Dealing with shitty parents?
August 3, 2014 2:21 PM   Subscribe

Dealing with shitty parents - when to cut them off for good?

I am 26 years old. I have been estranged from my mother for a good 5 years. She is mentally ill and is a severe narcissist. She really dislikes my brother and I and she will go out of her way to try to sabotage our lives and make us feel small. I decided that this kind of maliciousness was just not ever going to change and so I no longer respond to her emails. She does not have my cell phone number.

My father divorced her, but has never really gained any awareness of her. He still sees her as a good person, despite the fact she cheated on him and then ruthlessly pursued him for an insane divorce settlement (which she got). My father has little or no interest in my brother's life or mine - he is pretty preoccupied with another relationship with a woman similar to my mother. He also appears to be cheating on this lady with another girlfriend. Both of these women are significantly younger and I think fulfill my father's fantasy of being young, single, with no strings (i.e. no kids).

Basically, both of my parents are pretty much narcissists and have little to no interest in their kids unless we can satisfy some last-minute whim of theirs. I've got to a point where just passively ignoring them (or actively ignoring my mother) doesn't do it anymore. My dad was supposed to meet me for coffee but never showed up and never texted or called to explain why. I really want them both permanently out of my life rather than just passively taking whatever shitty behaviour they deal out to me.

Any ideas? Before my strategy was no engagement, because confronting my parents in the past has not been successful. My mother has a temper tantrum and strikes out. My father has a lot of repressed anger that comes out. It just gets ugly and nothing is resolved. But I have never contacted them to say "Please do not contact me again." Should I just email them both and tell them please not to contact me anymore?
posted by thelivingsea to Human Relations (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You really want to actively let them know that you're not going to take their poor behavior towards you anymore. You want to be the person telling them instead of waiting around for them. Those are both reasonable expectations because they are, to some extent, under your control. However, I sense that you also want to make them notice you and recognize you as your own person--to be impressed with you, or affected by you, instead of seeing you as merely an extension of themselves. I do not think that is likely to happen.

So my answer would be, sure, but keep your expectations very low. They will not be heartbroken. They will not change. They will continue to be them. You really deserve much better. You got a shitty deal when it comes to parents. Hopefully--and I see no reason to expect different--when you stop waiting for them to behave towards you with decency, you will really have a significant improvement in your well-being.

Good luck!
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:33 PM on August 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

If you are arranging to meet your dad for coffee, you are not actually doing the "no engagement" thing.

It sounds like you maybe just need a reminder (or permission) that it's OK to really *truly* have nothing to do with them.

This anonymous internet person gives you permission.

(You certainly can send them a "never contact me again" message...but it will likely lead to a response and some back-and-forth. Is that what you want? Think about that for a bit. It's OK if you do, but be clear in your own mind.)
posted by pantarei70 at 2:36 PM on August 3, 2014 [9 favorites]

Honestly? This sounds like the ideal slow fade situation. I don't think you need to make a big confrontation. Just don't initiate and don't agree to any plans. Be brief and vague.

I only say this because cutting off ties is a scorched earth tactic and should not be done out of anger and frustration. It's also common to feel intense regret, sadness, and grief.

I understand why you're upset with your parents. But please take a moment to consider whether their behavior is truly damaging to your well-being, or merely shitty and disrespectful. If it's the former, then yes, cut them off. But it's the latter, some firm boundary setting may be the healthiest solution.
posted by snickerdoodle at 2:38 PM on August 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

When I did this with my dad, I wrote him a real letter and sent it in the mail. This was partly because he was not a big computer guy but also because I wanted there to be a real, tangible thing I was doing that took effort so he would understand I wasn't making the decision on a whim.

And please know that it's okay to do this and doesn't make you a bad person. I cut out my dad when I realized it had been years since he'd contributed anything other than stress and heartache to my life. I do not regret it.
posted by something something at 2:38 PM on August 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

Engaging people like this is opening the door to drama and inviting it for a visit.

Instead actively make the decision and do things to show YOURSELF you mean business. Redirect their emails to spam. Block their phone numbers. Toss their letters unopened. At some point they may show up on your doorstep and you can feel justifiably frustrated because you did the work to rid yourself of them.

The thing is to commit to eliminating them from your life. And demonstrate that choice to yourself by taking action.
posted by 26.2 at 2:40 PM on August 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

You don't need to engage to set yourself free from a crap dynamic with your family of origin. I didn't. I never told my parents or family to stop contacting me. I just stopped reaching out.
posted by sm1tten at 2:48 PM on August 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

Get yourself a copy of The Gift Of Fear. It's not directly related to your situation, but it does give you a lot of information about what to look for and how to handle people who will ignore your boundaries. It's an enlightening read even if you don't have someone out to hurt you.

Set your boundary clearly and explicitly, and communicate it to them. "Do not contact me again". Don't include explanations or apologies, because they can be argued with and it's just a way for the other person to keep control. Then, decide what you're going to do if/when your boundaries are pressed on. Can you change your mobile phone number, or your email, etc? Is there some way you can recognise your parents handwriting if they send you a letter?

Every step you take should be about spotting a threat ahead of time and knowing what to do if/when it happens. You won't be able to see every threat coming, but it's helpful to be ready for those you can. Only you can decide if it's worth reading a letter from your mom - it might give you advanced warning of her turning up or it might just make you feel really bad and guilty because she's trying to manipulate you, for example.

Another option is the slow fade, where you just stop initiating contact and make very low-key responses. If your parents are narcissistic, they might be inclined to leave you alone because they just don't think about you. You still need to know what your boundaries are, you're just not communicating them to your parents. If they call, are you going to answer the phone, are you going to reply to the email, are you going to chat on Facebook, etc. Decide these things ahead of time - if contact from your parents throws you for a loop, you're not going to be in a good position to decide there and then what to do. It's more helpful to you to think about it ahead of time and come up with some solutions while you have a cooler head.
posted by Solomon at 2:50 PM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Life isn't like the movies. You don't need to read them the manifesto. You don't have to give them a reason or closure. Set a filter in your inbox to go to the spam folder or trash, change your phone number or block their numbers, throw away any mail unopened, and go on with your life.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:51 PM on August 3, 2014 [7 favorites]

Should I just email them both and tell them please not to contact me anymore?

If you want to have nothing to do with your parents, what you need to do is figure out the answer to these questions: 1) What things do I need to do in order to minimize the likelihood that they will try and contact me? and 2) What things do I need to do in order to minimize the likelihood that I will give in and continue having a relationship with them, if they do contact me?

Sending them an email might help with #2, but it's opening a door for at the very least a hurtful/empty-promise-filled response from them. Other things you might want to consider: changing your phone number, changing your email, blocking their emails from your new email, and moving to a new address.
posted by 23skidoo at 2:54 PM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm so sorry you got dealt this hand. Please be kind to yourself and do not feel like any of this is your fault. You're a lovable, wonderful human being who has a lot to give to people who want to receive it. (Those people are not your parents.)

But I have never contacted them to say "Please do not contact me again." Should I just email them both and tell them please not to contact me anymore?

No, do not do any kind of announcement of new boundaries; narcissists (and other dickish people) see this as a challenge, one that they relish proving to you that your rules do not apply to them.

Remember this: Narcissists do not give you any good options. The best option is to not have them in your life - it sounds like you've already come to that conclusion. Good for you. The best thing you can do is resist explaining yourself to them - they will never be able to "get" you or give you the slightest human kindness. The kindness you deserve!
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 3:24 PM on August 3, 2014 [7 favorites]

Do you ever want to have kids, and in that case would you want them to know their grandparents? It sounds like that's quite possibly a well-justified "no", and might well be the best for any children as well as you yourself, just something to think on as long as we're speculating about ways you might eventually end up sabotaging your own no-contact plan.

Take inspiration from Switzerland, always ready to dynamite the cliffs above their mountain passes and make the entire country a sealed alpenhorn-and-bubbly-cheese-filled fortress against the zombie apocalypse. Your parents are your zombie apocalypse.
posted by XMLicious at 3:30 PM on August 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nthing a slow fade.


The kind of dysfunction, negligence, manipulation, and abuse that might cause one to consider full estrangement from one's parents doesn't happen in a vacuum. It is usually not just one parent's fault.

Sometimes the healthiest way to stop perpetuating the cycles of abuse is to quietly close the door and walk away.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 3:49 PM on August 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

No, do not do any kind of announcement of new boundaries; narcissists (and other dickish people) see this as a challenge, one that they relish proving to you that your rules do not apply to them.

Well said. I can't agree enough. I sent a simple "do not contact me again" message to a hurtful and abusive and narcissistic relative after I had ignored several of his emails, thinking it was only fair to let him know (a la The Gift of Fear) that it was not OK to continue.

Man oh man, did that ever backfire. He wrote back (of course) a litany of insults, invoking my late father(!) and claiming my dad said/thought cruel things about me. None of it's true, but it still hurts. And now he's amped up by saying hurtful things about me to a larger set of people. I didn't respond again at all.

Not responding is an action and it is Enough. Move on and be free. It gets better.
posted by mochapickle at 3:53 PM on August 3, 2014 [8 favorites]

Any ideas? Before my strategy was no engagement, because confronting my parents in the past has not been successful. My mother has a temper tantrum and strikes out. My father has a lot of repressed anger that comes out. It just gets ugly and nothing is resolved. But I have never contacted them to say "Please do not contact me again." Should I just email them both and tell them please not to contact me anymore?

No need! If you do that, they'll freak out at you, and it will start this whole big thing, and you don't want that.

I know it can be hard to just say, "eh, fuck it" and quietly go about your life never speaking to them again, because most of society tells us that we must remain in contact with our parents no matter what, that to deny them our presence is unspeakably cruel, that we owe them something. Near as I can tell, this bullshit is perpetuated because most of society doesn't have parents who unequivocally dislike their children, abuse them, sabotage them, threaten them, etc. So the ambivalence toward leaving that relationship behind altogether is baked-in from birth! Since most people have parents that are not actively antagonistic toward them, we're all taught that the parent-child bond is inherently sacred. But here is an awesome secret: It isn't. You don't owe them anything. You wouldn't let a stranger treat you so poorly, right? OK, goodbye.

I'm in your boat, and I let it tear me up inside for years and years until I pretty much consciously decided to stop giving a shit entirely. I don't even like talking about it much anymore because it makes it seem like I care more than I really do. At this point, my family is a bunch of strangers, and their thoughts and feelings take up exactly as much of my mental energy as any other random stranger's thoughts and feelings do. You really don't have to do or say anything to end the relationship. Wanting to give them one last piece of your mind makes it seem like you're still affected by what they think, or it might give them the impression that there's some tantrum they can throw that would make you back down, and if you truly never want to speak to them again, you don't have to care what they think at all, ever again. It is AMAZING. It's like Kool-Aid Man level: Oh, yeaahh!

Filter their emails straight to the trash bin. Throw out their letters. Send their phone calls direct to voicemail and delete the messages without listening to them (just hit 7 as soon as the timestamp starts). You have permission! Welcome to the club! Freedom awaits.
posted by divined by radio at 4:08 PM on August 3, 2014 [10 favorites]

Well, I announced it when I broke up with my extended family, and that was the right move for me. I told them why (knowing they would have no desire to change their behaviors) and I told them I would never be coming back or contacting them again. I made it clear that my mind was made up. I don't remember whether I specifically asked them not to contact me, but when they do every six months or so, I just ignore it. I may have blocked their email addresses, or maybe they only had my old address that I never check anymore, but I do get occasional Facebook messages which Facebook kindly hides away as I am not friends with any of them.

In my case, I was dealing with repeated nasty contact from them, which I had already asked them to stop several times, which was why I felt the need to declare the fact that I was disowning the whole lot of them.

In your situation, I feel like you could pull off the slow fade, but you have to really not respond to them if you don't want to be drawn into their drama again. They will likely not listen to requests not to contact you, and you'll want to decide ahead of time how you will deal with that and stick to your plan.
posted by ktkt at 4:08 PM on August 3, 2014

The only way to handle this situation is to cut your parents off 100%.

I say this because any form of contact, even if negative/passive-aggressive, sends a message that it's okay for them to continue their behavior because you are still available for them to manipulate and poke.

For example, if you had a stalker and they called you 29 times, and you ignored the first 28 calls but finally got annoyed enough and picked up on the 29th call, all that teaches the stalker is that you pick up after they've called you 29 times.

Stalkers and narcissists are different, yes. But their neediness and manipulative nature are not altogether dissimilar.

The point is to not enable, acknowledge or reinforce their bad behavior. You have every right to a happy life and if they cannot respect your happiness and, consequently, your boundaries, it's time to cut them off for good.

I know this is not easy. Narcissists are perhaps the most impossible individuals to deal with and also the most unwilling to accept that they suffer from a mental illness and need help. But even if they don't "learn" anything from you cutting them off (I agree with joseph conrad is fully awesome's comment above - DO NOT EXPLAIN YOURSELF TO THEM! DO NOT TELL THEM YOU ARE CUTTING THEM OFF, JUST DO IT - ACTIONS, NOT WORDS!!), at least cutting them off will end the misery. Don't feel bad about yourself because you've cut your parents off. You don't "owe" them anything. The only person you owe in this situation is yourself. Take care of yourself and move forward without them.
posted by nightrecordings at 4:13 PM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would NOT contact them to say 'never contact me again'; instead, if & when one of them contacts you, reply --- once and ONLY once! --- that you don't want them to phone, email, text or anything else. They'll respond of course, but the key is that you NEVER reply to them: once you've told them not to contact you, delete (without reading) any messages they send.

And just as with anyone you would cut out of your life, remember that you don't owe them an explanation! Once you tell someone to leave you alone, you have nothing more to say to them.
posted by easily confused at 4:14 PM on August 3, 2014

I wouldn't bother. I'd just never reply to them again. Block email, change phone number, move if I had to.

Who needs this in their life? You don't.

I"m sorry your folks are jerks. There is life after childhood though, so live it well!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:26 PM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Agree with everyone here, especially divinedbyradio. Just stop talking to them. They will slowly fade from relevance in your life.
posted by 3491again at 7:05 PM on August 3, 2014

Whatever you decide, I would talk to your brother first (assuming that you do not want to cut off your brother as well). When I decided that I was done with my dad, I told my sister that I was done, that I didn't expect her to be done unless she wanted to be, and that I was sorry if my decision caused her to have any bad feelings. I made it clear that if she wanted to continue a relationship with him, I would never say a bad word about him to her and I would never put her in the position of having to worry about inviting me to things where he was (I told her it was ok to not invite me to things- that my feelings wouldn't be hurt). It was not an easy decision to make to cut off my dad, but at least I didn't lose my sister in the process.
posted by dogmom at 7:39 PM on August 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree 100% with all the advice that you do not (and indeed, should not) contact them to let them know you're cutting them off.

That said, you may find that it would still be useful to make some sort of gesture for yourself that affirms your decision. For example, there's always the tried-and-true method of writing the letter you have no intention of sending, and then burning it (or otherwise destroying it) when you're done. There are other symbolic gestures, too -- you could write their names on slips of paper and toss them into a river, for example, or you could do something like this cord cutting meditation. Any of these things might be helpful in signaling to yourself that you've crossed a certain threshold, and that by taking this step, you are choosing your own well-being.

It's a difficult, brave thing that you're doing. Honor yourself for it!
posted by scody at 9:46 PM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

To deal with my Mom, who had a lot of similar issues, as well as alcoholism, and who was very manipulative, I moved far away and had no phone for a year. I stopped taking crap from her. If she was mean or nasty, I'd get off the phone. If she said rotten stuff, I'd leave the room/ house/ town. Over many years, we developed an okay relationship. It helped that several of my siblings confronted her about her behavior. One year, we all left her home the day after Christmas, when she got really nasty and was looking for a big fight. (Went to my sister's home in the next town, proceeded to have fun) Later, she did not remember the ugly things she said to me.

Mental illness is awful for the mentally ill person and for the people around them. Compassion is good for you. Learn to be compassionate and kind to your parents, without accepting their unkindness. A great book about dealing with someone who has Borderline Personality Disorder, also useful for dealing with anyone who has poor boundaries, is manipulative, highly dramatic, etc. Stop Walking on Eggshells. Highly recommended. Also read the Shamu article; reward your Mom for being nice, absent yourself from the crap. Actions will work better with her than words.

Develop your own self, be the person you want to become, and reduce the impact of your parents and other unhealthy people in your life. It feels good to be free of the crap.
posted by theora55 at 5:23 AM on August 4, 2014

When I did this, I changed my phone numbers, and set up filters in my e-mail to redirect e-mails from my parents into the trash.

Giving warnings and "don't contact me again" only invited more drama until such time as I actually made good on my threats. I only wish I had cut them off without threatening to do so first.
posted by tckma at 7:16 AM on August 4, 2014

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