How to *thrive* without a family?
January 26, 2018 6:46 PM   Subscribe

So, before Christmas I asked how to "survive" without a family and now I want to figure out how to thrive without a family. I guess this is another one of my never ending saga regarding my alcoholic, mentally ill mother, etc. I'm slowly, slowly starting to distance myself from her and let go of a lot of the worries I have about her future and my place in her life as she ages. I'm ready to just embrace being family-less, but doing that makes me feel soooo fucking frightened.

How do you feel okay about really not having a "family"? I've been pretending to have a better family than I do for so, so long. No one aside from my therapist knows how dire my family situation is.

I'm afraid to liberate myself from the idea of my "family" for several reasons. It seems like everyone else has a stable family, everyone seems to have parents they admire, or whatever. I don't know how to begin to explain my family situation to people who can't relate. Am I a giant red flag for having a crazy mother? I'm terrified of dating because of this! Any guy with half a brain would run away if he knew about her, I think!!

I'm afraid of being "untethered." I'm afraid of needing some sort of help or getting into some sort of trouble and NOT having any family to rely on, which is stupid because I actually DON'T have any family who would help me out now, so why am I worried?!?! I'm afraid that I'm not smart or capable enough to get through this life alone, without an immediate family!?! Intellectually I can agree that I am, probably, capable of surviving... but what if I can't do it?

(Disclaimer: I am in therapy, but I want to hear stories from people who've gone on to thrive without a family of their own).
posted by modesty.blaise to Human Relations (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, I also want to add. Money is a MAJOR fear-factor of mine. I'm working part-time and I'm in grad school getting my MLIS (I know what you're thinking). I inherited slightly over $100K from my father and it's just sitting in the bank, because I am too scared to use any of it. I have a true fear that I will end up penniless and living with my mother forever. It might not be fully realistic, but this is something that constantly worries me. In addition to the above.
posted by modesty.blaise at 6:54 PM on January 26, 2018

The truth is that you have exactly as much family as you did yesterday. The difference is that you are having a healthier (more distant) relationship with someone that was taking without giving.

You have already survived! If you were smart enough and capable enough to come out the other side of what you have been through (battered perhaps, bearing scars, but you survived!) you have what you need to get through dark times. Anyway, when you hit hard stuff, you realize that you get through it because you have to - survival isn't really option, you just do it even if it is tough and miserable (and eventually things get better again, maybe even better than they had ever been before)

Totally false that everyone has a wonderful stable family. I would be surprised if even 50% of the people you know really have such great families. They just don't talk about it. There is no need to explain to people who don't understand but as you start to talk to people even a little, you will find the folks that do understand. When you get to place that you are willing to share first, you will be amazed how many other people start to share back.
posted by metahawk at 6:55 PM on January 26, 2018 [8 favorites]

I think it is totally OK to leave the money from your father in the bank. It is a safety net and the idea of safety nets is that you don't use it until you fall so bad that you have to and then you can appreciate how the net softened your landing.
posted by metahawk at 6:58 PM on January 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

It is interesting in that I have the exact opposite view about people's families. I happen to think everyone has a dysfunctional family in some way. What goes on behind closed doors is much different than what is assumed or what is presented in public. Everybody has at least one crazy relative and probably one or two parents with issues. Fret not about what anyone would think about your mother. People are going to be your friend or your lover or whatever because of who you are not because of who your family is. We don't get to choose our parents.
posted by AugustWest at 7:04 PM on January 26, 2018 [5 favorites]

I don't see anything about your other relationships - friends, other support.. Don't define yourself by your mother, or just your family. The universe is vast. It's not just a solar system.

In many cases, those relationships are more than family. Family you can't really choose, and it's hit or miss on if it works. Friends - well, those ones that stick are what I think defines a person.

As for anyone who would 'run away' - well, then, that's just not the right guy, anyway. Because it's not about your mother or anything else. It's you. All the other stuff is just extraneous, and just is. There's a saying I like.. control the things you can control. Don't bother with the things you can't control.

As for practical matters - leave the money in the bank. (or better yet, in a municipal fund that earns tax free money). You'll not miss it, and when you really need it, it'll be there.
posted by rich at 7:37 PM on January 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you so much for all of your advice so far.

rich, you pointed out something that I forgot to mention, I have very few people in my life in general. My best friend lives abroad and I don't have any other close friends in real life. My coworkers are pretty good people, however, and I am slowly becoming friends with several of them.

Throughout this entire process I've discovered that I am the poster-child for childhood emotional neglect, so being in and forging new interpersonal relationships is ridiculously hard and has always been hard. The fog is slowly lifting, but I'm mostly on my own.
posted by modesty.blaise at 7:41 PM on January 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've been pretending to have a better family than I do for so, so long

most people haven't had it as hard as you have, but you're not alone in pretending to have a better family than you do. lots of us lie about our families to strangers.

like I remember for years and years, when in groups of people my own age, icebreaker type questions or topics for conversation about "your parents" would come up, and I'd just say "my parents" like everybody else did instead of "my mom." because if I did that, sooner or later somebody would say What about your dad? and if you let that start, it never stops. oh, he's dead. O GOD I'M SO SORRY. no no, he's been dead for like ever, it's fine. oh, how old were you, what did he die of? and so on. so half the time even now I say "my parents" something something, even though I only had the one before and now none. and I actually love sympathy when I can get it, so there's no point at all to the subterfuge except habit, now. so if other people you're not close to yet all talk like they have full and alive and healthy families, lots of them are pretending too. maybe not about all of it, but some of it.

as to how to thrive, if you are like me, following a long period of unhappiness you will get grouchy and mean (an improvement) but by your mid-30s you'll be ok. that is not instructions, but it's what happens.

if I may offer one piece of advice I don't take myself: if you get any invitations, like for holiday gatherings or just ordinary social things, and you feel like they're pity invites, especially if they're the blatant kind of pity invite one sometimes gets from older people who say oh gosh you have no family?? but you must come stay with us! -- say yes. say yes to the condescending friendliness if anybody offers it to you. it will be a struggle and perhaps a humiliation. still, though.
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:09 PM on January 26, 2018 [6 favorites]

You can make a decision that you're going to swap the tremendous burden of your family of birth for the tremendously hard work of forging a family of choice. You have no more to lose doing that than you've already lost.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:32 AM on January 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

Am I a giant red flag for having a crazy mother? I'm terrified of dating because of this! Any guy with half a brain would run away if he knew about her, I think!!

Of course you're not, and do not have, a giant red flag because of your mother. Let me tell you a little story. Before my partner met my mother, before he knew anything besides "teremala doesn't seem to talk to or about their family very much," his mom came to an event I was helping put on, on Mother's Day. I don't even care about "Days" like that, but that night, completely overwhelmed by how nice she had been, how she had briefly enquired as to my mother then immediately let the topic go when I have only a brief, factual answer like "no, we're not doing anything today," instead of it flaring into a mess of judging and shaming and advice-giving ... but mostly that she was just so
, I sobbed myself to sleep. I'm sure it was alarming to my partner, whom I'd known for a month at that point, but he just quietly packed it away as "Dear god, this 'mother' person must be awful." And after he finally met her, he walked away saying, "Dear god, this person really is awful." But not once, that I've ever been able to tell, has he turned that observation against me. These days, it's very solidly "us against her" in our limited interactions, and if some day I want to disengage from her completely, he'll be right there with me, but it's my decision to make.

That's the kind of person you want to date, not some jerk who thinks awfulness is heritable. Even if you happen to share any of her illnesses, you're a separate person and make your own decisions about your behavior, and very much deserve to be appreciated on your own merits rather than be saddled with her faults.
posted by teremala at 5:22 AM on January 27, 2018 [15 favorites]

>It seems like everyone else has a stable family, everyone seems to have parents they admire,

It seems that way because you're struggling with these issues and feel self-conscious about it. It's not remotely true; everybody's family is a mess. You are not alone.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 5:59 AM on January 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm afraid of needing some sort of help or getting into some sort of trouble and NOT having any family to rely on

Think through various (realistic) problems you might encounter, and how you would solve them without the help of your family. I find that having concrete plans for worst-case scenarios helps my anxiety. Just like people make fire evacuation plans in advance, so they don't panic and flail around. Almost every practical problem can be solved by paying someone to do something you can't do yourself. Maybe you need some of those resources lined up ahead of time. Take preventative measures. For example, get AAA in case your car breaks down. I don't know what specifically you're worried about so it's hard to make other suggestions. But every problem can be solved or ameliorated. What is the ABSOLUTE WORST CASE scenario you could possibly imagine for yourself? Build up your resilience and confidence and you can come back from anything.
posted by AFABulous at 8:26 AM on January 27, 2018

Most people do not have happy families. I think those are rare. Frequently families are conflicted at best.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:45 AM on January 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have an okay bio-family. I was very distant from them for years, and while it's getting better, they are still not "my" people, not the ones I bond with, not the ones who understand me.

Last August I met a pair of people at Burning Man and have since been adopted into "The Fam" and have been invited to six dinners, meals for two holidays, two mini vacations, one spontaneous concert adventure, a handful of hikes, and a weekly hangout-for-beer-and-anime night. And there have been other mini-outings as well. In less than six months!

This past Christmas, I spent time with my bio-family. And even though my time with them was more comfortable and less anxiety-producing than it's been in years (because I was more settled and confident with my decisions about my career and my future), I was also distinctly aware that I had given up time with my friend group to be there. Thinking about that trade off on the way home, I decided that even though my biological family is where I came from, I no longer have to give them unrestricted priority over my holiday hours: they have to share me with the part of my social circle that supports me, shows up for me, and loves me in my language.

I feel incredibly lucky that I stumbled on a local community that is well established, tightly knit, and socially active with each other. Incredibly lucky! I'm in my early 30s, and this is the first time I've had a solid social group that wasn't linked to a romantic partner.

Spend a chunk of time (think years, not months) putting a greater focus on finding a local community. Step back and look at your life in big-picture mode and think about how you want to shape things, what you want to prioritize. Exercise every last bit of your agency to live where you want to live, work just enough to be comfortable, and spend your free time doing things you enjoy. And when you meet enjoyable people doing those same things, take the step of reaching out to do more things than $activity.

Last year, I started showing up to the rock climbing gym at 6:30am four times a week, always by myself. But then I recognized the same faces week after week, and we started saying hello, then chatting a bit, then climbing together. Now I go on outdoor trips with them, and sometimes we go to the fancy Korean spa afterwards.

With both groups of friends, I look forward to seeing them. I look forward to spending time with them. I have fun and snarky text conversations with them on a regular basis. When was the last time I talked to my mom? Ummm.... *shrug*

tl;dr: lead a life you are intrinsically satisfied with. Also, make friends!
posted by itesser at 2:41 PM on January 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

Consider this an expansion on my answer to your previous question.

I have very few people in my life in general... I've discovered that I am the poster-child for childhood emotional neglect, so being in and forging new interpersonal relationships is ridiculously hard and has always been hard.

Forging new interpersonal relationships is a skill. It's hard now, but as you practice and learn this skill it will get easier.

There can be sort of a strange and ridiculous stigma around admitting you want to learn how to get better at interpersonal relationships -- as if there was some virtue in never progressing in this skill past what one learned as a child! I've found that many books about building relationships as an adult are categorized in the business section.
posted by yohko at 1:01 PM on February 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

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