How do I deal with extended family that I find emotionally draining?
July 25, 2009 7:18 PM   Subscribe

How do I deal with my extended family if every moment I spend with them results in emotional turmoil and descents into deep depression much like their own?

I live out of state from most of my family and have a happy little family all my own. Things are going great for me: I have happy children, a nice house, a loving wife, a great job. I'm an upbeat person and know how lucky I am, and I enjoy every minute of life. I'm thankful every day of my life.

My parents and my sibling and his family are located in the state where I grew up, pretty much still in my hometown. Parents are suffering from multiple ailments where one is in and out of the hospital while the other tries to work a full time 3rd shift job (and they're both in their 60s). They suffer from a string of bad luck and worse choices. There are unpaid credit cards, minor car accidents, a house with urine soaked carpeting and cockroaches running about. My sibling's family is deep in consumer debt, my sibling has had a dead end job for over a decade that they complain about. They hit their children as discipline. They buy new cars and go on vacations while barely being able to make rent. Both parents and sibling have had to call me and ask for thousands of dollars to evade eviction.

Now I'm a happy guy that knows he is lucky to have a good life, but whenever I'm in the company of my family (I fly out to see them once every 4 months or so) I try to talk to them to help them and I hear nothing but negativity how there's no upside to their situations and how the world is unfair and against them. They complain that I don't visit enough (I've mentioned it costs $1k-2k to fly out with hotels/cars etc.). They complain endlessly about their problems and seem to have little idea (and put no effort into) how to dig themselves out of their predicaments. Sometimes for me it feels like yelling at a wall.

Interacting with my extended family involves lots of frustration (half with them not trying to make better decisions, half with my powerlessness to help them) tons of emotion and overall I leave feeling completely depressed with little hope for the human race.

Interacting at home with my own family is a supportive, wonderful environment but anything more than a phonecall to my extended family and I'm down in the dumps for a week. I'm starting to decrease my visits to them and call instead, but even that is incredibly emotionally draining.

I'd like to support my extended family and I hope to continue trying to help them out but every interaction tears me down and I don't know how to deal with them anymore. I don't want to cut off interaction with them because it seems incredibly selfish of me to do that, but I have to figure out some sort of middle ground. I don't know what that middle ground should be or how I can keep myself from falling into their spirals of negativity.

What should I do?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Please carefully examine the line between "supporting" and "enabling" . They are not your responsibility, they are your family, there is a difference....

Embrace your own life.
posted by HuronBob at 7:32 PM on July 25, 2009 [4 favorites]

One definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing, over and over, and expect that this time you will magically get different results. Try something different. In particular, try out these two ideas:
1. I am not responsible for my family. They are adults who are entitled to make their own decisions, whether I approve or not.
2. It is unrealistic to expect other people to change just because I want them to be different from who they are. Try to accept your family with love, which mean accepting their flaws with no expectation that they will change.

You said: Interacting with my extended family involves lots of frustration (half with them not trying to make better decisions, half with my powerlessness to help them). I'm suggesting that changing your expectations will avoid this frustration. Don't expect them to make better decisions. Don't take on the responsibility for making their lives better when they are not open to your help.

If you want to try this, I would spend a lot of time talking with your partner - exploring your feelings, developing some mantra's to repeat to yourself when dealing with them and to have support for making this big change in your relationship with them.

I'm sure many people will encourage you to just cut off the relationship since it is so toxic for you. However, if you can find a different way of relating that allows you to have some contact with the family that you love in a way that is healthier for you.
posted by metahawk at 7:34 PM on July 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

Your family situation is not that uncommon. They probably make you feel guilty frequently. Try not to let them. It doesn't do you or them any good. You are not responsible for their happiness.

You are being very dedicated by flying out to see them 4 times a year. Once a year would be very generous. We only see each of our parents or siblings once every three years, usually, as we're really spread out. You have your immediate family to take care of, too, and your extended family are grownups. You can always invite them to see you, even if you know they won't come.

Someday you might need to take care of them for real, but you won't be able to if you don't take care of yourself first.
posted by zinfandel at 7:36 PM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

In my experience negativity will come out during "dead time". So next time you go back to visit, make plans to do things and keep everyone busy. This will a) reduce the chances for the negativity to come out and b) give you an opportunity to create positive experiences with your family, something that you all could use.

And not to pick nits but they're your family. Your extended family would be your uncles and cousins and the like.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 7:50 PM on July 25, 2009

I'm really, really sorry for you - this sounds like a brutally tough situation. I've got something that's maybe a pale shadow of this going on with my own parents. I really have a hard time interacting with them, and they often upset me. The only thing that has ever helped is minimizing the time I spend with them. Even that only partially works, because then I get to hear the same stuff you do - how I ignore them, etc. But at least there's peace in between the nagging phone calls and emails.

I know you say you want to support your family, and it sounds like you've already been extremely generous. But if I were in your shoes, I would try dialing back your interactions with them further. I know this might feel difficult and even painful, but it might be the only way.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 7:56 PM on July 25, 2009

I have had to deal with this type of situation both with immediate (failure at life) and extended family (perfectionists). At one point in time I had a lightbulb moment after discussing these issues with my mom that I have to try to let them not affect me, as in turn, I cannot affect them. They are adults and no matter what their issues may be, there is nothing I can do to change them, because in both situations the individuals involved are stubborn and unwilling to acknowledge a problem or change.

Simply knowing that there really is nothing I can do to help them relieved a lot of the guilt involved in these relationships, and allowed me to take my interactions with them at face value.
posted by Gonestarfishing at 8:07 PM on July 25, 2009

They buy new cars and go on vacations while barely being able to make rent. Both parents and sibling have had to call me and ask for thousands of dollars to evade eviction.

I hope to continue trying to help them out

It sounds as if this will never ever succeed. I'm not saying you should stop loving them, but I'd encourage you to consider stopping this effort at "helping them out." You don't have to cut off interaction to find a middle ground, but I think you need to find a way to be part of their lives without either advising them or bailing them out. They're not taking your (presumably reasonable) financial advice and you're subsidizing their mistakes. How often you visit is entirely up to you, but I think you need to untangle your financial relationship.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:13 PM on July 25, 2009

It sounds to me that interacting with your parents and brother makes you feel guilty that you have escaped their fate. This guilt leads you to try to "help" them. But the truth is that you really can't help them. Not if it means getting sucked into their vortex. If they ask you for specific advice- give it, but don't bring it up on your own. If they need money and you're in a position to give, do it, but understand that it's probably not going to be paid back and it doesn't mean that you get to tell them how to live.
My suggestion would be to go visit them for a short period of time, and try to do something fun with them every day. Go to a park or the beach or a movie or take them out to a nice restaurant or an amusement park or whatever. Have a good time, and then go back to your hotel and try to stay out of the drama and depression. Do this for three or four days and then fly back home to your loving, supportive family.
posted by brevator at 8:16 PM on July 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


I am totally serious about this. There is no upside to continued contact with them at all.

I say this as someone who walked away from my parents when I was 19. (They were control freaks who couldn't deal with the fact that I had a girlfriend, who is now my wife and companion of 25 years).

Years later I reconnected, they had gotten a bit of clue, and we meet occasionally for lunch. All OK.

But you cannot let them dictate the terms and frame the relationship.
posted by localroger at 8:20 PM on July 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Every 4 months seems like a bit too often to leave the warm, loving family you've created to go be with people who drain you emotionally.

You don't have to cut them off totally, but why not shift your visits to 2x per year, then 1x per year.

Give yourself some distance. They are busy repeating their pattern; you don't have to repeat yours.
posted by 26.2 at 8:26 PM on July 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

One visit a year sounds like plenty, considering the distance and cost. You might also reduce the amount of time you spend on the phone, and especially make clear (calmly) that you won't be listening to endless complaints anymore.

When the complaints begin, you might say something like, "I'm sorry you're unhappy. Have you tried [reasonable advice you gave and they ignored]? You haven't? I'll be happy to hear how it goes when you try it. But right now, I don't want to hear anything but the things you've done to fix the situation." If the family member responds with more negativity and excuses, you could follow it with, "I'm sorry, but I have to hang up now. Let me know when you've tried X. Goodbye."
posted by PatoPata at 8:28 PM on July 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

anonymous: I don't want to cut off interaction with them because it seems incredibly selfish of me to do that…

me: Yeah, I never told my parents about that. And it happened when I was only eight.

my psychiatrist: Why didn't you tell them?

me: Well…I mean, they're kinda fragile. They'd probably just get very depressed and cry a lot. You don't know them—they're, well, real downers. I didn't want to do that to them.

my psychiatrist: How old were they when they had you?

me: What? Uh…maybe…35, 36 years old?

my psychiatrist: So they'd been taking care of themselves for at least 35 years before they had you. They can still take care of themselves—they're adults. You don't have to protect your parents or your family. But you were eight, so of course you thought that; children often think silly things like “I have to protect my parents from the world” because they're only children. When you indulge that part of you and tell yourself you have to protect your family by holding things in or suffering in silence, you're usually just thinking in a childish way; it's worth it to get past that.

In other words:

How do you deal with an extended family that depresses you and hurts you? Don't.
posted by koeselitz at 11:02 PM on July 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm always surprised at the amount of support on Ask Metafilter for cutting ties with your family.

I think divorcing your family is nearly always a bad idea. While it may be tempting, when they die you'll be left with an incredible sense of guilt. It's worth maintaining some sort of relationship -- not for their sake, but for your sake.

The relationship you have with your parents and your siblings can take various forms. It might be best not to lend them money. Or if you lend them money, make it an official loan, in writing, with whatever conditions you see fit. Or don't lend them any money you can't afford to lose.

They might need a sounding board to talk about their woes, but you don't have to listen to them. You can tell them you're not going to listen to them talk about [X] anymore. Decide to only talk about movies, or politics, or the weather, or something neutral that allows you to remain in loose contact with each other.

The point is that you can set the terms of your relationship, decide on the level of visiting, phone calls, and money lending that is comfortable for you.

But don't cut them out of your life. Not for their sake, but for your sake.
posted by Flying Squirrel at 2:20 AM on July 26, 2009

You cannot change their behavior but you can change your own. If you want to keep bailing them out, your call, but you need to reduce those visits to once a year or less. Talk to them on the phone instead.
posted by nax at 4:22 AM on July 26, 2009

Stop giving them advice. They clearly don't want advice from you, and don't want their lives changed by you. Just accept that this is the life that they've chosen for themselves, complaints and all. When they complain, you say, "wow, that sucks." What you see as complaining may be just their default means of communication. Accept it as such and show some compassion. Don't jump straight to how you personally would and/or could fix the problem. By going there, you're entirely missing the point. If they want help, they should get professional, third-party help, not help from you. You are not the beknighted saviour. You are not better than they are, though by your post it appears that you believe you are. They are making their choices; their choices are not your problem.

I think you would probably have a calmer and more bearable relationship with your family if you stopped trying to save them from themselves. From the sounds of it, they would probably like you better for it too.
posted by Hildegarde at 7:34 AM on July 26, 2009

People who have not divorced their families probably shouldn't comment on what taking that action feels like.

Anon - I think it is selfish of you to take resources from your loving wife and children and instead give them to a bunch of folks who contribute NOTHING to the happiness of YOUR family.

In other words, maybe you should redefine who is considered "family" and act accordingly.

The commenter who identified wanting to protect your parents as "childish thinking" was right-on in my experience:) I feel much more adult and "clean" now that I've defined certain relationships strictly by my values, instead of letting society or distant relatives I'm not even close to dictate how and who I interact with.

Please put your love, money, and energy into your wife and kids. They deserve this, and you have already indicated this fulfills you! Seems the perfect solution!

Hey and guess what? All this time, your negative parents and sibling have either been consciously or sub-consciously rooting for your downfall. Taking your money and never repaying or getting better isn't exactly helping you now, is it? They must need your downfall to their level of existence if they are to maintain their outlook and lifestyle. You see, if you are successful and they are not, then they might have to realize their responsibility for their predicaments! So much easier to suck you down to their level and maintain whatever they've got going individually and collectively - right? Isn't this the real source of the pressure and depression you've been feeling from them lately? I can not imagine how diametrically opposite your outlook and experience is in life vs. theirs. And if spending money on inappropriate things is partly how they managed to get where they are....and there you are spending money visiting and helping them, and it doesn't help them or make anyone happy....isn't that you heading in the same direction??

I submit for your evaluation that you feel miserable because YOU ARE NOT LIKE THEM. On some level, you realize the real value in your life is in your wife and children. Anything else is depleting.

So go ahead and give your parents and sibling the negative experience they've been craving! Cut them off and PROVE them right. Prove to them what they believe - that there's no upside to their situations and how the world is unfair and against them.

Your life can be Joyful. Taking control and responsibility for your life and happiness doesn't have to be at the expense of others or done with cruelty. Memail for the details if you like;))
posted by jbenben at 7:47 AM on July 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

I don't want to cut off interaction with them because it seems incredibly selfish of me to do that, but I have to figure out some sort of middle ground.

What is selfish about that? Cutting them off would be selfish if you could help them in some way, but you can't. You can't help someone who doesn't help their self. These people want to moan and be upset and be miserable. There's nothing you can do to change that. In fact, you being there might actually make them feel worse, because you're providing them with proof that things can be better, and highlighting the disparity between what they have and what they want. Quit feeling guilty about things you can't do anything about.

These people drag you down. That thought should be first and foremost in your mind whenever you even consider having dealings with them in any way shape or form. They do you harm. Always remember that.

There comes a point in life where you realise that you have to look out for yourself. It's not always an easy thing to remember, or accept for that matter, but it's essential for your continued health. And not just your health, either. Your wife and children are deserving of your best, all the time. If these people are dragging you down, that's having an effect on your wife and offspring. They deserve your love and attention far more than people who don't appreciate it.

It's a sad fact, but families aren't always perfect. Sometimes, they're really fucked up. Sometimes, though, you get something like what you have with your wife and kids. Protect and feed that with your very soul. Don't let someone you don't really like, or your guilty feelings, affect that.
posted by Solomon at 8:10 AM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Wow, sounds similar to my life.

I stopped visiting my family years ago, but I still let them visit me. However, there's a no drama clause at my residence. If anyone starts an argument or fuels a conflict within my space, I kick them out. It's simple. I've had to do it numerous times in the past, and things seem to get by OK. They always come back.

I'm not mean. I try to give them advice, but honestly I'm not their parent. They're all adults. The ones under 25, I try to help them out as much as I can. But, after 25, if their course is the same, well there's not much that one person can do at that point.

As a side-note, occasionally I'll have a friend who wants to meet my family or see where I grew up. I usually rent them the movie Gummo first and force them watch it. If they still want to experience more, only then do I take them. So far, no one's taken me up on the offer. Some things are better left to the imagination.
posted by TheOtherSide at 9:00 AM on July 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Instead of visiting them have them visit you (even at your own expense), maybe it would show them a different side of life and maybe inspire them to change their behaviour. It also breaks the familiar routine you fall into on each visit and might stop them from complaining.
posted by saucysault at 9:21 AM on July 26, 2009

You read the book Toxic Parents, do the exercises therein, and move on with your life.

Your parents' happiness is not your responsibility, no matter what you've been trained to believe. You sound unhealthily enmeshed with your dysfunctional family, and it's time to figure out why. I speak from bitter experience when I tell you that once you've successfully detached and set boundaries, you'll wonder why the hell you didn't do it sooner.
posted by balls at 11:43 AM on July 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

While it doesn't sound like a dire enough relationship to cut off all contact, it certainly sounds like you visit way more often than is healthy. You don't enjoy it, they aren't getting anything out of it, so you're only doing it because they complain you don't visit enough and that makes you feel guilty. The thing is, it sounds like they just love to complain and make you feel guilty. If it wasn't that, you can be damn sure that they'd find something else! Save your money and your sanity, visit less frequently; say once a year, or every second year. If you really feel that you need to do something for them, put aside some of the cash you would otherwise have spent on traveling, and put it towards something that will do them some good - hire someone to clean their home, steam the carpets, help pay for medical expenses, or meal delivery. They'll probably still complain about it, but really, there's no getting around that - listen, act sympathetic, and know in yourself that you're trying to do them some good.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 3:04 PM on July 26, 2009

You could cut down your visits to once a year and give the money you would spend for travelling out the other three times to your parents to help them out. They sound like they are really struggling. And make it clear that that is what you are doing. Don't give any more money than that. Just say that that is what you can afford and no more.

If your siblings are making really bad decisions about their money and then getting eviction notices, stop giving them money.
posted by gt2 at 5:59 PM on July 26, 2009

jbenben: People who have not divorced their families probably shouldn't comment on what taking that action feels like.

This makes some sense; but I want to be clear—in my brief comment, I was certainly not advocating ‘divorcing the family.’

I only meant that, in my experience, when you spend time with people because you feel guilty if you don't, it usually turns out badly. You're often happier if you relax, ease up, maybe spend a little less time with them for a while, and come back more when you can be more detached. Families require a lot of detachment, and it's often hard to summon that up.
posted by koeselitz at 10:03 PM on July 26, 2009

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