This is another one in a series about difficult parent relationships: A dad who wants to talk on the phone for hours about only the things he wants to talk about and who reminds his daughter, when she tries to set boundaries, that he has nobody else to talk to. It’s about guilt and about how the hardest part of boundary-setting can be a negotiation between us and ourselves. Maybe the key to this negotiation is figuring out the difference between “should” and “want to.”
I’ve gotten a bunch of letters about family weirdness and estrangement and boundaries (weird, almost like there was a series of events in the last month that forced a lot of family togetherness, can’t think would have caused all these old wounds to re-open at the same time? 😉 ) and I’m going to put up a series of them this week. This one is about the aftermath of cutting ties with a parent and the still-present worry that running into them will be awful.
This past year I (31/F) finally received a diagnosis for what I’ve been struggling with for over half my life. I have Complex PTSD/PTSD (I’ll spare you the differences and overlaps) (Ed. Note: No worries! I, Jennifer, will link people to a basic explainer.) Encouraged by my therapist I shared the PTSD with my parents. The main reason being because, with the enthusiastic support of said therapist, I am pursuing a service dog (SD).
Being able to acknowledge that yes, I have experienced multiple traumas and that I deserve to seek help and healing in a way that’s actually beneficial has been huge for me. I am very fortunate that my dog turned out to be an excellent candidate and I am owner training with the help of a professional service dog (SD) trainer. For the first time in forever, I can even sometimes think positively about the future!
The problem is that my feelings of being valid and deserving of help are new and fragile. My mother is extremely dismissive about my having PTSD, deciding to go the SD route, and the legitimacy of my dog being a service dog in training (SDiT). It often gets to the point of being triggering. And when I tell her she’s being hurtful she says she loves me, has good intentions, and somehow I end up apologizing for getting upset.
In the past I had her/the family on a very lean information diet, particularly when it comes to mental health stuff. I am worried about introducing my dog as my SDiT and it making the family feel as entitled to information and judgement as my mom. They mostly follow her lead when it comes to me. Although there have been times when my dad will privately admit mom is super critical of and often cruel to me, he has no intentions of intervening.
We live in different states so Holidays mean my siblings and I return to my parents’ house for several days. If it was just a dinner, I might be able to get through it, but I doubt I can last days in close quarters without utilizing my SDiT and I’d prefer not to lie since the truth will come out anyway.
Do you have any scripts for navigating what is essentially a medical treatment plan they don’t/won’t agree with? Tips on how to introduce my dog as my SDiT and have that be respected?
Letting the Service Dog out of the Bag
Hello there! Captain Awkward here with a beta-read and practical service-dog suggestions from The Goat Lady. I hope we’re reaching you while there is still time to cancel or radically alter your plans for this upcoming trip to see your folks.
Because that’s my practical advice: Strongly consider cancelling the trip and probably DON’T talk more in detail about your diagnosis or treatment with your mom right this second if you don’t think it will be safe or productive. More words/context/recommendations after the jump.
Whenever I write about difficult parent stuff (like yesterday) my inbox immediately gets filled with more difficult parent and family estrangement stuff, which makes sense because, people find out they aren’t alone and I have quite a lot to say about difficult parent stuff. It takes…a lot…to write about my family and I know I am not going to be able to answer all of these the way they deserve, so I want to gather some advice and resources in one place. I’m also going to make this an open thread where people can talk to each other about difficult family stuff.
- The Worry Wyvern And The Dragon Of Disappointment (#583)
- Anxious Parents And Freeing Yourself From Constant Contact (#997)
- Should I Move Away From My Abusive Family?(#122)
- Graduation Days (esp. #1181)
- I’m Moving In With My Girlfriend And Now My Homophobic Parents Want To Disown Me (#1194)
- Marrying Into A Family With Awful Boundary Issues (or, Secrets of Highly Difficult People) (#247)
- #1182, #1183, #1184: “Do I have to be friends with my sibling?” or, Advice For Relationships You Don’t Want to Lose But Don’t Want To Work At
- My Family Keeps Pressuring Me To Make Peace With My Abusive Brother (#1099)
- Is It Ever Safe To Take A Difficult Parent Off A ‘Low Information Diet’? (#1233)
- Being Pushed To Forgive Because Faaaaaaaamily (#577)
- My Mom Is Pressuring Me To Invite My Molester To My Wedding And It Sucks BIG TIME (#209) – guest post by the incomparable PFC Marie
- My Mom’s Boyfriend Is A Sex Offender (#1191) – guest post by the amazing Lenée (who wants to come back and answer questions for us soon).
- How Do I Tell My Conservative Dad About My Fiancée’s Transition? (#38) – guest post by Raymond J., whom I miss all the time. He makes beautiful music.
- Reassuring Abusive Parents (It’s A Trap!)(#995)
- I Broke Ties With My Abusive Parents As An Adult…Now What? (#914)
- I’m Worried About My Sister. She Is Still Very Close To Our Abusive Parents (#6)
- How Do I Come Out To My Abusive Parents About Being On Antidepressants? (#1180)
- On ‘Keeping The Peace’ With An Unlikeable Mansplainer (#497)
- I’m Being Pressured To Reconcile With My Estranged Grandmother Now That She’s Dying (#943)
- Help With Emotional Baggage That Is Packed In Literal Boxes (#1129)
- Can I Bar My Son’s Unlikeable Girlfriend From Family Events (#533)
- My Mom Is Obsessed With My Looks And My Weight (#824)
- How To Deal With A Well-Meaning But Controlling Mother-In-Law (#926)
- Difficult Mom Wants To Be Closer (#785)
- Visits With Highly Difficult People (#655) (Possibly first “reasons are for reasonable people” incidence on the site, but not the last).
Common Themes and Recommendations:
- If your childhood and parent relationships are impacting you heavily in the present (a good indicator is, you start an advice column letter with “ever since I was a child” or talk a lot about your childhood as it impacts a present-day situation), consider therapy. It’s not perfect, it’s not for everyone, but if it’s useful for anything, “placing our history in perspective so the past doesn’t have to keep eating the present” is one of those things.
- Your parent may not want to get a therapist or make friends but it doesn’t mean you have to be their therapist or their only friend. (You might also want to read about parentification, a form of child abuse where the parent expects the child to take care of their emotional well-being and assume an adult role in the family.)
- If you’re dreading upcoming holiday gatherings, what if you skipped all of it this year and did something you could look forward to? What does a Happy Holiday actually look like to you and could this be the year you make one?
- You don’t owe abusive people a deathbed reconciliation, endless chances to hurt you, access to their grandchildren, a continuation of every single family tradition in the exact way they would prefer it, or a story of a happy childhood that makes everyone look good.
- Predictable rituals and structures can help sometimes. For instance, if you’re being overwhelmed with constant contact from a needy or intrusive parent, try channeling it into a weekly phone call (or some other way of staying in touch – the form doesn’t matter as long as it’s something you can sustainably do).
- You don’t owe your family every scrap of information about you. People who judge and punish your choices maybe don’t get to be in the loop about your choices anymore.
- You’re the boss of your body: what you eat, what you wear on it, who gets to touch it and how, how you treat illnesses and problems that occur, how you feel about it. You. Nobody else. You.
- The first time you say no or otherwise set a boundary is the hardest. Expect an “extinction burst” and other attempts to test and get around the boundary, expect to be chewed out for being selfish, rude, unreasonable, ungrateful, etc. If you can weather this storm and hold fast, it will almost certainly get easier from there. Never easy, but easier. Be consistent over time and see what happens.
- I’m generally pro “let’s hash this out honestly and straightforwardly ask for what we need!” but not everybody is capable of that and not everything gets better by talking through it in detail. There are things in life that we might never get to the bottom of.
- Be wary of the word “should” coming from someone who is routinely not nice to you. Does your family want connection or do they want a performance? Lots of things “should” happen. What is happening. Start there.
- Be wary of people who think that being related means they get to skip all politeness and kindness when it comes to you.
- Be especially wary of people who think that being related means they don’t have to make an effort to be kind but you have to make effort to please them at all times. “But we’re a family!” claims that are all about what you owe them and nothing about how they are supposed to treat you are hollow bullshit.
- If you interview to work somewhere and they tell you “we’re just like a family here!” it means: This place sucks at boundaries and will suck you dry. Maybe you need this job, but…don’t get too comfortable. Nobody who ever says this about work is talking about a cool, good, supportive family.
- Roads, planes, and phones work both ways.
- People have choices about how they treat you.
- People can be “doing their best;” their best can be not what you need. Not all help is helpful, intentions aren’t magic, people can mean well and do not so great. “I meant well” and “I did my best” can be true, that doesn’t mean it was okay and that nothing has to change.
- If someone tells you they aren’t in touch with a parent anymore, before you tell them they’ll regret it or “you only get one mother!” or open your mouth to say anything about “forgiveness” or reconciliation, consider just how bad something would have to get for this to be the safest decision. Estranged parents like to pretend they get ignored and abandoned willy-nilly, my inbox tells the story of adult kids who have been auditioning for basic love and kindness for decades and not getting it and who still want desperately to connect.
- If someone gives you the silent treatment, instead of chasing them and auditioning for their approval and attention, try changing tactics: Enjoy the silence for a change. It’s painful and stressful but isn’t it a tiny bit better than the constant criticism/screaming/disappointment/pressure?
- That said, it’s okay to still love your family, to still want a family, to still want to try, even when the history is bad. You’re not silly for caring about this or wanting to fix it even if the expectations need to stay low for safety’s sake.
- You don’t have to be perfect or communicate your needs perfectly in order to deserve kindness and consideration. One of the most healing things I ever did was to let out how upset and angry I was feeling without strategizing about what would convince the other person that I was allowed to feel that way.
- Repeat after me: “I can live with my family’s disapproval, but I cannot accept their unkindness and abuse.”
- Some relationships will never become healed, “normal,” good, “close,” or resemble what they “should” be like. Some shit is unfixable. Let’s honor that. For some of us, “slightly better” is a win. “Not completely awful” is a win. Sometimes you can build on that. Let’s honor that, too.
Questions Within Questions:
If you’ve written to me because you live with difficult family members and your home life is your chief source of stress, my #1 piece of advice is: Move out as soon as you can manage it. Abusers do not change as long as they have easy access to their targets. Put 95% of your energies into finding a different living situation – maybe with a different family member, maybe with friends or roommates, maybe on-campus housing, maybe a house-sitter or caretaker-type situation, maybe public housing/assisted living where that’s available, leave no resource un-tapped or un-researched to get yourself out – and like, 5% into changing the dynamic at home. The dankest closet in a place where nobody yells at you can be a paradise. Some how-to info is here. More here. I realize that not everyone can move out, or move out right away, so here is some info about how to endure in the meantime.
I hate that I don’t have more to offer people who must live with mean people. I wish I had approximately 100 million dollars to start a series of chill queer communes with fast internet, robust counseling and disability services, quiet spots for introverts and gathering places/weekly events for extroverts, highly-paid household help so nobody has to fight about cleaning the toilet ever again, highly-paid free-to-residents childcare on the premises, we’d just incorporate and buy the best group health insurance for everyone, plus there’d be a maker space full of art supplies and craft tools and carpentry stuff, and a “Call The Goat Lady And Her Army Of Assorted Internet Aunts” hotline to remind you to eat a food and take your meds. We would set them up one by one in swing districts and be like, “Congratulations, your city council is run by gay socialist unicorns now.” :throws glitter:
If you’ve asked me, “When it is it okay to go low- or no-contact with a parent, how do I know it’s bad enough, how do I know I’m being fair,” here is your answer:
You don’t have to decide all at once, forever, right now. You don’t have to be fair. If you think taking a break from working on your relationship with your family or spending time with them would make you feel better and give you some peace from the stuff that’s bothering and hurting you, try it out. Be less available. Don’t visit. Skip The Holidays™ this year. Do less work. Take some time for yourself. Work with a therapist if you can, dump all the feelings out in a journal if you can. Volunteer less information. Hide/lock down your social media and reclaim your privacy. RSVP “no” to family events for a while. Then see how you feel. If things get better and you feel better, if you miss them terribly or want to try something else down the road, try that. They will probably notice and have feelings about whatever it is you’re doing, people don’t to wait like flies in amber for you to be ready to engage with them again, but you don’t need to ask for permission or make a dramatic statement to slow fade for a while and see how you feel.
If you’ve asked me to help you explain to your parents precisely why you are cutting them off in a way that will make them understand your decision, here’s your answer:
Reasons are for reasonable people. The probability is that no matter what you say, parents who have driven you to the point of cutting them off won’t ever understand, won’t ever apologize, and they won’t ever change, so tell them literally whatever makes you feel like you got it all off your chest and then go have some peace. If that’s “nothing,” tell them nothing. If that’s “I need some space, I’ll get in touch when I’m ready, until then please respect my privacy” tell them that. If you’re thinking of this communication as a way to get them to see how they fucked up and apologize and fix it, I am so sorry, but that’s a recipe for disappointment. They won’t get it, but do you still need to say it? Keep your expectations low about what they’ll do and be good to yourself.
The best book I know about difficult family dynamics, estrangement, and boundaries is Karyl McBride’s Will I Ever Be Good Enough? You don’t have to be a daughter, you don’t have to be concerned about a mother, and nobody has to be “narcissistic” for the tools on how to navigate setting boundaries and possibly going low contact or no-contact with a parent to be valuable. From a past rec:
“The one takeaway from that book that sticks with me to this day, 5+ years after reading it, is that while you can sometimes reset a difficult relationship with someone who has “all about me!” tendencies to be more pleasant overall, you cannot expect to necessarily have an emotionally authentic relationship and you should let go of the prospect of either a reckoning with the past or a self-aware admission of how the person created and contributes to the dynamic between you. McBride suggests grieving for what was lost and what you should have had, keeping your expectations low, and disengaging without guilt when self-care demands it.”
- Treat people like the experts on their own experiences. If your family is happy and kind, then, respectfully, you might not know what we’re talking about and it’s okay to just read without commenting, especially if the alternative is trying to come up with Good Reasons™ an abusive family member could reasonably be behaving that way. “You look good today” can be a compliment or a mortal insult depending on the context, trust that the letter writer/commenter/storytellers know the context.
- Read the site policies, especially if you’re new and it’s been a while.
- Logistical Note: The spam trap eats legit comments all the time. I clean it out as soon as I can. I know it’s very annoying, but generally you don’t have to send repeats if something didn’t post the first time.
- If recommending a book, article, community etc. you’ve personally found helpful in the comments, along with any links please include a sentence or two on what the recommendation is about and why, personally, you think it’s valuable.
- Re: Above point, remember, we don’t have to audit or debate people’s personal recommendations to come to an objective standard of what is valuable – everybody can read reviews and do due diligence and use what’s useful and ignore the rest.
I love this community. I love us. We can’t fix it but we can be here for each other and bear witness for each other. Thank you. Comments are open.
I (she/her, 32) suppose that this is a question about resetting boundaries. My mom has made a few comments over the last year or two that I’ve never really reached out to or confided in her, and she sounds hurt about this. This is true! For example, in fifth grade my school put on a menstruation talk and I got a “just-in-case” box of pads. I was a late bloomer and didn’t get my period until I was 14, whereupon I dug up this box from my closet. I didn’t tell my mom I’d gotten my period until I needed a new box. This continues today – last year I let her know that I’d ended an 11-year relationship with my boyfriend about three months after it happened, after I’d already ironed out a lot of logistical and emotional issues. She had no idea that we’d been having problems.
I never made a conscious decision to put her on a low-information diet, but I never felt like I could talk about my problems with her. For one thing, for a large part of my childhood she was a single mom trying to work nights and provide for five kids. I felt that I was helping by being “the good one” and being very quiet and self-sufficient.
The bigger thing is that, while I like my mom when she’s sober, she’s also an unpredictable and mean drunk. I remember one family reunion event where she got drunk and started telling other relatives about how her kids (I was standing right there) don’t love her enough and it wasn’t worth it and she regrets having us. Then the next morning everyone pretends that everything is fine and nothing happened and we have pancakes. I honestly have no idea how she would react if I mentioned any of this.
So my questions are: Should I let sleeping dogs lie, or actually try to address this with her at some point and maybe have a closer relationship with her as an adult? Is there a way to test the water without diving in? Also, I moved far away (not a coincidence) and only visit home once or twice a year, so is this a thing to bring up in person (at Christmas, yaaay) or on the phone? Any advice for scripts I can practice ad nauseum in the hopes that I can actually say it out loud?
‘Tis the season for people who can’t shut the fuck up about what’s in other people’s uteruses.
This round: How do I deal with my mom’s anxiety about my life, how do I tell a roommate that their helpfulness is not actually helpful, how do I preserve a friendship over distance, how do I build a family relationship over distance, and for a little #ThisFuckingGuy seasoning: I planned a birthday celebration for my mom and now my StepDad has made his own totally conflicting plans.