How do you put up with your family?
January 10, 2007 10:52 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for advice on how to tactfully deal with difficult family members when it comes to my lifestyle. You know there's

A brief description of the situation: I am a 30-something married, happy, vegetarian, laid-back, child-less (and wanting to stay that way), woman. My husband and I moved away from my home state a few years back. My parents are divorced, my father and his mother (my grandmother) live together (she's up there in age & would never consider senior housing). My mother's been out of the picture for a long time. My father has always been quiet, cynical & negative. My grandmother is used to getting her way all the time, and can complain about anything.

It was quite nice to move away from them. Not that I don't love them, or want to spend a little time with them, but they made me feel obligated to visit when I lived just a few miles from them. The time spent with them was awkard, mostly listening to my grandmother complain.
Anyway, I did my family duty & was very understanding and accepting of them, out of respect and my unshakable sense of family obligation and not upsetting others.

Coincidentally, my husband and I moved near my older sister and her family. Living near them has been ok. I love seeing my nephew and niece, both young toddlers. My sister and her husband are living in a lot of dept & seem to always be buying more. They're quite a mess - but I wouldn't dare comment on their lifestyle because it's not my place. I spend time with them, but it's getting increasingly more difficult because my sister always seems to have mean things to say to me.

To complicate matters, my father and grandmother sold their house and bought one here, near us. I am assuming it was to be closer to family. I think he feels we are responsible for making him happy. Now they complain about living here like it's our fault for not telling them everyting they might possibly have not liked about the area. My father will never seek therapy, and I believe he's been mildly depressed for most of his life.

So now there's obviously much more time for family get-togethers, which is fine, but I'm getting sick of comments made to me. Everyone wants me to have kids and they just don't understand that I don't ever want them. They think something's wrong with that. I get remarks for being vegetarian. "What? you won't eat something cooked in chicken broth? that's taking it too far." Mind you - I do a lot of the cooking & my husband always cooks a meat dish for them. My sister doesn't know how to cook & my father won't, and my grandmother's too old.
And my sister loves to try to put me down in front of everyone. She tries to imply that i'm selfish because I don't have kids, or that i have a drinking problem (I definitely don't!), or that I'm "smoking doobies" and cigarettes - (I have no clue where she gets this from, or why she wants to bring it up in front of my dad - is she trying to get me in trouble? She's freakin' 41 years old!.)

Anyway, this is rather long so I'll try to get to my questions - My husband and I are planning on moving far away in about 10 months. We have not told anyone & won't until our plans are more set. I think that will really upset my father & I think it will make my sister jealous to the point that she will shoot down our plans at any chance she gets. We'll end up seeing them at least once a year after the move - and that's how I want it. That and phone calls every month. They obviously want more. So - how do you ease off the family without upsetting them? And how do you ignore everyone else's opionions and pressures and go about your life without feeling obligated or guilty for pretty much wanting to abandon your family? Am I being harsh? I just want to do my thing and be happy with my husband! Is my family poison??
Thanks for reading - and sorry about the length!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (27 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe people will have great suggestions about how to deal with your family, but I think moving is smart, not harsh. There was a great thread here about dealing with people who make inappropriate personal comments about not having kids, but I can't find it. My family is screwy too, and I tried to get closer to them one on one and try to deal with some issues, and had a little success, but I found getting the heck away was far better for me. You don't want to be around them, so don't. It's your life.
posted by Listener at 11:06 AM on January 10, 2007

You are not abandoning your family. You are not planning on never speaking to them, cutting them off financially, refusing to help them in an emergency or otherwise acting as if they do not exit. You are merely going about your life trying to make yourself happy and part of that is not getting tangled up in the clearly negative dynamic around your dad and sister. There is no shame in this. There is nothing to be guilty about, despite the fact that your sister will attempt to make you feel that way. Who says her opinion is any more valid than yours? Go about your life. There is no law that says you must like your family.
posted by spicynuts at 11:08 AM on January 10, 2007

So - how do you ease off the family without upsetting them?

From the sounds of it you don't or rather can't. They are who they are and they're either happy with that or not discontented enough to change

If you wanted to, in order to make yourself feel better in the end, tell them now and explain why you're willing to move away from family. This at least gives them a chance to correct their behavior. It may not help, but you'll walk away knowing you told them how they were pushing you away and that they were given time to correct their behavior towards you. Be prepared for the mental abuse to get worse though.

And how do you ignore everyone else's opionions and pressures and go about your life without feeling obligated or guilty for pretty much wanting to abandon your family?

Slowly at first, with a constant reminder of why you're doing this. Ask your husband to remind you, perhaps with a simple prethought out phrase of yours, something like "This is for mental health"

Am I being harsh?

Yes, but sometimes that is called for. Don't beat yourself up over it.

I just want to do my thing and be happy with my husband! Is my family poison??

Only you can be the judge of that, but it's entirely possible for a family to be poison. In these situations it is not uncommon for a person to leave, for their own mental health.

Good luck.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:09 AM on January 10, 2007

Am I being harsh?

Absolutely not. You're living your life. From the time I went off to college I didn't see my family other than a vacation or two a year, except for half a year when I holed up with them recovering from a romantic debacle. After I moved to NYC I saw them at most once a year. And we loved each other, there was no "gotta get away from those jerks"—I was just living my life. I missed them and was always glad to see them when I did; they missed me (and I'm sure they'd rather I'd stayed closer) but never tried to guilt-trip me out of doing what I wanted to do. This is normal. Your situation is difficult: you have a clingy father and grandmother and a bitchy sister. Yeah, they're going to give you grief about moving away. Ignore them as best you can. They're out of line, you're not. Good luck!
posted by languagehat at 11:16 AM on January 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Perfectly reasonable to move away. In fact, I think it's wise on your part. If they're sorry you're leaving, I hope they recognize it's their fault for being inconsiderate assholes.

Your situation points out one of the strange expectations of human life (at least in U.S. culture, I don't know about others), which is that people need to maintain a close relationship with their families. I think that this expectation is bogus, and creates so much pain. I have been around a lot of people who were made miserable by their families, for precisely the sort of reasons you describe --- the constant nitpicky remarks, the harsh scrutinization of each other's lifestyles in extremely offensive ways, the constant negativity. It makes great sense that someone in the middle of such a relationship would just choose to cut it off, or move away to make the relationship less oppressive and depressing.

Yes, I think families can be poisonous.
posted by jayder at 11:17 AM on January 10, 2007

Being laid-back, happy, and living a lifestyle different than the standard model in society will inevitably confuse or annoy family members. It sounds like your sister may be more than a little jealous of your lifestyle, since you are happy, well-adjusted, have the financial and personal freedom that goes along with being childless, not in debt, and have not just turned 40. It might not help stop the comments or put-downs, but if you can realize that what you perceive as disapproval might be jealousy, it might make it easier to deal with on your end.

As far as your father goes, you're a grown woman. Your obligations to your father aren't nonexistant, but don't include feeling guilt for moving away. You're doing nothing wrong, so your family can only make you feel as guilty as you let them.
posted by SBMike at 11:19 AM on January 10, 2007

At the ripe age of 23, I'm not really "schooled in life," but as a young woman who has continually disappointed her parents at various junctions of her young life, I've come to the conclusion that since you can't change your family, you're going to have to change yourself or situation so that you stay sane. I always thought of it as "managing my love." If you love your family, you'll do things that prevent rather than encourage estrangement. You're just taking some preventative measures. And remember, they bother you because they care and because they love you.

And besides, it's not abandonment. How fast can you get back to your family in case of emergency? You're still going to talk to them, and be there for important occasions (as far as I can gather). In the meantime, can you keep a blog or email update schedule so you can have some more passive means of staying in touch?
posted by universal_qlc at 11:26 AM on January 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

your life belongs to you
posted by matteo at 11:28 AM on January 10, 2007

They upset you all the time, and you choose not to react in order to protect their feelings. That is the sign of a sane, compassionate adult. But really there is nothing so bad about letting them be upset for a while. Safeguard your feelings (in an assertive, rational way) and let them figure it out. It's the only way some people can learn.

Don't think of it in big dramatic and final terms like cutting someone out of your life, or being cut out of theirs. Sometimes people just get to be mad at each other for a while. It's part of how people grow and learn.

Once your plans to move are set, you are entitled to say the following:

"Husband and I have decided to move. It's going to be ideal for us, though I'm sad it will put distance between us all as a family. In the meantime, there's something I want to talk with you about. I want to enjoy our remaining months together as much as possible, but I won't be able to do so unless we clear some things up:

I will no longer tolerate being picked on because I don't want to have children. Nor will I tolerate criticism on my vegetarianism. I refuse to apologize or feel remorse for these decisions. It hurts my feelings that no one seems willing to accept me the way I am, and for a long time I have borne this silently. From now on when these subjects come up in a negative or hurtful way, I will respectfully excuse myself from the conversation. If that means going home or asking others to leave my home, so be it. Missing out on your company is the price I pay for finally standing up for myself. Considering the small amount of time we have left to enjoy each other's company, that could wind up being a high price for both of us. If you can't accept my lifestyle, the least you can do is completely avoid the subject.

My moving has nothing to do with this, but it does put greater pressure on me to make sure that the time we spend together as a family is good for all of us."

*Special Sister Supplement*

"The same goes for any criticism about my nonexistent alcohol and drug abuse. Having had friends with legitimate problems, this is not a joke I find funny, and unless you decide to plan an intervention for me with the help of a professional, I never want this subject to come up again."

Once you calmly get up and leave a few times, they'll get the idea. Maybe that won't even have to happen. You'll feel better about yourself though, by finally getting to demonstrate some control over the situation. If they get angry and treat you like crap until you move, consider it an early vacation from them. Once you leave and they realize how much they need you , they'll shape up. Seriously, some people have to be trained like animals in order to take other people's feelings seriously.
posted by hermitosis at 11:39 AM on January 10, 2007 [6 favorites]

You know, I get along really well with my parents, who live a half hour away from me, but when I was living across an ocean from them, I was happier because I only saw them infrequently. Now I see them about once a month. It's fine - like I said, I like them and we get along very well - but sometimes I do wish for a little bit of breathing room.

I think it's totally valid to move and if they keep criticizing your lifestyle choices, repeat "I'm sorry you feel that way" until you're blue in the face. It's worked for me in the past.
posted by sutel at 11:40 AM on January 10, 2007

I wanted to point you to the absolutely excellent AskMe thread that Listener mentioned on answering the dreaded "When are you going to have children?" The suggestions range wildly, you can probably find the right one for your situation.

My personal favorite: "How soon do you need to know?"
posted by nelleish at 11:49 AM on January 10, 2007

Chiming in...

Someone has to act like an adult. From your description, the only ones in this scenario doing so are you and hubby.

We don't get to choose our birth family. If they are toxic, you are better off minimizing your exposure. While harder as a kid, it's relatively simple as an adult... it just takes courage, commitment, and action.

Were it me, I'd be honest about the reasons when it finally DOES come up and is out of the closet. How else will they grow?

I've been in this boat, too. It is a measure of my growing maturity that my 'family' is who I choose, not those to whom I am genetically related. (I have better friends that I met in the last year!)

I applaud your decision to live your life. Good luck.
posted by FauxScot at 12:10 PM on January 10, 2007

I feel like I have experienced much of the same family pressures as you have, to a much lesser degree, fortunately I was able to mend things and now am much happier with my family life.

You seem to have tried many of the same strategies and come off as a very kind-hearted, compromising individual. Your family doesn't appreciate this, and won't.

It's time to move away from this--not to abandon them--but to live your own life. As someone mentioned above, you won't be cutting them out of your life, just giving yourself room to live on your own and be happier and healthier.
posted by dead_ at 12:20 PM on January 10, 2007

"Selfish" isn't choosing to have no kids. "Selfish" is adding more people to a planet that already has six and a half billion and counting.

Whingers, needlers and manipulators suck. You're doing the right thing.
posted by flabdablet at 12:57 PM on January 10, 2007

I could be off base entirely here but...

I have a brother and a father who were both very abusive - physically, verbally, etc. - over the years. I spent an awful lot of time and energy just avoiding pissing them off. Which was hard, since they both had incredible tempers and control-freak personalities.

What you're describing reminds me a bit of my situation, minus the physical abuse. I'm going to apply this model to your situation and you decide whether I'm on the right track.

Your family members are using you as a verbal/emotional punching bag. They sense that certain things bug you - you're insecure about them or they just irritate you - so they harp on them. The topic isn't really important. If they could get you upset by picking on you about the color of your hair or your taste in reading material or your political leanings, they'd do that. They just choose targets of opportunity.

If this is the situation in which you find yourself, I can tell you from personal experience that it won't change until you start punching back. It's sad and I wish I could say it's not this way, but in my experience it is. Bullies understand force and power. If you emotionally taser them a couple of times, they'll back off. Now, please keep in mind, I recommended the taser, not the brass knuckles or the shotgun. You may find that there's a lot of anger stored up and when it comes time to hit back, you hit harder than is necessary. I find this to be one of the most difficult things when it comes to dealing with bullies; how to fight them without becoming one of them.

Over the years, because of certain experiences I've been through, I've found that I became less succeptible to these attacks. I don't recommend this process since it seems to involve a sort of bottoming out - allowing things to get as bad as you can stand for as long as you can stand - and, after the meltdown, gradually rebuilding your life. But the end result is a sort of battle hardening that lets you just shrug off anything they throw at you.

Yes, avoiding the family members is probably a darn good idea. No matter what else you do, moving away is probably an excellent idea. But you have to ask yourself this: will the sensitivities your family exploited still be there? And will you spend the rest of your on your guard, making sure no one else can take a shot at them? Will you simply be choosing not to associate with your family or will you be hiding from them?

Obviously, if you decide to go the confrontational route, there will certainly be consequences. There's no way for anyone other than you to know whether it will be worth the trade off. It's a judgement call. Hope you make the right one.
posted by Clay201 at 1:29 PM on January 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

You are who you are, and (provided you're not hurting anyone) your family should accept that. However, it sounds like your family is full of people who complain, because they were raised by people who complain, and so on -- and you've broken out of that mold, so who better to complain about than someone who won't complain back?

Of course, you're still complaining in your own way; look how long your question is, and a big chunk of it is a complaint. We are who our family makes us, unless we actively choose to be something else.

So live your life, and if your family's way of being is toxic to your well-being, moving is a great way to deal with it. They get to be who they are, you get to be who you are, and you're free to love them from a distance (and have that love reciprocated) without suffering the slings and arrows of your incompatibilities.
posted by davejay at 1:29 PM on January 10, 2007

Oh, forgot to mention, about tactfully dealing with 'em for the short term...

1. Don't go out of your way to spend time with them. That doesn't mean you should avoid them, but limit your time to visits for specific purpose (like helping someone move) or family get-togethers. Be busy living your life the rest of the time.

2. There are lots of fun ways to deal with argumentative and rude personal attacks (even the "chicken broth" type), but you're just stooping to their level. Stick to the "I like the person I am, I like the things I believe in, and I like the things I do -- and you're entitled to feel differently about them, go right ahead" type of responses. Meanwhile, in your head, softly caress the idea that you'll be moving away soon.

If you really want to respond in a way that might effect change, that's going to be tough. For instance:

They: you won't eat something cooked in chicken broth? That's taking it too far!

You: the chicken wouldn't agree.
You: an animal product is an animal product, and I believe very strongly in it.
You: you're entitled to your opinion, and I'm entitled to mine. You don't hear me complaining about you eating meat, do you?

There are 300 other responses, and they'll neither (a) impact your relationship in a positive way, or (b) convince them they're wrong -- they'll just think you are the complainer. It's not fair, but if they're not going to try, don't play their game and don't fight a losing battle.

In short: people are who they are, and if you're not compatible, stay away from each other.
posted by davejay at 1:37 PM on January 10, 2007

There's a good chance that the guilt and obligation that you talk about is coming from the feeling that you could fix this situation if only you wanted it more/were a better person/really loved them/were a good daughter or sister/were more dutiful and respectful, etc.

You're not going to be free of that feeling of guilt and obligation until you really fully accept that you can't fix them. Sounds simple, but in practice it is quite painful. If you give up on fixing them, you're giving up your control over the situation.

It seems like your preferred method of fixing the family has been to "fulfil your family obligation" -- i.e., sit in silence and endure their meanness.

The bit about "not upsetting others" is particularly distressing to me. It's understandable that you don't want to upset your family in the way that they've upset you. But your anger and irritation are legitimate, whether or not it upsets them. If they are being mean and hurtful, it's right for you to be angry about it.

Let me put this another way. Your intention is not to upset them. But you can't assume all responsibility for their feelings. If they are upset in this situation, it's their problem.

Still not convinced? Here's a metaphor. Say that you're sitting on a park bench next to a stranger. All of a sudden, the stranger starts kicking you lightly in the shin. At first, you say nothing -- maybe this person doesn't mean to do it, or maybe they're just a little crazy. But they keep kicking you, and it kind of hurts. After a while, you get up, yell "Cut it out!" and walk away. Does it matter if they're upset about it? You were still right to do what you did -- in fact, you probably could have done it sooner.

Your family has been kicking you in the shin for a long time. It's totally ok to walk away. It's even ok to yell, "Cut it out!" if you feel like it. It's not going to kill them, and it's doesn't mean you're a bad person.
posted by ourobouros at 1:55 PM on January 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

I do not think you are wrong to move if you are going to a better place, but things will probably not be perfect there either. If there aren't irritating family members around there will be irritating bosses, jobs, nature or whatever. Or the family will keep calling, or will get ill and you'll want to help, which is difficult when you live far away, etc.

I think the problems you mention are not too terrible. If you think vegetarian is bad, try going vegan :) If the chicken broth remark is one of the more irritating things, I'd suggest to just let it slide and laugh about it with your husband. It is really not important enough to get worked up about, even though I do understand exactly how annoying it is, and that it hurts that your family does not respect your choices.

One benefit of living closer to your family is that visits do not take so long. When I lived further away, visiting family always meant staying over. Now that we live much closer, I can just leave before dinner

About the "they made me feel obligated to visit when I lived just a few miles from them". Do not let them control your feelings. You are in control of your own life (just as they are responsible for their lives). If you do not want to visit them as often, you should really be able to say so or just not go. Why do you think you can tell them "I only want phonecalls once a month" but not "I only want to visit you once a xxx"? I certainly understand where you are coming from, I just wanted to give another perspective.

BTW: this has nothing to do with your lifestyle choices. If you had children, your family would probably find WAY more things to complain about (a homebirth? are you out of your mind? what do you mean you will not let your three month old sleep over? are you crazy for quitting your job/putting your child in daycare/hiring a nanny? So public school is not good enough for you, eh/You are totally irresponsible for letting your child go to public school etc.). There really is always something.
posted by davar at 2:15 PM on January 10, 2007

My own father has faults that make him rather unpleasant to be around, anonymous, not dissimilar to the ones you describe in your family. He is not a truly bad person; his intentions are good and he is genuinely hurt if you reject him (he's really not just being manipulative). This makes it impossible for me to disagree with him too strenuously -- after all, he's my father and I do love him. But biting my tongue constantly caused me much stress and I often used to do most of what he told me to just to keep the peace.

I moved across the country in 2000. It wasn't specifically to get away from my father (it was a tremendous career opportunity, and a chance to move from Detroit to the splendor of the Pacific Northwest), but the fact that there would be 2000 miles between me and him was definitely on the list of plusses when I was making the decision.

It was, it turned out, the best decision I ever made in my life. Not only did making such a move give me an enormous boost in confidence, the distance from my father helped me grow up. It is clear to me that I did not really begin to become an adult until I moved out of my father's sphere of influence. If my father announced he was moving to Seattle, I would probably start looking for work elsewhere more or less immediately.

I heartily endorse retreat as a strategy. There are some battles you simply can't win, where the best move is to refuse to engage. You are as much an adult as your father and grandmother, and your emotional needs are as valid as theirs. If you need space, take it. Their happiness is not your responsibility -- they've had plenty of time to realize that and to find happiness within themselves, and it's hardly your fault that they have failed to do so.

I would advise you never to cut things off entirely, though, if you can at all avoid it. Recently, I have come to realize that, in my relationship with my father, I am the adult and he is the child. This has allowed me to find ways of managing that relationship -- it's a little manipulative, to be sure, but I figure turnabout's fair play. It is possible, if he lives long enough, that I will find some way to get along with him. I'm trying. I can't help it; I'd feel guilty if I just gave up. But he no longer gets to dictate the terms. That is non-negotiable.
posted by kindall at 2:24 PM on January 10, 2007

So now there's obviously much more time for family get-togethers, which is fine, but I'm getting sick...

Is is possible merely to decline to get together with them until you feel your abuse quotient getting too low? I'm not saying you should cut off contact, but instead say "yes" only one time out of n rather than your current rate.

Just because they're closer, it doesn't mean you have to go to them more often, right?
posted by cmiller at 4:33 PM on January 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Hermitosis has it. SAY something and make it known you are unhappy. Calmly, respectfully, almost emotionlessly. Say it, enforce it, and move away. Good for you for standing up for yourself and your husband.
posted by orangemiles at 5:20 PM on January 10, 2007

Families sure can be poison. The best thing I ever did was cut off contact with my mother. My life has improved drastically since that day.
posted by drstein at 6:42 PM on January 10, 2007

What hermatosis said, and move sooner if at all possible. Your family is toxic to you, distance is a good thing.
posted by deborah at 7:12 PM on January 10, 2007

I think your sister’s a bit of a meanie for saying that about you; yup, she definitely is envious. Your father, I’d presume just doesn’t want to lose you perhaps, but I can understand your need to be by yourself. I don’t think there’s any concrete advice I can give you (are there any other siblings in the picture who can help out your dad?? Does your other sister have any plans of contributing to his care-taking??). In the end, it’s your life to choose what you want to do, and if you feel like moving away is the correct answer, then don’t let anyone stop you. Just try and do it as tactfully as possible. I’m not sure how successful that’ll be if you just drop this on them at the last minute, but maybe if you discussed it with your father first, and explained your side of the story, that would be better (even if you get some kind of flak for it from your sis). Besides, you’ll be leaving soon and then there will be no-one to trouble you:)

PS. Being an Indian I can’t opt for this but I can sure see why you would want to… best of luck anonymous!
posted by hadjiboy at 10:13 PM on January 10, 2007

Everyone's made so many of the points I'd thought of - so I'll just add this. When you remove yourself from immediate access to these relatives you will find it so much easier to be polite and loving when you visit them and choose the time and duration of those visits. Not everyone is suited to live next door to their families - it can require a lot of patience if you are dealing with very demanding people. When you're dealing with depressed and unhappy people who can use you as a sounding board/therapist it's even more difficult. I have some relatives that I simply don't see very often because doing so made me profoundly depressed due to their behavior and situation in life. (That's the short version.) Visiting someone shouldn't feel like doing some sort of penance, or make you feel unhappy and depressed afterwards. No one would expect such behavior from a friend, yet we are supposed to dutifully accept it because it's family. (I find this very annoying, but it seems to be a norm, or perhaps it's a southern thing.) However, when the visits are limited, I find that I can be much more pleasant to them, be honestly happy to see them and be more sympathetic. Your family might be a bit kinder towards you if you saw them less often, and in any case it might be good for your emotional health as well.

It sounds as though this is a case where they may accuse you of being selfish - in an attempt to cover up their own selfish wish to have you right next door for the rest of your life. This may also have something to do with your father and grandmother's age - as some become older it means more to them to have frequent contact with their children. Of course they should be encouraged to have friends their own age, and get out more - as much as that sounds like advise to a teenager, it sounds appropriate here. Their children shouldn't be the only focus in their lives, and if they are worried about who will be their future caretakers then they should work these details out for themselves. They certainly seem able to vocalize their opinions!

Hang in there. Remember - it will be easier to be kinder to them all if you are happier.
posted by batgrlHG at 12:41 AM on January 11, 2007

They are poison I say, Poison!

I quit talking to my parents in January, 2001. Well, that was the last time, anyway. I was deeply hurt and even more, made extremely angry by something my mother said. I had never been so angry with her. To the point I really wished to give her the most unmerciful tongue-lashing I could muster. It took 2 years for me to get over that, and then I simply didn't wish any further direct contact.

Life has been better ever since. Some regret because my father got caught in the cross-fire, as it were. I didn't feel I could snub my mother and talk to him (they're together). The difference in my life was enough my partner could see the difference.

Mind, the relationship had most always been toxic, to one degree or another.
posted by Goofyy at 6:28 AM on January 11, 2007

« Older cool Canadian Cities   |   LCD HDTV Prices: Buy now or later? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.