Perfect storm of familial dysfunctionality--need solutions for sanity
January 2, 2015 3:15 PM   Subscribe

Family dynamics are slowly driving me up the wall, but I can't bear to let things wind destructively. How can I cope without being caught in the storm?

This might be long, please bear with me, the tl;dr version is:
-Parents are in destructive emotional spiral involving silent treatments, unwillingness to address root of problems in their relationship (participation in religious gatherings/intolerance for said participation)
-Siblings are either far away or have their own communicative issues (see this question I asked a couple of years ago)
Q: What can I do to bring communication as the lowest common denominator back to the table?

Longer explanation/essay:
For more than four or five years, my family has been through some turmoil, none of it unique (death of grandparents/close relatives, empty nest syndrome, growing emotionally distant from one another). I am their youngest child and for most of my adult life, I've been geographically distant from these problems. I find myself after a career change back in the nest, for at least a couple of months.

Here are the main issues: My mother has been getting increasingly involved in religious activities that she has kept largely under wraps from us. She donates money, she participates in weekend activities as well as weekly meetings both on location and online. My father believes it's a cult based on his research and word of mouth accounts from his friends and colleagues and my siblings seem to agree, but having tried some head-on objections to her participation, none of us really see a point in opposing these meetings anymore. Whenever she goes on one of the longer retreats, my father is angry and uses the silent treatment on her. This has been going on for years now, and it usually blows over without addressing the root cause of their marital problems and then she goes on another retreat and process starts again.

My mother has found a lot of solace in her religion and despite the cultish reverence for their guru (which I find antithetical to the religion's main tenets ), I empathize with what she values there in terms of emotional and social meaning. She rarely gets in the form of family life because my father is always away on business and spends inordinate amounts of time away from home despite retiring a couple of years ago. The religious activities are therefore an important valve for her.

My father has a very hardline attitude toward this organization. He can go for days without speaking with my mother after one of these retreats. I have tried to convince him that emotional blackmail is bound to backfire but he says that compromising with her on this issue is impossible. Divorce or separation has come up a few times as worst case scenarios, but nothing has come of it. I've tried to believe that I cannot get caught up in these storms between them, instead,I try my best to listen to them--being a back channel during tense moments.

I'm from a corner of the world in which family structures cannot be put aside despite career, own personal affairs--despite this disclaimer, I admit I'm codependent to the happenings and feel partially responsible for its harmony (yes, I seek harmony amongst my parents, especially when my mom has over the years expressed the desire to divorce my father). I'm learning slowly, and I know I can't change's a painful thought because I think both of my parents are extremely generous individuals with a lot of courage. They have gone the extra mile for their children and I want to spend more time with them, either with them together or individually. Family disharmony is something I have no direct control over but it is a large determinant for my emotional well being--that is why I need at the very least coping strategies, but ideally, more practical tools to help me (I have throughout the years developed meditation and mindfulness practices and these have give me lots of support in the more distressing moments).

My dilemma is that my siblings, my traditional supports, are of little help (at least for the time being). They either have their own lives abroad or are detrimental to communication (see the link in the nutshell version above) that problems are exacerbated because of heavy distortions in accounts that I cannot rely on them for coordinated strategies. I have just returned home a couple of weeks ago and these problems are playing out already: my parents are locked in another cold war, my siblings are either too far away or refuse to see what the underlying problems are.

I have a few months of leave here, and it's probably a chunk of time I will rarely have in the future--I'd like to make the most out of it. I know it's a futile endeavor to fix their marriage because it's not mine, but I would really appreciate some insights and advice on what I can do to make my relations with my mom, my dad and my siblings one that allows me to support them without taking sides and without exacerbating tensions...running away is not an option.

Thank you for taking the time to read this...on the second day of the new year.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried NOT trying your best to listen to them? You should not be in the middle of your parent's fights. You should DEFINITELY never ever be a back channel during tense moments. Refuse to talk to either of them about this topic or, in general, about each other. Don't be a middle man for the silent treatment, don't let either of them speak poorly of the other to you. ("If you want Mom to know that, you'll need to tell her." "Mom, I won't listen to you speak about Dad like that." "Dad, I know how you feel about this, but I won't talk about it with you." "Mom, I am not the appropriate person to discuss your desire for divorce with." - Then offer a change of subject. If they bring it back to that/if they persist, get up and leave the room.

You know you can't help them fix it, and right now you are hurting yourself without doing anything to help them (and possibly by letting them vent to their child and relying on their child as that back channel, you are hurting them). Refuse to be a part of it at all. Yeah, your house might be awkward, but don't let it be actively hostile to you.
posted by brainmouse at 3:49 PM on January 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

Your parents' religious beliefs and marriage are none of your business. If you live at home, move. If one of them complains about the other, say you don't want to hear it and change the subject. You don't have to support them. You don't have to avoid "exacerbating tension". If family disharmony has such a big effect on you, it would help you to see a therapist to get some distance from this. You have no control over other people's behavior.
posted by medusa at 4:26 PM on January 2, 2015

There's nothing you can do. So don't do anything. Speak to each of your parents with love and respect. Do NOT be an outlet for venting or a conduit for communication between the two of them.

Learn these two phrases:

"That's between the two of you."

"She's right there, tell her yourself."

I could get away with this, I don't know that you can, but here's what I'd say, "Dad, you do this silent treatment with Mom. How's that working for you?"

You can't go home again. The family you knew when you were younger is gone. It's possible that your parents are staying together for convenience as it sounds like they're living completely separate lives. I'd say that your Dad should protect the family assets if there's a real concern that your mom will give them all away. But that's my pragmatic side talking.

Both of your parents are simmering with rage and resentment. Getting anywhere near it will only burn you. Frankly the best thing to do is get out of there so they don't subject you to any more crazy-making behavior.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:29 PM on January 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Unfortunately, you can't shape everyone to fit your concept of a happy family. It sounds like this is just more of the same from your parents: nothing new except the growing intensity. And it sounds like your siblings have chosen to check out rather than deal with your parents and their behavior.

I'm really sorry, but you can't fix other people.
posted by easily confused at 4:38 PM on January 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

The comments above are right: you need to do less, rather than more. You may find this advice easier to take, though, if you can see this in a more positive light:

I need at the very least coping strategies, but ideally, more practical tools to help me (I have throughout the years developed meditation and mindfulness practices and these have give me lots of support in the more distressing moments).

Can you turn these practices into your goal, rather than a means to an end? See this time with your family as a challenge and an opportunity to work on your meditation and mindfulness.

It's not necessarily as selfish as it sounds, of course. Thich Nhat Hanh would say that just having one person under the roof who is concentrating on such practice can actually do a lot to temper the family dynamic and make peace possible. But you have to really really work at not trying to make anyone change, and not expecting that your practice will fix anything. Practice loving detachment.

The comments above are also right about not letting yourself become a conversational accomplice to this emotional violence. If some of the language suggested above seems too harsh, you could ask yourself: What would Thich Nhat Hanh say? If you don't know, make it a research project -- you've got weeks at home -- review his writings and talks on anger, peacemaking, etc.
posted by feral_goldfish at 5:03 PM on January 2, 2015

My god, stay out of it, period.
posted by Toddles at 6:14 PM on January 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I kind of grew up in a family similar to yours where my mom would do the silent treatment on my dad and then they would use the kids to communicate with each other. As in, "tell your mother that I need . . ." My parents are now divorced and much happier.

You can't fix your parents' dysfunctional relationship and communication skills. The only thing you can do is recognize dysfunctional behaviors that you yourself have picked up and work on addressing those in your own relationships. Family dysfuction is a cycle, passed down from one generation to the next.
posted by Lingasol at 6:38 PM on January 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Maybe, give them something new to talk about.

One thing you could try is gently encouraging your mother to find friends who are not in the cult and may have a less "with us or against us" mentality (via being regularly curious and supportive). Friends who bond mostly over making crafts or volunteering versus say castigating outgroups. There are lots of mothers who, newly empty-nested, find a second wind in hobbies and form new friend groups all the time. Assuming it's not a small town.

Of course you shouldn't expect to control who your mother chooses as friends, but it might just give her the right boost if your mother is the kind of person who doesn't know where to start on adult friendships, has difficulty doing things she enjoys for herself rather than her family, things like that (I may be wildly off). Maybe your mother will take to new friends in a new hobby, which will lessen her dependence on the cult for family/identity/etc.

The last thing is, I would say religious groups are so easy to join because they have well established recruitment strategies and a lot of them push strangers to confess and share at a level of emotional vulnerability that normally takes years of friendship. It can be a shortcut.
If you're worried about abuse, you might ask about how either social group makes her feel (and they could both be great).
posted by ana scoot at 10:01 PM on January 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think your parents' marriage, in most respects, has been over for some time. Your mother searched out and found a replacement for your father in her church/cult - a place where she feels welcome and important, with friends and people to talk to (who listen to her). Your father's reaction is resentment, because he's been replaced, and he feels, perhaps correctly, that this church/cult is scamming your mother, yet she keeps her connection to it intact no matter how much he tells her she's being had.

It's a common thing for people to share a long marriage, raising their children, etc., and then realize that they're no longer fulfilling each other's needs and, in fact, they don't even enjoy being together anymore; the only comfort to the situation is its familiarity, but without the kids to raise and the uproar that brings to the table, there's really nothing left between them. It's just what happens - it's not necessarily something that either one can be blamed for. Divorce is a hassle, especially after so many years together - everything they own they own together (how do they split it?); they expect their friends and family to come unglued, and they will; there's a real element of insecurity in being separated from each other permanently; even the little day-to-day routine stuff provides a framework to their lives that will be lost if they divorce. So they stay together - but they're only together physically - they're emotionally separated.

All you can do is try to understand the situation as the way life works sometimes and try not to blame either of your parents; they're two adults who have done well but now have grown apart - so. If it were me, I'd consider sitting them both down and talking to them about it from just that standpoint - getting it out on the table, so to speak - in a nonjudgmental way, trying to make it okay for them to face it head-on and deal with it instead of silently resenting each other as they're doing now. But I don't know your parents - maybe they'll be better just working it out for themselves - only you know the best way to handle it.

I also think sometimes people go through these spells of readjustment to each other when the kids have grown and left home and one or both of them have retired and they find themselves together all the time - it's weird and they have to learn all over again how to be together. Sometimes they do and they get over the hump and spend the rest of their days in quiet acceptance of each other and their pairing. Other times they move on to make a new chapter in a life they feel needs another chapter of personal growth before they're done.

Just don't carry the load on your own back - it's not yours to carry and it's not something for you to "fix." Neither is it something for you to be heartbroken about - it's okay, and somewhat normal, so carry on with your own life and don't fret about theirs.
posted by aryma at 10:44 PM on January 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Sometimes children of dysfunctional parents attempt to cope by parenting their parents or taking on responsibilities that are, as it were, above their pay grade. I suspect this is what is going on here, and it would probably benefit you to think about why it seems pressing for you to intervene in some way.

I understand that family is important to you, and you cannot simply wash your hands of them and their problems, but I would encourage you not to fall into the trap of trying to fix things between them. Instead, spend quality one-on-one time with them while you are at home and deflect any attempt of theirs to draw you into their drama spiral.
posted by girl flaneur at 11:58 PM on January 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

None of this reads like your problem. Take a page from your siblings handbook and disengage.

Adults with self-agency. Let them work it out.

State your position just ONCE. At the moment you physically and emotionally disengage, no matter the outcome for your parents. Let them work out their relationship. Go live your own life.
posted by jbenben at 1:02 AM on January 3, 2015

There's a guru? Retreats? Money leaving your mom's account, often? Yes, I'd worry if that were my mom, and I'd probably worry more about her after a divorce, when there would be no barrier at all to this group's ability to exploit her. Defrauding older, vulnerable people is wrong, it's among the lowest things I can imagine, and it would pain me too to see this happening to a parent.

I'm not sure what it's possible to actually do, though. Just practically speaking, to start with - this has been going on for a long time, it's your mom's new normal; all this is out of sight so out of your sibs' minds; your dad's angry and digging his heels; your mom's shown she's willing to resort to secrecy to keep it going - you can't watch her 24/7, that's one thing... Not to mention that you've probably taken some major risks for this career change. Do you really have it in you to spearhead an un-conversion with/out unwilling or unable family members? Can you afford to do this now? It'll probably cost you a lot, maybe your career goals for now, and I think your efforts with your mom have a low chance of success.

I don't know what you should do. All I can talk about is what I think I, personally, would do (and I'm saying it even though it's not fully formed, to present a different view). I would read what I could about this cult, and cults in general, and share it with Dad, while doing what I could to keep things close and open with Mom, and I think I would try to apply the advice I found, if it seemed reasonable. (This is a review of a book that sounds like it might be a start... I have no idea whatsoever about the quality of these ideas - I'd read critically, obviously. The author's organization seems to take the position that family responses are very important, and that "being judgmental, critical or heavy-handed" is likely to push the person closer to the cult, which sounds probable enough to me. The book seems to talk about addressing challenging family dynamics. (Again, I really don't know about the organization, but it sounds like a start.)

I wish I had a real answer for you. Others have offered very good advice about accepting your family and their limitations, being present with them individually, and adapting to changes you can't control. But I think doing what you can to help your mother isn't a bad thing. You could try, and if it doesn't work, it doesn't work. I think your own projects would suffer unless you were extremely careful about how much time you devoted to this kind of effort, and guarded the rest of it tightly.

Good luck.
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:16 AM on January 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
Thank you for the responses.
I know I cannot change people, and while the calls to disengage from the majority of responses are taken into careful consideration, I have decided that this is a rare opportunity for me to institute strategies for lessening the cult's influence over my mother. I have been ready to accept for some time that the marriage has been effectively over for some time, and maybe I should have been more clear in my original post about my worries about the influence this religious cult has over my mother and the implications it has for my mother and father's post retirement life.

My father has done quite a lot of research on this cult so he knows about their organizational structures, but unfortunately his communication skills with my mother have been spotty at best--resentment and fear are contributing factors. In this way I want to give the conceptual tools necessary for my father (and any of my siblings who want to help) so that at least the ongoing situation is not aggravated (in which she is pushed deeper into their fold).

So thanks again--if anyone is still reading and has anymore insights, I would continue to be appreciative and receptive as I continue my research and planning.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 8:28 PM on January 3, 2015

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