared phrases, over-rehearsed to the point of ridiculousness. Imagine my shock, after spending some years learning to teach, when I found myself using those phrases with my boundary-pushing adult brother, with great success!

    1. Yep. Boring boring boring.
      – “Lot of standing around rehearsing the hours of waiting until they call my name. Can’t skip it, but So Boring.” (I took books)
      – “Going to be running a whole lot of errands / dealing with paperwork”
      – “Thanks! So kind!”

      Each of you have every right to the weekend you want. Anyone else has a problem with it, it’s *their* problem, not yours. You don’t have to manage their problems for them.

    2. Yeah you’ve phrased it much better than I would, but while I was trying on the LWs shoes I was starting to practice phrases which would make people bored; either with the whole event or with the significance of being invited:
      “I might not even go”
      “I’m not making a big deal out of it”
      “I have no idea what my plans are for graduation weekend because I might be too exhausted ”
      “I would just rather celebrate in front of the TV or at a brunch next time I visit”
      “I’ve been warned it’s super boring and seating is difficult” (as it is at every major event anywhere)
      “You can just have your degree mailed to you and I am not hearing great things about the organisation of these events, especially for large groups, so I will let you know”
      “I really hate graduations but if I decide to make a big deal out of it I will let you know. So far I am a bit nonplussed.”

      People will follow your lead. If you give off an ‘Eh, I might invite you if I can even be bothered doing something this boring’ their enthusiasm and self importance will burn off like morning mist. Not to mention ‘my daughter/DiL doesn’t like graduations but we’ll celebrate in our own way. Look at the card she sent!’ is a way more facesaving way to share the news than ‘I didn’t make the cut’. It may make you look a bit like an anti social weirdo who can’t celebrate a goal publicly but that’s a label to be embraced. It’s way better than being Sociable Sally who invites everyone to everything. Don’t nurture that expectation!

  4. Dear LW #2, I so hear you and always all of the Captain’s advice on taking a minute to remind yourself that you’re in charge here. Even at 35, if my mom asks me what I was thinking staying up so late (using that as a soft example), I still turn in to a 14 year old girl explaining herself to Her Mother, rather than adult who would say to anybody else, why is that your business?

    So I totally advocate for deep breath and taking a minute before your brain gets 16 levels deep in logistics and what to do and say if and when and if and just remind yourself, you’re an adult. Your parents are adults. How do two competent adults act towards each other? If one asks to attend something and the other declines, it’s the end. Take a deep breath and imagine the conversation as if you were having it with your neighbor, not someone with a million years of history with you. You’re an adult too!

    1. This!

      Even at 35 and after years of therapy and boundary building, I still sometimes feel anxious at my mum’s reaction, and my therapist has to remind me “you have all the power here, you are in charge”. It doesn’t make the anxiety go away totally but it does help to remind myself that I need nothing from her and she has absolutely no leverage over me.

  5. I want to strongly endorse the “tell security” thing above. And I just some anecdotal encouragement — please delete if inappropriate.

    I had an abusive mother who would use that strategy of threatening to show up and make a scene, and other people’s fear of that to make them do what she wanted. I eventually realised that telling people “I have an abusive out of control mother who sometimes does this” got me sympathy rather than anything bad from normal people, and it meant she couldn’t blackmail me with threats the way she did to other family members. When she did try it at work and at a social type thing, my friends and colleagues reaction was “Oh, this must be Jo’s out of control mother that she has told us about.” It really really worked. My aunt (my mother’s sister) wouldn’t tell people, even after she saw it worked for me, because she was sure she’d be fired if she did, and also because she was ashamed. And so my mother kept on blackmailing her with the threat of showing up at her work.

    Telling people was initially very hard, because I was also ashamed, but it got easier and easier as I did it more. It was so very much the right thing to do. And in some ways it was very liberating being out about it.

    1. I’m so sorry that you had to go through all this, but I’m so glad you shared it, I think it will be very reassuring to the LW and others who lived through this kind of thing. Shame only helps abusers, the fear of making a scene only helps abusers, if you are like “Cool, I guess we’ll have a scene then” it’s amazing how quickly some of them will retreat. Not all of them, but some of them.

    2. Thanks for sharing this. I think that, like other forces of darkness, abusers fear being dragged out in the open. They are good at conditioning others to help keep everything hidden, but if you can get comfortable with exposing them, it takes away a lot of their power.

    3. Thank you for this!

      To anybody who’s facing a similar conundrum:

      You don’t have to expose painful personal details of your past to your HR representative, boss, teachers, etc. You don’t have to prove that your out-of-control relative is out-of-control enough in order to receive help. All you have to say is, “This person likes to intrude where they are not supposed to be, make scenes, and disrupt other people’s workflow/class time.” In a big enough organization, the person you are speaking to will have seen this happen before; in fact, there may be a procedure already in place for handling such disruptions. (Aside: Sometimes difficult people get their hooks into us by convincing us that they are the most difficult people ever, uniquely difficult, and that nobody will ever believe you or be able to make them stop because they are JUST THAT DIFFICULT. But really, such people tend to resemble one another strongly; and when they try to be difficult at people whose emotional buttons they cannot push, they tend to fare badly.)

      If the person you ask for help refuses, and there is no policy at your workplace or school or what have you covering the situation, that doesn’t mean that you are wrong or bad or that you didn’t try in the right way. It means that they chose not to help you.

      1. Yes! You also don’t have to name the exact relationship if you don’t want. You can just say “relative”. People get weird about “but family!!!” more if it’s your parents. You don’t have to say “my mom and dad are abusive. I don’t want them here.” You can say “my relatives (NAME and NAME) are abusive. I don’t want them here.” They don’t need to know if its a weird aunt, cousin, step-sister, cousin three times removed, family friend that you thought was your uncle your whole life but actually isn’t related to you, etc. It might ease the conversation for you.

        I think everyone can picture a relative of their own that they wouldn’t want attending a special event, even if they struggle to picture why you wouldn’t want your mom or dad to attend.

      2. This happened to me in real life and the details aren’t mine to share but I wanted to say: when you’re the target of someone’s operatic maelstrom of drama it can feel very epic but from outside the dynamic sometimes it’s REALLY obvious and dumb. Not always! If you are the target of a creepy jerk who actually manages to conceal their nonsense from others I believe you and you have my sympathy. But going through an experience where the inside felt like O Fortuna and then the second an outsider got involved it became Yakety Sax was really instructive.

        (The only detail I feel like I can share: this person had several targets convinced that they were, like, a uniquely grimdark evil mastermind, and then the building security manager finally found out and went “well now that I know to look, via the very clearly marked door security camera we have recordings of them doing the thing, including obvious misdemeanors, along with clear shots of their FACE and CAR LICENSE PLATE soooo honestly they are not… that… good at this…”.)

      3. Yes yes yes!

        We had that situation with a family member (court order for them not to be where kidlet was without a supervisor; they decided to get around it by volunteering where kidlet would be).

        The board of directors said it ‘wasn’t their place to get involved’ so we pulled kidlet out of their programs and sent a letter explaining why.

        Turns out that note got forwarded on, and it was the last straw on a heap of issues with the board. Most of them were gone within six months, and we got a lovely letter of apology from the new board – along with a document showing their new process for handling these sorts of situations. It sucked that they weren’t able to help us, but I’m glad no one else is going to have to deal with it in the future.

      4. also remember–if the person you’re turning to for help doesn’t believe you, and your badly behaved relative does show up?

        That bad behavior will “out” itself immediately, and THEN the person will believe you. And next time they’ll be more likely to help. (and more likely to believe the next person who turns to them with a similar situation)

        But by naming the behavior ahead of time, YOU WILL FRAME IT FOR THEM.

        Instead of seeing “Oh, an upset mother!” they will say, “Oh, this upset mother is manipulative!’

    4. This also sounds like a variation on helpful advice for the LW the other day whose difficult MIL was possibly getting a job at her workplace.

    5. Seconding the official security option even if it feels like a nuclear option. A friend’s brother had to invoke that for his wedding several years ago because the bride’s family was ridiculous, she’d had no contact with them for years because of said ridiculousness, they were threatening to crash anyway, etc. I can’t remember if the bride’s family actually tried to crash the wedding but just having an actual bodyguard at the reception, on standby, helped things considerably. And I didn’t think it was weird when friend told me about it–sometimes people are terrible and even those terrible people have living family members!

    6. Yes! This! I had to tell my managers at my retail job and I’m tearing up right now in memory of how quickly and unquestioningly they circled to protect me. They gave me a code phase to use if I saw my abusive parents and told me to drop whatever I was doing, even if I was helping a customer, and get to the back room behind two closed doors (one with a keypad). And all I had to tell them was that my parents “aren’t good people.” That’s it. I didn’t have to go into detail; they trusted me.

      Obviously not all places are that awesome but in general I’ve found that if I stay calm about it and keep it short and detached, people get it.

  6. My friend, who did not invite her estranged family members to her wedding, hired an arm security guard for her wedding. No one commented on it, it was obvious why it was needed. The guard was quiet, unintrusive , and professional. She later said her wedding was the most joyous day of her and her husband’s life. So yay for reclaiming celebrations for the people they are celebrating,

    1. Oh, LWs. I have all the sympathy in the world for you. My father is difficult and I can still get emotional over how terrible he was around my undergrad graduation, even eight years later. At that point in my life I didn’t have the right tools to enforce my boundaries in the face of him screaming at me, but I wish I had–I am so hopeful that you will both take the Captain’s advice and stick to your guns.

      And for what it’s worth, by the time grad school rolled around, things went a lot more smoothly: I did exactly what the Captain had recommended for LW #1180, of ceremony + ONE THING with plenty of people to buffer, and making it extraordinarily boring to talk about anything else. (“I can’t. My cohort has a Thing,” repeated ad infinitum.)

      I’m nesting this here because I’m now planning a wedding, to which my father is not invited. I hired a wedding coordinator largely as a buffer to dad-related drama (I am very privileged to be in the financial position to do so); one of my cousins is a police officer, and will be on bouncer duty the day of in case my dad tries to show up and start some drama. I’ve told quite a few other people that my dad won’t be coming at this point. No one has reacted to these conversations with anything but empathy and grace, even about something as emotionally freighted as a cis het femme-presenting ladyperson having a wedding Without Her Dad To Walk Her Down The Aisle–to my great surprise and joy, I have not encountered one single instance of “but faaaaaaaamily.” And it’s so helpful for me to know that there’s a plan in place, in case he does show up. So for LW #1181, I would really encourage you to talk to your university and recruit a few people to come to the rescue in the (unlikely) event that your family does try to crash something. Having a plan has done SO MUCH to de-fang that threat for me.

  7. To both letter writers: thank you for your insight and your courage in sharing. To the Captain: thank you for an aptly timed post that is so thorough in its kindness. I feel like I could have written the second letter word for word. I’ve been dreading my graduation since the fall because my estranged parents have come sniffing around again, and your advice is the first thing I’ve seen that’s given me some relief and a sense that I can do this. Thank you!

  8. “people who are inclined to criticize you will find some grievance to suck on as if their disapproval can make a little pearl inside their pursed, complaining mouths.”

    I just wanted to read that again because it is such a beautiful piece of truth.

  9. “every time you performed on cue, they won.” Holy shit, this. The only thing that got my manipulative and abusive parents to back off was the threat of calling the police if they showed up at my work or home again. I never had to actually call the police. Just the threat of “I won’t be your dancing monkey anymore and I won’t play this game anymore” made them realize I was deadly serious.

  10. Speaking as someone who helps run graduation events, you will almost certainly not be the only person talking to the staff about abusive family members who may need to be escorted out. We’ve done this before, we’ll do it again, security is on campus/at the venue for a reason.

  11. So grateful to you, Captain. I am over 50 and still need your kind words on this topic. Grateful also to the LWs and commenters here who have shared their experiences. I still find it too painful to write about mine, but they’re in the same ballpark, and a little understanding/support for once is tremendously meaningful.

  12. For the “one other celebratory thing” part of the advice for LW#1, I suggest the following addition: ask someone from your Home Team to host it. Be the guest of honor and allow someone else to fret the details. Even if you are footing the bill, get a friend to organize the logistics. It dovetails nicely with the “no hosting houseguests” advice, and it will make the whole event much less stressful for you.

    1. Agreed. I’ve been renting a hall for my annual holiday party for several years. The peace of mind I get is worth every penny I spend. My MIL can no longer decide she’s had too much to drink and just crash on my couch, my mother can’t go into my bedroom or bathroom to snoop while I’m distracted with friends, and my sister can’t rearrange my kitchen and pretend that she lives with me.
      I also agree with the idea of letting people you trust know about the issues you have with family. My mother loves to describe, in detail, all the ways she thinks I’ve wronged her to anyone who’ll listen. Giving my friends the information beforehand let them feel more comfortable stopping a conversation and walking away without feeling rude.

    2. Seconding this. It could even be a way to corral a family member’s celebratory energy, if you don’t want to deal with it. For my college graduation, my aunt was super invested in hosting my party. Cool, Aunt, thanks for wrangling all the family while I go see my actual friends and show up after you’ve all had food!

      On that side of my family, The Cousins all go to each other’s graduations & other events whenever possible, but we aren’t terribly close. Being told “here is the One Thing you should come to” might actually be a positive from their perspective, since it reduces their time commitment (But my cousins are also not as bigoted as LW1’s, so I also wholeheartedly support just not inviting them if you don’t want to)

    3. This also means that when terrible family members offer opinions about the one other celebratory thing, you can say “I don’t know what the details are. Home Team is hosting.” And you are not responsible to plan the celebratory thing about the preferences of terrible people, because it wouldn’t matter if it was the best celebratory thing on the planet (which it will be, because you and Home Team are awesome), terrible people will always find something to complain about.

  13. To Dr. NO:
    I alerted security and had my hospital room switched when I found out my mother had come up unannounced from out of state after I had specifically told her not to several times. (This was in regard to the second time I gave birth. Apparently she felt cheated or something that she hadn’t been able to attend the first one because I had developed a life-threatening complication at 29 weeks and had had to have an emergency c-section. Anyway.) Yes, it was kind of scary to do, but it also gave me a hell of a lot of peace of mind. And she never did try to come to the hospital after my husband and I made it clear that she had really messed up by disregarding my stated wishes. Just some food for thought from someone who didn’t want an abusive parent at a major life event, either.

    Sending good wishes to both letter writers!

    1. Oh wow. I hope you and your kids were okay after both of those, and I’m sorry you had to deal with that.

      1. Thanks so much, blackbird. 😊 My mom had taken advantage of my continued fragility when she was finally allowed to visit Kid1 in the NICU, which was a big part of why she was told not to come up for the birth of Kid2. The silver lining to all this was it helped me see very clearly just how selfish and dysfunctional her behavior is, so I felt a lot less guilty about setting boundaries to protect my kids and myself! And the kids are thriving and I am basically okay now health-wise, so wins all around!

    2. I just toured the hospital where I’m giving birth and the security was amazing – it made me feel so much better. Like, the only way in or out was a secure elevator that can be locked down, and then a set of locked double doors you need special permission to get through. It was a big relief because I don’t trust my husband’s one friend that I hate to listen to husband about not coming, and my god I do not want to see his face that day so very much.

      I chatted with the nurse for a while and she told me they have a a special rule that even if the couple is ok with visitors you aren’t allowed back if you don’t know the mom’s last name. Apparently people try this all the time? Show up at the hospital to visit someone who just gave/is giving birth and you don’t KNOW THAT PERSON’S LAST NAME. My mind was blown.

      1. I did a couple of years of midwifery training in the UK and more than once we had specific instructions not to allow certain people onto the ward. Sometimes it was “I am concerned that my estranged mother will come and visit and I Do Not Want to see her”, sometimes it was “There is a person in my life who might attempt to steal the baby”, sometimes it was “I’m a minor celebrity and I don’t want people taking photos of me breastfeeding”. All of those reasons were more than adequate for us to act on. The risk of someone stealing a baby was considered generally sufficiently high and sufficiently serious that no one could come onto the ward without being buzzed in, but we were extra careful when a specific concern arose.

        1. The hospital where I had my 2nd child did not have the same level of security as I’d gotten from the hospital where my 1st child was born. I know this because at #1’s birth there were at least two levels of security that a visitor would have to pass before they even alerted me to their presence. My MIL complained about it for weeks! For #2? I woke up at 8AM, when visiting hours started, with my FIL standing over me asking “where’s the baby?” I’d gotten two hours of sleep at that point – you know, having given birth the night before! – and was so startled by his appearance that I started to hysterically sob. A nurse did remove him from my room, but really, he shouldn’t have been allowed in to see me. Since then I ALWAYS advise my expectant friends to make sure the level of security matches their needs.

          1. For my 2nd, my FIL was allowed to wander into the RECOVERY room, where I and seven other ladies were recovering from giving birth. He went from bed to bed until he found me. He had a cold, with visible dripping nose, and his clothes were dirty. I asked him to leave, and he stood there until a nurse shooed him out..

      2. I’d be in trouble with the last name thing since it seems my husband’s family is entirely unaware of the fact that I never changed my last name to his!

        But then again…I probably wouldn’t really want visitors right after giving birth anyway, so perhaps this is a win. 😉

        1. Ellen G: Yikes and yuck! Why the flying fuck was the hospital so bloody stupid as to let a visibly sick person in in the first place??? Somebody could be immune-compromised and the FIL’s germs could have gotten her sick, maybe even left a child without a mother.

          1. It was a wonder to me. FIL is not someone i’m close to, and wasn’t invited for day of (it was a ‘we’ll call to let you know visiting hours’ situation). Yet he showed up and wandered in while I was still hopped up on both pain, pain meds (huh risk birth, cesarean) and also badly nauseated from same – why he was allowed in was a mystery, and he didn’t question his right to be there.

          2. I work for a hospital and honestly, we expect adult visitors to police themselves and not visit if they are sick. We have signs everywhere (It’s flu season here) and masks and people still do whatever they want. If someone asks about visiting while sick, I advise against it, but I don’t have any power to enforce it unless they are being disruptive or the patient requests that they not visit. (We do have a pretty strong visitor-restriction policy at my hospital, so if you tell us you don’t want anyone but A, B,and C visiting, we’ve got you.)

            The visitor policy could be read a couple of ways…it’s great that anyone who is important to the patient is allowed to visit. I’m never gonna ask leading questions to find out if this is your friend or your “friend.” On the other hand, sometimes a whole bunch of yahoos show up and annoy everyone and we have to just grit our teeth. The practicality of screening out sick people rapidly devolves into “who is qualified to do this screening?” and “we can’t ask medical questions of non-patients.” Not really defending this, just sharing…

  14. For LW 1180 (although rather similar to the advice that was given 1181):

    Third choice: invite nobody, do nothing.

    If the Captain’s suggestions look too daunting, and the idea of trying to carve out new roles and boundaries for the various people in your life – while a worthy goal – is not one you want to tackle at a time when you’re getting over the last hurdle of another very worthy goal, what if you just opt out entirely?

    This gives you a very easy script: “As you know [presumably, your family does know], my last graduation ceremony was not a happy one, and to be honest, I’m looking more forward to being DONE with college than the ceremony itself. I’m going to be winding down from the stress of finals, and I just wouldn’t be able to relax and enjoy company. Therefore, I’m not having guests at the ceremony or having a big party the following weekend.”

    (Optional) “However, I still really want to see and celebrate with all of you, so I’m planning to throw a mid-summer cookout bash (or insert event of choice) once life gets back to normal, and I’d love it if you’d come!”

    There will still probably be protests and offence, but general huffing will probably be easier to stand your ground against than “You invited X but you didn’t invite meeee?!?!”

    (You can either plan to grit your teeth and host the in-laws for the thing or take that occasion to establish the no-hosting boundary.)

    Basically, the graduation equivalent of ‘elope, settle into Married People Life, THEN have the party whenever you’re ready’.

    It might suck to not have certain people there, and only you can decide whether you would prefer to cope with that suck or the suck of having people who stress you out either in attendance or throwing fits about not being in attendance, but knowing you have the option of noping out of the issue entirely might serve as a release valve while you’re working this out.

    (And if, the next weekend, you do something with your chosen family, the troublesome people within your bio-family never need to know. That wasn’t A Graduation Thing To Which They Were Not Invited, it was just you hanging out with friends! As people do!)

    1. I have to whole-heartedly encourage this choice.

      LW’s, I don’t know how long you’ve been in school, but I’m just a month away from graduating from a program that 5 years of work. And although my mom has grumbled a bit over it, I’m super-thankful that I’m graduating during one of the terms when there is no actual official ceremony. Mostly because I’m pretty much exhausted, but also because I could see the logistical nightmare of essentially-a-second-wedding-level-event to quibble over about WHO gets to stay WHERE and WHEN we’re all doing WHAT and “your aunt’s third cousin wasn’t invited????”, etc.

      Seriously, f*ck all that noise.

      Even if you’ve already talked to some folks about Maybe Doing A Thing, you can defer it with “I’m sorry, but I’ve decided to change my plans because I’m so exhausted by this last dash to the finish line; at this point, I’m not even sure if I’ll be attending the ceremony! But I’ll let you know when we plan a big celebration bash once I’ve recovered.” Again, that “when” could be NEVER; but it moves the problem out of your immediate arena.

      The bonus of this strategy is that if/when anyone tries to pin down firm plans, you can beg off with “Sorry, but I’m not going to make any plans until after I’ve graduated; my brain is too full to think about anything else!”

      Major congratulations to both LW’s on finishing your degrees!! School is hard, all-consuming work, and you’ve done well to get to the end of it. Cheers from a fellow soon-to-be-Grad! 😀

    2. I hated my high school graduation, and swore it would be the last graduation ceremony I would attend. I broke the rule once, for my then-fiancé, and the celebration was just ourselves and his parents having dinner together. It did help that I got both BS and MS degrees on off quarter/semester. It worked for me, but then I prefer to party with small groups of people who don’t feel awkward together, like family OR friends, not both at the same time.

      (Of course, if I had children, I would attend all graduations they would have invited me to.)

      But my preferences are not those of either letter writer, necessarily. So, I would say that the Captain made lots of great suggestions. I would only add, if you haven’t already, stop and think about what you really want to get out of these events, and if there might be different ways to celebrate your successes that minimize your stress.

      But anyway, CONGRATULATIONS!

  15. Sad Grad: I second CA’s advice to set your rules and stick to them. You don’t need to make a big deal out of this, or apologize for it–no “I’m so sorry but…” here! Just send your invitations with some clear boundaries. A possible script:

    We are so happy to announce that (Sad Grad) is graduating!
    We would love for you to celebrate this achievement with us. The graduation ceremony will be at [Institution] on [Date/Time]. We will have a celebratory dinner afterwards at [Place].
    Please note that we will be unable to host any guests during this time. [Local hotel] or [Local hotel] would be wonderful options if you’re coming from out of town.
    Please let us know by [Date] if you will be able to join us for either or both events. If you’re unable to make the trip, the ceremony will be webcast on [School’s website], and we’ll look forward to celebrating next time we see you!

    If anyone argues or pushes back…well, they had the info right there. It’s on them if they somehow assumed that didn’t apply to them. You can point them back to that info on the original invitation and just say, “I’m sorry, I thought we made it clear that we can’t host guests during this time.”

    For the record, having been to many graduations as either a graduate or a guest–you’ll barely see most people who attend. You won’t see your family during the actual ceremony except for maybe a wave as you walk in and out. You’ll likely be expected to line up a while before the ceremony starts, so you probably won’t see them before (unless you make particular plans to get together well in advance of the start of the event, but you don’t have to do that, and you definitely don’t have to do it with everyone). You’ll have a thousand things to do immediately after–pick up a diploma depending on how your school does that, hug and cry with friends and classmates, take photos, etc. You won’t be the one dealing with any drama that comes up or amusing any bored relatives, is the point.

    I do suggest having a celebration event of some kind with your Home Team, regardless of who you end up inviting to your graduation ceremony. You really won’t see them much during the ceremony itself–everything I said above isn’t about avoiding annoying family members, you really will be busy and likely won’t see much of anyone beyond a wave and a hug and maybe a couple photos. So celebrate with them either before or after the actual ceremony (and if you do decide to have a big celebration lunch with everyone who comes, maybe have a separate smaller celebration with the Home Team people at a different time that weekend; I think you’ll want it).

  16. To sad grad, your letter amazes me in that it shows up such huge differences in families, culture etc. I am Australian and didn’t even go to my graduation let alone celebrate it afterwards in any way. Had I of gone to it, I’m not sure my parents would have bothered to come, let alone my sister (and I don’t remember going to hers), and my extended family, while probably knowing vaguely that I did go to uni, I don’t think they would even know that I did graduate or what my degree was. But then I hate being the centre of attention and never throw birthday parties for myself or even tell anyone that my birthday is coming and I wonder if you could do a similar thing in saying you are uncomfortable with being the centre of attention and having a big deal made of it and therefore just wish for it to be a low key thing with immediate family only. You might want to tell you inlaws it would embarrass you that they would make so much effort as to travel interstate. If none of this is possible, maybe try spinning it to positive and think how lucky you are that so many people care so much, because as I said, no one cared with me and it blows my mind that you have an entire massive group of people wanting to celebrate your acomplishment. Anyway, just an idea.

    1. I don’t think it’s actually lucky to have that many people willing to overstep your boundaries and make your graduation more about them than you, though.

    2. The problem with “we’re having a small thing, for family/close friends only” when you’re not very experienced at setting boundaries and the other people might not be experienced with respecting (your) boundaries (or thinking you get to have them at all) is that everybody thinks they count as close family/friends and then you have to negotiate it all over again, and each person you bump from the list is also getting the message “We’re not that close.”

      1. It might be easier to have no official celebration at all, and then just happen to have some friends over that day or a few days later…

  17. Dr. NO:

    Do your parents actually provide any significant financial support? Do you actually like spending time with them?

    Your description of them makes them sound like even their version of ‘polite’ is hurtful to you and also just plain obnoxious. They treated you so badly, and now they turn around and claim to have always been supportive? to have been good parents? that your pain was just ‘normal queer childhood’ and not their actual fault? What absolute nerve.

    They sound like the kind of people who want to come to your ceremony just so they can a) tell everyone seated around them “That’s my baby, I’m so proud! WE LOVE YOU SWEEETIE!”, and b) so they can bring photos home and tell their friends “Oh, we were just at Dr. NO’s graduation last week, yes, they have their DOCTORATE, yes, it’s been a long road but we’re so proud of what they’ve accomplished, yes, we’re very proud to have a DOCTOR in the family.” What I’m saying is, I suspect that if they come, it won’t really be you they’re there to celebrate.

    If that’s accurate, then personally I think you just say screw them. By which I mean, I think you tell them “I actually already have plans for my graduation weekend. I won’t be up to hosting. Maybe we can get together another time.” From there, the ball is in their court. They can totally say “We understand, let’s find another time”! That would bode well for you having a future relationship with them. Or they can say “WHAT how DARE you we RAISED you we SUPPORTED you THIS IS OUR ACHIEVEMENT TOO AND YOU CAN’T KEEP US AWAY”, and you can say “I’m not going to listen to you yell” and hang up the phone and repeat until either they accept your decision or you decide that no contact was nice actually and you want it back. That would be unfortunate, but it would be 100% due to them being rude and cruel to you, not to anything you did.

    If you really, really want to maintain the relationship you have with them, then go with the lie that you’re not sure if you’ll be attending in person since you might need to be at a job interview or some such, and maintain it until it’s too late for them to buy tickets out. But I think there might be some value in letting the fight happen and seeing how they handle it. It sounds like the possibility of that fight has been hanging over you for decades–maybe it’s time to get out from under it, one way or another.

    1. Speaking as the person who went from “Problem Child” to “Graduate Whose Success We All Want To Take Credit For”* to “Weirdo Who Writes Poetry Instead Of Living Up To Their Career Potential”, and whose parents managed to spoil both their first and postgrad graduations (in different ways, too – you can’t say my creative urges came out of nowhere…), I vote heartily for saying screw them. Treat them to a brick wall of calm polite NOPE and hanging up the phone when they try to insinuate themselves. Put the ball back in their court to come up with an alternative time to visit, and keep brushing them off. Don’t let them come and spoil things for you. Prime Security if you have to (if I had known that was a possibility my graduation would have been different, and so would some of my friends’).

      Personally, I’ve never had the big fight, and over the decades they have kind of settled down with the fact that I Never Tell Them Anything: but mine were never physically violent and you know best what you need to be safe. You’ve been brave enough to go no-contact already so as the Captain says, you know you have that in your arsenal if you need it.

      More than any of that, CONGRATULATIONS!! And doubly so on getting there without the support many people are able to take for granted.

      *some cousin of my father’s Way Up North who I had never heard of had a daughter who graduated the same year as I did, and my Darth Vader Aunt sent him (not the graduate herself, mind, the father) a congratulations card purely so she could put a note in it of how much better I had done. The aunt who actively discouraged her own children from getting any higher/further education, taking vicarious credit for my educational success in order to snub somebody she’d never met. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

    2. The things I can’t get past are the rationalizing and the credit taking: “Your childhood couldn’t have been as bad as you say, look how awesome you turned out! We must have been great parents!” A person who has the fortitude to raise themselves out of a terrible childhood to become AMAZING deserves all the credit not just for _achieving_, which even well-adjusted kids can do, but for _overcoming_, which well-adjusted kids don’t have to do. So it’s the lie I personally could not stomach. I hope I would have the guts to tell those parents: “You can tell this lie of my supported happy childhood to whomever you want, but you’re not going to tell it to me and you’re not going to tell it in front of me.” So if they could come to my event in a spirit of regret for the past and genuine happiness for my achievement, then MAYBE. But if attending my event was jut another exercise in minimizing and denying past behavior, then HELL NO they could not come. Not just because I wouldn’t want them there, but because I would refuse to let them make me a party to their lie. At some level, it’s almost gaslighting, to not just encourage but to expect you to join them in their minimizing and historical revisionism. It’s a way to make you “wrong” again. It’s a denial of your truth. That’s some fundamental stuff right there, and it needs to be rejected with great force.

    3. Yep, set the boundary now, because being wheeled out as a parental trophy doesn’t stop at graduation. You’re good for a lifetime in that role.

      After an entire childhood of grooming me to reflect well on her and punishing anything which didn’t, my mother had packed up and moved interstate as soon as I finished high school leaving me to fend entirely for myself when I started university, and for the rest of my life thereafter. One of the oddest performing seal moments occurred at a point in my life when I was successful in my field and had served in the military (oooh super-shiny), and while visiting her attended a function organised by a group of which she was a member, where there was a guest speaker talking about his Everest expedition. After the talk she introduced me to to him and then stood there not actually participating in the conversation but just sort of feasting on the spectacle of “trophy daughter” conversing with “vaguely famous person she had a tenuous connection with”.

  18. A really good point that several posters have brought up is: if you bring this up with the officials at whatever venue, you will not be the first, the tenth, or the hundredth to need this protocol. Universities, hospitals, large corporations have security and strategies in place, because they deal with the public, and some members of the public…need a lot of dealing with.

    No matter how rotten or histrionic your family members can get, they will not be the worst ones these people have ever seen.

    1. And even if they ARE the worst ones they’ve ever seen, they will know how to handle them. And they will know that it is no way your fault.

  19. Dear LWs, I feel you both so keenly right now! I’m going to share my own graduation experiences with Highly Difficult Family Members (my acrimoniously divorced manipulative parents) in case they’re useful for you:

    – Confirmation
    This happened in my senior year of high school, six months before graduation. Since I didn’t want my grandma at my graduation and she’s a Very Catholic Old Lady, I agreed with my dad to invite her to my confirmation instead. I didn’t really want her there either, but I thought the compromise would work. Everyone more or least behaved and I only had to run around taking care of them for a bit.

    – High school graduation
    Spoiler alert, my dad declared our compromise null and void and invited my grandma anyway against my wishes and warnings that there was limited seating. I had told him that I only had three tickets (for him, my mom, and my brother), so I promptly gave my fourth one to a classmate with two siblings. He didn’t listen and brought my grandma anyway, so he ended up having to give her his ticket and wait outside… because there weren’t enough seats. My mom had to take care of her ex-MIL, he got angry with me and I spent the whole non-seating-constrained-lunch running around trying to relay messages back and forth between my grandma and mother and him instead of celebrating with my friends.

    – College graduation
    This time nobody protested when I didn’t invite my grandma. There was limited seating, so I only bought three tickets to leave enough for the people who actually wanted their families there. Since I didn’t want to spend the whole event running again, I organised dinner with my mom and brother, lunch with my dad and grandma the following day, and set to enjoy the event. My mom picked a fight with my dad anyway and spent half the event unloading the drama on me. I introduced her to some other parents and spent the other half with my friends (progress!). She got angry with me for “ditching her”.

    – Wedding
    Not yet had, but partner has already agreed to elope together and host a meal with family members and friends after the fact. I refuse to spend another single life event running around relaying messages and taking care of their feelings.

    What I got from all this was, with my family, compromise doesn’t work: it only serves to make me give up on things that are important to me, with no one returning the favour or acknowledging the effort. What works are firm boundaries and consequences for breaking them and my doing what I want regardless of people’s feelings.

    So, LWs, if your HDFM are difficult enough for compromises not to work with them either, I hereby give you permission to invite who you want to invite and celebrate how you want to celebrate and let people feel what they gonna feel and behave however they decide to. They are gonna stir shit either way, and at least like this you both get to have the graduation *you* want.

  20. I had to tell a security guard in grad school that I had moved out of an abusive situation and that my ex would probably come prowling around looking for sympathy, telling lies including that we were married (NO) and that his child was mine (NO). When the ex showed up, asking for my class schedule/location, the security guard very calmly told him that they knew the “motherless child” wasn’t mine, that he wasn’t welcome on campus and that if he came back he would be arrested. Magic wand. At least for that part of the saga. Then he called my mom and said I had threatened to throw him in jail and how could I do that and then my mom called me crying.

    On a related note, I did NOT go to my undergrad graduation to avoid family drama, and I DID go to my Masters graduation but did NOT invite family. Therapy and medication for depression/anxiety/PTSD has been A LIFESAVER for me, especially DBT/Dialectical Behavior Therapy.

  21. At my last job, one of my duties was answering the door (which was always locked). Part of my training with HR was baring certain visitors such as angry clients and family members of employees. It was expected, handled confidentially, and not a big deal. I would imagine that people who handle big events like graduations aren’t going to be at all phased by inquiries about security. Even if they can’t bar specific people from specific events, I’d expect them to appreciate a heads up about possible disruptions.

  22. I would just say “I only have 8 tickets for graduation’ so Mom, you can’t bring Aunt Loony.

    1. I just want to gently (and sincerely, not intended to be shaming or confrontational) point out that “Loony”, especially in a known mental-health context, can be really hurtful language.

  23. Many many many years ago, I went through an especially ugly split with an especially horrible ex. Barely half a year afterwards, he showed up at a Pride parade where I was going to be marching with a small group of particular friends. I’m pretty sure that his new girlfriend (the one he’d dumped me for) had just kicked him out. He would have known that I would be there, and it was one of the few places he might possibly be able to get to me.

    He never did get to me. I only glimpsed him once, in the distance. My friends saw my face and saw just how much I did not want to deal with him. So they ran interference for the rest of the day. (I privately suspect that two of them tracked him down and warned him off — along the lines of “Stay out of sight or we will strangle you with your intestines”.)

    It is truly, truly WONDERFUL to have friends who will be your personal honour guard and security service. Best of all, my friends enjoyed the hell out of it.

    1. You have good friends 🙂 Pride Security Detail is an honourable duty, especially against horrible exes, and I’m glad your friends undertook it so well!

  24. One other thought for the first LW is to tell mom, “I really don’t want Dickhead House Guest at graduation, as they have a history of being disruptive. Bring them if you must, but I need you to be 100% responsible for Dickhead wrangling on the day.” Then mom can decide if it’s easier to deal with them up front or on the day.

  25. Oh this was timely, thank you! I am 37 and finally finished my bachelor’s degree, and my entire giant sprawling extended family and most of my friends want to come. To a school that (last I checked) only gives out 2 tickets to the graduation ceremony. That I didn’t check wanting to attend when I filled out my graduation form.

    I like these people. I just really don’t want them all descending on the city where I live, which has too many colleges and not enough hotels, for a thing I don’t even want to attend. I’ve been smiling and nodding when they express how *important* this is, and then dropping, “I filled out the paperwork wrong for it, but I’m sure we’ll find some way to celebrate some other time!” But oh are they all ever pushy. It’s nice to have scripts to help me hold firm, and if/when I get around to hosting a belated graduation party I will be referencing this for how to manage inviting/not inviting people.

      1. Thank you! It’s been a long and frustrating journey. There’s nothing quite like paying for student loans on something you couldn’t finish for financial reasons. I got really lucky in finally having a way to complete my degree, even if it is far later than I ever intended.

  26. I’m mystified by the people who aren’t close to someone wanting to go to a graduation. Graduations are so tedious, even if you are very close. I didn’t enjoy a single one of mine. Do your cousins really want to attend, or is this just something parents/aunts/uncles are pushing for?

    I solved these problems by skipping my PhD ceremony and just getting a quiet dinner with local people. Thats a option. My father pouted a bit, but got over it.

    1. I’m with everyone who says they are tedious (SOOOOOOO TEDIOUS) but I’m gonna assume that both Letter Writers would prefer to be at their graduation ceremonies and they are the experts on whether family is actually likely to turn up for these things.

    2. They are tedious, but they’re also the designated way that USA culture acknowledges the achievement of finishing a level of schooling. Some people choose to disregard that and celebrate their own way, and that’s fine! But some people do find meaning in engaging with the ritual, even if the actual ceremony is super dull.

      For people who do find it meaningful, in healthy families, family members want to attend to celebrate their loved one’s success. In less healthy families, people may want to attend to make the event all about them, to force their ‘loved one’ to acknowledge them, to show up Aunt Betty who wasn’t invited/couldn’t make it, to have pictures to show off to their friends back home, etc.

    3. The “First in immediate family” thing plus “the kind of parents to want to hog all the reflected glory LW achieves despite their shit” answers this mystery pretty clearly.

  27. Along with experienced event planners and university security that can help you, if they show and start making a scene, you can call the Actual Police. That’s a scorched-earth approach; but if you need it to feel safe, you really can call them. The fact that it’s your family won’t mean a thing (given all the domestic abuse call they’ve handled). All you need to say is that these people are here, you did not invite them, you do not want them here, you are not safe around them. No other detail is needed. It’s not a waste of their time to get unsafe people away from you.

    1. I understand that calling the Actual Police can be helpful in certain situations where safety is at stake and it truly can’t be avoided, and I am not saying no one with abusive family at a graduation should ever do this – but I want to super caution against calling Real Police being viewed solely as a personal choice, when the presence of police dramatically increases the risk of violence for marginalized folks in most places. I don’t know what country LW is in, but ….it’s true for enough of them, I bet it’s true there. Again, not saying there is literally never a place for it, but it’s really important and necessary to be conscious about what you are inflicting on other people when you involve the police. If the LW is in the US, then as I hope we all know, it can literally turn deadly.

        1. Police make extremely bad ushers. Do not call upon them when what you need is an usher.

          I want to spell out something that doesn’t need spelling out, probably: “last resort” can include “talking to a non-police domestic violence advocate about whether submitting a police report or filing a protective order is the right choice for you”. I was extremely nervous about getting a paper trail on a physically dangerous person (I’m marginalized in some relevant ways but not marginalized in other relevant ways) and it was the right choice for me personally even though no one was actively trying to break down my door in that moment. There are a lot of personal and situational considerations and a DV advocate can often help to parse what is what and what your goals and needs are – the national hotline is heavily focused on partner violence but state hotlines can often help with a wider range of relationships.

  28. For LW#1, a good metaphor that helped me during wedding shenanigans was “imagine you are in a bubble. Problematic relatives? Outside the bubble. The bubble is you and Significant Other/closest Team You. You do not respond to attention grabbers outside the bubble, and let people outside the bubble manage themselves”. Both letter writers could potentially execute Team Security if they have trusted friend or family. I did this myself; my friend had both Overwhelming-but-nonabusive and Formerly-Abusive-Now-Proud types of family and it was my job to watch her expressions/mood of the room and head off the relatives when she was overwhelmed. I was happy to do it! Obviously this may seem like an imposition for some, but most people have encountered at least annoying folk, and rerouting them with politeness or overkill friendliness or firm bluntness is so effective when it is Not You (because their tools are for targeting the LW and often they are performing for everyone else, so a random stranger or friend can get extra leeway/throw them off their game). If you got a sassy friend or friend who is great at switching hats for different events, this is a great time to utilize them. Shockingly professional types are great on your team for this too. Nothing takes the wind out of a selfobsessed person’s sails like a visually impressive person being cool and collected.

    1. I like the “bubble” idea – but I would prefer the LW to put the Problem People *inside* the bubble, by themselves, so the LW and Team LW can enjoy the rest of the big, beautiful world in peace.

    2. Any time you are the focus or guest of honor at a Big Life Ceremony, having a designated blocker is a great idea. It’s helpful even if you don’t have problematic relatives who are going to try to ruin everything. (At my first wedding, several well-meaning people kept trying to bring problems with (or questions about) the arrangements to me even though I had a wedding planner coordinating things on the day. The wedding planner helped, but having someone-not-me to redirect them to the wedding planner was so helpful! I didn’t think of this ahead of time, so I got really stressed out when I was trying to get ready. I re-tasked a bridesmaid on the fly, and was suddenly much better able to just enjoy things.)

  29. “Resist all attempts to perfect or optimize these situations, to find the only mistake-free and consequence-free way that will never upset anybody. It doesn’t exist.”

    I need to cross-stitch this onto a wall-hanging. And I need to sit down with that last paragraph and give it a good long hard think.

    Excellent, as always, Cap’n.

  30. At my college graduation, there was one person I specifically dis-invited and two people I knew were likely to clash. I sent firm notes to my mom, letting her know her invite did not extend to my abusive brother and that if anyone started anything, they would ALL be asked to leave. (My mother was most likely to start something with my father.) I told my father something similar about disagreements, but more gently, because I actually trust him. LWs, nothing happened. My parents all came, they congratulated me, my mom left first, and everyone went home without fighting.

    I’ve had more milestone events since then, and setting the boundaries has gotten easier every time. My wedding is in a few months and I’m comfortable not inviting my mother or siblings on that side – we’re going small with just the people we trust to be safe at a queer wedding. It’s a huge relief.

    Good luck to both of you!

  31. Unpopular Opinion- Graduation ceremonies are THE WORST. I didn’t go to my own large university ceremony, because sitting outside with the 4500 other people graduating that day, when it’s sunny and hot is awful. Especially more so in a polyester gown. I definitely did not go to my siblings’ ceremonies. Nor would I expect my extended family to go to my kids’ ceremonies.

    1. Ok? I’m going to assume both Letter Writers would prefer to attend their graduation ceremonies and that they are the best judge of how likely family members are to actually show up once they’ve said they will show up or want to be invited.

  32. I don’t know either of your situations to this extent, but context is very important, and there kind of is “no one right answer” per se. If your parents helped you with your education or helped you growing up, for you to refuse them without being directly honest about it I think makes you look bad. It is more worth it to be honest and deal with the anger or the actions of how your parents respond. Like you could honor your parents and this would be a way to respect what they did for you. That’s okay too. It’s really your choice.

    I don’t like beating around the bush. It’s confusing to some people, and then when some people say

    I never had a graduation party for HS or college. One for college was pushed for me, but I told my parents that I only wanted people I was comfortable with, and that I didn’t care if it was a small party. They told me that they had to invite all these people for this reason and that, and I told them you’re not the one graduating- I am. So, I should get to make a choice. They still told me we just had to invite all these people AND that I had to act a certain way and not be real about my feelings. Why should I have to suck up to someone I haven’t spoken to in 6+ years when we left off on a slightly sour note that I felt she was in the wrong? My parents wanted me to appreciate the help I got from this reading tutor. But, it’s not my fault that she disrespected me just because she had a rigid way of thinking for teaching older children when I got older. I told my parents I don’t owe her anything at this point. They said she just had to be invited period. There was also the implication that they were the stakeholders. I certainly didn’t have the money to hold one myself, and I certainly wouldn’t be “making money” as my parents wanted to spend a lot more than what we knew I’d probably receive around- and not that it mattered- except it kind of did since I had to invite people I didn’t want there.

    So, I ended up saying having the party at all was a bad idea because there are too many unreasonable “obligations.” So, the party never happened at all.

    If your parents helped you with stuff, then think about if they are doing this is a manner to control you rather than just simply help you out. As we know, nothing is free, but there is a certain balance of respect that needs to be given both ways, and for everyone it could be entirely different. Maybe some people do like to be told what to do more, but some people do not. Keep those things in perspective when you’re making your decision. Sometimes, you thank them and sometimes, you just keep arguing back if you feel you must. My mom cuts me off a lot, and so I’ve started to complain about that when she gets in the way or starts an argument. It’s not so much about “winning” as earning and keeping your self respect.

  33. “My Home Team– a mix of family and chosen family” — Should this be friends and chosen family?

    1. I read it as certain (but not all) biological family members plus some chosen family (friends so close they become family).

      1. Ah! That makes sense. I had initially read it as “and a select, hand-picked set of my family members”, but your interpretation makes a lot more sense 🙂

  34. LW #2: I also have an estranged parent! A couple of times in college, when they did not get the attention they needed from me immediately, they called everyone they could find on the school website and suggested I was missing and in danger*. Many fancy people came looking for me! I had to tell them, repeatedly and separately, that this parent was being an attention-seeking weirdo and that, were I ever truly missing and/or in danger, Other Parent would be the one asking around. It was extremely mortifying. But! Every single college staff person I spoke with immediately understood, because it was not their first Estranged Family rodeo. I think, if you decide to inquire about university protocols around Invited and Uninvited Guests, you will be pleasantly surprised!

    *This was a favorite trick, carried over from calling the police out to do a welfare check on me at Other Parent’s house because, again, I did not offer the desired attention immediately.

    1. I was campus staff for almost a decade and I fell for this one time. People tried it a lot more than once! For the record, both campus security and my administration gave me a talking to about how this would be common and I would have to learn to forward people to the appropriate “has my college-aged adult relative fallen down a well” number, who knew how to handle privacy rules, instead of potentially being a channel for someone’s attempt at harassment.

  35. For LW#2: Adding another voice to the chorus of higher ed admin who *know this is a thing* and will do whatever you ask without asking probing questions.

    ALSO: Student Affairs/Student Services (i.e. the office that runs graduation-if it’s not them, it’s something called “university events” or similar) is also, in most colleges/universities, quite a separate space from academic departments. If part of your anxiety about this is that you’ll have to discuss it with colleagues *in* your department, it’s entirely possible that can be avoided almost entirely (the Chair might get clued in). Go to whatever Student Resources you have on campus and if they are within even the broadest range of “normal” for a higher ed setting, they will help you. This is not need to know for your professors/fellow PhD candidates (unless you decide it is).

  36. “people who are inclined to criticize you will find some grievance to suck on as if their disapproval can make a little pearl inside their pursed, complaining mouths”

    your gift for imagery surpasseth

  37. All of these scripts and Things to Think About work well for all milestones in a person’s life and most situations dealing with boundary crossing parents, FYI.

    Boundary crossing parent brings up possible U.S. to Canada trip this up coming summer (family tradition thing I haven’t participated in for 20 years, for the record) WHILE I’M PLANNING A FUNERAL? “parent, I know that the family frequently starts planning the summer trip at this time of year but I can’t think past the next hour of my life so, how about not now?” with “not now” = possibly never; I have some issues and major concerns with logistics and one of my children being hit particularly hard by trauma stemming from isolation at the site.

    Boundary crossing family members treat the aforementioned week as an exercise in “look at what a close family we are!” ? “Hey y’all, X is going to make dinner at my house tonight for me, the kids, and her family. Just us. I really need the space right now.”

    1. Also, in the weeks leading up to this particularly awful one, I exercised the power of implied authority to communicate with various agencies “I have a boundary crossing parent who may attempt to call you seeking information that they are not authorized to know. Please turn away calls from this person/phone number” and that worked gloriously as well.

  38. I made it clear that one parent was not welcome at my grad. My parents are still together, and while the “Ok Parent” realizes that “Crappy Parent” sucks in many ways, Ok Parent still wants to pretend we’re a happy family, and guilted me before and during the event. Ok Parent never shows emotion, yet started to cry at the event to say how Crappy Parent “would have really wanted to be there”. By the way, Crappy Parent had specifically tried to tell me that I was going to drop out of my program in my first year.

    I’m still glad that I banned this person.

    The funny thing is that neither parent really takes any interest in my life, or even does the bare minimum of, I don’t know, saying “Congrats” for this type of event. The only reason they were even alerted to the grad was b/c my sibling said “hey you must have a grad coming up, fill me in!” Thus making it even more ridiculous that I was made into the bad guy for saying I didn’t want someone who was/is an emotionally abusive jerk who I am physically uncomfortable around present for my celebratory occasion.

    I love the line about how the family members have had their entire lives to choose how to behave – exactly! They are the ones who have put LW in this position.

  39. Dr No – it is completely up to you whether you want to put measures in place to stop your parents from attending. This comment isn’t advocating either way – this is just a few tips from my own experience for if you do decide to keep them out, and want to get help from your university.

    My dad is cut from similar cloth to your parents. I live in university halls and after cutting off contact with him last year, I was concerned he might turn up unannounced.

    I went to the person in charge of accommodation and said something along the lines of: “Hi, I’ve got a problem – I’ve cut off contact with my dad, and there’s a small chance that he may turn up and cause trouble. I need him to not be able to get to me – what can you do?”

    They were immediately understanding, we put some plans in place, the plans have never (touch wood) been necessary, I feel far safer than I would have if I’d said nothing.

    That feeling of safety and being backed up is absolutely, unquestionably worth the temporary discomfort/difficulty of that sort of conversation (which might not be that bad anyway – mine wasn’t).

    Before I went and had this conversation, it seemed hugely daunting to speak to someone (other than a therapist) about these problems with my dad and there were a million things I was worried about. All that worry really wasn’t necessary! For instance:

    – It is not unprofessional (or annoying, or a waste of time, or a hundred negative adjectives) to ask for help with this. Your university wants to help you – it’s OK to ask them to. If anything, you are doing them a favour by warning them that troublemakers may show up.

    – Don’t think “there’s nothing they can do”. You don’t know this for sure. For instance, I was very worried that there would be little the uni could do if my dad stood in the road outside my block, shouting. It’s a public road, right? Turned out, it’s not! It’s private property and they can remove him from it. This is probably true of wherever your graduation is being held – either it’s on campus (in which case they have the authority to remove unwelcome visitors), or its off-campus somewhere they’re renting/borrowing – eg. park, cathedral, town hall, whatever (in which case the owner has that authority).

    – You are almost certainly not the first person to have this problem at your university. You’re probably not even the first person /this year/. They’ve heard this before, they’ve done this before, this is not some huge out of left field thing they’ve never heard of. They are very unlikely to be shocked.

    A few pointers for if (like me) you want to get help, but talk about it as little as possible:
    – You can probably be quite vague in this conversation, and not go into distressing specifics if you don’t want to. Saying that my dad might “cause trouble” is as far as I had to go with my uni.

    – If they do push you for details that you don’t want to give, you can say things like “I don’t really want to go into details, to be honest”, or “Can I ask why you need to know? I’d rather not think about it any more than I have to.” It’s OK (and frankly useful) to be visibly uncomfortable when they ask these questions – it discourages them from asking more unless they really need to know.

    – I’ve had versions of the ‘my dad may cause trouble’ conversation many times. Sometimes they will need details so they know what kind of measures they need to put in place. In this case, what helps me stay calm is speaking theoretically about potential problems rather than getting specific about past events – so saying “He may cause property damage”, rather than “When I was X years old, he did Y”.

    A final thought, for both Letter Writers; a quote from S Bear Bergman I like to remind myself of when outrageous and unfair things happen (like an unwelcome person causing unpleasantness at an important event):

    “Few things are as satisfying, when you’re a young activist who is often called to testify about the impact of homophobia, as the actual tales of homophobes who shout at you in the condiment aisle that you’re going to hell.”

    Especially if you have been gaslit or disbelieved or any of that sort of thing; there is, if you can choose to think about it that way, something oddly validating about someone misbehaving exactly the way you thought they would. And, as Bear says, you gain an excellent example to give later – when a flying monkey or your jerkbrain says “oh, are they really /that/ bad?”, you’ll at least be able to say “oh yes they are, why just last year they did Outrageous Thing at my graduation”.

    Big Jedi hugs if you want them – ask for help if you need it – not everything will work out exactly as you want it to, but try to reframe the bad stuff if you can.

  40. @Sad Grad – Maybe someone already said this, because I feel so strongly I didn’t read all the comments first:

    *Sometimes my risk tolerance is “This is important to me, and I’m betting that my most important relationships can survive some mild disapproval of the way I’m handling a major life event.” I don’t know your specific family, but my overall question for you in this response is, what if everyone (including you!) could survive just fine if you decided to set a few limits around your celebrations?*

    I just want to say that if your important relationships CAN’T survive some disapproval of the way you’re handling a major life event, and if not everyone CAN survive just fine if you set some limits, and if you’re in absolute terror that these people are going to punish you forever if you don’t invite them/limit the weekend… Then that’s going to happen someday, anyway.

    You can give away your graduation if you want, you can give away your kid’s first communion or whatever, but unless you are going to construct your entire life around Pleasing People Will Will Be Assholes If You Don’t, someday you will disappoint them. And if they can’t take it, then the fallout at that time will be just as terrible as it will be now, except that you will have given away all these life events, and constructed all these experiences to please unreasonable people, and they’ll still be acting like dicks.

    This is a lesson I learned the hard way.

    Whatever you decide, don’t do it because someone is holding you hostage with their anger.

    1. All of this.

      And realistically, even if you do construct your entire life around Pleasing People Will Will Be Assholes If You Don’t–it’s still going to happen someday. You’ll have someone demanding something you actually can’t give them. Or you’ll have two people demanding contradictory things. Or you’ll have someone demand one thing, and you’ll do it to please them, and then they’ll get mad anyways because you didn’t do this other thing that they didn’t even tell you they wanted.

      Unreasonable people are unreasonable. There is no point where you’ve bent far enough to satisfy them; they’ll keep pushing until you push back or you break. Don’t sacrifice your own needs on the altar of their whims.

    2. This rings very true to me. And — okay, tentatively said and I understand people are going to have whole different mileages on this — it’s why I’d put in a voice against the strategy of just lying to them that was floated in a thread above.

      I don’t know how this experience goes for others, but to me lies have a weight. It’s another little version of reality that has to be fenced off and maintained forever; it’s the pictures you don’t get to post, the congratulations you cut yourself off from, the little bit of caution that creeps into who you tell the real story every time; it’s living with a dampened enjoyment of that day because someone else can’t behave. And that clicked for me with Shifrah’s comment: lying about it still means living in the framework of the hostage-taking, I think?

      So thanks for that framing, and LW, I hope whatever you decide, it does the problem justice soonest and best and gives you a chance to enjoy what you’ve accomplished.

      1. Well, this is so useful to me I don’t know how to thank you. “…lies have a weight. It’s another little version of reality that has to be fenced off and maintained forever; it’s the pictures you don’t get to post, the congratulations you cut yourself off from, the little bit of caution that creeps into who you tell the real story every time; it’s living with a dampened enjoyment of that day because someone else can’t behave.”

    3. THIS.

      this realization is what led to me not caving to my parents’ (particularly narcissistic mom’s) pressure to break up with my then-boyfriend, now-amazing husband. Because if it wasn’t that, it would one day be something else. And then something else. And then something else. And I decided I was done giving pieces of my life away to them.

      There is something super liberating about saying “I’m ok if this is the hill this relationship does on if it means I get to live my life.”

  41. My brother is the most amazing at enforcing boundaries. He had explained to our father that he could not simply stop by without first calling. And because my father will walk all over every boundary ever set, the next week he pulled into my brother’s driveway, out of the blue, behind my brother’s car, and knocked on the door. My brother suspected who it was and didn’t answer the door. Dad kept knocking. He Walked around the house. Looked in the windows. Brother turned up the volume on the tv. Dad knocked and prowled for more than half an hour before he finally ceded the point and left.

    So. It is done. Boundaries are maintained.

    (As far as I know, our dad has never shown up unannounced again)

    We’ve also called security when our dad showed up unwanted when our sibling was hospitalized.

    So. It is done. It is done…

  42. My grad was in a *stadium* and the whole school didn’t go all at once, it was a handful of programs in a day. We got 4 tickets (the joking logic being “everyone gets divorced and remarried”) and it was nearly impossible to get more than that unless someone gave you theirs. That seems to be the standard affair (limited tickets) so yet another voice of “they’ll just assume that’s true, and if they don’t and look it up you can just play confused”

    Congrats to you both, and I hope the people around you are awesome about everything.

    1. I’m not sure if my graduation offered tickets, but I also had a large stadium graduation. Even though my relationship with my parents was getting increasingly rocky as my college years went by, I had absolutely zero interaction with them at the ceremony itself.

      In fact the worst, drama filled moments at my graduation were completely un parent related in general, consisting of a long walk to a train station, during which the sky opened up and started pouring rain, culminating in some of the people in the back of the line body slamming the people in front of them in their desperation to get under the awning. Then we had to sit in the freezing cold train for an hour, because the people who planned the event gave us an hour to walk six blocks. Then when we got to the stadium, we had to stand, on the concrete floor, in fancy graduation shoes, for an hour and a half (again, they planned this). We were within five minutes of finishing coordinating a mass revolt of students (learning from someone who had been told by the planner to show up an hour after we did and bring water bottles for us because the planner knew we’d be standing in the heat, on concrete, for that long made us enraged) before we were finally allowed to walk to our seats and sit down. Compared to all that, anything that went wrong with my parents was so insignificant I can’t even remember it.

      OPs, at least you can be assured that the nature of graduation ceremonies will work to keep your troublesome families away from you for the several hours the ceremony lasts.

  43. One option for LW1, who sounds like there are people who she 100% understandably doesn’t want at *her* ceremony, but who are not terrible people and who with the exception of Relative she wants to maintain good relationships with:

    (1) Keep your graduation celebration small and invite only the people you really want. This will be facilitated by also doing (2).

    (2) If you feel that you want/need to acknowledge other people’s invitations and interests in your life, then a bit later throw a completely separate summer party and invite them all. You do not need to care about this party at all. You can badge it to your guests as “LW’s post-graduation summer celebration” to the invitees, but it doesn’t have to mean that for you, because you’re not holding it for yourself, you’re doing it as a means to reciprocate invitations you’ve received, and to give your in-laws something to come to. As this isn’t your special event, then you can tell your mom it is OK for Relative to come, but that your mother will be expected to manage them. But if mom comes to graduation it is a condition that Relative can’t come to that – and they don’t need to, because you’re throwing a party later especially for your extended family!!! You say, with a big smile that offers them no options. This is the one for which your in-laws get to come and stay. If you feel that you never want to host your in-laws then you need to have that specific conversation with your partner, because that is potentially a really big relationship issue.

  44. LW1, you write the house guest of your mother expects to come. But… does your mother expect or want them to come? Or does she feel pressured as well, and not really knowing how to say no. Maybe you could band up together, where you explicitly tell your mother you would prefer her by herself, give permission to your mother to not invite houseguest, and also use to use a coordinated excuse (either limited tickets or you really prefering this as a special mother-daughter more intimate style celebration) to deflect.

  45. Thank you, Captain, for a super, exceptionally brilliant and useful reminder and toolkit of healthy boundary enforcement.

    Mature student here. My mother invited herself to my first graduation. She had zero involvement and provided no support towards my degree, using any mention of it to boast about her own academic achievements. Without discussing it with me, she repeatedly called Student Services to harass them into giving her the dates for graduation. She was very proud of this, as I had been purposefully vague about the whole thing, and told me about it in front of my equally manipulative grandmother. My mother then sighed and said “well, of course, that’s assuming you would *want* me at your graduation…”, which my grandmother seized upon – “why wouldn’t you want your own *mother* at your graduation?”. My mother was delighted. I decided this was not my hill to die on.

    Suffice to say, I will not be attending my next graduation.*

    *Or at least, that’s what I’m telling her.

    1. ooh, tell her, don’t invite her, let her find out and maybe even intend–but then don’t go yourself.

  46. To both LWs: I, too, know the frustration of families who seem to want to take every event in YOUR life, every one of YOUR accomplishments, and turn it into a makeshift reunion where they can repeat the patterns that they find familiar: ie, the abuse and stress that makes you not want them to be there in the first place. Whether that’s shoving you in a corner on a day that’s supposed to be about celebrating you, or putting you in the proverbial town square to throw tomatoes at your head, all these great things in your life become a chance for them to replay the twisted nostalgia they have for the glory days when they could hurt you and you couldn’t escape.

    Boundaries with families are incredibly hard, partly because they’re usually the people who taught you that you weren’t allowed to have boundaries in the first place. All that “you’re a bad person if you upset these people” stuff came from somewhere. It came from them. It serves them.

    I have a feeling you will both reel a bit when you set the boundaries you decide on. Even if somehow you don’t get a pile-on, those voices will yell at you. So I encourage you, no matter what you do, to give yourself as much intensive self-care and emotional expression as you can. Naps. Crying. Hitting a pillow. Talking into a voice recorder or writing in a journal. Asking for hugs from people you like to hug. Massages. Mimosas. Fine leather goods. Whatever gives you comfort or reminds you that you actually are deserving of comfort, double or triple down on it.

    I am so happy for both of you, and your accomplishments. I have high hope that you will both navigate this, work through the emotions it’s bringing up, and be stronger for weathering the storm of standing firm and taking care of yourself.

    1. a makeshift reunion where they can repeat the patterns that they find familiar: ie, the abuse and stress that makes you not want them to be there in the first place

      Why I am currently at Christmas-cards-and-passing-along-contact-information-from-their-old-classmates-only with my siblings. I hadn’t spoken to one of them in 5 years when she called me and within 10 FREAKING SECONDS of hearing that I had a boyfriend had constructed a narrative about how this guy she had never even heard of before was a total loser who would destroy my life. All this in the first 5 minutes of our first conversation in 5 years. They just can’t help themselves.

      (But from their perspective, we’re just so sensitive, so stand-offish, they just don’t understand why we are being so cold. Separation from them is not a contest to be won; it’s a last-ditch protection against somebody who will never understand why we’re doing it.)

  47. Captain, that was AMAZING. Just. Amazing.

    Congrats to both LWs, too. I realized in therapy that one reason I underachieved (for what “underachieving” means to me, it’s all relative) was that if I didn’t *have* any successes, my family couldn’t take credit for them.

    So I applaud both of you for fighting through bad dynamics to achieve what YOU wanted.

    1. if I didn’t *have* any successes, my family couldn’t take credit for them

      Oh shit, maybe part of the way I feel like I’ve been flailing around lately is that I feel like if I do too well, it means that how my parents failed me didn’t really harm me that badly.

  48. I work in security (not at a campus, but the company I work for does a lot of similar things) and this is absolutely and completely what we’re there for. We

    If someone tries to get in like that, our responses might include a friendly denial, a firmer “I’m sorry sir, we can’t let you in under any circumstances. Please move away, you’re holding up the queue”, physically turning them around and escorting them out, more forcefully walking or even carrying them out (we learn a variety of techniques for doing this safely but irresistibly, for use on drunk or drugged people), and eventually escalating to calling the police to remove them from the premises. All of this is completely legal, and in fact it’s our duty to do it. We Do Not Like people spoiling our customers’ special days.

  49. “I appreciate that you want to celebrate with me, but you’d be coming a long way and I wouldn’t be able to give you any attention. I’ll be involved with the ceremony and won’t have access to people in the audience, and the rest of my time will be devoted to faculty matters. I/we will be dashing off first thing next morning for my/our vacation/conference/job interview, so I wouldn’t see you afterward. It’s simply not possible this time. It will be good to spend some time together when you visit at a later date.”

    “Oh, that’s so selfish of you.”

    “You’re making this all about you!”
    “Yes, I am.”

    “We’re so hurt and offended!!”
    “That’s a pity. I hope you’ll get over it. I’m sure you’d feel even more hurt and offended if you came all that way just to see me at a distance in a brief ceremony and not spend any time with me.”

    “This is no way to treat your loving parents who’ve done so much for you! If it weren’t for us you wouldn’t be graduating at all.”
    “I must have missed that./Thank you for what you’ve done for me. This occasion is about what I’ve done for myself.”

    “Blah blah, waah waah…”
    “Yes. As I said, you wouldn’t see me and I wouldn’t be able to give you my attention. We can have a much nicer visit at a better time.”

    “Blah blah, waah waah…”

    Rinse and repeat.

  50. In my experience and observation, the “but faaaaaamily” thing that is referenced a lot really does not happen as often as it seems. (Which is why it is so scary – it seems like it happens way more than it does, which is part of the abuse cycle.)

    I work with a lot of patients who end up opening up to me about stressful things in their lives, and what I realize is that almost everyone is either related to one of these abusers or knows one personally. So although they may not have experienced the same thing as you, LW, almost everyone can certainly imagine it. I have shared with some patients and most friends bits about my parents’ abuse, and only once or twice have I gotten a, “but, it’s your mother…” when I said we don’t get along, but once I say, “she was not a good mother to me, but I know she comes off as a good person to people who are not related to her,” people get it and do not challenge me further (usually they have story of their own about my mom).

    On another note, my cousin got married a few years ago and she did not want to invite my parents to her wedding (they had abused her too). She was worried about upsetting them, but she really did not want them there on her special day. I told her, “screw them. You should only have people at your wedding who love you. Don’t invite them if you don’t want them there. And you can tell them I said that.” I 100% had her back and she ended up not inviting them. They were upset, but they really only could complain to me, my sister, and our 2 uncles (1 who was my cousin’s father), and not a single one of us advocated on their behalf. I actually told my father that mom never treated our cousin well so why would she ever expect to be invited. He didn’t have any real answer for that (except, “but, we’re family!” to which I replied, “she has a new family now and that family actually loves her.”).

    Don’t let them intimidate you, LWs! Your team loves you and wants you happy, especially on your special days.

  51. Dear 1180 – please stick to your guns. I didn’t and I regret it so much. It made something that I worked extremely hard for and was looking foreword to a Disaster where my relatives all looked to me to Handle their highly charged emotions and where at least two relatives became angry at me for having the audacity to be upset and stressed and tired because of how the day was going and what they were doing. I want you to have a pleasant graduation. Please do not fall into the same trap that I did. Just because you are or want to invite some relatives does not mean that you have to invite the rest of them. I know it seems like it but you don’t. They will get over it. It will be okay.

  52. I didn’t know there was a club for adult children whose abusive parents like taking credit for their success. OMG. So much solidarity, LWs! I don’t tell my mother about anything good that happens to me anymore because I know and feel during the conversation that the only meaning these things have is to make her feel better about herself. It’s such a weird way to provide emotional energy for someone. I feel you so so much.

  53. If you find yourself in a situation where people you want to avoid might end up at your graduation ceremony despite your efforts to keep them away, a thing to think about is where can you go physically to avoid them?

    For example, at the graduations I’ve been in, graduates had to go to a different part of the campus to get sorted into the right order to walk into the auditorium. “Gotta go to the marshalling area – they told us to be there ahead of time!”

    Graduates usually sit in a different part of audience than family members. “Gotta go find my seat!”

    Maybe there’s a place on campus where you’re allowed to be but random people aren’t. Maybe you can leave your personal effects there for safekeeping during the ceremony? (With my manager’s permission, I left my stuff in my old office, which happened to be in a secure area.)

    In any of these cases, simply walking away to The Place You Plausibly Need To Be also creates a situation where, if they follow you, they turn into Someone Who’s Not Supposed To Be There, and anyone with authority who notices will give them a “This area is for graduates only” or “This area is for lab staff only” or whatever’s applicable.

    In addition to all that, you know your campus better than they do. Maybe there’s some quiet corner you could hide out in where they can’t find you? (either to take a break or until everyone goes away) Maybe there’s another route you can take home so they won’t even know you’re gone?

  54. I went through a VERY similar situation when I graduated from my graduate studies. My dad had missed my undergrad graduation bc he was on honeymoon and my partner at the time had also missed previous graduation due to work. I wanted to invite my mom, dad, partner and uncle. Uncle was invited because he financially helped me get through my graduate degree when my dad bailed unexpectedly when he got married. I was limited in the amount of tickets i had available to me. Guess what?! Everyone was still pissed. Aunt was pissed because uncle got a ticket and not her. Dad and step-monster were pissed because “i was purposely excluding her”. The only normal people in the situation were my partners parents who understood the situation and just wanted to be invited to lunch after the ceremony. I stuck to my guns, my dad chose not to attend.
    At the end of the day it sucked and it was a sad day. But I think it would have been 10x worse had step-monster been there instead of someone who i genuinely loved and wanted there, and who had actually supported me emotionally/financially during school. It’s your graduation. Do what you want to do and don’t try to manage other peoples’ feelings and expectations. ALSO it is very abnormal here (Canada) to have unlimited guests to graduations. Just explain to people there is limited space and you’re limited to a certain number.

  55. Hello Sad Grad,

    Congratulations on your graduation. I hope the ceremony and celebrations go as well as possible.

    Every family is different. Below are my graduation experiences.

    I also have a family member (brother) with serious mental health/addiction issues. My parents typically make excuses for him and “forget” the damage he does. They expect me to do so as well. I was not, however, willing to do so at my college graduation. I told my parents he wasn’t coming, and that I wasn’t going to the graduation if he planned on being there. I took the same position with my aunt. I’m always the audience with her. In other words, she makes herself the center of attention.

    If I could go back in time and give my past self advice, I would say something like, “You worked hard to get into college, and to graduate. Your parents didn’t go to college. They never have and never will understand your college experience and be able to relate to it. Look out for yourself. This is a special time, and it’s OK to choose to spend it with people who can be understanding and supportive.”

    1. Absolutely share with the people who can be supportive, and not the ones who will undercut you. But it’s not as linear as “those who went to college will get it, others won’t.” My grandmother who never finished high school was very supportive of her children’s education (college and law school). And there are, unfortunately, relatives who _have_ had the experience but want to make a child, grandchild, or sibling’s graduation all about them rather than the graduate. For better or worse, I think most people have a good idea, by the time they’re graduating from college, which group their parents are in.

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