so why exactly should I talk to you?
December 22, 2010 12:15 PM   Subscribe

At risk of sounding like a terrible person (or maybe just *being* a terrible person): what is it that everyone thinks I'm missing out on by not being on speaking terms with my parents?

I've been semi-estranged from my parents for a couple of years now (I'm nearly 30). They weren't abusive or anything; they're just a bit controlling, and wanted me to be someone I'm not, and we can't come to an agreement about the fact that I didn't turn out how they thought.

Every now and then, usually at the holidays when emotions are running high, they contact me and say something to the effect of "We're still family." Similarly, AskMeFi advice about dealing with parents often says something to that effect: they're your parents, you only get one family, etc. - the implication being that it's worth making the effort to connect with them.

I truly don't understand this. Yes, my parents gave me their genes and spent a lot of time and money on raising me, and I can understand the moral argument ("filial duty" etc.); in fact it's the guilt arising from the moral argument that is the one thing that makes me uneasy about our estrangement. But emotionally, they don't give me anything (and haven't for at least the past 10 years); quite the contrary, to be honest. Everything on that level - unconditional love, support, a shoulder to cry on - I get from somewhere else, which I learned to do in the first place because my parents weren't providing it. I've created my own "family" from friends - people who really care about me, as myself, and with whom I've been able to build up healthy, mutual relationships - not always easy ones, but real ones. But despite this, I keep hearing the "you only get one family" line. So what gives? Is there really something different that your (physical) family can give you that your (created) family can't? What am I missing here?

If the answer is that "it's the morally right thing to do" to try to relate to one's parents then that's ok. I'm just trying to understand what I'm getting into as I ponder reconciliation.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (49 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
They are the only people that have known you for your entire life. They know things about you (like what your favorite toy was as a toddler) that no one else knows; that you don't even know about yourself.

This shared history cannot be replaced by surrogates. It can provide a deep understanding that is valuable in its own right.

As you become your own person and they, more and more, come to see you as your own person and their peer, the tension in your relationship could easily fall by the wayside. But here is the rub. that tension will not go away unless your rekindle your relationship.

It's only by being exposed to the adult, self-actualized, content version of you that they'll be able to eventually get over their vision of what they think you should be.
posted by oddman at 12:23 PM on December 22, 2010 [15 favorites]

Don't reconcile with your parents because other people who are not in your situation think you should. If you're comfortable and happy not having a relationship with them, that's perfectly okay.

People who speak as if it's self evident that you should want this either have an important relationship with their own parents, or the lack of one causes them sorrow or regret. If that doesn't apply to you, ignore it.
posted by spaltavian at 12:27 PM on December 22, 2010 [24 favorites]

Yes, my parents gave me their genes and spent a lot of time and money on raising me, and I can understand the moral argument ("filial duty" etc.); in fact it's the guilt arising from the moral argument that is the one thing that makes me uneasy about our estrangement. But emotionally, they don't give me anything (and haven't for at least the past 10 years); quite the contrary, to be honest. Everything on that level - unconditional love, support, a shoulder to cry on - I get from somewhere else

I don't know if there is a right answer to this, and your relationship to your parents is pretty hard to parse from your question.

I will say, without trying to be an asshole, that your answer has a lot of "me, my needs, give to me" type language.

Parents have needs too, you know. They don't choose to have a family because they want to give and give and give. Maybe your mom likes to talk about her feelings with you? Maybe your dad would appreciate some advice on model railroad crafting? Maybe they're hurt not because you are failing to pay them back for the years of their giving, but because they just genuinely want to be part of your life?

Again, I don't want to be preachy, but sometimes from a child's perspective, we lose sight of our parents as anything but vending machines for that great and delicious "unconditional love" that we so cherish.
posted by Think_Long at 12:27 PM on December 22, 2010 [51 favorites]

You are under no obligation to "love" them or treat them differently than you would other people. Id they treat you with respect and kindness and appreciate you, reciprocate. If they don't...well...why should you feel obligated to treat them differently than you would treat other people?
posted by davidmsc at 12:29 PM on December 22, 2010 [6 favorites]

Is there really something different that your (physical) family can give you that your (created) family can't?
I assume even the worst parents know you in a way that other people never can, because they saw you growing up and because (usually) they share your genes. They can provide insight into how your personal quirks developed, and maybe their perspective can tell you something about which of your quirks are hard-wired ("You always loved X, even at 18 months!"). Apparently, this gets much more important when you have children of your own.
Also, things can definitely change and it's usually a good idea not to burn bridges (if possible). I used to be quite estranged in my late 20s, now, a few years later, I'd describe my relationship with my parents as more or less normal. Everyone tells you that never happens, but my parents behavior towards me (which used to be similar to what you describe) actually changed over time, and for the better.

Apart from that, people who have a good relationship with their parents sometimes really just don't get it and cannot see your side. I've given up trying to explain or excuse myself in some cases - it's like people who don't "get" depression and tell you to "just lighten up!". Just ignore them.
posted by The Toad at 12:29 PM on December 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you've given this a lot of thought, don't think you'll regret taking this stance when your parents are dying/have passed on, and still really don't want to have a relationship with your parents, then don't have a relationship with your parents.

You know all the reasons that you should have a relationship with them and if you still don't want one, then don't push the issue. It's (arguably) better to never talk to them than to force yourself to have a relationship with them and end up harboring resentment.

Is there really something different that your (physical) family can give you that your (created) family can't? Sometimes. For one thing, there's the whole moral issue. You're genetically and sometimes legally bound to your family. You (general you) do things you would otherwise never do for these people under the premise that 'they're your family'. A good 'created' family will do these things for you... but it can be riskier to depend on friends to be your family than well, your family to be your family. After all, why expect friends to go out on a limb and risk their lives for you? YMMV, every family is different. Some are sucky and good-for-nothing. Others are real family-- the type of family that people refer to when they talk about being emotionally supportive and loving.
posted by lovelygirl at 12:31 PM on December 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't usually comment in these threads, because my family's pretty awesome and I've never been estranged. So with that in mind, I think that one of the best things (and sometimes one of the worst, and always one of the most complicated) about family is that you are tied to them throughout your life. If things don't go well with one of your friends, you can decide that they are unworthy to be in your chosen family, and after a period, move on completely. The family you grew up with will always know you in a different way - they saw the events that formed you, and from a perspective that you don't always agree with. I think reconciling with your parents will not be a glorious, healing experience, but that it might teach you about why your parents treat you in flawed ways, and maybe the flawed ways you don't want to treat your future children (or just the people in your chosen family). Also, now that you are older and self-fulfilled, you may be able to better appreciate what your parents do have to offer, rather than focusing on what they lack.
posted by fermezporte at 12:33 PM on December 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have a saying: Family is not license for abuse.

I haven't spoken to my sister in years, and I don't plan to ever do so again if I can avoid it for the rest of my life. My life is better for it. My immediate family's life is better for it.

I'm a parent now and I very much wonder about how it is that my kid will perceive me in years to come. You've got to provide a dual role: On the one hand, providing a safe and creative environment for them to thrive. On the other hand, you're basically training an animal to be a social creature in a society where that's important for a lot of reasons. I don't want to control my kid, but I don't want my kid becoming a sociopath, so for me that's the real challenge of parenting: raising a decent person that is strong enough to make decisions on her own and to learn from bad decisions. And hopefully my job will never be to intervene uninvited. That will be hard. But reading your post makes me realize how important it is.

If my kid gets to be an adult and decided she doesn't want to talk to me it would make me personally sad, but on the other hand I very much understand when people want to use the word family to invoke instant and unquestioning obligation to them. If that's somehow what my kid ended up thinking about me, frankly, I wouldn't blame her for not wanting to be in involved in that. It's exploitative and abusive.

I'm lucky enough that I married someone with a great immediate family that I adore and who make up a support and great group for me, much like the friends you've made. People who listen and who understand you and want you to flourish in the ways that YOU want to flourish and support you doing that and sometimes are there to challenge you in a good way, those are your family.
posted by smallerdemon at 12:33 PM on December 22, 2010 [10 favorites]

I haven't been on speaking terms with my relatives in years, so I know what you're dealing with. Well-meaning people often say things like this because, I think, they can't really conceive of a situation in which they'd feel the same way. It's "unnatural" to them. It seems like a lot of people assume that unless you were being horrifically abused, there's no "good" reason to cut yourself out of family's life, because "families should stick together," "family is the most important thing," and all that.

The thing is, some families are genuinely toxic, even if they never locked you in the cellar or touched you inappropriately. Well-meaning people who are not you do not get to decide whether your family falls into that category, and where to draw that line in your life.

Some people are able to maintain friendly relations with toxic relatives without feeling an obligation to get closer than occasional phone calls and visits, while some of us had to cut all ties to maintain some level of sanity. Sometimes people are even able to overcome the crap from the past and have a good, close relationship with people they used to hate. Whatever road you end up going down, don't allow yourself to be swayed by what well-meaning people who are not you think is "normal." It's your life, not theirs.
posted by Gator at 12:33 PM on December 22, 2010 [38 favorites]

I don't think you should reconcile with your parents if you are 100% sure you never want to have a relationship with them ever again. There are lots of people who, like you, have established filial ties with people who are unrelated to them by blood, and moved on for whatever reason from the families they were born into.

I'm just trying to understand what I'm getting into as I ponder reconciliation.

But it sounds like you're not 100% sure, so I'll say only this. If you do choose to reconcile with them, then you have to give it your full effort. People deserve our full efforts. And you have to be fully willing to accept them as they are, even though they are different from you and see things differently than you do. After all, that's what you want from them.
posted by headnsouth at 12:36 PM on December 22, 2010

You are not a terrible person.

I'm pretty close to my immediate family. They give me the things your family is incapable or unwilling to give you--unconditional love, support, encouragement. It's special, and I love it, but it's not some mysterious thing that I would get from them even if they were awful. Genetic ties don't make it magical, they just keep you together under the same roof and sharing the same holidays and life milestones long enough for love to grow--if it's going to grow. In my case it has, in your case it hasn't. That isn't your fault.

It's true you only get one family, in the sense that most people have a core group of adult relatives who raised them and children who were raised with them, but... sometimes that family is crappy.

It's foolish to invite unkindness and disrespect back into your life, but it's generous to give people a second chance on the condition that they treat you decently. I think that the most generous yet emotionally healthy thing to do is to have a standing offer, something like, "I respect that your views and choices are different from mine, and I don't expect that you will agree with everything I choose. If you will accept that I am an adult who makes her own decisions, and if you will agree to avoid XYZ topics that we invariably fight about, I am willing to have a relationship with you. However, if you cannot treat me like adult and respect these boundaries, I cannot be in contact with you." (That's the most generous, but it is not required. The morally right thing to do is not to be cruel: if you are staying away to "punish" them, that's a poor choice, but if you are staying away to preserve your own mental and emotional health, that is absolutely fine.)
posted by Meg_Murry at 12:41 PM on December 22, 2010 [5 favorites]

Despite knowing what my family is like, my husband used to urge me to reconcile with them. His family is amazing; intellectually, he was aware that mine is not, but emotionally, he just couldn't grasp it. To him, family is loving, supportive, kind, special. He was sad that I didn't have that relationship myself. Eventually, he worked out that I wouldn't have that relationship even IF my family were in my life, and he stopped wanting me to reconcile with them.

People who do have loving and supportive families, I think, just can't quite get that there are families that aren't that way.

And then there are people who have just absorbed the notion that blood is thicker than water, and maintaining a relationship with your family is The Thing To Do even if it's harming you (or them). Those people are sometimes just easier avoided.
posted by galadriel at 12:52 PM on December 22, 2010 [11 favorites]

There are things your blood relatives can give you that no other human being can.

There are also things they can take away, which no one else can.

If you're certain that you don't want to talk to them, then don't. Take a moment to imagine what it would be like if they died with this unresolved. Is that worth attempting to reconcile? That's not a loaded question - it's okay if the answer is no.

The best you can do is explain to them that you are your own person, you have your own life, and if they can't accept that about you - if they can't love you for who you are and not for your score on some test that exists in their heads - then what they propose is taking and not giving, and it's not fair.

When they drop the line about still being family, here is the truth: You are relatives. You're not family. If they want to be a family then they need to take the step of treating you like family.

As to what you asked - what compelling reason there is to talk to someone you don't want to - well, I don't know, it's different for everyone. A lot of people have relationships with their family which, even when rocky, is the kind of relationship you'd have with someone who understands you better than anyone else ever could, because they were there with you from the beginning. To most people, that's worth forgiving whatever bad things happen. But the fact that most people do it is no reason why you should too. If you don't want to, don't. If someone asks, explain that your relationship with your parents is not a good one, you've thought about it, and that you are certain that reconnecting with them would only be harmful to you.

If they badger you beyond that, well, you know. Smile and thank them for their concern and change the subject.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 12:54 PM on December 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

It is really hard to have a healthy relationship when both sides are unhealthy/toxic. If you don't feel strong in yourself and have coping skills for all the triggers their comments and words then you would be better off devoting time to yourself. For example, if your parents are critical of your choice of career, it is easier to brush off their criticisms if you are happy with your choice and you are being rewarded financially and socially in it.

When you are able to disengage from any behaviour that is upsetting and have a healthy response that preserves yourself then you can revisit the idea of having a relationship with boundaries. As someone up-thread mentions, this is easier if they have been working on their issues themselves (or even acknowledge they are part of the problem).

People from normal or slightly dysfunctional families can spout off statements about "all families are worth the effort" because they literally cannot comprehend how emotionally abusive some families can be. The idea of "created families" has a long history with marginalised groups, especially the queer community. A close family is a wonderful thing but you can't wish one into being if your parents are not willing to meet you half-way. Take care of yourself.
posted by saucysault at 12:57 PM on December 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

I recently reconciled with my formerly toxic parent; someone I wasn't expecting to make room for in my life. But enough years have passed, and said parent is genuinely nice to me now, so it feels good to move forward together, positively. I feel enriched for having her back in my life. Maybe it will sour up again, maybe not. But for now, it is good. FWIW, I'm 35 yo.

It sounds like you didn't have a good relationship with your parents in the past. I agree that if family are crap to you, you do not have to have them in your life. But I would still tell you to be open to your family if they seem like they deserve a chance. (Only if asked, mind you -- i hated when people would say that to me unsolicited.)

Turns out that people change. Relationships change. Dramatically, sometimes.

Plus, even if you had had the good relationship you wanted with your parents, and remained in contact with your family all your life, your relationship with them would not be the same now as it was in the past. It would have changed, as you each changed as people.

I can't tell you what benefit you will get from considering the idea of opening yourself up to your parents more, but I guess I'd like to chime in to say it's not just filial duty.

(specifically, my mom remembers my childhood for me, has weird intuitive knowledge about me that i find surprising, knows my extended family that no one else knows, and we share some of the same humour. It's also just kind of made a bit of my psyche un-clench that I didn't know was clenched up. it's still tense sometimes, but it's worth it.)

On preview, what Gator, Meg_Murray and FAMOUS MONSTER have said is probably about right.
posted by girlpublisher at 12:57 PM on December 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Having said that, I have harmful family I feel sorry for and so I am willing to have a relationship with them, if I can define my own part in it and keep them at arm's length. People who won't respect boundaries? No. But people who aren't able to hurt me any more? Yes.

Maybe some day your parents will have changed enough, or their circumstances will have changed enough, that you can re-establish a relationship with them and they won't be able to be controlling and unpleasant the way they are now. Or not.
posted by galadriel at 12:58 PM on December 22, 2010

But it sounds like you're not 100% sure, so I'll say only this. If you do choose to reconcile with them, then you have to give it your full effort. People deserve our full efforts. And you have to be fully willing to accept them as they are, even though they are different from you and see things differently than you do. After all, that's what you want from them.

I'm not sure if I'm reading this piece of advice correctly, but I will say that I think it is definitely okay, healthy even, to erect necessary boundaries. You don't really go into any detail about why you aren't speaking to your parents, but it sounds like they were critical of you and couldn't accept your choices. They don't have to agree with your choices but you deserve respect and recognition that you are your own person, an adult, and don't need their approval. So if you do choose to reconcile, don't do it because you feel outside pressure, but do it because you guys can give each other something positive, and because it makes you happy. And do it on terms that are healthy for you, whether that means only at holidays, or ending conversations that turn negative, or some other restriction.

I am touched by the discussion of your shared history with your parents, that they particularly have been there since you were born and have a million memories shared with you and about you. Both my parents have passed away and I would give anything to have some of that history back (among other things), to have someone who remembers answer my questions. But that's only one part of the equation and not necessarily related to whether your parents are decent people who should be let back into your life.
posted by JenMarie at 12:58 PM on December 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

You are not a terrible person. Do not reconcile with your parents unless it is something you wish to do. I also get to hear society's views on how awful it is to not speak to family. My parents and I haven't spoken in decades. I don't even know where two of my brothers live. I'm closer to my nieces than I am to my twin, whom I haven't spoken to in years. I simply tell people, "we're not close" and leave it at that. If they push, "but that's your family!..." I tell them to back off. Other people should not tell you how to interact with your family.

If you want to reconcile with your parents, then do so because you want to. If you don't, leave things as they are. Just because they are your parents does not mean you are under any obligation to let them into your life.
posted by patheral at 12:59 PM on December 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm standing pretty near in your shoes, anonymous... I'm close to 30 and semi-estranged from my overcontrolling parents. They also had a very clear vision of the kind of person they figured I should become, and while I invested a lot into their dream of me, I got fed up, especially when I could see that all my "real" support was coming from outside the family, which only made them more controlling and insecure. I've left fully prepared to go through life seeking to build "families of choice". It's just the hand I've been dealt.

But since that break, it's taken a couple years to appreciate (rather than resist) what people mean by, "you only get one family". It's a misleading choice of words because it's really more like, "you only get one set of people you grew up with". Whether they were good, bad, supportive, negligent, or a bewildering combination of many things, they were still the witnesses to your earliest, life-shaping events. While they may have a perspective biased with their own shortcomings, they were still the "people you grew up in the same house with". Great or not, it is what it is.
    Is there really something different that your (physical) family can give you that your (created) family can't? What am I missing here?
What's missing: it's true that your parents are the people who have known you the longest, and while they may lack in emotional support, they will always be the leading authorities on what you were like as you became the person you are now.

What people aren't telling you is that family doesn't have to come with auto-emotional warmth and fuzziness. It really can just be an association in which you can appreciate the perspectives of these flawed, but probably well-intentioned adults, and STILL have a very rich and satisfying emotional life apart from them.

It'll probably be worth making the effort to connect with them when you can recognize their place in your life - not as emotionally rich adults, but as people who did the best with what they were given and what they knew. It will never "be fair" that you've had to take charge of your own emotional well-being, but hey... at least your parents' support did guide you to this place in your life. It's okay to appreciate even just that about them.
posted by human ecologist at 1:12 PM on December 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I guess my question about your situation would be, "why make enemies of the people you've known all your life?" You said they weren't abusive. They might not be the parents you fantasized about having, an you're not the child they fantasized about having. Staying in touch with your parents (especially during holidays) means staying in touch with your siblings and cousins and aunts and uncles and people your potential children would have the privilege of knowing. It is ok to have a relationship that has certain boundaries without being an all-or-nothing contact-or-no-contact type of thing. Only you know whether the level of toxicity is so severe that it's worth not talking to them at all or seeing them at holidays/family gatherings.
posted by deanc at 1:20 PM on December 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

Most people who don't have terrible families don't know what it's like to have a terrible family. So they assume every family is at least a little worthwhile, just because theirs is. I find that I have a similar problem : I have a terrible family, and I need to remind myself that most people have loving families. It helps me understand people better.

I have no advice for you personally, because I don't know you or your family, but this would be my best explanation for why you and I get the reactions we do.
posted by Afroblanco at 1:27 PM on December 22, 2010 [10 favorites]

There are certainly things my family of origin has given to me that my darling and beloved friends cannot, and have not. Now that my family is just me and The Brother, I really cherish the time I spent with my parents and my grandparents and my uncles and aunts.

But that's me. You have to do you. You are the expert on you. If your family doesn't give you joy, you know that better than any of us or anyone else.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:46 PM on December 22, 2010

So, I pondered this question myself (also, perhaps not-so-coincidentally, right around my 30th birthday), although just with my mom, not with both parents (my parents are divorced). I asked myself, "What the hell am I getting out of this relationship? Why do I even bother?" I find a lot of my interactions with my mother very frustrating. Basically every time we talk I am reminded that my values and her values are different in some very fundamental ways. The year I turned 30, we did not interact at all (no phone calls, no emails, not even a inquiry via my sister, who was on good terms with both of us) for a period of about 8 months, even though we lived within 30 miles of each other.

But now a few years later, I get along pretty well with her, and I'm glad about that. We still don't see each other all that often, and there are big swaths of stuff we don't really talk about, and other things that I sometimes wish we didn't talk about, but we can get together and be civil and have good times. I adjusted my expectations a lot.

I don't know *why* I reconciled with my mother, exactly. It just felt like the right thing to do, for me. And it would be really inconvenient for my sister if my mom and I were estranged, and I like my sister. Plus, mom has control over all the baby pictures, and I've probably got some stuff in her attic.

To me, having a relationship with my mom turns out to have some kind of hard-to-define value, even though it's difficult. You might end up feeling the same way next year, or in five years, or you might always be happily estranged from your parents. I think either way is fine. To me, ultimately, a difficult relationship with my mother was preferable to no relationship at all. YMMV.
posted by mskyle at 1:50 PM on December 22, 2010

Been estranged from my mother for a long time, approaching 20 years. She would be in her 70s now, and sometimes people say things like, "When she dies, you might regret never reconciling." Sure, I might. But I don't care. After she's dead, if I do end up regretting it, then I can get some therapy. Wouldn't be anything new, since she's the main reason I've already gone through 30-odd years of therapy in an attempt to recover from when we weren't estranged.
posted by scratch at 1:52 PM on December 22, 2010 [6 favorites]

And another thing: Someone upthread pointed out that parents might know things about me that nobody else does--favorite toddler toy was the example, I think. My mom? She might, but more likely she's forgotten because she was drunk, so the hell with it.

You're not a terrible person, OP. Go with your gut.
posted by scratch at 1:54 PM on December 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm not on speaking terms with one of my parents, haven't been for ten years, and no one ever believes me when I say this is totally okay by me.

I think it's mainly social/cultural pressure that says you have to be close to your parents. They're supposed to be there for you no matter what, and you're supposed to love them no matter what. But they're adults and so are you. You're all just people, you know? You can love them (or not), but you don't have to like them. But many people can't grasp that. Many people also don't get along with their parents but don't feel like they're allowed to have the independence from theirs that you have from yours.
posted by katillathehun at 2:13 PM on December 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have a great mom. One of the things she told me is that the true responsibility of a parent is to prepare their child for life in the world. That's the extent of the contract. The kid didn't get any input - they just showed up one day and had to deal with the pieces as they fell. Hopefully the parent does the job well enough that the relationship is mutually fulfilling and lasts a lifetime - but that's just gravy.
posted by amycup at 2:15 PM on December 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

But emotionally, they don't give me anything

This isn't really true. Even by not having a relationship with them, they're giving you something - you're still asking the question "why." There's something that you're getting or not getting, because it seems like you're still in some way bothered by their absence - either in the sense that they're not giving you what you need, or you still feel irritated when people suggest you're missing out. There's still something emotionally tying you to them if you need to ask this question. It sounds like you have some unresolved emotions (resentment? anger? sadness?) that you still feel hurt from, when people ask why you're not on speaking terms.

[tl;dr] try not to think of your parents as Parents. They're people. They have personal histories, just like you. They have their own worries, fears, griefs, and traumas - probably even before you were born or conceived. I don't think there's anything wrong with taking time off from speaking to your parents, if you really feel like this is the thing you need to do for your own growth. But please never forget that parents can change and grow, too.

[moar] I don't really know if there's some direct answer to why it's important to keep ties to your parents, but for me and my own life, it's learning those stories about your family history that you can't get when someone's gone. And also, learning that your parents aren't superheroes, but flawed, mortal human being.

My dad was pretty abusive growing up. Physically abusive - not for doing things wrong, but he would regularly hit us, with some pretty painful blows, because he was just angry. Kids are week and gullible, and we didn't know any better, so we were great targets for his anger release. He was also very emotionally and psychologically abusive - manipulative, mean, negative, and very controlling. These have obviously had major impacts on me - from self-physical harm as a way to have my own minuscule form of control over my own self, and definitely other issues (insecurity, body image issues, abandonment issues, etc). Then when I was 10, my mom died (I was incredibly lucky - she was a super loving, affectionate, and very involved mom). My older siblings went to college, moved out, got married and moved away. During middle school and high school, it was mostly my dad and I at home - and I spent most of that time taking care of him and his emotional needs, during his depression after loosing our mom (he never ever abused my mom, and nearly emotionally collapsed after she died).

I grew up, and I grew angry. I felt like I didn't really have much of a childhood. I was first controlled, then taking care of an ill mom, then taking care of my dad. And I felt like I wasted my time for an asshole. And I was fucking pissed. And still, my dad was calling me an ungrateful fat selfish brat. I grew up and learned otherwise - that those words were not true. For years, I went on/off without speaking to him. A few months were ok, then a few months not. For maybe 4-5 years. But I so very much needed to be angry and refused to feel guilty about it.

My siblings and I encouraged him, for YEARS to seek therapy. He would tell us "therapists should come to me for advice! I can set them straight."

With us no longer weak and silent, my dad realized he had no more control. And that control sustained him for so long. He felt kind of… purposeless without that control.

One day, out of the blue, when we had all given up trying to help him, he quietly mentioned to my brother that he had been seeing someone for anger management. At 67 years old (3 years ago). He doesn't like to mention to us that he's going to therapy and anger management (I think he's been going for about twice a week since), but he calls them "meetings." Going to a "meeting" makes him feel important.

But he calmed down. He grew to be empathetic. He opened up. About the severe, bloody beatings he received as a child from his step-mom, and buckets of emotional abuse from her. I didn't even know my grandfather re-married after our grandmother died (when my dad was very little). At 28 years old, I finally learned this.

I knew my dad lost his mom when he was a toddler. I knew he was a child of war, and poverty. I knew he had been working since he was 8 years old. But it didn't connect to why he treated us with such vitriol. But finally it all began to make sense. My dad was still very much the hurt child. Maybe controlling us was his way of making up for feeling so weak as a child against his step-mom's beatings. My dad probably didn't know any better. My dad… was weak. He's not superman. At 67 (now 70), he's just beginning to learn how to heal from his own abusive childhood.

I had forgiven him a few years before I learned all this, and a couple of years before he began to go to therapy. They say that forgiveness doesn't give credence to someone who hurt you, but it's about your own freedom. Man, I thought that was such a pile of hokey bullshit. But it's totally true. Forgiving my dad for being a shitty father wasn't about saying it was ok to hurt your children. Forgiving him meant that I took the reigns of the anger and sadness from him, and returned them to its rightful owner - myself. Forgiveness isn't the morally right thing to do - it seriously fucking frees you.

I have a pretty good relationship with my dad now. We talk about 2-3 times a week. Mostly about mundane things like the weather, the news, and again about the weather. Sometimes he calls and asks for personal advice (this, from the man who just a few years prior regularly suggested that therapists should pay him to fix their lives). Sometimes he goes on regretful rants about the past because he just needs to be heard. And in his own roundabout way, I know it's because he feels guilty about being just a really awfully mean father growing up. But we talk. And it's ok. I'm confident enough to know I'm not the words he used to call me. I'm confident enough to stand up to any criticism from him (and my dad knows this). I'm confident enough to walk away, or hit back if needed (I have walked away in the past, though never laid a hand on him, or anyone). And I'm confident enough that if I need to take a breather and not talk to him for a while, then it's ok to do that without apologizing to anyone (though I haven't needed to do this for about 5 years). I don't know if he unconditionally loved me at 10. But at 30, I feel very confident that he does now. I don't deny that I'm still working on issues sustained from an abusive childhood, but do believe that it matters more that I am unconditionally loved as the outspoken, opinionated, take-no-shit woman and daughter that I am today.

I'm really glad I went through periods of not communicating with my dad. I needed it. I do not regret it. Questions about it don't bother me. My dad's an ok person to be around now. And, he's the only one who can tell me about our family history, which are priceless stories that only he knows. I'll never be able to get stories from my mom. She's dead. She's gone. It's permanent. Sometimes it's annoying to hear the same stories for the 15th time, but it's better than never, ever having a chance at knowing them. I would give just about anything to hear intimate stories about my mom's childhood. But I will never have that chance. That history is lost. Friends cannot replace that.

My dad's coming to visit in about 5 days. He booked his stay for 8 days. Oh fuck no. I called him up and said: "Abbu (this means dad, he's Pakistani), you're going to drive me crazy if you stay for 8 days. Can you change it to 3-4?" And we agreed, we'd both drive each other crazy for 8 days. 3-4 days is going to be so, so much more manageable.

god i really hope that bad storm out in California dies down before it reaches the East Coast.
posted by raztaj at 2:15 PM on December 22, 2010 [15 favorites]

In the grand scheme of dysfunctionality, your story doesn't sound all that horrible. If I had to guess, I'd say that you probably just don't like your parents, in addition to them being controlling. I don't mean to say that you're whining and should make up -- just that I don't sense the kind of toxic anger from your post that usually seeps from stories of really hard-core estrangement, the kind where it's really affirmatively better to stay away and nothing to gain from trying for reconciliation.

So, you might actually have a chance of reconciling, and it doesn't sound like the attempt would be too painful and chaotic. The best reason for trying, then, is a sort of cost-benefit analysis: you might get something out of it, and you don't lose much by trying.

Your parents have been waving an olive branch with their holiday messages -- nothing much harmed by picking it up! If you feel like they're going back to their controlling ways, then instead of reacting as you habitually did, call them out on it and go from there.
posted by yarly at 2:20 PM on December 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

First off, I don't think you're a bad person if you maintain distance from a family that is not good for you. You have to take care of yourself and do what is right for you.

That said, you asked what people get from families they can't get from their friends. One of the things I really enjoy about spending time with my family (immediate and extended) is seeing myself in them, and them in me. When I see my cousin's children, who so closely resemble our grandmother as a baby; when I hear stories about my dad when he was a child, and recognize things I did myself; when I sit it while my mother and her siblings talk about their relationship with their father and his relatives. It's not just remembering what toy was my favorite when I was a baby, although that's great -- it's learning what made my parents who they are, and even what made my grandparents the way they were. Even after 30 years of hearing family stories, sometimes I'll hear one for the umpteenth time and a light will go on in my head and I'll have some new insight about the dynamics of my family, which in turn sheds light on who I am.
And then there's the for-better-or-worse nature of (some) families, as some have mentioned above. I have an uncle who was estranged from the entire family for many years, but I always knew I just had to pick up the phone and he'd drive halfway across the state if I needed him to. I can't imagine asking a friend to do that for me, much less an estranged one.

I don't know if your family would provide these things for you, or whether it would outweigh the pain of dealing with them. You know your own situation best. But that's some of what I, at least, would be talking about if I said family provided things that friends can't.
posted by katemonster at 2:20 PM on December 22, 2010

I truly don't understand this. Yes, my parents gave me their genes and spent a lot of time and money on raising me [...] but emotionally, they don't give me anything...

So they invested their time and resources in you, haven't abused or mistreated you and continue to seek contact with you... but because they don't give you the validation you get from your friends, they don't deserve to have any relationship whatsoever with their daughter?

...unconditional love, support, a shoulder to cry on - I get from somewhere else...

Unconditional love is continuing to call on a daughter despite the fact that she has deleted you from her life.

Honestly, the "me"-centric tone of your post suggests that there is little anyone could say to persuade you of the value of family.
posted by braemar at 2:23 PM on December 22, 2010 [9 favorites]

Your family won't move on.

Good? Bad? Depends.

I, for one, could use more people who will always find me important, think of me, etc. I'm especially sensitive about this in the context of romantic partners.

I love my partner and his family but I am always well aware that should our relationship end I would probably not be all that important.

Likewise, I recently(ish) encountered the cold reality of having to cut someone off completely. If you'd asked me 5 or even 2 months ago, I would have told you it would never happen, but things change, and chosen families fall apart over relatively stupid shit while natal families often survive abuse and incompatibility.
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:32 PM on December 22, 2010

You are violating social norms, which makes people uneasy and makes some people judgmental and interfering. You didn't ask for advice about whether you should connect with them, but the details make me wonder if you may be looking for that advice. You've got some sensible opinions here, if they are of use.
posted by theora55 at 2:35 PM on December 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Reasons for staying with jerky family:
(a) You cannot get new parents/siblings/whatever at this point in your life. You're stuck with what you got alloted. (And in-laws may or may not be a decent replacement, especially if you get divorced.)
(b) Culturally, we are all expected to adore our relatives and for our relatives to adore us, and anyone who Has Issues with theirs is looked down upon, as galadriel pointed out. Denial is a GIANT factor here. Clearly, your relatives are feeling the holiday obligation to bond with their precious baby themselves if this is when they start bugging you again too.
(c) Family is who you are stuck with and who is stuck with you, in a sense. In some cases, legally and financially.
(d) Even though those of us with jerky families would like to find replacements for them among our friend groups, this... most of the time isn't necessarily sustainable. When people pair bond off and start having kids, the whole "urban tribes" thing kind of goes away, people get jobs and move, etc. So while having a family of friends rather than a family of jerks related to you by blood is preferable, they aren't as stable and don't tend to last as long. This is especially obvious if you yourself never pair bond off with someone.

The above list is why I put up with the crazy that I do. I feel like if I abandon the crazies I came with, I won't have anyone around if I end up in the hospital or something someday. Out of my best friends, 2 out of 3 live out of town (1 an hour away, 1 in another state) and #3 wants to move, so... yeah.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:52 PM on December 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hum. I agree with the people saying there is absolutely nothing that forces you to stay on speaking terms with your parents. I didn't speak to my father, was glad when he was dead, and wasn't bothered if people were shocked by this.

HOWEVER, as some people have pointed out, in your description of your relationship with your parents they don't sound like they are complete arseholes, and may have some redeeming qualities - and even "some use to you", if you will.

Because one thing that I have found to be true is that most friends do come and go, whereas family tend to stick around. Sure, this is mostly because if friends treat you like crap you dump them, whereas you're stuck with family and so (most people feel) you have to make it work. But this can work the other way round too - i.e. if you mess up, your parents will likely be there for you, whereas friends may bail because they find it/you too much effort.

So that's just one thing to consider. (and on non-preview I see some people have raised this already, so let me just be another voice, and one who is totally not one of the 'blood is thicker than water' type)
posted by ClarissaWAM at 3:05 PM on December 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

I just thought I'd comment on Lovelygirl saying

..why expect friends to go out on a limb and risk their lives for you?

I'd do it for some of them. I don't care if we share genetic material or not. They still deserve it. But that's just the kind of not-related-to-some-people-I-love kind of person I am.
posted by bitterkitten at 3:53 PM on December 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

As you approach 40, either other folks stop offering their opinions about your family -or- you stop caring about anyone else's opinion on the subject. I don't exactly know why this is a bigger issue socially when you are younger, but there ya go!

I went through the comments from others thing quite a bit when I was younger, and unlike you OP, I had a demonstrably abusive upbringing to point to as my reason. I have no idea why other folks find our choices regarding family relationships so damn threatening - but they do.

Smile. Ignore. Proceed happily forward in life!
posted by jbenben at 4:39 PM on December 22, 2010

As you become your own person and they, more and more, come to see you as your own person and their peer, the tension in your relationship could easily fall by the wayside. But here is the rub. that tension will not go away unless your rekindle your relationship.

It's only by being exposed to the adult, self-actualized, content version of you that they'll be able to eventually get over their vision of what they think you should be.

Yeah, that's how it's supposed to work. Most people seem to figure out that their kid becomes an adult in the same general procedure that turned them from kid into adult, and so forth. But apparently some people, like my father, never got that memo and are uninterested in any sensemaking in that vein.

I'm 37, and I wish I'd put my foot down years ago instead of rationalizing my parents' controlling behavior. But hey, "it's not like they abused me." And yet maybe I can set my standards for family a wee bit higher than that.

Yeah, a literal sort of "direct substitution of friends in place of blood relatives as family" requires a great deal of effort to sustain, since you don't have guilt compelling you make it work with these people somehow. But this is a bit circular, it justifies "length of relationship" as the vital criteria. Instead, I think it's okay if the members of your chosen family shift as relationships evolve.

On the other hand, you don't want to be a jerk on principle, so if a limited relationship with your parents works as a compromise, it may be worth considering.
posted by desuetude at 4:56 PM on December 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

I am skeptical of many of the answers here -- not of the intent behind them but of the truthfulness of them. Even given that, I don't think people are lying. I just suspect many are trying to think logically about something that isn't logical.

Why have a relationship with your parents? For the same reason you have a relationship with anyone else: because you feel a need or desire to have that relationship.

I admit that I may be misunderstanding people. But I don't get that "your parents are the people who knew you growing up" answer. While, of course, that's true, why is it important? I mean, if it's important to a specific person, then it's important to him. I'm not saying it shouldn't be important. I'm just saying it's sort of a non-answer. It's like if someone asked "Why are books important?" and people answered, "Because you can read them." That's just a fact about books -- not a way of understanding why they're important.

Okay, let's say you have these people in your life that knew you growing up. What would that mean to you on a day-to-day basis? Do you enjoy talking to people about what you were like as a baby and toddler?

(In my case, I find that once I passed toddler stage and started making friends, those friends seem to remember me better -- at least the parts of me that I value -- than my parents do. But even with those childhood friends, I don't discuss my childhood much. Some people like to/need to discuss their childhoods. Other don't so much. I am not scared or angry about my childhood. It just feels kind of done. I don't know what else to say about it. At 45, I find myself thinking more about high school and college, and my parents weren't around much then.)

Do you find that you have a lot of unanswered questions in the present, and that thinking about your childhood helps you clarify or answer them? Then maybe you WOULD get something out of a relationship with your parents. Of course, we were all formed, to a large degree, by what happened to us as kids. For some people, there are a lot of open questions about how "back then" ties in with now. For others, not so much.

Will it make you happy just somehow knowing that you are friends with people who knew you as a kid, even if that knowledge doesn't manifest itself in any nuts-and-bolts way? Even if you don't discuss it much? Will you be happy just basking in the glow of that? It wouldn't do much for me, but I'm not you.

As for the argument that family is always there for you in a way that friends aren't... Anyone who is making that argument is talking about THEIR family and THEIR friends. That is NOT a universal experience, even if it is a common one. I have plenty of friends for whom that hasn't been the case: friends who have had to rely on other friends why family members have bailed on them.

I say that with no bile. I DO have a relationship with my parents. But my relationship is not yours, and mine can't inform yours, because my parents are not your parents.

And mine isn't mine because "they knew me when I was a kid" or "they'll alway be there for me." Both of those things are true. But neither is why I have a relationship with my parents. I have a relationship with them because, as with all my relationships, there's a bond between me and them. If that bond got severed and I didn't feel a need for it, I probably wouldn't try to regain it.

As for the people saying you're selfish, I disagree with them. Of COURSE your post says me me me a lot. It's a question about you.

I suspect many of those people are worried you're being unfair to your parents and their needs. I am sympathetic to that view, and I know that losing a child's love is (usually) heartbreaking to a parent. But duty is the WORST reason to be in any relationship. Life is too short. (You don't stay in a relationship with a lover because it would break his heart if you left, do you?)

And, honestly, that's a risk you take when you become a parent. If you give birth to someone thinking you're guaranteed to have their love forever, you're a fool. Sorry, I know that's harsh, but it's true. Parents get no such guarantee.

So BE selfish when it comes to relationships. Don't be selfish IN relationships. But be selfish about whether or not you stay in relationships with people. Other people disagree, but that is a strong value of mine. Choosing whether to be in a relationship or not a is when it's totally appropriate to be selfish. If your ex-boyfriend wants to date you again, you are not bound to do so; if the cashier at Walmart wants to come over to your house and watch movies, you don't have to say yes; If some kid you were best friends with in elementary school wants to be best friends again, you don't have to be best friends with him. Same with your parents.

Why not? Because a forced friendship benefits no one.
posted by grumblebee at 5:31 PM on December 22, 2010 [13 favorites]

You get to choose on what terms you have a relationship (or not) with your family.

I come from a close, loving family. Mine is about to take over my house for Christmas, and I am so excited. My partner, on the other hand, has a relationship with his parents that sounds more like yours. For me, this has been nearly impossible to understand, and it's taken a lot of patience on both our parts. I think that's what you're getting when people say "you only have one family" -- most people with positive family relationships just can't understand what a negative family relationship looks like if it's not outright abusive.

As far as whether to reconcile with your folks? For a variety of reasons, my partner remains in touch with his family, but they aren't close. They live on the other side of the country, and he hasn't visited since he moved away. He spent a number of years going back and forth, trying to decide whether to cut them out of his life. For him, the right answer has been to keep contact and practice being kind but not close. Basically, he treats them as well as he wishes they'd treat him, and he doesn't tolerate any bad behavior on their part ("Dad, if you do that again, I'm going to hang up the phone" -- and he does). This has generally been positive. They don't bug him, because they feel like they have a good relationship with their son, and he isn't bugged, because he's not letting them under his skin.

I guess my point is: there are options between adoring your parents and never talking to them at all. If you think it would be a good solution for you, some kind of middle option is worth considering.
posted by linettasky at 6:09 PM on December 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

it can be riskier to depend on friends to be your family than well, your family to be your family. After all, why expect friends to go out on a limb and risk their lives for you?

Or, you know, it can be seriously risky to attempt to depend on your family. For anything. Even such minimal things as "maintain civility," much less "support of any kind." Depends on the family. I think this quote above may be an example of "people with good families just don't get, emotionally, that there are BAD families."
posted by galadriel at 7:05 PM on December 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

Yes, that and a few of the other comments here really demonstrate the preconceived notion of "family == best" that many, many people have, which is what the OP was actually asking about. The idea that of course you can always count on your family more than anyone else. Of course they would risk their lives for you. Of course they know more about you than your friends ever could. Of course they'll always be there for you no matter what. They're family, that's what family is for, and you must be terribly selfish for wanting to sever those ties if there was no "real" abuse, right?

Except for some people, "family" doesn't mean any of that. For some of us, "family" means guilt trips and shaking heads and clucking tongues and no hugs and never being good enough and forgotten birthdays and favoritism and abandonment and indifference and discouragement and namecalling and all sorts of things that seem like no big deal and not really abuse to someone who didn't grow up with it.

Love is not a debt that we owe our relatives. It's a choice.
posted by Gator at 7:26 PM on December 22, 2010 [15 favorites]

Mod note: Comments removed - very seriously do not make this thread into some weird non-answer set of guilt trips. MetaTalk is for you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:03 PM on December 22, 2010

Why is it a bad idea to cut of all ties from your parents?

The answer may not be what you think it is. The reason to maintain at least some very minimal contact is actually for your sake, not for theirs.

Because at some point they are likely to predecease you. And then you will likely be left with a burden of guilt and a lot of unanswered questions.

Because when you hate someone so much that you refuse to speak to them, it has a physical effect on you, it raises your bloodpressure, causes anxiety and stress, and internalizes your anger.

Because it actually takes a lot of effort to hate someone, and it is a waste of a life.

You don't have to be close to them, you don't have to call them, you don't even have to show up to every family get together. It's OK to disagree on how they raised you or what they believe in. Just stop hating them and try to look upon them with some kindness and forgiveness because life is short.

I have been in your situation and have made peace. I am a million times happier. You will feel as if a two ton weight has been lifted off your shoulders.
posted by Pademelon at 8:44 PM on December 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Because when you hate someone so much that you refuse to speak to them, it has a physical effect on you, it raises your bloodpressure, causes anxiety and stress, and internalizes your anger.

It doesn't necessarily take any effort not to interact with people you find toxic. I know lots of people who have severed relationships with family members and never give them a second thought.

Everyone has to do what's right for them. Clearly you've done what's right for you, but it's not clear that it would be right for the OP.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:06 PM on December 22, 2010 [6 favorites]

Because when you hate someone so much that you refuse to speak to them

This could be another demonstration of people just not *getting* what it means to not have a loving, supportive, "normal" family, or that some people are genuinely better off without their family in their lives.

Some people are much happier, much healthier, for not maintaining a relationship with their families. You don't have to hate someone to recognize that being around them is unhealthy. Sometimes, it's just a choice you make, not something that requires emotional upheaval every time you contemplate it--and you may not ever contemplate it.

And that's okay. It's okay. Despite busybodies or generally well-meaning people who think otherwise, it really is okay. (Sometimes therapy is useful, to help you get to a point where you can internalize that "it's okay," because there's so much out there that screams IT'S NOT OKAY. And hey, therapy may even help some people get to a point where they are SO okay that they can withstand their family's shortcomings; depends on the person, depends on the family.)
posted by galadriel at 9:38 PM on December 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Because when you hate someone so much that you refuse to speak to them,

The OP didn't say anything about hate. How many hundreds of people do you know with whom you do not seek out you HATE these people?
posted by desuetude at 9:42 PM on December 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

I am with you on this. You are experiencing societal pressure to do something you do not want to do but you have good reasons for not wanting to do it and you should feel okay about that.

As the cliché has it, we do not choose our family. And if we do not get on with our family it is perfectly reasonable to treat them like anyone else you do not get on with. There are members of my family I haven't seen since childhood, and I never would, because I dislike them intensely.

You owe no one anything at all just because they have some genes in common with you. And this...

Yes, my parents gave me their genes and spent a lot of time and money on raising me not a complete description of the situation. That would be "My parents chose to give me their genes and spend a lot of time and money on raising me."

People who have children have the responsibility for those children. It's their decision. You didn't ask to be "given" genes and to be born. the concept of filial duty is a highly devious one used entirely to benefit parents in a way they don't really deserve.

Bottom line: if you don't like certain family members and wish to behave accordingly, that's fine. really, it is.
posted by Decani at 4:27 AM on December 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Mod note: we are not reliving our bad xmas experiences in this thread, thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 1:37 PM on December 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

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