Help me feel at peace with my decision to keep my parents in my life
January 1, 2019 11:47 AM   Subscribe

Choosing to actively build a cordial relationship now with my seriously abusive parents is making me SO FREAKIN FRUSTRATED with myself. Snowpocalypse inside.

Ye so many years ago, when I was a wee bairn, my home life was a veritable hellscape.

My mother, who suffers from diagnosed but untreated BPD, was my primary abuser. There was verbal abuse multiple times a day (namecalling, shaming, mocking, screaming), physical abuse on a near-daily basis (hitting, punching, kicking, and even biting), extreme isolation (she would rage for hours if my grandmother hugged me - I belonged to HER), extreme control (curfew was 6 PM even when I was 20 years old), parentification (she spent hours every week telling me stories of how ~everyone~ had wronged her, from the time I was 6 on up), emotional incest (she'd make me promise never to get married, never to leave home, to love her always, etc), and more that I can't possibly list here because it would take too long. She also was, and still remains, extremely verbally abusive towards my dad, haranguing him for literally everything - like, him saying "That dinner was excellent!" is her cue to respond angrily, "Are you trying to say my cooking is usually bad? How dare you!"

My mostly-absent father (he traveled 20+ days per month for work) was, and is, way more sane and emotionally stable than my mom, but he was also an abusive man: he used to hit my mom and only stopped when he "accidentally" slapped her hard enough to cause permanent deafness in one ear... and after that he still continued to hit me occasionally (about 2-3 times a year until I was 16). He was also extremely controlling, e.g. policing my clothes and repeatedly throwing me out of the house (later letting me back in if I begged) for transgressions like staying in bed until 9 am on a holiday.

Things changed when I was 20 and they threw me out properly, cut me off in the middle of my second year of college without warning. That was because they found out I had a secret boyfriend. This time I stayed gone instead of begging to come back. It was the best thing ever. I had to work four jobs to stay in school but I was finally free. After I graduated, they called me up out of the blue and started talking to me again like nothing ever happened, playing the "loving happy family". I went along. I lived continents away from them, they could no longer control me, and I had very firmly repressed all the horrible memories of my childhood because it was "so long ago", so whatever, right?

Through my twenties, as I got married and had kids, it became clearer and clearer to me that the power balance in our relationship had completely flipped. All they wanted was to be part of my life and play with their grandkids, and even though they continued to TRY to control, manipulate, or abuse me, it was almost comical to me how pathetic their efforts were because of course they had no power over me. They would say, "You can't let your son wear a dress! What kind of mother are you?" and I'd say, "Uh huh, uh huh, hey, you wanna see a picture of him in the flowery yellow dress, he looks sooo cute, look, isn't he adorable?"

By the time I was in my early thirties, they had not only completely given up on trying to control me, but also they seemed to be always in a hurry to approve of me and everything I do. This is the way my parents are now, when I am in my late 30s.


My own life has changed dramatically in the last couple of years. I divorced an abusive man, went to therapy, and over the last year, I've been processing my childhood stuff intensively in therapy. For the first time I'm looking deeply and squarely at the painful parts of my past, and try to reconcile that with my present, and let me tell you this shit is IMPOSSIBLE. Argh!!!

Feelings which are completely contradictory and are driving me bonkers:

1. I can have a cordial relationship with my parents as long as I keep strong emotional and practical boundaries. I've done this successfully for many years! Because of it, my kids have loving grandparents! That's kind of cool!

But why? WHY? What the fuck is wrong with me that I still want to keep these people in my life? What pathological need to please is driving me to make this effort? They suck. My life would objectively be better without them in it (....right?). So WHY? (My therapist says: "It's not pathological, it's loving. You're not a "cut off" kind of person. That's okay. You can accept yourself for wanting a connection with your parents. That's normal. You're not broken for wanting it." ---- IDK, I am not convinced of that.)

2. Cordial also means shallow and somewhat false. There isn't going to be a big (or small) showdown with them, no confrontation, no grand accounting, no apologies or amends. They have repeatedly proven incapable of talking things out in an honest and direct way without utterly melting down, lashing out, cutting me out of their life for months again, etc. I have accept their limitations in order to have a relationship with them.

So nobody holds my dad accountable for maiming my mother?! Not even to the extent of calmly stating that fact, refusing to let it remain a family secret? I just ... let it go, so he gets away the same way that my ex husband got away with his abuse of me? And nobody confronts my mother about her ongoing verbal abuse of my dad? How is that right?! It makes me feel dirty, as if I am complicit in their abuse to have a relationship with them while keeping silent about this. I should "woman up" and speak my truth even though that will almost certainly cause a permanent rupture.

If I had to summarize my conflict as a tl;dr, here's how I would put it: The practical, maximally-beneficial choice is the direct opposite of the honest, morally compelling one.

Can anyone help me by sharing their perspective or helping me reframe this or something...?
posted by MiraK to Human Relations (22 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
The thing that helps me in situations like this is to realize that I’m looking for a good answer that doesn’t exist. If you cut your parents out you’ll feel bad about it, and keeping them in your life evidently makes you feel bad too. Ergo, there is no magical good choice. Some things just suck, and the only halfway useful thing is to realize when you’ve encountered one of these intractably sucky situations.

The silver lining of recognizing such a situation is that you can quit beating yourself up for “not having found the good answer.”
posted by hungrytiger at 12:11 PM on January 1, 2019 [36 favorites]

I sure don't know the answer, but I'm so impressed with your ability to frame to question so clearly, and to have found a healthy, sane perspective amidst all the abuse you suffered as a child and young adult. It really speaks to your resilience. I'm so happy you got out of the abusive relationship with your ex-husband so that you and your children can live without the continued exposure to an abusive environment.

I started to say that it seems fine to keep your parents in your life so long as they adhere to your boundaries and you don't expect more from them than they're able to give, which you're just no way going to get. But then as I was writing this I thought, even though you're in a place where your parents don't have control over you - my bigger concern would be your kids' exposure to their ongoing toxic behavior toward each other, you, and your kids - especially concerned about negativity toward your son. Bottom line - they're not going to change, I don't believe it's possible to have the emotionally fulfilling, honest, healthy relationship with them you hope for but if you can accept a surfacey, heavily controlled (by you) relationship with stringent boundaries, and your children enjoy them, occasional, and very supervised visits could be okay.
posted by ms_rasclark at 12:12 PM on January 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

I am so sorry you had to live this. It sounds horrific. I don't have any good advice to share, but wanted to say that all of your complex feelings around this complex and messed up history are completely understandable. I guess I would say to be careful if you keep them in your life that they are not treating your kids in any abusive manner. I also want to suggest that the hurdle of actually cutting family out of your life can seem overwhelming or unthinkable- but that doesn't mean it's the wrong thing to do. Best of luck
posted by DTMFA at 12:16 PM on January 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

(My therapist says: "It's not pathological, it's loving. You're not a "cut off" kind of person. That's okay. You can accept yourself for wanting a connection with your parents. That's normal. You're not broken for wanting it."

I don't think that constructing a black-and-white dichotomy between normal and "broken" -- a fairly repellent term to use about other people, even in the negative -- is useful, and if you find it frustrating you could ask your therapist to talk about things in a different way. to say that your present-day impulses and behaviors towards your parents are totally fine and just reflect the kind of person you are is, also, to imply that their extreme abuse had no lasting permanent effects on you. if you don't agree, this kind of normalization might seem belittling of your trauma (it would to me). plus, normal for a survivor of child abuse is not always good, and doesn't have to be an upper limit for you.

it can be a positive character trait to always want to forgive and make peace, but you don't have to discard that trait in order to disregard it in any one instance. you could say: my instinct is to bury the past and create harmony, but I am not going to follow my instinct because I choose instead to value speaking the truth more highly. you do not have to decide that you're "broken" in order to choose a course of action that isn't perfectly in line with your conditioned reflexes. you could force a rupture with your parents without abandoning those basic good qualities of your personality.

The practical, maximally-beneficial choice is the direct opposite of the honest, morally compelling one.

that sounds accurate. though it doesn't mean it's dishonest or immoral to do what you're doing.

one thing that might influence your thinking is that by suppressing the truth about your parents' past, you are in one way giving your children the gift of loving grandparents, but in another way it sets them up for a devastating blow later in life when they discover that the people they loved aren't real. if I were you, I would work with your therapist to develop a gradual way to tell your kids that their grandparents weren't always nice people. (if you haven't already.) certain details, like the origin of your mother's hearing impairment, should absolutely be shared with your kids at some point even if you hold them back until adolescence or so. you can end the family secrecy this way even if you don't cut off your parents.
posted by queenofbithynia at 12:34 PM on January 1, 2019 [22 favorites]

The perspective I have to add is that, from the point of view of your children, having your parents in their life as grandparents may not necessarily actually be the maximally beneficial choice.

My mother had a very unhappy childhood (emotional abuse plus parents that became extremely racist by the time she was in high school). She did not cut off contact with them, and although her relationship with them was always pretty fraught, my sibling and I knew them as loving and kind grandparents and have some very good memories of spending time at their house. They did not express their racist and/or otherwise terrible beliefs around us.

My grandfather died when I was 8 and my grandmother when I was in high school, and in between those two deaths I learned a lot of the bad side of them. I now feel sad whenever I think of them, not because they are gone now, but because of how much damage they did to mother's life and mental health, and because I feel that they must have had pretty unhappy lives themselves. Furthermore I can imagine that, had they not both died fairly young, it would have been fairly awful if I had had to, e.g. deal with my grandfather as an 18 year old.

I'm not saying that you necessarily should cut off contact with your parents, but just that, when considering it, when you think that you are depriving your children of a relationship with their grandparents, it is also worthing thinking that you are possibly sparing them the potential grief and ambivalence that might come along with that, and that you can weigh both of these as factors.
posted by desert at 12:40 PM on January 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

The thing about emotional pain is that (sometimes) it can manifest in a way that doesn't stop you from doing stuff. A broken foot stops you from walking, but a broken heart doesn't always impair function. In this case you can go about having a relationship with your parents and telling yourself you've accepted things, but you really haven't (nor, necessarily, should you) and this contradiction is resulting in pain. But the pain doesn't stop you from functioning so you keep telling yourself you've accepted things. My approach would be to work on healing that pain - indeed it may mean the relationship with grandparents needs to stop, because of wanting to end that complicity, or it may mean something like queenofbithnya's solution. You're doing really well, and have really good insight - and you deserve a real solution.
posted by Mistress at 12:42 PM on January 1, 2019 [8 favorites]

First, all the hugs/fist bumps of affirmation. This situation just sucks, and yeah, like hungrytiger said, it really may be that there's no answer that's going to let your heart rest easy.

How is that right?

None of this is right, will never be right, was never right, ever. And, from what you've shared here, there may never be accountability or apology. If that is the situation, how do you move forward in the here and now with such a conflicted set of feelings? Keep taking your conflict to your therapist. Keep your guard up, physically and emotionally, with your parents, and keep defending your kids from their stealth shit. I think you're so strong for hanging on through all of it, and you're still able to love and be aware and want to process things...and want to align your material choices with your beliefs even when they cannot be reconciled. You made it through the really awful stuff. You will make it through the echos in an imperfect, unsatisfying way. Shallow, false, but also workable in a limited fashion if your guard is up and your expectations are low. (Lower than that, even.) I can't tell you how to live in this question, but you have my support in finding whatever way through it works from day to day, year to year, and situation to situation.
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:46 PM on January 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

Remember that you don't have to make one final decision about any of this now. It's ok to sit with what's happening right now and not make changes, and then decide to make changes later. Or to step away from the relationship now and then see how you feel later and change your mind. There's no perfect choice, and it may help to take some pressure off yourself to find one.
posted by lazuli at 12:47 PM on January 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

1. I went no contact with my parents, because I don’t think I’d be able to maintain such strong boundaries, or rather: I would for a while, and then I’d be lulled into feeling safe again, only to find that I’m not (my situation wasn’t as bad, though). I’d absolutely love to have contact with them. But you see, at least in my case, and I don’t know if this is an issue for you too, what I’d really love to have, is not just contact, but a really good relationship, one where I could let down my guard - not going to happen. I don’t think you’re driven by a ‘pathological need to please’, but a very natural biological need - we’re hardwired to want to be liked by our parents, because historically they’d be the ones guaranteeing our survival into adulthood, at least theoretically. But if of all the limited options you have, having this relationship with them is the option that suits your personal needs best, then why shouldn’t you do it this way?

2. If they were ever able to acknowledge their wrongdoings, you probably wouldn’t need a confrontation - they’d know already. I’m assuming there have been plenty of smaller fights and arguments and confrontations before, and even if not, it should be obvious from your interactions with each other that something’s deeply amiss. I’m actually reading this point as that you’re struggling that they will never admit that they’ve ever done wrong (and that’s so hard to accept!). Just imagine if someone had brought a court case against them and they had been found guilty. Would they be held accountable for what they did? Yes. But would it change anything for them? No, not at all, they’d still think that their actions were reasonable and justified, and that they are innocent. I think the more important question is what you model for your children. If your parents ever comment on any abuse from the past, do you speak up, or do you let it slide? Have you spoked with you children about your experiences?
posted by eierschnee at 12:53 PM on January 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have [to] accept their limitations in order to have a relationship with them.

To me, this is one of the most important things you've said. I want to underscore this. It's OK to make the choice to have that relationship. You just have to keep in mind that they have these limitations. You'll probably never be able to fully trust them to have your interests or your children's best interests in mind, as DTMFA and ms_rasclark note. Not trusting them fully but still choosing to keep them in your life at a surface level, at arm's length, for higher reasons is also OK. Just be mindful that as you're maintaining this contact by things carefully unsaid and other half-truths, you keep a clear awareness in mind of what the actual truth is in your life, and as queenofbithynia suggests, work to bring the narrative toward a place where your kids also are able to learn the truth. Keeping your own truth in mind, maintaining boundaries, and stating the full truth eventually is going to be exceedingly important if you continue to let your family into your life.

Don't let them rewrite the narrative. It's entirely possible that they've written a very different narrative of your childhood for themselves; when I started to talk at a dinner a couple years ago about the abusive conditions I'd grown up in, one relative who'd known about my father's abuse of my mother seemed completely unaware that my brother and I had been hit and emotionally abused, too. I've had to reiterate it a few times since as they've somehow put it out of mind or tried to minimize it, perhaps to reduce the cognitive dissonance of knowing that happened but they didn't recognize it or do anything about it. I've also had to realize that while my mother was doing the best she could in a difficult situation, her choices to stay and to avoid enforcing real boundaries had (and sometimes continue to have) a negative effect on my life. Mindfulness can help with this sort of thing—learning to notice and deal with that dissonance.

What's also hard is, when you're coming to realizations about yourself and how things played out in your marriage to an abusive man, the honesty and self-awareness you've cultivated in dealing with that and all of the things that came out of your childhood experiences will feel at odds with the choice to keep these people who were once abusive to you in your life. Just remember: It doesn't have to be all or nothing. And as lazuli notes, these choices don't have to be static, either. You can choose now to have a relationship with them, and if it doesn't work out well or proves too toxic for you (the way just going to see my father used to give me recurring nightmares) or the kids, you don't have to keep doing it. You can try this, then later you can always go another way.

Some people might think it's awful that I didn't go to see my father for much of his last year, and maybe it was confusing, after I'd chosen to have a relationship with him for much of my adult life. I guess it was awful, but it was also the logical outcome of life choices he'd made decades before that. I can feel that pity while also feeling strongly that I made the right choice. To me, choosing that on my own terms, in both cases, was a natural part of my growth as an adult (choosing to do the difficult thing and walk the high road, I felt like, by having him in my life and then helping him when he could no longer help himself, then choosing later to focus on myself and not continue to put myself in a situation where I had to deal with him beyond maintaining his finances). You're allowed to make your own choices here, on the basis of what works best for yourself and for your children, and choose something different later on.

Be well, and don't be too hard on yourself!
posted by limeonaire at 12:55 PM on January 1, 2019 [10 favorites]

I wonder if you could find a balance between "massive confrontation" and "pretend nothing ever happened". I know I will never openly confront my mum about the abuse in our household, in the sense of "HOW COULD YOU, DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT DID TO ME!" I do however mention it from time to time, to let her know I have not forgotten. Almost jokily. "Haha, why do you think I spent years in therapy" or "no, dad didn't sexually abuse me, he just beat you up, haha". It also gives you some distance / removes the vulnerability that would come from a tearful or angry confrontation. And, if they are as eager to please you now as you say, I bet it would not lead to a definitive rupture (you also have their grandkids, they won't wanna lose those).
posted by ClarissaWAM at 12:55 PM on January 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

I’m in a similar situation and have made similar choices. Interestingly my parents claim to want to have a close connection to my kids (and I) but don’t follow through as well now that my kids are older. If I were doing it over I would have cut contact, but now that my kids have relationships with them, I feel like it’s less worth the drama.

I have no answers but I have a few small tweaks that I’ve enjoyed.

I’ve started saying to my friends and colleagues “I was raised by wolves.” This is vague enough that I haven’t had to explain it but I feel good about it,

I’ve said to my kids a few times that I’m sad after a visit or angry about something. Calmly.

I leave the room if people go down faux-memory lane. Or I say “that’s not howI remember it.”

I write my own memories down.

I’ve accepted that there is no scoreboard in the sky that holds people to account. In a way, that thinking itself came out of my dysfunctional family, that “something awful” would come if I revealed my truth, and then I kind of wanted it to happen to the right parties. But that’s not how it works, at least not while alive (and I have no religious stance on any potential after.) This is both painful and freeing.
posted by warriorqueen at 1:07 PM on January 1, 2019 [11 favorites]

It's wonderful that you want to keep your parents in your life and that they are good grandparents. Good on you for being mature and having boundaries.

It might take you more years to process and be more yourself around your parents. Eventually it will come and you will be able to completely be yourself around your parents, without defensiveness or shallowness. Or, maybe not. All relationships don't have to be 100% authentic. There are instances in your life where you will have a cordial and polite relationship, without complete soul-baring or genuineness.

I had an abusive parent. I was physically abused throughout my childhood and witnessed my mother and sibling, and sometimes strangers, being physically and emotionally abused. Too numerous to count. Let's just say it was a regular part of my life from0-17. I most likely had PTSD. Lots of shame, anxiety, and depression. Went through therapy. Was an effed-up mess for a long time. Got better. Grew older. Had realizations. Here is what I realized about my abusive parent or any abusive person:

They can't help it. They don't want to be this way. They truly can't help it and are controlled by their minds. They are miserable and self-hating when abusive. They had abusive childhoods, many times way worse than our experience. They are controlled by their thoughts and shame and are often triggered by their own pain and wounds. They identify with things that aren't important (their pain, their past, outward appearance, how they are perceived by others, etc.) and lash out when things aren't going right in their minds and in their "life", which is often because they believe their thoughts.

Physical and emotional violence happens when people believe and identify with their negative, false, thoughts. It happens across the spectrum of humanity - tribal wars, murderers, physical abusers, narcissists, your run-of-the-mill jerks. These people aren't bad, they are possessed by their minds. You mom has BPD, this should illicit some understanding. I know it is difficult. I had anger and hate for my abusive parent for years. For decades. I thank god and universe that I was able to let that go. It nearly destroyed my life and my relationships suffered.

My philosophy: If your abusive parents aren't abusive in present day, there is no need to estrange. You don't need forgiveness. When someone says, "I forgive you", or "You are forgiven" That is one ego judging another ego. Forgiveness is a feeling of understanding how humans operate. An apology is nice and shows effort and remorse and a desire to change. And sometimes things need to be said, not repeatedly but once to clear the air if you feel like that is something that you need to do.

Your parents lash out and cut off because they are still controlled by their pain and their minds. They want love and connection and peace but it's not always possible because they are run by their heads instead of the essence of who they are -- a divine peaceful human. They do not want to be abusers. Nobody does. If we are controlled by our thoughts and "who we think we are", we get wounded and feel slighted easily because we feel judged and devalued as a person. When you bring up up past hurts or current behaviors your parents' personhood is being called into question. They can't see they were possessed and can't say: I am sorry. I love you. Please forgive me.

It's too painful for them to be criticized. When I look back on my behavior with my kids and husband (yelling, screaming, defensiveness, caring too much about what others thought of me, a hard time with intimacy, vulnerability), I can see that I was controlled by my painful thoughts and guilt and shame. No need to cry over that or be defensive or sugarcoat it or pretend it didn't happen. It happened. My loved ones suffered. I apologized and continue to apologize if I have a moment where I am being ruled by my mind instead of what is.

Back to the parents: I like to live in the now and I don't like to think about the past unless necessary. Not because it's painful, but because it's rarely necessary. Previously I hard a very hard time being in the same room with my abusive parent. I hated him for decades. I would be an emotional wreck for days afterward. (I told this much after years of being identified and ruled by my anger. This was an unnecessary step, but it happened and what was I going to do? I (my mind) thought I was "wronged" and so I had to voice my victimhood.) How nice it would have been if I was able to have a simple understanding and get on with my life. Nobody meant to abuse. It wasn't personal. I was not targeted. I can now be with my parents in mostly complete peace. I can listen, be with, and enjoy without labels. They are flawed. I am flawed. I try. They try. It's wonderful and it's a miracle.
posted by loveandhappiness at 1:22 PM on January 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

You don't have to like or even forgive the abusive parents upon whom you were dependent 20 years ago. You can choose to like and have a relationship with the 70 year old adults who are your peers today. You can also choose instead to hold them to account for their past actions and go NC and that's OK too.

But people evolve. Even the Buddha evolved.

As long as your choice puts nobody in danger, there is no right answer here and nobody to sit in judgement of the choice you make except you.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:13 PM on January 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thank you, everyone, for your answers and advice. It's helping me to reframe this is as a situation with no satisfying choices, it just sucks, the end.

Re: kids. To everyone who wondered about protecting them from their grandparents, rest assured, I am keeping a very close eye and supervising the hell out of their interactions. queenofbythinia and others have given me my next big thing to work on, which is, How To Stop Wanting To Run Away Screaming Forever At The Thought Of Sharing Family Secrets With Kids. Augh! I have no end of respect for all of you who have done what must surely be done, but is still among the most horrifying things I can imagine doing.

Most intriguing was warriorqueen's response, specifically this part:

> Interestingly my parents claim to want to have a close connection to my kids (and I) but don’t follow through as well now that my kids are older.

Ohhhh this is EXACTLY what's going to happen with my parents! I can just see their interest wearing off as soon as the kids become slightly harder to reach or please. I'd love to know what that's like for you and your kids, warriorqueen, if you don't mind elaborating. Others with thoughts and experiences also pls chime in. Is this an eventuality that needs "preparation" from my end, or can I just let it happen as it will - because after all, I doubt teenage children who only see their grandparents once a year will be overly heartbroken at their declining interest..

Thank you all again, this has been very helpful.
posted by MiraK at 2:51 PM on January 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

So nobody holds my dad accountable for maiming my mother?! Not even to the extent of calmly stating that fact, refusing to let it remain a family secret? I just ... let it go, so he gets away the same way that my ex husband got away with his abuse of me? And nobody confronts my mother about her ongoing verbal abuse of my dad? How is that right?!

There's been some really good advice above, so just let me focus on this one particular issue. One thing you will have to come to accept, regardless of what you do, is that there will never be any real accountability for what happened in the past. When you think about could there be? What would that even look like? They're not going to jail--there will be no extrinsic consequences. If conflict with you was sufficient to force them to reconsider their ways, repent, and strive to be better people, it would already have happened. Without insight, there will never be intrinsic consequences. They will perceive anything negative happening to them as a result of their behavior as unjust and victimizing.

This is challenging. I had an abusive relative whom I cut off years ago and who died this year. I remember thinking: I was the first one to say that what this person was doing wasn't right; in the end, most people in this person's life came around to my point of view; this person died having thrown away the family they would otherwise have been entitled to; but was there any real justice in the end? Did it make any difference? No. This person died in reasonable comfortable circumstances, having found the last caregiver to deceive and exploit, thinking of themselves as fundamentally a good person and a victim of a cruel world and unfair people. This person may have died more comfortably than I will, owing to this person's skill at finding kind but weak people to batten off of in the short term. I thought I had given up on any idea of accountability years ago, but still the thought came to me.

But understanding that you can't, yourself, administer justice here may free you up a little to do what feels appropriate to you, rather than feeling you have a responsibility to play the role of Nemesis and must sacrifice any contrary feelings to moral consistency.
posted by praemunire at 3:00 PM on January 1, 2019 [13 favorites]

I recently read the book 'Breaking Thru Gridlock' which is about how to have difficult conversations successfully. The way I think it might help you is that it focuses on identifying and maintaining your values during such interactions.
posted by bq at 3:54 PM on January 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh, wow, I feel you. I, too, am in contact with my family, mainly so I don't regret it when they are older and/or gone, and it is hard, hard, hard. Thanks to therapy and wonderful support from friends and my spiritual community, I have been able to build good boundaries and do some fairly intensive, deep work, although there is more to be done.

One thing that works well for me when visiting family is to invoke the character of Cordelia in King Lear (preferably omitting the part when she is executed in Act IV). I remind myself that "I love (them) according to my bond, neither more nor less," and interact with my family based on that. When I go to visit, I go for the express purpose of seeing them and spending time with them, and (try to) let go of any specific outcome. It doesn't always work, but I've noticed since I've started doing this, the old buttons and issues no trigger me, even when hammered, and we get through an entire visit without raised voices, or even much conflict (at least on my part).

(The downside, though, is that my family is REALLY angry with me for having and setting these boundaries , and is engaging in some very painful and exclusionary behavior of their own. But, to me, it's absolutely worth it).
posted by dancing_angel at 7:35 PM on January 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Hey MiraK. With my kids they have three very different experiences with grandparents - my husband’s dad is basically not in their lives. My mother-in-law lives with us. My parents live close part of the year and down south part of the year. They have pretty much just taken all of the various levels of involvement over the years as a given. We’re their home base and the grandparents are extras. I don’t think my kids are that aware of that narcissistic withdrawal (well documented in the book “Why is it always about you”!).

They are sometimes taken aback. My parents exhibit odd gift-giving behaviour for example; last year for Christmas they gave my youngest colouring books that we got free with 1988...and my oldest some mouldy, crumbling comic books. My oldest in particular is not unaware that they also own several homes and a luxury car. But that’s my parents, and that’s pretty much how we put it - “that’s them.”

One line I have drawn in the sand is that we don’t really allow my kids to spend more than a few hours with them, like no overnight trips. My mum once or twice has had inappropriate conversations (murders, accidents, etc.) with them so we have had to be tuned in. The real danger points were around 4-6, when my kids were able to upset my mum but not able to express their feelings about what was, again once or twice, a cold withdrawal or a snappy remark.

I am a bit “lucky” in that my dad has a cognitive impairment so I’m able to rest some excuses at his door - we “don’t tire him out” quite a lot.

Most of the brunt of the narcissistic rage as the kids stopped being cute snugglebugs came at me though, with very dramatic phone calls about how “worried” she was about [my parenting, whatever the specifics] and it’s mostly for that reason I wish I’d made different kids have seen me have stressful family meals, get upset at phone calls, and recently my oldest son has started to be protective of me, so I’m very aware that I need to be careful not to let him get in the middle (luckily this is matched with them really losing interest.)

I actually remember my maternal grandmother being brutal towards my mother and father when I was 14 and I cut most contact with her (! Irony!) and although I have mixed feelings, that was actually one of the things growing up that worked out for me.

MeMail me if you like :)
posted by warriorqueen at 5:10 AM on January 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

My parents suck too. Not as bad as your parents. Mostly for me it's my Narcissist Mom, my dad is just a really big enabler.

I had to go through a whole grieving process. I had to give up on the whole idea of a healthy relationship. That picture in my head of parents who support me and cheer me on no matter what, parents who appreciate my talents and skills and see me for the whole person I am instead of how I reflect them. I had wanted that for so long: the approval, the unconditional love, the acceptance. And I realized I was never going to get it. I could do everything right and there would always be something else I should have done better.

I had to let go of all that, and it was very much like my mom died. It felt like it anyway. The idea I had in my head, the hope that someday she'd get some help and wake up and realize how selfish she was. That hope died. It took me two years to heal from that.

During that time I didn't speak with my mom. It hurt too much. My husband felt it was important for our kids to continue a relationship with my parents, so he kept in contact with them. But I didn't. I took the space I needed.

Now we have a cordial relationship. They come to see us and stay in a hotel. I'm polite and cheerful, but they don't get any information about my life that I wouldn't share publicly on Facebook. When we visit we stay with my sister.

I set boundaries and stick to them. If my boundaries are crossed I will simply leave. Take my kids and go home. The grandkids are all they care about now, so I have the power there.
posted by TooFewShoes at 7:45 AM on January 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

My approach has been to treat my parents as interesting adults who happen to have been my parents. They're good grandparents and they raised mostly successful children in at times trying circumstances but it works best for us both to not fall into the parent-child roles any more (this will no longer work once they are in need of elder care but it does for the moment).
posted by typecloud at 11:03 AM on January 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm just going to focus on one specific piece of the bigger picture you've described.

RE: " next big thing to work on, which is, How To Stop Wanting To Run Away Screaming Forever At The Thought Of Sharing Family Secrets With Kids..."

I'm glad you recognize that this is important to do, in its own time and as appropriate. Hopefully, your therapist will be a resource with this. As a therapist myself, I see in so many of my clients the generational legacy of secrets kept. The relationship and behavioral dynamics leak through somehow and may even skip generations, but often they pop up again and again (sometimes in slightly modified form). I hope you realize and feel pride at how you are literally creating better futures for your children and yourself by not repressing/ignoring what you all need for well-being.
posted by dancing leaves at 6:31 AM on January 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

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