Should I cut off contact with parents who have dysfunctional marriage?
December 29, 2013 9:42 PM   Subscribe

For as long as I can remember, my parents have nasty arguments with each other every few days, including shouting, harsh words, put-downs at each other. When I was a child, they involved me in their marital strife, and I feel damaged from it. I am now in my 30s. I've tried years of therapy for myself to learn how to not be bothered, but I am still very bothered. I want to reduce my contact with them to just occasional phone calls, but I am scared that we'll become estranged and they'll die, and then I'll regret it. Advice from MeFites who have reduced their contact with their parents?

Every 1-3 days, my parents get into an argument in a pattern:

1. Mom pushes boundaries. Examples: talks loudly in quiet public settings after being asked not to, reprimands Dad over & over for buying the wrong groceries, pressures Dad to run errands when he doesn't want to, insists on practicing her hobby no matter how inconvenient the timing is, takes photos in places where they're forbidden.

2. Dad loses temper and shouts angrily.

3. Mom goes into victim mode.

When I was 10 to 16, my mom would confide in me for hours at a time about how sad she was about my dad's temper, how she married the wrong person, how the arguments were causing her to vomit and be bedridden, how she can't wait for me to grow up so she can divorce my dad and come live with me. I was caught in the middle in many arguments where I would defend my mom and shout at my dad, crying, accusing him of the same things my mom accused him of.

At 16, I finally told her to stop confessing these marital issues to me. I felt like part of me died that day, when I cut her off. Worse, she refused to listen to my request. For 3 more years, every time I came home, she kept pouring out marital problems, literally talking over me. If I asked her to stop, she would just talk louder to drown out my voice. I had to shout at her at the top of my lungs to get her to stop, which she eventually did. This made me reflect on how she was provoking me into losing my temper, and perhaps this is what she does to my dad.

As an adult, I have gone to therapy for 5 years, on and off during my 20s and 30s, to learn how to deal with this. I read "The Dance of Anger" and "Drama of the Gifted Child".

During college and for several years after, I would rarely phone home -- maybe once every 1-2 months. I would only visit home for a few days per year. My parents then told me that I abandoned my younger brother (who lived at home) by never calling and never coming home. It was true that my brother was sad and missed me a lot. I still feel bad about this. My mom never dumped her marital issues onto my brother. He doesn't seem bothered by my parents' arguments and doesn't understand why it bothers me so much.

Each time before I went home for a trip, I would tell my parents that they absolutely must not fight during my few days home, and they would promise not to. Then they would get into a big fight. Once my dad said that my mom is normally more calm, but became more agitated and fight-inducing when I came home. During their fights, I would feel trapped and think about how I could take a kitchen knife and jab it into my stomach and then at least they would have to stop fighting in order to take me to the ER. (I have not actually done this.)

A couple years ago, I told my mom how painful it is for me when she would badmouth my dad. During this conversation, I would say "It's really hurtful when you criticize my dad". She would answer by doing it more, e.g "your dad is a good person but his temper is so horrible that ..." or "I wouldn't do it if he didn't do terrible things such as ...". I got so frustrated that I started ramming my head into the wall over and over, shouting, "Stop it! Stop talking!"

I have a lot of conflict in my romantic relationships, which I believe is a result of growing up with this.

Around 5 years ago, I figured out the only way to get them to not fight is to take them on lavish trips where I pay for the trip. They are frugal and want to make the most of the time we spend in these exotic countries, so they would avoid wasting time fighting, in order to spend the time on sightseeing. So I've been doing that a few times per year. They were generally well-behaved on the trips. There were entire week-long trips where they did not fight! I was so happy. I thought I had found the magic bullet. I thought about buying a big house and bringing my parents to live with me after they retire, and then when I have kids, they could help take care of their grandkids, and we'd be a big happy multi-generational family.

Right now we are midway through a trip. They were well-behaved for the first half, but it broke down today and Dad shouted harshly at Mom because she wanted to go back inside a tourist attraction and he didn't want to wait for her.

The awful thing is that we have a guest with us on the trip (my brother's significant other). I thought they would control themselves and put on a happy face in front of a guest, but they did not. The guest and my brother actually don't seem bothered, but for me, this was extremely upsetting.

I told both parents today that this is unacceptable, and that if they do not stop this pattern, this is the last trip. Their responses were:

Dad: "Ok, I'll control myself."

Mom: "This is not under my control. It's all your dad's doing. His temper is even worse at home. You should save yourself and not travel with us and be happy."

MeFites who have cut off or reduced contact with their parents, please give me your wisdom:

1. I want to stop in-person contact with my parents for the time being. I would just do phone calls with them. But they are in their 60s / 70s. The thought that they could die and this would have been the last time I see them feels panic-inducing. How can I deal with this fear?

2. Should I tell my parents or my brother about my reason, or just make up an excuse ("I can't take you on any trips due to work")? If I tell them the real reason, it just invites more drama, which is precisely what I don't want. If I make up excuses, they'll criticize me for not prioritizing family and for abandoning them.

3. How do I not feel guilty about doing this? My parents' and brother's attitude is "you're the only one who's upset by the arguments, so why don't you just get over it?" It makes me feel like I am causing family friction due to my issue that I should be able to just "get over" but can't. Or do I feel guilty and just live with the guilt?

4. Does anyone have a personal experience where they reduced contact for a few years and then were able to reconnect in a more healthy way?

Thank you! I am very grateful.
posted by cheesecake to Human Relations (23 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried leaving? Every time your parents get into a fight, just leave. Tell them you can't deal with this so you're leaving and go home or go somewhere else. Don't argue with them about their fighting or anything like that, just walk out. That can be a very effective way to change people's behavior.
posted by nooneyouknow at 10:06 PM on December 29, 2013 [12 favorites]

4. Does anyone have a personal experience where they reduced contact for a few years and then were able to reconnect in a more healthy way?

I barely saw my parents for years because of my father's short temper and inability to do anything other than rant for hours about his conservative political viewpoint.

My dad eventually realized that he was not going to be involved with his own family if he couldn't tone down his lectures. It literally took an argument (or series of them, really) from both myself and my mother where things like, "Dad, you talk about the amount you value family, but you drive them away by not being able to do anything around them except endlessly rant about [insert annoying political thing here]. Would you rather make absolutely sure everyone knows how much you dislike [thing X] or would you rather have a family? Because that's the decision you're making here."

After a few years apart with very little contact he seemed to get the idea that his children were serious. He has been much better the last few years, especially now that he has a grandchild. Now when we go to visit we get more videos of a cappella groups on youtube than we really want to watch, but it's *much* better than endless lectures about the federal reserve or Jewish conspiracies or whatnot.

On the other hand, I never felt guilty at all for extracting myself from a negative situation caused by someone else, so I can't help you there.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:08 PM on December 29, 2013 [8 favorites]

Best answer: It seems like you have a very very strong reaction against their fighting. It seems like at this point in their lives the fighting is unlikely to change entirely, and that a moderate change won't work for you. It also seems like they're very unlikely to change because of something you do or do not do, and putting that responsibility on yourself is unreasonable. You can't control your parents, but you can control your actions towards them.

Therapy, therapy, therapy for you because you're still carrying your parents all the time and trying to control them in a way you really can't and is not your role. I think you can still see them, but stay in a hotel and leave when they start to fight. Therapy therapy for guilt (that is how you deal with it, because it will help you realize that your parents' problems are not your problems), stop doing the trips if you want to, use the money for a hotel and wheels when you're visiting. I think you'll have to allow yourself some mourning, too, for the vision of family you want and how that doesn't seem to be in the cards. It will suck, but you will stop having such extreme reactions.

Feel free to just tell them why you're changing your level of contact. They already know that you have problems with the way they fight, so this won't be new to them.
posted by c'mon sea legs at 10:15 PM on December 29, 2013 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I of course understand why the fighting and bitterness between your parents is upsetting to you, and limiting contact might be a good idea. But there's a middle ground. Would it be possible to still see your parents occasionally, just not together? Once a month (or however often you like) take your mom or dad out to lunch (or shopping, or a movie, etc.), separately, just to connect and hang out. Don't allow any discussion of the other parent. Make it clear that that's the condition of the visit. If they don't respect that, immediately cut the visit short. I realize it's very hard to do, but is it much harder than the distress you experience when they fight? Obviously, you can also make similar arrangements to see your brother without your parents (perhaps more often if your relationship with him is good). If you feel the need to explain this, make sure it's about you and not them. "I can't handle any fighting and yelling, so I need to see you all separately for now."

I want to point out though, that while reading your question, I noticed a troubling theme that you might not be aware of. I understand that when you were younger, your mom said things that seemed designed to turn you against your father. This was of course, incredibly inappropriate, and when you got older you rejected this behavior. Good. However, the tone of everything you relate seems to disproportionately blame your mother for these issues. As if in rejecting the view of your mother that everything was your father's fault, you have now embraced the view that most or all of these issues are her fault. In example, the last incident that you related. Your mom wanted to revisit a tourist attraction she liked, and your dad's response was to yell at her angrily in public. Guess who the bad actor was there? Dad. When your mom said that it wasn't in her control, she was actually correct. How can she prevent your father from lashing out at her for perfectly reasonable requests? You just want to be careful that in rejecting the idea that all this marital strife is the fault of one parent, you don't start demonizing the other.
posted by katyggls at 10:17 PM on December 29, 2013 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Whatevs.

You have no idea how freeing it might be to end this relationship and mourn and grieve like these people died.

Or just, you know, do some modified version of this such that you still have boundary enforcing contact with them, but in essence, you mourn the fantasy of any normal family relationship and you keep them at arms length....

I'm pretty literal in this sense, so my relations are 100% severed. I look back and wondered why I waited so long to cut all ties - because my Life is awesome now - but that's me.

You do what you need to do until it hurts so much, you can't do that anymore.
posted by jbenben at 10:55 PM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: when my parents were alive, the atmosphere at their home was nowhere near as bad as yours, but i still had a rigorous 72 hour rule; i would not spend any more consecutive time under their roof than that. this did not protect me entirely from blizzards of acrimony, but at least i was on the way out the door when they started.

a family is like a poker hand dealt from the great deck of souls. some people get straights and flushes (at least in outward appearance). some people are lucky to get a pair. some people don't get shit.
posted by bruce at 12:03 AM on December 30, 2013 [19 favorites]

You are 30. Your parents have been together for 30+ years. The way they exist does not suit you, but it seems to suit them or they would change. There is no reason for you to feel any guilt about limiting your exposure to them. They know there behavior upsets you and cannot be surprised if you do not volunteer to witness more of it. Of course they will die. Every body does. It will not be your fault. Give yourself a break.
posted by Cranberry at 12:20 AM on December 30, 2013 [8 favorites]

Mr. Arnicae's mother has hounded him relentlessly for years to come back to the Midwest (to her town, specifically) and abandon his career in order to either go to law school or medical school. His choice.

He has hit on a tactic that seems to be increasingly effective. When she does this, he says, "Mom, I'm happy in my career living where I'm living. If you keep talking about this, I'll hang up and not speak to you for a month."

When she continues, he says "Goodbye Mom, I love you."

And then he doesn't talk to her for a month.

She's a slow learner, but this has slowly sunk in. She's still not able to stop herself if she is already talking about it, but she doesn't bring up moving/career change as frequently. I'd suggest some varient of this tactic for conversations with your Mom (who seems to be the only one actually complaining about her partner).

For both of them? I would tell them that you find their fighting very stressful, and whenever they start fighting around you, you'll walk away and you all can try again the following day (e.g., don't be available later that day, you're literally unavailable - won't answer phone, knocks on doors, etc until the following morning. Tell them you won't issue any warnings or say goodbye, you'll just leave.

Then do it.
posted by arnicae at 12:25 AM on December 30, 2013 [13 favorites]

I've cut my father off completely, and he knows what behaviour he would have to change to fix things but has no interest in doing so. The problem is, he's the kind of person who's completely happy (or at least comfortably miserable) not talking to anyone, so I doubt this is going to improve the situation, but at least it preserves my sanity. Also he gets news updates about my life from other relatives so that probably reinforces his feeling that it's fine not to talk to me.

If you're planning on cutting them off, I think you ought to be forthright in telling them *why* you are doing so, otherwise there is no hope of them changing. What has helped me a lot is making my position very clear and also telling my story to friends to get their support.

You will feel guilty about it. And you will wish you could just forget about the hurtful things they do and just be a happy family. It's worst around family oriented holidays. But if you reestablish contact and they haven't changed one bit, then it's not going to be a happy family anyway.
posted by Joe Chip at 1:28 AM on December 30, 2013

Best answer: You really just have to leave every time they have the argument. Have a plan of where you'll go in advance, and then just do it.

The line from your brother that he doesn't mind the arguments and "what's the big deal" is really just not your problem. You are upset, that's the reality - his reaction and your parents reactions don't get to replace or invalidate yours.

So I wouldn't feel guilty. I would simply state that if there are raised voices you'll leave - and then if they raise their voices, then leave calmly. It both trains them and gives you the space you need away from them.
posted by dave99 at 2:48 AM on December 30, 2013 [5 favorites]

I have put some distance between myself and toxic family relationships, but i kept it super low drama. I realized that they wanted me as an audience for their nonsense more than they wanted my company, so I just backed the hell off.

I call these family members around once a month and keep the conversations short. After a few years they've stopped trying to keep me in the loop of bad news and conflict.

It doesn't work for everyone, but I don't feel guilty because the lines are still open and I don't worry anymore about getting dragged in.
posted by Blisterlips at 5:29 AM on December 30, 2013

Best answer: First of all, your parents aren't going to stop arguing. Ever. Accept it.

Establish and enforce your boundaries. If you choose to visit, stay in a hotel, rent a car and have a plane ticket that you can change and fly home early if you choose. If they start acting up, simply go back to the hotel, pack your bag and fly home. Easy-peasy.

Don't pay for any more vacations for them, thinking that this will magically "put them on their best behavior." It won't and it's expensive.

You can taper off contact with your family, it's a free country.

My mother and I have had a problematic relationship my whole life. I do love my parents, but I refuse to continue to reenact all the drama from my childhood. I set boundaries, and I enforce them.

I have grabbed soaking wet laundry out of a washing machine and left their house (for a laurdomat). I have left them in Albuquerque when my mother was being particularly nasty. I left my mother during site-seeing at the Liberty Bell. These events have taken place over decades.

My mother will never stop scapegoating me for her frustrations (and she frustrates easily.) I can't change her. I can change how I react to her though, and I am consistant about it.

I know that my mother loves me, she just has shitty coping skills. The point is, I frame the relationship that I have with my family. I am in control, because I'm an adult.

I call my mother twice a week and we update each other on the bits and bobs in our lives. I visit my family, but I get a hotel room and a rental car, so I can bolt if things get squirrelly. If I don't feel that I'm being treated with the respect that I deserve, I'll say something and I'll DO something about it.

The first thing you need to do is stop being an actor in the drama. Yes, scale back your contact, but don't make a big deal about it. When you talk to your family, keep it superficial. If your mother tries to draw you into a fight, simply say, "I'm not getting in the middle of your squabble." If she won't drop it, just say, "This isn't productive, I'm hanging up." Then hang up.

There is no law that says that you have to continue in toxic relationships. There's no law that says that you have to cut people 100% from your life. There is a middle ground, and you get to decide where it is.

It's a process. It may be that you never want to speak to your parents again. That is perfectly okay too.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:54 AM on December 30, 2013 [21 favorites]

Best answer: You have no control over when your parents will die.

Your parents will die.

When they are dead, part of you will be sad. Another part will dance for joy because you got promoted to the Big Chair, where you are the boss of you.

They are responsible for their own happiness. You are responsible for yours.

If they make you unhappy, you are under no obligation to interact with them.

If you interact with them at the cost of your own happiness, you are emotionally immature. You will be able to tell when you hit maturity when you are able to decide things for yourself.

If there is no sanction for their bad behavior and no consequences, it will continue.

DTMFA is a suitable reaction to toxic parenting. You are under no obligation to have anything to do with them at all. You do realize this? Just stop setting up the situation where you are going to be unhappy. YOU are doing this, not your parents. If you don't go home, don't go on trips, don't waste time hanging on the phone when they are being insane, they won't have the means to interact negatively with you.

Adults are supposed act like adults. Your parents aren't acting like adults. Neither are you.

Buck up. Grow some. Stop allowing random people to control your life. Interact with people who help you live a good life, not folks who destroy it.

If you cannot master this, you will hand the behavior to your kids. Adult 101. Time to claim your role as an independent person.
posted by FauxScot at 5:56 AM on December 30, 2013 [14 favorites]

Best answer: I cut off contact (all - no in-person, no phone) with my mother not for years but for a period of about seven months, five years ago. I didn't make a big deal about it, I just stopped calling her and never made plans with her until Christmas, when I wanted to see my aunts and uncles and cousins and things. My sister kept me posted about anything important. Now my mother and I go out to dinner every couple of months, I see her at holidays and at family events. We're not close. We're never going to be close. I minimize the amount of contact I have with her and she either doesn't notice or chooses not to comment on it.

My relationship with my mother is not my favorite thing about my life but it's pretty much OK.

Here's the thing: your parents could die *tomorrow* and you'd still feel bad that this was the last time your saw them. Like, I've never much thought about it, but I guess I've accepted that fact that the last interaction I have with my mother is going to be an difficult and unpleasant one, because that's how very nearly ALL my interactions with my mother are. And that's sad, but it's just the way things are.
posted by mskyle at 6:43 AM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

I wonder whether your parents have ever tried therapy. They're part of that older generation and it's possible that they're against it, but it seems to me that both of them need to talk to someone who will validate some of what they feel as being the other person's problem, while at the same time make them think harder about how what they are doing is hurting you and hurting their own relationship. They might be able to learn how to handle conflict in a way that doesn't immediately involve shouting and anger. But, thirty years is a long habit to break, so maybe not.

For what it's worth, my own dad is now 85 and I understand it's not unusual for grumpiness in men to increase with age. My dad is quicker to lose his temper and snap at people now than he was in my youth, and I think it has something to do with the aging process. So for what it's worth I don't think your dad is likely to improve without some intervention and even then I'm not sure what would happen. (It does seem to me that therapy could help your mom recognize that while your dad's anger and yelling is his problem, her own behavior is her problem and that she is behaving in ways that elevate conflict in the marriage.)

I'm sorry you're in this position and I wish you luck and love.
posted by onlyconnect at 7:04 AM on December 30, 2013

I don't understand why you jumped to the most expensive, difficult and high-stakes option (hosting fancy travel) when the easier option is more likely to work. Just hang out with them separately. Take your mom to the mall; take your dad to a movie; take your kid brother out for bowling. "But you'll come home for dinner afterwards, right?" No, thanks, see you next time. And if they start bitching about the other one, take them home and leave.

And yes, it is permissible to reduce or cut off contact with people who make your life miserable even when they are your parents. Parents have no right to make their grown kids miserable - that's one of the bonuses of growing up, is you get to redefine those relationships and make them work (or not) for you.

(By the way I grew up with a parent who constantly cried to me about how she chose the wrong man and how terrible he was and what a victim she was etc etc and it robbed me of my childhood. So I am sympathetic. But be realistic now; you're not a kid anymore and you don't have to put up with it if you don't want to -- just like your parents don't actually have to put up with each other. They choose to.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:19 AM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Stop trying to control your parents by telling them not to fight and taking them on trips. It's not working, it's not going to work, their relationship is entirely out of your control.

You aren't helpless in this situation, you're in your 30s. If you are visiting with your parents and they start to argue, leave. If one of your parents insists on dumping things on you that you don't want to talk about, end the conversation, hang up the phone, walk away, whatever.

You can't control them. You can control what you're willing to put up with. There is no magic bullet to make their marriage happy and amicable. They're adults who make their own decisions and are choosing to stay in this marriage. Their conflicts are not your responsibility to resolve.

Please stay in therapy. Things like this:
I got so frustrated that I started ramming my head into the wall over and over, shouting, "Stop it! Stop talking!"
Suggest that you seriously need help coping with these emotions. Slamming your head into the wall and idealizing self-harm as a way to get attention so your parents stop fighting is very unhealthy behavior, and I hope that you continue to get therapy to work on these issues.

I'm sympathetic, because my parents relationship was also dysfunctional and I became an adult without the kind of relationship skills, coping skills, or life skills that I should have had. But I'm in my 20s, I don't have to put up with their shit anymore, and it's my responsibility to learn how to take care of myself. Part of that is setting boundaries about what kind of relationships I have with my family.
posted by inertia at 8:31 AM on December 30, 2013 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Just reading your story is heart breaking because its so sad when someone you love is tone deaf to the way they are hurting you. I've had some experience with this and about all I can offer up is that your parents, and it sounds like your mom in particular, are too enveloped in their own pain to make room to care about yours. That is a big let down especially when a parent does it.

I think that you imagine some way that you can show them the light (nice vacations give a brief respite) or shock them (pound your head on the wall) to make them see themselves as you see them. I wish this were true, but they are immersed in decades of practice fighting with each other. It still isn't right, but they don't know any other way to behave toward each other.

You are going to feel repeatedly and profoundly disappointed if you maintain hope for your parents on this issue. Somewhere along life's road they skipped out on their adult freedom and obligation to work this stuff out. One of the great things about adulthood is having more liberty about who you choose to engage in your life. As painful as it is to let go, creating some space from them is probably much better than exposing yourself to a toxic situation.

You will be sad when they die either way because they have frittered away years of positive interactions already. It would be nice for them to finish well, but that is their decision. I wish they knew how wasteful and hurtful it is. I like to think anyone can change if they knew how they affected others.
posted by dgran at 9:19 AM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: cheesecake, I completely understand. I grew up with only one parent (my Mother) and she constantly (and I mean constantly) ran down my father to me. There is no way to explain how painful this is to others who have not experienced it.

What you are experiencing is "emotional incest". When your mother comes to you with such highly personal information about her marriage AND she is lobbying to actually live with you....well, essentially she wants YOU to be her husband (no matter what your gender is). It is wacky deal and you are the one who has to take charge and put an end to it.

You would be wise to cut ties and give yourself a nice vacation from all the angst. This would be a solid decision on your part. Stay away, no nothing. If they contact you, tell them the truth..."I am removing myself from your fighting. I refuse to be around it any longer". It's lovely to move forward without all the theater. I can assure you.

I too worried about my Mother dying while I was estranged from her...but, if she died, she died. (Sounds cold, and I still loved her....but she would have sucked everything out of me if I let her!) My Mother lived well into her 80's (which is the likelihood in your case too). You'll be happy to learn that as my Mother got older she did indeed mellow out and she and I became friends later in her life. She stopped bitching about my father! (miracle of miracles!) and I enjoyed many wonderful phone calls with her and visited her a few times (always on my guard, however, and protective of my own life). I do not regret any of the years I spent not talking to her. As a matter of fact, I would not change a thing. We can't help it that our parents have these mental owe it to yourself to stop trying to "fix" her and your father. Not possible!

The role of the parent is to instruct and prepare offspring for life....not to USE their offspring to navigate through their own life. So, I vote for cutting ties. You'll be surprised how much better you'll feel....and no crystal ball, but the situation could indeed improve greatly if you stood up for yourself here. They don't seem to respect you and everyone deserves respect.
posted by naplesyellow at 11:23 AM on December 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: What you are trying to do is have a meaningful and constructive relationship with your parents. That's an admirable and healthy goal.

My mother has bipolar disorder and she's nearly impossible to be around in person (just trust me on that). Seeing her in person is very hard and it usually ends with her crying and me losing my temper despite my best efforts.

But we do much, much better on the phone and by email. We stay connected, she tells me the important things that are going on in her life and I tell her the things that are going on in my life. She knows that if she needs something, I'll always be there for her.

So, all of this is to say that you can have a very deep and meaningful relationship by phone. And also to say that this isn't solely your obligation. Your parents have a responsibility to meet you half way. If your relationship is better and more functional by phone, it's perfectly okay to conduct it by phone. If they won't cooperate in that, it's on them, not you.

So commit to contacting them by phone (email is great too). Involve them in your life by email and phone and invite them to do the same.
posted by bananafish at 11:47 AM on December 30, 2013

After the last shit festival that is interacting with half of my parental unit, I cut off all contact with my mother. For years now I've had a pretty decent time of it. I guess I would be concerned about the last contact with her being a crazy, hours long screaming fest if I cared. If I've managed to take anything from the scant therapy I've had, it's that the caring was the return ticket to the shit festival. So long as I cared, I would be brought back in and the whole cycle would repeat itself.

You, on the other hand, appear to want to partially disengage. Unless your parents are on board with that it's going to be difficult. Even after four years now she doesn't honor my requests for no contact, but .procmail filtering and blocking her phone number have turned out to be an effective counter. It is a thing of amusement to know that the service provided by AT&T is called 'Parental Controls'.

As for telling them a white lie or the real reason for the disengagement, the easy answer is the lie. On the other hand, that is not the way forward. If you don't make the connection between your unhappiness and your recent removal, chances are they won't make that for you. So if you want to gain anything from this, tell them.

Oddly, it is the recent round of therapy that has me making tentative contact. I wasn't necessarily at the point where I truly didn't care. I've always harbored the guilt. This is basically the double secret probation for her. I'm going into this with eyes wide open and evaluating just what it is I expect from a relationship with her and whether she is able to deliver.

After four years it is a bit uncomfortable. On the other hand, I have reason to believe that the mothership is very on board with change. It's only been a few months and we've only communicated via email but at this juncture she is listening instead of engaging the the scorched earth kill the village to save it tactics of yore.

I don't believe you're in that place yet. I think you should definitely try some of the suggestions in this thread--namely removing yourself from the situation when the fighting starts while making the reason for your removal explicit. Give it a few days before trying again. Don't try the expensive/long trips route either. No matter how you think you feel with regards to the balance of power, you are their hostage during these trips. You want to do this in a time and place where it is easy for you to walk away.

If you eventually tire of this tactic then you're more likely in a place where the terms of your disengagement will not bother you. They will make this decision for you in that regards.
posted by Fezboy! at 1:59 PM on December 30, 2013

1. But they are in their 60s / 70s. The thought that they could die and this would have been the last time I see them feels panic-inducing. How can I deal with this fear?

Well you can't have it both ways, distant and close. The benefits of distant sound like they out-way the negatives (which seems to only be guilt)

2. No don't tell them. If you change you mind it will be a lot easier to reconnect if you haven't made a dramatic "moment" out of it.

3. Therapy. Also see #1

4. I've accomplished the first part, but not the second. The problem is that in a couple years your parents will most likely still be the same annoying people they have always been.
posted by French Fry at 3:03 PM on December 30, 2013

Sorry that I offended the pedants group (of which I am a member though usually silent) I wrote there for their up thread! Mea culpa.
posted by Cranberry at 3:35 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

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