How to save relationship with uncle?
May 29, 2011 12:08 AM   Subscribe

Is there any way to save my relationship with a relative who has suddenly distanced himself after marriage?

My uncle and I were very close when I was growing up. He was like a father to me. When my parents separated and my dad moved out, he moved in for a year and I became very attached to him. He was young compared to my parents, so in addition to becoming like a second father to me he also felt like a friend. He gave me a lot of attention and love, and he was also a constant source of fun and adventure. He accepted me and made me feel special when my dad was absent and kids at school bullied me.

Our relationship remained good through my teens. In my early twenties we didn't see each other for a few years because we lived too far apart, but that is no longer a problem and we recently saw each other again one year ago. Since then we have seen each other at a number of family functions. His behavior toward me has completely changed. Completely. He barely acknowledges my existence.

He married and had a kid last year, and I think this has a lot to do with the change. My mother has said that when he gets involved with a woman, he pools all of his affection into her and becomes distant to everyone else in the family. She has said it's much more extreme, though, now that he's gotten married. My grandfather died of lung cancer not too long ago, and I guess my grandmother was really upset at my uncle because he was barely present while my grandfather was dying even though he lives nearby. He was too wrapped up in his wife and kid to visit more often.

I saw him at another family gathering this weekend, and he ignored me again. I was sitting at a table directly across from him and he barely said two words to me the whole meal. I tried to engage him once, but it didn't go anywhere.

I have been feeling really depressed about this. I know he is narcissistic (he always has been), but I still long for a connection with him. I don't understand the extreme shift. I mean I know he isn't just doing this to me, yet it still feels like a rejection of me on an emotional level.

As for his wife, I don't think she's trying to keep him away from the family at all but she's kind of cold and she seems to wear the pants in their relationship. He spends all of his time trying to please her.

Any advice or insight?
posted by timsneezed to Human Relations (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
"He ... had a kid last year" ... "I was sitting at a table directly across from him and he barely said two words to me the whole meal."

Like most new parents, he might have just been brain-dead from sleep deprivation and stress.

I'm thinking perhaps you don't know many people with babies? Dropping off the face of the earth for a few years until all the kids are old enough to go to preschool is pretty standard.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:43 AM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

You know, the sleep-deprivation thing sounds like a good explanation. This sounds like the thing that could completely tip him from just being uxorious to being completely unavailable.

I fully understand why this is hurtful, though. He effectively gave you the cut direct, although he probably didn't mean to. If someone did that to me and I didn't know they were doing it to everyone, I'd be frantically running around trying to figure out what terrible thing I did to make them hate me. As it is, I don't think this has anything to do with you, but I can absolutely see why it hurts you. Anyone would be hurt.

The only advice I can give is to take a step back and let him come to you, which could take years. In the meantime, acknowledge their birthdays and major occasions, but otherwise just let him be the one to contact you. It may not bring him back to you, but it won't push him away either.
posted by tel3path at 3:44 AM on May 29, 2011

That's pretty much exactly what has happened with my maternal aunt. Like you, I have persisted in wanting the connection, making excuses for this person [such as a new marriage, her grandchildren and other interests etc] even whilst continuing to ring her up, send her Xmas cards, ask after her with other family members, inviting her to dinner, parties etc. Each encounter just made me feel more and more abandoned - especially when such a bond existed. When you describe sitting only metres away from your uncle and being ignored [to such an extent that it is observable to outsiders] I relate entirely. This has happened to me, and it hurts.

It took awhile to come to this, but I've given up. I completely understand your bafflement and hurt. Like you, there was a real attachment with this person. [We nursed my mother at home until she died of cancer, and I was a bridesmaid at her later-in-life second marriage.] I can't explain it. I haven't been a terrible person and I don't think you have either. I think you might have it right - your uncle is self-involved and unable to 'hold' you the way you need to be held. Going forward, you have to wean yourself from caring as much as you do right now. I was upset for ages, but now I have a clear conscience and think, oh well, their loss.
posted by honey-barbara at 4:09 AM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing sleep deprivation and baby etc. But I think the other thing you may want to consider, is that sometimes the kind of person who is a great person for a teen, is unable or unwilling to be that person for an adult. While he was fulfilling all kinds of emotional needs in you, have you ever considered that perhaps you were filling those needs in him at the same time?

Teens and young people can and do interact with adults in ways that other adults typically don't. Other adults are too guarded, too experienced, too spread out, too lacking in faith, too one hundred other things. Perhaps, while you needed someone to believe in, your uncle needed someone to believe in him. Now - as an adult - you don't have those needs, and you can't provide him with what he got from their existence. He may think you don't need what he used to give you, he may think you don't want it, or he may feel hurt that you don't want it, or unable to relate to you as an adult, in the way he could relate to you as a teen.

He may be getting, and giving, that level of relationship to his new wife and daughter - and some people are unable to spread themselves like that.

But the real take out is: you are not responsible for other people's emotions. Don't blame yourself for this growing apart in your relationship with you uncle. Relationships have their own lifespans and characteristics. It sounds the relationship with your uncle has changed from what it was; it may change again in the future, or it may not - but you shouldn't beat yourself up about it either way. It sounds like you both got something you really needed at a time in your lives when you both needed it. Be grateful for that; nothing that happens now will ever change the weight and worth of that moment in your life, and you shouldn't let subsequent events colour it.

Give your uncle some time. Offer to babysit, or bring dinner around if you like. But don't lose sleep thinking about what you did wrong, or what he did wrong, or whether it means if anyone is an arsehole - and if they are, is it you or him? Don't worry about that, you don't need it. Take the good things that did happen, not the good things that didn't happen, away from this relationship.
posted by smoke at 4:19 AM on May 29, 2011 [10 favorites]

I don’t know if any of these ideas will help, but I’m going to try to approach this from a few angles, mainly as an introvert and then as a person who has and had friends with young children.

I know it is horrible, but as an introvert, I bond with a few people who are immediately around me and usually let everyone else fall by the wayside, even former good friends and family members. I never mean to do so and a part of me does look back and remembers fondly the past and those people that I let go.

Once I decide to let go (as in, I decide I only have enough energy for the few people around me), other people may almost not exist in my world anymore. If too much time elapses, the bond is cut and I don’t want to go back. On a few occasions, people have managed to reconnect. One person recognized this pattern, for example, and would call every few months and actually would say “I value the friendship and don’t want to lose you – what do we need to do?” and like clockwork, she called up every few months (and I began to do the same). So perhaps if your uncle is wired the same, you could send him an email or call him and say the same things. Maybe even “I miss you and still want to be a part of your life. Is there a way that I can do this or make it easier for you?”

The other thought that I have, coming from a perspective of having friends who have or had young children, it takes over your life time wise (as in people don’t sleep or have memories in the first year of a babies life). Also, the ones that maintain friendships make it a priority. Some friends that I’ve had don’t even have enough time to see their husbands or wives during that time, let along other people. So the approach that you could take her is as smoke says above, ask him what’s up and offer to babysit, perhaps to give him time with his wife.

Another option is to look at this very closely and decide what you want, provided your uncle will let you back in. For example, would you want to be an aunt (not be one in the biological sense, but babysit, take the child on little trips, be there for the child). Maybe the other approach now is to tell your uncle that you would love to play a role in his child’s life, the same way that he did for you. You would like to start sooner rather than later; so ask if you can tag along to trips, offer to host the child for overnight visits, whatever.

Alternatively, if you want him to play (at some level) the role that he did when you were younger –advice, support – you could in whatever way communicate that you miss him as an uncle, and even though you are an adult now, you would still like his advice from time to time. Then ask him for his advice on something, no matter how small, to see if the door is opened.
posted by Wolfster at 5:42 AM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

As for his wife, I don't think she's trying to keep him away from the family at all but she's kind of cold and she seems to wear the pants in their relationship. He spends all of his time trying to please her.

Based on this, I'd say you need to move on, to some extent. As your mother mentioned, this is his personality. Luckily you got know a different side of him and you should treasure that. But otherwise, you need to let go. But leave the door open, 'cause it sounds like he may need you at some point.

The whole sleep deprived and kids excuse is a cop out. It's one thing to be extremely busy, it's another to completely ignore someone when they're sitting directly across from you.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:00 AM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

I came to say something like smoke did. I was very close to an uncle of mine when I was a child. We lived next door to each other, and I saw him all the time and felt that he loved me very much. As I moved into my young teen years, he got distant and sometimes even rude to me, and he would say mean things about me to other people. Now, my uncle is a special case, because he had suffered a life-altering brain injury the year before I was born, and I cut him a lot of slack because of that. For a long time, I felt guilty that I let our relationship lapse. It wasn't until a family funeral a few years ago--when I was in my 40s--that I mentioned this at a table with my older brother and some older cousins, and they all looked at me like I was crazy and said "Susan, he did that with all of us. He liked little kids. He dropped every single one of us when we stopped being cute and started being smarter than him."

Again, my uncle is a special case because of his brain injury. But since then I've noticed other people who really love young people at a certain stage--a friend of mine who adores babies and toddlers, for instance. He still feels affection for the kids as they get older, but he's not as engaged with them and he's always moving on to a new crop of babies. Or a woman I know who has a special affinity for teenagers and does amazing work with them, but doesn't necessarily form relationships with specific teens that extend past that stage of life.

So, like smoke, it occurs to me that there may have been something about the relationship you had when you were younger that filled a need for him, or that he enjoyed, in a way that being an uncle to a grownup just doesn't.
posted by not that girl at 7:49 AM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

It doesn't sound like the distancing is all that sudden. You needed him as a kid, now you don't, he's got his own immediate family. Now that you're an adult, have you kept up with his new situation--did you send a baby present, for example? Have you tried to get to know his wife?

It sounds to me like your other family members got used to him being the single guy who was useful (he moved in with you and your family--that's pretty amazing, to me) but when he became more independent and started his own family, they didn't know what to make of him.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:35 AM on May 29, 2011

I noted that the undercurrent in your question header and explanation skewed towards this being the fault of the new wife. While that may be the family's narrative, it's not probably true. Or fair.

More telling is that you called your uncle a narcissist.

Narcissistic people aren't like others. Really. For one thing, IMHO, they may tend to see everything a bit black and white. No - wait. That's not right. What I mean is that I've noticed if they are devoting their energy to one party, they can't acknowledge others. They're always putting on a "show." In your youth you were the audience, but now? Not so much.

Look back on the past with gratitude and understand that now times have changed. The man you felt close to likely doesn't exist anymore, lost under so many subsequent "performances," his time with you is a distant memory to him and no longer relevant.

The good news is he was there for you way back when, and probably did it better than anyone else could have at the time. So that's something, even if it was not what you thought it was (i.e a lifelong bond.)

Narcissists are not like the rest of us. He's taught you one last valuable lesson, as he likely will not be the last selfish personality to charm you when you are vulnerable. He's done you a favor. Hopefully, you will be inoculated now against that type of charm in the future and it won't hurt as much when/if you get taken in again.
posted by jbenben at 11:26 AM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I'm a little wary because you called him as a narcissist. If he truly is a narcissist, you may just want to put this relationship aside.

I don't hear many happy stories of relationships with fact, I can't think of one where it ends well.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 12:15 PM on May 29, 2011

Response by poster: I just got off the phone with my mother and she had a terrible argument with my uncle tonight (we had a family reunion over the weekend). After my grandfather passed away my grandmother had requested that my parents move into her house so she wouldn't be alone, and my parents were happy to comply. My mother mentioned this to my uncle tonight and he exploded because he wants to move his new family across the country in a couple of years, and he said he wants to take my grandmother with him because he can't be without her. Never mind that she never agreed t this and that it would move her far away from everyone else in the family. He got really nasty and wouldn't let up.

I can't explain why, but I feel disillusioned and infuriated. I always knew my uncle had issues, but I am seeing him in a totally different light. I am so disappointed in him, because of how much he meant to me. While he was always self centered, I feel like since he got married he's become a lot worse.
posted by timsneezed at 8:12 PM on May 29, 2011

"(Recently) we have seen each other at a number of family functions."

Have you seen him other than that?

If not, why not invite your self over?

"Hey Uncle, wondering if you were free Thrusday I'd come on over with dinner for all four of us? Not Thursday? What day would be good for you?"

If he doesn't respond to overtures of friendship then consider cutting him out, but his friendship with you developed from living together and sharing food and experiences, not from family functions every couple of months.
posted by GregorWill at 12:06 AM on May 30, 2011

I don't know if this has been clearly expressed, but some people are like that in a relationship. When they find a significant other, they nest up and everyone else gets dropped. I had a friend like this, he got a girlfriend and completely disappeared from everyone's lives. I thought something bad had happened to him and other people were similarly dumbfounded. They broke up and the guy reappeared like nothing had happened, except that everything thinks of him as a unreliable douchebag now.

This is a different situation since he has a kid, but I would expect a relationship style that views outside relationships as unnecessary would make him behave like this. I don't think you will "save" the relationship with your uncle because the situation is completely different right now and you can never go back to the past.
posted by fuq at 8:04 AM on May 30, 2011

"since he got married he's become a lot worse"

Narcissist, then.

I think most people, but especially people with narcissistic tendencies, are as nice/polite to others as they think they need to be. Now that he is married, he has built-in companionship and support.
posted by tel3path at 9:44 AM on May 30, 2011

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