I don't talk to my family. Does that make me a freak?
October 21, 2006 8:46 AM   Subscribe

I've been estranged from my family for 3+ years. How can I explain this to a girl that I'm dating without seeming like a nutcase or weirdo?

Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I wanted nothing more then to escape from my abusive family. When I graduated college 3+ years ago, I seized upon the opportunity.

In the last 3+ years, I have talked to my parents and my brother only once. The last contact I had with any member of my family was when I talked to my grandmother about 2 years ago. Since then, I have made a clean break from my family. They don't even bother to call me any more. This is more-or-less how I want it. I don't plan on having a relationship with them.

Here is the problem, though - I am just beginning to date again after a lengthy hiatus. When I'm on a date, the subject of family inevitably comes up, simply because it's one of those topics that people touch on briefly when they're getting to know each other. I can answer basic questions pretty well, i.e. "What does your father do for a living?" or "Do you have any brothers or sisters?" However, answering all but the most cursory of questions will reveal that I don't talk to my family, and haven't for quite a while.

This creates a very awkward situation for me. I feel like some women will inevitably judge me because I don't talk to my family. Even if they don't, I feel like there's no good way to explain my situation without delving into some very difficult territory. It seems like there's no good way to say, "Yes, I have this painful past, and this terrible family, but overall, I'm pretty well adjusted to this fact because I've had my whole life to become such." I don't really mind talking about my past, but I think that to an outside person, it will sound worse then it is and they will take me for an emotionally unfit individual.

An even more daunting prospect is what would happen if I'm successful enough with a woman that she wants to introduce me to *her* family. Won't they judge me by the fact that I don't talk to *my* family?

Anyway, I'm kinda at a loss. Usually I just try to avoid the subject of my family as best I can, and to give short, dismissive answers. This sort of thing works for a while, but not in the long run. I've considered building up an intricate web of lies (my parents are dead, I'm an orphan, my family lives in another country, I talk to my family all the time but wont be visiting them this year, etc.) but I'd rather not follow this path because it's against my nature.

Any ideas?
posted by Jake Apathy to Human Relations (32 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
You have laid this out so sensitively and reasonably here; I always hate it when people's advice is, "Why not just send them the link to this thread?" but really I think that's a good call in this case. Unless you don't want her to see all of your other posts or something.
posted by hermitosis at 9:00 AM on October 21, 2006

Yeah, considering the other question you have posted, maybe you should nix my advice.
posted by hermitosis at 9:02 AM on October 21, 2006

You just have to suck it up and own it. Being evasive actually makes you seem like more of a nutcase, not less. You don't need to explain the nitty-gritty details just tell your girlfriend's family and any other Nosey Nellies that you have had a falling out with your family. Then take a page from Miss Manners and deflect further questions with a simple, "You know, I'd actually rather not talk about it right now."

Your girlfriend, however, deserves more truth. If you are going to have a trusting, loving relationship with a family in the future you need to be open and trusting yourself. Your committed partner can serve as a go-between in the future on this issue but you need to be open with them.

It might help you also to get therapy -- talking out your issues with your family with a competant professional can help you sort out your own feelings about your family and who you are without them. It sounds like you are embarrassed and uncomfortable about not having a family. But, perhaps if you talk it out with someone you will feel more comfortable in your own skin and then questions about it won't send you into a panic.

Also, please note: lots and lots of people become estranged from their families for a variety of reasons. You're no weirdo in that regard.
posted by amanda at 9:06 AM on October 21, 2006

And, two more things: if you haven't already gone to see a different therapist, do so. The one you posted about before seems a little wacky.

Also, I kind of jumped down the road in terms of dealing with close relationships. I think that you should still be honest in terms of dating but it's fine to let details come out slowly as you become more comfortable with someone. On that first date, a question about family is pretty easily deflected, I think. You could just chuckle and says, "Well, I haven't talked to my family in a few years -- they were very controlling up through college and I've needed to take a little break and find myself, maybe eventually we'll patch things up. So, tell me about your family!"
posted by amanda at 9:14 AM on October 21, 2006

I don't think there's any shame in surviving and escaping from an abusive family. If you explain that your family was abusive and that you chose to live a different life, not many people will count that against you. You don't even need to go into details - just explain it as briefly as I did.
posted by christinetheslp at 9:16 AM on October 21, 2006

I'm in this exact situation and never know how to act around others. I know I come off as weird or snobby or some such, but it is what it is.

No real anecdote to add; just an "I'm right there with you, buddy".
posted by damnjezebel at 9:18 AM on October 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

I feel like some women will inevitably judge me because I don't talk to my family.

Some women will and will stop seeing you. Some women will, then gradually accept it once they get to know you as a good person independent of your unfortunate circumstances. Others will be immeasurably grateful that you do not subject them to forced time with abusive people to whom they must be polite through gritted teeth. Yet others will also have minimal or no contact with their family for the same reasons, and so will have both empathy and sympathy for you.

It seems like there's no good way to say, "Yes, I have this painful past, and this terrible family, but overall, I'm pretty well adjusted to this fact because I've had my whole life to become such."

There is a good way to say it, and you just did. You will undoubtedly find that the older you get, the more understanding others will be. Once life has dealt you some real pain, if you grow from it at all, you learn not to make facile judgements about complex situations. If you are able to be loving, kind, and good despite your upbringing, someone will be able to appreciate you for it -- and more than that, respect you highly, because you fought to be so.
posted by melissa may at 9:19 AM on October 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

My brother's girlfriend of 2 years is mostly estranged from her family. I think she talks to them on the phone sometimes, but even though they live only an hour away she NEVER spends any holidays with them or even calls them on, say, Christmas, and we've certainly never met them. I know she harbors a lot of hatred toward her father and I've seen her take this anger out on my brother. I think the long-term implications and her overall stubborness and willingness to hold grudges bodes ill for my brother. I don't know much about her reasons - I guess if her reasons were like yours I'd be more understanding. So, I think you should be as open as possible about it. You were, through no fault of your own, subjected to some horrible things by your family, and as an adult you've decided to remove yourself from them. There's no shame in that. It's not the kind of thing that needs to be discussed in any depth with people you don't know well, but if you're in a serious relationship your significant other should know. Perhaps she can discreetly pass it on to her family (though it isn't particularly their business, they'll surely want their daughter/sister to be happy, as I want my brother to be) and then you won't have to worry about it. No matter what, I absolutely wouldn't lie about it.
When you're just dating casually, I think Amanda's simple deflection idea would work fine. In fact, overall, Amanda said it all much more eloquently than I did!
posted by katie at 9:20 AM on October 21, 2006

Since you've ruled out intricate webs of lies and you can't give short dismissive answers forever, it sounds like you know you're going to have to explain it to someone, eventually.

It's probably something a lot of women will find easy to overlook until you're ready to explain. It's not like you can change your history, so hide it until you feel comfortable that the girl-in-question won't take it the wrong way.

Don't let your anxiety about their judgement of your relationship with your family get in the way of your game. It can't possibly be such a huge issue as to render you unfit for dating.

If you meet her family/parents, be nice and try to stop them from asking questions about your family early. If you can get along with her family, they won't be very quick to judge you. It can't really be that big of a deal.

Of course, this is just my opinion and it's as plausible as not that my suggestions are wildly divergent from the optimal method of action. I think you may be worrying a bit much over a tiny flaw. Good luck to you.
posted by polyhedron at 9:32 AM on October 21, 2006

I'm also estranged from one half of my family. I've found that the best way to deal with it when it's brought up by a SO is to be honest, but brief - "I really don't have much contact with that side of my family" generally works for me. If someone asks why, I tell them, but I find that the cursory answer tends to shut off all casual lines of inquiry.

As others have said, there are many, many people in your situation (for various reasons, estrangement from family) - in my circle of friends I count at least three. Don't think it stigmatizes you - you took the healthy step of cutting off contact, be proud of the progress you're making.
posted by pdb at 9:34 AM on October 21, 2006

Response by poster: If you are going to have a trusting, loving relationship with a family in the future you need to be open and trusting yourself.

I agree. I think this problem becomes most difficult during the dating stage of a relationship. I've been asked some fairly specific questions on a second or third date, i.e. "Do you go home very often?" or "Do you talk to your parents/brother often?" A second or third date is a really difficult time to bring up a painful past. Everything is so delicate and chaotic in the beginning stages of a relationship, I'm very concerned about giving the wrong impression of myself.

Once I've been with someone for a while, I don't think that discussing my past will be as much of a problem, because she'll have had the chance to see that I'm actually a very stable and reliable person.

In regards to therapists - yes, I discontinued my sessions with the therapist that I mentioned in my last post. He kinda gave me the creeps. To be honest, in the last few years, I've had piss-poor experiences with psychologists, and, for the time being, have pretty much given up on finding one. I'm sure that I'll try again eventually.
posted by Jake Apathy at 9:36 AM on October 21, 2006

Another survivor of an abusive family chiming in to say that the people you want in your life long term will be the people who understand* and be empathetic. You should not tell the whole story of your awful family on the first date, because it's a lot for anyone to absorb. Also, be aware that some people can't understand that some family situations are so unhealthy that there can be no reconciliation, for a variety of reasons. Some girls you meet and date may be choosing to continue relationships with their creepy abusive families. Some will have idyllic lives at home and no reference points for things being so terrible. Some will just be clueless twits. Don't take that personally.

*by understand I don't mean "be able immediately to relate and completely understand the weight of your particular situation." I mean, they will have a compassion for you that makes them able to express their desire to see you not suffer.

And ya, bonus points, totally for not bringing your girlfriends (and future children) into your crazy family. I think it's one fo the best things I can do for my boyfriend, keeping him (and myself) out of the crazier parts of my family.
posted by bilabial at 9:47 AM on October 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

You don't have to bring up "a painful past" in toto, but you can certainly allude to it. A friend who didn't like his family used to say, "if you knew them you wouldn't hang out with them either." Even the fact that you're in therapy doesn't necessarily have to enter into the equation, just treat it like a bad job you quit.
posted by rhizome at 9:53 AM on October 21, 2006

"Do you go home very often?" or "Do you talk to your parents/brother often?"

A possible answer: "No, I don't. My family was abusive and an important part of becoming a healthy adult was breaking ties to them. I don't mind talking about it if you want -- the pain is in the past and it's a part of who I am -- but I don't have a relationship with any of them, and I don't intend to."

If this is a deal-breaker for a woman, then it is. It's going to come out at some point, and then the deal, she will be broken. You might as well throw this out in a fairly straightforward way early on and cut your losses on women for whom it's a deal breaker.

The only trick is that I think you'd want to be very matter-of-fact about it and not give any details in the first explanation. If someone told me "My family was abusive and I don't talk to them," that sounds healthy. If someone launched straight into "My family did THIS and THAT and THE OTHER and I HAD TO DEAL WITH STUFF and I USED TO BE COMMITTED" and laid out the whole sordid story with no prompting, that sounds like a person who's still kinda nuts or at the very least who is a walking pile of baggage.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:04 AM on October 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

I also second what amanda (and others) have said upthread. While I'm not estranged from my family, we tend to be rather laissez-faire in each other's lives, and it's not unusual for me to go months without making or receiving a call.

A simple explanation, exactly as others have suggested, always did the trick for my SOs at the early stages. Eventually, though, estranged or not, family talk does surface, and then it's time to fess up. I find, however, that it's always natural for me to do so by that point--again, while not all families are abusive or otherwise destructive, everybody's got something going on, and you might find that you're doing more listening than talking! In other words, there comes a time when it feels both right and honest to talk about deeper issues, family history included. Of course, YMMV.

What I can definitely say (at least for myself) is that any potential SO who feels the need to probe deeper than you're ready to divulge or makes summary judgment based on this one aspect alone is clearly someone who's not ready to go full distance, so it's probably good riddance anyway. IMO.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 10:06 AM on October 21, 2006

Great advice above. This reply is more tactical.

This question should not be a hurdle to dating or forming a relationship. My experience is that early on women look at this as an indicator of your suitability, but not very deeply. It's a screening question asked during early, non-substantive conversations. When she asks that, maybe she's contemplating feeling warm family things--so it It may translate to "can you make me feel warm, protected, and good?"

And the answer to that is hopefully "yes."

It seems to be more of a check the box type thing--a softball question. This is good, as it doesn't allow for the possiblity that some people shouldn't be parents--and it's a potentially deeply personal question asked in a trivial, conversational way.

Later in the relationship, it will become increasingly important that she understand-not necessarily specifics, but the way the familty affected you. But not in the first few dates.

"Are you close with your family?"
--"I have been, and I was growing up, but we've been having a tough time recently."
--"Not as close as I could wish."
--"You look as though you're really close with yours. Do you see them a lot?"

There's always the more obviously evasive, yet effective, answering a question with a question--which is a good way to avoid having a date turn into an interview anyway.

There's always that line from Real Genius:

"Why can't I meet them, are you ashamed of me?"
"No, I'm ashamed of them."
posted by Phred182 at 10:08 AM on October 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

I consider family relationships need-to-know information, and for me it's not anything that someone needs to know unless they're really close to me, much closer than they would be on a third date. Like, "We're probably going to mix our DNA, so I need to know about your family history" close.

So, if asked, "Do you spend a lot of time with your family," I'll reply breezily, "Oh, not really. How about you? You said you like whitewater rafting. Do your parents live near any rapids?" Turning the question back to the questioner with genuine friendliness works wonders.

My experience is that the vast majority of people just don't understand, and never can or will. The idea that parents or mother = bad is just so taboo. You need to feel your way with each person until you find someone accepting, and then you can slowly start opening up. You will probably end up, like I did, with a person in a somewhat similar situation, and that's not a bad thing.
posted by ROTFL at 11:43 AM on October 21, 2006

I'm walking the hard family past issues right now. My boyfriend and I are staying with his parents while our housing situation gets finalized. They are sweet people who ask me a lot of questions. I don't really want to go into the whole shibang, but I don't want to lie either. I'm not ashamed of who I've become and my past is part of that. For now, I share good stories about my grandparents and leave out the "oh he molested all of his daughters and my grandmother stood by him, even in the face of overwhelming evidence". When my eldest brother comes up, I pick the story that makes it obvious we don't talk and I don't plan to change that, but I leave out the nitty gritty of him molesting me for 5 years. They are quickly learning that discussing most family stuff is going be a story that's not the happiest, so instead we talk about something else. Someday I'm sure the trust will build and they'll learn more, but for now this is how I want it.

So, don't lie. Evade if you must. I often use "we're not terribly close. I prefer to give my love and attention to those that I've chosen to be close with."

I also don't think therapy is the right road for me and that can be hard for those who know about my past to understand. Never feel like you have to explain your feelings in that regard.

I feel all over the place this morning, but if you want to talk more in depth about how the outside world sees your set of issues, feel free to use the email in the profile.
posted by nadawi at 12:06 PM on October 21, 2006

There's a lot of advice about deflecting questions above. I don't think deflecting questions is a good way to establish trust with a potential mate.

Just say, "We don't get along" when asked. If she presses, answer her questions. There's nothing shameful about the situation. If it's not your favorite subject, that's understandable, but there's no need to lie or obfuscate or avoid questions about it. As dates progress with someone, you'll end up talking more about it, in bits and pieces, as it comes up. This is okay. It makes you "mysterious", which is good, rather than "evasive", which is bad.

I also don't think it's likely to be a deal-breaker with very many people. If your SO has a crappy childhood, she'll understand. If she didn't, she'll want to take you into her nice family, which is also fine. Either way, no problem. Works out better during the holidays, in fact - no need to argue about whose family you're going to visit this year.
posted by jellicle at 12:22 PM on October 21, 2006

I feel ya, dog. I don't talk to my mom or her side of the family. For what it's worth, the situation has never caused a problem with anybody I've dated. It isn't something that usually comes up when we start dating (and the fact that I'm close with my dad and stepmom does give me lots of positive family stuff to talk about). I just explain that I was treated badly by her and her husband and that I don't want anything to do with them.
posted by rbs at 1:07 PM on October 21, 2006

I think you're over-thinking it, because it's such an important topic for you.

Most people would just let the subject go if you said "We're not that close" and changed the subject.

When it comes to a closer relationship, yes, you're going to have to tell them the truth, but you don't owe a date that much.

"My family? Long story. Have you seen any good movies lately?".
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:11 PM on October 21, 2006

"They fell off a cliff and died on impact. Tragic. So are you a cardinals fan or a tigers fan?"
posted by rileyray3000 at 2:29 PM on October 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

AmbroseChapel , jellicle, and others have it. You are blowing this out of all proportion.

In the early stages (first two or three dates) when the question comes up, you can just answer factual questions, like how many brothers and sisters, etc, and head of further discussion with "but I'm not really close to my family." Then change the subject by asking about her family, or something else entirely. You will NOT be regarded as a freak. This is perfectly common.

If the relationship continues, you'll either get comfortable with the idea of talking to the other person about these very personal things, or you won't. Either way, it should have little bearing on your dating or relationships.
posted by nowonmai at 3:07 PM on October 21, 2006

"I feel like some women will inevitably judge me because I don't talk to my family."
Judge you for what? This sounds to me as if (you thought that they thought that you thought etc.) having an abusive family were somehow your fault. It is not. And getting out of an abusive situation takes a lot of strength, for which you should be commended, not blamed.

If they judge you, let them go; they are not good for you.
posted by meijusa at 3:38 PM on October 21, 2006

I hope you would be able to be direct and say "My family is abusive and they're no longer a part of my life." I've always viewed this as a positive-- no awkward family dinners, no judgment from them, no scarily overinvolved future in-laws.

To me, it would mean you were independant and mature enough to make it on your own. You didn't get to choose your past, so you should be measured only by the life you've made for yourself since then.

And if you end up in a relationship with someone who understands, you will realize that a terrible past doesn't mean you're "damaged goods."
posted by Gable Oak at 3:58 PM on October 21, 2006

Single girl friends of mine will often joke that Bruce Wayne is the perfect bachelor - rich and an orphan -- because the pressure of meeting the family (or the weirdness of a grown man who's way too close to his family to have a stable relationship) is too much. There are plenty of girls who will ask about your family more in a "Oh god, please don't let have a controlling mother" or similar.

After a few months of dating, I learned that the guys who are enthuasiatic about their families are the ones to avoid.

So, as everyone else has said, pause for a bit to indicate this isn't a subject she should probe yet, say something like, "We're not a close family" and then ask her about hers.
posted by Gucky at 4:42 PM on October 21, 2006

"We don't talk much and that's really for the best right now. I'm not comfortable discussing it."

Another way to look at it is like this: if you are being judged unworthy because of the relationship with your family, I say good riddance.

Your fear is out-of-hand-dismissal for your behavior, but think about that for a minute: wouldn't you rather have someone who is understanding and respectful of boundaries? You real fear should be inadvertently hooking up with someone shallow and overly judgemental.
posted by plinth at 5:17 PM on October 21, 2006

I no longer speak to my mother (my parents are still married) and what I say is: "I've realized that being around my mother is not in my best interests".
posted by brujita at 8:33 PM on October 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

I agree most with Melissa May's answer. There are many more people who are estranged from their family than you probably think.

You have nothing to be ashamed of - you've done nothing wrong. You're not a nutcase, or a weirdo. If anyone you meet thinks so, it's their problem and you wouldn't want them in your life.

I wouldn't lie or be evasive - if someone would judge you for this, wouldn't you want to find out early and save yourself some time and heartache? And anyway, the other person would be much more likely to think you may be a nutcase or weirdo if they see you being noticeably evasive, or deliberately avoiding a simple question and changing the topic.

I wouldn't say "my family is abusive and they're no longer a part of my life" either, not in the early days, most definitely not on a first date. It's too heavy - and that kind of family stuff is for sharing with someone you trust, isn't it? That kind of trust takes time.

I would simply say "My family... is not the happiest.." Say it in the right tone, with a little shrug maybe, and any sensible person would get the point. If they follow-up with more questions, say "I'm sure I'll tell you about them in time."

This is for first dates and early days of the relationship. Later on, tell the truth, when you feel it's the right time. As to her parents, you can get her to speak to them in advance, if you're worried. If you tell her the truth, she probably would've mentioned it to her parents by the time you meet them anyway. No reasonable person would think any less of you for it. If anything people would admire you for making it through.

Be yourself. They will like you.
posted by Ira.metafilter at 11:30 PM on October 21, 2006

Response by poster: Thank you all for considering and answering my questions. There is some excellent advice in this thread, and I don't really think that I can pick a "best" answer. However, know that this entire thread has helped me immensely, and that I no longer think that this problem will stand in the way of my love life.
posted by Jake Apathy at 8:24 AM on October 22, 2006 [2 favorites]

Jake: No one can mess with you like your own family. When bad, families are the worst. Being done with them can be one of the greatest steps a man makes. And sometimes, you have to be reminded of that.
posted by Goofyy at 8:11 AM on October 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

One reason I would ask a guy about his family is to gauge how comfortable he'd be around mine. We can be click-ish. My parents once flew me and my ex-husband to their house for thanksgiving one year, and he spent the entire time in the basement because he was too uncomfortable to hang out with them.

I've dated a guy that is estranged from his father. That alone, in my book, is a null data-point; he could be estranged through no reason of his own. But I found out he is close to his mother. For me, that is a good sign (provided I had no problem with his mother) because he could understand how being with my family is important to me. I would guess that war wrath of wraith might find it annoying how close I am to my family. Nothing wrong with that, of course, just different tastes.
posted by Monday at 2:51 AM on November 14, 2006

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