Dealing with an estranged family
March 25, 2013 2:45 PM   Subscribe

How can I accept and deal with my estranged family? My father was an incredibly abusive person to his family. My mother couldn't really handle it (she was 17 or 18 at the time) and ended up giving me to my aunt (father's side). For years I had very little contact with my mother's family. I now have three half-siblings, whom I didn't grow up with and have very little in common with. In fact, at age 32, I live in a world that's completely different from theirs.

So the problem is that I really don't feel anything towards that side of my family. The grandparents on that side have really tried to make me and my wife a part of things, but even after my grandmother passing away recently - I still don't want to interact with them at times.

I honestly feel like a monster for feeling this way. I grew up poor, but eventually learned programming and put myself through college. Nearly all of my mother's side are blue collar laborers, very, very, Texan (I'm Texan myself, but you get what I mean). Compounding all of this is that my mother is a very hard person to talk to. She often will not listen when I'm speaking directly to her. My two half sisters both have children, and while I care about the kids more than them, I'm not really involved in their lives in any meaningful way.

Why am I hurt that I'm not even asked to be involved? I had restablished contact with my mother about 9 years ago, and even moved back to Texas to see if I could create some ties. I've spent the better part of a decade trying to be a son/brother, but I think lack of any real "feelings" on either side have prevented any sort of real connection. I know my mother "loves" me as a son, but even calling her "mom" is hard for me since I grew up with another mom (my aunt).

This is easily the cause of most of my angst. I just wish I could figure out what to do: they don't deserve to be cut off and ignored, but I'm not the type of person that sticks around and "Does" things out of a filial duty. For instance, my cousin on that side recently died and I didn't feel like going to the memorial. So I didn't. I then got a nasty text message from my mother about it.

What do I do? Do I consider them "relatives", not "family" and treat them as such? Do I just exclude them from my life? Do I try to make a bigger effort? I just don't know.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Some families just aren't close. I have 2 much older half siblings and a full brother my age and I haven't seen or talked to them beyond the occasional Facebook like in years. They aren't close to each other either. I don't love them.y point is that this is more common than you think and focus on friendships !!!!
posted by misspony at 2:59 PM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

To clarify- friendships outside your family
posted by misspony at 3:01 PM on March 25, 2013

they don't deserve to be cut off and ignored

They also don't deserve to be forced to have a relationship they don't want to have, don't know how to have, and never had an expectation of having.

I think nine years is probably long enough. Focus on yourself now. As usual, therapy is advised for this kind of thing, and I would encourage you to at least try it before you decide to try to deal with this alone.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:03 PM on March 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

I feel for you. My circumstances are really different but I have similar feelings toward a lot of my family and extended relations and it can be really confusing. I was adopted, which may have contributed to some distance. We were a military family so we never lived close to family. Whenever I'd see extended family, it was for a visit and they were all really close and we were not. A few of them seem crazy and toxic and I just don't bother to reach out or interact with those people anymore. My father died a few years ago which, of course, dredged up a lot of feelings and also made really clear which problems I had that were about my mom and which were about them as parents.

I finally did a long visit with her (three months in her house with my daughter and husband) and she and I had some long overdue conversations. Having my own kid really helped me clarify my feelings -- I had realizations about life from their perspective -- and also gave me some backbone. It's been a weird, new, wonderful world post-kid. So, my mom and I had some talks. Keep in mind, I honestly have been a lifelong believer in the power of denial and moving on. I still am. But, yeah, it really did feel good to finally "name the beast." I finally said things to my mom that I had been afraid to say, to hear her side and I tried hard to listen even though it was often painful. To her credit, she did seem to really hear me and it changed our dynamic in some positive ways. And now I no longer have to feel burdened with these imaginary conversations that have played out in my head for years. (Is there nothing worse than an interminable, angry, and imaginary back-and-forth conversation with your parents?)

It took me awhile to get here. I'm 38. So, it may be just fine that you don't have your complicated family all figured out. It may do you well to put some physical distance between you and these people so that you don't feel "family obligation" beyond those big, life events where you can still choose whether to go or not. You might, of course, consider finding a therapist to help you work through your story and see what is "normal" and what isn't.

I also recently reconnected with my birth mother and met her family. She kind of wants me to just jump in and be part of her family. I have been more cautious. But what I discovered is that there's really no script for this. And, that's true of everything. Your mother had no script, your aunt had no script, the rest of your family doesn't have a script and you don't have one either. Making your own family is one way to deal with a childhood of chaos, especially if you feel that you've learned from it. Having an extended period with your mom might make sense to you. Maybe a multi-day road trip? You can have a lot of good, deep conversations looking out the window as the world passes by. On the other hand, it is often healthiest to put family at arm's length while you figure out what you want.

There's no script.
posted by amanda at 3:09 PM on March 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

You aren't a monster for struggling with trying to fit people in your life that don't really have a place there. Sharing some DNA doesn't mean that somebody automatically has to mean more to you than the average person. I've seen a lot of people I care about very much be put through hell and back due to hostile family relationships that are very, very damaging, just because they think they're "supposed" to feel a certain way toward people they're related to. You don't have to do that. You only have to do what you want to do, what you feel is right for you. If you don't know what that is right now, don't force the issue - this situation has existed your whole life, and you don't need to figure it all out if your head and heart aren't there yet.

I'm a firm believer that we shouldn't allow people to treat us a certain way just because we're related. Would you take to heart anyone else's criticism over not going to a memorial service you felt no ties to? Why should this person - who wasn't really your mother in a meaningful way for most of your life - have the privilege of making you feel badly about your choices?

You're probably feeling hurt because, despite even your own wishes, you're trying to put effort into building something and it's not being equally reciprocated - but why would you expect otherwise from people who weren't there for you throughout your childhood and adolescence? You've made a life for yourself, with a wife and a family you care about. Those are the people who matter to you. You don't have to fake or try to invent feelings that aren't there for anyone else.
posted by something something at 3:35 PM on March 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

You don't have to cut them off in any kind of official manner. You can just let them go about their business and be open to it if they want to reach out to you, but accept it if they don't. And they may not feel this obligation you're imposing upon yourself...which you're imposing upon them, too, and then being upset because you've decided they should react to you a certain way, and then they're not, and, well, why would they? You can't control other people's reactions or make them feel the way you want them to feel.

My mom, for example, keeps pushing me to go to all these family things with random cousins and such to support her "we're one big happy family!" illusions, but I'm not taking a week off work to go to the wedding of someone I last talked to when I was 10. That said, I'm not going to be rude, I'll send a card and a wedding gift and I'll talk to them if I happen to see them at something and I'd help them out as far as was reasonable if they were in a bind, but I don't think they owe me anything (and I don't think I owe them anything) larger than basic familial courtesy. I don't consider them "cut off" or anything.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:46 PM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

You don't have to go to extremes such as cutting them out of your life entirely, or trying to continue to force a closeness that no one feels or desires. Figure out what kind of relationship you actually want and can sustain. It took me years to figure out that for me, that's no relationship at all.
posted by sm1tten at 4:56 PM on March 25, 2013

I was going to encourage you to keep trying up to the story about the crappy text message from your female blood relation. The nasty response would have been to write back and tell her she lost all rights to chastise when she gave you away and therefore ceased to be your mother. Or just tell her that "you never were and are certainly not now the boss of me." Or, it wasn't happy families then, let's not start pretending now.

You have the absolute right to have this relationship on your terms or not at all.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:43 PM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't have contact with my (few) relatives, by choice. It works for me. But there aren't any kids involved.

As you say you like the kids more than the adults, if the kids are old enough, perhaps there's a way of staying in touch with them through Facebook or something, so you can be an example to them of someone in their family who's moved ahead. As a role model you could show those kids that it's okay to have aspirations and work hard to have a different life than the one their parents have.
posted by essexjan at 3:06 AM on March 26, 2013

Look there is no law to say you need to be emotionally close to people because you're genetically close to them. Given the circumstances that's not entirely unusual and it sounds as if you tried and they tried and for a variety of reasons close ties did not develop. It is ok to let these relationships fade again. Nobody has done anything wrong and it sounds as if you all tried to make it work and it just didn't.

I grew up with my brother but we are in touch infrequently, perhaps once every 3 months. This is a massive increase from a few years ago, when we had contact perhaps once a year. By contact I mean I send him a short email and he sends as short response back. And when I talk to our father I get to hear about him. But we haven't been close for many years and probably never will be. Nobody's fault in particular, we just chose very different paths and are in very different places and have got very little shared anything to talk about.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:48 AM on March 26, 2013

« Older MIDI controllers and the iPhone 5?   |   Resources for healing from domestic violence? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.