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.
Thank you all for the kind words and end-of-year donations and patronage that have flowed in over the last week or so. I’ve been traveling and kind of made a point about not touching my laptop for a week or so, but I read everything and I’m very grateful. ❤
Everyone’s doing decade-retrospectives and my brain is melting at the thought of it. Ten years ago, I was still technically a grad student/adjunct teacher, I lived with roommates, I’d just finished my very last student film, Captain Awkward Dot Com didn’t launch until January 2011, and I didn’t meet Mr. Awkward until 2012.
But let’s do a 2019 round-up, yes? Here were the most-viewed/shared/discussed posts from the site in 2019:
First, a timely seasonal carryover from the very end of 2018, “#1162: Is there room to compromise when it comes to alcohol and driving?“ (Answer: Why not set the default at “Don’t drink and drive”? I made a chart and everything.)
Let’s please stop asking people about their intense private life stuff out of passing curiosity, the idea of politeness, or because we think we’re entitled to know. When people have big news about babies, THEY’LL TELL U.
While the rest of the world catches up, this post has lots of strategies for answering (and deflecting/de-escalating) potentially fraught “small-talk” questions that can unknowingly hit real sore spots.
P.S. Letter Writer #1228 you’ve been in my thoughts and the offer to fight your family in real life if necessary is still incredibly open.
Third, #1219: “My friend’s boyfriend keeps ‘negging’ me.”
This post has THREE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY ONE comments strategizing about whether it’s okay to tell a serially annoying dude “Look, could you stop?” and is often re-shared/cited for mention of “Schrödinger’s Autist,” a theoretical construct who only comes out in Internet discussions of cis men behaving badly toward women as a way to pre-excuse bad behavior (and has nothing to do with actual autism).
Fourth-most viewed is #1186: “How do I restore trust in my relationship?“
Like the faux rank of “Captain” Awkward, “The Marie Kondo of Breakups” is a self-assigned comedy title because it’s one of my life’s missions to tell
my younger self young people, especially young women, that a partner who keeps letting you down and leaving you wondering in the early stages of a relationship is probably not going to change for the better, and there’s nothing you can do to “love somebody more” into being who you need them to be.
It’s okay to want love, to risk, to try to make things work, but working at somebody who isn’t doing any work to be a good partner to you is a lonely and disappointing bet.
Fifth, #1218: “Irritability and constant criticism in a marriage.“ The post and comments are a good roundup of previous discussions of verbal abuse and safely extricating oneself from a draining and damaging partnership.
Good “Could this be abuse?” guideline: When someone who is supposed to love you is constantly mean and you start asking yourself “what’s wrong with me that’s making this person be so mean, how can I fix myself?” it might be time to visit LoveIsRespect.org from a private browsing window and start making plans.
Notable for link to description of “insecure overachievers”and how capitalism hijacks anxieties and perfectionism in search of star performers, not caring who burns out along the way or how unsustainable and unhealthy the culture can get.
VERY GOOD NEWS: This Letter Writer sent me an update and is doing MUCH, MUCH, MUCH BETTER. ❤
I had the worst time moving on after breakups (rejection sensitive dysphoria, yaaaaaaaay) and learning how to let people go was one of the hardest and best lessons I ever learned. I’m proud of this heartbreak omnibus and hope it can make a difference to others. There are enough ballrooms in you, Letter Writer, and I hope you are in much better straits now.
Eighth, #1194: “I’m moving in with my girlfriend and now my homophobic parents want to disown me.“ One of a series of posts on family estrangement and how to close doors to protect yourself and leave some open in hope of better things. “Forever is a long time, Sally.” Letter Writer, your parents don’t deserve you and I hope your new home with your girlfriend is a cozy and happy one that is everything you want it to be.
People have choices about how they treat you, and relationships don’t get messed up overnight or for no reason, so when a parent wants you to have a “closer” relationship, does that obligate you to try to repair things in some way? Can they acknowledge why distance made sense at the time?
Probably one of the most personal posts I’ve made on the site, this brought up lots of stuff for me and was very much on my mind during holiday visits with my folks. When people talk about the past, my mom says “I don’t remember that” a lot ( A LOT) in a sharp, pointed way that clearly means “So, obviously it didn’t happen.” She’s telling the truth (she doesn’t remember) but it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen or that my memories are lies. I still don’t know how to ever ethically tell our story or tell her about my writing here, but I know our story lies at the heart of many of the things I write here.
In tenth place, several posts around the topic of “WEDDINGS, WHY ARE THEY SO WEIRD?” came in within 100 page views of each other so I’m re-sharing them all:
- “It’s Mother-Effing Wedding Season Again So Let’s Chat. Your wedding doesn’t exist to fix you, your family, your friendships, your partnership, your body. It does not have to be your sole creative act that communicates your exact social class and crafting ability.
- #1223: “Feminist Etiquette Wedding Help”. Your wedding doesn’t exist to fix you, your family, your relationship, your body, or the world. It’s a party so try to throw a good one that makes you happy and invites your guests in to what you want vs. trying to argue with each of them about why you’re allowed to want what you want. “Oh thanks, but we’re all set!” is a very useful phrase.
- #1188: “Grief and empty chairs at the wedding feast. “Maybe the idea of ghosts first sprang from the divided vision of grieving people, the way we can both see the party as it’s happening and see the echoes of what the party should be like, our longing giving shape and color to the empty spaces where our loves should be.”
- #1189: “Fox News, Immigrant Family, and the F**ing Wedding Invite List.” Probably the Uncle could have behaved himself for one day, but this thing where we tiptoe around bigots and keep negotiating with non-bigots for “more tolerance” toward bigots has gotta stop. We can work on tolerating/convincing/courting them once we’ve out-organized and out-voted them, let people who aren’t their direct targets run interference for a change.
I should also highlight the awesome series of guest posts from Lenée aka dopegirlfresh aka the GOAT who filled in for me during surgery in the spring. I plan to have her back in 2020, as well as some other exciting guests (Rae McDaniel has volunteered to peek into the inbox to answer questions about gender, we’re just trying to get a meeting on the calendar to figure out the logistics).
The blog motto for 2019 was “Quit working so hard on relationships that aren’t working for you” and I’m still ruminating on 2020’s. How do people feel about “Do even less work than that and see how you feel?”
Love and good New Year wishes to all of you in Awkwardland, comments are open.
Got an update for us (never an obligation, but we love to read them)?
Is there a post from the past year that you found especially useful?
Did you kick ass at setting a difficult boundary this year?
Did you decide to put in “less work” with a thorny relationship? What happened?
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.
Behind a cut for emotional abuse, misogyny, and discussion of these things as specifically related to recent gun violence and the possibility thereof, which is not what the Letter Writer asked, but definitely something I saw in the question.
I did a giant dump of cat photos for patrons if you need to click on over that way. ❤
Hello! Search terms have piled up, let’s do the thing where we answer the search strings people typed in that led them here as if they are questions. Context is missing (by design), so expect some comedy answers in between with the sincere stuff.
Let’s kick things off with a song. Have I used this one before? Who knows? I never don’t want to listen to Bananarama.