I cut off ties with my family several years ago and now they're in town and want to see me.
October 24, 2006 2:55 PM   Subscribe

I cut off ties with my family several years ago and now they're in town and want to see me.

Staying in contact with my family was having severe negative effects on my mental health. I didn't do it casually, and I hope it suffices to say that I didn't do it because of a temper tantrum or an adolescent rebellion. I feel strongly about the importance of family and genuine believe it was necessary to distance myself in order to maintain my sanity. It was clear that I could not fix everything that was broken and I decided to save myself. Although they were deeply hurt by my actions, they did respect my desire to be left alone. In the years that followed, I made my own family of loved ones and while we are not perfect, I am happy. I do not regret severing ties and I know that it was the right thing to do.

I discovered a few days ago that they were in town and had passed on their information through a mutual friend, hoping to see me. I have found myself bursting into tears randomly ever since. They still do not comprehend my reason for leaving, of this I am certain. It will not be like it is in the movies, where we emerge wiser and sadder and promise to do right by each other and everything is happy. If this meeting becomes a tearful reunion, it will be a year, two max, before I find myself in the same toxic position I was in so many years ago. Even though I am now older and hopefully wiser, I have no desire to put myself back through the emotional wringer. And yet...my parents are old and getting older, and there will be a limited number of opportunities for me to see them again. As much damage as they have done, I still feel a sense of obligation towards them, and as hard as it was to cut off contact the first time, it feels even harder to reiterate it now.

I am not by nature a forgiving person but I have come to terms with the fact that despite the horribly twisted nature of my relationship with them, they did ultimately want to do right by me. That being said, none of the issues have been resolved and it will be impossible to have more than the most superficial of relationships with them without becoming dragged down into them. The detached view is that it was kinder to keep things as they were, they knew that I was happy, that I had made a new life for myself. Seeing them again will not offer any additional closure, it will bring untold buckets of tears and stir up a huge amount of pain, and it will either be a final depressing goodbye or a segway to a new level of dysfunction. I find myself sitting at the computer in tears as the clock counts down to their departure, and between the guilt and the pain, I am frozen in indecision.

Is it kinder to let the time run out and leave the dull ache of disappointment or rebuff them outright or do I see them in person and risk all that may follow? I expect many of the responses to have the sentiment that family is paramount, and some small part of me feels the same way but the reality is not so absolute. This may be chatfilter at its absolute worst but if anyone has any advice or been in a similar situation, I'd like to hear it please.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (30 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
My first response to this was - Let them leave. Don't contact them. Let it go.

Although? The bursting into tears makes me think that perhaps you haven't resolved any of it within yourself. You might do well to meet them somewhere neutral, with support on your side, have a quick sit down dinner or some such. No expectations on your end, no diving in, just show up and see what happens with the idea that you will invest nothing and lose nothing but an hour of your time.

You might go home afterwards and say, "wow, now I am sure I did the right thing," which might mean less crying in the future.

You don't have to reform any relationships. Just don't give them your contact info and make the meeting on your terms.
posted by routergirl at 3:05 PM on October 24, 2006

If you don't see them, someday (probably after they're dead) you'll wish you took this opportunity to see them again, even if it's the last time. Trust me.
posted by I Am Not a Lobster at 3:10 PM on October 24, 2006

Or perhaps you won't find yourself in the same toxic position. Perhaps it will be better . . . or not. Life is full of risks. Will you regret meeting up with them? Will you regret not meeting up with them? Which would you regret more?

You talk a lot about yourself in this scenario - that it won't add any additional closure for you. But maybe it will add closure to them. Maybe you could go out of yourself for a moment and do something for them. I always find that when I do something kind for the person who has slighted me, that I am more forgiving and happier about myself. Just because you meet up with them does not mean you have to have a relationship with them. Like routergirl said, don't give them any contact information, unless you want to, of course.

Best of luck!
posted by Sassyfras at 3:18 PM on October 24, 2006

It's only one day. You might be surprised at how they treat you now, you might not. But unless you take the opportunity to see them, you will not know. They have respected your right to be alone, and have made civil overtures so that they may meet with you. They have feelings too, and you do have some obligation to them. Give it a try.

You say you are risking "all that may follow," but what you have done before can be done again, and probably more easily at that. Keep things civil, and don't bring up old grudges. If they bring them up, just say you don't want to talk about them, and if they persist, you can feel justified in leaving.
posted by Roger Dodger at 3:18 PM on October 24, 2006

Your crying means you MUST see them. At best you'll get relief and at worst it will convince you that your painful seperation from them was a valid choice.
posted by ernie at 3:31 PM on October 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Departure - are they catching a flight? Might letting them know (at the last minute) that you'll be at the airport to see them off, be a useful way to briefly see them without letting them into your life, and ensuring that the reunion is cut short? (Assuming they're the type that will catch their flight instead of deliberately miss it).
posted by -harlequin- at 3:47 PM on October 24, 2006

It's possible that with time and distance, you have, or will, reach the point where you can value what good they have to offer, and be able to establish some form of relationship. If you see them, keep it to a structured environment, and keep it short. Be cordial, and do not get into emotional issues. It's hard to forgive, and even harder to forgive and not tell them you forgive them. Good luck.
posted by theora55 at 3:57 PM on October 24, 2006

The only people on this planet truly capable of filling me with rage and sadness are my parents. They're also the only people who love and support me unconditionally.

Our relationship has, at times, been rocky. Things have been much better over the last few years, but new issues continue to arise. Being with them is often difficult for me.

But they're family - the only one I've got. Though sometimes painful, the benefits far outweigh the difficulties. Even if those benefits aren't always tangible.

No one can really understand your situation, but I'm of the mind that - barring abuse - you should maintain contact, even if it's painful. Family, no matter how dysfunctional, is important.
posted by aladfar at 4:02 PM on October 24, 2006

it will be impossible to have more than the most superficial of relationships with them without becoming dragged down into them.

Having this most superficial relationship could be a good thing. it's not necessarily all or nothing. Arrange a meeting in a neutral place for an hour maximum, with a silent, yet strong , nonjudgmental friend there at your side. (After an hour, the brain starts to tire). And, while I respect you don't wish to get into the details, you acknowledge they want the best for you, and if so, remember, all of us are human and parents make mistakes or express their humanity in ways they may regret as well. Yet, they remain our parents, the fuse that gave life to each of us. Surely that buys the benefit of the doubt to the extent of granting a short meeting.
posted by Rumple at 4:02 PM on October 24, 2006

...or do I see them in person and risk all that may follow?

This is something that you have a choice about. It's not 'all that *may* follow, it's all that you *allow* to follow.

See them, but set some boundaries for yourself ahead of time, e.g. you won't make them any promises, you won't give them your phone number, etc. Let the reunion just be about itself, and then decide later what you want the next steps to be, if any.
posted by bingo at 4:04 PM on October 24, 2006

Man, I really feel for you. I cut off contact with my dad and stepmom a few years ago, and I dread the thought of them coming to town and looking me up. I do struggle with my obligations to them, and I do feel bad about the pain I assume is caused by my estrangement from them, but I haven't made any effort to reconcile. Two things illustrate why I have chosen to keep them out of my life: 1) Whenever either of them appears in a dream of mine, it turns into a nightmare and I wake up feeling terrible. This tells me that they are still dangerous to my mental health. 2) Occasionally, my dad sends me an email asking why I don't want contact with them. This tells me that, even after having all this time to think about it, he still sees himself as blameless, which is a big problem in our relationship. Since I know that even thinking about them makes me feel bad and that they aren't willing to address the behavior that made them so toxic to me, I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing for me to gain by seeing them. I guess what I'm saying is that you need to examine what positive outcome you hope to gain by seeing them, and then assess whether that outcome is a likely possibility. It needs to be a positive outcome for you, by the way, not just for them. Your parents don't have a right to have a place in your life once you've become an adult, they have to earn it through good behavior. Your obligations are to yourself and your mental health, not to them.
posted by gokart4xmas at 4:19 PM on October 24, 2006

Your situation sounds exactly like mine, estrangement and emotional pain and all.

I have been letting my family slowly back into my life. Slowly. This year will be the first year in three years I've spent Christmas with them. It is not because they've asked, not because they've begged, but because this is the first time I think I will be able to be there without undergoing tremendous pain.

This would not work if I went before I was ready to make the decision to go see them.

Wait. Wait. If you want to see them years from now, if you're ready, go ahead and do it. But don't do it before you're ready to say you want to see them.
posted by schroedinger at 4:27 PM on October 24, 2006

Also, I completely agree with gokart4xmas. The excuse of "they're family" and "the only one you have" is a bullshit reason for allowing emotionally painful relationships into your life. Just because other people are able to reconcile their rocky relationships does not mean you are able to; it is my experience that people who do not have truly horrific relationships with their parents have absolutely no idea what it's like to deal with the pain of dealing with that kind of bad relationship as well as the pressure of our culture for familial loyalty. Loyalty is earned; it is not given automatically. We're not in a fucking feudal system, here.
posted by schroedinger at 4:31 PM on October 24, 2006 [3 favorites]

I cut contact off with my father about a year and half ago. He had no ability to understand why, and trying to communicate why was just too painful for me. I went back home (across the country) during the holidays and made the decision to see him. It was very difficult for me, and I was thinking about it in the same way that you are, that seeing him meant we would either A.) Have a terrible, horrible screaming/crying match and I would say goodbye forever, or B.) I would agree to "reconcile", things would seem better, and we would simply devolve back to the way things had been, slowly, painfully, miserably.

Neither of those things happened. Really not much happened, except that I got to at least try to explain why, and he got to at least try to express his point of view. It was painful, there were lots of tears, and I walked away with about the same amount of anger and frustration (and a little more, for a short while) as I had when I went in. In particular, I was angry at myself for essentially laying myself on the train tracks and allowing the emotional train to run me over, to appease him.

At the same time, I think I would have felt worse for avoiding him. It's easy for me to keep contact cut off when I'm across the country - I don't call, he doesn't call. I'm sure I'll have a similar experience this year, but I'll tell you this - it's a hell of a lot better than having constant contact with him all year long, and while I have no expectations of getting anywhere, seeing him is still helpful to me, in some weird way.

I think you would do very well to try and keep from being so absolutist about it. What are you worried about risking, aside from an unpleasant visit? One of the things that I learned in my experience with my dad is that fretting about the lack of communication became just as bad as the actual communication. You don't have to agree to a reconciliation. You can also try to keep it as safe as possible. You could meet them for dinner in a public place, and try to keep it civil.

You might also think about seeing a therapist who could help you think through some scenarios, think of some boundaries to set, and help you come to a decision on just what to do. This is what therapists are particularly good at!
posted by pazazygeek at 4:33 PM on October 24, 2006

Err, tacking on to my post to say just a little more:

1.) I don't mean to imply that you should see them if you're not ready, I should have made that clearer. You don't have to see them, and you're not a bad person if you don't. It sounds so simple, but in all honesty, I really wish someone would have said that to me when I was in the thick of trying to decide if I should contact my dad or not.

2.) Big ups to schroedinger's post. Hearing about all the regret I'll have when my dad goes away from friends and family just makes everything worse. I have regret now. The reality is that people who are estranged from a family member often mourn the loss of said family member every day - family members lost to untreated mental illness and drug addiction or what have you.
posted by pazazygeek at 4:42 PM on October 24, 2006

To amplify schroedinger's point above: why make this decision now at all, when it is essentially at their bidding? If you decide you want to see them sometime in the future, you can contact them and tell them so - don't be pressured now just because they happen to be in town. You can have the mutual friend tell them "no", or "not now", "not ready", or whatever you want. You sound like you should be in control of if and where and when this happens, and you're not really, right now.
posted by zoinks at 4:58 PM on October 24, 2006

The only person you have to live with, ultimately, is yourself. You're the only one who knows why these relationships were that destructive to you, and if they still would be. Perhaps you could sit down and write out the reasons to see them, and the reasons not to, and make a decision from there?

I am in the 'keep yourself alive and sane, first and foremost' crowd. Blood relations aren't something you get to choose, and sometimes they can be people that you really can't stay close to if you don't want to end up irretrievably shattered.

Do what is best for you. Also - you've created your own family, you say. What do they have to say about the situation?

No matter what you decide, I wish you good luck. I hope things turn out well for you.
posted by Meep! Eek! at 5:03 PM on October 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

"If this meeting becomes a tearful reunion, it will be a year, two max, before I find myself in the same toxic position I was in so many years ago."

Though it may seem like you can be 100% sure of this, you can't. If you choose not to see them, you have to be ready to live with the fact that things could have gone better than you are now expecting.
posted by gregoryc at 6:01 PM on October 24, 2006

If it were me, I'd let them leave town without contact. But if you do decide to meet them, choose a public place like a coffee shop and have a friend with you (not a spouse or other relative). Both of these things will encourage everybody to behave like civilized adults instead of reverting to old bad behaviors.
posted by Quietgal at 6:08 PM on October 24, 2006

Don't let the reason you do it be out of some subconscious devotion to the ideal that (regardless of how fucked up the relationships between family members are) it is important to have relationships with family members.

The way that seeing them even once would negatively affect your state of mind is infinitely more important than any positive outcome they could possibly get out of it.
posted by 23skidoo at 7:18 PM on October 24, 2006

Try writing a letter to them you're never going to send. You're not going to send it - it can't do any harm. Let out whatever is prompting the tearfulness. Scribble pages and pages until you get it all out. Write about what you want from them, what you fear, what happened to estrange you - whatever. Put it aside over night, then come back to it. Rewrite it if you think you can say things better, if there are still things unexpressed. Repeat as necessary until you feel you've let the tears out and can express what is up between you and your family, and how you would feel about seeing them, reasonably and calmly without floods of tears. Then decide what you want to do.

I used this process over the summer while dealing with my very difficult mother and it helped me to calm myself and look at things rationally, with a bit of detachment, and then I decided how best to act and I felt a lot better.
posted by Flitcraft at 7:38 PM on October 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Read the books The Dance of Intimacy and The Dance of Communication. They're focused on how to restore family connections slowly, step-by-step, without returning to bad patterns. The author's target audience is women, but if you're a guy, it's worth getting past that. Whatever you decide, I would focus on the longer-term issues ("how can I slowly re-connect with them without falling into the toxic patterns?"). I wouldn't put too much weight on this decision (expecting miracles, thinking that saying "no" now is saying "no" forever, seeing them to give them "one last chance," anything like that). Best of luck!
posted by salvia at 9:25 PM on October 24, 2006

Don't contact them.

I was in a similar position years ago, and I let someone talk me into reconciliation. I have regretted it ever since, because now I feel like it's too cruel to cut them off twice, although I've often wanted to.

I believe it's kinder to let them go. You're happy now; why risk it?
posted by digitalis at 10:51 PM on October 24, 2006

I too was taught the importance of family. When I got older, I realized this only applied when my family wanted something from me, and not the other way around. Fuck that shit.

Someone upthread said your emotions are proof you should see them. Nonsense. Your emotions prove you aren't ready to deal with it. I cut off communications with my parents nearly 6 years ago. I was so angry I could not think of my mother without wanting to hurt her. I'd never felt that way towards her before. It took 2 years before I got over that specific feeling! I am not the sort to hold a grudge.

Before that last falling out, my parents were always a source of painful emotion for me. My partner saw a visible improvement once I just let that whole thing go. Why, I can now go months without falling into a funk, thinking about my family!

When I speak of my mother, I usually tell about what a bitch she was. A vicious bitch. Talented, beautiful, inteligent, spoiled, selfish, bitch...with fingernails.

You don't need to see those people. You can, if you decide you want, but certainly there exists no obligation. Probably best let sleeping dogs lie. You don't need it.
posted by Goofyy at 1:13 AM on October 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm in a family situation fairly similar to yours, and it's entriely possible that I'm addressing my own instead of yours... but I say don't talk to them. You did what you did for a reason; it was hard because of societal pressure to accept family no matter what, and that same societal pressure is what has you second-guessing yourself now. but think about what you were feeling when you decided to cut the cord; you yourself say that inside two years you'll be back in that place. Don't go there.
posted by COBRA! at 7:58 AM on October 25, 2006

If nothing else, all the stories in this thread tell you you are not alone in cutting off contact with family members.

I cut off contact with my sister, and she is constantly trying to force her way back into my life. Cynical as it may sound, I know she isn't doing this because she loves me; she does it because she wants to feel that the things she has done were not that bad, that we have a loving sister relationship rather than an exploiter-exploitee one. When I have let her back in, it is never long before she creates a problem ("borrowing" money from my friends, showing up drunk and belligerent at my job, etc.) She can't help it; it is who she is. Will she ever change? Who knows? But I know from past experience that she will say she has, then prove she has not to my detriment.

Despite your emotion now, you seem to feel that you could not just see your family and goodbye. It seems like these are not people with whom you could set boundaries -- some people just won't observe them.

It sucks, but not as much as continuing to want from them what you will never get, or having to push them back out of your life yet again.

Don't see them. Get together with your real family -- all your friends who love you.
posted by Methylviolet at 10:12 AM on October 25, 2006

The excuse of "they're family" and "the only one you have" is a bullshit reason for allowing emotionally painful relationships into your life.

Hear, hear.

The fact that this has brought you to tears is evidence to me that you should not see them right now. It's nice to think that there will be a lovely, heartwarming reunion, or a solid resolution one way or the other, but it's also extremely unlikely. You've obviously been considering why you would or would not meet them. Even if it sounds silly, do this: write down all the pros and cons for seeing them and for not seeing them. Look at them side by side. Understand exactly what it means to you, what the possible repercussions and outcomes are, and what you're willing to risk.

Personally, I'd let the time slip by. This is a blatant and inconsiderate intrusion, considering where you stand with them right now. They're forcing the issue. The very least they could have done was to let you know that they would welcome renewed contact, and give you the option of contacting them when you are ready.
posted by moira at 5:55 PM on October 25, 2006

Seconding flitcraft: write a letter you don't intend to send. Write as many letters as you have in you to write. Don't think about what their responses would be or how they'd answer your questions, just ask the things you want to know and say the things you want to say. Then, don't send it.

I do this on a fairly regular basis with all sorts of people in my life with whom I have conflicts. I have volumes of journals just filled with letters. It's done more for me than any therapy or confrontation ever has. I think it's both made me a happier, easier-to-get-along-with person and also gotten me in touch with how I really feel about a lot of things I was confused about. I think everyone should take it up.

Your parents, like all of us, are going to die eventually. But your choice is not between a) a joyous, beautiful reconciliation with you, and b) them dying alone and in pain because you refused to see them. To the extent that you have a choice, your choice is between a) an attempt to reconcile with them that will leave you both just as drained and unhappy as you were the first time around, and b) your parents continuing to live their flawed lives with their family and friends, and you continuing to live your happy life. Given that choice, I choose the latter.

(I've been going through this for several years myself, and just faced a big dilemma when my estranged father had heart surgery last week. If you (or anyone) are interested in talking more about these issues privately, my email address is in my profile.)
posted by decathecting at 9:54 PM on October 25, 2006

I'm late to this thread and I don't know if you've made your decision already, but I want to say that I'm in the same situation as digitalis - I broke off contact, had a year or so in which my mental health, ability to trust, confidence and relationships all improved dramatically, and then I let someone talk me into letting my family back into my life. It's something I regret almost every day, but it would now be so much crueler to cut them off twice. And I may yet have to do it.

Some of the comments here have made me so angry - the people who say that it's just a meeting have NO CLUE of the kind of power family, especially parents have on you, of how painful it is to cut off family and how it is almost always the absolutely last fucking resort. You've had several years to reflect on your decision to stop having them in your life, and it doesn't sound like you miss them or regret your decision one bit. That tells me you made the right decision.

Nobody can know for certain whether it is now possible to have some kind of relationship with your parents - nobody can predict the future, or read your parents' minds. But you have the past, and you can only base your decision on your past experience, because that's all you have - and it seems from that your conclusion would be that a non-toxic relationship with them is pretty damn unlikely.

I understand the fear that you may live to regret not seeing them again and reconciling with them in some way before they die, I really do. You never can know for absolute certain that you're making the right decision - that is the position we're in. So we do our best. And you have to balance the wanting for reconciliation, to do the best thing for them, with your past experience of YOU not being able to have a life because of your family being in it. You have a life now, you're happy, you have your own family of loved ones - why would you want to take the risk unless you believe that something has seriously changed? And in my case, I thought things had changed - and they slid back to, if not quite where we were, still not much better. Sometimes even if your parents are trying their best and mean well, they simply can't help themselves - they can't help being a toxic influence on your life. And you have to protect yourself.

It's a popular storyline - that of reconciliation and forgiveness and change and happy endings and children realising their mistake in leaving their parents and everybody living happily ever after. Because that sells, and people like happy endings. But you don't hear about all the people who went back to their family and live to regret it for the rest of their lives.

The thing is, if it were any other kind of relationship - a marriage maybe - everyone here would be telling you to get yourself as far away as possible and never return. But just because you have blood ties, why on earth does it mean you have to sacrifice yourself?

I second flitcraft's suggestion to write a letter that you're not going to send. Your still randomly bursting into tears suggest that you're very much still hurting, and writing it all out can be cathartic and bring some sort of clarity. Also, if you're anything like me, you may have buried most of your bad memories with your family in your mind and tried to forget them, so it might be worth remembering back to concrete reasons why you had to make that decision in the first place.

If you really think there may be a chance at reconciliation, or you really would like to try - how about writing them a letter, or asking them to write you one, and reinitiating contact that way? A letter can still be awfully upsetting, but it can at least be torn up and thrown away - and it's easier to break off contact again that way if you have to. You'd still have the safety of space and distance. If the letters between you seem to go okay, and you're convinced that something's really changed, that they've understood why you let them go in the first place and accepted responsibilty and truly mean to never let the past repeat itself - and you have to really take your time to make sure - then you think about maybe having a face-to-face meeting. This should take at least a year, maybe longer, however long it takes so you can feel safe again. Until then, I really would not even think about seeing them.

As to whether to let the time run out without a response or to just say no directly - my instinct is to say no, because honest, direct communication tends to be best. Although I can see that even a "no" from you via the mutual friend might be see as some kind of response, and you may hear more from them again. It may depend on just how likely you think your family are going to respect your "no". And you might have to think about asking the mutual friend to stop passing on any more messages - it's unfair on the mutual friend too.

Whatever you decide, whatever happens, I hope you don't beat yourself up for it - you're trying your best to do the right thing in a horrible situation, and as you can see in much of this thread, you're not alone and many of us understand some of what you're going through. I hope it turns out okay for you. And if I can help in any way, if you could do with someone to chat to - my email is in my profile too.
posted by Ira.metafilter at 10:25 PM on October 27, 2006 [2 favorites]

I was in your position a five years ago. I have since reconciled with my family.

One thing I learned was that I had to stop wishing that things were different. Once I accepted that my parents were screwed up and that is part of who I am and where I come from that made it a lot easier. I was very bitter for a long time. I saw the families others had and felt I had missed out on some basic human experiences. I learned to stop thinking about that and start focussing on the life I had built for myself despite that. I eventually learned to make a space in that life for my parents.

If you do decide to meet them make it very brief and make sure you are ready. I don't know about your circumstances but the crying jags indicate to me that you may need to work through this some more. But do make a decision to see them and make a goal to be ready to see them in the near future.

To be honest you can't avoid this decision forever. You don't just cut them off once an that's it, you will have to do it again and again for the rest of your life. What will you do when one of them dies? Go to the funeral? Send a card? Ignore it? Not meaning to get all heavy on you but I really think it will be easier for you to confront this rift now without dealing with the added guilt and regret that accompanies death.

Best of luck, I hope you sort it out.

posted by Sonny Jim at 8:48 PM on November 7, 2006

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