How do I talk about my family
August 14, 2012 3:19 PM   Subscribe

How do I talk to potential romantic partners about my rough childhood and my mentally ill mother?

I’m in my mid-thirties and I haven’t been in a romantic relationship that has lasted more than a year. Every time I start to get close to someone I seize up because I come from a very rough family situation, I’m ashamed of that, and I don’t feel like most of the people I date can really relate to that at any level. The women I go out with seem to be to come from relatively stable, healthy families that provided some level of support and care for them. That’s not the case for me, at all.

I have a pattern where I go out on a few dates with a person, there seems to be a little spark. Then the dreaded question comes up – “So. . .what’s your family like?” I dodge it and ask about theirs and it seems that their descriptions are of functional families that grew up in the suburbs, had fun family vacations, close ties, etc. When I hear their descriptions, I check out because that’s nothing like what my family was like and I doubt that anyone from that background could even begin to understand what I came from.

The reality – I grew up in a very poor rural town, my dad died when I was young and after that my mother lost her grip on life in my teens and has never really recovered, and functions at the level of a 6 year old. I have spent the past 20 years of my life in a quasi-caretaker role and even at that, things are pretty rough. My mother is on disability, lives in a slummy apartment with several animals that she cannot care for properly. She’s morbidly obese, spends most of her time in bed, and the time that she’s not in bed she is playing an MMO game. When I go home to visit the only place I have to sleep is a broken down pull out couch that has been peed on by her animals to the point that it stinks. I have to buy all her groceries because she never has any money. She does not know what is and isn’t socially appropriate and often says very embarrassing things. She has done counseling and therapy for years, and has been on every medication known to man, but it’s been of limited help. I have tried through the years to do everything I can to change the situation – financially, emotionally, physically, and nothing has changed.

I really don’t know how to deal with this. As soon as I get somewhat close to someone, I flash forward mentally to the point where they will meet family, and I just freeze up and decide it will never work out. The last time I introduced a girlfriend to my mother it was so uncomfortable that I could barely deal with it and my mother said all kinds of humiliating things. I don’t want to go the rest of my life closing myself off to other people because of this, but I don’t know how to talk about it constructively with someone new to my life. I’d appreciate advice.
posted by minorcadence to Human Relations (32 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Realize that EVERYONE is screwed up. Everyone has the crazy uncle under the stairs, the cousin who molested them when they were 6, the alcoholic father, the nymphomaniac mother, the drug-addict brother. Everyone. Don't be scared and don't be embarrassed. If you're dating a hypocrite, you will know it when they book after meeting your familty. All that counts is how you are NOW.
posted by brownrd at 3:23 PM on August 14, 2012 [7 favorites]

Speaking as one who comes from a different but also bad place, I've had issues with this too, although not to the extent that you describe. Not just with romantic partners, but my hairdresser, friends, and random people ask me questions about my family and I can't just be o no don't go there.

Two things have helped me with this feeling of being tied to a bad past, well, three, no four things:
1. Cut off the fam
2. Therapy
3. Realizing that I am not my family. Try saying it: You are not your family. Loads of folks come from bad backgrounds and they do heroic things. That's you, the hero.
4. Identifying with Sirius Black* from Harry Potter (a silly, but accessible thing). Everybody loves Sirius, right?
*not the getting dead part
posted by angrycat at 3:27 PM on August 14, 2012 [8 favorites]

I had a rugged childhood too, and I remember one particular friend whose life and family were like this glowing, shining beacon of loving normality. Only now, many years later, have I found out that in fact, they were plagued with misery and trouble - just like everyone else. It's easy to think that no-one's life is as bad as yours - and in some cases it's true, but you never know what is really going on. An old friend of mine used to say we compare our insides to everyone else's outsides!

I don't think you need to go into a lot of details with prospective partners. I never have. I just say something like, "We're not close." and no-one has ever pushed it. But when you do find someone you can have a partnership with, they will become your greatest ally.
posted by thylacinthine at 3:41 PM on August 14, 2012 [8 favorites]

Please keep in mind that you did not choose your family like you choose your job or your pet or your dwelling. Coming from a dysfunctional family is about bad luck, not bad character. Just because your mom is broken doesn't mean you are.

And, dollars to donuts, many of the people who you see as coming from perfect suburban families with vacations and good times may well have a family that's horridly dysfunctional in other ways. *raises hand*

I am wondering if what potential girlfriends might worry about is you being codependent, and dragging them into a codependent situation. Women are expected to be the nurturers in our culture, and if I were a potential girlfriend in your situation, I would not be judging you for your mom's situation but I would wonder about you diverting time and energy to her that ought to go to us. I would worry about being thrown into the role of caregiving daughter-in-law and expected to devote too much time, energy and money to your mother. Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationships tend to be fraught in many (most?) instances. If you get serious about a woman, she will want to know that you will put HER first, always. And if you and your future GF want children, she might worry about them being put into a bad situation with your mother or having to devote time/energy/money to her as you would to another child.

I know that most people have to go through caregiving of elderly relatives, but not so many might wonder if they are going to be slotted into the Carer Daughter-In-Law role right off the bat. That is harder to deal with.

Please do not think this is about a woman finding you not boyfriend material because of your family. Everyone has some kind of family crazy stuff. But if you come across as codependent that would raise red flags. Will you be able to put your GF and your partnership first?

I'm going to break out Ye Olde Metafyltre Chestnutte here and suggest some combination of therapy and/or a support group like Adult Children of Alcoholics or Co-Dependents Anonymous.

Plenty of people from truly horrible families have gone on to make secure, loving families of their own. This is not something that is out of reach for you. Don't give up!
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 3:48 PM on August 14, 2012 [13 favorites]

I have a crazy, abusive father. I've cut off contact with him, but the subject does come up -- when people ask about my family, it's a little awkward when I only mention my mother. I've found that a) lots of people have crazy, difficult relatives, and b) if the person cares about you, the crazy relative won't scare them off, or make them think less of you.
posted by sarcasticah at 3:54 PM on August 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think there are two types of families: families they make sitcoms about (funny, close, suburban, financially secure) and there are families they make movies about. This sounds like a flip answer but have you seen the movie "What's Eating Gilbert Grape"? Because your description immediately brought that movie to mind.

So you could actually say to people "have you seen 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape'?" and if they have, then you can say "I'm Johnny Depp" and if they haven't, then you can say "well, my family is the kind of family they make movies about."

I flash forward mentally to the point where they will meet family, and I just freeze up and decide it will never work out.

I think this is not fair to your potential girlfriend(s). You have to trust people to have their own responses. You can't control or predict the outcome. My father didn't bring my mother "home" to meet his abusive-drunk father until he knew he wanted to propose marriage to her. He had told her all about him though, and she had already met and gotten to know everyone else in his family by spending time at my aunt's house. So there was enough prep that she had some idea what to expect, and there was enough love and affection between her and my father already that when she did meet my grandfather, she saw everything he did and heard everything he said through the prism of how much it hurt my father, who she loved.

So let someone get to know you, let them know up front that yours isn't a sitcom family, tell them some stories when you are comfortable doing so, and let your relationship with them develop on its own schedule and terms, independent of your family (this is how it should be for anyone in their mid-30s). You don't need to keep your mother a secret, just don't make her part of *your* relationship.
posted by headnsouth at 3:56 PM on August 14, 2012 [8 favorites]

You know, you could just tell the new prospect something like, "My father is dead. My mother is alive, but really struggling mentally and financially. I'd rather not talk about it until we know each other much better." And then, don't talk about it until you know her so well it's time to get married or something.
posted by Houstonian at 3:59 PM on August 14, 2012 [6 favorites]

Er, I don't see any reason anyone needs to meet your mother. I imagine future SO's in my life might meet my adult sons. They probably aren't going to meet my parents or siblings. Men I played footsies with during my divorce did not meet any of my relatives and my relatives were not notified that I was seeing anyone.

If your mother is that dysfunctional, I honestly see no obligation to introduce her to a girlfriend. If it gets serious enough for marriage you might introduce the SO to mom with plenty of heads up that you are mortified in advance for the terrible things she is highly likely to do.

And you need to spin this as a positive, not a source of shame. You are a stand up guy with a proven track record of standing by loved ones no matter how bad it gets. You are no love 'em and leave 'em goodtime Charlie type. A lot of women will appreciate that about you and consider it a point in your favor. Not saying you should expect every woman to just adore this about you but don't say "no" for them. Let them decide for themselves whether this is a dealbreaker or whether it is another star in your halo.
posted by Michele in California at 4:00 PM on August 14, 2012 [11 favorites]

Two things. One, you are not your family and, further, you are not responsible for how your mother presents herself. If she makes embarrassing and rude comments and lives in filth to push people away then she has been successful in that. That is all on her. She clearly needs help but she is not you or a manifestation of who you are. You will better be able to accept her and let people into your life if you don't also shoulder the burden of who she is.

Two, and related, I'm concerned about your boundaries. And that would be the only real concern of mine if I was going to date someone like you. Do you have a healthy line around your life that respects your needs and desires? I think sleeping on a pee-soiled couch says something about your boundaries. It's not easy and you've been doing this, raised to do this, for so long that you may be unhealthily enmeshed. Find a way to draw some lines and I think healthy, romantic relationships can follow.
posted by amanda at 4:15 PM on August 14, 2012 [8 favorites]

"My father died when I was young. It left my mother in a bad situation. She eventually had a breakdown and never recovered. I help her and support her, but it's been 20 years - the fundamentals are unlikely to change. I can introduce you sometime."

If it does come to introductions, arrange things so that the meeting will be brief - you're both going to X, and Mom isn't too far out of the way, so let's drop by, say hi, oh this is my girlfriend, exchange a few words etc, drop off some groceries, before you both continue on your destination (which you have to do because [X's schedule].)

I think a very brief meeting is best, and once someone has thus gained a better idea of your mother, you'll both be in a better position to decide if / how much time you all want to spend together in future, and under what circumstances. No secrets and it's not a big deal.
posted by anonymisc at 4:21 PM on August 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

My partner has a mentally ill, abusive, and highly manipulative mother. In the 12+ years we've been together (we're also married), I've never spoken to her or met her. He speaks with her every few months and she's been to our town to visit, but I was "away on business". I'm perfectly fine with this arrangement and have never insisted that I have contact with her.

Any partner to you can do the same. You are not obligated to have visits with your girlfriend and your mother. I know my partner's history with his mother and he shared the immense pain rooted in how he was abused and neglected as a child. Out of respect and love for him, I let him determine the parameters of his current relationship with his mother and whether or not I'm directly involved. It works for us and it can work for you. Beware of people who don't respect your boundaries.
posted by quince at 4:26 PM on August 14, 2012 [8 favorites]

Then the dreaded question comes up – “So. . .what’s your family like?” I dodge it and ask about theirs and it seems that their descriptions are of functional families that grew up in the suburbs, had fun family vacations, close ties, etc. When I hear their descriptions, I check out because that’s nothing like what my family was like and I doubt that anyone from that background could even begin to understand what I came from.

Until I'm really close with someone, this is the story I tell - the good times, and there were some. If we do get close, well, there was the poverty, both parents being alcoholics, father & brother being sexual abuser, father dying when I was nine, even more poverty, mother being abusive, oh heaps of crap - it's certainly made my therapists' eyes bulge.

BUT it's not who I am anymore. It helped make me a compassionate person, for sure, but I know that even people who lived that sort of thing might misinterpret me, the impact on me. So, only when it's either necessary or relevant, do I divulge. I don't see it as a secret-keeping - it isn't relevant to my relationship with them, and when/if it is, I will tell.
posted by b33j at 4:36 PM on August 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

You should be proud of yourself for surviving all that! You are a strong and brave person and you will find a woman who appreciates all that you are. You have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. What I, like many other survivors of severely dysfunctional families, have found very comforting is creating close relationships with friends that become a replacement for the loving families we never had. Surrogate sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, even grandparents can be found among the people you know. Reach out to people you like, don't be afraid to share your horror stories.
posted by mareli at 4:57 PM on August 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is my first reply. Your question prompted me to speak up.
I also come from a spectacularly dysfunctional family. They're all thriving as well. Both parents well into their 80s. I'm 43, female, and about two years in to a relationship with a very stable, happy familied chap, whose mum (dad's dead) retells stories of very normal, happy, stable times.
I understand how you feel. I haven't introduced my chap to my mother. I live in London, she in Wales, so it's pretty convenient not to be able to do the trip very often, and I've told my partner how difficult, and how stressed I get in my mother's company.
I've briefed him about how manipulative, embarrassing and inappropriate she's likely to be and he is in no rush to meet her, which is fine.
Thing is, most folk are interested in the person they're in a relationship with. And, in my experience, a decent and loving partner will want to support you, and will not run away because your family aren't the Waltons.
Remember that it's you that a potential partner is interested in getting to know.
And, to be very honest, you sound like a person of quality. You have shown considerable compassion, love, humility and loyalty to your poor mother.
I'd be impressed.
posted by MonkeySoprano at 5:14 PM on August 14, 2012 [9 favorites]

No one ever has to meet your mother. Most people would (and will) find it commendable that you are involved in trying to make her life better.

Please don't be embarassed. You have nothing to feel ashamed of.
posted by jbenben at 5:15 PM on August 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is a doozie and I sympathize. My mother is bipolar and she left when I was two and she has at times lived in conditions that were barely habitable. So I've been in a similar kind of circumstance.

For a long time, I had a great deal of shame related to my mother. I have now finally started working on that. I'm not done yet, but I try to remind myself that (a) she's mentally ill so it's not her fault and (b) in any event, I have no responsibility for my mother, so I'm not to blame and I certainly don't have anything to be ashamed of. So try to work on getting rid of the shame. It will make your life a thousand times better. Really.

So onto the dating question. Here's how I've handled it. I'm not sure if was healthy or not, but it worked. I just didn't tell until I was ready. The way I see it, it's my story to tell and I'll tell it when and to whom I choose. So I was evasive ("my mom's an artist" -- technically true in the sense that she creates art) or I just didn't always answer questions about my family. For the most part, this worked. My husband knew in the early stages of our dating to back off when I seemed evasive and non-responsive. He knew something wasn't quite right but he didn't press the issue. I think generally people you are dating will let it go if they sense they've tread upon something sensitive. In my experience, it really doesn't preclude intimacy, dating, or close friendship. I have friends that I've known for twenty years whom I love dearly, who count me among their best friends, and they still haven't heard the story about my mom in full. I dated my husband for years before I told him.

When I knew I could trust him, then I told my husband about it. That may have been after we decided to move in together I honestly don't remember. In almost ten years, I've never brought my husband to my mom's apartment. It's not that I'm ashamed. It's just that her apartment makes me really uncomfortable and unhappy and I'd rather see her in another place not so fraught with unhappiness. So we meet on neutral territory like a restaurant or my brother's house. To avoid her hurt feelings, I've told her that my husband is allergic to cats and cigarette smoke ( which is true, but also a convenient excuse).
posted by bananafish at 5:24 PM on August 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @Rosie M. Banks - I hear what you're saying about codependence and boundaries and the thought that someone would have to step into a carer role right away. I understand that's not what a lot of people want to sign up for. . .that's why it's hard to have the conversation. I don't know fully where my boundaries are. . .there have been times that I've withheld financial support, but that led to my mother being homeless for a while or without anything to eat. I decided that wasn't something I could live with. I've done very well for myself financially and the thought of me having plenty of creature comforts while my mother lives in squalor just eats away at me. But I've also learned the hard way that you can't always erase poverty with money - sometimes it's due to mental conditions just as much or more than financial ones. I do what I can, and draw lines where I can, but it's a constant struggle to figure out where my responsibility begins and ends.
posted by minorcadence at 5:50 PM on August 14, 2012

My mother is on disability, lives in a slummy apartment with several animals that she cannot care for properly. She’s morbidly obese, spends most of her time in bed, and the time that she’s not in bed she is playing an MMO game. When I go home to visit the only place I have to sleep is a broken down pull out couch that has been peed on by her animals to the point that it stinks. I have to buy all her groceries because she never has any money.

I feel like I want to reach out to both of you--you, because you shouldn't have had to become the parent at such a young age, and your Mom, because she shouldn't have had to be widowed with a child to care for on her own, either.

The comment about your Mom functioning as a 6 year-old...I am not seeing that. She is on disability, which suggests a mental or physical health issue. She plays MMO games, overeats to the point of obesity, lies in bed and surrounds herself with animals? To me, that sounds like someone who is severely depressed and merely subsisting. I find that very sad.

I've been severely depressed and felt trapped, and it is not pretty. Because of that, my position may be skewed--but I think you will get many answers here from people who had abusive or negligent parents, so it might be good to get another perspective, from someone who didn't.

If she WERE the child and the adult, what would you do? Would you continue to allow this kind of stuff to go on?

You say you are your Mom's "quasi-caretaker". Either stop being her caretaker at all, as some have suggested, or take a more active role in caring for her. If she is a danger to others or herself, she needs inpatient care. If she is really unable to function beyond the level of a 6 year-old, I think you'd probably either be living with her or she would have a live-in caretaker. She's not institutionalized, and she's living on her own, so it probably isn't that bad--but if she cannot function, you should be able to get power of attorney.

So buy her healthy food, cut off the Xbox online and the internet, get rid of the animals if she is unable to care for them (I'd seriously want to take them in myself, as I love animals and would be optimistic that once she is through this depression she will be able to care for them again, but you could find a shelter or foster homes for them) and THROW OUT the pee-soaked furniture (which is disgusting!). That is not a fit environment for anyone to be in!

Even if you can't get power of attorney, I don't know what is stopping you from stepping in and doing this, since you are already buying her groceries and occasionally sleeping on that furniture. You know you don't want to sleep on the pee-soaked furniture--so get rid of it!

Why is she in a slummy apartment? Can you find her a better place to live? If she can't afford more on disability, all the more reason for her to cut her expenses.

So now her safety nets--the pets, lying in bed eating and playing games--are coming apart. Sit her down and talk to her about getting, and staying on, medication for depression. Explain to her how HER life has affected your own, and don't let her wallow in the self-pity; you lost a Dad when she lost her spouse, and you've had to continue on with your own life. She has to do that, too. You should not have to take care of her, and she should not want you to. She is supposed to be the parent here, and she has not done her job.

Let her know that you are exhausted and will not continue to enable her. You cannot stand to come to her home and see her living in the mess and the chaos. You are embarrassed to introduce girlfriends to her, and it hurts you to be in that place. She has not done anything to change it up to now, so you are stepping in. You should have two names and numbers ready for her to call, the family physician and a psychiatrist. Give her an ultimatum: she goes to both of them and follows what that professionals tell her to do, or you are out of her life.

You may even want to go with her to speak to her doctor, because often patients with mental health issues "present well", meaning that they are able to get dressed and pass themselves off as coping with life when it is just a one-off appointment, so that their physicians don't realize how serious the problems really are. You want to be involved, so that you can know what her treatment plan is and that she is actually following it.

And, here's the important thing: you have to mean it when you give her this ultimatum! You have to make it clear that you are not going to back down. She will be feeling overwhelmed, and you are going to have to stay strong and be the confident, self-assured one, firmly repeating that this is in her best interests and your own and it is not fair to either of you to continue on with things the way they are now.

If your Mom actually complains about any of this, though, I'll be surprised. She is lost and has no clue how to pull herself out and she has substituted this fantasy life of gaming and shutting everyone else out for any real life at all. Complaining would at least show that you have penetrated that self-imposed barrier she's put up.

If all of this brings about any positive change, yay! I'm pulling for you both, and I am optimistic you can still help your Mom pull out of this.

But if it doesn't, then you can tell yourself that you are done with this drama and walk away without feeling ashamed, because you'll know that you have done all that you could for your Mom.

So, when that next girlfriend comes along, you can say to her, "My Mom is a train wreck. I've tried time and time again to help her get her life back on track, but nothing worked. For both of our sakes, we aren't in contact any more. That's just the way it has to be, so I can't introduce you to her, and I hope you'll understand." Believe me, there are plenty of girls out there who will understand and accept this.

My heart goes out to you, minorcadence. It's not going to be an easy road for you, whether you take my advice or not. Good luck to you, and your Mom.
posted by misha at 5:53 PM on August 14, 2012 [6 favorites]

I come from a pretty dysfunctional family - am almost 30 and have never brought anyone home or introduced anyone to parents. My dad died a few years ago but my mom is the source of conflict. She also got much worse after my dad died. I never know how she will act and I can't even imagine explaining her to anyone without them running away or thinking I will turn into her.

I'm still not sure how long it will take me to actually bring someone home. How long we would have to be together, how much I would have to trust him, etc. It still hurts a little to hear about how functional another person's childhood was when mine was full of crazy.


I've also got stories of picket fence families gone horribly wrong - last year I found out about a real doozy when I was reading a news site in my hometown. Summary: a kid I knew who came from a "perfect family" is in prison for killing his father. So, through therapy or however necessary I think it is important to come to the conclusion that you can relate to "normal" people who came from stable backgrounds. They are likely not as "normal" as they appear.

It doesn't make me feel good, exactly, to look at these situations and feel a little comfort, but it lets me know that I am not such an outlier and that everyone has to deal with their own shit.

As an adult, you are your own person and you can choose if/when to introduce someone to your past. Your past does not define your present.
posted by fromageball at 5:57 PM on August 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


People are so conditioned to movies/tv and other media treatment of the most dysfunctional family situations imaginable (much more so than yours) that if you tell the tale in a well-humored, somewhat detached way, it will be entertaining/interesting rather than off-putting. It also gives you a level of detachment, so all that will seem to reflect less on you.

As a side effect, it will give you an opportunity to de-dramatize all this in your own eyes, which it seems is something you can use. Humor's a great way to deal with things you can't change!

Consider....if you met a bald guy who was doing desperate comb-overs, and trying to deflect attention to what he sees as a severe problem/deficiency, versus another equally bald guy who just flaunted it, joked about it, and was perfectly ok with it. Which would be more attractive in your eyes? And, more importantly, who would be more well-adjusted (for his sake as well as, potentially, yours)?
posted by Quisp Lover at 6:42 PM on August 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sorry, got sexes mixed up, forgot you said you're a guy. Substitute, like, flat-chested, or an overbite, or some other issue a girl might deem to be a much bigger thing than it really is.

The fretting isn't sexy. A sense of humor and healthy detachment and perspective is.
posted by Quisp Lover at 6:44 PM on August 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have kind of a Cleaverey family history. Great relationship with my parents, my sister, and now my brother in law and niece/nephew. Very supportive and loving and what have you.

My boyfriend has a family history that includes drug use, poverty, schizophrenia, and abuse.

I have (briefly) met his brother, and never met his mother or father. This is at least partly by his choice. I understand that for me to meet or not meet his family is up to him, and I'm fine with that. It's totally ok, if someone asks, to say "oh, I'm not really comfortable talking about my family yet - maybe later." And maybe, eventually, you'll find someone that you do want to talk about it with and that person will be a support for you. That's part of what friends and lovers do.

It's ok for people to never meet your family. On the other hand, if you ever want that to happen, that's ok too.
posted by kavasa at 6:51 PM on August 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

It is definitely OK to say "things with my family are kind of weird, and I'd rather not get into details right now. My dad died a few years ago, and my mom is having a rough time, but I try as much as I can to help her out. But let's talk about [thing you are interested in discussing], I don't want to be a downer!"

I generally confine my disclosures about my own struggles and those of my family to people I feel reasonably secure with. There's a great big gulf between full disclosure and outright lying/denial/avoidance. My sister told me today that she limits disclosures about our family, including me, to very close friends, and I think that's reasonable. "My mom does X for a living" is something that pops up much sooner than "my sister has bipolar disorder and is on extended leave from work to deal with severe depression."

By the way, talking about your parent/boundary issues is a great task to take up in therapy. I actually talk a lot about it in my own sessions, along with talking about present symptoms and coping strategies a lot.

(You should consider getting your mother a representative payee or otherwise intervening legally, if her situation is as bad as you say. You should also get those cats out of the home; they are not being cared for, in the sense of their safety and health is in danger.)
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 7:40 PM on August 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

i had a close relative die from unusual "embarrassing" circumstances. the way to talk about something like this with a potential romantic partner, or more generally someone you imagine being emotionally open with: give them an honest summary of the situation, say that you're willing to tell them more details if that's what they want, but you don't want to burden them with information they don't really want to know about. the benefits of this strategy are that you make yourself vulnerable enough that they will respect you more and you put the power in their hands to guide the flow of the conversation, and you express emotional maturity.
posted by cupcake1337 at 8:28 PM on August 14, 2012

I come from a dysfunctional family and have been the dysfunctional parent. After my parents' divorce, my mom went off the deep end. My step dad was abusive -- to say the least. I, myself, have bipolar disorder and haven't been the best of moms to my kids. My first husband, and father of my kids, was rather heavy handed with his discipline, but he had custody of the kids after our divorce. It becomes a long and convoluted story after that, but needless to say, my kids aren't crowing from the rooftops about their childhoods.

Life happens. The past is the past and I can't change it. When people ask about my family, I start out by saying, "We're not close" and let it go at that. If they press, then they get more details. If they ask when the last time I talked to my mom or one of my kids is, I tell them the truth, and why. Most of my family is rock poor, and we don't travel. Most of us keep touch over the internet, but we haven't seen each other in years - some of us decades. It shocks the hell out of people, but there's no shame in it. That's my story. Your story is just that... your story. Everyone's got one. When your date asks you about your family, they're just trying to get to know you. You don't have to spill it all out, just make it a part of the conversation. Own your story because it's what made you who you are.
posted by patheral at 8:40 PM on August 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

> Every time I start to get close to someone I seize up because I come from a very rough family situation, I’m ashamed of that, and I don’t feel like most of the people I date can really relate to that at any level. The women I go out with seem to be to come from relatively stable, healthy families that provided some level of support and care for them.

A lot of people who have endured some pretty serious crap still have a "socially acceptable" version of their story. Maybe they've had some luckier breaks than you that have helped them get through terrible stuff, maybe they just responded well to therapy.

But even if their families are pretty much normal, it doesn't mean that they can't relate at all. Most families have a few skeletons in the closet, few of us make it to adulthood without exposure to some kind of family-centric pain or disappointment -- most people can find a way to honestly empathize with someone they like.

As for the introductions to your family, you can do that whenever you want or not at all. You get to choose, you're an adult. You're not a terrible boyfriend, son, or person if you don't want to deal with how your mom acts around other people in your life.
posted by desuetude at 10:23 PM on August 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a complicated family history, but I have a script that I use when I talk about things with dates/friends I'm not really close with. Here is my suggested script for you to use:

"My dad died when I was young, and I'm not close with my mom, who lives in (city). I'm much closer to my brother/Great Aunt/spiritual sister/best friend/high school music teacher/whatever."

If further explanation is wanted, you can say something like, "She kind of fell apart when dad died, and we haven't gotten along since. I don't really want to talk about it."

People who press you for full details when you say you don't want to talk about it are, by definition, being assholes. You owe them nothing, and I think you are entitled to your privacy. If you are in a long-term, serious relationship, you should probably sit hem down for a talk, but at the dating level, leave it be. If you're close enough to someone that you can have a serious conversation with them, then I think you actually summarized it very well in your question.

I also don't think that you need to introduce anyone to your mother. You are taking care of her, which you may wish to disclose to a partner or very close friend, but you never have to introduce them.

Take care of yourself and do what you think is right.
posted by blnkfrnk at 10:53 PM on August 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Give other people a chance - don't assume they can't deal or will judge you. Many of us have been with partners with seriously effed up families and the overriding thought tends to be: "That sucks so bad for him/her - he/she is so amazing and all I want is the best for them!"

Seriously, it's a bigger deal for you (understandably so) and if a potential partner can't handle knowing about your life they're not the right person for you anyway.

I speak from experience!
posted by hapax_legomenon at 12:25 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I hope this is coherent, and helpful.

My story isn't yours, but it's incredibad... and in all my years of dating only TWO people has ever been not okay with "I'm not close to my family" and tried to judge me for it.

One person, on a first date, felt like it said something about me as a person. The other was a person I was in a relationship with who just couldn't understand why I was still in any contact with my family at all. In both cases I (eventually) understood that their responses had a lot more to do with them, than me. I don't feel like I have to explain or apologise about my background and family life to anyone, anymore. This is something I grew into.

As far as dating goes, I really only explain the situation(s) to people that I'm actually in a relationship with, and I haven't introduced anyone to my family in years -- in part because I really am not close to them and don't visit (which may not be option for you) and because I simply have not wanted to.

People are much more compassionate than I think you may be giving them credit for. My experience has been that most people will not judge you based on your family but how YOU handle your family. My boyfriend has been incredibly supportive of the relationship evolving between my family and I, even though it mirrors nothing he ever experienced or can really understand, and I really hope that you find that person for yourself.
posted by sm1tten at 8:43 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Man, I feel for you. I have a very similar experience with my mother. The only thing I can come up with is nthing the idea that you are not your parents. I have to remind myself of that all the time. I personally would not feel comfortable introducing my mother to anyone unless I had known them for a long time. I mean several years.

Another thing that I've heard here on the green before is "don't make other people's decisions for them". This means don't preemptively reject yourself in the eyes of other people. Let them make the decision about whether or not they want to date you. You'd be surprised what different folks go through with their families. Could even be something objectively more horrible than your situation.

Like others have said, Al-Anon or Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings might be helpful too. This is a tough situation. I wish you the best.
posted by strelitzia at 8:45 AM on August 15, 2012

As someone who came from a (mostly) stable and loving family, I have to admit that I also used to be puzzled and a little judgmental when someone said they weren't in contact with their family. It wasn't until I heard the stories of others with families that were very different than mine that I understood, and now I would never judge anyone for their family relationships because I have no idea what their experience has been. To be clear, I don't think most people, even clueless ones like me, will think your mom's struggles reflect on you in any negative way. Probably the opposite, considering all the efforts you've made to help her. They may be wary of getting involved in a difficult family situation, but that's really up to them to decide if they can handle it. (Which I think is a similar calculus to "do I want to get involved with someone who has a chronic illness" or "do I want to get involved with someone who has a complicated immigration status" or any number of other potentially difficult issues.)

I think an answer like Houstonian's is perfect for someone you're just getting to know, and then you can talk about your family in more detail as you feel more comfortable. If you ever decide to have a partner meet your mom -- which isn't mandatory -- you can prepare them well beforehand. Someone who is a good partner for you will be supportive and unfazed by anything your mom could say to them.
posted by chickenmagazine at 9:08 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just be up front and honest, but not forward and blunt. If you feel comfortable and the conversation seems at ease, then go as far as you'd like. I'm sure it will be obvious if they are interested in hearing more or if they are becoming uncomfortable.
posted by AbsolutelyHonest at 11:20 AM on August 15, 2012

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