Backed into a corner by niceness?
September 11, 2014 8:17 PM   Subscribe

Around a year ago, I stopped communicating with part of my family. Since then, one member has persisted to try to maintain a relationship, but is doing so in a very boundary-pushing way. I feel caught between being a jerk or having boundaries trampled on! Help me boundary-setting mefi!

You guys helped me in this question about removing my family from Facebook.

Short backstory. Mother's side of the family are all, well, very similar. This includes fundamentalist religion, boundary pushing, feeling entitlement to details of my life, and mental illness to varying degrees. I have not spoken to "mother" since I was a teen. Aunts (3 of them) know this, yet Aunts would continue to share life details with Mother. I slowly stopped sharing life info with Aunts, then removed them from social media as well.

Since removing them from social media (with no message when doing so):

-Aunt 1 (Youngest. We were very close when I was younger) messaged me on Facebook to ask why I removed them. I said I wanted a space of closer friends and people my age [my friend's list is hidden so she can't see that I have my other side of the family.] Note this was a straight question, "Why aren't we friend on Facebook anymore?"

-Asked for my home address - something I was VERY uncomfortable giving out. I consulted other family who said that it should be fine to give it out. (Again, if Mother gets this address and ends up in my area of the country, I wouldn't rule out a whole police being called situation.) This was "What's your home address?" Kind of no way to get out of it without being rude, so I gave it.

-After giving Aunt 1 my address, Aunt 3 (the most difficult to deal with) sent me a Halloween card in the mail, that was a "Guilt Card." The entire inside was filled with "I'm sad we're not friends on Facebook anymore" type stuff. (Yes, you heard me, a Halloween card. For Halloween. A holiday that no one gives cards for.)

So, Aunt 1 gave out my home address without permission and didn't include this information when she asked. HUGE boundary issue for me. (!!!)

-Aunt 1 has texted me on multiple occasions. Instead of just saying "Hi" it was very guilt ridden "I miss you! Hope we can catch up" messages. I have not responded. About one to two months ago she texted and emailed me a photo of a can of Coke with my name on it. I didn't respond.

-Today, a package arrived from Aunt 1 with the Coke can with my name on it and a typed "Wish we could catch up, miss hearing what's going on in your life" letter. She messaged me the photos of that can well over a month ago, so it's not that she sent me the photos and immediately sent the can.

I'm normally in the "Just respond and be nice, say Thanks" category.

However this whole family dynamic is more along the lines of someone passive aggressively being nice and pestering in order to open a line of communication. I have no doubt that if I respond to any of these things, I'll then be berated with very pointed questions about my life, again with no way of just not responding to them or changing the subject. I'd be totally fine if it was just "here's some family photos/news" stuff from them, but it's clearly not.

So I feel like the jerk and totally backed into a corner!!!

Do I:

Continue to ignore?
Send a Thanks, leave it at that, and hope for the best?
If I say Thanks, how do I not answer follow up, pointed questions about my life that I don't want to answer?
Another option I haven't thought of?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
All of that seems like 100% normal family behavior to me. If you think that's too much, by all means go radio silent; you have every right to cut anyone out of your life you want. But I don't think you can have any relationship with "family" and expect less entanglement than what you've described.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:26 PM on September 11, 2014 [15 favorites]


This is all normal and part of the learning curve. Next time, don't assume ANY information shared won't be shared universally. Of course it will be shared. Proceed under this assumption.

- Yep. Text a "Thanks." And that's it.

- Ignore & actively delete any rude questions via text or email. Respond to Aunt 1 politely, but only when she's polite.

The point is that by only responding to contact that doesn't make you uncomfortable, you are training them to communicate in ways you approve of, or suffer silence. It's your way or the highway, so to speak.

I think you're kinda stuck now since they know where you live. If you ever move, you can reconsider fading even more from their circle. If you do that now, I think it's just adding gasoline & a match to the situation, which you def want to avoid.

Everything they are doing is normal. Try to stop feeling "triggered" when they attempt to guilt you. Try to see it as mildly amusing, after all, at least they're consistent!

That's all I got. Change your reactions and that will help your situation immensely.

Good luck!
posted by jbenben at 8:33 PM on September 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

This was "What's your home address?" Kind of no way to get out of it without being rude, so I gave it.

It's not rude to say "I'm sorry, I'm not comfortable giving out my address." Really, it's not.

Why are you so worried about being rude? I'm rude all the time! I still have a lot of friends and am successful in many areas of my life. If some guy starts following me down the street trying to chat me up, I have no problem telling him curtly I have no interest in talking to him. Rudeness isn't always a bad thing. Sometimes it's very called for.

If you absolutely don't want these people in your life, continue to ignore. If you do want them in your life, but don't want to answer pointed questions about said life, then talk to them and be a little rude when you need to be.
posted by Dynex at 8:36 PM on September 11, 2014 [25 favorites]

The thing that helps me most with setting stronger boundaries in the moment is picturing the person as a stranger. If a total stranger sat down next to me on the bus and said "what's your home address?" it would be very easy for me not to give it to them. The guilt comes in because you and she used to be close, and because society assumes family can be at least this close, no problem, preferably closer.

The thing that helped me most with setting stronger boundaries in the long term was therapy. It helped me tremendously when I was going in and telling the therapist "and then they did this, and then they did this, and then this and this and this," to be asked: "and what do you want this relationship to look like?" All I was doing was reacting against what they were doing, and saying I don't want this. But I was not clear in my own mind about what I did want.

How much contact would feel like enough? Do you want to send a holiday card once a year? Do you want to send an occasional text? Do you want to reply sometimes if you're feeling up to it, but never initiate contact? You can always change your mind, but how much feels right to you, right now? Just do that much and no more.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 8:39 PM on September 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

You seem to think that it's just beyond the pale for them to want to have a relationship with you. From my (uninformed) viewpoint, it sounds like a just-above-normal level of effort to stay in your life and express a wish that you would reply. (I probably sent a similar card to someone. It wasn't a guilt card, just legitimately an "I miss you and would love to hear from you if you're up for it" card.) If you have no interest in having a relationship, or if you want all information about yourself to be kept secret by the person you share it with, you should probably make that explicit. It's your life, but expecting them to take a hint and then being mad at them for not doing so is just causing you angst. There's no super "nice" way to cut someone out of your life entirely, so you might have to decide which goal is more important to you.
posted by salvia at 8:47 PM on September 11, 2014 [22 favorites]

I feel caught between being a jerk or having boundaries trampled on!

Sometimes that's the choice you have. Without unpacking the characterization of having boundaries trampled, I'll say that sometimes life doesn't give you any great options. You need to do hard, unpleasant things. If you really want to be rid of these people, then maybe you need to be blunt. Maybe it requires something that will fit your definition of jerkishness.

Earlier tonight I was telling someone about a friend I once had. He was kind, but clingy. I ended the friendship, and when I think about it now, I still feel bad. He didn't have a lot of friends. But there were two options: drop him and feel bad when I think about it years later, or endure a friendship I didn't want. Those are shitty options, but that's how it goes.
posted by cribcage at 9:16 PM on September 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

This was "What's your home address?" Kind of no way to get out of it without being rude, so I gave it.

It doesn't matter what you do, as long as you are unable to stand up for yourself. Every strategy you try will fail if you sabotage yourself as soon as they ask for something.

Just cut them off, entirely. Never talk to them again, throw their mail in the trash, and don't update them on your whereabouts when you move. (Your address has probably been shared with your mom, by the way.)

And contrary to the comment above, that absolutely was a "guilt card". The question is, are you going to let that sort of thing work again?
posted by spaltavian at 9:23 PM on September 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

In addition to saying, "I don't feel comfortable giving out my address" you can also tell people "If I give out my address, it is with the expectation that it is not shared with others unless you ask for my permission." I don't see you mentioning that you gave that limit, and for some people, they need these things spelled out for them.

Now if you give those instructions AND the person gives it out, then you know that in the future, you can't share information - but right now, the only way that they will know this is to somehow mind read.

If your aunt then pushes, "Well, why can't I (share, talk,do X)" just reply "I don't really want to talk about it" and keep repeating the phrase.

I really never thought that one could make these kind of statements until later in life.
posted by Wolfster at 9:43 PM on September 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

This was "What's your home address?" Kind of no way to get out of it without being rude, so I gave it.

So be rude. You have the right to enforce your boundaries.

Aunts (3 of them) know this, yet Aunts would continue to share life details with Mother.

That's rude. They don't respect your boundaries, and you can't trust them. So don't. Rudeness be damned.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:32 PM on September 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

They don't care about your needs. They don't. They've proven it, time and again. They don't give a shit about what you want. They absolutely know what you want -- you've been real clear -- but they just flat do not give give a thought to your wants/needs.

Sorry to call it but that's what it is, or looks like from my seat in the house.

I wish I'd have cut harder when I cut, in my family, I wish I'd have been stronger, I wish I'd gone completely redneck on them, said what really needed said, once I finally saw how nuts that whole scene had been, what had happened, how it all went down.

It's an unusual thing, a totally fucked up cycle -- the more they take away from you, the more you need to lean on them, and then they take more, and then you need to lean more, on and on.

Texas saved my life. I love her. I had no idea when I staggered down here that I was running for my life. But I damn sure was.

I'm 59, 60 coming on fast, I've got some years to look back over, and I do have regrets. It is what it is, it's all in the past now, the major players all dead.

My life would have been better had I been stronger.

Life is short. It's awfully deep but it's short. Live it to suit yourself, not to suit people who don't give a flying fuck about what you need, or want.

Good luck.
posted by dancestoblue at 2:12 AM on September 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

It's not rude to say "no". There are various ways of saying "no" that are rude, certainly, but the simple act of refusing to comply isn't rude. Saying "no" in an expletive-laced fashion would be rude. Saying "I do not wish to share that information" would not be.

Miss Manners recommends using the phrase "I'm afraid that won't be possible". The doyenne of etiquette herself recommends saying "no" in a polite fashion. You're not rude or a jerk or a bad person for not doing what someone else wants. Doing something has to benefit you as well, not just the other person, even if that benefit is merely a warm glow.

I think a little clarification about what a boundary actually is might be useful. A boundary is something that you decide for yourself that will be the consequence of someone doing something. It's all about you and your behaviour and what you will do. A boundary is not about attempting to control someone else's behaviour. For example, a boundary might be "if you don't stop insulting me, I'm going to cut off contact". It's not "you will stop insulting me" or "I want you to stop insulting me" or "you will/will not do this/that/the other thing". It's a clear, explicit statement that [doing thing] will result in you [engaging in consequence].

You can't control someone else's behaviour. As you've unfortunately learned the hard way, you can't trust these people. What was a major problem for you (them passing on your address) was something that they were going to do whether you liked it or not. A new boundary you might want to set for yourself is "I will not give these people any information whatsoever". That's a totally OK boundary to set. These relatives sound like Ask people, while you sound more like a Guesser. It might be that you need to be explicitly clear with them about what your boundaries are, because otherwise they might not realise. Remember, you don't have to say "I will not give you my address because you will pass it on to other people". Just say "I am not comfortable with giving you my address". A Guess person wouldn't ask, and an Ask person would see your justification of your behaviour as an invite to wheedle and argue with you.

Given that these people are Askers, it might be genuinely incomprehensible to them that you're behaving in this way. (For what it's worth, I'm an Ask-type, but I've also been in your situation, so I can totally see why you're doing it.) They might not realise the depths of your feelings about various given circumstances. As Wolfster said, they might need it spelled out for them. Beware the extinction burst, though.

So yes, keep ignoring. These people have proved that they will do things that run counter to what you think is OK. And you have to look out for yourself at that point. A good thing is that you have all of the power here - these people can't compel you to do anything. You have lots of stuff they want (personal info and such) and they don't seem to have much that you want. You are the dragon sitting on the golden hoard and they are the warriors trying to get in. But they can't get in unless you let them. It might not feel like it, but you have all of the power here.

Also read The Gift of Fear. It's not completely analogous to your situation, but it does have a lot of info about setting boundaries and taking care of yourself when someone is pressing on those boundaries. Check out this article too.

Something else you might find useful is blocking people on Facebook, not just unfriending them. Also, consider changing your mobile phone number. Moving house is a little more extreme, but blocking and changing your number (or finding an app for your phone that will block calls/sms from certain numbers) will give you two ways to cut off contact with them.

Cut quick, cut clean and cut deeply. Excise these people with surgical precision.
posted by Solomon at 2:29 AM on September 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

They are family and they are treating you like family. I see nothing out of the ordinary in their actions. I'm sorry that your relationship with your mother is so strained. Would it help to explain to the aunts that you are afraid of your mother showing up at your house? You cannot dictate to them their relationship with your mother (which is why you are probably trying to ice them out) but you can ask them for protection.

They will continue to check in because they love you and they want to know that you are still alive and okay. You may want to consider putting them back on fb, with limited access, or starting up a new page just for family and co-workers. Just because you have opted out of their lives doesn't mean that they don't still love you. Love is a powerful emotion and demands respect. Please try and accommodate it a little bit.
posted by myselfasme at 4:47 AM on September 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

I agree with others that rude is sometimes OK. But you need to be clear up front. They're not boundary a pushing if you have not made your boundaries clear. Say "don't send me mail" and "don't share my address" and "enough with the guilt trips already." Then when they persist, it's *they* who are being rude, with no more plausible deniability.
posted by headnsouth at 5:17 AM on September 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't understand why so many people on these questions are always against being upfront with people. Lots of people on your last question said "just delete them, no explanation." So of course they keep contacting you. Tell your aunts the truth. Tell them you removed them from Facebook because they were sharing information about you with your mother against your wishes. Tell your aunt she had no right to share your address, and that because their past actions have shown you cannot trust them, you no longer want to be in contact. That is setting boundaries. How do they know what the problem is if you don't tell them?

Being honest is not being mean or dramatic. Tell them why you don't want to have contact with them, and then stop. I think the slow fade or just ignoring people IS mean. It is normal to want an explanation for these things. So give one, and THEN proceed to ignore them. You can't set boundaries with people without letting them know where they are.
posted by catatethebird at 7:41 AM on September 12, 2014 [9 favorites]

This is the point of having boundaries! When someone bumps up against them, you recognize that your boundaries are being pushed and you respond accordingly, preferably in a way you've already rehearsed/figured out.

The stuff you've mentioned above taken by itself doesn't say "guilt" to me. But I don't know your backstory. If you have a reason to not want to talk to your family, don't. It sounds like being honest would be more effective.

Finally, going forward, I would err on the side of caution. If something makes you feel uncomfortable in this dynamic, don't do it!
posted by lyssabee at 7:54 AM on September 12, 2014

1. It's okay to be rude

2. Just because your family is using guilt, it doesn't mean you have to feel guilty.

3. Sometimes it's going to come down to one person in the interaction feeling unhappy about something, why should it be you?

It's okay to be blunt-honest with people. "Aunty Prudence, I love you, but our family can be difficult. I know you want us to be more like the Waltons, but that's not our reality. So no, I'm not giving you my address, because I know, that with the best of intentions, that you'll share it with Aunty Temperence and Aunty Justice, and those two are Batshit. They'll start sending me cans in the mail."

If Aunty Temperance sends you Coke cans, throw them away and don't comment on any of it. Don't open the box or the letter if you don't want to.

Just because someone says jump, you don't have to ask them, "how high."

It's okay to be an asshole sometimes, especially when protecting your mental health and well-being.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:57 AM on September 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Catatethebird is spot on. Telling people the truth is not being rude. Be forthright, be a grown up. Nobody can force you to give them your address. And why would you give your address to someone you don't trust? The correct response to a request that you don't want to do is, "no, I'd rather not." If someone offers you something you don't want, the correct response is, "no, thank you."

It sounds like your aunts want to keep in touch with you. Do you want to keep in touch with them, yes or no? If the answer is yes, respond to the degree you feel comfortable. I'm in school, I got a new job, boyfriend, dog, cat, fish, colored my hair, starting underwater basket weaving classes. If the answer is no, tell them that you don't feel comfortable continuing to be in touch with them.
posted by shoesietart at 10:19 AM on September 12, 2014

Since your aunts are still close with your mother and sharing information with her that you don't want shared, you can--if you want to--think of refusing to tell them anything about your personal life as saving them the bother of having to lie, or to withstand interrogation about why they won't tell her what she wants to know. It's kind of you to save them that trouble, right?
posted by johnofjack at 10:21 AM on September 12, 2014

I agree that it's better for everyone to be really explicit about where the line is. I say this as someone who's in a situation very like your aunts, who still sends Christmas cards to the person in your position. I do that to make it clear that the line of communication is still open if they wish it to be and that I still care about them and consider them family. If they sent the card back or told me not to contact them I would respect their wishes; in fact, I kind of steel myself for that possibility every year. (That said, this post is making me reconsider sending anything this year.)

So, tell them. Tell them that any communication from your mom's side of the family is painful to you, and that any further communication will be sent back or disposed of unread. Or wherever your personal boundary is. It will be less painful to your aunts and to you.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:33 PM on September 12, 2014

Maybe your aunts just care about you and care about your mother - maybe they're even trying to respect your privacy to the best of their ability, but you see - aunties and grandmothers and such worry about whether their kids are really okay or not and when there's so little contact and so much resentment over something as silly as a Halloween card - it's actually brave of them to keep trying to at least keep the link from breaking down completely.

I think they just care about you. Things could be worse - you could be entirely alone without anyone caring for you. Lots of boundaries there, but those boundaries can build you into a very tiny box with very high walls, too.

My mother spent a total of 14 years not speaking to me - two spans of 7 years each, once when I got pregnant (I was married) and she felt we couldn't afford a child, and then again when my daughter got pregnant (she was unmarried but 23 years old) and refused to get the abortion that my mother thought she should. Neither 7 year period bothered me one bit because my mother was just trouble all the way around. But my aunt would contact me once in awhile - maybe once a month - and we didn't talk about my mother, just about everything else, and it was good to know she was there and she cared. Yeah.

I hope things get better for you and you can find a way to just accept some loving overtures from your aunts without so much reaction. If it will help, spell it out clearly to them that you won't talk about your mother - or you won't talk at all. Then, if they agree, be nice - you might find out it feels good to be cared about.

I hope it doesn't take you the 50 years it took me to figure some of this stuff out.
posted by aryma at 11:17 PM on September 12, 2014

You are not a jerk.

I think some of the people in this thread have never had to deal with borderline personality and narcissistic personality family members who cannot be trusted for any reason whatsoever. It's sad when it happens, but those kinds of people will abuse you until either you or they are dead. Even people who aren't completely NPD/BPD can share traits with the abusive person and giving the semi-BPD/NPD family members even one ounce of information means that they will typically take that information and use it for their own selfish, guilt-tripping, hurtful ways. They will also most likely share it with the abuser against the victim's wishes.

In that context, your aunts are clearly not behaving in a normal family-oriented manner. They're guilt-tripping you for cutting off contact after they did things you didn't want them to do. (I, personally, do send out H'ween cards, but it's my fave holiday.) It's not normal that they would berate you and demand to know details of your life. That's not okay and a loving, healthy family doesn't behave that way. It's dysfunctional.

It's not wrong or jerky or rude to look out for your best interests and mental health, especially when you have family members who ignore your wishes and try to emotionally manipulate you. You don't owe them an explanation. You don't owe them a discussion about where your boundaries are, that will just help them push your boundaries in a more effective way. Don't give them anything to manipulate you with in the first place.

Find the level of contact you're comfortable with and only reply to those communications. The shorter, the better, no emotions, just be succinct. Train them to communicate acceptably. If you find that you don't like what they're saying, just ignore them. If they get too ridiculous, cut them off entirely. In that case, change all the contact info you can, new phone number, email, etc. If/when you move, don't give your address to them for any reason, no matter how much they manipulate you. You're not a jerk for protecting yourself.

If you're not already familiar, you might want to check out Raised by Narcissists on Reddit. Even if your family doesn't fall strictly under that heading, you can find some great advice there for dealing with these similar kinds of family dynamics.
posted by Arrrgyle at 4:18 AM on September 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

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