Estranged side of the family won't leave us alone - what do we do?
March 26, 2021 9:59 AM   Subscribe

My wife has been estranged from her family for over a year now and they will not stop contacting her. They have tried coming to our home unannounced, sending emails, as well as sending things in the mail. She has blocked their texts but they still send them (our carrier/phone just routes them to a blocked folder). She just noticed another text today and it pushed her over the edge - we need to know what options we have in our state (Utah) to deal with this.

I met my wife about two and a half years ago when she (and her two children) were living with her parents. She had left an abusive relationship and was getting back on her feet while staying with them. Without going into details that aren't relevant, it was an incredibly toxic environment and as soon as our relationship had made progress we decided she could move in with me and my two children in the home I own. We got married about a year later and our lives are all in a pretty happy, healthy place.

Things were testy between her and her family (specifically her mother and brother) as grandma had a very toxic, unhealthy relationship with her children - grandma said very open in her opinion that my wife did not love her kids and that grandma was their "real" mother. Once my wife was out of their house, she was able to establish better boundaries but grandma continued to violate them. Grandma is a textbook narcissist and it got so bad we eventually decided we needed to have a final conversation to lay out our boundaries one last time. During the conversation, she blew up at my wife and said every horrific thing she could think of - I won't go into details, but I was absolutely shocked as I've never seen someone talk to their own child like that. We left their house that day and cut all ties. Up to that point that, they had been trying to convince me that she was a horrible person that was just tricking me, and that if I knew who she really was I'd never marry her. Once we stepped away, they started telling her that I was controlling her and she went from one abusive marriage to another and so on. I have become the villain in their eyes, but I'm fine with that if it takes some of their hate off of her.

There was sporadic uninvited one-way contact for a while - they'd leave presents for the kids on our doorstep, send texts, etc. but nothing too serious. One day grandma showed up and I answered the door; she asked to speak to my wife. I told her I would see if she was available and closed the door. My wife said she did not want to talk to her, so I went to the door and told grandma she didn't want to speak to her. She begged and begged to speak with her to apologize - my wife overheard this and came to the door and told her in no uncertain terms to leave and never come on our property again. She hasn't come back (she still continues to text her), but now her brother is sending her strange texts and letters that are concerning to my wife. I'm not worried about grandma so much - she's pretty harmless in terms of danger to my wife or kids, she's just incredibly toxic. Her brother is a different story.

Her brother is a veteran with PTSD who has the all too uncommon "I've seen and done some shit..." situation. He was diagnosed bipolar but refuses to take his medication, and spent much of his childhood in custody as he was prone to violent outbursts. He refuses to accept any form of counseling or therapy - in his mind, he's the only one that sees the world clearly and everyone else is trying to manipulate him. To this day he still texts my wife once every couple months with passive-aggressive things - nothing overtly threatening, but definitely very pointedly insulting. He blames her for destroying the family and tries to make her feel guilty for standing up for herself. She has never responded to him, but he continues to send them. He went as far as drawing a picture of a flower and writing a nonsensical ominous poem about saying goodbye and two siblings who walked different paths and mailing it to my wife's work. My wife took the letter with her to her next counseling session and showed it to her therapist to get her opinion - the therapist was alarmed by the tone of the letter and advised my wife to keep it in case he did something stupid.

My wife is beginning to feel concerned for her safety, especially with regard to her brother. He has never overtly threatened her, but with his history of instability and violence and his refusal to let her live her own life, she doesn't put it past him to show up one day and try to harm both of us. Her parents do know where we live, so it isn't out of the question for him to find out where we live. We do have a security system and doorbell camera and have trained our kids never to answer the door - we handle anyone that knocks or rings the doorbell. My wife is now considering changing her phone number in an effort to get away from this contact, and I'm wondering if we need to go a legal route.

I'm not sure he has met the threshold for anything like a restraining order or protective order - I'm going to speak with an attorney tomorrow, but I'm guessing that may not be an option yet. What other options might we have other than avoidance (by changing phone numbers and moving in a few years) and legal intervention? Unfortunately, I don't think a protective order would do much - he's not going to be deterred and may even be pushed into action by that. We don't know what to do at this point - my wife is experiencing extreme anxiety related to this and we aren't sure how to proceed. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A piece of paper can't protect you or your family.

Your only true option is to move away without leaving any forwarding address, at least a couple hours away, so visiting is difficult, if not impossible.
posted by kschang at 10:06 AM on March 26 [41 favorites]

kschang is right. If it was just Grandma and mom, and they were just an annoyance, you could step up the gatekeeping game a bit until (as awful as it is to say) Grandma died.

But the brother sounds like a real danger, and very unstable. For your safety and absolute long-term piece of mind, you and your wife need to start looking for employment as far away as you can get. Other side of the country if you can manage it. Yes, it's going to suck to uproot the kids now, but better to do it once and done, then try to move a couple hours away and then have to move again and again if he keeps tracking you down.

Also, although I'm sure your aware, the normal warnings about after you move you need to basically lock down all your social media, and heavily monitor the kid's too so no one accidently gives away where you moved to.

I'm so sorry you and your new family is having to deal with this situation.
posted by sharp pointy objects at 10:26 AM on March 26 [6 favorites]

I have relevant experience dealing with A) abusive in-laws and B) living in Utah. My strategy entailed 1) sending everybody I didn’t want contact from a “no-contact letter” (of which there are many templates online) via USPS certified mail or other service with a tracking number, followed by 2) calling the non-emergency line of your local police jurisdiction every time contact was made after the letter was received. In the letter, reference Utah Code Ann. § 76-5-106.5, which deals with stalking and is the behavior you want to cease.

After one relative didn’t get the message from the letter and speaking with the police from two different jurisdictions (!), I hired a process server to deliver the no-contact letter and obtain an affidavit that the relative had received the letter. I think I hired Wasatch Constables, but any service should do. Fortunately this was enough for the message to finally sink in (knock on wood).

If that had been still insufficient, I would have applied for a Civil Stalking Injunction ( and presented evidence of the certified letter, police case numbers and affidavit. YMMV going that route, but that’s the next step logistically. Be prepared to state firmly and emphatically to the police that the contact causes you both emotional distress; the local “culture” seems predisposed to downplaying the severity of such behavior. I also struggled to find an attorney willing to handle things, but perhaps you will luck out.

I’m sorry this is happening and wish you luck in resolving it. PM me with any questions.
posted by agnielson at 10:39 AM on March 26 [38 favorites]

I have an internet stalker that used to work for me and knows pretty much all about me. I have done extensive research on how to protect my kids.

One, I would have a sit down with the local police. Let them know the situation. Let them send extra patrols through your neighborhood. They advised me that the only thing an order or protection does is help them understand what happened after an attack. If he is willing to abide by an order of protection, he is probably not a threat in the first place.

Two, document every point of contact. Save texts, write notes to the file if they do something that is not easily documented such as the content of a phone call or if you suddenly see them in the grocery store.

Three, to the extent practical, change your contact information. I ported my cell phone to a Google Voice account that I only accessed via browser when I wanted to. I got a new number for my cell and then put another separate GV number in front of that.

Four, and this did not come on the record from the police, I took gun safety classes and armed myself. I could wait the 5 minutes it would take for the police to show, or if things were drastic, I could protect myself.
posted by AugustWest at 10:43 AM on March 26 [9 favorites]

N-thing what others have said: Even though in theory there are legal remedies you can pursue, in practice these are at best unreliable when you have people behaving irrationally like this in the first place. Moving when you own a home is of course drastic and difficult but it's also the only thing I can recommend in this kind of situation. You need to move ASAP, make sure you have no forwarding. Ideally you'd also move far enough away that there's no chance of them running into you somehow but employment can make that harder.

You may be tempted to try to do small things that are less inconvenient in the hope it's "enough" to make them stop. Sometimes this works; in situations like yours it rarely does, and you just add to your stress and inconvenience while not actually preventing contact.

Change every phone number right away. Move as soon as you possibly can. Legal action can help but I would be pessimistic about how much you can actually change someone's behavior with legal threats when they're acting irrationally.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:46 AM on March 26 [2 favorites]

One thing that would make discovery online a bit more difficult is to go through the checklist of things here, under "Steps Michael Bazzell Gave Alex to Protect Himself".

The workbook bit to remove yourself from public-accessible data aggregators is time-consuming but worth it, and will help move you off the radar nearly completely.
posted by jquinby at 10:48 AM on March 26 [4 favorites]

All these injunctions and whatnot are still pieces of paper. If the brother is already... uh... unhinged, that's not going to do anything except confirming stories in his head about his own righteousness and how the world's against him, and now even the government.

And with children in the house, firearms may not be suitable.
posted by kschang at 10:49 AM on March 26 [5 favorites]

Please, move up your moving date. OP, your details are so vivid that I remember your Ask from earlier this year; your family's situation was horrendous then, and it's only gotten worse.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:53 AM on March 26 [15 favorites]

I'd put everything in storage, take only the important stuff, and rent out the home "furnished" through a management company THROUGH an LLC but this involves a bit of prep, as you need to transfer the deed to the LLC to add another layer. I haven't checked the laws, but if you REALLY want to hide you can appoint "proxy officers" (may not be exact term) to LLCs or such so they appear on paperwork and not your name(s) and unless others have resources to subpoena such they can't break the veil. (Are LLCs legal in Utah or wherever OP is?)
posted by kschang at 10:56 AM on March 26 [2 favorites]

The point is taken that "pieces of paper" may not ultimately grant you the relief or safety you are seeking. My concern would be that should the police ultimately get involved, they will treat the situation more seriously if there is clearly documented instances of your in-laws ignoring wishes for no contact. There are many instances in my own life where I wished I had called the cops, if for no reason than to document the issue or confrontation. Even if you move to solve the situation - document, document, document.
posted by agnielson at 11:08 AM on March 26 [13 favorites]

Are firearms or tasers legal where you are located?
posted by thesockpuppet at 11:36 AM on March 26

Agreed that you need to move, sooner rather than later. Horrific, I know, but this type of person does not quit. Ask me how I know, 15 years later.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 12:09 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]

You mention that you own the home, and "[h]er parents do know where we live, so it isn't out of the question for him to find out where we live." Whether or not the parents choose to pass along the address, unless your property is in a difficult-to-trace real-estate trust (or some other protective legal framework distanced from your name), it's possible to find that information independently.

And unless your wife has worked at the same place for the last three years (or publicly lists her employment location on social media), I think it's far more unnerving, and honestly, threatening, that your wife's disturbed brother chose to send mail to her workplace. You don't spend all day at your wife's job.
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:15 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]

Setting up an LLC is quick and easy, and yes you can do it Utah, or in any state in the US. doesn't have to be the state of the property. I live in CO and my LLC is in Wyoming, and it owns my house. I chose Wyoming because I could instantly set up everything for my company online, and because they have no state tax there, so the annual filing for the LLC takes me about 10 minutes once a year.

Law firms familiar with incorporating businesses can have an attorney act as a proxy to keep your name off the LLC's documents if needed. I worked somewhere that did this for all of its clients - the partners at the firm had power of attorney for every company we set up, as our clients were interested in maximum anonymity and didn't want their names on anything. Trust me, you won't be the first person asking a lawyer to do this for you.

I think the idea of having your home be a furnished rental for a year or two and then maybe consider selling it is a good idea. No rush to sell, if that's too stressful right now or the numbers do not work. You could also sell the place somewhat furnished if needed. These days you can sell a house without even being in the area - there is digital document signing, and mobile notaries - you can hire a seller's agent, and do it all from the safety of another part of the country, if you need to.

Get an order of protection now, at least against the brother, and make plans to move asap. Once you have the order any contact from him makes him subject to arrest. Take the essentials with you, find an Airbnb on the other side of the country, and go from there on deciding where you want to settle. Yes, I know it will disrupt the kids' life, but having your brother in law show up at your house threatening violence will disrupt their life far more.

Pitch it to the kids as an adventure if they aren't old enough to understand the situation at hand.

It will be easier to think about the future when you are a safe distance from these people.

The brother is really dangerous. He really is. Right now. Not when he overtly threatens violence, but right now. Today. He is harassing her at her workplace, a public place, he has no fear of witnesses knowing what he is doing.

All you need to say to the police to get a restraining order is 1) we have asked repeatedly that these people not contact us, 2) they contact us and show up at our property uninvited even though we ask them not to come on our property, (report this as trespassing whenever it happens!) 3) repeated contact is causing us emotional distress and fear for our safety as the brother has access to weapons and untreated mental illness that affects his mood and judgment. Show that letter to the police. Stress his mental illness, history of violent outbursts, refusal to participate in any mental healthcare to manage his illness.

Maybe you want to wait til the summer to move, for the kids and school and stuff, but I think you should move ASAP, even if it means they get pulled out of school and miss some months. They can catch up, do summer school, get a tutor, retake a class, if needed. What's most important right now is safety.

Agreeing with the others to document every single attempt at contact, no matter how minor. Let your neighbors and workplaces know who the relatives are, what they look like, what they drive, so they don't unwittingly give them information, and know to call you and the police if they trespass.

Your wife's workplace especially should know who her relatives are and know to call the cops if they show up there. Don't give any context other than you went no contact, they harass you, there is a protection order, if they violate it they are subject to arrest.

Start limiting the information about you on the internet now, lockdown or deactivate your social media. Remove yourself from directories, unfollow your schools and professional orgs on social networking, get new cell phones & set up google voice. Get your mail forwarded to a trusted relative or friend until you decide where you are going to settle down next - especially do this if you don't have a lockable secure mailbox at your current house.

Tell your close friends enough about the situation that they know not to pass on info about you to the wife's family. Also notify your kids' school that these relatives should never be allowed to pick up the kids (if they are going to school in person these days).

There are a lot of legal, easy to obtain, effective self defense weapons if firearms are a no go for you. You can keep a bat by the doors (put a baseball glove & baseball next to it though). You can get an expandable baton, one of my favorites because I've done some training with sticks. They're cheap, small, easy to fit in a purse or winter jacket pocket, and boy do they hurt when they land.

Wasp spray and bear spray work just as well as pepper spray or mace, and are legally sold in sporting goods and hardware stores. Tasers may also be legal in Utah, I'm not sure.
posted by zdravo at 2:19 PM on March 26 [9 favorites]

A woman I knew was killed at her place of work by a stalker who showed up at the door holding a flower delivery and told the receptionist the sender insisted she accept it in person. The receptionist notified the woman she had a delivery and as she approached the door he shot her dead.

I suggest you find a good lawyer who can explain your and your wife's rights, what the courts can and can't do for you to assure your safety, and whether there are ways her brother could be forced into emergency mental health custody. Your wife could call a protection-from-abuse organization for suggestions on how to protect herself and how to access appropriate legal assistance. One of the justifications for forced hospitalization (being 302'd) is perceived risk to self or others. Be aware this is usually just a temporary stabilization hold, but it could give you breathing room to move. It is also possible that if he is tech-savvy he could have set up cameras to monitor your home or your wife's place of employment. Unfortunately, this line of thinking gets very scary very quickly.

Please take this seriously. If you do end up moving, it can be extremely difficult to prevent children from contacting friends or family they want to communicate with. If they are old enough to know phone numbers and emails you will need to have serious conversations with them about your situation. I'm so sorry this is happening to you and your wife and family.
posted by citygirl at 2:44 PM on March 26 [3 favorites]

Here is an unpopular opinion: if you know that a person with a history of history of mental instability and violence may target your home, renting said home to a unsuspecting third party is grossly unethical. You went no-contact with that entire side of the family, but I think there should be some safe no-contact way for them to know that you've left the area without learning your new whereabouts -- depending on your specific community, maybe it will be obvious enough once your kids transfer out of their school. Check your options with the attorney and domestic-violence resources.
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:45 PM on March 26 [14 favorites]

Family Violence groups are good at assisting, and this qualifies as family violence. You need professionals to help you assess the risk.

Read The Gift of Fear. The only further contact should be from a lawyer, telling them to leave you alone. Once. Harassers want engagement, most (not all) will slow their attempts when there's no response. Yes, your neighbors and workplace should be notified, but I've seen workplaces allow someone access; the urge to be friendly and help is hard to blunt. Ask the police to check on the brother's record; if he has a history of violence or setting fires, those are signs of increased risk.

This is a miserable thing to go through. and I'm so sorry. It sucks the color and life out of your life, making moving a pretty decent option.
posted by theora55 at 5:10 PM on March 26 [2 favorites]

When I escaped abusive family, I set up everything in advance, I moved across the country, changed phone numbers, emails, and sent a certified no contact letter the same day. In my situation doing one or even two of those things alone would have escalated the situation.

After that I used a PO box in a high density area, I didn't use my address for anything for years, stayed with a friend informally then rented from a landlord who didn't even do formal leases, and I didn't use any social media under my real name.

It worked, but mostly because my abuser lost interest, not that I've kept up the secret of where I live and what I do and stuff a secret, but I did actively spend years being extraordinarily careful.

In truth, my story isn't necessarily all that useful to you. I was young, I didn't have kids or a career so I had flexibility. I didn't have assets. It was risky (and it was, there are plenty of senarios in which I could have ended uo homeless, or in more trouble than I'd been before I left) and you have a family and jobs and so much stuff to worry about. It's hard to do these things and it is asking so much to move, and this is coming from somebody who choose to go that route. It's just not possible for many people. But I can tell you my relief, and my space in my brain to do therapeutic work and start recovering from all that was worth it.

Orders of protection are useful in that they are a form of documentation, but they don't protect in that of someone decides they want to commit a crime, they will. That doesn't mean you shouldn't get one. For people who have poor boundaries and lack insight, it can actually be a useful way to get real consequences in place when contact persists. Her brother might be one of those people. I don't know. It may escalate behavior. It might not. You might not even know. Either way, of you decide to go the order of protection route, I do suggest planning it at a time where you can take a week or two to be away from work/home if at all possible in case of any immediate impulsive responses from him.

In terms of DV/family violence resources, depending on your area, grants, and such there may not be an agency in your area that serves people like you, because most are funding specifically for intimate partner violence and not family violence. You can ask around, but the resources may not be as available as one would hope. You may have better luck contacting agencies that focus on things like stalking or harassment.

Take gentle care. Do take this seriously. Consulting with a lawyer is a good move. I know this is incredibly stressful, and you have been doing a great job. Keep holding on to that this isn't either of your faults.
posted by AlexiaSky at 9:19 PM on March 26 [3 favorites]

What I did, in a much less dire situation than yours:

- Moved several times, into situations where there was no lease in my name (stayed with friends, rented a campground space monthly) in different states

- Cancelled/changed bank accounts - and in fact, having zero accounts for over a year

- Legally changed my name during this interval, so there was no direct continuity between old name and new name.

None of this was done with the express purpose of evading my abuser, but it DID keep her from pursuing me, well enough that after she was dead, it took some months for the people handling her estate to track me down for the inheritance.

Best of luck to you.
posted by WaywardPlane at 12:28 AM on March 27

also... this is grim af, but...

I don't know if you have legally adopted her children, but you should. Or get some ironclad will action going, or something. Talk to a lawyer and find out what's best. Else... if something happens to your wife... her family can step up and demand custody of her kids.

Take steps on that, sooner rather than later.
posted by WaywardPlane at 12:35 AM on March 27 [8 favorites]

You have children. Get the hell out of that state. The further away the better, like across the Atlantic better.
posted by Beholder at 5:49 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]

I used privacyduck (not the similarly named search engine), a paid service that helps scrub you from the internet, if you tell them that you are potentially in danger, they can cut the fee. they do great work.
posted by evilmonk at 7:11 PM on March 27 [2 favorites]

If you decided to move (which, if you are worried someone is going to physically harm you or your family should be something you are considering), DON'T just "leave no forwarding address". There are lots of ways for people to find you after you have moved without checking your forwarding address.

You need to research how to move when there is someone you don't want to find you. I know of a book on this, but it is probably out of date now, so I'm not going to look for the title. But in addition to the obvious things like care around social media, people do things like making sure they don't own or rent in their own name, don't register their cars in their own name, etc. You will need to be very careful from the beginning as mistakes here can mean you need to start over with moving to yet another new place.

Depending on what sort of jobs you and your wife have, you might even need to look into new careers if you would be having to reveal too much information publicly. This includes things like licensing databases, etc.

This is all a lot of work but it is better than being dead. Of course, if after a through assessment of the situation it looks like things are not quite that dire, you might decide that milder measures will suffice.
posted by yohko at 3:50 PM on March 30

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