What should I do about my terrible family situation? What approach should I have towards my family members?
March 10, 2009 12:37 AM   Subscribe

What should I do about my terrible family situation? What approach should I have towards my family members?

I'm going to try to avoid going into too many details here, as my family situation is extremely convoluted and all-around horrible, has been like this for 25+ years, and could easily make for a ridiculously long and overly-dramatic post.

My mom and dad have been married fro the last ~25 years. At the beginning, my dad was really abusive towards my mom, but she stuck with him because she thought it would be better for us (the kids) if we had both parents in the household. My mom and dad had 3 kids - me, my sister, and then my younger brother. My dad was (naturally) pretty abusive/angry towards all three of us as well.

Now, I kinda used school as an outlet to escape from all the chaos of home, whereas my sister and brother did not. Sometime during high school though, my brother started to buy all the tripe that my parents had been shoving down his throat, and pretty much became a clone of my dad.

Fast-forward to today. I've graduated college and an in medical school. My sister has not graduated college. My brother has graduated college and has been accepted to a medical school.

My sister has had a lot of trouble with school and relationships and everything. She graduated high school, but has failed out of college numerous times and has been in a few non-healthy relationships. My father doesn't speak to her. My mother can't see that the situation at home and how my sister grew up very likely contributed to how she is today. My brother has more or less dumped on my sister for the last 4 years, calling her all sorts of horrible things, even literally holding her against the wall and choking her at one point, with the tacit support of my parents (especially my mom).

My mom seems unable to see how my brother has turned into / is turning into my dad, and so won't listen when we try to warn her about him and the things he does.

Ok, so, current situation: in two years, I'll be graduating from medical school. I'm very seriously considering not moving back to this area to get away from these psychos, and possibly even cutting off most or all contact from them as well. I feel like to allow myself to keep letting these people into my life would just be asking for continual drama, pain, negativity, etc. Unfortunately, this is a good area to live in (Northern Virginia), and I don't have family in other places so I don't really know where else I could live.

Any thoughts on how to handle this situation or what my mindset towards these people should be? If I thought that the situation would get better or would change with time, I'd be more inclined to stick around, but my brother is completely insolent and stubborn (i.e., trying to talk to him is like just asking for him to get angry at you), my dad is worthless, and my mom is a little worse than worthless because she willingly allowed this situation to get as bad as it has.

Thanks in advance ...
posted by ThrowawayName to Human Relations (28 answers total)
It sounds like the only person worth helping is your sister. Unfortunately, you're not going to have a ton of time to fight off three opponents for her while also doing your residency. The best you can do is to get away, and strongly advise your sister to get away and find some space from your crazy family as well.

There are plenty of nice places in the country to live, so don't worry about leaving.
posted by ignignokt at 12:49 AM on March 10, 2009

Response by poster: ignignokt: I've convinced my sister to go live up with my aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania and see a therapist up there for a "while" (aka, as long as it takes for her to start feeling better about herself and build up her self-esteem). Sorry, I left out a lot of details like that to keep the post short.
posted by ThrowawayName at 12:55 AM on March 10, 2009

I'm sorry you had a crappy childhood.

The good news is, you're an adult now and you have the privilege of choosing your environment. That includes choosing where you live and the extent to which your family's madness is able to intrude into your life. You're going to have a degree which will get you a good job pretty much anywhere in the world. Your options are not as limited as you think.

I think your main obligation is to support your mom and your sister emotionally, to the best of your ability. This doesn't mean getting drawn into every family fight, but it might mean gently reminding them that no, violence is not acceptable, and yes, you'll be there for them if they ever need help escaping from it. Make sure they know how to contact women's refuges and counsellors in their area.

If the main problems are your dad and your brother, don't cut off communication with your whole family. It should be enough to move to an inconvenient corner of the country and make a polite but superficial phone call every month or so. Ask your average 20-something and you'll be surprised at how many have done exactly that. It interrupts the drama, and often it provides the space they need to actually develop a civil relationship with their parents.

Everybody thinks their family is insane in one way or another. Everybody. Now you're an adult, you have complete freedom to choose how you deal with yours.
posted by embrangled at 1:06 AM on March 10, 2009

Response by poster: embrangled: Thanks for your response. I think the main problems are actually my bro and mother. My dad was abusive at one time, but no longer is - he literally does nothing now. My brother is a problem because he thinks he has the right to treat other people however he pleases, but doesn't like it when other people treat him badly. Example: I told my brother the other day that he needed to stop being rude to my sister, as she is his older sister, and he completely shut down and started accusing me of being rude. My mom is a problem because she has allowed this to occur - in fact, just yesterday she told my sister that my bro only has good intentions toward her - which is like telling an abused wife that her husband really DOES love her, in my opinion.

And thanks for the sympathy about the crappy childhood bit. I'm more or less over it; I just don't want the negativity that surrounds this family to continue to influence me (and my wife and children, one day).
posted by ThrowawayName at 1:16 AM on March 10, 2009

Also, live a good life. Be a great doctor. Have healthy relationships with strong, self-respecting people. Develop a strong sense of self, independent of your parents' expectations. Be the one who grows up, moves on and does not perpetuate the cycle of family violence.

You'll be happier, sure, but you'll also be giving your relatives a really good example of what is possible. Maybe they'll decide that's what they want too.
posted by embrangled at 1:19 AM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't have family in other places so I don't really know where else I could live.

It sounds like you've been stuck in school and haven't been on your own. It's really not that hard to move across the country after school - just apply for jobs where you want to live. Sounds like your family is a large net negative in your existence anyways, so why not get out of the area? it'll give you some space and time to see just what kind of family relationship that you want.

Your sister and mom sound pretty twisted as well. Remember that it is not your duty to fix people -- the most you can do is offer help and support. If it is refused, that's that. Good job on getting your sister some breathing room.
posted by benzenedream at 1:20 AM on March 10, 2009

Well you sister's in a tough spot.
It sounds like she's been pushed down for a long time ,and her bad experiences in relationships and at college will have reinforced any negative ideas about herself that your father, brother and mother (through her consent or ant least inaction, have instilled in her.)

There are lots of great places in the world to live, and one of the great things about your chosen career is that wherever you end up, it will put you in contact with lots of interesting people and help you build new social networks. You don't have to stay in contact with your family to be happy, unfortunately lots of people just have nasty families, so they go out into the world and form strong relationships that are the foundation for a full rich life. If you put in the effort to make strong friendships, then in ten years time your life will be full of rewarding relationships with other people, many that you don't even know yet, more fulfilling than anything your likely to get from your family.

That said you should keep the door open, should they ever change.
And it sounds like you should make a special effort with your sister, she's had a rough start, and it may take her a decade to start to find her feet. She might need your help, she might need it time and time again, and in a couple of years you might in a good position to give her the support she may need to counteract all the years of your family dragging her down.
posted by compound eye at 1:24 AM on March 10, 2009

My mom is a problem because she has allowed this to occur - in fact, just yesterday she told my sister that my bro only has good intentions toward her - which is like telling an abused wife that her husband really DOES love her, in my opinion.

Which is understandable, since it's exactly what she's been telling herself about her husband for the last 25 years. Abusive relationships aren't just about physical violence, it's also about emotional abuse. If your dad is as bad as you say, then your mother has been damaged by staying with him.

She's not worthless or weak - she's behaving exactly the way survivors of abuse tend to behave. But she's also not the right person to be giving your sister advice about how to deal with violent men. You seem to have turned out reasonably well, so maybe that job should fall to you.
posted by embrangled at 1:38 AM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you can, please help your sister get away. Your aunt and uncle seem like a good choice, hopefully. While/if you can, give her as much encouragement as possible and let her know that mom, dad, and brother aren't the best choices for talking about life choices, etc. Your brother choking her and no one else did anything??? Gah!

I'm sorry that I feel like the rest of the family (mom, dad, brother) are basically a lost cause unless they want to change themselves. Especially if your brother is in med school now and feels somehow "entitled" when your sister doesn't have a college degree. It sounds like she might have the "I'm just the female" thing that comes from watching male on female abusive situations. It can happen if that is your only model to work from.

I don't really feel qualified to talk about sibling dynamics, as I'm an only child, but I do know about abusive relationships. So, if you can help your sister, and that's if she wants help, please do your best.

Also, good wishes to you and your endeavors. I'm sure that was hard to handle.
And on preview: be the best doctor you can be, please
posted by lilywing13 at 1:41 AM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: benzenedream: thanks for your response ... I guess I have some time to think about the whole moving to a new place situation, so I'll keep your ideas in mind when applying for residency.

compound eye: thanks for your response. I am trying to be there for my sister because I feel like for the last 4+ years, she has had no one else to be there for her. Can you imagine how difficult it must be to feel like no one is there for you, and that all the people who are supposed to be there for you aren't? Eg., my mom, bro, dad? I think that feeling like there's someone in your life who cares about you just for being you is so important, and I feel like a lot of the difficulties she's having stems directly from not having that.

embrangled: I know that you're right, that she's behaving exactly how survivors of abuse tend to behave ... but, it's just really difficult for me to accept how she's treated my sister and allowed my sister to be treated by others. Whenever I talk to her about it, she makes it very clear that she thinks she's done the best she can do ... which is just so hard for me to accept. Over time I'll come to accept it, but its just an open wound right now.

lilywing: Yes, the whole situation is pretty effed up. A few days ago, my sister told my mom that my brother choked her one time because he wanted to see her phone and who she'd been calling, and she didn't give it to him. My mom's response was, "well, why didn't you give it to him?" I was in shock. That is not the initial response a mother should have to hearing that one of their sons has physically assaulted their daughter. Of course, my mom had her justification: "well, your sister has lied to me so much that I don't know what to believe." ... which I thought was a pretty piss-poor excuse. In any case, I am trying to do my best, but this situation is not one that is easy for me to not get emotional about.
posted by ThrowawayName at 1:51 AM on March 10, 2009

My dad was...pretty abusive/angry towards all three of us...I'm very seriously considering not moving back to this area to get away from these psychos, and possibly even cutting off most or all contact from them as well...Unfortunately, this is a good area to live in (Northern Virginia), and I don't have family in other places so I don't really know where else I could live.

You know where is nice? The San Francisco Bay Area. You know where else is nice? San Diego. You know where else is nice? Ann Arbor. You know where else is nice? St. Louis. You know where else is nice? Seattle. You know where else is nice? .... (I could go on) ... If the only reason, according to you, that you might leave near this abusive family is that you can't think of other places to live, drop me a line. Maybe your next Ask Me can include your relocation criteria and we can find somewhere suitable.
posted by salvia at 2:50 AM on March 10, 2009

whoops, typo. leave = live.
posted by salvia at 2:51 AM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

You seem to have received several well reasoned responses that provide good suggestions for the several areas that are of concern to you, so maybe you don't need to hear mine. that being said, I would like to weigh in too... Northern VA is a wonderful place to live, it is probably found on anyones Top 5 or Top 10 lists. so there you go, 4 or 9 other places as nice... Everyone wants to help or "root for" the underdog or weaker one... I always do too. so, the idea of you're getting your sister parked with the aunt and uncle in PA for "a while" seems like a great option. you didn't mention why they agreed to take her in, are they familiar with your family dynamic/history? I want to add my hope that she responds well to and improves from their influence and environment. so, that brings me to you. I didn't see where anyone spoke to this, but I think you should consider... you might not be as unaffected as you feel you are. so, in all this try to make sure that you give yourself what you need to grow beyond the damage that a violently abusive upbringing can do (I will only say that in this I speak from experience). certainly making the right choices in friendships will go a long way in this area. that now brings me to your mother, father and brother... your Mom might never realize that (1) she perpetuated this situation with her children or (2) that she did anything wrong. she is probably okay on "autopilot", just try not to invest too much in seeing changes from her. it sounds like your Dad is "zoning out" on life at this point, he may actually realize that what he did was wrong (good luck getting an admission; also don't try to get an admission). which brings me to your brother and the reason I was motivated to comment... he of course will spread this to a new generation by marrying, having kids and behaving in the same "entitled" and completely inappropriate way. spreading his views around and generally infecting others... and the truth is as I write this, I don't know how to suggest you handle it (him). let me just suggest that when he has children, reach out and be there for them to be a good example to them. and good luck
posted by rxbert at 4:02 AM on March 10, 2009

I feel like to allow myself to keep letting these people into my life would just be asking for continual drama, pain, negativity, etc.

In my opinion, your gut instinct here is right. My situation wasn't nearly as bad as yours, but my mother and sister were pretty much insane narcissists with lots of mind fucking and emotional abuse going along with that. I moved away from them when I was 15 to live with my dad, and a few years later, gave my mother a second chance. Mistake. She was just as crazy as she'd always been, hadn't changed a bit. So I cut them off for good. It's been eight or nine years since then, and undoubtedly one of the best decisions I ever made.

I have no regrets other than not being able to see my younger half-sister, who was actually a cool girl (though by now she's probably been warped by my mom and sister). So I would advise you to think about that aspect: it's difficult to cut off only some family members rather than all of them. So think about about whether you would be okay with losing contact with every one of them. (It sounds like your sister wasn't as bad as the others?)

Good luck.
posted by wastelands at 4:14 AM on March 10, 2009

Response by poster: salvia: sent you a message.

rxbert: thanks for your message, don't think I didnt read it! My aunt and uncle are familiar with my family situation, and are basically good people who want to get her the help she needs. As for myself, I have gone to therapy for 2 years about issues like these and including these, so yes, I definitely have not been unaffected by these issues ... but I think I am making a lot of progress on the matter. These things don't affect me as much as they used to because I'm a little more mature about how to handle difficult issues like these than I was before. Still, I think there is still some progress I could make (and I will talk to my therapist about these things when I next get a chance to do so). As for my mom and dad, I think your instincts about both of them are absolutely on the money - my dad really is "zoning out" on life, and my mom can't see that she perpetuated these problems or contributed to them in any way. As for my bro, he's still young, so there is some hope he will change, but he won't change if he doesn't realize that he needs to change ... and I'm not holding my breath.

wastelands: thanks for telling me your story. I'm sorry about what you went through, and I hope it worked out more or less in the end. Some people have suggested very heavily reducing the amount of interaction I have with the more insane members of my family, which might be the best way for me to keep my sanity without seeming like I'm trying to cut out these people.
posted by ThrowawayName at 4:44 AM on March 10, 2009

Wastelands has brought up the N word, so don't feel so wobbly about bringing it into the discussion. (Ns lack empathy or concern for anyone else; their needs come first no matter who their behaviour hurts. Afterwards, any fallout is managed by whatever means they come up with (lies, denies...), no matter who it hurts...and so on).

Your parents, or brother, may not be Ns, but from the little of the whole you make public I think you, and your sister, might find supportive reading and validation of your own reality and decisions regarding family members.

Two blogs that specifically relate to nMothers are: this one and this one which has slightly more edge to it, and may offer a more instant rapport for the 'rebel' in the family dynamic. Perhaps unfortuneately, most contributions seem to come from the daughters, but the internal questions - and advice remain both global and constistent.

You ask about not returning to your hometown when you graduate, and/or going no contact. If what you want is to return to NV, don't let them take that from you. If you need to go no contact to handle that, or, if you want to find clean space, and prefer to speak with your feet. Do just that. Either. No doubt, no guilt. It seems hard, as though it can't possibly be the proper thing to do. But, you can't change other people. Yours have had ~25 years already.You may just find that circumstances unfold that guide your choice at that time anyway, and your better way forward becomes more obvious.

You are not responsible for anyone else. Ultimately, this also includes your sister. She is very fortuneate to have you on the inside; your brothers reaction is the well recognised one.

Your patients are going be so lucky to get you....
posted by helenelle at 6:24 AM on March 10, 2009

I don't have family in other places so I don't really know where else I could live.

Just chiming in to say that you DON'T need to live wherever you have family. Two weeks after college I moved across the country to a city where I knew one person, and I didn't know that person well at ALL.

Pick a few places where you would like to live and apply for jobs. Build a life in your new hometown. This has the added advantage of you not having to cut off contact with your family--you can still go visit them, but you have a home to escape to.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:39 AM on March 10, 2009

Maybe apply for a residency or fellowship relatively far away? You might find that physical distance creates just enough emotional distance to keep you out of the major drama, while still allowing you to keep in loose contact. Writing them off completely is sometimes warranted, but maybe try distance first.

I don't really know where else I could live

Ah, but that's the beauty of it all....anywhere!! Seriously, you won't find many times in your life where trying on a new city, state, region is easier than right after you graduate. I'm actually really excited for you!
posted by agentwills at 6:45 AM on March 10, 2009

Don't feel constrained to live near family. I am fortunate to have great relations with my family, but since graduating college, I've lived most of my life 1000+ miles from the nearest relative.
posted by adamrice at 6:50 AM on March 10, 2009

Residency is tough enough without carrying the baggage of an abusive family.

Northern Virginia isn't all that. There's an entire country of great places with excellent residency programs. See if you can match at one of those. As great as some of the residency programs in Northern Virginia are, I'd put them low on your match list. (I'm making the assumption that you'll only consider US residency programs due to board certification constraints.)

Right now - and probably through your residency and fellowship - you need some physical and emotional distance from your family. Consider distance part of the Rx for your emotional stability.
posted by 26.2 at 7:38 AM on March 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

For yourself, I think you should move somewhere different where you're not too likely to have either of your parents or siblings coming to visit you. Putting a distance between yourself and them will allow you to move on in your head a lot better than if you stay in the area. The notion of place is actually a lot more important than I think many understand. The place you have lived in, both in the sense of your family home and region, has not been positive, constructive or healthy. It has been abusive and entrapping. Though you have clearly done really well to make the choices you have, I think by being in the region you always run the risk of falling into the same trap as your brother and sister, simply because it is what you grew up with. It is the easier choice, even though harder consequences befall you once you make that choice. It's what you know, deep down, because it's what you were taught time and again.

For your mother, I think you should give her a bit of an ultimatum, perhaps via letter that you later discuss with her either in person or via phone. I tell people to write letters quite a lot when it comes to matters such as these, because writing gives you time to truly think about what you're saying, to re-word the delicate areas that might come off as offensive, etc. The ultimatum I think you should consider giving your mother is that if she does not realize that she is in an abusive relationship and seek help for that, you will have to limit or cut off communication with her. Make it clear to her that, though her choice in this makes all the difference, the only reason you would give such an ultimatum would be because you want to have healthy, stable and safe relationships in your life.

You're probably aware that that could end either very well or very badly. She might "wake up," so to speak, and go to a shelter (if your father is that bad) or leave. On the other hand, she might get angry at you, say you haven't valued all that you were given and so on and so forth. Unfortunately, given that she's been with an abusive and controlling man for over 25 years, the chances are just as good or even better that she will go against your thinking in this. Before deciding to write a letter, you should probably figure out how important it is (or isn't) to you to have an ongoing relationship with your mother.

Then there are your siblings. A key issue here is that, like you, your siblings are adults now, and they are free to make all the stupid decisions they want. They can also choose to be blind about what they've been through and deal with it in unproductive ways. You can try to talk to them about this, but they may not be understanding.

Of the two, it sounds like your sister would be the more likely to come out of it. Whether she is admitting it verbally or not, she clearly knows that something wasn't right about her life up to now, because she's searching for something to fill some voids she has. You might be able to encourage her to do some positive things by getting her to look at the matter from this angle. If you are close to her, perhaps you could even get her to move somewhere with you, and you could both start a safe, stable life from scratch.

Your brother is the one that concerns me the most, because he is just in angry-denial and has, as you say, become like your father. Anger in a person is a very hard thing to overcome, particularly when you're so intimately close to the situation that causes them anger. Frankly, I don't know how much you'll be able to do for him, because I imagine he will lash out at whatever suggestions you have if the root of them concerns having a bad childhood. Considering you are the eldest, do you find your opinion carries any weight on him? Perhaps stern, but distant disapproval could be good?

And finally...

Unfortunately, this is a good area to live in (Northern Virginia), and I don't have family in other places so I don't really know where else I could live.

This is an excuse to stay in the trap, and I think deep down you would know this. There are a million and one good places to live in the U.S. and abroad. (In the U.S., there are certainly better places in terms of weather, pay, cost of living and taxation.) Take your pick. Heck, randomly pick a few. Choose by way of finding a hospital you'd love to be part of.

Does the university you go to have any sort of free therapy? If so, take advantage of it. You've been through a lot, and you need some ongoing support either by way of a therapist or by way of a group who knows these intimate details.
posted by metalheart at 8:01 AM on March 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Mr. Rabbit and I both have toxic families who live in the Mid-Atlantic. We moved to Seattle after we got married before finally settling in Oregon. It's great. We don't see his family at all and see mine once a year, max. Our lives are much improved for the no/limited contact. Sometimes it's best to just save yourself and get out of the family dynamic. Good luck.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 9:00 AM on March 10, 2009

I have a similar family situation and I have one word.


They have to be firm and there is nothing better for maintaining boundaries like an expensive flight's distance between you and your family. I, for one, have stopped getting in between the people in my family and their issues. If someone has a problem with someone else, they cannot talk about it with me. They have to talk to that person. I know that won't work with your sister and that's a different issue -- but with your mom, dad and brother - not your problem.

Call your sister often. Make sure she knows you are there for her. Listen to her. Encourage her to make good decisions. Don't judge her bad ones. Tell her she'll do better next time. Encourage her to join a support group. Remember though, you do not need to, nor can you save her. She has her aunt and uncle to lean on and she should not keep you in VA. Make sure you take care of yourself. Maybe try alanon.

Apply to residencies all over the country. You will meet wonderful people if you feel like you deserve it.

I left home at 17. I left my 10 year old brother behind. Eventually, as adults, I had to apologize to him for leaving him in that home but I couldn't stay. Even to protect him. He's damaged but that's my parents fault, not mine.

Good luck.
posted by Sophie1 at 10:29 AM on March 10, 2009

Best answer: my brother choked her one time because he wanted to see her phone and who she'd been calling

It scares the crap out of me that your brother will be a doctor some day.
posted by benzenedream at 10:40 AM on March 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

The thing that jumps out at me from your question and follow-up comments is that it might really help your sister for her to see you put a healthy distance between yourself and your parents and brother. You shouldn't make this type of choice based solely on the desire to help or "save" her, but if you're worried about how cutting (or seriously limiting) contact with your parents and brother will affect your sister, it seems to me that it can only be a positive model of escaping abusive family relationships.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:55 AM on March 10, 2009

Get out of NoVa. Lose contact with your entire family. Offer your sister a place to live with you as a roomie if she can lose contact with your ENTIRE family as well. Thats all. You can't control anything beyond that.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:07 AM on March 10, 2009

I walked away from my family situation a long, long time ago and I've led a happier life because of it.

I think people often forget that happiness is a choice. If your family brings you more pain than joy, why continue on that path? You've only got this one life to live, so why waste it on someone else's pain?

The choice is yours.

Best wishes!
posted by 2oh1 at 11:20 AM on March 10, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for your responses. I read through every one and found them all to be immensely useful. I am still coming to terms with what the hell has been going on with my family, so your input has been greatly appreciated. Since this thread seems to be dying down, I'll probably close it soon, but anyone else who has input, please please feel free to message me. I will appreciate anything you send my way.
posted by ThrowawayName at 5:14 AM on March 11, 2009

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