How to navigate conflict with sibling's adult child (and sibling)?
February 25, 2018 8:31 PM   Subscribe

My sibling and their early 20's child (I am trying to obscure identity) blame me for something big. I don't feel I am at fault.

I contacted both of them sharing my side of the story and asked to hear more about theirs. Neither responded and it has been about six months. They mean business. The child is having a medical procedure done soon. It is not life or death but could, I gather, affect this person's future if things don't go well. My inclination is to reach out and express my well wishes to the child. We are not close but I do care about them. I first learned there was a problem when I emailed my sibling birthday greetings six months ago and the child wrote me saying it was silly that I was acting like everything was ok. Beyond the medical procedure issue, how do I go about mending things with people who are unwilling to even discuss the issue? I feel like it is a parent's role to let a child know they are there for them no matter what. What about aunts and uncles? Am I supposed to set aside being accused of something and written out of this person's life in the same breath (not hyperbole, they said they don't want to hear from me again), accept their refusal to even discuss this, and keep trying, or should I just accept them at their word and not engage unless they can be civil? Does an aunt or uncle have to put up with the same level of crap from a child as a parent does in order to be a good aunt or uncle?
posted by red chip blue chip to Human Relations (24 answers total)
they said they don't want to hear from me again

Continuing to try to contact someone who has said they do not want to hear from you again is, in nearly all circumstances, not a great idea. It sucks to feel like you were misunderstood, unheard, or just generally wronged, but if it's this level of "I don't want to talk to you again" bad in their eyes, trying to continue to get in touch is likely to exacerbate and not smooth over the problem, whatever it is.

Does an aunt or uncle have to put up with the same level of crap from a child as a parent does in order to be a good aunt or uncle?

This seems to be about an adult child and your own sibling. There's a lack of information here which makes it sort of difficult to give good advice, but whatever it is that you are calling "crap" to them is a big enough deal that they are willing to cut you out of their lives. Which, hey, maybe you dodged a bullet (is one read), or maybe you're super out of touch with how whatever they think happened really matters and/or how whatever you did/said to explain it wasn't sufficient (is another read).

These questions are great Rorschach tests for people to try to read their own backstory into the question's missing backstory, but I think given how you've phrased this, being a good aunt/uncle in this case means respecting someone's boundaries of not wanting to be contacted by you even if you think they are making that choice for a wrong/bad reason. And it sucks, but that's the grownup path forward. Unless they're turning this into some sort of larger family thing (in which case it's worth maybe trying to have a private/reasonable talk with other family members) I'd just leave this alone.
posted by jessamyn at 8:46 PM on February 25, 2018 [47 favorites]

If the child said they didn't want to hear from you again, then DON'T CONTACT THEM AGAIN.

They may change their minds later. But you are not going to reconcile by demonstrating that you have no respect for their feelings or boundaries. Especially when this is going on:

Does an aunt or uncle have to put up with the same level of crap from a child as a parent does

If you can't even manage to hide your actual feelings from an Internet stranger when writing a single paragraph about the situation, the child is certainly going to recognize how ill-spirited your "well wishes" actually are.
posted by praemunire at 8:47 PM on February 25, 2018 [46 favorites]

The child in question explicitly asked you not to contact them again. To do so against their direct wishes when they're about to undergo what's surely a stressful medical procedure seems inconsiderate and self centered at best, and certainly not the loving gesture that you are (presumably) viewing it as.

When someone asks you to cease contact, you stop contacting them. Engaging after being asked not to would be a failure of civility on your part, not on theirs.
posted by mishafletch at 8:48 PM on February 25, 2018 [16 favorites]

Given that they've asked you not to contact them, I think that is the best route, unfortunately. I don't think there is a route to addressing this. You can't set it aside and ignore the accusation. They are "being civil." But they disagree and feel strongly about it.

I think the only thing you could do would be to contact them one final time to let them know that you respect their stated wishes and will not be contacting them any further but that you still care about them and hope they'll change their minds. I wouldn't do that now, before a medical procedure. You can really only do that once, so I'd wait until you've really given a lot of thought to the situation that they're upset about.
posted by salvia at 9:03 PM on February 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

You're calling them a child, but they're not a child. They're a grown adult who has decided they don't wish to have any contact with you, as does your sibling. Continuing to try and impose your wants over theirs especially before a major operation, will just confirm their decision that they were right to cut you off in the first place.

Are aunts and uncles expected to put up with a level of crap from their nieces and nephews, I dunno, the only person attempting to inflict crap right now is you, given that you're not considering anyone else's feelings here besides your own, which makes you the child in this situation.
posted by Jubey at 9:05 PM on February 25, 2018 [12 favorites]

If they asked you not to contact them again, what reassurance do you think that contacting them is going to provide? You say you want to express well wishes, but everything else here is bitterness, and it all suggests that they don't exactly have great feelings about hearing from you. So who is this really about--you or them? If it's about you, then this is a thing to work out with a therapist, not the person who doesn't want to hear from you. That's true even if their reasons are totally dumb and what they did was actually awful! It all boils down to: You aren't going to make them feel better by doing this, you aren't going to make you feel better by doing this, so why would you do this? Don't do this.
posted by Sequence at 9:14 PM on February 25, 2018 [6 favorites]

Am I supposed to set aside being accused of something and written out of this person's life in the same breath (not hyperbole, they said they don't want to hear from me again), accept their refusal to even discuss this...?

Yes. They don't want to talk to you.

It's not what you want you hear, I know, but it's what you have to accept. Continuing to push them when they have made their wishes clear will only make things worse. Respect their wishes, and stop contacting them.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:20 PM on February 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

Does an aunt or uncle have to put up with the same level of crap from a child as a parent does in order to be a good aunt or uncle?

This is a deeply inappropriate attitude to have when you're talking about approaching someone who is about to have some kind of life-altering medical procedure. It's monstrously self-centered to even consider bringing this kind of resentment and hostility to someone's hospital bed. Respect your neice or nephew's wishes about contact, and in the meantime, this thread might provide you with some insight about the behavior you need to look at.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 9:30 PM on February 25, 2018 [19 favorites]

I'm going to go slightly against the grain here and say that a simple note or email stating briefly and Kindly: "I know we have some unresolved issues, but I want you to know I'm thinking of you and I hope your surgery goes well" to the child would be ok. But then nothing more, really.
posted by Toddles at 9:50 PM on February 25, 2018 [5 favorites]

It sounds like you have a couple of different relationship issues.

One is your niece/nephew who is in their twenties. That's the age when the young person is trying to define themselves as an adult, apart from their parents. If someone is going through some medical issues, that's a time when you reach out to people you are close to, not folks that you don't have a close relationship with. While I'm sure you mean well, you don't seem to be in the best position to offer support or help. The parents and personal friends are the ones in that position.

I have affection for my aunts and uncles, but if I'm not dying, I'd probably want to deal with health issues without their 'support'. Some people find medical issues deeply private, not things they want to share with anyone other than those that they are very close with (close friends of mine will often only allude to health issues and make it clear to me that they don't want to share details, if they did, then I'd support them as they wanted to be supported.

The (more important?) relationship issue you are having is with your sibling. I'd suggest that if you don't resolve whatever issue is there that your chances of having a good relationship with your niece/nephew (a fully distinct issue) are much lower.

Personally, I don't think continuing to contact them via voice or email are an appropriate idea if they've explicitly told you not to contact them. I'd try to pull them aside privately next time you have a larger family get together. Don't be confrontational, or upset about it. Be confused (as you are). Assume that their grievance has merit (as it does in their mind), and attempt to mend that relationship. It's possible that the entire rift is due to a miscommunication, a misunderstanding, or a slight that impacted them emotionally that you didn't realize occurred.

The thing is, your adult family doesn't 'owe' you any kind of relationship, just as you don't 'owe' them one.

If you push this it may reinforce their apparent belief that they don't want to have a relationship with you (at this moment).
posted by el io at 10:22 PM on February 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

Even though you're family, continuing to contact someone after an explicit "do not contact me" is disrespectful at best and harassment at worst. Leave the kid alone. You don't get special rights or privileges for being related. Respecting someones boundaries is not "putting up with crap", it's being a non-creepy adult.
posted by InkDrinker at 11:52 PM on February 25, 2018 [11 favorites]

Sheesh. I'll admit, I clicked on this just in case it was from my own narcissistic, abusive, utterly vile sibling, who has been harassing me *and* my just-barely 20-something adult child for six or eight months or ten months, depending on how one looks at it. Unless you're using the word medical as subterfuge, you're not her... but you sure sound like it.

LEAVE THEM ALONE. They've told you to, probably repeatedly. Their health, and any other challenges - or positives - in their life are NOT YOUR BUSINESS. For all we know, you deserve the no contact - and if you're determined to ignore their wishes once again, you probably deserve it. They don't want you in their life. Don't make them enforce it legally. Have the sense to just plain let them be.

Maybe, someday, if you respect the fact that they're adults who get to make their own choices and that don't own you a damn thing because they have the misfortune of being related by blood, you might get a second chance. Though usually, it's not second - it's hundredth or thousandth by the time no contact happens - so don't count on it.

Especially since they're probably much happier without you. Because if they were unhappy, or wanted you in their life, they'd seek you out.

Just let them be and move on.
posted by stormyteal at 12:57 AM on February 26, 2018 [11 favorites]

how do I go about mending things with people who are unwilling to even discuss the issue?

You won't be able to. Don't try to contact them. Wait for them to come to you. Even if there are what seem to be extenuating circumstances. Prove your point by listening to their wishes.
posted by RainyJay at 4:21 AM on February 26, 2018

Are you repeating conflict patterns that didn’t resolve well when you were younger? If this has significant buildup from pulling rank (which can look like a variation on “I’m older” or “I got the [better] degree”), or privilege (which can be gender)...people opt out because it’s unhealthy and they are tired of sibling dynamics not getting healthier. People, even siblings, reach limits, which must be respected.
posted by childofTethys at 5:08 AM on February 26, 2018 [5 favorites]

Without knowing what it is you are being blamed for and what your explanation of how it's not your fault, it's hard to parse this as someone giving you crap, as others have mentioned.

What I'm not understanding is, how do you know about this medical procedure (and its potential repercussions) if you haven't been in touch with them at all? Are you following them on social media without their knowledge? (in which case, absolutely don't contact them). Do you have a family member in common who is keeping you apprised with their knowledge? (in which case, a note like Toddles suggested above, which mentions how you heard of the procedure, would probably be okay)? Is this procedure in any way related to the thing / event you are being blamed for ? (Then it goes back to don't contact them under any circumstances).

I can understand your desire to reach out and to be a family again. And if you love your niece / nephew I can understand wanting to share that love and support. But they clearly needed something from you at the time of the original incident that you wouldn't or couldn't deliver, and your followup response made it worse. Saying that sending a birthday email is you "acting like everything is okay" is a clear sign that for them, everything is not okay. There may or may not be a way to make things right again for you, when enough time has passed and you truly understand why they blame you and what they need to hear from you to mend that fence. But this is not that time. This is taking your niece / nephew's crisis and using it as an opportunity to make the conversation about you. And that won't help anyone.
posted by Mchelly at 5:54 AM on February 26, 2018

Reaching out a tentative contact some time after the declaration of never speaking to you again is fine. As long as you keep it neutral & not about you & your feelings or how unfair you think everything is. It's not OK to send it just before a medical procedure when said relative is already under enough stress. If you love them you do not want to add to their stress, anything else is you trying to make this about you & how you feel about it.

Possibly maybe if you absolutely positively have yourself all worked up that you have to send something despite what everyone here says, and this is still a terrible idea, just less terrible. A simple neutral get well card, with nothing more than a "thinking of you" vibe love Aunty x might just possibly be OKish. This is not the time or place to rehash old arguments or to try to "win" against the unfairness of it all, this is not about you.

No you don't have to put up with any level of crap if you don't want to. They're not talking to you that's pretty much no crap levels right there. Just don't do anything you'll regret because you're pride is hurt, honestly your question has more of a righteous indignation vibe at being falsely accused than a I'm worried because my niece/nephew is going to have major surgery & I love them but can't tell them vibe. I'd suggest respecting their wishes & not contacting them.
posted by wwax at 6:13 AM on February 26, 2018

Yeah, my great aunt did something to me in my late teens that I have cut her out of my life for. I did not talk to her about it and I never will because frankly I don't owe it to her to explain how what she did was vile. I am absolutely certain she does not see it in that way and if I brought it up I am sure she would "explain her side of the story" about how she was just trying to help me.

Without knowing the details of what you did/didn't do I'm not going to say you're like my aunt. But if someone feels hurt enough by you to cut you out of their lives they don't owe you an explanation. This IS them being civil. They're keeping their distance rather than getting into a massive argument. And with an attitude toward the situation that describes their hurt as "crap" I think they're right to not want to argue with you. You have your side of the story. They didn't accept it. Let it go.
posted by brook horse at 6:36 AM on February 26, 2018 [9 favorites]

Your nephew doesn't owe you anything and you don't have to worry about being "a good aunt or uncle". If he's said that he doesn't want to hear from you again, you should respect that. Don't send him a note or anything. Just let him live his life.

Your siblings might be another matter, but you've provided very few details so it's hard to offer any advice. You said you wrote to them with your side of the story. Did you send an e-mail, message them on Facebook, send them a handwritten letter?

Also, do you live in the same city as your siblings?

Depending on the circumstances, it might be possible to mend this rift. You might benefit from having a third part to help you understand their feelings and vice versa. But again, it is hard to say much about it without more details. You are worried about identifying yourself by saying too much. Perhaps another question posted anonymously would work.

Good luck to you.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 6:54 AM on February 26, 2018

You may think of your niece or nephew as a child, but they're in their 20s. They're not. They're an adult, and they're entitled to their own autonomy, to make their own decisions and to decide that they don't want to hear from you. They're entitled to have their wishes respected, and they've made it abundantly clear that they want no contact from you, regardless of their impending medical treatment.

Whether or not you think you're in the right, or had reasons, or can explain away whatever you did to offend them is utterly irrelevant here. You've been asked not to contact them. Don't.

If you do, you can fully expect to drive a wedge between your sibling and yourself, since (reading between the lines) your niece or nephew's parent is supporting them as they deal with this medical issue. Leave both of them alone.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 7:31 AM on February 26, 2018

In addition to other helpful comments, take what you are planning to do and multiply it by 10 or 20. When someone is facing serious medical stuff, there are always people coming out of the woodwork to talk to them. Sometimes those people are not making it about themselves or using the occasion to bring up unresolved issues, but even still that is an awful lot of emotional work the already stressed person is having to deal with. Don't add to the pressure this person is under. At some point you may be able to improve this relationship, but leaving them be right now is probably the best step you can take towards that.
posted by BibiRose at 8:43 AM on February 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

Without more detail about what happened (which I'm not saying you should provide), we friendly internet strangers aren't really in a position to judge whether:

- they are unreasonable and crazy, and you're totally right

- you are unreasonable and crazy, and they're totally right

- there is misunderstanding and/or miscommunication, and some right and wrong, on both sides

If they are at the point of cutting off contact, it's serious enough to them. In agreement with earlier answers, it doesn't seem like it's at a point where "talking it out" is a realistic option. You can't, and probably shouldn't try, to make someone communicate with you when they have explicitly requested that you stop. Maybe that will change in the future, but you need to be prepared to let go of the contact and grieve the loss of the relationship, in case it does not.
posted by theorique at 9:56 AM on February 26, 2018 [6 favorites]

There is a lot of triangulation in our family, which contributed greatly to this conflict, so I'm struggling to see how no communication rather than direct communication is a healthy choice here. My niece ("adult child" was my clumsy attempt to mask her gender. I do not think of her as a child.) sent me one email and I sent one email back and that has been the extent of our contact. My mother, who until recently my sister and her daughter also weren't talking to due to the same issue, is the person who informed me about the upcoming medical.) It was helpful to hear that this is my niece being civil. It just looked like dodging conflict and being dramatic to me, and a perpetuation of the dysfunctional communication typical in our family. I do think it's crappy on my niece's part to assume I know why she feels I am responsible for what happened when I am not even completely clear what happened, and for expecting an apology while being unwilling to let me know what she feels I have to apologize for. So, yes, I both care and am angry, but as most of you advise that it would be selfish to contact her and I truly don't want to add to her stress I will not contact her.

I'm sure I could benefit from individual therapy. I suggested family therapy once and the only person willing was my other sister who is easy to get along with. (My sister, but not my niece, is also angry at her. She doesn't know why but suspects it is related to all of this.)

Thank you for all your responses despite my being vague.
posted by red chip blue chip at 10:42 PM on February 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

Just a thought. Sometimes people's families are so stressful for them that they just want to build a separate life or just take a break. I'll take you at your word that you had nothing to do with this thing that happened, and they think you do completely erroneously. Even so, if they are so upset that they need a break, it's appropriate for them to ask for one. Think of something like "I'm so upset. I'm going out for a walk." That's considered pretty good anger management technique.

You also mention a lot of indirect communication and triangulation, and I think those make people more likely to need to break away from everyone rather than just the person who is primarily responsible. Some message boards even use the term "winged monkeys" to refer to this extended network of people who communicate with the central bad guy; it's such a common phenomenon. It may be that they know you don't bear central responsibility, but they see you as likely to side with and communicate with others who do.

I'm just throwing out ideas in case it's useful food for thought.
posted by salvia at 10:46 AM on February 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

It is totally understandable to feel frustrated and upset when you don't know what you did wrong, and no one will clearly communicate to you the problem. It's absolutely reasonable to feel that way. For you, no communication is hurtful and not healthy. Unfortunately, it seems like for your niece, she's at a point where no communication is less hurtful to her than direct communication. Nobody can say whether that's healthy or not, but there's lots of situations where no communication is indeed more healthy than direct communication. If she's under a lot of stress (with the medical complications, this is likely) then probably no communication is healthy for her right now, because she does not have the mental or emotional resources to deal with this.

It is frustrating that she seems to assume you know what you did wrong and why she feels like it's your fault, absolutely. But it sounds to me like she just doesn't want to deal with talking about this right now. If she were continually pestering you for an apology without being clear on what the problem was, yeah, then that would be super crappy. But if she just said once that she expects an apology, you said you didn't know what you needed to apologize for, and she stopped contacting you--then maybe she realizes you don't know what the problem is, but doesn't have the energy to explain it to you. If she didn't demand an apology after that, then I wouldn't interpret that as her assuming you know what the problem is--she probably understands now that you don't, but just hasn't chosen to address the issue yet. That may be why she no longer wants to talk to you: she doesn't have the energy to go through this conversation, but she's hurt enough that she can't continue to interact with you without addressing this. So, right now, maybe the healthiest and least dramatic thing for her is to stop talking to you until the point when she can address it.

I know that doesn't provide much advice for how to move forward with this, but maybe that can help you frame it in a way that doesn't characterize it as drama and conflict--not because it's not hurtful or frustrating, but because continuing to view it as her intentionally being petty is just going to make the whole situation hurt more for both of you. Maybe this is just all she can do right now. And all you can do right now is accept that, and hope that in the future she will be open to talking to you--but also prepare for the fact that she may not. Sometimes people never get to the place where they can have these conversations. It really sucks for the person on the other side. But sometimes that's what's healthy for them.
posted by brook horse at 2:51 PM on February 27, 2018

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