Grandma, you are my negative role model.
February 19, 2015 4:18 PM   Subscribe

My grandmother has always been a difficult person to love, or even to like. I feel obligated to continue a relationship with her, partly out of a sense of pity for a lonely person approaching the end of life, and partly because it will spare my parents from having to deal with the emotional fallout of the end of our relationship. Is it even possible to have a relationship with a relative based on feelings like these, and if so, how should I go about it?

My grandmother is in her early eighties, and probably will not live beyond the next few years. She is one of those people who magically seem to run into unreasonable, ungrateful people everywhere they go. According to my grandmother, her life has been a series of injustices, ingrates, and unreliable people. She has a knack like no one I have ever met for driving away people she would really like to be close to and alienating potential friends. I don't think that she is a purposefully mean person, but rather someone who has unrealistic expectations of other people and poor emotional control. That combination has driven off almost everyone in her life. The exception to that rule has been my parents, and my dad (her son) in particular. They have supported her financially and emotionally only to frequently meet with ingratitude, complaints, and ultimatums that make no sense. This sounds harsh, but I will feel a sense of relief when my grandmother dies, and I think that everyone else in our family will feel the same way. Out of her six adult grandchildren, she has three who refuse to talk with her because of past drama. She is also estranged from another adult son (possibly two right now, I'd have to check).

My grandmother would like to speak to me roughly once per week on the phone, and to spend a few hours with me every few months when I travel to see my parents. I don't enjoy talking to or spending time with my grandmother. My wife resents the time I spend speaking to her because my grandmother once treated her very badly, which ended any hope of a relationship between the two of them. The conversations between myself and my grandmother are usually about things that have gone wrong in her life, her ailments, her complaints about my father (without whom she would be homeless), and goings on in the lives of cousins I haven't spoken to in years. My grandmother will monopolize the conversations with these topics. When I don't answer the phone, she will leave phone messages along those lines that go as long as the voicemail will let her talk.

I feel like I would be wrong to cut off contact with a sad, lonely person who truly does care about me and wants a relationship with me just because I don't enjoy talking to her. Talking with her also probably makes things easier on my parents, because I can be another outlet for her emotions and everything doesn't spill over on them. I feel a common bond with my grandmother on the level that we've both suffered from clinical depression and I know how hard it can be, but on the other hand it also pushes me away because she is the person that I DON'T want to be when I get older: bitter, lonely, a burden to others, and defined by her mental issues.

Should I continue to have this kind of casual relationship with my grandmother? If so, how can I go about improving the relationship or developing a better attitude about it?
posted by Chuck Barris to Human Relations (28 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I think you can have a relationship---not the one you want, but one where you humor her. If that's possible. She'll never act the way you want her to. Sometimes you just have to suck it up. She's not going to change. You're going to have to figure out how to do that.

(And I think your wife is probably upset because you maybe didn't defend her or tell your grandma not to treat her that way, and stood up for her. I think it would have helped your wife to not feel bad and unwanted by your grandmother.)
posted by discopolo at 4:26 PM on February 19, 2015 [7 favorites]

A weekly phone call and a few hours every few months is not a huge imposition on your time. It's not as if she is going to move in and it sounds like she is annoying rather than abusive. I think you need to remind yourself that she is a "sad lonely person who truly does care about [you]." Change the subject when she launches into a litany of complaints. I was able to do this successfully with my racist rightwing nutjob grandmother before she passed away. Just constant redirection to more pleasant topics. It probably didn't change anything she believed but at least I didn't have to listen to it.

You may never really enjoy the phone calls, but that isn't the point. It's not about you. You're able to grit your teeth and do lots of other things in life that aren't particularly enjoyable. Waiting in line at the post office, as one example. You can do this too.
posted by desjardins at 4:27 PM on February 19, 2015 [22 favorites]

DTMFA. Your parents should be adult enough to deal with it from her and to you.

"Your grandmother wants to know why ..."

"I am done. I don't want to have a relationship with her, and I'm done explaining it to you and her. Let's talk about something else.

"When you come visit us, darling, couldn't you just stop in and see her?"

"No. I am done. We won't go visit her, bump into her, or go on a surprise visit where she shows up. I will leave and go do something else."
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 4:33 PM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Two things:

1. Will maintaining this contact with your grandmother damage your relationship with your wife? If so - I think that may preclude other concerns. Your spouse needs to be your priority.

2. If your wife is OK with your ongoing interactions with your grandmother, I think you just have to treat it as a good deed or a compassionate act, rather than a "relationship." She is damaged and unwell; you are doing your best to make her last years more comfortable.
posted by pantarei70 at 4:35 PM on February 19, 2015 [24 favorites]

How do you feel after your visits and calls? If they aren't not leaving you angry and frustrated, then try your best to continue them. Remind yourself that your parents are adults and it's not your job to defend them; acknowledge your wife's valid feelings but let her know that you're doing this for you -- by showing your grandmother a measure of grace and treating her with compassion, you are being the best person you know how to be. That's a worthy goal regardless of the reward.
posted by snickerdoodle at 4:38 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

As we age our filter diminishes. As bad as we were about not saying all the mean shit in our head in our youth, it becomes completely a non-issue as we age. It's awful. So as bad as your grandmother has been, it's not going to ever get better. That doesn't mean you have to put up with it.

You need some boundaries. Then tell your grandmother about them, and enforce them.

So, if your grandmother starts in on how terrible something is, you can break in and say, "Granny, that's a really mean thing to say about cousin Joe. I like him. Please don't slag him to me."

Or if she starts in on your parents, "Granny, Mom and Dad support you. You seem really ungrateful for that. Why is that?"

If you're asked to spend time with her, you can choose to do so, but abbreviate your visits. "I wish I could stay longer, but I've got to get back to Emma."

You can dictate the terms of how your relationship will continue with your grandmother. And frankly, I'd challenge her view of the world.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:47 PM on February 19, 2015 [9 favorites]

You might try reading up on ways to positively interact with people and view your encounters with Grandma as a testing ground for such theories and possibly a growth experience. If you can interact more positively with her, what else can you achieve?

I am not being flippant. I have had, for example, a class on Negotiation and Conflict Management and when I returned home at age 40, I had changed and that changed my interactions with my mother, who grew up in Germany during WWII and can be quite difficult to deal with. My relationship to her is more positive than it used to be. She still complains about a lot of things when I call, but she does it differently. For one thing, she is much less likely to be griping about everything she thinks I am doing wrong. My most recent discussion with her involved listening to her gripe about how evil and terrible some companies are and then hearing more prosaic family news, some of it even humorous (in part because I am better at overlooking her endless criticisms, so my memory of that part of the conversation focuses more on news that some kind of family history thing was written and she got a copy, less on her remarks about the endless mistakes in the book).

My father died more than a year ago. As I get older, I realize that a lot information that I took for granted resides in the minds of people I know who are growing older, losing some of their clarity of mind, and they will someday die. I want to retain at least some access to information I took for granted for a long time. I consider retaining a relationship to my mother to be worthwhile from that angle. She is a rich source of information about family history and who I am in ways that I didn't know I valued until I began losing access to those things.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 4:49 PM on February 19, 2015 [16 favorites]

I've heard it said that love in relationships can be noble in two ways:

1. When it comes easy, and it flows reciprocally between two people such that there is tangible mutual benefit. It brings joy and comfort in a way that brings additional peace to life.

2. When it's hard and an investment, and you decide to pursue the good of another even though you don't feel the benefits of the first example. (For those who have been in committed relationships, both can come in to play at some point.) In these cases, I think it makes sense to think of love as a decision, rather than an emotion or obligation.

I don't think we are ever obligated to stay in the lives of people who hurt us, physically and emotionally. But there are people who are not very inherently lovable for whom loving them anyway is a very noble thing. I wouldn't tell you what to do for your grandmother, but she sounds to me like she could use love more than most people you probably know, even if she isn't grateful. For some reason, for some people (sometimes due to childhood trauma or lack of secure relational attachments growing up), life can manifest in ways that are anti-social that fail to find easy resolution. My heart goes out to your grandmother wondering if this might be the case, even though she is fully responsible for her actions.

Whatever you end up doing, it is often a good thing to invest in the lives of people who will never give us a thing in return. It can perhaps also give some love to your grandmother that can bring comfort in the eve of her life. Again, this doesn't put any burden on you to do this. But if you do, I think it can be a soul-building thing, rather than something that will suck an investment out of you with no pay-back.
posted by SpacemanStix at 5:00 PM on February 19, 2015 [29 favorites]

Sad for you and sad for her too. Expectations will kill you and your grandmother is a case in point. Her bag of needs is so deep that it can never be filled. And thus, she is so deprived of the very things she needs (love, attention, generosity) which has turned to bitterness as she has aged. The lessons are there for you - learning to forgive, to not have expectations, to NOT BE LIKE HER. It doesn't sound like there's a lot of time required to continue your relationship with her but my guess is that your wife isn't going to find rapprochement with her. And so, my suggestion is this: be curious when you're with her. Ask her lots of questions. It's the best and highest use of your time and hers too probably.
posted by lois1950 at 5:41 PM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you do think that your weekly phone calls relieve some burden from your parents (e.g. an hour spent griping at you is an hour she doesn't spend doing the same at them), then I think you just need to reframe the situation and keep at it.

Instead of thinking of it as a relationship where you benefit as well, think of it as a weekly hour-long chore you do for your parents. Like, if you went and mowed their lawns once a week. You don't expect to derive any pleasure from that task, but it's something you can do to help out, and you can learn to derive pleasure from the knowledge that you've lifted someone else's burden.

That said, as everyone else has said above, your wife comes first. If she feels like your relationship with your grandma equates to a lack of support of her, then you should stand by her instead.
posted by lollusc at 5:44 PM on February 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

My grandmother is very much like your grandmother. I have a relationship with her because it makes things easier for my mom, and every time I deal with my grandmother, I marvel at the fact that my mom was raised by that nasty, mean-spirited person and still managed to end up being a decent person and a good parent. It's a way of thanking my mom for breaking the cycle, because my grandmother is that way for a reason, and if my mom hadn't put a lot of effort into becoming the kind of person she wanted to be she could have been the same way, too. And I guess in a sense I also think that my grandmother really is my negative role-model, because I have some of her tendencies myself, and dealing with her is a reminder of what kind of person I don't want to be.

Recently I sat down with my grandmother and my iPad and asked her a bunch of questions about her childhood and young adulthood. I did it mostly because it seemed like a good, safe way to spend some time with her, but it also gave me a lot of insight into her life and some of the forces that shaped her personality. Is that anything you might be inclined to do?

I've also got a few very clear ground rules that I laid down when I was a teenager and about which my grandmother knows I mean business. The main one is that I will not tolerate her talking about my weight or body. I had to hang up the phone or walk out of the room a couple of times to make it clear that I meant it, but now she doesn't go there. If your grandmother says really hurtful things to you, it's ok to tell her that she has to stop if you're going to have a relationship with her.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:45 PM on February 19, 2015 [10 favorites]

I second pantarei70 about prioritizing your relationship with your wife.

If doing so wouldn't damage that relationship, do you think you could take a walk when you speak to your grandmother on the phone? That way you could justify the time as being walking time; an activity that will improve your health.
posted by ocherdraco at 5:46 PM on February 19, 2015

Your wife kinda needs to grow up. Your grandmother is mentally ill, only wants to speak once a week, and doesn't live near by. It's like volunteer work or something - just do it within set boundaries because it is kind and think nothing more of it.

Your wife shouldn't waste time holding a grudge against a mentally ill person, is what I mean.

As for you.... Sadly, no you can not have a relationship of equals with your grandmother.

Stop thinking of her as a person you are connecting with, stop internalizing her dramas. Her dramas aren't even real, they are in her head, so stop taking anything to do with her personally. Don't mope after your phone calls with her or otherwise foist onto your wife the bad energy of your grandmother. Know what I mean?

Both you and your wife can do this poor person a profound kindness by meeting her where she is and maintaining contact with her during her last days.... And for goodness sake understand that she's mentally ill and stop internalizing the drama.

No. You can not have a real relationship with your grandmother. You can remain kind towards her and stay in contact with her on a regular basis. I suggest you do this.

Seek therapy or similar professional guidance if you don't know what I mean, or if the idea makes you too sad. It's a big burden you'll be taking on. Get support if you need it.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 5:53 PM on February 19, 2015 [17 favorites]

Our grandmothers may have cut from the same cloth. Mine disowned me twice. When I was little my mom put her in a psychiatric hospital for several weeks. She could be kind and fun to acquaintances and manipulative, dramatic, and mean to those close to her. She abused my mom as a child, for which my mom never forgave her. My mom used to tell me she took care of my grandmother so she wouldn't feel guilty when she died, but she didn't love her, wouldn't spend more time with her than necessary, and wouldn't shed a tear when she was gone. And she didn't.

So I took up the reigns of being socially kind to my grandmother because my mom could not. There were endless stories of how my grandmother was abused by her mother, how the world had wronged her, how bereft she was that my mom didn't love her. She was bitter, lonely, and every slight, real or imagined, ever committed against her was as fresh as the day it happened. Nevertheless, I think it was the kind thing to do to spend time with her. She was a sad person. I don't know if my attention made that better, but I don't feel bad that I walked away from someone who needed me either.

So I say, talk and visit. She won't be around forever and you will have done a kindness others are unwilling to do. Let's hope there is someone willing to do the same for us when we're old.
posted by cecic at 5:54 PM on February 19, 2015 [6 favorites]

The conversations between myself and my grandmother are usually about things that have gone wrong in her life, her ailments, her complaints about my father (without whom she would be homeless), and goings on in the lives of cousins I haven't spoken to in years. My grandmother will monopolize the conversations with these topics.

At that age, people can become insular, as others have said. Many want to talk out the story of their lives - the main events - the rights and wrongs of it, as they saw it. Now's the time to recollect it. And she can't escape her pains, and they draw her attention even more strongly in the absence of other things to do. Think about that when you prepare to talk to her. Think also of what she must have been like as a child, and of whatever things happened then and later to shape her into who she is now. Keeping those things in mind will make it easier to listen. I'll bet she didn't have it easy. Give her some ease now, if you can.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:17 PM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

My grandmother is similar. I find that while a *reciprocal* relationship is not possible, if I let her have the relationship she wants to think we have and don't worry myself about being 'the granddaughter she always hoped for' (despite being physically and emotionally unavailable to me up until I was in my mid-thirties) it works for both of us. I do love my father and stepmom, and feel that helping out with Grandmom is an act of love towards them. So, I visit her for an hour once a month, and recently filled in for my dad while he was recovering from surgery by getting Grandmom's groceries and being physically present when she had to spend a week in the hospital. What I get is the knowledge that my dad is supported - and he knows that's why I stay involved with her, and I know how deeply he appreciates it.

It's okay for you to maintain a relationship that isn't traditionally loving, as long as you're honest with yourself about your reasons and expectations. I choose to be there for her because I love my dad and he needs to be not the only one who cares for her. I choose to be there for her because I want to be the kind of person who can 'be the bigger person' for someone who needs me to be, and to be someone who does right by others. Because I expect no emotional support from my Grandmom, I'm never disappointed when she has none to offer me. Because I expect her to see me for who she wants me to be, and not grasp the reality of who I am, I'm pleasantly surprised when she remembers something I mentioned liking.

Luckily, my Grandmom actually dotes on my husband, but my husband is the sort who would only object to me spending time with someone who was cruel to me - which she isn't. Self absorbed, idealistic to the point of delusional sure, but not mean...anymore. Your wife should be on board with your decision, but you should be honest with her about why you need to maintain the relationship. You should (and may have already, for all I know) acknowledge and validate for your wife her reason for disliking your grandmother.

It's still a complicated relationship. Had you asked me a few years ago whether I'd care when she died, it would have been an iffy answer. Today, I'll still be a little relieved, but I'll also be proud of what I've worked to develop with her. Not the same thing as sorry she's gone, but a positive way to end things for both of us. No regrets.
posted by AliceBlue at 6:38 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

It wasn't a Grandmother, but it was one of my many Great Aunts.

She was an abusive alcoholic who belittled my brother, mother and I at every turn, constantly.

I was 17, and vividly remember turning around in the car and shouting, "Why don't you shut the fuck up? Don't talk about my mom like that!"

Looking back on it, I was 17 and 185 pounds of long-haired youthful fury, and she was 110 pounds of 80 year old racist. When she said, "You married that Irish guy", I lost it.
posted by Sphinx at 6:46 PM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

"..The main one is that I will not tolerate her talking about my weight or body. I had to hang up the phone or walk out of the room a couple of times to make it clear that I meant it, but now she doesn't go there."

Someone above said this and I agree with this method completely if you want to continue this relationship. I had a relative who would continue talking to me about things that would make me feel uncomfortable and I too implemented this method. I would simply hang up the phone and I would not pick it up again that day. I had to do this a couple of times, but she got the message and stopped.
posted by manderin at 7:17 PM on February 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

Reminds me of my own grandmother, who herself was a lot like Livia (Tony Soprano's mom) from the Sopranos.

She was not easy to get along with at all. I didn't see her very much in later years anyway since I lived overseas.

In the final five years of her life (she died at age 94) I did see a bit more of her. She mellowed (in part because she experienced mild dementia).

We all soften and lose some of our edge as we age, and I suspect it will be the same for your grandmother. If you can figure out how to interact with her and deflect the negativity it may help her.

You can just say to her: you are being too negative and I don't want to talk to you right now. Be an adult.
posted by Nevin at 9:18 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

My grandmother was exceedingly difficult and I interacted with her to support my uncle, but would not have done so otherwise. It's okay to cut her off or set limits, especially if she's stressing you out or straining your relationship with your wife. It's also fine to not be consistent with taking her calls - let her go to voicemail if you're not up for it, and you can delete the voicemails. If you can make a plan or talk about what you need with your parents, that may help.

I think the questions I'd ask here are what you're getting out of it, how she's doing in terms of cognitive and executive functioning, and how long she's got. You said she's likely to have a few years, but what if it's longer? Will that change what you do now?
posted by bile and syntax at 9:29 PM on February 19, 2015

I think there is room for compromise, but also stick to summer boundaries. Maybe not call her every week? Bring a book when you're visiting your parents?

I also have a difficult grandmother. Our relationship now is one of space. I see her when she's at my folks' when I happen to be there, I ask her a few questions, let her talk at me for a bit, and then talk to other people the rest of the time. It has taken years for this to work itself out, but my parents (particularly my mom, her daughter) recognize that she has been very harsh to me compared to get other grandkids and I won't engage anymore. Grandma thankfully doesn't seem to notice too much because she just wants people to talk at.

That said, I will make the extra effort (phone calls and cards) when my mom asks because grandma is not doing well. I am also lucky to have a partner who will do crosswords with her so I don't have to interact that much.

Your wife might have been wronged, but an active grudge isn't helping. Grandmother isn't going to change overnight. Boundaries and acceptance go a long way.
posted by kendrak at 11:44 PM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Small idea, but it might help make the phonecalls more bearable- I find negative ranty calls easier to deal with if I use speakerphone, turn the volume down a little, and place the phone a little further than normal from my head. It kind of physically distances their energy so you may feel like you're absorbing less of it.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:03 AM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you don't live close to each other. Would you consider writing letters to her instead? (If her eyesight is still decent.) I do this sometimes. My grandmother is very, very similar to yours (except without the finances) and I find that writing takes the edge off of some of her bitterness and anger.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 2:01 AM on February 20, 2015

My ex's grandmother despised me and always found some small hurtful thing to say to me whenever we'd go to visit. I'd still go and visit because she was a lonely person and it was a big event in her week to have us drop by, at first to her home, and later to the care facility where she lived for ten years. I found the best interactions were ones where I asked her questions about her younger days and listened to what she had to say. For many old people, the present sucks, and much of their lives were full of self-sacrifice and doing without, but they were full of LIFE. Even if she's complaining and reliving old grudges when she talks about the past, she's remembering a time when she mattered and was not just an inconvenience to the people around her, when what she thought mattered to other people. Be kind. If it's only a weekly phone call and the occasional visit, it's not too much to ask of you, for those few hours, to humour her. As for your wife, she, too, can try to ignore the hurtful comments and go along with you, for solidarity.
posted by alltomorrowsparties at 2:40 AM on February 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

I have a similar relationship with a cousin. I feel your pain - and I applaud your efforts.

That said, I have managed to isolate my relationship with my cantankerous cousin, so that it does not impact or damage other relationships in my life. Your relationship wife your wife and other family members must trump the relationship with your Grandmother.
posted by Flood at 4:09 AM on February 20, 2015

If your wife is holding up a once a week phone call and a few hours every month as some kind of loyalty test, she needs to maybe not do that.

The conversations between myself and my grandmother are usually about things that have gone wrong in her life, her ailments, her complaints about my father (without whom she would be homeless), and goings on in the lives of cousins I haven't spoken to in years. My grandmother will monopolize the conversations with these topics.

Yes. Because as people age, their interests generally narrow dramatically as their world narrows. Yes, there are exceptions to this, but you're talking about someone who's life is focused on the past, the bingo hall, and the quality of the lettuce she had for lunch. (Or whatever other tiny, insular things her day-to-day is likely made from.) If you're expecting this to be a conversation as in a give-and-take-exchange, well, you already know that isn't how it works with her so stop having that expectation. Try to think of it as giving your grandmother a once a week chance to offload her obsessive, tiny, petty concerns and hope that when you are old and irritating and impossible, someone is as compassionate to you.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:34 AM on February 20, 2015

I disagree a bit with DarlingBri - in my experience, what most old crotchety people really want is not to offload their concerns, but to live vicariously through someone who can really live. The most effective antidote to my grandmother's complaining was to tell her about all the wonderful things going on in my life. I really wasn't that happy in my marriage and so forth, but I faked it because it made her happy and there was nothing to be gained by offloading my misery onto a dying woman.

So - did you take your kid to the zoo? Get a raise at work? Thinking about taking a cruise? It's especially effective if it's something that she has some experience with - e.g., she used to make quilts and you're thinking of taking up sewing. It is totally okay to make up innocuous stuff like this, she's dying and she probably won't remember much of it the next time you talk.

Bonus: if you can fake being positive about things, you actually start to feel positive.
posted by desjardins at 11:47 AM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think that it may be a mistake to assume that the grandmother is mean because she's old. There certainly may be some people who get crotchety in old age, but my grandmother was mean when she was young and middle-aged, too. She is a mean person who has lived into old age, not someone who became that way as a symptom of being elderly.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 12:56 PM on February 20, 2015 [7 favorites]

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