Help me prevent parental visit from turning into an apocalyptic event
August 29, 2014 9:37 AM   Subscribe

Emotionally abusive parents are coming to visit. Difficulty level: boyfriend introduction. How do I deal with the fallout?

Hi all! Parents are coming to visit next week. They have a history of being controlling, manipulative, boundary-pushing, and irrational. I try to maintain a semblance of a relationship because, well, they’re my parents and I’m a forgiving person. But still.

Relevant background: I’m a grown woman, financially independent, advanced degree, great career, debt-free, have traveled the world and moved cross-country on my own – in other words, I’m a responsible adult. Parents can’t seem to wrap their heads around this. Even worse, when subjected to their machinations, I regress to the quivering, capitulating child from some decades ago, making it easy for them to bully me.

Bonus: they’re meeting my (awesome, lovely, generous, supportive) boyfriend for the first time. Based on how they acted during my previous relationship (also a great guy), things are bound to turn nasty sooner or later. To them, the fact that I have a boyfriend means they’re losing control over me. They’re also unhappy that my boyfriend stays at my place a lot, which to them means I’m living in sin.

Yes I know, I need therapy. But what I need right now are tips, tricks, mantras to tell myself, ways of mitigating the drama, techniques for staying calm if they start hammering me, possible scripts to respond to them instead of freezing up, and any other advice you guys might have for dealing with difficult people.

In particular, I’m trying to think of things to say when certain scenarios arise. I tend to go mute with helplessness or devolve into robotic compliance when confronted with their disapproval, and I’d like to not do this. For example, what’s a gentle way of saying “that’s none of your business” when they start prying into topics that I’d like to keep private (e.g. bedroom activities, birth control, etc)? For deflecting when they say something derogatory about my boyfriend? For when my mother whines about not having grandkids (bf and I don’t want any)? For when my dad makes racist/homophobic comments (I live in a much more diverse area than where they are)?

Bonus points for light humor, but firm politeness will suffice. Cutting them out of my life is something I’ve thought about, but for now assume I’m trying to make this work. And heck, they’ve already bought the plane tickets, so I’m stuck.
posted by phoenix_rising to Human Relations (67 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
"Please respect my wishes and..."
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:50 AM on August 29, 2014

You should let your boyfriend read this post. He should be aware of this issue.
There is nothing in this that you should be ashamed about - and he might help you if understands more.
posted by Flood at 9:52 AM on August 29, 2014 [16 favorites]

To them, the fact that I have a boyfriend means they’re losing control over me.
This is probably extremely accurate. Just remind yourself that they act this way because they perceive they are losing control over you - but you know better. As a responsible adult, only YOU have control over you, they lost control a long time ago.

When they ask inappropriate questions about your relationship, turn the tables. Say something like "I guess every couple is different. So tell me, Mom, did you use birth control when you and Dad started having sex?" Of course, if they were virgins until marriage that may change things a bit, but you can still find some way to ask an uncomfortable sex-related question. When they say the equivalent of "none of your business" then say, well I agree, I prefer not to discuss those things either.

If they say something derogatory about your bf, just nonchalantly reply "Nobody's perfect and I like him for who he is." No other explanation required or offered. You don't even have to expressly agree or disagree with what was said. Just repeat as needed.

Grandkids is an easy one - if they don't want you "living in sin" then they almost certainly don't want you having children out of wedlock. Just say "As I'm sure you'd agree, having kids is a conversation best reserved for after I'm married - which I'm not planning on yet."

Other general under-your-skin comments (racism, homophobia, etc.) - you can confront or just let them roll off your back depending how much energy you have. A simple "I'm sure you didn't mean it but that came across as very offensive. Let's not go there." - should suffice.
posted by trivia genius at 9:54 AM on August 29, 2014 [10 favorites]

It sounds like you might benefit from learning about verbal self defense. The Wikipedia article is a good starting place with links to more info. Suzette Elgin's books are ones I would recommend based on personal experience, but there are others that may be as good or better out there.
posted by TedW at 9:54 AM on August 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Sorry to threadsit, but just to clarify, yes my boyfriend is aware of these issues and is extremely supportive of me. Knowing my folks, they'll probably act nicely in front of him and the shitstorm will happen when he's not around.
posted by phoenix_rising at 9:55 AM on August 29, 2014

My recommendation is find them a hotel to stay in. If you can't get away, you can't enforce a boundary.

Here are some things I say to my parents:

"Mom, did you intend that to sound as mean as I heard it?"

"Dad, that hasn't been true for decades."

"Mom, you can slag Jason all you want back at the hotel, but I'm going to insist that you be nice to him in person."

Again, they're not staying with you. If you have to clean out your savings account, they're going to a hotel.

My parents have a guest suite and I never stay with them. I stay at the Courtyard. This is because I need to be able to say, "you're being inappropriate and I'm not standing for it. I'm leaving."

I've said it before but I've abandoned my parents in cities all over the nation.

A good catch all is, "you're upsetting me." Then go into your room and shut the door.

Do NOT let them control or manipulate you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:55 AM on August 29, 2014 [49 favorites]

Are they staying with you? Or at a hotel. If its not too late, book them a hotel, so you have some semblance of privacy.
posted by TheAdamist at 9:55 AM on August 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

You need Captain Awkward's #583: The Worry Wyvern and The Dragon of Disappointment:
If not, I have something to tell you. It’s not comforting, exactly, but it is a way of reclaiming some power: If she refuses to listen to you and keeps behaving this way even after you ask her to stop, even after you try to set a boundary, she will do it no matter what you do. We’re deep in Worry Thermodynamics territory – “Mom-worry is neither created nor destroyed; it can only be transferred from child to child” – where it stops being about you at all. When someone shows you that they cannot be pleased, cannot be appeased, cannot be redirected, and cannot respect your reasonable boundaries, we enter a territory called “The Fuck Its”, as in, Fuck it, there’s no making you happy, so, I might as well please myself. It is lonely and barren sometimes here in the Fuck Its, but it can be a very liberating place. For one thing, you can invoke the “I’m sorry that you feel that way” apology freely and without shame. You can also become practiced at interrupting people, which is normally very rude to do, but (again, from my own experience) when the conversation turns to “I am very worried about how fat you are-” or “Is that really what you are wearing-” I don’t feel bad at all about saying “-let me stop you right there. Howabout, for the rest of the visit, you pretend that I am a fellow adult – say a coworker, or a friend of a friend – whom you like. And then, don’t say anything to me about my appearance that you wouldn’t say to that person.“
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:55 AM on August 29, 2014 [36 favorites]

Sorry to threadsit once again, but since a couple people asked, yes they're at a hotel. Absolutely.

(Ok, no more thread-sitting ;)
posted by phoenix_rising at 9:58 AM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nth'ing "Get a hotel room." If they insist on staying with you, get a hotel room for yourself. The best way to deal with people who insist on starting a fight is walking away.

In the moments where you can't get away, just ignore them. There is no law in our society that says you must engage people or let them engage you. They get all up in your face about grandchildren or how the neighborhood's going downhill because of "those people" or whatever, you just turn around and go into the kitchen. Let 'em rant. Stare off into the middle distance and smile knowingly to yourself as you think about something more pleasant.

And every now and then, remember that they will be there for a finite number of seconds. So you take a deep breath and think, "There goes another one." You're now one second closer to it being over with.
posted by Etrigan at 9:59 AM on August 29, 2014

Get the book "The Nice Factor Book" by Robin Chandler and Jo Ellen Grzyb.

Also get the book "The Verbally Abusive Relationship" by Patricia Evans. Especially this. It contains one-liners for shutting down abuse tactics.

Get 'em now. Don't wait.
posted by tel3path at 10:04 AM on August 29, 2014 [9 favorites]

Hey, no offense, but you really should consider seeking therapy. Not because this post reveals that you have some problem yourself, but because you're dealing with some advanced-level isht here and you deserve a coach to help you do battle. In the meantime...

For example, what’s a gentle way of saying “that’s none of your business” when they start prying into topics that I’d like to keep private (e.g. bedroom activities, birth control, etc)?

I know someone who uses "that's okay," as if the other person apologized for spilling a drink, or "we've got it" or "we'll figure it out." The tone of voice is "don't worry about it, that's our job, we've got it under control."

Then there's "oh, I don't know" with a laugh.

Supposedly Miss Manners advises "why do you ask?" In googling to confirm that, I found some etiquette efforts advising you turn the conversation to them, e.g., "it sounds like you really want grandkids" or "how did you guys decide it was time have children?"

You can also turn theoretical, "yes, there are many kinds of birth control out there, I am told. There are detailed studies about the efficacy rate [blah blah blah]. It sure is a complicated question!" You could follow that up with either "that's why I make decisions about it only after consulting a doctor" or "say, did you ever use birth control, mom?"

If worst comes to worst (this shitstorm when he's not around), you can always say "I'm sure you didn't mean that to come off as very hurtful, but it did" or "I don't appreciate being called names. If you continue I'll have to leave early" (then follow through if necessary).
posted by salvia at 10:05 AM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your abusive parents are coming to visit. Which hotel or friends of theirs are they staying with? Because there is no way this can go will if they're staying with you. No way, full stop.

If you become a quivering child in front of their abuse, they'll continue to always see you as a child. Emotionally, it's very easy to fall back into family roles - I'm a big proponent of cutting the strings in unhealthy situations.

If you don't want to cut the strings, then you need to get change your family role. Part of it will have to happen with conscious effort. Most of it will be a gradual evolution of your emotional state if you stay successful. Short meetings with your family where you walk out as soon as things start to go poorly (before you go silent).

You could carefully coach your boyfriend about how you expect things to go, and possibly with some code words/actions. At a bare minimum you want to be able to express to him "I need to get out of here immediately, but don't have the strength to leave; get me out of here." He needs to be able to express "I think things are going poorly, are you really sure that you don't want to leave right now?"

You need to set hard boundaries and I think you need to not worry about being gentle. Abusive parents tend to see politeness/gentleness at attempting to enforce boundaries as an invitation to press harder. Note that being 100% on your boundaries and being assertive about that won't likely immediately work. However, for instance if you say "You will not raise your voice to me." and then immediately leave if they don't back down, after the 3rd or 10th time they might start work on stopping that. If instead you say "Please, don't yell at me." and stay even when they keep yelling at you, they'll never stop.

Yes, I did say the "3rd or 10th" time in my example above. And in my 3rd paragraph, I talked about a gradual evolution of your role in the family. In short, I'm sorry, but it probably won't go well with your abusive parents. Which is why it's very important that they're not staying with you. You meet them somewhere (restaurant, park, wherever. Well, anywhere but your house), maybe get 30-180 minutes of quality time; they turn nasty and you and your bf immediately leave. Lather rinse repeat; stretching the good times, and being consistent on ending the contact the minute it goes nasty with at most 1 direct warning before leaving.
posted by nobeagle at 10:07 AM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

For disapproval, I like the parental favourite of "my house, my rules". You are a grown adult, they are guests in your home, if they don't like how you live your life, they can leave.
posted by missmagenta at 10:07 AM on August 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Then there's "oh, I don't know" with a laugh.

I like this response, you can vary it with "what a strange question!" Or "hmm, interesting." Don't give them any info at all on personal, private topics because that will just be a toehold for them. Feel free to change the subject or just leave them hanging as often as you wish. Best of luck, this sounds horrible.
posted by JenMarie at 10:10 AM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

You need to treat them the same way you treat a misbehaving toddler: give them a choice where there's really only one right answer, but it looks like they have the control to make another decision.

"Mom, I need to insist that you do XYZ, or I will cut our visit short and you will be asked to leave my home."

"Dad, when you say things like that, it is hurtful and disrespectful. I need you to stop making comments like that. If you choose to continue, I will cut our visit short and ask you to go home."

Then you follow through. Period. You being forgiving is translating to you training them to think that their behavior is still ok. It isn't, right? Make it known that their abuse has consequences now.
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:11 AM on August 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Having sort of filler things to say to avoid taking their bait can help a lot. It doesn't sound like they're going to change their attitudes, and you're not going to change your behavior to suit them, so engaging in any argument or discussion with them will be pointless. Neither side will change its position on things and everyone will feel hurt and frustrated.

But they're still going to say all kinds of irritating things that it sounds like you normally respond to. So, try this:

1. Literally, actually, actively ignore the shitty things they say that bother you. If they want to engage you on it, make them bring it up directly and even repeat it. You'd be surprised by how frequently people will just drop things rather than persist when they're not getting immediate gratification. This of course won't work all the time.

2. When ignoring doesn't work, this is where having some filler words to say can help: "I hear you," "thanks Mom," "fair enough," "I see your point," "I haven't given that a lot of thought," "oh, I see," and so on. The trick is to say these things in a tone of voice that makes it clear that you're actually listening to and hearing them--if you sound dull or bored or contemptuous they'll pick up on this. The goal isn't to score points it's to avoid meaningless and hurtful conflict.

3. If they keep trying to escalate, the next trick is to defer the discussion--"Hey, can we talk about this later?"; "let me think about this a little bit," "I'm too tired and hungry to have discussion right now," and so on. Keep deferring things and eventually they'll go home and you'll have put off a lot of the shitty arguments they want to drag you into.

I'm offering these alternatives because it sounds like just drawing boundaries and saying "Mom, dad--I love you both but I'm not going to discuss with this you, okay?" doesn't sound like it's been effective.
posted by MoonOrb at 10:16 AM on August 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Married 20 years here. Mom has always loathed my husband. Her feelings came to a head halfway through her recent visit and I (finally) stood up to her for my sake and my husband's. It looked like this:

Mom: I don't know why you stay with Ben!

Me: I am not divorcing Ben.

Mom: Why not? You almost did years ago.

Me: Would you like me to take you to the airport today?

Mom: No, but I just don't know why you don't -

Me: I would be happy to take you to the airport today.

Mom: Moves on to another topic.

During this exchange my voice and body language were showing increasing confidence and it was the first time I really felt I had ever held my ground on this topic.
posted by harrietthespy at 10:22 AM on August 29, 2014 [47 favorites]

Long-term, yes, therapy might be useful. My partner has really toxic parents and he seems to be finding it really useful, in the lead-up to a family event next month where we can't avoid them, to be talking through with his therapist some practical strategies. I don't know exactly what those are, and I will try to remember to ask him tonight.

I do know one thing they're talking about is to actively plan to have a very busy schedule, so the parents can't just insert themselves into things, decide we're all spending time together, whatever - nope, sorry, we're seeing [x] friend or doing [y] activity, we'll see you at dinner! May not work as well if you are the sole focus of their visit, but if you can plan in even a few "sorry, unavailable" breaks, maybe that would help.

Do enlist your boyfriend as your wingman, if you're comfortable doing that. I will be watching my partner like a hawk at this event. I will redirect conversations if needed, drag him away on flimsy pretexts, fake a migraine - whatever I have to do. My mission is to protect him, and if they say some crappy stuff to me in the meanwhile, I do not care. If appropriate, if your boyfriend or a roommate or whoever will be around, let them help you.

Are there topics you guys can discuss without rancor? I don't really get babies, but I guarantee you that I am going to redirect the conversation to the new babies in the family as early and often as possible because it's a sure-fire distractor and only minimally controversial. We can all get behind getting his mother to babble boringly about her grandbabies, because if she's doing that she's not being terrible.
posted by Stacey at 10:22 AM on August 29, 2014

"I'm an adult. I don't need to answer that."
posted by jaguar at 10:24 AM on August 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

So, you have two big things here: (1) introducing our new boyfriend; and (2) dealing with their shit. These items are not mutually exclusive, but I think it's worth separating them out a bit.

I would not try to work on both items, during this visit. Instead, I would introduce my boyfriend and pay NO heed to anything stupid they say. While my family isn't exactly the same as yours, I've slowly deprived the relevant issues of oxygen by ignoring them. Believe me, it took a lot of internal work to do that, so I highly recommend therapy, but in the long run, it's been great. On the other hand, I should note that I really don't talk to my family a whole lot. But when I do, the conversations seem better.

In the future, when a teaching moment presents itself, perhaps you can then take advantage of providing guidance to them. But I would hold off for now.
posted by learnsome at 10:32 AM on August 29, 2014

On the offensive comments about other people, I've seen a few folks on the Blue suggest "that's not my experience," lately. Neutral but assertive enough that I've mentally saved it for future use.
posted by deludingmyself at 10:32 AM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have said to my parents, "I have no interest in answering that question so go ahead and make up your own answer."
posted by 724A at 10:37 AM on August 29, 2014 [21 favorites]

Two tactics come to mind:

1) If they behave better with your boyfriend around, and they're staying at a hotel, can he always be around when they're with you? Or most of the time? Then you can relax a bit.

2) Prepare for what you will or can do _after_ you say something in anger. I'm not going to argue that being demonstrably angry with them will be good or bad for the relationship, but it might be helpful for you to think ahead. Would your Mom cry and stop talking to you? What can you do in that situation -- send her flowers with an apology? Write her a letter? Leave her alone for a few hours? Talk about something she loves discussing? Ask her for help with something? Your Dad - will he get angry and raise his voice? How do you deal with that? There may not be any good answers, but having thought it through should make your mental calculus of what to say and when less stressful.
posted by amtho at 10:44 AM on August 29, 2014

The mantra I would recommend for the entire visit is don't bite the hook. Every single bit of their behavior that you are describing -- the invasive questions, the belittling, the negativity -- is their attempt to cast out a line and see if you'll bite. If they can't hook you on saying nasty things about your boyfriend, maybe they can hook you by reminding you of a mistake you made 20 years ago. If that doesn't work, they'll try to hook you by asking about your sex life and birth control. Once you bite, they can reel you in.

Don't bite the hook. Or, to change the metaphor, envision yourself as pleasant teflon. Anything they say doesn't stick. Use neutral language and an even tone of voice to give non-answers, to change the subject, to deflect (there are plenty of great examples in this thread). You may even want to role-play this with your boyfriend! Come up with an assortment of bland stock phrases you can both deploy to deflect their attempts to hook you.

Also, think ahead of time of the physical symptoms you may associate with that sense of getting hooked by them. Does your heart pound, does your face get hot, do you get a little breathless? If you're aware of these cues ahead of time, you can prepare yourself to do something to try to dial down the intensity of the interaction. A slow, quiet, deep breath can help (again, you may have to practice this -- it's different from a heavy sigh, which you may be used to doing around them!).

Come up with mental images that will soothe you or keep you on track. Going back to the idea of not biting the hook, maybe imagine a beautiful fish swimming through the water. Imagine a hook suddenly dangling in front of it. Then imagine it turning and gliding away.

Don't bite the hook. Be the fish! This sort of thing can be hard work, but it can be done -- and, with practice, it gets easier.

Oh, and no matter how the visit goes, be easy on yourself. You may find you get hooked sometimes, despite your best efforts. That's okay! The important thing is that you are taking the steps to undo decades of this kind of conditioning and dynamic. That takes a lot of strength and insight. My best to you.
posted by scody at 10:44 AM on August 29, 2014 [24 favorites]

They'll be at a hotel: fantastic! Next step: never, but NEVER, invite them to your home..... Meet them at their hotel or a restaurant or whatever, but keep your home 'pure' and free of their bad vibes. Your home, in other words, is your refuge and sanctuary, the place you can go to when/if you need to walk out on them,

And yeah, be willing to do just that: to get up and literally walk away from them. Don't worry about annoying them or making a scene in public, just stand up and walk out when they pull something stupid.

As for nosy comments and questions about what goes on in your bedroom or birth control or anything else: try to flat-out ignore it, pretending there was nothing but silence. If they keep pushing with the nosy questions or making rude comments, try a frosty "Excuse me?" ---- picture saying it like in a cartoon-style word balloon, with huge icicles dripping from your words. Do NOT make any kind of explanations for your actions: that just opens the doors for more of their prying. And if they keep picking away, that's when you stand up and LEAVE, without any further discussion: just get up and GO.

(Don't worry if they call you rude for walking out: fuck 'em.)
posted by easily confused at 10:46 AM on August 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

My best suggestion, would be an honest conversation with your new boyfriend about your relationship with your parents and situations with exes in the past, and tell him how you would LIKE things to go - and have him be your cheerleader in awkward situations. If you start to clam up, develop a way to let him know, so he can back you up.

I think every woman needs a strong man in their life that will not only support, but protect you. If this relationship is something you'd like to persue in the future as long term, just be honest in preparing him for their visit.

As for your parents -- you're a braver and more forgiving person than me, so I'm not sure what advise to give you on dealing with them other than take this opportunity to make a team mate of your boyfriend.
posted by Sara_NOT_Sarah at 10:47 AM on August 29, 2014

Parent: Rude or prying question...
You: Oh, sorry, I promised not to tell!
posted by The Deej at 10:53 AM on August 29, 2014

You can't control what your parents do or say, you can only control your reactions to them. As Moon Orb and scody so rightfully point out - just don't take their bait. Practice these answers:

"Huh" - look thoughtful, walk away
"Jeez, I don't know" - look thoughtful, walk away

Or else don't answer at all. When I want to end a conversation with my father, I very obviously change the subject, usually with a question. As in "wow Dad, I like this throw pillow. Where did it come from? I don't remember seeing it." And zoom he's off the subject. Sometimes he doesn't even realize what I'm doing, but even if he does, the end result is the same. If he goes back on topic I say "I thought we were done with that" and move on.

If your father says homophobic or racist things, that's on him, not on you. Ditto about your mom belittling your boyfriend.
posted by lyssabee at 10:57 AM on August 29, 2014

When I want to end a conversation with my father, I very obviously change the subject, usually with a question.

Oh yeah, this is a great tactic! I call it the "So, How Are The Dogs?" defense.
posted by scody at 10:59 AM on August 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

One thing that has worked for me in dealing with my parents in a similar situation is to limit my exposure to them by shaping the time and activities to give me as much control over the situation as possible.

When my parents come to visit they always make their own arrangements as far as accommodation so wherever they are they are happy and comfortable and in control of their surroundings, rather than mine.

I try and cultivate the understanding that I'm very pleased to see them, but can't be with them every waking hour so leave plenty of time in their schedule allowing them a "long lie in" "time to read" an "evening to yourselves" etc - as a benefit to them rather than a sanity saver for me.

I try as much as possible to meet them on neutral territory away from home and favor public over private spaces, and always make sure I take my car so I'm in control of logistics.

I try to plan activities that will be pleasant and distracting, so there's always something neutral to talk about, and try to avoid plans, situations and events that are liable to be stressful or otherwise difficult.

I try not to over-schedule the time we spend together. I try as much as possible to meet them on neutral territory away from home and favor public over private spaces , so going out for lunch rather than hosting them at home.

If they want to do something specifically I'll agree to meet them there, to maximise my me time or otherwise catch up with them after.

I always make the ending of our time together very explicit, either to plan activities that have a natural end, or otherwise be strategically busy later with other things so that I can make excuses when I've had enough of them.

I try to plan activities that will be pleasant and distracting, so there's always something neutral to talk about, something other to focus on.

In my mind I work to calm and center myself and actively prepare innocuous topics of conversation / aspects of my life to prevent further prying, as well as preparing myself psychically to disregard the things they say and the judgments that they may make.
posted by Middlemarch at 11:00 AM on August 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Your parents sound a lot like my mother and I've come to the conclusion Monkey Toes shares above. Nothing to be done about it, nothing you say will make any difference.

My best recommendation to you is not to introduce your boyfriend to your parents at all. It serves no useful purpose.

If you have already announced that you would be introducing him, just come up with an excuse, that he had to travel for work, or to be with a sick parent if he is a student.

During their stay with you take time off for 'appointments' when you can see him on your own and get some emotional support.

This too shall pass.
posted by Dragonness at 11:01 AM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

One parameter you may not have considered: find ways to constrain length of exposure, e.g. their arrival time and/or departure time (you needn't make it obvious; you can come up with convincing scheduling excuses). If there's a graceful way to also get away for a period of time during the visit - even just an hour to do some "errand" - that, similarly, could be godsendish.

With the time you have left, shower them with love, regardless of what they say and do. Look past the words and emotions. Look to the light within them, look to their generically symbolic roles in your procreation, shoot, look to their very DNA if you must, and love that. Hardly pay attention to the conversation, except to be as polite as you absolutely must.

Remember that your politeness requirement will drop a bit if you're looking at them all doe-eyed (i.e. are clearly paying attention at some level). Be tender. Just do that. Pay scant attention to what they're actually saying; make it distant irrelevance. But be right there with them, loving them utterly. Not with your mind, with your heart.

Thus you'll get through it. Especially if you have finite exposure. The only thing that can get caught is your mind. So don't go there. Route it all through your heart.
posted by Quisp Lover at 11:01 AM on August 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Make your great boyfriend read this and ask him to be kind and supportive for the time of the visit (and beyond, perhaps). Your future lies with him, not with your parents anyway.
posted by Namlit at 11:10 AM on August 29, 2014

Not doing this is ALWAYS an option. This whole thing sounds completely crazypants to me. YOU sound lovely, considerate, insightful. The situation, though, sounds bad. Do you feel obligated to do this because your parents want you to? That is something to work on unpacking.

The true answer to how you keep your parents from abusing you is: become independent, and then avoid their unappreciative and inappropriate bullshit by avoiding them.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:14 AM on August 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

The polite way to say that is none of your business, is to say "that is none of your business". Seriously.

Don't let them into your house, meet in neutral locations. Leave if they get too pushy.
posted by wwax at 11:15 AM on August 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

For perspective - I have a good relationship with my folks and they are/were functional, loving parents. With those advantages, I still devolve into childish behaviors at the merest hint of criticism from them. The grooves in that road are very deep. It's important to know that nearly all of us regress a bit around our parents. You are no worst than the rest of us and there's no shame needed.

After one difficult visit - all my fault BTW - I really thought about the person I wanted to be in that relationship with my folks. I wanted to be a loving daughter with good boundaries. When I start to snap/pout/whine, I try to breath and ask if this is how a loving daughter with good boundaries behaves? Is this moment of emotion worth giving up the person I want to be.

Decide who you want to be in the relationship. Decide exactly where your boundaries are. When you start to amp up, breathe and ask how you WANT to react.
posted by 26.2 at 11:23 AM on August 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

"I really want us all to have fun and enjoy this visit, and for that to happen we need to stay off contentious topics." Well, maybe "have fun" is overkill but since they are coming, your party line is that you want it to be a good time and to have everyone get to know each other. Play board games or something. Think cruise director, responsible for everyone having a good time, not just the one who feels like having an argument.

Sometimes I think this is where the whole Martha Stewart school of entertainment came from-- people needing a flurry of well-meaning activity to overwhelm the toxic nonsense that some people would otherwise try to bring to the party.
posted by BibiRose at 11:24 AM on August 29, 2014

I wasn't completely clear, sorry. Even if you don't cut them off completely, there's no reason you need to spend a bunch of time with them and introduce them to relationships you care about so they can interfere with them. Feed them surface bullshit, hang up when they get annoying, keep them out of your sensitive spots. I honestly can't give you any other advice in good conscience. They're your parents, they're going to get under your skin even if you don't verbally capitulate. You deserve better.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:25 AM on August 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Rid your mind of "Things will get nasty," because really only your parents will get nasty. It will be hard, but you must not engage. Don't try to correct any untrue statements; don't defend yourself; don't answer any negative remarks. Stay silent. This will infuriate them, but it might keep things from escalating.

Your parents sound very much like my husband's mother, who loves to create chaos and turmoil. It took him a long time to get there, but he did learn to set boundaries for himself and stick to them. Eventually you can get to the point of stating what you will and will not tolerate, and if you're consistent they will change their behavior. But right now, the minimum is going to be challenging enough.

Don't forget that they do want you in their lives. They'll be shocked and afraid when you first start behaving differently, not participating in their negativity. That stuff has always worked for them, and they may intensify their efforts to intimidate you. But new patterns can be created -- by you.
posted by wryly at 11:43 AM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

The only thing I would add is that it’s also possible to have sympathy for your parents, even pity, and this can be helpful. Can you imagine how messed up their world is that they think it’s a good idea to show up for a visit with an adult and start slagging on partners, etc.? I feel sorry for them and I don’t even know them. You will really be doing both of them (in addition to you) a great kindness if you can establish firm boundaries and require appropriate behavior.

It can be really hard to overcome a lifetime of conditioning, but recognizing it like you have done is a huge part of the battle. Since you can’t control how they behave, it may never be possible to establish a mutually acceptable relationship, and that’s OK. Good luck.
posted by wnissen at 11:55 AM on August 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Make a bingo card. This works especially well if your parents have stock phrases that they use to bully you. Every time they say something mean, you get closer to winning the game. I tried something like this with someone once (not a parent, though) and it took the edge off. Every time they were nasty, thinking that I was soon going to be able to shout "bingo" gave me a little distance from the insult and let me label it as such, rather than just letting it slide right under my skin.

what’s a gentle way of saying “that’s none of your business” when they start prying into topics that I’d like to keep private (e.g. bedroom activities, birth control, etc)?

"So how's the weather where you are?" Repeat ad infinitum every time they pry. Look at them expectantly, like you're waiting on an answer. If they ask why you're asking them about the weather, ramble on about how hot/cold/wet/dry it's been, and did they hear about that [local weather event]? Don't directly answer their question. Talk about the subject of the question (the weather) rather than answering it (I'm doing this because you're behaving inappropriately).

For deflecting when they say something derogatory about my boyfriend? For when my dad makes racist/homophobic comments (I live in a much more diverse area than where they are)?

"That's really rude." Every time. Say it and then wait. Don't fill in the conversational space. Let them bluster, if they do, then say "hmm. So how's the weather where you are?" Don't be the first one to break the silence. It can be difficult to be in the space of silence between two people, but it's doable. By making them speak first, you're displaying your ability to not be provoked into talking.

For when my mother whines about not having grandkids (bf and I don’t want any)?

If she's just whining, I'd let her ramble on and then ask how the weather is doing when she stops. If she's asking questions about why she doesn't have any, maybe try going with really obvious statements like "you don't have any grandkids because we haven't had any kids yet". It's somewhat patronising, but I think when you're being provoked about such a personal subject, you can be forgiven that.

Role playing this with your boyfriend might help you get used to the idea of frosty politeness. It might also give you a chance to come up with some phrases of your own, so you're not on the back foot when your parents begin their machinations. Every time you enforce a boundary, it gets easier. There's a law of physics regarding the energy needed to get an object moving being much more than that needed to keep it moving, and the same applies here. You can take back your control and disable your buttons.
posted by Solomon at 11:59 AM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes I know, I need therapy.

Doesn't read that way to me. Everyone has to deal with difficult people and some of these people we're related to.

I'd let the boyfriend deal with your folks on his own. He's presumably a responsible adult as well. Let him form his own opinions and strategies for dealing with them. Maybe in the future you'll need a united front, but for now don't borrow stress. He may get along swimmingly, and even if not he might not get upset about the same things as you.
posted by cjorgensen at 12:03 PM on August 29, 2014

A good catch all is, "you're upsetting me." Then go into your room and shut the door.

Do NOT let them control or manipulate you.

Where I come from, getting someone to admit they're upset, to leave the room and slam doors is an outright admission they're controlling and manipulating you.

My advice: laugh. Laugh and say something like "That used to work on me, Mom. It doesn't any more. Want some more coffee?"
posted by zadcat at 12:08 PM on August 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

A lifesaving ritual/thought exercise a therapist taught me:
Think about a worry or a situation that is stressing you out - it's best if you are specific rather than general, i.e. "My parents may say nasty things to me about my bf staying over."

1. What can't I control about this situation? [List it out mentally or in writing]
2. What can I control about this situation? [Same]
3. How would I feel if I thought I could control the things I couldn't? [List out -- Ex. "I'd feel helpless and guilty when my mom got mad at how my bf stays over. I'd feel scared and responsible for monitoring what my mom was going to say at any minute."]
4. What would my higher power/best self/religious figure think about this situation?
5. What would my higher power/best self/religious figure advise me to do in this situation?
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 12:13 PM on August 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Solomon -- that's an excellent idea; actually my boyfriend had suggested it to me a couple days ago and found a make-your-own-bingo app for it! I also made a list of anticipated stock phrases and contentious topics and am giving myself $ to spend at the bookstore (special treat for me!) every time they hit one of these.
posted by phoenix_rising at 12:25 PM on August 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

Ask yourself if having your parents over to visit is a favor you want to do for them. It doesn't sound to me like you'll get a lot out of it.
posted by chrillsicka at 12:29 PM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

If they're going to be polite in front of Boyfriend, then keep him around. Don't be alone with them. Let there be no "later" in which the "shitstorm" can happen.

Also -- just repeat everything they say back to them -- it'll buy you time to understand what you're experiencing. And if all else fails, you can respond with "I don't know how to respond to that!"

Example: you'd like to know where my boyfriend sleeps?....I don't know how to respond to that!

Did you just imply that you're impatient for me to have children? I don't know how to respond to that! Y

It's an awesome response, because it's true. You can even smile and laugh about it.
posted by vitabellosi at 12:30 PM on August 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

One thing at a time. You can't fight all the battles at once. For me, I'd ignore the racist/homophobic comments for now in order to focus on the prying. (Discuss this strategy with your boyfriend, of course.)
You want a light touch, you say. So smile.
They ask about bedroom activities, you smile and say lightly, "that's too private." Then you immediately ( that's important) change the subject.
They argue, whine and attack your "too private" statement. You stay silent and smile again. Don't speak again until they actively asked something. At which point you reiterate that it's too private and change the subject again.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:32 PM on August 29, 2014

If my folks started being super weird or inappropriate with my friends or SO's my line was always "Hey I thought we were having a nice time" and then if they continued with that path I'd shift to "Seriously, stop it" and then if they didn't their options were that they could leave or I would (I would leave my own house, I would totally do that, you could totally do that) The big deal is not to debate them on any of their points of crazy or let it get under your skin but just to indicate it's not a conversational path you're going to go down, period. Walk into another room saying 'I have to go check on a thing" or do whatever to basically break the cycle of them being awful, you having a reaction to awful and then you're stuck in an awful cycle with them.

Also the big deal with me was to make sure that my SO and I were the unit, not me and my folks. So if we hung out with them and then shifted to another activity, I went with him, not them. At the end of the night, they left and gave me some debrief time with HIM and not the other way around. If they want some solo time with you, they can meet you somewhere for some reason and he can meet you there later, but the big deal, to me, was that you always leave with him and not with them.

Plan something fun with your SO for after they leave and just keep it a secret between the two of you and then you can silently mouth the words to each other if you're dealing with a particularly bad interaction "Ice cream!" and then have a private you-guys moment. Best of luck.
posted by jessamyn at 12:36 PM on August 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

"I really want us all to have fun and enjoy this visit, and for that to happen we need to stay off contentious topics."

This is a good strategy for the OP (and her boyfriend) to keep in mind for themselves, but I'd caution against actually saying this directly to the OP's parents. By saying "we need to stay off contentious topics," she will be implying to her parents that they (i.e., as part of the "we" being referred to) are at least partially responsible for any conflict that may arise (i.e., from "contentious topics").

But if the OP's parents actually had any concern about conflict or the ability to take any responsibility for their role in it, they wouldn't be behaving like this in the first place. So unfortunately, a perfectly reasonable statement like "we need to stay off contentious topics" will almost certainly not be received as perfectly reasonable by them -- in fact, they are very likely to view it as an attack or a challenge.

But it is definitely a good organizing principle for thinking of activities, conversation topics, verbal strategies, etc. ahead of time.
posted by scody at 12:37 PM on August 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

"We'll see." was my moms favorite weapon when i was asking (as a child) if i could do something / have something and she wanted to say no but not cause an arguement. I think it would work well for you.
posted by WeekendJen at 12:48 PM on August 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Recently I've tried just plain not responding at all and it has worked fine. I may look up to indicate I have heard, but then simply not reply. Or, reply with an "umm". The number of times I have paused and then flatly replied, "No. I'm not going to do that," has gone up lately and also worked reasonably well but needs repetition. YMMV.

They may really mainly be saying these things to themselves.

And, the "We'll see" works wonders for me. Good luck.
posted by Gotanda at 1:06 PM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nasty people need to talk about something, so keep them busy, which will give them something to talk about. Personally, I hate talking incessantly about (unpleasant event), but when things get sticky, go ahead and say Dang, I *still* can't believe we got a parking ticket.

Distraction is awesome; have a mental list of topics and questions to turn the tide of nosiness and/or nastiness.
Hey, did you know Hello Kitty isn't a cat? What? You never heard of Hello Kitty?
They figured out the mystery of those moving rocks in Death Valley.
Mom/Dad, tell me about Grandpa/Grandma/Weird Uncle Lou or the home country, or the status of old neighbors, friends, relatives.

Kids. Ask them to/ Let them tell you why you should have kids, and just respond I'll consider that carefully. You don't have to have kids, but you also don't have to explain, justify, or ask permission to not have them.

Compliment them. Ask about their health. Flatter them. That stuff actually works.

My Mom was a Holy Terror. I'm a parent and a brand new grandparent (yippee!) and I try not to give my son and daughter-in-law a hard time. But years of family life mean that my son often gets automatically annoyed at me for being me, or for being old, deaf, etc. I probably do the same to him about stuff. Try to treat them with politeness and respect, and at least expect the same from them, even if they don't deliver. Being family is a Long Game. You can change the rules you follow and eventually it will change the game.
posted by theora55 at 1:48 PM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thank you all for your awesome answers! For people who are encouraging me to not engage with them, I totally hear you and would love to be able to do that. However, it doesn't work too well. Example: some years ago while on a family vacation, my mother brought up a topic that was sensitive and very private for me, she knew it was sensitive, and she had previously hammered me about it but she wanted more. When I calmly and politely said "I really don't want to talk about that right now" she yelled "you need to grow up!" (I was in my mid-twenties at the time, financially independent and in the middle of earning my doctorate.) Stunned, I did something very rare for me: talked back to her, saying "I'm not sure I'm the only one who does" [need to grow up, that is]. At which she exclaimed with obvious sarcasm "oh, this is so much fun!" and stomped away. As we were in a cabin in the woods, there wasn't anywhere to hide. When I tried to take a walk by myself later that day, my father insisted on following me around. This is the sort of thing I'm dealing with here.

Anyway, thanks again, I truly appreciate all this advice, please keep it coming!!
posted by phoenix_rising at 2:07 PM on August 29, 2014


"I know someone who uses "that's okay," as if the other person apologized for spilling a drink, or "we've got it" or "we'll figure it out." The tone of voice is "don't worry about it, that's our job, we've got it under control.""

I do this! I do this!!

Except, I use it when people (strangers, rude men, drugged out homeless) talk to me on the street. I say, " No, thank you!" in a bright and cheery voice as if they are offering me something - because they are! They are offering to interact with me, and I'm refusing. Because it is always a surprising non-sequitur type response, and I'm so nice about it, it shuts down lots of possible danger I might encounter on the street.

"That's Okay!" said with a smile and a change of subject is just perfect!!

You should try it. That, and plain old walking away and going home. You don't have to stick around when anyone pushes your boundaries.

Good luck!!
posted by jbenben at 2:10 PM on August 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

However, it doesn't work too well.

"Not engaging" is not going to keep your parents from saying stupid things. The idea, instead, is to keep yourself calm.

Mom: Stupid needling.
You: I'm not going to talk about that.
Mom: Stupider needling-er needling.
You: So, how has the weather been?
You: OK, I'm going for a walk.

As scody said, it's about not rising to the bait. It's not going to keep them from fishing, it's just going to keep you from getting hooked.
posted by jaguar at 2:28 PM on August 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

Just read your update. Wow.

Similarly, I'm sure you now have learned how to avoid any and all scenarios where you don't have an escape route or plan.

Always take separate cars. Never lend them your car, or house keys, or go anywhere such they are dependent on you, or vice versa.

No entertaining them in your home.

Also, you need to give up feeling embarrassed in front of others if, say, you have to politely leave an event early.


I don't miss having these types of headaches in my life.

I would never ever ever ever subject my now spouse, past boyfriends, or my precious son to this type of painful emotional bullshit.

My stern advice to you is not to let them anywhere near your precious adult relationship with Awesome Boyfriend when they visit.

Protect yourself. Don't play with fire.

Introducing your boyfriend to your toxic parents is playing with fire. It's not necessary. It is really truly unnecessary.

My advice? Don't play with fire.

Your parents are bringing gasoline and matches to this shindig, and they plan to use your relationship with your boyfriend as kindling. Your participation is the oxygen that fans the flames.

Keep your boyfriend far away and be prepared to remove yourself at the first whiff of gasoline.

Using this strategy you might successfully go a lifetime striking the balance of maintaing a relationship with them, while successfully keeping yourself and others, safe.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 2:29 PM on August 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yeah, the point is that you refuse to argue, you just repeat your chosen phrase over and over patiently. Smiling. Until they stomp out.
Hey, it's not going to be pleasant. It's not going to stop them from saying stupid stuff short term, or being angry at you. It'll pay off long term, though. Also, nothing, not even the perfect come back, is so satisfying as keeping your cool while somebody else goes berserk at you.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:31 PM on August 29, 2014

When I calmly and politely said "I really don't want to talk about that right now" she yelled "you need to grow up!"

Oh, yeah, this sort of shit can be really stunning -- it can just hit you in your solar plexus. Since you know that standing your ground and calling her out on it directly will only escalate it, one of the things you might try with this sort of tactic is to treat it (again, in the spirit of cheerful teflon/don't bite the hook) as if it is just a neutral suggestion, and respond to it accordingly. So when she makes any bossy commands of what you should do that are predicated on some sort of failing of yours -- you need to grow up! you're too sensitive! you should lose ten pounds! you should dump that jerk! -- pretend that she is merely saying "turn left on 3rd Street to avoid traffic" or "Bake at 350 for half an hour." To which you would simply reply, "OK. [So, how are the dogs?]"

As jaguar says, this is what it means to decline to engage -- you don't bother addressing either the literal words of what she's saying or the subtext. So if she screams at you to grow up and you just say okay and change the subject, then she's (at least momentarily) disarmed and you have given yourself the gift of sidestepping the emotional agitation of getting into it with her. Her fishing hook might still be dangling in the water, but you have glided on by.

Looking at it more broadly, I would suggest that you consider how you might start to let go of the expectation that they are ever going to see things from your point of view. Remember, if they had the capacity to empathize with you, they would have displayed it a long time ago. Let yourself off the hook in terms of trying to somehow convince them of anything -- and, at the same time, let them off the hook of acquiring emotional skills that they are never going to develop.

The most loving thing you can do for yourself and for them -- even though they will not see it that way -- is to set your own boundaries. Boundary-setting (and enforcing) is hard work, and it's not going to transform them into the parents you always wanted. But little by little, you will reap the rewards.
posted by scody at 2:43 PM on August 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

When I calmly and politely said "I really don't want to talk about that right now" she yelled "you need to grow up!"

I really like scody's answer, but another option might be to hold your ground on the idea of "let's not do this."

M: Blah blah you're bad you should ABC.
You: I really don't want talk about that right now.
M: You need to grow up!
You: As I said, I really don't want to do this now. Tell me, how's Fluff--
M: If not now, when!? You've already practically ruined your life permanently!!
You: Okay, mom, I'm going to head out now, but I'll call you at 5 to choose a place for us to meet for dinner.

At a certain point, I think it's like you have to become the adult who tries to deal with her temper tantrums in a way that keeps the relationship where you want it to be (e.g., protecting yourself from hearing hurtful things, but also offering to meet up again).
posted by salvia at 4:18 PM on August 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Abusive people often escalate when there's no reaction to their tactics. Expect them to be worse than usual if you manage not to react.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:44 PM on August 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

No matter what you do, please do not beat yourself up if they trigger. At some point you'll come out of it. A conscious and caring boyfriend is a lovely pillow to land on.

Ultimately they are good enemies for you. They are helping you to become smarter, wiser, how to be come more mobile and how to not give away your power. Knowing that can help you stay on the right side of the energy

Do a little ritual morning and night. It's as simple as burning a tealight. The meaning can be as simple as a place of safety and clarity is their for you while parents are there. And waiting for you when they leave. That there is light in the darkness

Stay and be in your body.

Book a massage while they are there. Or book one for every day there. Go to the gym. Do something physical. Take a cold shower after a hot bath. Anything that will bring you back to your body. Do something that you like to do. It's a good way to keep out of the family trance.

I know this is opposite of your situation. I think it resonates with what I just wrote in an opposite way.

When I visit my family I do whatever it takes to stay independent of them. I sleep in a hotel. I always rent a car. I do something for myself before and after a visit.My usual ritual is to stop off at a favorite coffeehouse in the city I fly into. Then go to a favorite hot springs for a day. I do the reverse when I leave.

It doesn't matter what they think of your boyfriend. Get it done. They'll be leaving. You'll begin to get help to deal with it in the future.

You're awesome for reaching out for advice :) Know that all responders to this thread are behind you, care for for you and believe in you. Take a bow
posted by goalyeehah at 11:12 PM on August 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

When I'm asked an inappropriate question, albeit in far less toxic situations, I usually laugh and say, "what? you actually expect me to answer that? Yeah no" and sometimes I add on, "sorry that information is in a closed file locked in the vault." Sort of cheesy but it's a non confrontational way to draw a clear boundary.
posted by whoaali at 4:24 PM on August 30, 2014

This is something I've been working on for years. With the help of a good therapist, I came to a decidedly non-intellectual conclusion that helped far more than anything else I'd tried: When a parent behaves like this they are being an absurd asshole. By virtue of them behaving this way, they are confirming that they're not worth the energy. It's crass, but my stress response dropped considerably when I'd hear an abrasive statement and just think to myself "wow, you're an absurd asshole, aren't you?". It's not easy to transform a parent's role into someone you're more inclined to roll your eyes at, but it's awfully liberating. The "right" response to their attacks are easy to come by when you see them as absurd.
99% of the time I support compassion and thoughtfulness, but surviving situations like these sometimes requires thinking to yourself "These people are actively trying to be hurtful - and I don't do that - so that must mean I'm better than them"
posted by yorick at 8:10 PM on August 30, 2014 [6 favorites]

It's crass, but my stress response dropped considerably when I'd hear an abrasive statement and just think to myself "wow, you're an absurd asshole, aren't you?"

Seconded. Instead of hearing a nasty comment and internalizing it (or immediately wondering whether it could be true), you can focus on the other person's behavior and reflexively think "What a mean thing to say."
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:01 AM on August 31, 2014 [2 favorites]

Re-reading over OP's last update, another thing springs to mind: never let yourself be talked into something like that cabin in the woods again. Always keep an 'escape route' available; never get stuck in a situation where you are unable to just get the hell out of there. If this means no more joint vacations, so be it: it's nice to have a vacation, but adding your parents means it's just hell. (The smallest enclosed situation I'd call acceptable might be a giant ocean liner, where there are plenty of places to get away from them.)

Always have your own transportation: whether its the bus, a cab or driving your own car, do not be dependent on your parents for a lift, and do not let them be dependent on you for transportation. Meet them at a prearranged restaurant/hotel/theater/whatever, don't pick them up on your way or have them pick up you.

And when one of them (sounds like it's usually your mother) starts yelling, don't worry about what anyone else is thinking, because they aren't thinking you are at fault, they're thinking your mother is a crazy lady. If she won't accept some version of "I won't discuss that with you, Mother" then just stand up and go --- you owe no apologies for her rude behavior, not then and not later.
posted by easily confused at 7:04 AM on September 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

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