Explaining Dysfunction and Estrangment to the Mayberry Set.
September 26, 2009 7:52 AM   Subscribe

How to explain family estrangement to in-laws and other folks?

I am the oldest child in a family scarred by poverty, mental illness, alcoholism and psychological abuse. My mother has borderline personality disorder and is convinced that I am the "bad seed" in the family and has waged a slander campaign against me to other family members telling them that I am a drug user and of loose moral fiber. In reality, I am a woman in my late 30s who smoked a lot of pot and experimented with drugs in my early 20s. I also had an abortion and a miscarriage (out of wedlock) and came out as bisexual around the same period of my life and foolishly confided all these things to either my sister or my mother, who have held them against me (in a BIG way) ever since. My family is conservative blue collar Midwestern Pentecostal Christian. I grew up to be an activist, liberal, atheist, feminist without children. I am the first woman in my family to go to college. I paid my way through undergrad and then went on to grad school, winning honors in my program and getting a plum job offer before I even graduated. I married a similarly successful man from a close-knit family and we are incredibly happy in our house with our books and our pets and friends and creative projects.

All of the women in my family have lived lives of poverty and have had 3 or more kids before they were my age. It is not like I want kudos or pats on the back, but the more successful I get, the more hateful my immediate family has become. Until recently, I gamely attended family holidays and put up with little jabs about my past or snide comments about my spouse's sexual orientation. One of my siblings refuses to let me see her children and does not invite me to their birthday parties or school events. I get it, I make my parents and this particular sibling uncomfortable. I've tried hard to fit in and have hosted holidays and family dinners at my home.

I've been in therapy on and off for years. A few months ago, after a series of hostile emails from my mother basically telling me that I 'have a new family now,' and not being invited to a niece's birthday party; I decided that I am totally fed up and tired of being treated like this by my family. For the time being, I've cut them off. I feel comfortable doing this. My close friends have wondered why I didn't do this a long time ago. I am relieved at the thought of not having to host Thanksgiving or Christmas to family members who will criticize and analyze my every move and gesture and make mean comments about my home, my cooking or weight.

The challenge I am running into is this: How do I explain this to other people? I'm currently running into complications with the husband's very Mayberry normal family. They cannot wrap their minds around what my family situation is like and think I'm being mean for not wanting to spend holidays with them. They are the type of very nice folks who associate mental illness with "snake pit" type imagery and since they've met my parents and my parents weren't frothing at the mouth or verbally attacking me in front of them; they think I am exaggerating.

I'm also at a loss for explaining the situation to friends not within my immediate social circle and co-workers. What is a good way to explain estrangement without making people uncomfortable or over-sharing?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
"I'm also at a loss for explaining the situation to friends not within my immediate social circle and co-workers. What is a good way to explain estrangement without making people uncomfortable or over-sharing? "

How about.... "I'm not too close to my family." and then smile and move on? People are probably more apt to get it than you might think.
posted by ian1977 at 8:08 AM on September 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

You actually don't need to explain - it's not their business and should not be of any concern to them. I understand that not explaining makes you feel a bit uncomfortable, but anyone who pushes the issue beyond your simple statement of "I don't get along particularly well with my family and we don't see much of each other" is enormously inconsiderate and probably wouldn't be satisfied with any explanation anyway.
posted by meerkatty at 8:11 AM on September 26, 2009 [4 favorites]

How much are you obligated to tell friends? As much as you want to. "My family isn't supportive or healthy, and it was a difficult decision to make the choice to distance myself, but it is the best thing to do."

For your inlaws, maybe something like: "Not every family is as kind and loving as you are, and it doesn't always show in polite social meetings. I am very lucky and grateful to have (your husband's) family to call my own now."

I have co-workers who have mentioned that some family members or even whole sides of a married couple's family aren't in contact, and they have simply said something about long-standing issues and history. They haven't offered details, and I don't need them.

You don't need to justify decisions you make after much thought that you believe are in your best interests.
posted by Savannah at 8:12 AM on September 26, 2009 [17 favorites]

Have you talked to your husband about it? Can he be "the bad guy" and tell his parents that they're wrong and need back off/shut up/whatever? They're less likely to hold it against him if he puts them in their place than if you do it.

Beyond that, just tell people you aren't that close to your family. Most people will just accept that and move on.
posted by spaltavian at 8:30 AM on September 26, 2009

Enlist your husband to get him to (at least help) explain the situation to his own family. He'll know best how to explain to them and put it in context, particularly since there's a history of being mean to/about him ("snide comments about my spouse's sexual orientation").

With any luck they've already picked up more than you know. My mother finally asked not to go out any more with the members of my ex's dysfunctional family. Her motto is "I can put up with anybody for two hours" but she found my ex-MiL's behavior so boorish even when she wasn't being an insulting b!tch that she'd had enough well before the ex and I split.
posted by immlass at 8:35 AM on September 26, 2009

"I don't really want to get into it but my folks are a bit crazy and we don't get on too well."

Anyone beyond a very immediate relative or friend who probes for more info than that is being rude. It is entirely your choice who you do or do not associate with.

I think going down the route of providing more details encourages a certain type of person to want to "solve" the problem for you, so keep it informal without making it sound like a serious part of your life.
posted by wackybrit at 8:36 AM on September 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seems to me that your mother initiated the break by telling you that you had a new family. Perhaps MIL/FIL will understand that your mother has broken relations as she's not comfortable with or happy for your successful marriage, career, etc. You're sort of the white sheep in a family of black ones. You can tell them that you've tried (true), very hard (true), for years (true), and that your mother just can't handle your success (ugly, but true.) Then thank her for accepting you so warmly into her home and family as you want to belong. As for friends and acquaintances, it's none of their business and a short "I don't see much of them these days" type of thing should be sufficient. (Advice from the quiet geek in a family of screamers, door bangers, tantrum throwers and just plain crazies.)
posted by x46 at 8:41 AM on September 26, 2009

I had this problem with an exes family. They were super nice and super normal [more or less] and sort of thought that my relative distance from my family was in some way unnatural and/or unhealthy. I employed the technique pretty much like Savannah does for talking to them about it and occasionally we'd have a more frank conversation about it if there were specifics that needed explaining but I basically put my ex in charge of "Look I'd like to not have to explain this over and over again and I'd appreciate if you could get this across to your folks in whatever way that needs to happen"

As far as co-workers and other acquaintances, the big deal is that yeah, you don't owe them an explanation. "My family and I don't get along well. They're not nice to me and I maintain limited contact with them." The harder part is feeling like they don't quite believe you and being tempted to be like "No really let me tell you about the time mom brought the crazy to Christmas and we all wound up at the police station..." which is I think what you're worried about in a TMI vein. Part of getting used to this is realizing that even though you have the "data" to back up your claims, it's not really relevant to the real question people are asking. They may be judgey about this or they may be disbelieving or whatever their issue is but you don't owe them more of an explanation.

I'm firmly of the belief that not rehashing old family hurts is a good way to move forward and stop reliving them in your own mind. You have a good marriage, have set some decent boundaries and seem to be moving forward in a healthy way. Over time your decisions will seem more firm and sensible to you and it will be easier to explain them to other people as "this is working" and less like "I hope this works" Best of luck.
posted by jessamyn at 8:50 AM on September 26, 2009 [4 favorites]

I cut ties with most of my family a long time ago (it's a long story). If someone who isn't close to me asks me about it, I do as the above posters say and reply, "We're not close" then I move on. If anyone is rude enough to ask for more information, I say, "I'd rather not talk about it." This gets the message across that it's not a good subject and should be dropped.

Anyone who pushes beyond that is just plain obnoxious.
posted by patheral at 9:31 AM on September 26, 2009 [5 favorites]

It sounds like you've made a great life for yourself, despite your family's disapproval, and that you're keeping yourself sane by setting boundaries with them.

Now it's time to extend that understanding to people beyond your family. It's your life, and these are your decisions to make. Even if they're people you love -- your in-laws -- they still shouldn't pester you about your decision.

Of course, they may continue to disagree with your decision to end contact with your family -- but they should stop bringing it up with you, if you ask them to.

Boundary-setting -- and, within that, learning to consider others' input but only implement it if you think it's right (and if you don't, to just accept that no one agrees on everything) -- is something you should apply to all relationships, not just the one with your family.

In other words, your goal should not be "convincing my in-laws and friends that my decision to end contact with my family is right." It should be "requiring that my in-laws and friends respect my decision to end contact with my family, whether they think it's right or not." The way you do that is not to justify it with long explanations of what's wrong with your family, but to say you've made this decision based on long experience with them, and it's what's right for you right now. And that's it.
posted by palliser at 10:19 AM on September 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've got similar kinds of issues in my family. Over the years the little white lie has become my friend. "oh mom's visiting aunt suzy this christmas,so I couldn't see her this time." With stuff like that nobody asks questions even if they suspect that you're not giving the whole truth.
posted by bananafish at 10:48 AM on September 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm in a very similar situation to you, though not quite the same. Essentially my family is of the Midwestern verbally and emotionally abusive type, and all signs of advancement have only made them resent me more. And my fiancee's family - also Midwestern and troubled by me, but in a sane way - just can't wrap their heads around the idea that the mentality of "family no matter what" is wrong.

I've found it helpful to just get these people talking about themselves and off of me. First, they like me better because I listen to them talk about themselves. And this way, they're too busy talking about themselves to ask me uncomfortable questions they can't understand the answers to anyway.
posted by medea42 at 10:53 AM on September 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Next time you meet with the in-laws and they bring it up, just say this: "I know your family is the type that is supportive and loving and I am so thankful that you are there for me. I'm certain that your family is the kind that can appreciate it when someone has their mind made up and a family that can respect a person's privacy on really important matters such as this." Say it so everyone can hear it. Stand up if you must.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:16 AM on September 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

have your husband explain to his family that your family hurt you very much and that despite your best efforts, you have been unable to repair that relationship. also have him explain that you are VERY GRATEFUL to have the love and support of his family and take comfort in knowing that they will be there for you in ways that your family cannot.

as for everyone else, you don't have to explain. just say, "i'm not that close to my family. i'm really love my husband's family, though."
posted by thinkingwoman at 11:57 AM on September 26, 2009

Your husband can solve this with a phone call or two. He calls he mother and whoever is the head gossip of his family.

Here is the script: "Tragic as it is, my wife's family doesn't want her. They don't include her in family events and they are rude to us in our home. When you bring it up, you make my wife feel unwelcome in our family. I know it's not your intention, but you are hurting her terribly. You're making a very bad situation even worse."

He can't get any more clear than that. His family is hurting you. Once that's clearly articulated; they'll knock it off. Unless they are total jerks.
posted by 26.2 at 12:30 PM on September 26, 2009 [17 favorites]

Similar situation. Beyond saying that my brothers and I don't keep in contact, I don't explain our estrangement - EVER. If people ask why, I take the Miss Manners road of giving them a conversation-stopping "I can't believe you have the nerve to ask me that question" look. Explaining would only invite commentary on my decisions.

Your life, your choices - you get to decide with whom you share the details. Quite frankly, I find the idea that people are entitled to detailed information about our lives and choices purely because they are related through blood or marriage ridiculous. As adults, we get to choose with whom we are intimate and to whom we make ourselves vulnerable - that's a gift we get to bestow on the recipients of our our choice.
posted by Lolie at 12:47 PM on September 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Quite similar situation here. For those who don't know my family and haven't met them, I just say I have a very small family and don't see them often. For those who do know about my family or have met them and don't understand the drama that has unfolded, I just say that we are not very close and I prefer not to talk about it.

It's really not their business and they should respect you and the relationship that you have with your family; not everyone is Leave it to Beaver, and that fact has likely made you a stronger person.

I think the marathoner up there, 26.2, also has it right. It would be very appropriate for your husband to broach the issue with his family, and explain that it's not going to happen and that they should back off.

In the meantime, kudos to you for having the courage to just cut that crap out of your life. That's also the very special things about friends: they are the family that you build, especially since you can't choose your blood relatives. Keep building that other family that will support you and love you no matter what.
posted by cachondeo45 at 2:40 PM on September 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree that 26.2's script for your husband is the way to go.

I thought I'd add--I think that in some relatively healthy and happy families, the idea of cutting family members out of one's life is just incomprehensible. Sometimes people have this "But you have to!" knee-jerk reaction when it comes to family because they don't have (or don't recognize) any relatives who are toxic enough to merit cutting off. They start imagining their kids or siblings cutting them off for the mundane annoying things they do rather than understanding that anyone who gets to the point of actually cutting a relative out of their life has most likely done the work of trying to have a healthy relationship and it couldn't be done.

All that's by way of saying that when your husband talks to them (because it's really, really not your job to persuade them to treat you with respect--they should be doing that already and it's your husband's job to remind them when they fail to do so), he might do well to address the fears that are probably feeding their inappropriate comments.
posted by Meg_Murry at 3:21 PM on September 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I PROMISE I will go back and read everyone's answers thus far.

I am you. I had this issue.

At first, everyone thinks it super strange that you made this decision. Personally, I felt like I had some sort of "neon sign" on my forehead proclaiming my deficiencies with family. Also, there were folks who judged me. Fun? Not so much.

I'm 40 years old now. Happily married. I ruminate on these issues today only somewhat. Mostly, it gets better as time passes and folks accept the "new" change you are pursuing.


If someone really doesn't understand, offer them this book. I haven't done that myself because I haven't had to, but I keep the option available. This book explains more about my experience than I ever could with a conversation. Truly.

You've broken into "new" territory." for the Mayberry Clan.

I just... I don't... I don't know how to address the totality of your Ask in one sitting. There is the initial reactions, then how things get perceived over time, there is how you are in future situations where this comes up.

All along, estranging yourself from blood relatives is a very private and personal journey you alone are following... with everyone else's "stuff" interrupting.

I do know your feelings as you undertake this process will change over time. Hurts will mellow. Perspectives will shift. If you did this for yourself (which you did) you will not change your mind regarding contact with your family.

Once taken, this path you've chosen offers too many benefits to be forsaken on a whim, out of guilt, or due to peer pressure. This I know.

I wish I knew of a book or other resource for folks who have carefully chosen estrangement as the healthiest solution to their family issues - but I don't. I often felt like I was "flying blind" for the first few years.

Now I feel TOTALLY normal. When family comes up, I don't miss mine. Saying, "Oh, we're not that close," suffices for most social interactions. I've found the older people get, the less odd estrangement is regarded by my peers. FWIW.

MeMail, if appropriate. I may report back after I get the courage up to read everyone else's responses and if I think that is appropriate.

posted by jbenben at 4:48 PM on September 26, 2009

Via 26.2:

"Your husband can solve this with a phone call or two. He calls he mother and whoever is the head gossip of his family.

Here is the script: "Tragic as it is, my wife's family doesn't want her. They don't include her in family events and they are rude to us in our home. When you bring it up, you make my wife feel unwelcome in our family. I know it's not your intention, but you are hurting her terribly. You're making a very bad situation even worse."

He can't get any more clear than that. His family is hurting you. Once that's clearly articulated; they'll knock it off. Unless they are total jerks."

My husband is that cool. Yours is, too. He should tell his family this because it is kind and appropriate.

posted by jbenben at 4:59 PM on September 26, 2009

I understand your dilemma. I had to separate myself from my borderline Mother for years ..like you, I also had a good husband, a nice career and good friends.

Because of the estrangement I had to deal with lots of "judgements" from an assortment of people. The Mayberry people are never going to be able to grasp your situation. Never. So don't even try to explain it to them. I sort of just pretended everyone was dead.

You're not really ok with this, despite your statements to the contrary...because it goes against nature (to disown your "own people")..however, you must keep this distance from your original family for self preservation. In time, when your Mother gets older it is possible that you can consider having a relationship with her. I did manage this in my life--and I am grateful for the time that she and I were able to patch things up to a very large degree. I hope the same for you! (My Mother was around 80 when I started understanding her better and visa versa). The thing is, anonymous, much as you think you have escaped the crazy atmosphere--that atmosphere had everything to do with your success now. In time you'll see the Yin and Yang of all this..the light and the dark. It is too difficult to explain to someone whose family is normal.

If your Mother is anything like mine she also has/had good qualities* as well as terrible ones. Remember those good qualities, but always protect yourself. Stay open to some degree to the idea of reconciliation. It might never happen..but then again, it might!

Read this if you haven't already.

Husband's families usually care much more about their own family than they will about you and yours! That's just the way it is! Deflect questions and turn it around so you get them talking about themselves.
posted by naplesyellow at 6:33 PM on September 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

First of all, my deepest sympathies and congratulations to you. You've overcome a hellish childhood and made something of yourself despite the many obstacles your family of origin threw (and continue to attempt to throw) in your path. That is NOTHING to scoff at, and I hope you're not tempted to minimize it as "no big deal". It's a very big deal. You rock. Going no-contact with parents is not a decision we make lightly, and it takes enormous reserves of strength and resolve. I hope you realize what a testament it is to your own good mental health that you recognize the need to cut them off, and have been able to follow through. Many kudos.

Secondly, let me just tell you that in all likelihood, your in-laws will never really "get" it. Normals never do. They've been nurtured properly since birth--raised on the idea that family is family and blood is thicker than water and that you can always know that no matter what happens, your parents will love you no matter what. Asking them to conceive of the idea that some people should never have been parents, that some people are fundamentally broken, that some people really truly genuinely do not love their children and, moreover, are incapable of it, is asking too much. Unless they work in a field like psychotherapy or social work or police enforcement or some other thing where they see the dreadful consequences of this kind of dysfunction every day, they will never get it. And that's okay.

My in-laws aren't perfect, but they're definitely normals. And they couldn't really fathom why I cut my toxic parents completely out of my life until I bluntly told them the truth: "My parents are child abusers who put me through hell for almost twenty years before I finally got away. Now they want to be a part of my life again, but only on their terms, and only if I'm willing to sacrifice myself to their continued abuse. I refuse to do that, or expose my child to their madness, so they are no longer a part of my life and never will be again. I don't expect you to fully understand this, but I need you to respect it."

When I told them this, solemnly and on their own turf, in their living room, with DH sitting next to me holding my hand, I could almost see the lightbulb click on over their heads. They finally understood that this wasn't some tiff or a wild overreaction on my part. And it was immensely healing for me to stop protecting them--I called them child abusers, without apology or shame, because that is what they are, and it's not my job to shield them from the consequences of their behavior. I was trained, as I'm sure you were, not to air our dirty laundry in public. Shrugging off that early training and letting the truth be known was one of the hardest--and best--things I ever did. And since then, my in-laws have been incredibly compassionate and even more careful to make me understand that I do have family--them.

Please keep in mind that I adore my in-laws and consider them my adoptive parents. If you aren't as close with yours, know that you don't owe them any explanation beyond, "We are not in contact and the matter is not open for discussion or debate. This subject is very painful for me to think about and I'm not going to talk about it now or in the future." Your husband should really be running interference for you here, but if you have to put it plainly, do it calmly and without apology. It's really none of their business.
posted by balls at 7:00 AM on September 28, 2009 [6 favorites]

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