When to pull the plug?
May 1, 2012 3:22 PM   Subscribe

Family Drama Filter: Please help me sort out this situation. My parents are very difficult people and I'm considering cutting off ties. Help.

I feel so lost, please help me MeFites! I'm in a vicious cycle with my parents and I'm at the point where I'm wondering if cutting ties is the best choice. This is very sad to me, but they are very manipulative and I honestly don't want that in my life. Here's a recent example of the cycle.

Background: My parents are still married and assume very different roles. My dad is very much a "Yes-man" and avoids conflict like the plague. He will completely flat-out lie to keep peace. My mother is an absolute drama queen and makes everything out to be about her, her feelings, her wants, whatever. I'm in my 30s and have been financially independent from them since I was 18. I left the house and didn't look back because the combination of their two personalities cause them to be completely emotionally unavailable to me at times. Fast forward to now where I'm an unmarried adult who owns her own home and has a great career, I find it very difficult to connect with them. I've tried numerous times over the years to work on the relatioship. The only time they seem to open up to me is when they want something from me which usually comes in the form of guilt and shame.

Two weeks ago I called to say hello which I've been doing for years, and usually the extent of our conversation is just exchanged pleasantries and that's it. If my Mom asks me questions about myself and I open up to her, she almost always uses it as ammunition later for me being selfish and not thinking of her. This has caused me to not readily offer up information like how work's been going, what I've been doing in my spare time, etc. I try to ask her lots of questions about herself, and she won't open up because she feels that "I shouldn't know her personal details" (this was an answer to me asking what she's been up to lately and if she's been doing any hiking as an avid hiker). Obviously, this is totally counter-intuitive to attempts to foster an adult relationship with them.

Anyway, two weeks ago I called in my usual fashion. When she asked about what I was up to I happily told her that I ran the Boston Marathon (it was actually my 19th marathon!) and her immediate response was: "That was so stupid. WHY on Earth would anyone risk their health to run a stupid marathon? That was such a bad decision. Stupid. Not worth it." I was speechless and said I had to go and ended the conversation. I was nothing short of crushed. She left an apology voicemail three days later. I didn't call back because I was really, really upset.

Last week I received a voicemail message from my Dad saying that my mother had an accident and just wanted to let me know this. I immediately dropped what I was doing and called them. He talked to me for about two minutes that she slipped and fell (they are only in their late 50s) and had to get stiches to her knee and before I could even say anything, handed the phone to her. She immediately launched into an apology about the other night. Angry at feeling so manipulated, I took a breath and said calmly that I was feeling very hurt by what she had said. She told me that I'm being selfish and hung up on me.


I've been feeling awful about this but have been trying to let it go. Meanwhile, my brother's graduation is in two weeks and I haven't received any of the logistics. Since it's on a Wednesday, I would have to take time off from work to drive to another state, book a hotel room and take the next day off to attend graduation. Since I had zero information, I called them this afternoon. I said I was just calling to say hello and to get some information about the graduation so I could plan on my end. I was immediately yelled at by my brother and my mother that his graduation is "Not about [me]" and that I should plan on coming. I explained that this was the exact why that I was calling - I want to be supportive and attend the graduation, but just need to know logistics so that I can plan to be there. My brother also told me that he might not want me there. I told him that this was fine, but to let me know either way this week so I can put in for time off. Then of course, my dad chimes in with that they all want me there and I need to be there and blahdeblah - but the tones of voice, words, etc. from my mother and brother make me believe otherwise.

Ok, MeFi. I understand that not all adults are necessarily friends with their parents. I've accepted that I'll probably never have the relationship that I want with them. However, how do I manage this situation? Do I want to attend this graduation? Not really because I don't feel like dealing with my mom, but I was still planning on going to be supportive to my brother. But it seems like my brother doesn't want me there. Otherwise, I'd work my darndest to be there for him. What do I do?

I feel like I've been trying to force this relationship for years and I feel like I'm never going to get anywhere. When they need something from me I'm met with guilt...sometimes it might be warranted, other times not so much. I've strongly been considering cutting ties with them because this type of scenario has been a vicious cycle for YEARS. When is enough enough? Help? Maybe this is a bad idea?

posted by floweredfish to Human Relations (49 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If it's a high school graduation, go, give him a card. If he gets out of their crazy unit he'll remember it fondly. If not, well, you tried.

If it's college graduation, absolutely do not go. He's being abusive to you in concert with your parents.

Cutting off contact with my parents was the best thing I ever did for myself, by the way--now we email, so I have a written record of their craziness, and it keeps them more sane and makes it hard for them to lie and manipulate me.

Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers is a great site for this kind of thing, by the way.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:30 PM on May 1, 2012 [11 favorites]

I've not cut off my parents but there are folks (related and not) I simply had enough of. I don't suggest you change your name, city, phone numbers, and emails, but yeah. Graduation depends - if you really want to. Sounds like it's a college graduation, so I agree with a card. Also, reread your thread, most of it pretty much applies.
posted by tilde at 3:33 PM on May 1, 2012

the sooner you foster a relationship with your brother that is not at all related to your parents, the better it will be. my brother and i took years longer than we should have to talk to each other instead of letting our parents talk through us.

as to your parents - minimize your dealings with them and learn how to just let go of the stuff your mom says - try to give it as much weight as random people shouting at you from the street. easy to say, harder in practice, i know, but that's how i try to deal with it.
posted by nadawi at 3:35 PM on May 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

Jesus, this sounds terrible. I'm sorry to hear this. I don't think you need to cut off ties, necessarily, unless you feel that that is the only way that YOU can deal with all of this. Personally, if I were in your shoes, the way I would handle all of this would be to A) stop trying, like stop calling every 2 weeks, and B) push back. Like, push back HARD - arguing and yelling back at them, if necessary.

That's just the way I handle things, you don't necessarily need to do that. But, it seems like you're financially independent of them, so I don't foresee there being a lot of consequences to that. I'll also say that doing both of those things was the best thing I ever did for myself. It gave me self-respect, and taught my family that they couldn't keep manipulating me the way they were doing, and that if they wanted to have a relationship with me, it was going to be at least partially on my terms.
posted by 254blocks at 3:35 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Clarification: It is a college graduation. My brother does not seem to be an independent thinker. I think he tends to fall into a lot of what my parents feed him. However, he also has current health issues which I absolutely could see him using later to make me out to be a bad sister for not attending in his current condition (it's a common auto-immune disease).
posted by floweredfish at 3:36 PM on May 1, 2012

Don't go if you're doing it to prevent your brother from having something to hang over you. That just means you've extricated yourself from your mother manipulating you only to put yourself in a situation where your brother manipulates you.
posted by ocherdraco at 3:38 PM on May 1, 2012 [8 favorites]

Best answer: It doesn't matter if you're made out to be a bad sister. They'll make you out to be a bad sister, daughter, person if they want to, no matter what you do.

The idea that you can win is the biggest thing to let go of. You can't win because the game is to make you miserable, subservient, and depressed. Which they will then criticize you for.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:42 PM on May 1, 2012 [65 favorites]

Check the college's website for information on the graduation.

And I'm sorry; that sounds a lot like my mom, who insists I call and chat only to be scolded.
posted by Occula at 3:42 PM on May 1, 2012

Attending a graduation should be about celebration, not making yourself personally available to people who will try to manipulate you/guilt you/etc. You tried reaching out to your brother and he threw it in your face. The only reason I would advise going is if it's something you think you will personally regret later. I would, however, prepare yourself for having to leave quickly should they all start behaving badly towards you.
posted by smirkette at 3:42 PM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't really see how you're going to win here. If you go, it sounds like everybody's going to spend the time guilting you and generally telling you what a horrible person you are. If you don't go, everybody's going to guilt you and tell you what a horrible person you are. I guess I don't see what good it will do you to go. If I were you, I would think about whether it's time to cut off ties with them, as they seem to only bring you grief. What good do they bring into your life? What's the upside to being in contact with them?
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 3:43 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you strongly feel that going to the graduation is the right thing to do as a sibling, then go. If you are only going to avoid further unpleasantness, don't go. You won't ever be able to "win" with them, so do what will make you feel right with yourself.

Congratulations on running the Boston Marathon, by the way! That's no small achievement.
posted by rhythm and booze at 3:44 PM on May 1, 2012 [8 favorites]

I hate to do this but it's past midnight here and I have to be up at 6am. A previous comment of mine in a similar family situation

I so feel for what you're going though and suspect the fact that you have stood your ground alone, rather then partnering up, is a part of her issues.
posted by Wilder at 3:45 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

All the advice in your previous thread applies. If your parents are shits to you then you should not feel compelled to talk to them. They will either stop being shits so that you'll continue to interact with them, or they'll keep being shits because they're shits. There is not much you can do to control either outcome, so the best thing to do is take the route that will minimize the emotional harm to you.

For graduation, only go if you genuinely want to support him, not if it's out of guilt and you think you'll be miserable there. If you decide to go, tell your brother in email/phone/whatever that you need to know X details by Y date if he wants you to come (use a personal communication your parents don't intercept). If he doesn't send you details by Y date, send him a card. If they try to guilt you later, mention you needed a firm commitment by Y. Given the situation, if I were you I would make plans to only attend the ceremony, not any party or festivities afterwards.

If you are looking to find ways to build bonds with your brother, explain you can't attend the party/community gathering of guilt-tripping monsters, but would love to take him out for dinner or lunch or some private thing between just the two of you (if that's an option). Or say you'd love it if he visited (without inviting the parents with him). If your brother is an insufferable snot and you have no desire to see him (and that's OK!) then excuse yourself after the ceremony.
posted by Anonymous at 3:47 PM on May 1, 2012

Best answer: I suspect the following books might be very helpful for you, as what you seem to be describing in your mother sounds like pretty classic narcissistic personality disorder (with a codependent/enabling spouse):
- Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers
- The Emotionally Absent Mother: A Guide to Self-Healing and Getting the Love You Missed
- The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self

It is perfectly legitimate to detach (even if temporarily) from this situation. Or, if you don't detach, to set and enforce new boundaries. If you don't want to go no-contact with them, you can always go to a new level of limited contact.

The key is creating a situation in which you can interact with your parents (not just your mom) on your terms, which -- for me, in relation to my own parents with some similar dynamics -- started with getting a very clear-eyed understanding of who they really are (not who I wish them to be) and what I can realistically expect from them emotionally (not what I want to receive from them). In other words, it's a process (sometimes a long and difficult one) of coming to grips with the parents that you have, not the parents you wish you had.

As for your brother's graduation: you know, the graduation event itself might indeed be about him, but under the circumstances, your decision whether to attend is, in fact, "all about you" -- and that's OK. (One of the dirty tricks that gets pulled on the non-narcissistic members of a family is the idea that ANY consideration of our own needs or feelings is selfish, so that we are constantly managing other people's needs and feelings at the expense of our own.) Ask yourself frankly: do you want to go, given how everyone else is behaving? I suspect there's a good chance that your answer may be somewhere along the lines of "no, I don't really want to go, but I don't want to have to deal with the fallout afterwards either, so I guess I'm stuck going."

If so, this is a practical opportunity to set and enforce new boundaries. You can choose not to go (and send a card/gift/whatever instead); that is a perfectly legitimate decision based on their attitude and refusal to give you the necessary information. And if they are upset about your choice, then that is the consequence of their bad behavior -- a consequence that THEY will have to manage, if you refuse to manage it for them. By that, I mean that you let them own their own behavior and bad feelings (though they won't want to, because they are used to letting you own it for them). If there are hysterical phone calls in return, you own your own part directly -- "I wasn't given the necessary information to make logistical arrangements and Brother said he might not want me there anyway, so this was the better solution for me" -- but you decline to own their feelings or otherwise engage in their manipulation. I know this may sound insanely hard, even downright impossible. It's true that it's very difficult to do in families like this. But it's also (in my experience) how you start the process of disembarking from the Crazy Train and eventually getting on track to a wonderful place called Sanityville.

Good luck.
posted by scody at 3:54 PM on May 1, 2012 [22 favorites]

Parents can be total drags (I am one and I had two of my own at one time). Family means you love them even if they get on your nerves. Nothing you do can "unfamily" them. Call this character building, call this mercy... don't cut them off. They are older, they're from another culture, they are clueless, but they're the reason you are here. You are an adult. Perhaps a discussion with them about how hurtful they can be... but cutting them off? That's just cruel, and honestly, if you want to distinguish yourself from your (apparently) unthinking, unfeeling 'rents, don't do as they would do. You are better than that.
posted by brownrd at 3:55 PM on May 1, 2012

When is enough enough?

Whenever you want it to be. It sounds simple because in a way, it is - you can't control your family, only how you react to them or how you let them feel. You've already put boundaries in place and you can maintain, strengthen, or lessen them as you see fit. Don't let anybody guilt you into doing otherwise.

Also, your brother is an adult, although he sounds like a less than mature one. If he wanted you there, he'd have given you the information instead of trying to manipulate you. I wouldn't waste any more time thinking about this one - you have obligations in your life that require that you make plans in advance, and he/they know that. You've done your part here. If he calls you and tells you that he really wants you to be there, then you have to decide whether that potential mine-field is worth strolling into. But it's perfectly legitimate to not want to spend time with people who make you feel bad, no matter what the occasion.
posted by sm1tten at 3:56 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Send an email telling your brother that you need to know about the graduation by the Thursday prior if he wants you to attend.

If he doesn't answer or engages in more bullshit, then you have my personal permission to stop talking to them for a loooong time. No need for explanations, just stop calling and writing
posted by yarly at 3:56 PM on May 1, 2012 [8 favorites]

I advocate taking a break from your parents. Six months off from talking to them could really help you get a little distance and figure out your boundaries. No more "hello" calls, and if they pull the "there's been an accident!" trick again, can you just say, "I'm glad you're OK! I've got to go, though?" (My mother's response to... everything, really, is the silent treatment, so when I took a break from her I didn't have to deal with her attempting to make contact.)

I think a lot of times we set up a false decision between never talking to someone again and continuing the way things are going but you can take some time off from a crappy family relationship without cutting ties forever. If you want to cut ties forever, that's fine too, but you can also just cut ties until Thanksgiving or something and see how that feels. I did not speak to my mother from Memorial Day until Christmas one year. It was kind of a huge relief. Did it improve our relationship? Not particularly. But I think I have much better coping mechanisms around/with her now.

I'm not sure what you should do about the graduation. (I would probably go? I guess? Wednesday, what the hell is that about?)
posted by mskyle at 4:03 PM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Also, "unfamilying" my family is by far the healthiest thing I've ever done. I stopped letting them be cruel to me, and I stopped being cruel to myself. I'm not saying that is the solution for you, but it was for me. And I have absolutely no regrets.
posted by sm1tten at 4:03 PM on May 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

if you want to distinguish yourself from your (apparently) unthinking, unfeeling 'rents, don't do as they would do. You are better than that.

With all due respect, there's a vast difference between parents who are "drags" and parents who have actual mental illnesses and personality disorders that result in sabotaging an adult child's basic sense of self. In the case of the latter, detaching from one's parents (whether in a limited or complete way, and whether temporarily or permanently) may in fact be a perfectly legitimate choice because it may be the only path to the adult child's own mental health. Children of narcissists and other personality disordered parents get guilt-tripped for considering our own best interests all the time; it would be nice if it didn't happen in this thread.
posted by scody at 4:03 PM on May 1, 2012 [41 favorites]

OK so I am about your age and my parents are just like yours. I have a good relationship with my Dad, though he is such a keep the peace pushover when it comes to things with my mom that it infuriates me. I have seen them twice in two years. The last time was my wedding in October (referenced in the link above where my mom tried to ruin our wedding). I have not talked to my mom since the day after the wedding when she got my sister to call me knowing I would answer if I saw that it was my sister, never mind that it was the beginning of my honeymoon. She got on the phone, apologized for making a scene at my wedding and the asked if when we got to Chicago I could wire her some money because she had wasted money on a dress for our wedding and...it doesn't matter.

Here is my point, I haven't talked to them since and have no intention to be the one to initiate contact. I have made it clear to my sisters to not let my mom use them to get me on the phone. I have no regrets about this so far. Dealing with them was a drain mentally and emotionally and I have grown sick of it. While there are times that I grab my phone to call my dad to talk about a game or something, I remember that myself and my sisters have told him repeatedly how never standing up for us against my mom and just being so god damned passive aggressive with her has damaged our relationship with him and I put the phone back down.

Maybe I'll regret it someday. I dunno. I know that this "outta sight outta mind" approach has made me happier than I have been in a while. I would like to agree with snickerdoodle, that they will come around and respect your boundaries, but I can;t see that happening. Your mom, like mine, sounds like a textbook narcissist and textbook narcissits are THE MOST DIFFICULT PEOPLE to get along with.
posted by holdkris99 at 4:06 PM on May 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

He doesn't want you there? Send him a card.

Your parents don't want to emotionally support you? Stop calling them.

The only one I see you able to have a relationship with is possibly your dad, but you need a break from them all. You keep putting yourself in the firing line and they keep shooting at you.
posted by mleigh at 4:07 PM on May 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

Go to your brother graduation, don't participate in the family get together except to say a formal "how do you do", hand your brother a card and leave immediately, citing work needs as excuse. Use work excuse a lot to keep them at a distance until you heal, if you can heal from these types of heart breaks. Your family seems toxic.
posted by francesca too at 4:21 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Well, since others have addressed the issues you raised more directly, I'll take an indirect route to coping with this mess, as in: so, what *else* is going on in your life these days? That is, do you have friends, dates, a Significant Other perhaps who can love you for who you are in nurturing, healing, constructive ways? Beyond the sorts of obvious suffering that crazy-making family dynamics cause, they often lead to an insidious sort of social isolation for those affected, both because they take up so much time and emotional energy (as your posts document) and because they can cloud our expectations for all relationships, even those with otherwise stable, sensible strangers in the larger, everyday world.

In your life these days you mention having a demanding career and the material rewards that come with it, but what else? I don't mean to sound like your mother with "why aren't you married?" etc.; rather, it's about seeking love in supportive relationships, whether from the family you're born into or the one *you* build for yourself.

The saying that "love heals" is definitely true; the challenge comes from learning where to look for it. Based on the situation you describe, the best strategy for coping may well be to look elsewhere in your life. Welcome to adulthood....
posted by 5Q7 at 4:42 PM on May 1, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Parents can be total drags (I am one and I had two of my own at one time). Family means you love them even if they get on your nerves. Nothing you do can "unfamily" them. Call this character building, call this mercy... don't cut them off. They are older, they're from another culture, they are clueless, but they're the reason you are here. You are an adult. Perhaps a discussion with them about how hurtful they can be... but cutting them off? That's just cruel, and honestly, if you want to distinguish yourself from your (apparently) unthinking, unfeeling 'rents, don't do as they would do. You are better than that.

I've never understood this mentality. Let me offer another perspective. Once you're a self-supporting adult, your parents are just some other adults. If they're abusive or manipulative, or if you're not benefiting from the relationship emotionally, cut them off! Get on with your life! This is what being an adult is all about, being self-determining. Many, many great, strong, morally upright people have cut their parents off, because there's really nothing to be gained from keeping yourself tethered to people who continue to hurt you.
posted by jayder at 4:44 PM on May 1, 2012 [25 favorites]

My parents have been divorced for a long time and I have a good relationship with my dad and his wife of 20+ years. It's been nearly three years since I spoke to my mother. After many years of shit and more shit between us, one day we had a big fight which ended with me telling her to get the hell away from me and we haven't communicated since. I do not regret it, at all, but it hasn't always been easy. It was sort of disorienting for a while, but then I really got to the work of understanding what our relationship had done to me, and healing from all the drama and trauma. It's still in progress, really.

Will I ever speak to her again? I'm not sure. Some days I think no. I very much doubt she will ever change. But maybe I will be strong enough eventually that her crap won't be such a burden. It's been a relief, to be myself, figure myself out without my mother always in my ear, or my head, giving her skewed and screwed-up opinions about me and my life. I don't usually recommend taking such drastic action, but it's working for me. Could be a long break is in order for you. I remind myself regularly that this break from my mother doesn't have to be permanent, I can reach out if I want.

Good luck.
posted by upatree at 4:58 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ok, so being practical here;

First, you know where your brother goes to school, no? So should be fairly easy for you to find out where and when the graduation is from the school's website or by calling.

Second, go.

Third, my parents and your parents should have a golf foursome on the weekends. Along with my sisters with your brother.

Family is family. The thing is, you know what to expect. So why get all wound up about it? Do I care that my mom fell and broker her shoulder at my sister's house? Sure I do. She's in her sixties. Did I rush over with meals and call constantly to check up on her? No. Then again, I found out about the accident because my wife decided to check her facebook page, where it was posted. (note: I don't do facebook and they all know that)

I get the guilt trips constantly. I'm not involved as my sisters in the family. I don't call on birthdays. I don't make an effort. I don't do anything, and everyone needs to tiptoe around me.

All a bunch of hooey. My wife tried for years to be the person my mom (and sisters) expected me to be, and she constantly poo-pood me and said I was horrible. Recently, she's finally come around to understanding just what is happening - pretty much the exact kinds of things you describe. So I think I have a 3rd person validation that what I'm telling you is good advice.

Don't go tit for tat, don't be all 'if you don't tell me I can't go'. Don't play their game. If you can go, find out the info and go. Do what *you* think is the right thing in making phone calls, staying in touch and so forth.

IF they want to be asses, you should be prepared and understand that and not take it so emotionally and personally. If anything, acceptance of that brings a kind of inner peace when talking to them, and knowing exactly what they're going to do.

You've become your own person, you recognize what they are doing. No need to cut ties. Just be smarter than them. I never got the whole holding grudges over the little things. I'm take it or leave it, doesn't matter to me.
posted by rich at 5:01 PM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Call this character building, call this mercy... don't cut them off. They are older, they're from another culture, they are clueless, but they're the reason you are here. You are an adult. Perhaps a discussion with them about how hurtful they can be... but cutting them off? That's just cruel

Ugh, honestly, F@#@ that S$#@. You do not have a duty to put up with your parents - or anyone's bullying and douchieness. Indeed, in putting up with it, you are telling them that it's okay, and normalising it as part of the relationship they have with you. And as a bonus, you get to feel like complete shit! No one has a right to make you feel like shit, parents or no.

You need to reset the clock, on them, your bro, and the family's relationship with you. This means some rule and expectation setting, and it won't be easy, and you'll probably still feel a bit cut up about it, but these feelings will dissipate over time.

I come from a largish (four kids) family, and all of us have had to do this with our parents or siblings at some point or another - and hey, the good news is all of us bar one exception, have done it successfully and have good if not always spectacular relationships with each other now.

But when times are trying, there are times when you have to reset expectations, and say, "If you want to deal with me, this is the way you have to do it, and these are the channels you need to do it in, otherwise we don't play." Parents need you more than you need them. It's hard to believe it in inside, I know. But they do, and they will always come back; they cannot help themselves.

You know who gets the least shit in my family? My brother. My 34 year old brother who has maybe spoken to my parents three times in the last four years without asking for money from them. Basically, never calls, never calls back, never answers, never visits, never stays long, never helps organise, etc etc etc et-bloody-c.

And guess what? Mum and Dad accept it. All of it. He's their son. They cannot help loving him. They want to see him, they want to speak with him, and they'll do what's necessary to ensure that's what happens. I resent my brother for his performance as a family member, but I confess to a shame-faced admiration for the way he deals with familial pressure. He does what he wants, when he wants, how he wants, with a kind of brazen audacity. And it works for him. I dunno if he feels the kind of guilt the rest of us would in "shirking" our duty like that, but I've never seen it manifest and it's over a decade like this.
posted by smoke at 5:33 PM on May 1, 2012 [9 favorites]

I would send your brother a short, handwritten letter about how much he means to you and how proud you are of him. Tell him how excited you are for him about the opportunities that his graduation could mean for him, and that you will always be there for him. Tell him that you would love to be there for him at his graduation if that would be meaningful for him, and that as soon as he (and only he) says the word, you'll be there, but regardless, you hope he knows he has your support ALWAYS. If you send the note tomorrow it'll be there in time for him to tell you he wants to come.

I'm sorry things in your family are so shitty. It sounds like you're doing great, just keep moving forward.
posted by argonauta at 5:38 PM on May 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

Nothing you do can "unfamily" them.

I'm sorry, that is simply toxic nonsense. People can choose exactly what relationship, if any, to have with their families of origin. The whole "blood is thicker than water" thing is often used to keep people in destructive relationships.

OP, go to your brother's graduation if you want to go for your own sake. Don't go if you don't want to go for your own sake. That sounds overly simplistic, but my guess is that when you stop trying to guess what will please your family and focus on pleasing yourself, you will be no further behind the eightball with their dysfunction (if you choose to remain in contact with them) and much father along your own path to serenity.

It's grimly hilarious that your mother treats the basic information of her life (hiking? really?) like some kind of Kremlin state secret at the height of the Cold War, but expects you to open up to her in return. I'm so sorry you have to deal with this nonsense in your life.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:38 PM on May 1, 2012 [9 favorites]

Please ignore brownrd's advice above. You don't owe your parents anything. I also have crazy parents, though they are divorced and crazy in different ways from your parents. With my mom, I have done the temporary cut-off thing several times, for as long as a few months. It helps for awhile, but things always turn bad again. So I've recently cut her off completely. I do still feel guilt, but I'm putting my own mental health (and that of my husband & baby) ahead of everything else.

I'm not saying you should cut them out of your life completely, but you should stop acting out of obligation. It's your choice what kind of relationship to have with them, if any. They are not good parents - they have failed in their obligations to you. You need to take care of yourself.

I know it sucks and is unfair. I'm sorry. I've been there. You should be proud that you've built a better life away from them.
posted by barnoley at 6:17 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just cut my parents off for about 4 months now, and it's been a huge relief to me. You don't have to make the decision to Never Talk To Them Again. Sometimes just Not Putting Up With Their Bullshit for a while is enough. They'll either get over it or they won't, but at least you won't have to deal with the unnecessary stress from them.
posted by empath at 6:43 PM on May 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

I just started to read Coping With Difficult Parents and I highly recommend it.
posted by Riverine at 7:35 PM on May 1, 2012

I cut off ties with my very, very difficult completely impossible father. It was one of the hardest decisions I've ever made and I struggled with it for months on how exactly to handle it.

The only thing I regret is not doing it years ago.

The details of my situation are very different from yours, but if you'd like to talk about how it feels on the "other side," feel free to MeMail me.
posted by sonika at 5:20 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

The idea that you can win is the biggest thing to let go of. You can't win because the game is to make you miserable, subservient, and depressed. Which they will then criticize you for.

Yes, yes, yes, YES.

The part about cutting off ties that was hardest for me to accept is that they wouldn't understand what I was doing and would make it about me trying to hurt them - which wasn't it at all. When I let go of that and considered "having my father and stepmother think I'm a bad person" as inevitable and factored it into the cost/benefit analysis... it was still better than dealing with flat-out insanity.

I know they don't understand why I made the decision I made and think that I'm vindictive and trying to "punish" them. I also know that there's nothing I can do about this and their opinion of me has no bearing on my life or my opinion about my *self.* It took a long, long time to get to this place, but accepting "Ok, so in this person's eyes, I'm a bad person - and I can't change that - so I'm just going to be ok with it" was a major breakthrough for me.

Also: brownrd clearly doesn't have experience dealing with seriously toxic family. When my husband and I started dating, he was appalled at how I would talk about my father. He comes from a very family-oriented culture and has a wonderful family of his own, so he simply could not understand how it was possible that I didn't have a sufficient quota of respect for this man. I can absolutely hear a lot of the conversations we would have in this comment. For his sake, I tried very hard to establish a healthy relationship with my father...

... four years later, he was the one encouraging me to cut off contact and now understand EXACTLY why I felt the way I did about my father when we met. He truly, truly could not believe that any parent *would* be that bonkers w/r/t their own children. Part of the reason he believed that my father deserved my respect is that he took it for granted that he'd earned it. He now realizes that this was not the case at all. You hear about people's families being nuts, but quite often you have to experience it to believe it.
posted by sonika at 5:33 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your parents sound difficult, but I think you should try to exercise every option you can before you cut them off. Try seeing them less. Try establishing boundaries. Try therapy. Eventually, you may need to cut off your parents, but you will want to look back and say, I have exhausted every single option I can, and this relationship simply isn't workable. Cutting someone off is an extreme measure, and it should only be done if you have no other choice.

Finally, I want to reiterate my suggestion of therapy. It seems to me you could benefit from working through your family dynamics with a trained professional. It won't change the situation, but it will change your reaction/coping methods which could improve things a lot.
posted by emilynoa at 5:36 AM on May 2, 2012

Best answer: Ending my relationship with my family has been a very healthy step for me. It is not instant puppies and flowers, of course. But sort of like quitting smoking, I now look back at our interactions and think, 'fuck me, no, why WHY did I suck down those fumes?'

My mother regularly pulled out the whole 'but IT'S FAMILY' thing, and that would always get me, but you know what? If you want to pull that card, you gotta actually treat other people with love and respect. My mother is narcissistic to the point that she's like her own galaxy. You wanna live in it, you gotta pretend to be a being of silicon and when she hands you a piece of broken glass, you gotta munch it down. I got the 'it's not about you' line in response to a number of things, including my paralysis and chronic pain problems, which is a pretty funny, if you think about it.

W/r/t graduation: send your brother a card, gift, whatever, call it a day.

P.S. W/r/t to the marathon? YOU ROCK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
posted by angrycat at 6:13 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have long suspected that if emotional abuse were more socially unacceptable between family members. and it was more socially acceptable to draw boundaries and DTMF'sA - that more mentally ill abusers would seek help and the world would be a much less damaged and fucked up place.

Yes. I believe adults who emotionally abuse others, especially those closest to them, should be shunned and ignored. Especially since I know nothing else works and they voluntarily will not seek help as long as their victims stick around for more.

That is my stance on this issue. Always.

PS - I'm happier than ever. My life is populated with honest and genuine people now. and is very very low drama.

PPS - Your brother sounds infected and is likely a lost cause. Sorry. I know there's a technical term for your bro's role in the dynamic your mom promotes in your family, maybe some can pipe in with that so you can google around and read up on it??

PPPS - Please take the money you would have spent on this event and donate it to a reputable charity helping abused children. Send a card if you wish to your brother. Support positive endeavors and people, withdraw totally any support or approval for bad behaviors. Engage in clean transactions from now on. You'll feel SO much better about yourself.

Your family are all adult persons who can choose to seek help for their cruel and manipulative ways or not. This has zero to do with you, as you are a separate adult individual who clearly chooses to interact differently than they do. To each their own. Let them reap what they sow. Get out of their way already! Being their victim is not making the world a better place.

Peace out, good luck to you.
posted by jbenben at 6:59 AM on May 2, 2012 [6 favorites]

She left an apology voicemail three days later. I didn't call back because I was really, really upset... before I could even say anything, handed the phone to her. She immediately launched into an apology about the other night. Angry at feeling so manipulated...

I am not a big fan of maintining relationships with toxic parents for the sake of it, but in this case I think you need to own up to your own dysfunction here. Your mother apologised to you twice. You rejected her both times. On top of that, I fail to see which aspect in what you describe is manipulative. She sounds problematic but IMHO you don't seem to be approaching this with maturity.

Part of being an adult is not looking to your parents for validation, and part of being a healthy human is not looking to people for something they have repeatedly and consistently proven they will fail to provide. When your mother tells you marathons are stupid, you say "That's OK mom, nobody is asking you to run one! What are you and dad up to?"
posted by DarlingBri at 8:02 AM on May 2, 2012

Having dealt with a narcissitic mother all my life i could not disagree with darlingbri more. Whatever the OP says to her mother she will get a negative condescending response. After years and years of that it gets old. Narcissitc people constantly bait others into feeling guilt and shame by making themselves the victim because they have to be the center on attention. No idea is worth a damn unless it is there idea. They constantly ridicule others to make themselves feel better. They are often egotistical and uncaring, they always have to "win" and when they don't the manipulate the retelling in their own minds and to others so that they seem put upon. When they apologize they win either way, if you accept and are contrite they think "see, i was right, she was in the wrong" and if you dont accept their apology or are dismissive they say "see she is being immature and childish when i earnestly apologized." I dont care how fucking "adult" you are it is natural to look to your parents for validation, you know what, not even validation, but at the least a bare minimum of acceptance for who you are and for your accomplishments. I mean, that starts from day one. And when you are a kid growing up with a narcissitic parents who never EVER give you any kind of validation you just want it all the more and try and try harder to please them, but nothing ever will. It took me 32 years to realize that and i am better off for it. Based on her post it seems that the OP is starting to realize that too and good for her.
posted by holdkris99 at 8:37 AM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

You may find it interesting to read about operant conditioning and the extinction burst. When something your mother does fails to produce the desired result (she leaves an apology but you do not resume contact), her behavior escalates (leaves a vague message about an accident) to provoke her desired result (you call in a panic asking about her). She has now learned (regardless of faking an accident or not) that if she leaves you dire messages about her health, she can get you to resume contact.

It's really, really hard to make it through that extinction burst, especially because she will continue to escalate. There are a number of good comments in this thread and your previous post. The brother-infected comment above by jbenben refers to the Golden Child/Scapegoat dynamic, where the golden child actively works within the framework of dysfunction to oppress and harass the scapegoat.

>Your mother apologised to you twice. You rejected her both times. On top of that, I fail to see which aspect in what you describe is manipulative.

DarlingBri, I understand where you're coming from with the apology-rejections/etc. However, "manipulation" relies heavily on past personal history, and it's difficult (if not impossible) to convey the insinuations and references via text to someone not enmeshed in the dynamic. It's like there's a side-channel of anguish weighted down with a history of disappointment.

Just because her mother "apologised" doesn't mean she did so sincerely - that's at the heart of the manipulation. The "apology" tends to be more of a "I'm sorry for whatever I might have said/done that made you upset, come back come back." It's hard to explain, and often gets the bonus "if you weren't so sensitive, you wouldn't be upset, so this is really your problem but I'll make an apology even though it's your fault anyway."

When the phone got handed to her mother without anything about the accident, floweredfish realized that, however severe the accident actually was, her mother used floweredfish's worry to force communication on her regardless of her wishes.
posted by bookdragoness at 8:42 AM on May 2, 2012 [7 favorites]

Jenben, OPs brother and father also are what is called narcissitic supply to the mother. Narcissits are good at finding people like this (in the case of OPs father) and good a creating people like this (in the case of OPs brother). And for some people they thrive on being fodder for a narcissist.
posted by holdkris99 at 8:44 AM on May 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I recently gave this hard-learned advice to a friend: Life is too short to actively seek out people who have a history of making your life unpleasant.

I haven't spoken to my own brother in almost two years. I miss him and I love my brother, but the person he's become, and the way he treats people, even (especially) those who love him, are absolutely appalling and I will not tolerate it any longer. Would you let someone you aren't related to treat you the way your family treats you? No? Then there's your answer.

Yes, I know, "family" is different. It means they are supposed to be BETTER to you, KINDER to you, more LOVING to you, than some random person on the street. When they can't or won't treat you as well as they treat the neighbor or their co-workers, fuck genetics. YOU DESERVE BETTER.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 9:08 AM on May 2, 2012 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone so much for the great advice and resources. I think I have some hard thinking to do these next few days, but all of this information and perspectives really helped to point me in the right direction.

I think as of right now, I'm going to see if my brother gets back to me this week (which is what I requested on the phone before they all freaked out on me) to let me know if he wants me there. If I don't hear back, I'll send a card.

Where this is getting down to the wire, I may not be able to get the time needed off from work anyways. They won't like hearing that one bit, but it's the truth. I'm sure I'll get a lot of guilt for not having taken that Wednesday off a long time in advance, but again, I really didn't know what the plans were (and still don't).

A lot of you hit the nail on the head with what I KNOW they will say: "We need to stick together as a family" and "You can't make time for your family!?" and "Tell work it's for family reasons!" and "What? You don't want to be part of our family?" and "Your brother went to YOUR graduation!" (mind you, he was 10 years old at the time).


If I go to the graduation, I know it's going to be a very, very rough time to be around them and that I'd be there essentially to just please them. Then of course, I'm sure something else will eventually come up where I'm on the outs again.

This is tough.
posted by floweredfish at 10:56 AM on May 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

Here's what happened with me and my brother. We also had a large age difference and he was the younger child. My mom set us up as the textbook scapegoat and golden child, and encouraged him to treat me the same way that she did - which he did with relish. I don't think we had a single civil conversation the first 13 years of his life.

One thing that happened a lot was that my mom would lose one of her things (she was disorganized in the extreme so this happened constantly) and accuse me off the bat of having taken it. One day I was furious and I asked her, "Who are you going to blame for all your problems once I'm not living here anymore?"

When I said that I realized she would always have a scapegoat and if I weren't there, my brother would lose his golden child status with a quickness. (She wouldn't dare do it to my dad.)

And that is exactly what happened. Their relationship deteriorated to the point of being unrecognizable. It was like Bizarro World. If you met my brother and my mom now you would be shocked that she acted like he was the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama well into his teens even as he behaved abominably.

The most shocking thing is that he DOESN'T behave abominably anymore. When he was younger I thought there was no hope for him, the way he was being raised, and how much he relished it, I thought she was doing permanent damage to him and he would treat others horribly his whole life.

So I think cutting off contact with your mom for awhile may end up being the best thing you could do for the chance of a good relationship with your brother down the line.
posted by cairdeas at 9:20 PM on May 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

cairdeas speaks the truth.
posted by jbenben at 12:57 AM on May 3, 2012

Best answer: floweredfish: "A lot of you hit the nail on the head with what I KNOW they will say: "We need to stick together as a family" and "You can't make time for your family!?" and "Tell work it's for family reasons!" and "What? You don't want to be part of our family?" and "Your brother went to YOUR graduation!" (mind you, he was 10 years old at the time). "

You can respond to all of these with something like "Family doesn't treat family like you treat me."

There's always a lot of "oh you owe your parents something" handwringing in these threads (and plenty of the opposite)...in many cases, it wasn't your parents' love and support which helped make you who you are today, but who you are today is IN SPITE of what your parents did TO you. In which case, what you owe them is twenty years of close-quarters grief. The better person wipes *that* debt clean - which is to say, stops contact. (It's the family relationship version of "If you can't say anything nice...")
posted by notsnot at 10:00 AM on May 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have a friend who keeps going back to let her family treat her badly, keeps being miserable about it and looking for support from her friends, and I was starting to lose my patience with her a bit. She predicts exactly what they will do, shows up, they do it, and she is shocked and distressed.

I've been trying to keep being supportive and understanding and I think part of what keeps her in their destructive thrall is a sense that they may be awful but if she gives them up, she will really have nothing, and that's worse. It's a fact that our culture makes a huge deal out of family and romantic relationships, and tends to not lend much cultural support for friendships. In a way she's right, her friends may come and go (even though she's a wonderful person and has some great friends who care about her very much) but her family will never step out of their game and she can always rely upon them to be there, albeit for misery. It's hard to step off of the tight rope and take your chances with adult friends who have their priorities, their own parents, partners, and children, especially when you're single.

I think the other thing that keeps her there is a sense on her part that being someone who is estranged from their family is stigmatizing. Her family keeps sending her the message that there's something wrong with her, and on some level she thinks that if other people see her as someone who is estranged from her family, they will think, "oh there must be something wrong with her." In a way, she's right about that too. People can be very judgmental. Whether it's because they can't even conceive of the awfulness that some families can inflict, or whether it's because their own family is awful and they need to validate their own choice to stay connected to them, people make mean judgments. Unfortunately, I think the brownrd vs. everybody else dynamic in this thread may not be so representative of the world at large, or at least among people who are vocal about things.

So stepping away from toxic family can feel risky, and I can see why people (in this case as in others) tend to stick to the baggage they know rather than the unknown. And maybe it's judgmental and superior of me to think I can know for certain what's best for someone else. But I really think it's at least worth a shot.
posted by Salamandrous at 7:20 AM on May 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm adding this thread as a favorite, because I'm going through something similar, and I too am in my 30s.

My mother is incredibly manipulative and a pain in the ass to deal with. My father simply puts up with it, and I honestly think that if he did not hold the values that he does, he would have divorced her years ago when I was still living with them. Your mother's response to your telling her you ran the Marathon sounds very much like something my own mother would say. I've told her a number of things I've done and been proud of over the years only to be shot down by a similar response from her.

I cut off ties for several months a few years ago because of my parents' reaction to the news of my engagement: my dad's first words were not "congratulations," but rather, "I'm going to need a copy of your prenup so I can give it to my lawyer and we can deal with our will." We didn't get a prenup.

For the record, my mother absolutely hates my wife, not because of any aspect of her or her personality, but because she is the significant other in my life. My mother has expressed open disdain for any woman I have ever dated or had any serious relationship with (I suspect because these women were not hand-picked for me by my mother but rather people I chose to date and be with).

I restarted ties with my parents at the urging of my wife, and that went okay for a while, but they quickly went back to their manipulative ways.

This past November, my wife and I went through a bit of a rough patch and I stupidly called my parents for advice and support. At that point I was strongly considering ending things, but my wife and I worked it out (as I think one is supposed to do, and I think we're stronger together as a result). When I let them know we had worked it out, all hell broke loose. It was as if my mom was rooting for me to get divorced, and it was my fault and I now (in her mind) have to apologize to her because my wife and I stayed together. That's really f'd up if you ask me. We had invited them over to our house for Thanksgiving before all of this went down, and my mom blatantly stated that they refused to visit us.

There's a lot more to it than that (mainly involving my parents constantly holding money over my head, like I somehow owe them and have to give in to their manipulative ways because they paid for my college education and have given me money as gifts a number of times), but I'd be writing a novel -- and I'm at work right now. Suffice it to say I cut all ties with them at that point and we haven't spoken since. This is the best thing that has happened to me. I don't call, I don't e-mail, I don't visit. I changed all of our phone numbers, I set up filters on both my home and work e-mail so anything from either parent immediately is deleted, and I throw out any postal mail that they send. The number of e-mails that are reported to me to hit those filters tell me she's still incredibly angry and still is trying to make me feel like crap but I'm so much happier now that they are out of my life for good.

Sometimes it is very difficult for me. Sometimes I feel guilty. Sometimes I look at my wife's relationship with her family and I get incredibly jealous, wishing I had that kind of relationship with my own family. (Same goes when people at work talk about their families.) I have to say that the guilt is the hardest thing for me to get over. I feel sometimes that I have to put up with them because they are my family. But why? If any friend or acquaintance treated me like that, I wouldn't have that person in my life. Why should my family be any different? I'm an adult. I don't have to take their abuse in any form.

I am considering writing my own question about this because sometimes I just need help dealing with it. Don't get me wrong, I am MUCH happier with my life this way.

As for your brother's graduation, it's over by now, and I hope whatever choice you made was the right one for you. I am an only child and so thankfully I don't have any siblings to worry about; I think that would make things more difficult for me.

I think, if your family treats you the way they treat you, than you should cut them off. I've never been happier as far as family is concerned. You are an adult, you are self-sufficient, and you do not have to take this abuse.
posted by tckma at 5:59 AM on June 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

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