My father is angry, my family is upset, and I feel responsible. What can I do?
September 14, 2011 7:10 PM   Subscribe

My father has anger issues and my family's reactions makes me feel like everything is falling apart. Can I do anything? If I can't, what can I do to cope?

My father has anger problems. He gets mad easily, and with more anger than I used to believe a person could have. It’s scary and embarrassing, and sometimes he takes it out on family pets, which horrifies me.

Ever since I was little, my family would tell me I'm his favorite and that he never gets mad at me. Whenever there was bad news, I was asked to deliver it. And I would because I thought it was my role to make sure he didn't get mad at them.

Now that I'm an adult, it's only gotten worse. (For the record, I do not feel at all like an adult.)

I feel like my family expects me to stand up to my father and tell him what is and isn't appropriate, but the only thing I've learned in life is I can't control other people. I can only control my reactions to them. When I point this out, my family sees it as siding with him. At their request, I wrote him a heartfelt letter and asked if he would go to therapy. It helped for a while, but he dropped it and is angrier than ever.

He has used me as a weapon before, which hurt very much. My mom frequently thinks I'm upset with her or think she's stupid, or other awful untrue things, and trying to convince her that isn’t true can be difficult. I have asked him to stop and it hasn't reoccurred, but I'm always holding my breath.

I absolutely don't think his behavior is okay. However, I also don’t think some of what my other family does is okay. My mom asks me for advice and drags me into fights when they're going on. I have begun trying to take a stand on this by telling her I'm not qualified or I don't think it's fair to involve me in their arguments, and every instant of this has led to her accusing me of betrayal or ganging up on her, which also hurts very much. I have been told that these refusals are not acceptable, and I now second guess the confidence I had in choosing to back away.

My sister and father especially do not get along, and has gotten into verbal fights with me because I won’t agree with her that he’s a horrible father. He has made a lot of sacrifices for her and gives her anything she wants. This is no excuse for his angry behavior, but it’s disheartening that she often tries to convince our mom divorce him while he pays for everything in her life at the expense of his retirement. I suspect she wants it to be black and white where it isn’t.

What is the right thing to do? I would make it better if I knew how, but instead I keep fantasizing about moving far, far away and never answering the phone again. I see my family doing hurtful things to each other and feel hurt, and I’m sure I must be hurting them too in my own ways without knowing. I don't want to do that.

I know therapy is often suggested here, but any books or sites that might be helpful to get started with?

Even just responses to repeat to myself or others would be really helpful. Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I keep fantasizing about moving far, far away and never answering the phone again.

Consider trying this, at least for a while.

You can't heal from a burn if you keep putting your hands on the hot stove over and over again.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:16 PM on September 14, 2011 [16 favorites]

Move far far away and don't give them your new phone number.
posted by TooFewShoes at 7:16 PM on September 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

You should be taking your sister's side and I think it is bizarre of you (i.e. a symptom of your dysfunctional upbringing) that you begrudge your sister the material support of her parents. She gets money? Good! Like you, she probably doesn't feel like a confident adult that can provide for herself thanks to your mom and dad's abuse. Right now she probably needs that money, although one day I hope she gives you all the finger and finds the inner resources and develops the life skills to take care of herself. I hope this for you, too.


Oh, Hon. None of this is your problem. Back away from it. Be prepared to lose these relationships. If you don't it will suck all of the joy, opportunity, and optimism from your adult life.

You can't save these people. Maybe you can lead by example, though?

Go out there and live a good life.

Make sure you read some books and do a bit of therapy. I suspect you need to do some catching up in the life skills department so you can make the most of the rest of your life.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 7:21 PM on September 14, 2011 [7 favorites]

You have to help yourself before you can help others.

Right now, you are trying to help your family while you're in desperate, desperate need of help yourself. How can you help them? All you can do, currently, is add to the dysfunction.

Move out. Do it. You can. Do it. Now. Get out. You have the capacity to move out. You're an adult. You can be free.

Once you're out of there, you can work on helping yourself. You can see a therapist, you can grow as a person, you can learn what it means to be healthy. And then you'll be in a position to provide help to your family. Write out a list: "What I need to be a happy person." Complete that list. Then you'll be in a position to write out a new list, focused on helping your family.
posted by meese at 7:21 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men

Recommended earlier today by the excellent Ashley801 aqui.

Also, do you live with your parents and your sister? My relationship with my unpredictably-angry parent improved dramatically when we no longer lived together.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 7:39 PM on September 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am sorry you have to deal with this situation. I too, have a father that has rage issues. Over time, I have realized that I cannot fix these types of situations. Sometimes the hardest thing is to watch powerlessly while those you love self-destruct. The fact is you can't fix your family members.

But know this. It should never have been your responsibility to be your father's mediator. You should not feel guilty by refusing to put yourself in this role. Refuse to engage in this nonsense, and it will become a lot harder to be used as a weapon in the future. If your family cannot communicate, this is NOT YOUR FAULT. Don't let them blame you for refusing to play along in their twisted games.
posted by nasayre at 7:41 PM on September 14, 2011 [7 favorites]

It might help to read about shifting roles in abusive relationships.

The thing is, whether or not the other people involved in this drama are assholes, your father is still responsible for his behavior. Full stop. Is your mother a jerk? He's still responsible. Are your siblings awful people? Still responsible. He was abused as a child? Still responsible, I'm afraid. I know that may not seem entirely fair right now. That's fine; it gets clearer over time.

Once the concept of triangulated dramatic relationships sinks in with you, you will start to understand on a visceral level just how deeply sick his behavior is. You will also start to understand that he has always, and will always, have the choice to accept responsibility for himself and get help to stop being abusive. And he has chosen, for once and all, not to do that. It's easier to burden people like YOU with being the check on his own rage, or to take out his rage on animals, or to blame your mother for his rage, or to do some combination of things with his rage other than get into a therapist's office and deal with it. That's his choice. He's chosen the safety of his rage and the control over his tiny fiefdom it has given him. He's chosen that over being spiritually, emotionally and mentally free, and allowing his loved ones the same freedom.

Soon, you will start to realize that you are a person, separate and apart from everyone else in your family, and that you have a whole raft of feelings about this situation. You may also start to realize there's a whole other way of relating to people that doesn't involve constant vigilance, dread and crippling anxiety.

Please get away from your family. Start reading everything you can about the dynamics of abusive relationships. Look into individual and/or group therapy. I wish you the best of luck. I really do.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 7:51 PM on September 14, 2011 [14 favorites]

I very good book that helped me understand my parents is: If You Had Controlling Parents. The main things it stresses are setting clear boundaries, doing what you want to do, and having great compassion for yourself because you're too hard on yourself.

You are right to stand up for yourself and not get dragged into either side of this insanity. You can move far away if you want, for real -- you can make that choice because you are an adult, and what will your parents do to you if you leave? Nothing.

Otherwise, you can stay in the area with them, but then you would want to set very clear boundaries, like not getting into any arguments with them, physically leaving the scene if you feel yourself getting pulled in or just feel really uncomfortable, and other things you don't want to do with them (talk to them on the phone, etc.). Whatever it is you don't like about your relationship with them, you have the choice and the right as an adult to not do those things.

You know what? I had those fantasies too about never ever seeing my dad again, never answering the phone. And then, one day, I put those fantasies into reality, and it is bliss! (You will experience some guilt, but that's just your parents (in your head) trying to keep you in the unhealthy web of their lives -- don't listen to it.) It's beautiful doing what you want! And, after awhile, I was able to see my dad again, but the situation was changed, I was changed; I was in control of myself and could leave whenever I wanted, and he didn't have that power over me anymore.

You are on the right path, don't give up, don't feel depressed or guilt about choosing what you want to do -- you should always choose what you want to do, really! You're doing well; keep it up; I'm here to support you (virtually albeit, but still). :-)
posted by minx at 8:06 PM on September 14, 2011 [8 favorites]

The Dance of Intimacy is an incredibly helpful book with an incredibly cheesy cover. It's aimed at women in romantic relationships, but it's pretty applicable to a lot of different relationships. Also, start reading Sugar's weekly column at The Rumpus. She's a wise, strong lady. Also, try Emotional Blackmail. And read a bit about parentified children. If the parentified child bit strikes a chord with you, and you want a fictitious example of the costs of that, start watching Supernatural from the beginning and pay attention to Dean Winchester.

My family situation has some similarities to yours, and here is something I've learned.

If you're stuck deep in the mud with your family, then it's really hard to learn what you need to learn to get out of that mud. You're too busy trying to keep your head above the quicksand. In order to turn your family situation into a more bearable one, you're going to need some difficult skills: how to take good care of yourself, how to trust yourself, and how to draw firm boundaries. You're also going to need some perspective and some distance to know exactly how unacceptable your family's behavior is, and to understand what the actual alternatives are.

To learn all of that while you're still at home is really hard. Not impossible, I'm sure, but hard. In contrast, moving out doesn't require a whole lot of you. All it requires are the more hum-drum adult skills: holding down a job, occasionally cleaning your apartment, grocery shopping, etc. Those, in contrast don't require a lot of heavy mental lifting and so are a lot simpler to learn. Moving out is a rough, inelegant solution to your problem. If you're like me, you might want a better, more refined solution. Moving out might feel like an immature solution (like, if you were a better grown-up, you would be able to stay there and fix it). I don't think that is particularly true, but even if it were, it doesn't change the fact that sometimes you've got to use the only tools you've got. Personally, I like to call it "solving problems by geography." I've occasionally used entire oceans to draw boundaries that I wasn't capable of drawing myself.

Once you've given yourself the time and space to heal, you can start re-evaluating your relationship with your family and start making decisions about how you want to go forward. It doesn't have to be all or nothing. Moving out doesn't have to mean cutting off all contact with them, and trying to eventually re-integrate them into your life doesn't mean letting them stomp all over you again.
posted by colfax at 8:09 PM on September 14, 2011 [12 favorites]

To say that my father had rage issues is an understatement. He once shot my 9 yr old brother's puppy for making a mess in the garage. My brother and I were on vacation with my mother at the time, and he made it a point to call to tell my brother about it. He shot bluejays out of our dining room window because he said they ate all the birdseed. He shot my dog while I was at 7th grade basketball practice. He TRAINED us in this mentality.

My father separated my mother and us from her side of the family. He liked to keep us isolated -- typical abuser behavior. I spent my formative years in fear. He abused us thoroughly: physically, mentally, you name it. I still remember the sick feeling of hearing his tires pull into the driveway each evening. We still carry the scars: my brother was stupid but worked hard, I was smart but lazy, we were both useless and worthless. The best thing I ever did was start a fight with him when I was 18, a fight that led to his kicking me out of the house. He physically chased me out while screaming that he was going to kill me, run me off the road, put a brick through my windshield while I was driving. My mother and brother had to sneak my clothes out in garbage bags because he started burning my belongings.

Cutting that angry, violent monster out of my life was one of the healthiest things I ever did. It was also one of the most painful. I spent the next decade or so really screwed up, estranged from my family and escaping from the aftermath in less than healthy ways. I had to sacrifice my family to save myself. I eventually started therapy which saved my life. I also formed form real, lasting, loving relationships with the maternal side of my family and with a core groups of friends who I consider family.

My brother never got out. We're in our 40s now and I see in him the same rage, the same manipulation and need for control. I'm the only one who understands what my brother went through, and even I don't really understand. I pray that he gets help.

TL, DR: what worked for me was to get out, get friends and get therapy. Good luck.
posted by Majorita at 8:44 PM on September 14, 2011 [24 favorites]

Everything Majorita said.
I wish I knew way back when that there were so many people in the same situation that I lived through. You tend to think it's just you or it's normal or every family is like this. Nothing can be farther from the truth. I left home when I was 20. Gave up cars, money and an Ivy League education and joined the Army. While my brothers and sisters stayed home and received the benefits of wealth such as they are, I romped around the swamp of Georgia and Florida - and saved people's lives. My brother and sister grew up ... badly. They became bad people. I like to think that, with all my numerous faults and peccadilloes, I'm a rather decent person.

Get out. Make your own life. It will be harder but it will be much, much better.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 9:26 PM on September 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

You should be taking your sister's side and I think it is bizarre of you (i.e. a symptom of your dysfunctional upbringing) that you begrudge your sister the material support of her parents. She gets money? Good! Like you, she probably doesn't feel like a confident adult that can provide for herself thanks to your mom and dad's abuse.

To the OP: I think your statement in the original post that your sister "wants it to be black and white when it isn't" strike me as a much more thoughtful, mature, and adult perspective than the statement above, which is all about the attempt to make complex family relationships black and white. (By trying to interpret even caring and supportive actions as further evidence of 'abuse'). It's a hallmark of adulthood that we recognize the many shades of grey in life and try to work with them. A lot of people on metafilter seem to have had really intense and insoluble family difficulties (like Majorita's horrific description above) and project them onto the brief sketches of family dynamics that are possible in short internet posts. Don't let them convince you that you have to or should give up on your family. That should be a last resort. Almost all families are highly imperfect, but most people work out some compromise with that. We lose a lot, both in support and in access to our history and our past, when we cut off completely from our families.

With that said, it really sounds like you could use a time out from these family dynamics. The 'mediator' role that people have put you in is unworkable, painful, and unfair to you. The good news is that time outs also aren't black and white. They come in shades of grey too. Colfax's reply above is really wise I think -- you can create space without cutting off. You need your own place (how old are you? do you live on your own?) and the ability to disengage when people pull you into being the referee for their own problems with other members of the family. This can be as straightforward as throwing up your hands, saying something like "I'm not the referee", or "I'm not the family therapist" and walking away or excusing yourself and hanging up the phone if the behavior continues. You can't be the shock absorber for everyone else. I realize that's not easy.... you say you have been trying to do exactly this with your mother and she has responded in a very negative and manipulative manner. Perhaps it might be easier if you assure you that you love her at the same time you do it? In any case you do need a strategy for just withdrawing from the interaction when people turn on you for refusing to take sides in their fights.

I am not a big fan of the automatic Metafilter "go to therapy" solution, but it does seem like it would be useful for your family to try collective family therapy. Maybe your stepping back would help with that process. Good luck!
posted by zipadee at 11:05 PM on September 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

I would make it better if I knew how,
You absolutely cannot make it better. Period.

What you can do is make yourself better.1,2

I'm just in the door from an ACOA meeting -- Adult Children Of Alcoholics. For all intent and purpose, it could also be Adult Children Of Crazymaking Families. Though there are some specifics that apply only to alcoholism -- alcoholics can truly be berserk, bizarre due specifically to their alcoholism -- most of the patterns apply to all families that are bent, damaged in shipping. And, like you, many of us get shoved into various roles, which totally blows.

Neither one of my parents drank, but my father had these unbelievably intense rages -- no way to diagnose manic depression, there's no genetic marker for it even today, damn sure not then, but you can absolutely see patterns, and he fit lots of them. (Plus I've got manic depression, and it's genetic, it came from somewhere -- thanx, Dad!) My mother? She never left the guy, she is one of these totally helpless people (OP, I bet you'll know what I'm talking about), she allowed him to get away with treating her, all us kids, and, quite frankly, himself, like shit. (I got lucky; most of the physical violence had stopped by the time I got onto the scene. But I've found out that can be almost more confusing, the denial kicks in "Oh, it wasn't that bad" blah blah blah. It was plenty bad.) Anyways, my mother never stood up. She was weak, she was scared, she had lots of kids, and it was different times, to boot, people mostly didn't get divorced except if they were from New York City etc etc. Still, she never stood up to him.

I understand. I'm awfully weak, too, in the face of rage especially, and being that in a family it's all entwined in love and guilt and familial sense of ... something. Duty? Love and duty? ??3 I had to get away from them -- I had no idea that I was running for my life when I moved to Texas but I damn sure was, trying to keep that shotgun out of my mouth.

Families are powerful institutions.

Everywhere you go, there you are. It's a different mirror but damned if it wasn't the same guy looking back at me -- damnit. You don't get to run from your mirror. One of my sisters sent me a card not long after I hauled ass to Houston in the aftermath of that broken marriage, those long years gone by, a pretty picture on the front of the card and a Thoreau quote inside: "Frontiers are neither East nor West, but wherever a man faces a fact."

You're looking at facing facts just now.

Good for you.

Unless/until you begin to deal with the underlying issues of what's happened to you in your warped family -- and it's warped, moreso than you can know; denial is absolutely real, and very powerful -- unless/until you begin to deal with this stuff, you'll almost certainly carry on patterns you've learned to live there in your family, even if you no longer speak with them, even if you cut them completely out of your life; you mostly don't get away that easily. And when you do speak with them, unless you're a very strong, determined person, it's so, so easy to fall into the same traps.

Here's the news -- you got screwed. Sorry to tell you, but it's the truth. Having been shoved into that role -- complete and total horse shit. It's a shit role. Total shit. How about *you,* hows about you being respected, when's that part going to start? Damn sure hasn't happened there.

The deeper they get in, the harder it is to break free. I'm 56, it's still in here; I deal with it much better but the impulse is often to do the same things as always. I don't go to those meetings because I don't have the information they provide -- I've been going to various 12 step meetings for over thirty years, ACOA for over 27, I've got the lowdown, I know the story -- I go there to keep reminded of how to walk, and to see and hear (it's so important to me to hear these people!) and to be with others who are walking upright, best as they can. We sortof can carry one another, the support in those rooms, it's just phenomenal.

Or can be -- there's always the bad 12 step AlAnon group (ACOA meetings mostly a subset of AlAnon; write me for clarification, or our friend google) here and there, bunch of wacky blue-haired old gals, knitting, and using the support of other wacky blue-haired old gals to stay in sick situations -- christ. Now *there's* some sick shit. Plus maybe 12 step isn't for you -- it's not for everybody, and some people are rabidly against it, I absolutely know that I'm opening myself up to huge broadsides here in this community even mentioning it, much less copping to the fact that it's a large piece of the peace in my life, such as I have peace in my life.4

Understand -- I'm *not* saying not to get into therapy; I'm saying *to* get into therapy, if you can afford it; I've made any number of Volvo payments for any number of therapist over the years, tons of money that I didn't have but couldn't afford not to spend on myself. Plenty of dopes out there but also plenty of truly wise, caring, very understanding people, amazing therapists, go sit in their comforting office, look them in the eye, and start telling the tale.

And don't hesitate to see a shrink if the therapist suggests it and/or you get totally overwhelmed by all the jive you've told us about; there is absolutely nothing wrong with the umbrella thing, using whatever medication a good shrink would recommend as an umbrella while your life rains down on you as you sort all this shit out; better living through chemistry, hey, I'm all about it.

Get every book your can get in your hands -- tons of great suggestions upthread. I'm awfully partial to Scott Peck The Road Less Traveled as a good book to start with but hey, find your way.

More news -- it can get worse before it gets better. Sorry. You start to break down denial and see what's happened to you, and to the people you love, you begin to see it in all of its spinning implications, hey, you get sad, and get angry, you get all of that and lots more. Shifting sands, damn sure was for me, though I have to cop to the fact that manic depression didn't help any of that, either, not that I had any idea what I was up against at the start but over time it's showed up.

And I guess I'll stop there -- over time, this thing can be undone, over time, you'll find your way. Over time, in fact in a pretty short amount of time, you can (maybe -- took me lots more time than many others plus I never got good at it anyways, but I'm a big candy-ass, emotionally, you might be stronger, probably you are) in a fairly short amount of time you can maybe stand up to them, stake your place, find your feet and stand on them and bristle and bark if they come close. Quite frankly, most people put into scenes such as you've been put into don't usually get all better overnight and they don't usually do it without support. As noted, it might get worse before it gets better; that was my experience -- fuck. But over time, it all shows itself, over time all that stirred up water settles down so you can see with more clarity, see through to how you want to live.

Good luck.

1I know, I know -- that's hokey as hell; I feel like a lame hallmark card. But, hokey or not, it's the truth.
2As you get better, the family situation may improve, as they react to the new you. But you can't count on it.
3The most confusing in it all -- there truly is love in my family, so, so much love, and caring. But we were broken, by any number of things -- someday you get bored, I'll tell you the set-ups my mother went through as a kid, you'll cry for a week; I damn sure have. I just didn't know how to make any sense of it, really, and it's still all blurry around the edges, diffuse, there's never any sharp edges; people don't have them, mostly, we're all a mess.
So I've never for an instant doubted the love, in fact I know now that only from love as powerful as we had in our family can such a hatred grow as I had for one brother, and him I did cut out for over a decade, but we made it right, or not right but right enough, and I'm so goddamn glad we did, we had almost a decade of peace between us, cancer nailed him earlier this year and if we'd not have been straight, oh man. It hurt bad enough as it was.
OP, I bet that there's love all over your family -- I hope that you find that there is, and I damn sure hope you can find a way to stand tall and strong yet still somehow come to love these broken people, the ones you've been given from the factory. I think you'll find you need more people than just them, to get over them, but I hope you can get back there to them, too, and say hi.

4Fuck it -- I bet I hit submit on this, broadsides from 12 step haters or not. And if you don't like 12 step jive I sure can't blame you, I didn't like it either, but everything in my life was a big goddamn mess, the pain got so intense I absolutely wanted to die, and, worse, was afraid I wouldn't. After that I got a little bit more open-minded; funny how that works.
posted by dancestoblue at 12:10 AM on September 15, 2011 [12 favorites]

This hits home for me because you guys sound like what my family could have become, had things turned out a little differently. In a slightly different life, I could have been like your sister, and my sibling could have been like you.

All I can say is:

(1) I suggest you move away - as far away as possible. My parents live in Asia, I live in Australia, my sibling lives in Europe. Things are a lot easier to deal with now that we're not in each other's faces, and as they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder.

(2) Make an ally of your sister, if you can. Try to see it from her perspective: her dad has gotten angry at her a lot, most likely for reasons she thinks are irrational, and that does make him a horrible father regardless of how much money he gives her (which can feel like he's trying to buy her love to make up for being a horrible father; or maybe she's asking for and accepting so much stuff because she feels it makes up for it). So agree that your dad can be a horrible person sometimes (which, let's face it, you already think is true), run some interference for her, and maybe help her be more financially independent if she isn't and you are. Or whatever you feel comfortable doing.

(3) You can't change your mom any more than you can change your dad.
posted by Xany at 1:13 AM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Great advice and suggestions for reading here. I second Dancestoblue recommending ACOA or any 12 step program that is seriously about how to work the steps as a way to face and clear away the wreckage of the past and to find a set of principles which will enable you to have a happy and meaningful life. It's group therapy and it works for a lot of people who've tried a lot of other things. You don't just learn it in your head; you have to learn to think and live differently. But it's true that even expensive therapy doesn't fix you; what it all does is help you learn how to fix yourself. And the 12 step things are free.

You have a very messed up family situation and it is heartbreaking to read about. You need some people who don't live like that to help you see it as it is and to quit playing the role you've been assigned. You were set up by these parents who probably did not even know they were messing up their kids, but were just blundering along, trying to get what they needed. It's sad and it stinks.

You have to quit participating. Your mother should not have giving you this role. Maybe she couldn't handle his anger, but it surely wasn't ever your job. They were supposed to take care of you, teach you how to grow up and cope with life and instead, they abdicated. You got cheated and that's what you have to rectify.

The good news is, you can "re-raise" yourself and that's what therapy (or 12 step group therapy) can help you do. Five or ten years of either or both, pursued seriously as a course necessary to survival, will go a long way toward getting you in the right head-space to have a good life. The fact that your assigned role (manager of your father's anger problem) can be seen as complimentary or a flattering appeal to your "superior" nature can make it harder for you to see through what is happening here. It isn't superior or noble--it is an abusive lie. Rejecting that role doesn't mean you are a bad person, it just means you aren't going to play that rigged game any more.

Take this seriously. Every time you go along with the status quo, you are making it harder for anything to change. You certainly cannot change any of them; you can only change yourself and you need to get started. I wish you the clarity, courage and strength of purpose to reach out in real life and begin to find some wise people who will be honest with you.

Every time someone gets out of this kind of toxic stew and learns how to live differently, it's not just their own life that is salvaged, it is also the quality of life of their future partners and children.
posted by Anitanola at 1:22 AM on September 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

To the OP: I think your statement in the original post that your sister "wants it to be black and white when it isn't" strike me as a much more thoughtful, mature, and adult perspective than the statement above, which is all about the attempt to make complex family relationships black and white. (By trying to interpret even caring and supportive actions as further evidence of 'abuse'). It's a hallmark of adulthood that we recognize the many shades of grey in life and try to work with them. A lot of people on metafilter seem to have had really intense and insoluble family difficulties (like Majorita's horrific description above) and project them onto the brief sketches of family dynamics that are possible in short internet posts.

The OP clearly describes his father as angry and unwilling to work on therapy. S/he says that her/his father especially takes out his anger on his wife and daughter. Additionally, OP says s/he is viewed favorably in comparison to the others.

This is classic controlling behavior, called splitting and scapegoating. In the case of an abusive parent, the abuser designates a "golden child" to be their enforcer (consciously or not on the part of the child), which helps support demonization of others and "justifies" (in the abuser's mind) their use of the demonized people as targets.

Giving money to someone is not "caring and supportive" in and of itself. To wit: my company gives me money, called a salary. They don't love me. Giving money to someone to the point that even another person in the family describes it as "he pays for everything in her life at the expense of his retirement" says that the father is desperately trying to hold on to his punching bags – he probably doesn't want retirement in the way normal, healthy people think of it; he wants retirement with his universe intact. The wife is already married to him and under his sway; the daughter could leave if the only thing holding her to him (money) were removed.

OP, do look into the excellent books others have mentioned. The scapegoating link above is a good read as well. It's not easy, recognizing that an abusive parent has defined roles that children can be unaware of.
posted by fraula at 2:09 AM on September 15, 2011 [7 favorites]

Please get out, get out NOW. It sounds like ALL of them have anger issues, and the only thing you can do is save yourself. Move as far as you can, possibly not even telling them the address and thereby preventing them from invading your peace: give them a post office box for mail, create an email address just for them, and either change your phone number or let any and all calls from them go straight to voicemail (to be listened to at YOUR convienence, not theirs). The idea is to keep their drama very much at arms' lenght. Go ahead and meet them in public places for coffee or dinner or whatever, but NOT your home/sanctuary. And when visiting the family home, never stay there overnight, stay in hotels --- the expense is worth it.
posted by easily confused at 3:17 AM on September 15, 2011

Yeah, my abusive, angry father controlled me with money for years. He made me believe I was still a child and, in fact, incapable of ever being an independent adult, therefore his "lovingly" supporting me was for my benefit. What he wanted to do was keep me under his thumb indefinitely. Look at everything I give you, why are you still ungrateful/combative/do not comply immediately to my every whim? can be very, very powerful tool for a controlling man. He abused my mother, belittled her, controlled every intimate detail of her life terrified that her and I would band together against him. Every conversation between my mom and I was a potential coup, in his eyes. I was the golden child and the seditious child, all rolled into one, since he'd only managed to have one of me to control. All his hopes for an heir and his disappointments were directed towards me. I was brilliant, in his eyes, but lazy and immature. The brilliance was his doing, obviously, the laziness and immaturity was mine. That was a game I would never, ever, have been able to win.

He died, my mom was so heartbroken that she completely let herself go and died herself nine months later. I was left with the knowledge that by getting through that I could get through anything, the lesson my father never wanted me to learn.

I say this because I hope you can see things from your sister's perspective. You can love your abuser and still be abused. That's not a shade of gray, it's pitch, pitch black. You too. You can't help your father unless he wants to stop, and he clearly doesn't want to. You can't help your mother, either, I tried for the better part of a decade. It just made my father angrier at the both of us. Move, leave. Rebuild your relationship with your mother and sister from a safe place, if you want to.
posted by lydhre at 5:54 AM on September 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

nthing Dance of Anger and, by the same author, Dance of Intimacy. They are both based on Bowenian family therapy theory. Not always appropriate cross-culturally, but you're already identifying elements of what Bowen identified. When your father talks to your mom about how you feel about her, for example, he's triangulating. Your mom should only rely on her interactions with you to figure out how you feel about her. Asking you to be the messenger to your father on behalf of the family is also triangulating.

Reading about how Bowen handled this in his own family is a kick, but he was too blunt to be emulated. He thought about it more carefully in crafting the therapy. But as an example, rather than delivering the family message to your dad outright, you would say "Dad, everyone in the family wants me to tell you something. Why don't they feel they can come to you directly?" it shifts the focus from the message to the family dynamic.

There is hope!

Dance of Anger and Dance of Intimacy will not only change your thinking about your options, it will help you anticipate and prepare for your family's reactions to your change.
posted by vitabellosi at 6:46 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ooh! And since you asked for specific responses:

"I can't help you with that."

"I don't know how to respond to that."

And when you want to ratchet it up because you're being targeted in some way (use sparingly):

"What do you hope to gain by saying that to me?"

Stick with the first two in most situations.
posted by vitabellosi at 6:49 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hi - I'm a little late on this but I have this very dynamic in my family.

My sister and I have stopped putting up with it. We ARE adults and we have our own families now. We have our own rules. Also, I stopped being financially attached to my parents at 17.

There is no yelling in our homes. If our father raises his voice, we tell him he needs to use his inside voice in our homes. If he does it out of our homes, we will leave. We tell him why we are leaving and we up and go.

His behavior has changed, but ours had to change first.
posted by Sophie1 at 7:20 AM on September 15, 2011 [6 favorites]

I favorited fraula's comment. I grew up in this type of family, and the friction among me and my mother and sisters around how to deal with my father always seemed to hurt me much more than anything my father did. it was like he was a force of nature and we couldn't imagine stopping him; we could only disagree on how to deal. But make no mistake: that in itself is a huge reason why a parent behaves like this. Look at all the power it gives them. This is not to say any of you are making your father act that way-- that is a fallacy people like him thrive on. I would just say, do not be distracted by disagreements with your mother and sister. Just recognize it all as part of the same dynamic and try to get some distance from it-- physical, if possible. Telling your mother it's not fair to put you in the position of message-bearer is an excellent start; build on that.
posted by BibiRose at 8:00 AM on September 15, 2011

It sounds like you care about your family very much, and want to help.

You need to tell them this, and then set some boundaries - and then stick to those boundaries.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:39 PM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

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