Desperate for some productive way to think about parental relationships
May 3, 2011 2:54 PM   Subscribe

I am in agony regarding my parents and their endless emotional dependence on me. I'm a very private and independent person, but their energy drains me to the point of destruction every time I have to see them or even talk to them. What are some mental approaches which might help?

(This is long, but I appreciate any help.)

One problem is that they are not doing anything terribly outlandish. They used to call me multiple times per day, expect me to see them every time I had time off, constantly ask me about my personal life, etc. Now they have backed off a bit, but unfortunately, it will never be enough. Frankly, I could very happily never talk to them again or see them. But I am always trying to balance my total genuine hatred of being around them with trying to be helpful and not totally reprehensible.

However, every time I decide to see them, I am destroyed for months afterward, and become a shell-shocked zombie. Every good habit, every inch that I have painstakingly gained in terms of calmness and healthiness, simply disappear from the extreme pressure of their hawk-eyed interest, the discussion of my choices (which can be vicious occasionally), and the memory of the verbal abuse and deeply controlling behavior during my entire life. One parent is the main culprit in this, and the 'kinder' parent is still recovering from a psychotic breakdown. He has become more emotionally desperate and intrusive since the breakdown, and I am left not even knowing who 'he' actually is, and what aspects of his behavior stem from that. But because of his fragile condition, the unspeakably seductive idea of cutting off contact with them is totally impossible.

This big mix of hatred, disgust, pity, and guilt is destroying me, yet as the years progress, I am probably going to be somehow responsible for their welfare (despite being penniless myself, and I have no siblings.) If they were both categorically abusive, that would be one thing. I just know that if I had a different personality, maybe the situation wouldn't be so bad. I could be emotionally giving to a small degree, and they could feel loved, and everyone could go on with their lives.

Instead, one small phone call destroyed my incredibly productive and calm/focused energy today, and I fear I will never gain true independence from their desperate energy which only increases as they get older and feel more vulnerable. Even the verbally abusive parent is now just projecting pathetic energy.

How can I be compassionate when I lose all mental cohesion just thinking about them? Any ideas are welcome, from general approaches to specific thoughts that I can repeat to myself. I know this is a lot, and I am not seeking magic answers, but some concepts might be helpful. Also, I am in my late-20s, so I really feel like I should have made some progress on this by now.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (27 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Everyone's gonna say therapy, so yes, therapy. But given everything you've described, you should not feel obligated to be your parents' keeper. A real relationship is mutually beneficial, and these people sound like vultures . . . what about giving yourself permission to just detach? Let go of the guilt and responsibility. You're an incredibly tolerant, giving person for putting up with what you have, and now you should be at liberty to take care of yourself. Even if that means not taking care of your parents.
posted by ella wren at 3:08 PM on May 3, 2011

12-step work in Al-Anon / CODA has helped me.
posted by krilli at 3:13 PM on May 3, 2011

You need to take a break from any and all contact with your parents. Your father's "fragile condition" isn't your fault and isn't your responsibility -- putting his well-being ahead of your own in this way probably won't help him, and definitely won't help you.

What's the longest you've gone without taking to your parents? It doesn't sound like you've ever had a chance to get real distance or perspective on your relationship with them. It's much easier to deal with difficult family members when you don't feel cornered or harangued.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 3:13 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

You are going to get a lot of great answers.

In the meantime: screen your calls. Seriously.
Call back only when you are ready. Seriously.
The world will not end if you do not pick up. Seriously.
posted by vivid postcard at 3:16 PM on May 3, 2011 [12 favorites]

Al-anon has helped me immensely. Memail me if you feel like it.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:27 PM on May 3, 2011

Well, I can recommend this book - If You Had Controlling Parents: How To Make Peace With Your Past And Take Your Place In The World. I have to say reading it really made a difference in how I viewed myself and my relationship to my parents, and it helped me take a big leap forward in how I dealt with them and perceived their treatment of me - allowing me to feel more free, as a person. Your question made me think you might find some assistance or insights in it that could help you as well. Good luck.
posted by flex at 3:36 PM on May 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh my. Therapy, for help dealing with your intense feelings.

If you can find a way to be in charge of the relationship, it will help. Call them, say "I only have 2 minutes before (whatever), just called to say Hello." Then, get off the phone in 2 minutes or less. "Gotta go, bus is leaving." Send them cards/postcards as a way to ease guilt without interaction. Always, always keep visits short and upbeat.

Learn to change the subject. My mother was being dreadful, and it was about to get much worse. Pretty randomly, I said, "What curtains are you going to put in your new living room?" My siblings looked at me as if I were bonkers, but Mom started talking about curtains, and the crisis was postponed. Take a list of conversation starters with you on visits, or for phone calls. Write it down. Write down affirmations. It helps.

You do not have to be responsible for them. If you can learn to have a non-toxic relationship, it will feel better later in life, but the 1st priority is to be responsible for your own mental health. You deserve respect and you deserve to walk away from anyone who is not respectful.
posted by theora55 at 3:37 PM on May 3, 2011

I would absolutely screen your calls, and respond via email when possible so that you do not get trapped into long, emotionally draining conversations.

And you could also establish some boundaries to help retain your sanity, like suggesting a specific time you will be available for a weekly call to/from them, and sticking to that. So you know that, say, Tuesday nights at 7 PM will be Mom and Dad call time. You could explain this by saying you have greater responsibilities at work, or a friend in need who is leaning on you if you want to soften the blow, but be clear that this is the only time you KNOW you can be free. If you need to, make it less/more often, but have that specific time set up.

And then do not answer the phone at other times! Again, screen those calls and use email to reply whenever possible. You can even set up a separate email just for your parents, to check on when you are in the right emotional place to deal with their demands on you.

This toxic, co-dependent relationship they have with you is not good for you, and you need to give yourself some distance.
posted by misha at 3:55 PM on May 3, 2011

Why is it unspeakable to never speak to these people again?

It's possible you should rethink that premise.

It's not the taboo you think it is. And the people you are discussing are adults who have the agency to choose their circumstances in life.

As do you.
posted by jbenben at 4:00 PM on May 3, 2011 [9 favorites]

"This big mix of hatred, disgust, pity, and guilt ": I've got that with my parents, and I wish I had cut off all contact decades ago. Even though there was no physical abuse, the emotional abuse was severe, and it's ongoing. But none of my many therapists ever helped me get there.

I guess I am suggesting that you really look at the possibility of no contact, consider it actually possible. I think I really get the hold that the pity and guilt have, but your parents are goners. You can still save yourself. I'm going to read the book flex recommended and reconsider my own situation. In any case, best wishes.
posted by Lizzle at 4:05 PM on May 3, 2011

Speaking from experience, you are not independent if you are engaging their particular brand of crazy whenever you interact.

Example (true story!):
You are avoiding your mom, but she wants to know if you're back from vacation, so she calls your cell phone eight times, your office number six times and your boss's office number twice. Finally, you answer the phone, on the off chance that something awful has happened.

"How was your trip?" she asks.

INDEPENDENT: "Fine. I'm sorry; I can't talk to you right now."
[Hang up. Go about your day.]

DEPENDENT: "I can't believe you called me. I'm fine, but why did you call me so many times? This really upsets me."
[Hang up, feel like crying, go to the bathroom, text friend for the next half hour, go home, post on LiveJournal about how much your parents suck, consider starting a blog with all of the messed up things they do, spend all night upset and grump about it to your partner for a good two hours when he comes home. And then again when you're ready to fall asleep.]

In both cases, your mom's behavior (crazy or not) remains the same. Your own behavior is the only thing that you know you can reliably change. Really, there's something to be said for engaging with drama, especially if you're used to it: if you didn't have the drama, how would you relate to them? Predictable mediocrity is way easier to maintain than something healthy but completely foreign. You've created a value for "normal" that doesn't resemble actual normality in the least.

In my case, I've complained about my parents hoping to get some validation that *I* am not the crazy one, and to some degree that's been helpful. But if I try to set boundaries and still get absolutely flamdingled every time she says something -- something I KNOW will be off the wall -- whose fault is that for not responding to a known pattern in a helpful way?

Whether or not alcohol or other substances are involved, I've found ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) resources to be very helpful in understanding this dynamic. The attempts to set boundaries and pulling back, only to be drawn in again... until the next incident; the lack of awareness (by you or them) that this is an abnormal situation; the promises that they will do better and the realization that they won't; the astounding degree of defensiveness when you call them out on their misbehavior -- all of this made sense to me.

If you'd like to chat, feel free to MeMail me. Several of my past questions have dealt with this kind of thing in one way or another.
posted by Madamina at 4:18 PM on May 3, 2011 [14 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
Thanks for the responses so far. Here is a throwaway email address for anyone who wants to respond that way:

Also, reading some information about Al-Anon, I was shocked at how much it resonated with me. What are the ethics of going when Alcoholism isn't/wasn't the issue? How would I address that at a meeting?

Also, I absolutely screen my calls. I wait until I think I am 'ready,' but the point is that I am never ready, and will never be ready. No matter how solid-feeling my good state is, it is destroyed instantly. I never listen to my voicemail messages, though I rarely delete them. I finally call them back when the pity and guilt get too dramatic for me.

Two last things before I exit the thread:

1) My father was very very kind growing up, and although he wasn't perfect and didn't seem to notice how bad my situation was, I still feel terrible about potentially punishing him and withdrawing my energy further. I'm not sure how to balance that.

2) I have tried therapy twice, but I can't seem to get any productive help from it. It's so hard for me to focus simultaneously on the difficult tasks of trying to remain authentic and un-fake-cheery with the therapist, and also recall past incidents clearly/present my problems clearly or explain how bad it really was and how dramatic the repercussions have been.

Thanks again. Every idea is helping.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:34 PM on May 3, 2011

I went through a crisis of rage at my parents in my late twenties/early thirties - it was exhausting and stressful to see them a couple of times a year, I felt constantly angry and I just gutted out the phone conversations. When I talked about them to my friends, it was always with deep anger and pain. My parents were seriously depressed when I was small, have an unhappy marriage and until I was in my mid-twenties alternated between the silent treatment, rage and intense nosy controlling whenever I made any decision of which they disapproved--of which there were many. My parents, however, don't sound as difficult or as fragile as yours. I felt, as you feel, that there was no way I would cut off contact, because they weren't ever cruel to me and because it would have left them vulnerable.

I probably would have benefited from therapy. After years of feeling this way, it just....stopped. Looking back, I think that what was going on was two-fold - I was confronting their physical fragility and mortality, which frightened me because I do love them, because I was afraid of their needs and because I was afraid to accept that this is it, this is the relationship with my parents, there will be no movie-style epiphany and change; and because since I was fully adult, I was starting to see them with adult eyes so I had to understand them instead of resenting them and I felt the full weight of the sadness of their disappointments, missed opportunities and depressions. I basically was in the long, slow process of re-thinking how I narrated my parents' lives - going from "these are powerful looming adult figures who won't let me alone and before whom I am helpless" to "these are two people with whom I have a difficult relationship, who have been controlling and authoritarian toward me, who will one day die and who have had many sad and painful things happen to them, largely due to social forces beyond their control". It was very hard to let go of the narrative that had worked for me when I was younger and to accept a new way of thinking about them.

I think that if you have authoritarian, controlling parents, you develop a survival narrative when you're young, and there comes a time when that narrative no longer works and is no longer needed. Then it's very difficult to let go of the familiar, useful, safe narrative about them, the narrative that let you get through your younger years. It's hard anyway when parents get old and frail, but parents who you've spent your life fighting, parents who have always been strong and intrusive--!

Obviously, you can cut off contact if you want. If that's healthy, you should do it.
posted by Frowner at 4:35 PM on May 3, 2011 [14 favorites]

Do you ever hang up on them when it gets bad on the phone? I long ago had to master the art of actually just hanging up after saying "goodBYE, Mom!" a time or two, even if she's ignored me and kept on talking. She's gonna be wacky at me anyway, so it ultimately doesn't actually cost anything, and it gives me a sense of control and peace.

Also, I'll second learning to change the conversation in sort of random ways when it looks like conversation is going downhill. Especially with wacky parents, it can be shockingly easy to derail them into talking about harmless subjects (ie curtains, or shoes, or restaurants). No transition or segue needed, just interrupt with the new topic and see what sticks.

Remind yourself again and again that you don't have to play along. You can derail, you can hang up, you can leave. They'll get over it. They want you in their lives too badly not to.

Read this article. (A friend sent me the link because it reminded her of my mother. It helped a bit. Might help you, too.)

I'm older than you, and last time I was at a party my mother still somehow just happened to start texting me, asking what kind of party it was and who was there. (I ignored her. When she brought it up again next time we saw each other, I started making up outlandish names and told her it was a sex party. Then I changed the subject. This worked fine.)

Feel free to memail me if you want to talk further or in more detail.
posted by Eshkol at 4:37 PM on May 3, 2011

2) I have tried therapy twice, but I can't seem to get any productive help from it. It's so hard for me to focus simultaneously on the difficult tasks of trying to remain authentic and un-fake-cheery with the therapist, and also recall past incidents clearly/present my problems clearly or explain how bad it really was and how dramatic the repercussions have been.

I should've hit preview! One more thought on this point - try writing out a list of memories on your own, that describe past incidents and how bad they were and how you feel about them. Bring it with you when you go to see the therapist. That way you don't have to try to remember them in the moment (though having the list there will automatically make it easier to remember, anyway). It should help with the therapy, and might end up being a helpful exercise for you in and of itself.
posted by Eshkol at 4:40 PM on May 3, 2011

Every good habit, every inch that I have painstakingly gained in terms of calmness and healthiness, simply disappear from the extreme pressure of their hawk-eyed interest, the discussion of my choices (which can be vicious occasionally), and the memory of the verbal abuse and deeply controlling behavior during my entire life. One parent is the main culprit in this, and the 'kinder' parent is still recovering from a psychotic breakdown.

Hi, anonymous. I practically could have written this myself. I'm an only child with controlling, emotionally-dependent parents whose hawk-eyed interest manifests as an endless feedback loop of anxiety.

My mother has some emotional baggage, and she's not blameless, but I care about her a great deal and respect her, and enjoy her company when it's just us. She's recovering from a number of physical health problems and even more dependent on my father right now, which is causing her a lot of stress and fear and a whole new ballgame of anxiety. My father has no concept of how to have an actual conversation with me; he gives me instructions couched as a conversation. He is paranoid about being taken advantage of, and will viciously turn on someone over imagined slights rather than accept the normal give-and-take of friendship or acquaintance between adults.

The controlling tendencies seemed like fairly typical overprotective parent stuff as a kid. Annoying, but hey, you've gotta protect your kid, and everyone has a different take. So then, college: Four hours' drive, on purpose. Well, I can understand my parents thinking of me as a kid, I'm not really "on my own" yet, though the inconsistencies in their logic are just absurd. Early-20s: First apartment and "stop-gap" post-college jobs, and without a "real" job, I'm apparently not an adult, good grief, they need some perspective, but I'll start gently cutting these apron strings one at a time. Late 20s: Relocation to a new city, massively revisionist history tendencies getting more insulting, have managed a few tiny victories, but overall, we don't seem to be getting anywhere new.

I'm in my late-30s, and I say to you: start moving up those boundaries, like I wish I had done years ago.

One big benefit of therapy has been that this person with whom I have a very limited relationship, who is cognizant that she's only hearing my side, still says "no, really, that's not right."
posted by desuetude at 6:11 PM on May 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think it might help if you focused on being kind to yourself. In your question, you say some pretty judgmental things about yourself (that you should have made more progress and that you're worried your actions could be "reprehensible") that suggest maybe you're pretty harsh on yourself.

Could you try to treat yourself more gently? It sounds like you've been though an awful lot. It's natural to have trouble figuring out how to move forward. I'm sure there's nothing reprehensible about you, just from all the caring you show in this one question. It sounds like you have a lot of compassion. I think treating yourself with that compassion might help you feel more free. When you're taking better care of yourself, you may find that you have more energy for your parents.

Agreed that therapy could help and that you're well within your rights to cut off contact, temporarily or permanently.
posted by zahava at 6:18 PM on May 3, 2011

I'm happy to take a crack at this:

"My father was very very kind growing up, and although he wasn't perfect and didn't seem to notice how bad my situation was, I still feel terrible about potentially punishing him and withdrawing my energy further. I'm not sure how to balance that."

Your father was the adult in the situation when you were growing up, and for all of his kindness, he did not protect you from your mother or get her the help she sounds like she desperately needed.

By painting yourself and your father as victims, you are actively choosing to keep yourself locked into a dynamic that is slowly killing you.

It's OK for you to make whatever adult decisions necessary to keep yourself healthy and safe from harm. You did not learn this Truth in your household growing up, but you can learn it here and now.

There. Hope that perspective helps you see this from another viewpoint.

(Also, you don't have to hate anyone or be angry to make the right choices for yourself. That's probably something else you weren't taught...)
posted by jbenben at 6:27 PM on May 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

I can relate to your post so much. I have to briefly say, it is OK to cut off all contact because YOU ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR OTHER PEOPLE'S FEELINGS and YOU MUST TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. This is a real option. The other option is therapy of course to get to the ROOT of these horrible feelings you have. And everything in between: I got really into empowering myself by becoming aware of every choice, owning it, understanding what a toxic co dependency looks like, meditating, etc. That said, and of course that is a gross and overly brief summary of everything in between, you may want to sever the ties that bind. I have done it myself and the only thing you need to ask yourself if want to do but cant, is why? What emotional hell have you been through that has left you feeling responsible for other people and how they feel? You are not. We do not belong to each other on this earth, it is a privelege to become a part of each other, it is not a given that we must be involved with each other. Just because someone birthed you or help make you does not mean you own them anything - on the contrary, you owe nothing. Healthy detachment is a good thing, we are just people who's brain produces all kinds of alarming emotions that push us this way and that, we must turn these blaring alarms down and remember if we dont take care of ourselves we cannot care for anyone else. We are only responsible for ourselves and we hold tremendous power over how we feel, what we do, what we dont feel. I encourage you to explore your boundaries and who you want to be in this world- care enough for yourself to let go of the responsibility of doing what others want you to. Because I love myself, I do not allow anyone to dictate my actions. I do what I want to do. Its very freeing. I chose if I am angry or sad or responsible for others, no one can MAKE me so. I hope you find your road in your situaiton, and it may not be the road to peace but it will be the road to health.
posted by cerebral at 6:52 PM on May 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, you don't have to hate anyone or be angry to make the right choices for yourself...


Get away from unhealthy relationships, even if they're family.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 6:52 PM on May 3, 2011

I've had varying amount of success just pushing my family out of the parts (and percentage) of my life that I reserve for just myself and whoever I choose to be with.

It's taken a long time, and it doesn't always work, and it is really really hard sometimes to get over the guilt, but asserting to my parents as if I didn't feel any guilt, and handling the "me" part of the emotions separately has helped.
posted by nile_red at 7:39 PM on May 3, 2011

Al-Anon — What are the ethics of going when Alcoholism isn't/wasn't the issue? How would I address that at a meeting?
There aren't any ethics, really. I myself wasn't raised in an alcoholic environment, and the steps and sponsorshop still work. The work being done covers a lot of common things. Try it and see. If you wish, there are support groups that are not alcoholism-oriented, such as CODA (Codependents Anonymous). I'd suggest looking up meetings of all kinds in in your area and going to a few different ones (and at best, twice to each session - the atmosphere meeting-to-meeting can be pretty random. :) )
posted by krilli at 1:36 AM on May 4, 2011

You don't have to be cheery with a therapist. Walk in and say "I feel like I have to be cheery. But I don't want to be cheery!"

That's where you can practie taking what you need. If you're driven to follow some imagined rules of politeness with a therapist who is paid to help you then I can see why you have a hard time doing what you need around the people who created and enforced rules about setting aside what you need in favor of fulfilling their expectations.
posted by vitabellosi at 3:49 AM on May 4, 2011

My experience has not been as severe as yours but I can definitely still relate. There's a lot of great advice here and I just wanted to add that one thing my therapist said that really helped me stop being so angry is to think of my mom as a toddler (after I angrily made the comparison). She is incapable of acting like the adult I expect her to be, so the thing I can do is change my expectations. As for Al-Anon, etc, I went to Alateen when I was in high school and ended up spending all my time talking about the parent who was NOT the alcoholic, but the relatability and support were 100% still there.
posted by brilliantine at 5:11 AM on May 4, 2011

Frankly, I could very happily never talk to them again or see them.

[the] idea of cutting off contact with them is totally impossible.

No, it isn't.
posted by spaltavian at 7:02 AM on May 4, 2011

Also, look into Google Voice for helping with the screening. It's awesome to be able to change my phone number (yeah, prepaid!) and still have everybody able to call me, yet set up complicated rules to prevent the "Dad calls me at 6am" phone calls (that always seem intrusive and make me cranky).

It's pretty cool because you can set up complicated rules so you don't even know they called until it emails you a transcript of their message, so you don't have to feel guilty about ignoring them.
posted by bookdragoness at 9:34 AM on May 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Frankly, I could very happily never talk to them again or see them.

This is exactly how I feel about my Dad.

[the] idea of cutting off contact with them is totally impossible.

The only reason you think it's impossible is because they've drilled it into your head and laced it with guilt to make that simple, life-saving act, feel impossible. They don't want you to leave, because then their emotionally twisted, symbiotic game would be over.

The reality is it is not impossible to stop talking to them. I have just, with the help of my husband, stopped talking to my Dad for the last 3 weeks. Yes, even on Father's Day I didn't call him. That was hard. Especially when my Mom sent me a passive-aggressive email that I should.

But, since then I feel more that I can listen to myself now that my Dad is not totally intruding on my life ever single minute or day. The relationship with your parents is not your whole life, it's just as small a part as you want to make it. And, it doesn't have to be any part that's important. This is the truth: their phone calls, their needs, are not as important as you and your life and your needs.

What's the worst that will happen if you stop talking to them? They get angry? They throw a fit? And then what? So, they're angry. Your whole life has been twisted and damaged from their actions. I don't see why they need to be pampered and coddled all the time. Do they even know how painful this has been for you?

And, if you stop talking to them, even if you leave one phone call go unanswered, you will probably feel guilt. I have felt a load of it. So what if they say you're "reprehensible"? You're not, and sane people know that. The guilt and fear subsided some when I realized that I am not obligated to ruin my life for them. I am not obligated to live in their game with them calling the shots. My life, my call, my rules.

You can talk to them any time you feel like it. You can call them back or answer, or NOT -- it's up to you. But, do not take the call or what they say as important. Do not listen to what they say. Do what you want to do, and don't do things just because they want you to.

If you want to MeMail me to talk more, please do.
posted by minx at 11:58 AM on June 26, 2011

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