Family Soap Opera
August 17, 2016 12:56 PM   Subscribe

What are the best ways to respond when family members are being mean to each other in the name of love?

I have large family, many siblings. I am the eldest. It's rare we get to all spend time together. I have been wary of some of the stuff that is said (and we have been taught to really not say things to each other for fear of emotion, which has caused all kinds of secrets) and this weekend at a large family gathering I was continually caught off guard by what was said.

-My sibling is fighting for custody for one of their kids, and this sibling was making all kinds of jokes about the books the court was asking them to read on parenting.
-My mother made some cracks about how this same child in the custody battle could be alone for as long as they wanted when they became an adult, just like Miles
-My mother asked another of her children if they knew that they really weren't a very good catch

It's all said in this kind of gentle joking tone, and catches me off guard. I want to be better prepared and better able to respond in the moment. I kind of laugh it off right now, unless I have the presence of mind to say, wait that's not true, or something like that. I don't really understand why they are like this (Why are they like this?) and I need a better way to cope. Any idea what is behind this kind of things, and how best to prep and respond in the moment?

PS. Yes. I am in therapy.
posted by miles1972 to Human Relations (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I refuse to engage this kind of thing. Because if you butt in and say "Hey, you shouldn't be interfering with their lives" or something, you are being a hypocrite and no one will listen. But if you just refuse to engage, give the Spock eyebrow, walk away because you do not want to hear this crap, etc, then you don't have to hear this crap. And sometimes people get a clue and decide to start following your example of butting the fuck out. Whether they do or not, at least you don't have to listen to it anymore.
posted by Michele in California at 1:04 PM on August 17, 2016 [5 favorites]

So none of this joking is made in your direction, right? If your siblings and your Mom don't appear upset by it, it may be a way of them dealing with difficult things (or things that they don't feel comfortable saying) by using gently mean humor. My siblings and I do it all the time, and there's no harm at all meant, or taken.
posted by xingcat at 1:04 PM on August 17, 2016 [7 favorites]

Were they drinking? My family does that when we drink. Not even drunkenness, just social drinking. But yeah, as soon as the beers go out, the odds are we'll get into that special kind of busting of chops that makes onlookers wince because it's 70% true.

If so, maybe you don't want to be around them when they drink.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:14 PM on August 17, 2016

Response by poster: To clarify: The second point was a crack at the kid as well as directly at me (Miles) for being "alone". (I'm not alone, I just don't tell them about my relationships.) And no, no drinking. I totally get gently mean humour with my sibs too, that feels normal.
posted by miles1972 at 1:18 PM on August 17, 2016

Like ding training, a quiet "ouch!" and walking away can do wonders for helping others to see that they're being hurtful, and it won't pay off with you (you'll maintain boundaries by walking away).
posted by ldthomps at 1:22 PM on August 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

Big family and you're the eldest? If they weren't always like this, perhaps the culture of your home changed after you left, and snarky ribbing between parents & your younger siblings became a thing.
posted by kimberussell at 1:24 PM on August 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm like you, anything like this would horrify and alienate me. I know some people are cool with it, even find it an intimacy. I feel that, like many other idiosyncratic behaviors, this is one you shouldn't involve people in against their will by dropping garbage remarks and expecting others to play along.

I have a stepparent who thinks it's ok to act like this. I mostly ignore her (pretend I can't hear) but every so often if my hand is forced (like when she says something about someone I actually care about) I'll say, clearly, "that is really not appropriate." If she's ribbing someone I don't care about, I just ignore.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:38 PM on August 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would love to know the "whys" also. It crushes me every time I hear my mother defend my older brother who is abusive and a narcissist. He needs recognition for everything he does for the parents although he does less than the rest of us. I am saddened that not only will my mother acknowledge my brother's abusive behavior since i was a child but that she encourages me to let him get his way, help him out as much as possible, give him credit for his deeds, etc. She doesn't get it and doubtfully never will. So it is my issue to understand and move forward with this annoying and destructive mindset. I don't put myself in his presence and get the most I can out of the good that is present with my other family members. Don't get pulled in but instead empower yourself with living the life you want with what you have, and sometimes that means disagreeing with people but knowing you made a good choice for YOU.
posted by waving at 1:41 PM on August 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

. I know some people are cool with it, even find it an intimacy.

I will say things to my grown sons when there is no one else around that might sound awful to outsiders if they heard it. But, the thing is, if the relatives feel this is a positive form of intimacy, then they need to keep it private. Just like you don't start having sex with your spouse in front of other people randomly, you should not do friendly sniping in front of other people that you two would understand but others might not. You should be respectful of boundaries. If you aren't inviting people in to this level of intimacy or you do not have their permission, you should keep it private -- even if it doesn't look like ugly sniping. It is simply rude to share intimacy publicly with people who aren't part of it and won't really understand it. It leads to all kinds of confusion.
posted by Michele in California at 1:48 PM on August 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

I come from a family just like yours. My generation does not do this to the next generation but my parents generation was awful. Only one person is left from that group and she says some of the most awful things related to the weight of her female relatives. We respond by telling her her how terrible and shallow she is being obsessed with other people's weight. She is 88. She is not changing. We need to outlive her and then it will be over.
posted by cairnoflore at 1:56 PM on August 17, 2016

Some people use joking around to vent their stress about dealing with painful things. This can be a good thing because it makes the expected response open-ended. You can shrug, you can say nothing, you can laugh, you can change the subject, or you can ask them about it, depending on how you feel.
posted by ovvl at 6:53 PM on August 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

I too dislike being around this kind of negativity. Several years ago, I began feeling an acute hurt when I said things that were negative in regards to others... when I gossiped, said mean spirited things, judged them, or thought they should be this or that. It was a total gift. I knew those weren't the best things to do, but I would instigate them or join in perhaps because it's such an easy way to bond with people. You can quickly find common ground with others if you're willing to exclude someone else by saying mean crap about them, especially if it's funny or witty, whether you're saying it in front of them or behind their backs.

It sounds like you already do sometimes have the presence of mind to say things like "that's not true" and that's great. Here's something to ponder: what if the fact that you are caught off guard at other times is a good sign? Maybe it means that, in the moment, you aren't expecting the worst from your family.... it sounds like they expect the worst from themselves and from each other, but maybe you don't.

You asked how you could prepare yourself to be able to respond more in the moment. In my experience, I have that ability when I can be very present and at the same time detached in a way that I feel kindof like an observer or researcher.... perhaps next time pretend you're an anthropologist spending time with an interesting and wonderful group of humans and you're curious about their behavior.
posted by grayber at 5:08 PM on August 18, 2016

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