How to turn down plans due to family drama I'd prefer to keep on the DL?
September 18, 2019 8:42 AM   Subscribe

My sibling and I keep getting invited to a family member's social events - but we've been having serious issues with one of our parents who also tends to attend, so we've been politely turning them down for a while now; the rub is that they're wonderful people, and I don't want them to think we're avoiding them because we don't like them. How do I turn down this (and future) invitations from them, without letting them know about all the crazy family drama going on behind the scenes?

Here's a few extra details that might help answer the question:

1. We're all adults here; it's not like we'd ever be forced to attend.

2. My family member sounded quite disappointed when I turned her down over the phone last time, probably since I've done so maybe five times in a row now... it was awkward. Plus I've heard through the grapevine that they're assuming we just don't enjoy their events at this point since we conjure up a random half-assed excuse each time we get an invitation, This assumption makes me very sad, since again - they're wonderful people and I don't want them to think I'm actively avoiding them because I dislike their side of the family or something; I actually like their events well enough when things are going okay!

3. I was considering sucking it up and attending, but based on recent meetings + phone calls with my parent, there's a 50/50 chance of a blowout fight between us, and that's on a *good* day. And to top it all off, things are rocky with my sibling now too thanks to a road trip gone wildly astray (I'll spare you the details). I'm still semi-considering going though.

4. The last time I saw these relatives was in March, and I left angry thanks to a few shitty comments from my parent. (TBF, the rest of the event was a lot of fun before that happened)

5. I'm not the best at pretending I'm on good terms with someone when I'm... not. I've managed it before but it takes a lot of emotional energy and I end up feeling like a fraud, although I'm usually proud of myself afterwards if it's for the sake of attending a social event I'd like to go to. But yeah, there's always a chance of a day-ruining fight between my parent and us; it's happened multiple times in the past few years.

6. My parent has BPD and has absolutely NO filter - they gossip like no other, so it's quite possible they've aired at least some of our dirty laundry and told the rest of the family their own subjective version of the truth; the thing is that my sibling and I often (again, subjectively) find this parent's account to be so far removed from objective truth that it's pretty much a lie. The problem is that they're very convincing; their ability to spin yarns and outright fabrications while sounding like they 100% believe in what they're saying unfortunately sort of reminds me of Trump. :-/ I'd like to believe they've caught on by now (my parent's siblings know not to trust them at all) but I can't be sure.

7. They'd probably expect me to drive my parent to the event, since said parent is living on disability and doesn't have a car; so if I agreed to go, I'd have to figure out a reason to not drive them since I am absolutely NOT going to put them in my car; it's too much of a pressure cooker and our last huge fight was in a car.

In any case - I'm planning on calling the family member either later today or else tomorrow; is there any way to let them know there are extenuating circumstances which prevent our attending for certain periods of time, and that it has nothing to do with us disliking them or their social gatherings? Maybe there's a tactful, non-trashy way to insinuate that there are issues going on behind the scenes family-wise? Or do you just think I should attend to make them happy and figure out some coping strategies for dealing with my parent, like avoiding them etc.?

Thanks in advance... I'm sick of spinning the wheel and giving a fake excuse, especially since I can hear the disappointment in my relative's voice every time I turn her down.
posted by CottonCandyCapers to Human Relations (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can you make separate plans to see this relative one-on-one? That should go some way to dispelling any fear they have that this is personal and about them specifically.
posted by eirias at 8:44 AM on September 18, 2019 [56 favorites]

No. Just tell them that you're not getting along with your parent, it's nothing to do with them but you're avoiding family gatherings. You don't need to lie and try to protect your parent to the detriment of others' feelings. That's unhealthy behaviour.
posted by valoius at 8:45 AM on September 18, 2019 [106 favorites]

It sounds like they probably know how difficult your parent is, and I'd really just lean on a softer version of the truth, "I need to set some boundaries with my parent." It's not like you are bringing new drama in.
posted by advicepig at 8:46 AM on September 18, 2019 [6 favorites]

Tell them! Tell them, and then make a separate plan to have coffee with them or some other low-pressure meeting so you can enjoy their company -- and show them that you enjoy their company -- without all the rest of the baggage.
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:49 AM on September 18, 2019 [23 favorites]

They’re going to think you don’t like *them*, no matter what you say, unless you at least sketch an outline of what’s going on. So if you want to keep any relationship with them, you’ve got to let them know what the issue is.
posted by leahwrenn at 8:52 AM on September 18, 2019 [13 favorites]

Definitely just tell them. You don't have to get into details. Given the way you describe your parent here they will probably not be surprised.
posted by something something at 8:58 AM on September 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

Speaking from experience: just tell them. Be simple, plain, and brief, not only to minimize emotion, but so as not to suggest that it's negotiable. "We'd love to see you. Unfortunately, we can't be at events that [x] is attending. Can we set up some other time to get together?" (Be prepared to make plans at that time, so it's clear that you're sincere.)
posted by praemunire at 9:22 AM on September 18, 2019 [6 favorites]

Don't keep this secret. You have been trained to keep these kinds of things private but you don't need to. "I don't want to get into a fight at your event. I don't want to go into it in detail because I don't want to talk bad about my mother but I just don't think it's a good idea."


"I really value seeing you and the family, let's make plans to have dinner or similar soon. I've been missing you guys!"
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:23 AM on September 18, 2019 [33 favorites]

"Parent is going through some mental health issues right now and it's been difficult for me to be around them and also enjoy the event. Is it possible we could catch up at some other time? I miss you and I'm sorry this is getting in the way of us spending time together but it's how it has to be for now."

there's a 50/50 chance of a blowout fight between us

I had a parent with similar problems and avoided family events because of it, and I regret that somewhat. It's worth noting that it takes two to have a blowout fight and some of this may be worth just sort of retooling your responses to parent (you can google "grey rock approach") to see if you can be around them without engaging. I know it's tough and I'm the last person to be like "Hey this is easy" but learning to do that may be the price of being able to attend these events if you decide to do that. I am sorry your parent has a mental health problem and it sucks that other family may be stuck in the middle of it but I think you'll find that people can at least empathize with your issues if not flat-out believe your version of it.
posted by jessamyn at 9:24 AM on September 18, 2019 [12 favorites]

You don't have to tell them the gory details, you just need to say "I'm sorry to have turned down recent invitations from you. I want to make sure you know it isn't about you. I love spending time with you and appreciate being included, but right now I'm taking a break from Parent. I'd love to have lunch with you afterwards, though! How about Tuesday?"
posted by DarlingBri at 9:24 AM on September 18, 2019 [23 favorites]

I agree with DarlingBri. I have been the "left behind friend" in some other people's interpersonal issues and it's not fun. However, knowing what was going on and also getting apologies and acknowledgement from the person who was declining my invitations was helpful. As was getting other times to hang out with my person outside of group settings that they felt they could not attend.

I also agree with Jessamyn. My top friend in life (see paragraph above) hasn't attended my annual casual birthday gathering in several years due to this interpersonal conflict that she has. This year, when I was going through some really tough times including the death of my mother just weeks before, I really wanted my close friends there to just be around me and it hurt that she wasn't there.
posted by amanda at 9:47 AM on September 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

There are probably some seriously crazy stories circulating about you in the family right now. Think about it. At one of the last 5 gatherings that you weren't at, somebody asked "Hey, how's CottonCandyCapers?" and your parent answered that question.

You did say it's quite possible they've aired at least some of our dirty laundry and told the rest of the family their own subjective version of the truth. I would guess that is going on big time.

To answer your question, I think you can minimize drama from yourself, but I think keeping all of it on the DL is unrealistic.

In this upcoming phone call I would use some of the excellent wording others have suggested above and make it clear that you enjoy spending time with this relative. If you just fade out then the stories that the BPD parent made up are the only stories that everybody has. You really, really, really do not want your BPD parent controlling the narrative, ask me how I know.
posted by selfmedicating at 10:06 AM on September 18, 2019 [6 favorites]

Call relative. Parent and I have been having a fair bit of conflict and I'm trying to ration the stress. I/We miss seeing you guys; are you free this weekend? Could we get together for a meal?

I think not discussing Parents's issues is a great way to reduce the cumulative drama, so gloss over it. I had a parent with bipolar and alcoholism, and drama was plentiful and toxic. I learned the value of distraction with Parent who was about to blow -introduce a new, irresistible topic. They generally took the bait, and the fireworks were delayed and sometimes avoided entirely. Use distraction to avoid discussing Parent's stuff, unless it would help to have a listener.

If you can, go to events, planning to stay a short time. I have a schedule conflict, but wanted to stop by. Parent may be able to act okay for short periods.

I put a lot of distance between bipolar parent and myself, not full no-contact, but I was able to be in control of any contact, and that allowed me to rebuild the relationship over time. Good Luck.
posted by theora55 at 10:18 AM on September 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Never hide family drama.

Pull that shit out into the open and give it a good airing. In the long run, everyone will be better off...
posted by The Blue Olly at 10:41 AM on September 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

Don't come up with a fake excuse, that just adds to the drama and can lead to hurt feelings. Just say that you and your parent have been having problems and you're worried that if you're both at the event that it'll turn into a fight. It has happened before, so Relative will know what you're talking about.

Then invite Relative to do something, so you can spend time together and reconnect. You might also want to host your own family event (where you can control the guest list), if you're not too afraid of that stirring the pot or that your parent will crash it. Like maybe have an event for mostly family members around your age/stage of life, so you can reconnect with Sibling and it won't be an implicit snub to Parent?

Personally, I would probably go to Relative's events and just try to avoid a fight (don't let your parent bait you into one, for sure), because why should your parent's bullshit get in the way of your other relationships and having fun? You can always leave if the event stops being a good time or you need to cool off. But you're a better judge of whether that's a viable option.

You can also be real with Relative about the transportation situation: "I can't drive Parent to or from because the car is like a pressure cooker!" Yeah, maybe there will be some guilt-tripping but it's also a totally understandable request. The car IS a pressure cooker! And I mean, these are all people who know Parent and have had to come up with their own ways of dealing with Parent. I don't see all of them jumping up to volunteer to drive Parent to and fro, either.
posted by rue72 at 10:56 AM on September 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's tough, because it's embarrassing sometimes to show people outside your family dynamic how things really work. When one of my parents died and the family gathered for their memorial, it was impossible to hide the sibling drama that has been happening for years in other locations (nobody lived close to this parent.) The people gathered together were people who knew me as a child, people who had not seen me in many years, and it was none of their business and not their problem - but there we all were. The parent's executor (a family friend, my age, who is a totally nice person trying to do a good job) has been the ongoing witness to just how difficult things are, and it sucks. I wish they didn't have to know, and I wish things were different with my sibling, but this is what we've got.

You should not try to cover over this problem. You're not the one making it awkward, things are already difficult for you. While you may not wish to involve your extended family member, your parent already has, and it shouldn't be on you to skip every gathering, forever. Everyone above me has given good suggestions.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 10:58 AM on September 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's worth noting that it takes two to have a blowout fight

With respect, when you are dealing with seriously disordered people, this is not entirely true. It only takes one person to have a screaming fit directed at you, accuse you of harming them, or even get physical. Maybe that's not a "fight" as such, but it's a big problem. It's also a lot to ask of someone to completely control their reaction to a parent being severely disordered; I don't think that is a reasonable expectation in every circumstance and kudos to you, OP, for realizing your own limits.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:06 AM on September 18, 2019 [27 favorites]

Yeah, in trying to avoid creating drama, you may well be creating some stress for the relative that you like, as they try to guess at the problem. My advice is to be direct but vague. "Relative, listen, I was trying to avoid talking about this, and it's all a bit awkward, but I've felt terrible for not attending your events, so I wanted you to know I'm having some difficulties with [parent] right now, and I'm avoiding family gatherings for fear of a big fight and other issues coming up. I'd rather not go into details, and I'm so sorry this has impacted you. I'd love to get together with just you. Can we get coffee?"
posted by bluedaisy at 1:20 PM on September 18, 2019

I think the polite way to do this is to turn them down without comment, and then to invite them over for a dinner/bbq with you and your sister, without your parents.
posted by amaire at 2:24 PM on September 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

they're wonderful people and I don't want them to think I'm actively avoiding them because I dislike their side of the family or something; I actually like their events well enough when things are going okay!

They will think you don't like them if you never reciprocate an invitation, even if you were saying yes to all the ones they issue. if you want to maintain a relationship with these people unaffected by your parent, you have to do more than convince them that you do enjoy their social events when you're able to attend.

when you can't go because of a tense family situation that doesn't involve them, you can tell them that. if you want to make sure they believe you and aren't hurt, tell them in person at an event you're hosting yourself.
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:38 PM on September 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Your parent's issues are already not a secret; when someone in a family or friend group has a BPD-type issue, the people around them always know.

I agree with everyone saying essentially that keeping it "secret" is part of the overall dysfunction - as long as you're worried about hiding it, you're still in it, whether you're talking to your parent or not.

If the people issuing the repeated invitations are people you care about, I think you should tell them why you're turning them down, and work on building a non-party-situation social relationship with them. Hiding things keeps people apart; opening up brings you closer together.
posted by invincible summer at 3:27 PM on September 18, 2019

Coming up with elaborate reasons not to directly address this is not anti-drama - it is the very definition of drama. Just being frank and honest will be 1000% less dramatic than these games.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:57 PM on September 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

Drama comes from not saying anything. Secrets that impact observable behavior are more toxic to relationships than just about anything else.

If you need some help with what words to actually use, check out some relevant posts at Captain Awkward.
posted by dancing leaves at 8:46 AM on September 19, 2019

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