How to navigate my fractured family?
November 14, 2011 8:02 PM   Subscribe

I feel alienated from my parents, and wish to be at peace and move my life forward, with or without them. What to do from here?

I am in my mid-twenties and living on the West Coast of the US.

One of my parents is an immigrant from a developing country, and the other was adopted. They each feel somewhat alienated from their families, and neither of them talks to our relatives very much.

I've found that I have trouble relating to either of them because I wish they were more stable, honest and responsible (responsible about their actions and responsive to me and my needs as well). One of them has struggled with alcoholism, is quite narcissistic and manipulative, and has tended to deny my confrontations about their behavior, while the other has a strong distrust of other people in general and has decades of history of unpredictably flying into verbally abusive rages, then "forgetting" about what they've said because they don't know how to manage the resulting damage (confrontations with this parent have been slightly more productive but growing closer has still seemed overwhelming to both of us).

I've worked on my relationship to myself and my relationships to each of them for many years. I recognize that they've each been in pain for much of their lives because of their own relationships with their families, and see what's happening in our family as an echo of my family's lineage. Still, I find that my pain around my family has naturally affected every other relationship in my life. I have been able to nurture my self-esteem somewhat by establishing my own identity in communities outside my family, and I have a lot of friends that I love and who love me, but I still feel deeply fractured and lonely, and in need of the deeper comfort, integration and nourishment that close family provides. My friends definitely notice and I've been called "needy" by many, but I don't know what to do.

I see that other families are more healthy, talk with each other more, and enjoy the benefits of each others' support (as well as the responsibilities that come with that closeness - I know there are two sides to every relationship). I see that my family is more detached from one another, and we collectively have a lot more freedom and a lot more loneliness as a result.

I want to continue to grow and become healthy and at peace about everything. Is it worth trying to maintain relationship(s) with them? Given that the relationships have been toxic, would walking away from them do me good over all? (and if so, how to manage my unmet needs for family if I do this?) This alienation seems to be a generations-deep pattern in my family I will need to accept no matter what I do, but how to really heal the deep need of and simultaneous alienation from other people just because my family didn't show me how to have long-term close, healthy, happy relationships with others? I've tried quite a few different kinds of therapies in the past and have had some positive results, it's just that this piece has continued to linger, so some perspective would be awesome. Note: if it matters, I frequently practice and really love alternative and holistic health (yoga, herbs, acupuncture, body-based/somatic therapies, art therapy, etc) and am quite spiritual. I've been considering checking out Family Constellation work. I am a student and don't have much money at this point.

Thanks, MeFi.
posted by dolce_voce to Human Relations (8 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Embrace what they have to offer. Ignore the rest. Don't engage in manipulation, negativity, etc. Work on being your best self, and recognize that you can't change them. You can change your self, you can change your reaction to them, but you cannot change them. Confrontation doesn't get more effective with repetition. You are very critical of them, which I understand. Maybe with time and perspective you'll see them more lovingly?
posted by theora55 at 8:24 PM on November 14, 2011

Take them back and demand a refund. Seriously, they're unlikely to change. Accept the idea that they did the best the could at the time with what they had. Sounds like neither had anyone to instruct them in how to be good at being a family, so they tried. You didn't get the happyshinyfamily, you got something else--who knows, maybe those lessons you learned in your own family may serve ou well skme say!
And you know--no living person is at peace about everything. So, cut your parents some slack, and form your own supportive coalition of friends.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:57 PM on November 14, 2011

Best answer: You might be amazed at how well 1000 miles of distance works to solve issues like these, encouraging polite, thoughtful, easily-concluded conversations with difficult family members who're desperately glad to know you still love them. If you can manage that after you graduate, it could save you loads on therapy. Yes, it's a lonely path at first, but you sound pretty level-headed and self-aware, which is a great start on eventually building a family of your own to provide the comfort, integration, and nourishment you're looking for. In the meantime, hey, you're too busy with school to spend much time on this and could probably sublimate some of your neediness by seeking ego rewards in your academic productivity, right? Not grades, though--skills.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:05 PM on November 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I was listening to a radio program this morning about a book of celebrities' letters written to their 16 year old selves and it made me wonder what I'd tell my younger self. The first thing that came to mind: It's okay to leave my family dysfunction behind. Hard as it would be, I would save myself a whole lot of protracted and worthless drama in the years ahead.

Whatever I knew of them as a 16 year old or a 24 year old wasn't going to change over the next few decades, no matter how much patience I exerted, or how much energy I expended trying to be a good girl empathising with their damage at the expense of caring about my own damage as a corollary victim of their pain. I would tell myself to separate from the drama and get on with living a healthy, happy life seeking better bonds with others.

...but I still feel deeply fractured and lonely, and in need of the deeper comfort, integration and nourishment that close family provides.

It doesn't completely go away, that fractured sense of self that a lack of mindful, loving parenting might have provided, and it can't be re-created as an adult. This is a grief process - I mourned the fact that I never going to be able to have a close and loving family attachment. I am very sympathetic to your expression of deeply unmet needs.

The goal is to parent and care for oneself, find communion with others who are not necessarily our blood relatives. [Be careful who you go looking for to provide 'family' attachment style interaction though. Don't repeat those early patterns...]

Good luck.
posted by honey-barbara at 10:28 PM on November 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

"It's okay to leave my family dysfunction behind. Hard as it would be, I would save myself a whole lot of protracted and worthless drama in the years ahead."

This was exactly my experience when I finally made the leap, long long over due, at 38.

You are a different person.

For you, I don't know. You know. Do whatever you think is right.
posted by jbenben at 11:57 PM on November 14, 2011

You know, as you mention you like yoga and herbs--- Many spiritual traditions have rituals involving connection and communion with the ancestors. While it's traditionally done with deceased relatives-- I have used this to have a "spiritual discussion" with people it's not possible to do so in actual reality.

You might be able to find actual descriptions of the way these rituals can be practiced online. I believe I read about a Hindu form of the practice described to me as something along these lines:

(I am agnostic and do this sort of from a mental activity standpoint, but I've found it very helpful and who knows, maybe there is a spiritual realm?)

Come to a safe space for you to meditate either lying down or sitting up comfortably.
If you have pictures of the person you want to commune with put it up.
Light candles or make the room feel warm and safe for you.
Sit down and invite the persons spirit to be with you.
Imagine telling them everything you wish you say. Ask them why they behaved like they did. Tell them everything you feel, anger hurt rage emptiness detachment. Tell them what it was like. Tell them what things you like being with them. Spend time imagining that on this soul level the person is really ready to hear all of this and care about it. In their physical body they may never be able to, but in this space you can reach that part of them that in truth you know and believe has been there. That can fully see you. Let them know what you need from them. Do you need to know they love you? Do you need to hear they are sorry? Do you need to know they will send you love and carry you through your life journey? Can they be with you in that moment and awaken knowledge of what a peaceful loving family might be like? Can they guide you toward people who can love you in this way?
Imagine giving them a food offering or something they like/liked in life and giving them a hug.
Thank them for being with you.

In many spiritual traditions, it is believed that the ancestors can offer forms of support even after death. In this case you are seeking a kind of support from your parents that was damaged in their physical bodies, they arent able to give it. So asking for that support from the "spiritual realm" makes sense in this case. A place where they are in tact. You might even find strength you get over time, makes it possible to be present with your parents, seeing their wounds and aches that have prevented them from being good to you or knowing how to be there for you and not feeling harmed, seeing clearly that there is love beyond that.

There may be a period of time, perhaps long or all of your life, that you do not feel safe spending time with your parents. Or things may shift and you may find ways to safely interact despite that they can not give you the love you need. You may be able to give love to them. You may be able to feel what love they do have without being hurt by the parts of them that don't reflect how you wnt to be treated. Or maybe not.

I find that whatever the beliefs on a spiritual realm, this activity is useful because for me it brings me deeper into what I need to work on with whichever person than a writing activity or just trying to think it through. Imagining them really being there to open up what needs to be explored and what healing/understanding needs to happen helps me come to deeper answers about why things happened and what was up with all that, you know, badness. And to imagine those spaces really being filled with what they should have been filled with, or what that even is without having felt it or had it before.

I have no idea if that will be helpful for you!

But I know your alienation. I hope that you can find kind people who can be part of your experience of life and will treat you the way you should have been treated all along. On that front I uh, don't know how to do that at all. Keep looking. : )
posted by xarnop at 8:22 AM on November 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry you got dealt this hand. I think you're already doing the one thing you owe your parents: seeing them as people with their own problems, not mommy and daddy who owe you some childish, idealized perfect family. From there, I think you can start focusing on yourself. Working on yourself while trying to fix them sounds daunting to me. I'd come to grips with the fact that you're unlikely to fix them and that they're unlikely to change to give you what you feel you need but aren't getting (if you haven't truly come to grips with it yet). If you can do that and still have relationships with them that don't make your life significantly less pleasant, you should. If that's not possible, I think you're entitled to put yourself first.
posted by troywestfield at 11:58 AM on November 15, 2011

Best answer: I felt a lot like you do when I was in my early 20's. I went through a lot of therapy and learned basic lessons about how it's impossible to change others, and that the best thing to do with these kinds of relationships is to accept them for what they are. Change your expectations of your parents and you'll be more satisfied - don't expect them to do things that they just will not do.

I totally get your feelings of loneliness and that you're missing that family connection. In my experience, the best way to ease that pain has been to *accept* that you will never get that family connection and to move on. Allow yourself to mourn or grieve or whatever you need to get past the end of your expectations, and then work with what's left. Treat it like a death if you have to, but find its end point.

Doing this will let you see your parents in a much more positive light. It will give you the opportunity to continue your relationship with them, it will eliminate any guilt you would have had from cutting them off, and it will give you a clearer view of the positive and good things they have done for you.

An important part of doing this is, of course, to create your own life, independent from your parents. If you can't fully embrace the family you are given, embrace the family you have chosen.
posted by bendy at 7:16 PM on November 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

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