They're bad enough...
August 2, 2016 11:00 AM   Subscribe

My parents are emotionally abusive and clueless. Can I cut them out, even if it feels like I can handle it sometimes?

My parents aren't as bad as a lot of others. But throughout my childhood they shamed, criticized, and mocked all of my interests, treated me as an embarrassment, responded to my mental health issues with ridicule and anger... finally emotional abuse, guilt trips, and eviction threats when I converted to a different religion.

I moved the fuck out. Apparently this is mean spirited of me - now it's on me to fix the relationship, and I am at fault for my mother's distress at me leaving. It's also not necessary, since "there isn't even anything wrong"! Whatever bond I was supposed to have with them, I no longer have and have not for many many years. Only now do I understand why I always felt so distant from them.

Complicating things, I only recently left home for school. (I don't have any financial ties to them.) They will still expect me to call often and to come home for the holidays. I don't want to do any of that - I want to stop talking to them, cut them out of my life, and spend holidays with my loving and supportive chosen family. When I consider this I sometimes feel guilty and unsure - like, they're not that bad, I can put up with it to some extent, so I should, for their sake. At the same time it seems ridiculous, and I just don't feel any personal need to. Can I go through with this? Am I committing some horrible moral wrong?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I don't want to do any of that - I want to stop talking to them, cut them out of my life, and spend holidays with my loving and supportive chosen family.

Then do it. Absolutely worst case scenario, you can always get in touch with them again later. But speaking as someone who did something like this, the relief of Not Having To Deal With You Fucking People is a beautiful feeling that can overcome any guilt about leaving them to the bed they made.

There's a lot of awful shit a person can put up with and tolerate if they need to, but that doesn't mean they should. Just because I can deal with someone punching me in the face doesn't mean I'm going to go looking for it, you know?
posted by griphus at 11:05 AM on August 2, 2016 [25 favorites]

You're a grown adult, and your first responsibility is to yourself. Do not let them guilt trip you. That is not what loving parents do. It may be difficult for some people to understand, but you have to do what's right for you. Good luck, and trust your instincts.
posted by hydra77 at 11:08 AM on August 2, 2016 [5 favorites]

You are not the only one making a choice here. Your parents are currently choosing, again and again, daily, to act toward you in ways that make you not want to spend time with them.

They can choose to change their behavior, or they can choose not to. If you decide to stop spending holidays at their home, because their criticism, guilt trips and threats make you miserable, and you do not want to be miserable, understand that the results of that choice on your part-- you, happily, spending the holidays with your chosen family, and them, unhappily, spending the holidays without their child-- will not just be the results of YOUR choice not to go-- it will also be the results of THEIR repeated choices to treat you poorly.

You ask whether you would be committing "some horrible moral wrong," but are your parents asking themselves whether they are morally wrong to make their adult child so miserable with constant criticism and guilt trips that their child does not want to come home for the holidays? Probably not, unfortunately-- but their lack of introspection is their problem to solve, not yours.
posted by BlueJae at 11:12 AM on August 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm going to tell you something my therapist told me when I said I felt like I shouldn't be upset because other people have it worse: Just because someone else has a broken leg doesn't mean your sprained ankle doesn't need tending.

It doesn't matter if other people's parents are worse than yours. Your parents are hurting you, and that's reason enough to do what you need to do to maintain your mental and emotional health. You owe them nothing.

I have a mother who, while not abusive, is... difficult and prone to emotional manipulation. Finally setting boundaries and standing firm in the face of her emotional blackmail were some of the best things I could do for myself, and I encourage you to do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself, including cutting them out completely.
posted by Tamanna at 11:12 AM on August 2, 2016 [28 favorites]

You have every right to cut off your abusive parents and any associated family members. Because of the abuse. It's what you'd tell a friend to do, someone you cared about, right?

You don't get to expect it to change them (it might, it probably won't), but it is absolutely a reasonable response for taking care of yourself.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:28 AM on August 2, 2016

When I was sixteen, my stepdad threw me out in a temper-tantrum. I don't even remember what is was about. But I took him on his word and moved out forever, and for the next several years, I didn't speak with my mother or him. Later, I think when my mother and stepfather separated, I started talking with both of them again, but I have consistently cut them off every time they have been abusive and mean, not only to me, but also if they were not OK towards my siblings. This has meant that at this point, I have an OK relationship with both of them.
So does my brother, who has followed a similar strategy. My sister has been less rigorous and has suffered much more abuse. So my advice, from experience, is to be tough. Cut them off. Be ready for it to be permanent, though it might not need to be.

My mother talked about me with friends and family for many years, claiming similar stuff that you are hearing. And for some years, some family friends and aunts and uncles would berate me. I'd call them out, asking why they never intervened when they saw my parents abusing me or my siblings (as they did). After a while they backed down.
posted by mumimor at 11:39 AM on August 2, 2016 [9 favorites]

In my mid twenties I took a break from family. I needed it badly. After a few years I was able to communicate better and my Mother knew I could live without her. That was a big wake up call for her. Parents can change how they treat their adult children but we have to be the ones to teach them the do's and dont's.

Take a break. You will know when and if you want to reconnect.
posted by cairnoflore at 11:42 AM on August 2, 2016 [9 favorites]

Yes, step away. I'd tell them calmly that you currently have no faith that they can be loving, supportive, and nonabusive. Ergo you don't want to be in touch for the foreseeable future.

Give yourself a break here. I think you've internalized their mean messages to you, which is most understandable, but you can tell that little voice inside to shut up now.

In your own heart, if and when you want to give them a chance again sometime in the future, keep true to your reasonable expectations and go slow. People who have been as mean as this have the burden of showing you that they can change and have done so. And I wouldn't offer them the chance to demonstrate that change to you unless and until you feel ready, nor would I give them a whole lot of rope then.
posted by bearwife at 11:44 AM on August 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

They probably won't change. Don't expect them to change.

But: If they truly did change, would you be interested in a relationship with them? If so, then let them know that, and let them know what you want from them, e.g., "I want to visit a home where my religion will be accepted."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:53 AM on August 2, 2016

I can put up with it to some extent, so I should, for their sake.

This is the abuse talking. There is nothing morally wrong with protecting yourself from abuse. Please, cut them out of your life. You will never know how very much this is costing you until you put this burden down.

They aren't owed anything. They didn't ask your permission to climb into bed and make a child together. Being sperm donor and egg donor does not absolve them of an obligation to act like decent human beings to you. If they can't do that, not your problem if they wind up alone in old age or something.

Don't let them make you their bitch. You don't owe anyone that for having been born.
posted by Michele in California at 12:06 PM on August 2, 2016 [6 favorites]

No one should put up with abuse. Absolutely, it is appropriate to assert boundaries in that case. It is obvious that you are holding on to a lot of pain, that came from them, it makes sense to want to stop exposing yourself to more. Being shamed for your interests and ridiculed for having mental health issues, out of line. (Anger, also obviously unsupportive and potentially abusive; otoh, this is not an unusual response to mental illness from family members who perhaps do not have a good understanding of what mental illness involves. Or even when they do. It is hard for most people to unpack intention from illness in the best-case scenario, and if there's any chance your parents come from a culture in which people "just deal with it" and getting help is seen as "weak", that might complicate things.) I think it is totally ok to let them know you don't want to deal with abusive behaviour, especially if they're unwilling to meet you even partway.

Your question does raise some questions for me, though, which I wish you could answer... You say you've just left home for school, so, you're maybe 17-20? You've just converted to a new religion, and are talking about cutting off your family of origin to spend all holidays with your "chosen family". (You describe your family's behaviour in extreme terms, but also say they're "not that bad"...) Is this "chosen family" as in, friends you care about a lot? Or something more formal and organized?

I can imagine a ready-made family being very appealing, if you've felt alienated all your life... I can imagine that in the light of new connections that feel affirming and supportive, anger at your birth family might be easier to express (and cultivate)... I will note that sometimes, especially when it comes to family dynamics, our experiences are based in our subjective truths, facts that happened; but not always the whole truth, and that sometimes you can get a clearer picture with time (which is not available to you if you are only ~20, and all these pains are fresh). I am NOT discounting the pain you've experienced, or the abuse. I am not saying you shouldn't have boundaries, you should. Just saying that with time, more of the picture may be revealed. Also, things might change. That's no reason to put up with abuse in the meantime, of course.

I wish you could tell us whether this was totally your idea or whether the suggestion came from somewhere else. I'd like to know, is this a conventional religion? Because I don't know, if someone in my close family moved out to join a compound in the middle of nowhere, I'd probably be pretty worried. Maybe, I would not be 100% smooth about it. If, because of say my own upbringing, I didn't have a ton of tools in my emotional toolbox for responding in an ideal way, I don't know, I might throw out an ultimatum. (You see people suggest them here all the time - clearly, a lot of people think it does something and feel it's appropriate.)

I would say that cutting off your family can be a valid and sometimes necessary choice; sometimes it is the moral thing to do. Sometimes it's not (I think). But, it depends on values and the situation. It is an extreme action, from my point of view.

So I feel like there are not enough details about this situation for me to offer a POV with regard to cutting them right out forever.

My basic thoughts are that
- you should call out abusive behaviour and set some kind of boundaries, definitely
- it would be worth talking to a therapist (who is not affiliated with your religion, or any religion) about all this.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:27 PM on August 2, 2016

Followup from the anon OP:
I converted to a mainstream religion after years of atheism. My parents are conservative Christians. "Chosen family" refers to my extremely close school friends, my partner, and adult mentor figures from my childhood. I am conflicted in how to describe their parenting because it was well intentioned and there were good moments, but I never felt emotionally supported or accepted.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:50 PM on August 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

You really are entitled to emotional support and acceptance from your parents. It is absolutely fine to tell them you've never felt it and you want to cut ties for now. It won't harm anyone if you spend your holidays, etc. with your friends, not with them.

If you want to throw them a bone right now, and I'm not sure I would given how narcissistic they've been lately, I'd tell them that an absolute precondition to renewed contact is going to be an ironclad commitment to emotional support and acceptance.
posted by bearwife at 1:10 PM on August 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

You're fine creating whatever boundaries you need to for you to feel safe, up to and including cutting them out. If there's some level of contact that you WOULD be comfortable with, with whatever conditions you need. (If you set conditions, something specific like "no belittling comments or sarcasm" I think has a somewhat higher likelihood of success than a slightly more amorphous "no guilt trips." It'd also be a good idea for when a belittling comment/sarcasm/whatever happens, to name the behavior, ask for it to stop, and if it doesn't stop, leave immediately. Or some variation thereon, naming the behavior and leaving being the crucial points.)
posted by mchorn at 1:23 PM on August 2, 2016

I haven't spoken to my biological mother since I was 17. That was nearly 10 years ago. I also cut out my aunts (her sisters) a couple years ago. (And afterward received a gilt dripping Halloween card of all things from one of them.) My biological mother is blocked on all social media though I'm sure she still finds thing that are public.

I don't regret a second of it.

There's a whole entire history of fucked up emotional stuff with that side of the family and I've not missed it for a second. I mean, I wish I had good family on that side but it's just not realistic. Everything was ridden with guilt and judgment from them - which sounds like how you feel.

I will say that if you stop talking to them it doesn't mean you can never talk to them. I won't sit here and say "oh you'll regret it later" because so far I haven't. I also NEVER imagine myself speaking with her again and highly doubt I'd speak with that side of the family again.

So yeah, at least do a slow fade. See how you feel. I'm all for saying that you get to control who is in your life - no matter who they are. Just because someone is "family" it doesn't mean they get to mess up your life.
posted by Crystalinne at 1:23 PM on August 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

You cannot make anyone be emotionally supportive and accepting. If putting a metaphorical gun to someone's head or stamping your little foot and demanding the love you feel entitled to worked, I would still be married.

I highly recommend that you do what makes sense for you. Your question just screams "I have been trained from birth to care what my parents think, feel and need while disregarding my own ideas, feelings and needs and while they also disregard them." You need mental and emotional space to put yourself first without self doubts, questioning your feelings, etc. You cannot get that while a) in contact with these toxic people or b) hedging your bets to be considerate of them while trying to figure this out.

If you change your mind later and wish to resume seeing them, that's totally fine. If you want to avoid drama and confrontation and just come up with a million excuses why you can't come home right now instead of telling them you want nothing to do with them, that is also 100% A-okay. But give yourself a minimum of six months to a year to take care of you and blow them off so you can figure out what you think and feel without their constant toxic interference.

You don't have to do anything anyone here suggests. But you absolutely have this internet stranger's permission to take as much of a break from psychomom and psychodad as you need or want.

When you are older, you may feel there is value for you in staying in touch and you may feel less poisoned by the fact that they have issues, so it may genuinely grate on you less. But you aren't older you. You are currently young you. And young you needs some fresh air. If you don't get that, older you may hate them all the more instead of having compassion and patience.
posted by Michele in California at 1:27 PM on August 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

like, they're not that bad, I can put up with it to some extent, so I should, for their sake

No. Just because you "can" put up with their abuse (and, given your age, you may not yet quite be able to see the long-term harm their abuse may be causing you) does not mean you are obliged to. Assuming basic mental competence, you have zero obligation to put up with abuse, even from your parents.

Think: right now, they don't even care to acknowledge that their behavior was abusive or wrong in any way. You do not need to be around people who are telling you that there is nothing wrong with insulting you and belittling your health problems and your religion. Every minute you spend with them is breathing in the atmosphere that says that it is okay to hurt you if they feel like it, that you are fundamentally someone unworthy of respect. But it is absolutely not okay for anyone to hurt you, most especially your loved ones. You, like anyone, deserve better.

You definitely should not break off contact just because Mefi says you should, but don't decide not to do it because it would be a horrible moral wrong. It wouldn't be.
posted by praemunire at 1:40 PM on August 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Thank you for answering some of my questions, OP, and apologies for putting them out there. (It does sometimes happen that people with challenging backgrounds, who feel something like you do, are engaged in ways that might not be altogether salutary, ultimately, just wanted to exclude that possibility. FTR, I am not condoning the use of ultimatums, I think they're pretty much useless, but people do sometimes resort to them in the service of good intentions. Which don't always lead to great places, for sure. IMO, take whatever break you need. I still think talking it through with someone professional could be helpful. All the best to you.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:16 PM on August 2, 2016

It is not morally wrong to limit or end your contact with people who have harmed you and shown you little consideration, especially when you endured this as a child with no ability to secure your own safety and well-being.
Congratulations on finding a way out, building a new chosen family, and finding a healthy path forward. Safeguarding that is the most ethical choice you can make. You are not obligated to indulge their fantasies of being good parents or kind people, especially if it leads to possible harm to you. Free yourself from the guilt. They had many years to earn your love and trust. They wasted that time and treated you terribly instead. You don't owe them more time.
posted by quince at 2:37 PM on August 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

It's not bad to cut out people from your life who hurt you. It seems like you're grappling with the pain of a relationship that has been nourishing at times but has also left you feeling alone and alienated. But it is a very difficult choice -- and doesn't need to be permanent. Do you need a break from them, or to cut all ties?

I can totally identify with that -- my parents are immigrants and my father was by many standards abusive, emotionally and physically, although he meant well. We did not connect in high school and I was very hurt by them and felt unloved and misunderstood. The worst feeling was that they wanted me to be someone else. All my siblings developed mental health issues and eating disorders.

It wasn't until later in life that I realized much of their pain was the result of trauma. That didn't make it any better, and certainly they have some behaviors that are still very painful to deal with, but it helped me understand the ways they were ill-equipped to be parents. The reason why I was able to stick around was they changed once their children left the house and they had the chance to do some of the soul-searching that many people do before they have children (an opportunity they did not have). I also just felt stronger and like I needed their validation less, so I was able to create a safe distance for myself while still having them as a part of my life.

The time when I left for college was the hardest I have ever been through. I thought leaving an abusive environment would catapult me into a good life but that's when I struggled, when I had to grapple with my notions of self and the residue of a difficult childhood. It was really important for me to have that time to shape myself and rebuild my confidence. But for me, cutting off contact did not feel right. So I limited contact during that time and returned when I felt more comfortable with the notion that they will not love me the way I see myself.

Personally I am glad I stuck around even though it is hard for me to feel supported by them much of the time. This may not be true of your parents, but I have found it to be true of mine: much of their abusive behavior stemmed from a time when we were both vulnerable and trying to slap together some semblence of an identity, while clashing with each other. We get along better at a distance, when we can limit contact and control our own needs. I think what I perceived before -- that they would not love me as who I am -- was less true, and that they love me, but did not understand who I am or who I will be. That's a key distinction though, and made all the difference in my decision to maintain a relationship with them.

I don't think cutting someone off has to be permanent. Nor do you have to feel the same about them all the time. I don't think you should feel guilty or like you need to try harder to put your very valid feelings side and maintain an unhealthy relationship. I also don't think you need to decide now whether you should cut off ties forever or just for awhile. Test what kind of distance works for you. If the thought scares you, remember that it does not have to be forever.
posted by mmmleaf at 4:53 PM on August 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

My parents were born-again Charismatic Christians. I came out as a lesbian when I was 20. It didn't go well. For about 10 years, until I was in my early 30's we went significant periods of time without speaking to one another. We were eventually able to reconcile, and my dad just passed away earlier this year. My mom died in 2008. I'm now 55.

Two books that helped me a lot -- both by Susan Forward:
Toxic Parents -- this one came out when I was still in that estrangement period with my parents and was very helpful at the time.
Emotional Blackmail -- This is newer but along the same lines. I didn't read it to help me with my relationship with my parents, but it did help me leave an emotionally abusive relationship.

I hope these resources help you. I found it to be very painful to be estranged from my family but really it was the only thing I could do at the time. One of the things I learned is that it takes two people to make a healthy relationship -- you can try all you like but if the other person can't meet you half way, it won't work.
posted by elmay at 4:55 PM on August 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

They chose to have you. You didn't choose to have them. That means it's on them to treat you well enough that you're motivated to take their interests to heart.

Eviction threats are for adults that can no longer be tolerated because they're trashing the place or refusing to pay their rent or being consistently loud and obnoxious. Religious differences don't, in and of themselves, fall into any of those categories.

Anybody who uses an eviction threat as a club to coerce their child into changing their religious beliefs fully deserves to have that child call their bluff and walk away without a backward glance.

They will still expect me to call often and to come home for the holidays.

Then they will be disappointed. Sucks to be them, I guess.
posted by flabdablet at 9:50 AM on August 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Your question is full of their problems and expectations.

But those don't matter now. What they want only matters if you are maintaining a relationship with them. If you're not doing that... then those don't matter.

Other people's parents being better or worse doesn't matter either. That's some just-world fallacy sadness.
posted by French Fry at 10:18 AM on August 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

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