estrangement isn’t a problem; it’s a response to an unsolvable dilemma
February 26, 2019 1:35 PM   Subscribe

The cultural narrative around estrangement is that it's a problem to be solved. ...And so there are websites and books and articles meant to help families reconcile, with advice on everything from how to phrase an apology to how to take legal action. For some families, that helps. But for the rest of us, that pressure to get back together makes everything worse. For us, estrangement isn’t a problem; it’s a solution to a problem, a response to an otherwise unsolvable dilemma. It’s a last resort when you’ve tried everything else over and over, when you no longer trust the relationship. An article by Harriet Brown in The Washington Post.

Referenced in the article, Kristina M. Scharp's collected research on parent-child estrangement, including the full text pdf of "It Was the Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back”: Exploring the Distancing Processes Communicatively Constructed in Parent-Child Estrangement Backstories.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl (73 comments total) 72 users marked this as a favorite
Pretty much every interaction I have with my non-estranged family, someone mentions that I should resolve things with my mother (other than my sister, who while not 100% estranged I think understands why I did, and my father, who is somewhat part of the problem although I'm not estranged from him), so I feel this article. I get the feeling the family is more invested in getting rid of the estrangement than my mother is. If I do attend a family gathering my mother is at, even without interacting with my mother in any significant way, is seen as a step towards reconciliation, but it's not; when by brother died, I hugged my mom as would seem appropriate given what happened, and my grandmother lit up like this is it, this would be the thing that would push us back together.

No, it's not; I need more people to realize that, like the article says, this is about doing for me what's healthy, I'm not punishing her or waiting for her to do the 'right thing' to fix things, as it seems the quarterly, increasingly disconnected-from-reality letters I get from my mom in the mail seem to imply (I don't respond). This is the way it has to be, it's not something to be fixed, unless there's some huge, drastic change that reshuffles the deck. Otherwise I'm just inserting myself back into the same harmful situation I was in before.
posted by AzraelBrown at 1:55 PM on February 26, 2019 [54 favorites]

I have a polite distant acquaintanceship with the 90-year-old man who was my difficult, selfish, toxic father and is now a perfectly nice old gent I don’t recognize. As the article says, there are degrees of estrangement.

He did his best when I was young, then pretty much became intolerable for various reasons when he and my mother divorced.

My sister, on the other hand, has found a way to reconcile with him.

Many many families have someone they never talk about, for one reason or another. Estrangement is much more of a norm than you’d think.
posted by Peach at 2:05 PM on February 26, 2019 [16 favorites]

In my experience, estrangement makes people deeply uncomfortable. They wonder what’s wrong with you when you can’t get along with your family. They worry that if you can estrange yourself, maybe their parents/children/siblings could do that to them. Estrangement seems to threaten the primal order of things and opens the door to a lot of questions most of us would rather not think about.

god, yes, this, especially parents. their response is basically always "what is wrong with you that you don't talk to your mom or dad, and how can I prevent my kids from going wrong like that?" and almost never "dang. what sort of shenanigans would my parents have to have engaged in for me to cut them off?"
posted by bagel at 2:06 PM on February 26, 2019 [54 favorites]

Well it's too bad we only get one perspective. My mother stopped talking to me when I moved out at 18. Over 20 years ago. She has carried it over to my children (just mine, not my sister's). Apparently something petty needs to be resolved, but at this point I'm really just hoping her asshole husband dies first.
posted by Brocktoon at 2:09 PM on February 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

On my 24th birthday, my mom called to ask me if I got the card she sent and then proceeded to tell me that basically everything I chose to do with my life was shit, among other personal attacks. She was abusive and neglectful in my childhood, and I had tried to cut off contact many times before (but was persuaded against it by other family), but realizing it was my fucking birthday and she could not say a single nice thing to me -- that was the last straw. I have not spoken to her since.

She has made attempts at reaching out in the intervening time. Very seldom, half-hearted, and manipulative ones. It did not move me in the slightest. It's been three and a half years and within the last year or so my other family members have finally stopped urging me to reconcile. I am indeed much happier without dreading her phone calls or seeing her in person and having to pretend, yet again, that life growing up was normal. Strangely, my parents are still married (even though my mom was varying degrees of abusive to everyone close to her) and I am in still in contact with everyone in our small family but her. It makes things awkward, but that's just how it is.

The hard part is how to navigate that with other people in my life, outside my family. I don't go "home" for holidays (even when I lived close by I refused to return to my parents' house and have to fake normalcy with my mother) and sometimes I awkwardly stumble when people ask about my mom. I am on good terms with my dad and since I never talk about my mom, I think most acquaintances (coworkers, classmates, etc) assume she must have passed on and tend not to press about it.

It's always a tightrope walk when making new friends and weighing telling the truth about your current state of estrangement. The few times I have disclosed this to a new person in my life, it was over drinks and my defenses were down a bit. One of these friends confided that her boyfriend comes from a similar family dynamic. It was a relief to run into someone who understood, at least a little bit.
posted by sevenofspades at 2:26 PM on February 26, 2019 [20 favorites]

One of the things that I have learned in the past few months is that when a divorce happens, if one party moves far from the area the remaining spouse is an asshat.

When people remove themselves from the familiar there is always some significant impetus.

As for me - my father passed away recently, after a short and very painful bout with cancer. My mother is devastated. On the one hand, I feel bad for the frail little old grandmother my mom is now. On the other, I still have nightmares from the time she took a steak knife to the palms of my hands, or one of the many times she dragged me around the house by my hair.

My siblings mostly don't understand why I am estranged from my family, but I am the oldest and male - mom made a point of singling me out for abuse.

There will be no reconciliation, and my association with the family dies with her.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 2:29 PM on February 26, 2019 [23 favorites]

There is long and storied past of parents disowning/casting out/estranging themselves from children, and while this is not condoned, it does seem to be part of the accepted cultural narrative, like it's not seen as absolutely abnormal. Something about children estranging themselves from parents seems to draw this but how could they? can't they forgive their poor old dad response that I find puzzling. Among other things, a parent that estranges herself from a kid seems like they're more likely to do it for reasons of "I object to your values system/ I am offended by your lifestyle." whereas a kid that estranges herself from a parents is more likely to do it because they've been abused, often for years and years.

All of this is speculative (I'm lucky to have the family I do), but the contrast is curious to me.
posted by thivaia at 2:30 PM on February 26, 2019 [55 favorites]

It just occurred to me that back in the old days, someone could emigrate, and be completely out of touch with the relatives left behind - no email, no long distance phone calls. I have to wonder how much national and international movement has been driven by children who want nothing more to do with their parents.
posted by happyroach at 2:40 PM on February 26, 2019 [47 favorites]

In my case, it was wholesale rejection of her asshole husband as a figure of authority, but I realize now that she was always going to choose him over me, after she chased after him from Montana to Oregon and all over that state, dragging me behind.
posted by Brocktoon at 2:42 PM on February 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

All of this is speculative (I'm lucky to have the family I do), but the contrast is curious to me.

Filial piety is a bedrock virtue of many a culture, and a child willfully estranging oneself is going against that.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:43 PM on February 26, 2019 [18 favorites]

I’ve been estranged from my brother for about four years now, ever since he walked out on our mother’s funeral. There are times I feel bad for not trying to reach-out to him, because I know he’s in a really bad place in his life, and, y’know, he’s my brother.

But, I just can’t do it.

It feels awful to think “fuck him” when it comes to him, but the funeral bs was just the apogee of a long stream of bs he’d perpetrated over the years. So, he’s out of my life. We didn’t even tell him we moved two years ago. I do live in fear that he’ll show up at my door, looking for help, or angry and armed. I also fully expect to one day be contacted by the authorities to come and identify the body. That might be the funeral I walk out on.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:59 PM on February 26, 2019 [10 favorites]

The world has over seven billion people, everyone is going to have to ignore just about all of them, even if they are a "people person". The fact that I don't maintain much contwct with the sources of my DNA shouldn't be treated as remarkable, yet it is.

Like, there are billions of people to whom i wish no harm, those two are just two more, I have no time or energy for them, I can't save them, I can't change the plans they had for me, I didn't choose them, I can only briefly entertain them and their bullshit, and wish them well, and flee from the whirlwind.

Thank you for posting this.
posted by Anchorite_of_Palgrave at 3:03 PM on February 26, 2019 [32 favorites]

I'm estranged by my choice from my dad, who is a religious nut piece of work with anger issues and .. I have no interest in reconciling.

On the other hand, I'm estranged from my brother (15 years ago?! how does time do these things!?) mostly due to my own failures, and I wish that someday he'll want to re-open contact. There's no way I'd push it, though, because I absolutely get that there are reasons for estrangement and boy did I furnish some reasons that I regret... I hope he has been able to surround himself with a family of choice, but I have no way of knowing.
posted by the antecedent of that pronoun at 3:05 PM on February 26, 2019 [6 favorites]

Thanks for posting this. I first thought on seeing this thread I might share my own story, but it's been a decade now since I cut ties to my own family and just in the last year or two I've decided to evict their memory also, and it turns out I don't actually have much to say. The history and reasoning and explanations are no longer burdens I have to carry or let take up space in my brain.

I did want to show up and be counted though. I have never once regretted the decision, my life is better for having done it and I only wish there had been ways to do it sooner. Estrangement is a normal and healthy thing that happens.
posted by books for weapons at 3:22 PM on February 26, 2019 [29 favorites]

I, too, am estranged from my mother by my choice. I did it because dealing with her made me a worse person to my family. I'd get wound up for a week before seeing her and it took a couple of days to wind down and in the meantime I was short and angry with my wife and kids and it wasn't fair to them. I don't regret it one bit. As the article says:
They regret whatever situation made it necessary. They regret not having a parent/sibling/family member they could come to terms with. They regret that their problems were severe enough to make estrangement look good. But they don’t regret doing it.
It makes me sad, not because I miss my mother, but because my uncle cut me off in support of his sister. In his mind nothing she could have done deserved being estranged.

If you wouldn't let anyone else treat you that way, don't take it from your parents. You're better off without it. Hugs to all Mefites who have to deal with this shit.
posted by Defective_Monk at 3:24 PM on February 26, 2019 [23 favorites]

The most recent research suggests that up to 10 percent of mothers are estranged from at least one adult child,

I'll admit I'm startled by this. I'm willing to accept that most estrangements are for good reasons — the people in my life who are estranged for a parent, it's for an excellent reason, namely because that parent is an abusive or transphobic shithead — but I don't like what those numbers say about the prevalence of being-an-abusive-or-hateful-shithead in the general population.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:29 PM on February 26, 2019 [12 favorites]

This is definitely relevant to my interests. When I made the decision over 6 years ago to no longer allow my mother in my life, I sent her a long letter that explained exactly why I was estranging myself. Yet I still occasionally get self-pitying/manipulative messages from her claiming that she has no idea why I "just stopped talking to her out of the blue" - the same sort of oblivious narcissistic and emotionally abusive behavior that caused me to estrange myself. I know she'll never change, and while I regret the need for my estrangement I don't regret my decision to follow through on it. I still speak to my sister regularly; she understands why I did what I did but can't bring herself to do the same thing and it saddens me to hear how our mom's behavior continues to grind on my sister.
posted by Greg_Ace at 3:42 PM on February 26, 2019 [8 favorites]

Reading this and other mefites stories makes me suddenly see why I have terribad PTSD. Everyone here who has been vulnerable and shared their stories, my heart goes out to you for making the right choice for your brain and hearts.

I'm typing this as I visit my mom for what needs to be the last time until a family death. I steeled myself to resist her offer of monetary help, no matter my current position because giving abusers leverage ... We know how that ends.

After her I'm down to three biological family members I can speak to - one who I am certain I have to drop after I get on my feet again, and unfortunately that means a very distant relationship with his wife, my really sweet and smart aunt who is one of my heroes.

I don't go to family occasions, and last time my Dad delivered a present from my emotionally abusive aunt, I almost handed it don't back to him. Next time I will, because every sip of the wine reminded me of when she tried to convince me I was straight ... When I was 28 years old. Full bore psuedo therapy kind of convincing.

We have a long way to go as a species if this - the stories above even more than the one I just shared - are how we treat one another.
posted by thebotanyofsouls at 4:12 PM on February 26, 2019 [7 favorites]

Sent my father a birthday card for his 75th birthday, but have not spoken to him for maybe eight years, and he turns 80 this year, so might give him a call, but I won't beat myself up if I don't.

It's quite an old take on the issue, but just does not seem to date at all, see below
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 4:24 PM on February 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

Are you a member of my family? If so, here's how to determine if I am on speaking terms with you:
  1. Did you actively cover for the serial child molester in the family? did you tell everyone he was a good guy even though you knew he had a "little problem"? did you tell me and the other children in the family that we should respect him and look up to him? did you lie to the police when they investigated him for molesting a developmentally disabled teenager who lived in the neighborhood?
  2. If yes to the questions in 1, do you feel any remorse for covering for him? Do you think you did anything wrong?
  3. If yes to 1 and no to 2, I am not on speaking terms with you. Otherwise, congratulations, I am on speaking terms with you!
To my eye this is an extremely low bar to cross. However, very few members of my family have successfully crossed it. Furthermore, the majority of the members of my family believe that the main problem the family has is me asking all these damn questions about the family's acknowledged resident serial child molester. So that's neat.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 4:31 PM on February 26, 2019 [38 favorites]

I read this article with a combination of recognition and relief.
I, too, cut off my mother. It was years ago, and she was horrible. Abusive, cruel, openly manipulative... there's a lot more, but I don't want to share that story right now.
I've never regretted my decision. Hopefully she'll die estranged from me.
posted by doctornemo at 4:45 PM on February 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

It took me a long time to be ready to cut off my birth family, because I was worried that I was somehow stooping to their level-- I want to be a caring, loving, forgiving person.

Then I realized that the loving thing to do was to cut them off.

Because you know what? They are better people when they do not have the opportunity to abuse and neglect me. I know for a fact that they don't have close friends, that they don't, like, rant at service people, that the power dynamics in their other family relationships mean that they can't be abusive there with impunity. If I'm not around, they do less abusing, neglecting, gaslighting, and manipulating, and generally do not have the opportunity to be as awful.

So hey, the best thing I can do for them is not show up to the shitshow.

This line of thought has basically removed the massive pile of guilt I used to have over the estrangement, and I offer it here in case it is likewise useful to anyone else.
posted by Rush-That-Speaks at 4:51 PM on February 26, 2019 [34 favorites]

I am close to someone who has an adult child who won't speak to him. I won't get into the backstory; no one would find me a reliable narrator anyways and I don't want to be that person.

But my friend worries. A lot. And when he brings it up, I tell him that he's got to respect it. Because that child is an adult who has made a decision. Do not disrespect them with intrusive overtures. Respect is their right, but it is also a gift, and in this situation it is the only gift he can give.
posted by elizilla at 4:56 PM on February 26, 2019 [5 favorites]

I broke off contact with my parents over a decade ago. I don't wish them ill and I'd rather that we were still in touch, but not being in contact is best for me. Estrangement isn't a problem to be solved, it is the solution to a problem when all others failed. This article captures my experience really well, this passage in particular:

Our relationship brought me nothing but nuclear-level angst. After even the smallest interaction — an email or text message — I’d have panic attacks that lasted weeks.

It's hard to express what led up to the estrangement, this persistent feeling of anxiety about every phone call, every email, every visit, that carried over to the rest of my life. When I talk about it - even with close friends - there's a part of me that often feels like I didn't try hard enough to keep it together. The social pressure around estrangement very much makes a difficult situation harder to manage.

Thanks for posting - I look forward to digging into the other links and added her book to my reading list.
posted by Otherwise at 5:01 PM on February 26, 2019 [17 favorites]



I'm estranged from my mother (and, on the opposite side of the family, my grandparents), and my dad has started to prod me about maybe looking towards a future of reconciliation. And I've been procrastinating for a month on writing him an email to the effect of "here's what it would look like to have protected me from her in the way I needed, oh, ten or fifteen years ago; here's how you would have to protect me from her now if you want me to willingly be in the same room as her." Because I know it will hurt his feelings, and I feel responsible for them.

And because I know my other adult sister will agrees that I am responsible in some way, too.

At the same time, not removing myself from all situations where my mother is present means that the odds of family conflicts go up exponentially if I enforce my basic boundary of "people I am hanging out with on my own time do not get to make weird homophobic remarks, comments about immigrants--my spouse is an immigrant--or insult my hobbies." It's a low bar to clear, and yet!

What I don't get is that post estrangement, I have a more distant but vastly less stressful relationship with my dad, because I'm not constantly hurt and furious that my mother has insulted me, again, and I have to defend myself or my partner, again, and angry that my dad doesn't say anything. Being distant and maintaining that boundary that I don't exist in any room or building my mother is in means that visits might not be frequent, but I'm a hell of a lot less likely to run like hell from any actual conversation. The idea that there's some magical future where I don't make my mother uncomfortable and anxious, which she handles by trying to use barbed comments to force me into the daughter she envisioned having (and, incidentally, totally has in my sister), and also I forget about twenty-five years of that behavior and stop being hurt and angry and sore and defensive--I'm so confused by it! Sometimes there is too much history there! I don't think I can ever trust her not to be a shit again, and if you aren't going to protect me, I'm damn well going to do it, and your family gathering is going to be miserable!

What is this magical thought process where you can apply Christmas magic or Hallmark sparkle and fix a severely dysfunctional parent/child relationship in which the child doesn't trust the parent at all without really working through the underlying process and solving the automatic associations of "parent" with "going to hurt me and be prevented from even defending myself?" Why do people think you can tie that shit up with a neat bow and smile because everyone's togeeeeeeeether? Why do people think the decision to give up is anything a child reaches without having fuckin' thought about it?!

Our relationship brought me nothing but nuclear-level angst. After even the smallest interaction — an email or text message — I’d have panic attacks that lasted weeks.

Relatable. Why do so many people think that wishing this on me again is an act of love?!
posted by sciatrix at 5:05 PM on February 26, 2019 [36 favorites]

It's been years since I wrote my father that I no longer wanted any interaction with him whatsoever. He was a physically (I used to hear him beat my mother; one of my memories is him punching me in the face when I was eight) and emotionally abusive man, who positively ruined my relationships with men in my life. (I really should probably have therapy, but I'm in my 50s now). He left when I was ten, but would come back periodically to act like a caring father. Sort of.

But I was never "good enough". To my adulthood, he was surprised at how smart I am, or how funny. He continued to belittle me, though, with every interaction, whether in person or by phone.. He tried to recruit his mother to plead me to reconcile with him, but never stopped making me feel small and useless.

I came across a Christmas card he sent me four years ago. In it he wrote: "For Daddy's Girl, even if only in her dreams." Wth?

The only regret I have about our estrangement is that now I'm interested in family history on his side, but I refuse to contact him to ask. I'll find what I can on my own.

Sorry, I ranted too long and too much. He's better left in my past, and I'm with anyone else who has to navigate these choppy waters. We do what we need to for our own health.
posted by annieb at 5:28 PM on February 26, 2019 [11 favorites]

My father estranged himself thirty-odd years ago. I still have bad dreams where he comes back.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:34 PM on February 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

When I was in the eighth grade I ran away from my Dad, with my little brother, because I couldn’t stand the emotional abuse anymore. So he cut contact with us. I wrote him letters begging him to see me, sent tickets to graduations, and he ignored them. When I ran into him in public once he turned away. I was 14.

In my twenties he decided he wanted to reconcile and we exchanges a few letters. I went from elated to realizing there was no changes in his personality, and I asked myself if the past ten years were better or worse without him. I stopped writing.

I’ve been repeatedly told how mean that was of me and that I’m hurting my father, and I should try to let him back in my life.

No thank you. I’m good.
posted by lepus at 5:42 PM on February 26, 2019 [10 favorites]

I made the decision to stop talking to my father a couple of years ago, after I moved back to the area temporarily. He was a emotionally absent/abusive alcoholic until I left home at 17. He stopped drinking when I was in my mid-20s after my mother divorced him and he almost died. But he’s a dry drunk—never did anything to show any remorse for his atrocious and deeply destructive behavior.

After I asked him for a favor, and he refused and asked me to respect his boundaries (!) I talked to him and essentially said that I wasn’t having this weird relationship with him, either you come to me on my terms or we don’t have to talk. He made a couple lame overtures (come over for Father’s Day! Um, how about no. “Oh, you sent me a birthday card? Time to write ‘return to sender’ on it and drop it in the mail unopened”) but aside from that I’ve heard nothing from him.

I’m thankful, honestly. My life is so much better without feeling obligated to return his phone calls or spend Christmas Eve with him.
posted by Automocar at 5:54 PM on February 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

My parents got divorced when my brother was 14 and I was away at university, and my dad showed up one day six months later to say he was moving 8 hours south as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and expected that my brother would be willing to visit anytime. It wasn't for a job, either, it was likely for the woman he was going to marry within the year and not tell my mom (she found out from me!). He used to do things for other young male family members (his grandsons) he never did with my brother, like take them to baseball games or actually pay attention to their thoughts. He did used to leave my brother in tears over his math homework as a ten year old, though, and thought the solution to my brother being bullied by five other boys would be to teach him to box. So when my brother said fuck this, and stopped seeing him or speaking to him, and my dad used me to extract information about my brother's life, I knew what I had to do. This wasn't the only reason (my dad did and said lots of messed up stuff to me too) but I couldn't do it for myself. I didn't send a long letter or anything, I just faded out. Maybe that makes me a bad person. On the other hand, when over half your children (that you admitted were yours) won't speak to you, I figure you know the drill.
posted by threementholsandafuneral at 5:59 PM on February 26, 2019 [9 favorites]

I've been estranged from my blood relatives for 18 years now. It began with me splitting from my parents, but ended with the rest of my family choosing to take sides and that the side they all chose wasn't mine.

There were some tears and anguish, but not a second of regret.

The relief for me was knowing that, going forward, I would only ever have to deal with the consequences of my decisions, however dire, and would never again also have to deal with my parents rubbing my nose in it and saying "I told you so".
posted by LilithSilver at 7:32 PM on February 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

“Estrangement seems to threaten the primal order of things and opens the door to a lot of questions most of us would rather not think about.”

100% this.

I am estranged from my paternal grandfather. Because of the callous way he treated me as a child, and the callous way he continues to treat his own son (my father). My parents think I’m being unfair and it’s so sad and I should just forgive him and reconcile but you know what? No. That is such a load of horseshit.

Our collective cultural pressure to “keep the family together” is a default toxic idea masquerading as a moral good. It’s the kind of lie that almost everybody subscribes to so blindly and so completely that to unsubscribe from it must mean that you are the problem that needs solving.

It’s the kind of lie that enables exploitation and boundary-crossing of every kind, because it allows people to take for granted that love is earned, not owed. It enables bigger lies about loyalty and duty and honor, and I refuse to sign up for that.
posted by Doleful Creature at 7:33 PM on February 26, 2019 [7 favorites]

I've actually always felt ashamed of my estrangement with my father. Like, if I were a better person I would deal with him better, or take care of him somehow. I know he had a pretty hard childhood himself, and he really did do the best he could for us. I miss the loving father he was when I was five. Something changed in him as he got older. My brothers and I never could put a finger on what happened, but he became more and more mentally abusive and demanding, so I sort of ghosted him, still thinking the day might come when I feel strong enough to deal with him.

Metafilter was the first place I ever saw people talk about being estranged from a parent and getting on normally with life. I used to think I had to explain my relationship with my father, but I just avoid talking about him and yes people just seem to think he's dead.

Oddly, my relationship with my mother was always very tense, yet we kept trying, and I think we get along better now than we ever did when I was growing up.
posted by maggiemaggie at 7:40 PM on February 26, 2019 [13 favorites]

I appreciated how the article mentioned that estrangement is not a binary state, but rather a range (more estranged, less estranged). I’m trapped in the Minnesota Nice version of estrangement where my father repeatedly demonstrates that he is an asshole, but, rather than rock the boat, no one confronts him, so our relationships fade to minimal interaction. If we had a confrontation, would it result in a binary (yes/no) estrangement?
posted by Maarika at 8:22 PM on February 26, 2019 [9 favorites]

So last night I auditioned for a show where I had not been able to find out in advance what the show was about. You are supposed to audition with a piece that could possibly be put into the show, which is a mixed bag event that people contribute to. I was in it last year and knew there is usually a theme, but I hadn't been around the location in quite some time and nobody who has been near there recently was telling me what the show's theme was this year. So I had no idea until I got there and saw the flier saying that this year's theme was "family." And inwardly I was all BLEEEEEEECH.

So I ended up making up a monologue on the spot about how our society promises us, guarantees us, that your family is going to love you. Your family HAS to love you. Family is supposed to be the sappy happy be-all security blanket of love in your life. (And I can say from experience that the director appears to have this sort of family, down to huge reunions with matching shirts on a yearly basis.) And yet for some of us that is a giant damn lie. I don't even have any huge horrible estrangement stories really--one side of the family thinks I'm weird and never liked me and no longer feels obligated to deal with me and the other side just has never been interested outside their bubble. But it gets fucking old to always be hearing about that promise and then my having to think of my shitty, non-Hallmark reality. And much as I like the concept of "found family" and all that jazz, I have not been able to get one of those either. Family rejects me as a concept.

I don't know if my bit is going to get into the show or not (it'd need revisions, clearly) but I do think it'd be nice to have at least one piece in there that isn't all sappy happy "my family loves meeeeee." I think that voice needs to be heard.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:25 PM on February 26, 2019 [24 favorites]

What I'm struggling with at the moment, is the opposite of what so many of you have bravely shared here: estrangement precipitated not by outrageous and terrible behaviour, but far more pedestrian escalation and strife, quotidian manipulations coming from a misplaced but genuine hurt - until I just got to tired to want to keep compromising.

It felt, it still feels, so selfish. So callous and cold. To stop talking, for that?

But the relief, that went with it
Not having to think about it, prepare mentally for interactions, the ruminating afterwards. The stress of it all. And the longer it goes on the easier it is, just not to engage.

This is a weakness in me, borne of my anxiety (the escalation of which caused the estrangement in some ways, as my coping skills went out the window altogether for a time). I know that a stronger and better me would front up, navigate that dangerous territory, lie and scrape to maintain a detente.

But, oh, I just cannot be bothered anymore, you know? I tried and tried until I just couldn't anymore. Don't want to make all the effort. For all the guilt and sadness and doubt I feel (maybe it is me), I still feel so much easier without that interaction in my life.

It worries me though. Our tight knit family was six strong. Dad is dead, my brother and I have have only been passing acquaintances for years (no regrets there), I am down to two people now.
posted by smoke at 9:42 PM on February 26, 2019 [10 favorites]

Thank you to everyone who shared their stories here. I am glad the article resonated.

I am very close to someone who chose to cut contact with their family many years ago, before I knew them. They've described the abuse their parents perpetrated, physical and emotional, and the relief at cutting contact even though they're sad about it and wish it were different. They were the scapegoat in the family, though all the siblings were abused to various degrees. Some siblings are still in contact but it's strained all their family relationships. I think that cutting contact, for them, was the healthiest thing, but I know lots of people don't get it and there's so much pressure from people who don't understand. I really appreciated how the article highlights the harm that comes from this cultural narrative that one should always push for reconciliation. Sometimes, no. It's not what is healthiest.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:05 PM on February 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

It's incredibly difficult to talk about this in part because people who are listening will minimize your trauma and offer bullshit comparisons (abuse Olympics, well was he ever physically abusive?) instead of hearing you.

I see you, I feel you, I hear you. If your estranged relative ever did right by you then look back upon that fondly, but don't rewrite your relationship. Don't forget the ways you've been done wrong, instead give those ways names and the power that their behavior took from you.


If you knew the word gaslighting before this relationship started, would that have been your first word?

One of the most difficult things I've seen is people who've experienced this sort of trauma then trying to date. If there's behavior from a person you're dating similar to the behavior of a relative estranged to you, DTMF!

If a relative/people tell you that you need to get reacquainted with has the same abusive behavior towards you, you're in the right in protecting yourself.

Be safe! I see you, I feel you, I hear you. There are people who will make you feel small, insignificant, be unimportant. Those people are small, insignificant, unimportant, and you can spend your mental energy on them or you can disengage and become estranged.

I'll always support you in everything you do, but I'll understand what you do if you do the latter.
posted by I paid money to offer this... insight? at 10:39 PM on February 26, 2019 [7 favorites]

I have to wonder how much national and international movement has been driven by children who want nothing more to do with their parents.

Eleven and a half years ago, I moved four and a half thousand miles and an entire ocean away from my family.

It was for grad school. That is my story and I'm sticking to it.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 1:53 AM on February 27, 2019 [12 favorites]

It's not estrangement per se--we still talk on the phone every now and then and I stay in touch with my siblings on Facebook and all that--but...okay, the best way to put it is this:

There's this old Achewood strip where Roast Beef is on the phone from the moon and dissing one of the other character's love for The Cure. One of his friends asks how Beef's doing, and the reply is "Pretty good now that I am 239,000 miles from The Cure".

I am 239,000 miles from The Cure.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 2:08 AM on February 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

I went through partial estrangement from my family for years until about two years after my father died. I had, because of a particularly shitty deathbed wish, attempted to maintain a relationship with my mother and sister - and realized that if I kept my promise, I would be letting my father condemn me to abusive relationships for the rest of my life. After a particularly horrific birthday that led to me changing my phone number and the day I celebrate it, I decided to just go total no-contact. Within six months, my sleep improved, my emotional eating behaviors disappeared, and aside from a lingering paranoia that my mother and sister might show up on my doorstep (and I do think they might have tried while I was quite fortunately traveling) I was altogether happier. I even started forming legitimate intimate bonds with people that weren't emotional withholders that treated me like a dirty secret.

A lot of people expressed and express horror at my doing this even now. My roommate, who loves the shit out of me, couldn't fathom it. His own mother is a hot mess but he'd never cut her off. I finally had to sit him down and enumerate the decades of physical, emotional and sexual abuse and even then he still had to work on it to wrap his head around a total cutoff.

Now I just tell people my parents are dead. But I have a really evil sense of humor so I'm always thinking of all sorts of evil replies designed to make people fear asking me any question, ever.
posted by medea42 at 3:37 AM on February 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

I am estranged (again) from my mother. I used to think I could manage her ok, but this year I learned that it doesn't matter how softly I walk on eggshells or how softly I handle her with kid gloves. She will make up something to freak out about.

I close off parts of myself from her because apparently my baseline personality is not someone she likes. My father and her divorced when I was only 4 and she has absolutely hated him for as long as I can remember. So it's very frustrating when she doesn't even listen to the own words coming out of her mouth when I say I think she doesn't like me, she says how could I think that, and then literally two seconds later say I'm just like my father. Or when she talks about all the things she loves about me, they're all things from when I was very young, before I became my own person, which is when she says I turned on her.

She and my step-father are not talking to any of the 5 of us kids, not talking to anyone in her family. My step-father used to be normal, but she has slowly turned him as well, to the point where they aren't talking to anyone in his family either. They literally cut my step-sister's face out of pictures that are still hanging on the walls.

Luckily my father, while a terrible parent to a child (fast food every dinner, R rated movies, not dressing us kids appropriately for the weather, not really getting the concept of age appropriate conversations) he was absolutely perfect for a teenager and now as an adult. He knew exactly how much of a leash to give a teenager to let me figure out the world while also learning to be responsible. He respects all of us kids as people in our own rights. He's probably the main reason I turned out as ok as I am.

I feel like I should be more hurt when she screams that she doesn't love us and wishes she never had children. But I'm not. I think I'm more bothered by how its not affecting me than I am by the words themselves. And I am handling much better than my brother or sister (brother really mourns the fact that he doesn't have a mother, sister has self-esteem and anxiety issues from the unpredictability of my mother's moods, I just don't have feelings I guess. I think I'm just really good at compartmentalizing or I've just gotten used to it.) My brother and sister have both decided they're completely done with our mom. I don't know if I'm there yet. Right now she's just a person I used to know, and maybe we'll reestablish contact again in a few years (this is a recurring cycle), but each time it gets shallower and more distant. I haven't lived with her since I was 14, and I haven't lived within 2 hours of her since I left home for college, so luckily I have physical distance between us.

(One joke I do like to use is that my mom is a fucking psycho and even she isn't a Trump supporter!)

Well that ended up being alot. Now I need to go tell my brother and sister I love them.
posted by LizBoBiz at 3:53 AM on February 27, 2019 [8 favorites]

estrangement precipitated not by outrageous and terrible behaviour, but far more pedestrian escalation and strife, quotidian manipulations coming from a misplaced but genuine hurt - until I just got too tired to want to keep compromising.

Oh, smoke, that's the darkest secret of all: the homophobia is the easiest thing to talk about, but what you describe is the core of why I ran. The cruelest part of the exhaustion is the desire for something, anything, so obviously terrible that you can seize on it as an excuse to stop trying, to lie down like a beaten dog and stop fawning on someone who kicks you again and again.

But the reason I run from my mother isn't just about the casual biting remarks about my gender presentation or my atheism or my partner: the rot is even deeper than that. It's the casual rejection of my interests, the ridicule of my childhood career aspirations, the little jokes that might have been amusing bonding moments except that they never came alongside any genuine appreciation for the person I was and am.

The politics and the queer stuff are easier to talk about, but what it really comes down to at the root is pettier and yet deeper than that: my mother does not like me, the person who is me, and has never liked me, and I cannot muster the grace to like the person who treats me the way she does.

There's a line from a Dessa song I love: anger is just love left out, gone to vinegar. It seems to me that estrangement is brewed from the same acid wine, love that hasn't been cared for until trying to drink it burns your throat, spitting out the Eucharist that people who have loving families worship.

It doesn't have to be concentrated acid that gnaws away your esophagus to be unpleasant to drink deep. You don't have to swallow sour wine with a smile just because it's aged. You are allowed to set it aside in favor of a newer vintage that has been taken care of by both its brewer and its keeper.

Or at least, you should be.
posted by sciatrix at 4:29 AM on February 27, 2019 [29 favorites]

After many years of not having a relationship with my parents I have some lines for talking to people about it that I find helpful.

With acquaintances whom you don't want to share much:
Them: Where do your parents live?
Me: Oh, they're not in the picture.
Them: So are they dead?
Me: No, they're just not in the picture.

With people you are ok saying a bit more too:
Them: Are you visiting your parents this holiday?
Me: No. Unfortunately, they are violent and abusive. They're no longer in the picture.
Them: But don't you miss them guilt trip guilt trip?
Me: It's hard, but this is how it has to be.
posted by medusa at 5:03 AM on February 27, 2019 [6 favorites]

I'm here to join the club. there's some commentary in AskMe on this back in Dec 2012 or early 2013, when I had just invested 4 or 5 weeks into a deliberate wrenching apart of her horrible umbilical cord. I mourned in darkened rooms and wept late into the night. Catharsis at age 46. Later on that year, once I'd moved to a different continent, I wondered why I hadn't done it earlier. I think I've always known. I was just lazy and I could manage to contain it when I visited for a month a year. But once I had to move back for a while and matters came to a head. I spoke only to my father for the next year and a half. I'm glad I quit cold turkey. Now I control the contact and decide when and if I will call home.
posted by infini at 6:42 AM on February 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've been estranged from my father, actively for about 10 years, and effectively for about 10 more prior to that. For a long time I thought this was by my own choosing, but recently I've come to feel that my father prefers things this way. He has set up his life so he doesn't have to be accountable to anyone, much less me. I'm starting to feel like having no contact with him is letting him off the hook.
posted by spudsilo at 6:51 AM on February 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

smoke and sciatrix, that's me too. I used to say "if there were any pros to this relationship, then I would stay, but literally every time I talk to this person I feel worse". I see people talking about their very abusive parents who they still love because they had lots of good times together. But that wasn't me. When you're invisible except as something embarrassing them or giving them things to brag about it really does a number on you. I decided I was going to try to give up my parents' habit of sneering and telling other people how to live their lives behind their back and it made me a much kinder person, now other people even want to be around me sometimes, shocking, I know. I learned from watching my parents argue, or, rather, snipe for five minutes and then whine to their preferred kid for three days, that it was pointless to really try to have a serious discussion about any of this. So I didn't.
posted by threementholsandafuneral at 6:55 AM on February 27, 2019 [11 favorites]

I'm going on 14 years of total estrangement here. I couldn't just limit it to my parents - I felt I had to cut off a whole side of the family and moved 300 miles away as well. Sometimes I feel like an orphan, but I know I saved my marriage and my sanity. Life for MY family has exponentially changed for the better. Still, I sometimes get that little voice in my head that wonders if I could have done more or tried something different. My approach to dealing with it may not be the best to some. I'm good at compartmentalizing. I basically place the estrangement in a little "mental box," set it off to the side and just get on with life. It seems to get easier every year.
posted by bwvol at 7:16 AM on February 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Loving you all in this thread.

I have talked elsewhere about cutting off a sibling, except that now that the years have passed, "cutting off" seems too dramatic for what actually happened. As time goes on it occupies less and less space in my life. Such a good outcome for something that gave me so much pain for so long.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 7:27 AM on February 27, 2019

It's my mother's birthday this Sunday, and I'm annoyed about that.

It means I have to consciously choose to interact with her, or - my most probable choice - not.

It's run of the mill stuff: Religious, political, relationship orientation differences.

And that too annoys me.

This article gave me food for thought, thank you.
posted by weft at 7:29 AM on February 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Honestly, my estranged relative did me a favor by being so awful that I didn't get caught in the variable feedback loop that seems to entrap so many. This also had the pleasing side effect of ensuring that everyone supported my decision (whether or not they cut themselves off also). The only person I've ever heard talking shit about that choice was a relative in, like, the third degree.

(Weirdly, it also prepared me to recognize up front 45's tactics and to laugh at the moron pundits who thought you could placate him or enter deals with him so that he wouldn't do awful things to you.)

My sympathies to you all.
posted by praemunire at 8:24 AM on February 27, 2019 [7 favorites]

Among the best decisions I ever made was the decision to cut off contact with my narcissistic, toxic, abusive father. Removing him from my life took such a weight off my shoulders -- no more walking on eggshells, no more trying to figure out what was going to set off his rage, no more having money held over my head as a manipulation tool... not to say that it was easy, because it wasn't. And it still hurts -- not missing HIM, so much, but missing having a father. Father's Day is painful, because there's still a part of me that wonders why my dad didn't/ doesn't love me. He has made no effort to contact me or my brother -- occasionally he does a big song-and-dance to my aunt about how tragic it is that his children won't talk to him, but he never actually bothers to make an attempt. (In fact, the first thing he did upon joining Facebook a few years back was to block me, my brother, and even my husband, who he has never met, and likely never WILL meet. This, a week after another "Oh, how heartbroken I am to not have a relationship with my kids!" But at least it saved me the effort of blocking him.)

(To my aunt's credit, she does not push me to talk to him. She understands why we are estranged, and supports me.)
posted by sarcasticah at 8:32 AM on February 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

"Walking on eggshells" seems to be a common theme here. Sounds like we've had lots of Borderline Personality issues to deal with!
posted by bwvol at 8:52 AM on February 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Honestly, my estranged relative did me a favor by being so awful that I didn't get caught in the variable feedback loop that seems to entrap so many.

It's a commentary on how awful the whole 'family above all' thing is that I feel the same way.

When I was very small, my biological father was an abusive monster, to the tune of 'there's attempted murder in my backstory.' When my mom divorced him, the judge gave that man unsupervised visitation rights anyway. Even though he threatened to remove me from the country, and apparently I came back from visits so rattled I would hide in cabinets. (I was too little to remember this stuff, but one particularly bad encounter with him is responsible for a phobia of water and my present inability to swim.)

So she took my sister and I, and we ran. Name change. New city. Everything. We did it a number of times to be absolutely sure, pretty much until my sister and I were old enough to complain and promise to just kill the bastard if he showed up instead of having to move again. Ever since, if I've needed to drop someone from my life, family or not, it's never really been a problem. I cut off my manipulative, controlling grandmother as soon as I was a legal adult. I give no fucks about any societal expectation about social bonds because nothing could possibly convince me that people who espouse that shit know anything.

And I look around at my peer group and I see that I'm the lucky one: people maintaining contact with toxic, abusive parents and siblings because they're pressured into it, because they think they have to, because they have all these awful ideas about familial obligation and I'm grateful that I had that beat out of me at such a young age that I don't even know what it feels like.

And that's just... our culture is extremely messed up that I'm the lucky one. I didn't even get to keep my birth name, and I'm glad when I see how the people around me have to manage their relationships with family.

(And honestly, on the flip side of this: I would be mortified if someone only knew me because of blood ties. If anybody doesn't want me here, I'd rather be gone - everyone can be replaced. Me too.)
posted by mordax at 9:02 AM on February 27, 2019 [16 favorites]

It's remarkable to me that almost everyone here is talking about events covered by the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) research, particularly emotional abuse and emotional neglect. (Relatively dry, clinical link chosen, many are more explicit about trauma and abuse and its aftermath.)

When strangers try to diagnose people who harmed me based on nothing but my disclosure of that harm, I feel doubly spit upon, as the harmed person and as someone with multiple psychiatric diagnoses. If this is how you feel, you're not alone, either. (Link goes to Captain Awkward and is vague about harm, if that's a thing you also benefit from.)
posted by bagel at 9:03 AM on February 27, 2019 [7 favorites]

The push to diagnose people through stories of inflicted harms that I've been seeing in the last, oh, five years or so also worries me because I think it's an attempt to distance ourselves from abuse: oh, only Borderline PD people abuse, or narcissists, or sociopaths, or or or. It's a desire to find markers for the abusive so that you can guard yourself from them or say baldly to someone that your parents were, yes really, that bad. It comes out of a desire to know how to protect ourselves, I think.

But at the end of the day, you don't need to be an intrinsically terrible human, bad in all ways, to abuse a child. You don't need to be an intrinsically bad human in all ways to justify another person's desire for flight and distance. Emotional trauma or neglect, for example: they aren't necessarily caused by inattention, but often by trauma that has healed broken in those parents, or by stress that's been imposed from outside, or by simple miserable fucking chance. When the fundamental terror of self-assessment within worldviews that assess people as either perfect or inhumanly Bad seems to drive the refusal to make amends that truly poisons these relationships... well, I worry about the knock-on effects of giving in to the sweet desire to categorize people into blocks of mental illness that write them off as abusive and unsalvageable.
posted by sciatrix at 9:27 AM on February 27, 2019 [13 favorites]

The most recent research suggests that up to 10 percent of mothers are estranged from at least one adult child, I'll admit I'm startled by this. I'm willing to accept that most estrangements are for good reasons -- the people in my life who are estranged for a parent, it's for an excellent reason, namely because that parent is an abusive or transphobic shithead -- but I don't like what those numbers say about the prevalence of being-an-abusive-or-hateful-shithead in the general population.
Yep, that's pretty much the floor, isn't it? No one would put up with the guilt and embarassment and inconvenience of going no contact with a parent unless they had a really, really good reason. Parents, understandably, have so much inertia and benefit of the doubt and conditioning in favor of maintaining the relationship. If I had to guess, at a minimum another 10% of people would like to be estranged but aren't.

I can't point to any particular event or abuse per se that made me say I was done. It was just the weight of a thousand times when my choices and needs were irrelevant. Perhaps, if I were an incredibly emotionally strong person, I could have preserved with relationship, but it is such a relief to not have to worry about feeling so horrible after every visit or phone call. Even if there is some faint possibility of a mutually caring relationship, why put yourself through having the football taken away for the hundredth time?
posted by wnissen at 11:05 AM on February 27, 2019 [11 favorites]

my mother does not like me, the person who is me, and has never liked me, and I cannot muster the grace to like the person who treats me the way she does.

This has been gnawing at me lately. I tell friends that my parents are "basically okay people," because I believe they are. But being around them gives me panic attacks, and sends me into spirals of ever-decreasing self worth. They know this, and take it as yet another sign that I'm damaged beyond repair or understanding. My partner has gently suggested to me that "basically okay people" don't disregard harm like that. That I can just...not like them.

Coming into my own as an adult queer has meant a lot of reckoning with what family means. What good and healthy relationships look like. It's been so many years of learning and it's still really hard to accept that the way I grew up wasn't okay.
posted by libraritarian at 1:21 PM on February 27, 2019 [9 favorites]

I'm not sure where I'm at with respect to this and my siblings. Because they are all a bit older than me, my childhood was a lot of them airing grievances with my parents over their own childhoods along with their helpful comments to me about what I was doing wrong, especially when I was a teenager.

Once I moved away and established my own life, I had a few years of surprise when people said nice things about me that contradicted what I had internalized from my family. I expected some self-awareness later when I brought up the effect their negative attention had on me given all of the conversations that they had with me about our parents. But I think it's a really tough leap of introspection/accepting your own infallibility to be able to see such things in yourself. So we get stuck in these damaging cycles of denial.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 2:03 PM on February 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

This has been a helpful thread. Thanks to everyone who has shared their stories. As I was reading through this a lot of things about the past year of my relationship with my mother have sort of clicked. At least, I think that's what it means when you find yourself ugly crying and torn between sharing anecdotes and furiously trying to convince yourself that no, it wasn't that bad, she's not inherently a bad person, things could have been way worse than they are, etc. You know the drill.

But then I remembered moving in with my dad at 16 because I couldn't take the ego stomping from her second husband while she stood behind him nodding along. I remembered being elated when she left him and devastated when she went back to him a year later. Elated again when she left him for real because maybe I'd get to be near her without his poison in the mix. She married a less intense version of that asshole a year or two later, and followed husband #3 from the coast to the deepest Midwest to be near his family...his cousins. That was 18 years ago.

I remembered my brother's wedding four years ago, which he asked me to officiate! I was beyond thrilled and worked on that ceremony for weeks, asking each of our parents to do a reading for it. Imagine my surprise when, mid-ceremony, I realized that my mother had taken it upon herself to edit the content and phrasing of her given reading, presumably because she didn't agree with the sentiment and thought she could do better. Later I learned that her husband had taken some kind of mortal offense at being asked to lend a razor to my brother, who had forgotten his at home, kicking off a few years of fighting about it over email. Christ, I should've known then where all of this was headed, huh? But I wanted to believe so badly that things could work out I just...minimized how shitty all of that behavior was.

For the longest time I wondered why I wasn't good enough to be in her life in any serious way; wondered why she said all the right words and then never actually followed it up with action. When she sent a lengthy letter last year putting my brother and I on blast (started as an autobiography, ended as a rant about "disrespecting [husband] and their relationship", postscript of "let me explain why we kicked your uncle with terminal cancer out of the house a month before his death"), something inside me broke. It took months to reply to that; I knew being bluntly honest with her would make her mad, that she wouldn't hear me. But I did, and I was, and it turns out I was right about her not hearing me. I stopped talking to her. She reached out repeatedly. Casually at first, then less so. When she sent a large box of my childhood effects to my father (divorced 35 years, he is amazingly sane/stable/loving) around Christmas because I wasn't talking to her and she "didn't know if I had moved", I was done.

It's not a hard estrangement, but I'm pretty confident she will never do the introspective work required to be someone I want to have in my life. It's not how I wanted things to be, but the weight on my heart is less now that I'm not chasing someone who's running away from me at top speed.

Love you, Metafilter.
posted by Vervain at 2:18 PM on February 27, 2019 [15 favorites]

A good point my coworker made when I told him the story up above: you only get to pick your spouse. You did not get to pick the relatives and the relationships.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:46 PM on February 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

I haven't spoken to my father in... a decade, maybe? I'd have to check. I haven't spoken to my mother in at least a year, if FB messages counts as talking to her. Neither of them have ever met my child. My child, who has three parents and four relatively grandparents and will be less squished than me, I hope.

The part where I'm not an apologist for a pedophile (that being said father) will go a long way towards not squishing my kid, I'll admit.
posted by XtinaS at 6:24 PM on February 27, 2019 [5 favorites]

For a long time, my father and I were cordially distant. Then we got closer. Then we got close enough for him to actively offend, upset, and hurt me, as he has done to just about everyone he's ever been close to. Then I stopped talking to him. He was bewildered and baffled and hurt and sad, but none of that meant he started actually caring about me as a person, so I let him go on being bewildered and baffled and hurt and sad over there.

Distancing myself from my stepfather was a lot easier, because he never made any attempt to bridge the distance. I miss some of my step-cousins a bit, but losing them was an unfortunately necessary casualty of getting away from my stepfather. (If I used Facebook I could probably still be in vaguely cordial contact with them, but ugh, Facebook.)

As one of XtinaS's partnerfolk and coparents, I agree very strongly that keeping harmful people away from our child is one of our foremost responsibilities as parents. It's unfortunate that some of those harmful people are in our families. But sometimes that's how things are, and I have absolutely no regrets.
posted by rosefox at 8:24 PM on February 27, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'm estranged from one of my sisters. It was a long, long, long time coming. I have never dealt with her without a baseline of terror. "She's coming home" was always that tight-throat, teeth-ground-shut, whimpering feeling as a child, and it never got better.

Oh, they told me she was getting better. But after twenty years, she was not better enough not to be terrifying, not to be dreadful, not to be an endurance event when she was present and a relief when she left.

It's been about two or three years with no contact with her and the rest of my family are still in contact, but... it's been so much better. I don't mind giving up family events if it means I don't have to see her, and I don't expect them to navigate any awkwardness, either. I just don't want to be where she is. I don't want to see her or hear about her or be near her, and I'm much better alone while they have fun together than I am going slowly mad, feeling myself collapse inwards into terror of her while plastering on a smile so she doesn't know what I'm feeling and can't scream at me for it.

Sure, she could improve. But I don't have to sacrifice myself for the fiction that she will ever improve enough to resolve twenty years of being afraid of her. There's no such thing. She could become a decent, stable, calm person and the damage would still be done. It's just over. That's it.

I've been learning how to feel safe recently. It's a process.
posted by E. Whitehall at 8:40 PM on February 27, 2019 [12 favorites]

maggiemaggie: I know he had a pretty hard childhood himself, and he really did do the best he could for us. I miss the loving father he was when I was five. Something changed in him as he got older. My brothers and I never could put a finger on what happened, but he became more and more mentally abusive and demanding

This could describe my father too, pretty much exactly, except that the change in his case was sudden and drastic. We wondered (still do) about undiagnosed mental illness; brain tumours (there's a family history); slow-progressing dementias; even CTE from his former sports career. But he's not got any worse in six or seven years now so maybe this is just him. It is like some fundamental part of him broke off and floated away.

It's hard to discuss with people why we're so estranged now (still intermittently in contact but very little of it), and especially when those people knew him in the past or knew how close we had once been. I've had people tell me that if I really think he's ill rather than just bad then it's surely my duty to stand by him. By this point, though, I've resigned myself to never knowing if he's ill or not; all I can know is how he behaves now, which is angry and resentful and unpredictable.

And it's hard to explain to people, especially people who remember the loving father he was, in large part because I don't like saying, for example, "yes he was great then.... aaaaaaaaand these days he rants about all the money he wasted on birthday and Christmas presents for me and my siblings as children and how much of a better retirement he'd be able to afford now if we hadn't ruined it for him at the age of 6." I don't really like detailing stuff like that, and I wish people were better at drawing their own conclusions that I would hardly have distanced myself this much from a parent I so loved if there were not some very good reasons behind it.
posted by Catseye at 3:57 AM on February 28, 2019 [8 favorites]

I gave up on my mother when I was too young to remember it. She wasn't physically abusive, but things just didn't work emotionally. She was very critical.

I could wonder whether the problem was my inability to connect, but my sister was more cooperative than I was, and that didn't work, either.

It's rough being me in a culture where being attached to one's parents (my father was a problem too, but more weak and snarky than outright nasty) is considered normal. I see people say "my parents were abusive, but I knew they loved me", and I'm not criticizing them but I have no idea what they mean.

I was less and less in contact with her after I went away to college. I pretty much gave up contact after I realized I was knocked out for a couple of weeks after talking with her, even if she didn't say anything that I thought there was something wrong with. It's possible my emotional habits of reacting negatively to her were so strong that it no longer mattered what she said, and I didn't have any good memories to give me a reason to try to change my habits.

Anyway, I'd appreciate replies-- I'm feeling very isolated with this.
posted by hiddenvariable at 12:16 PM on February 28, 2019 [5 favorites]

A lot of people really are so into this ‘Family Is Everything’ bs that I’ve almost profiled those folks as the likeliest to betray me as a friend. The father of my children was terrible! I was nearly run over deliberately with both kids, also there was an attempted strangulation.
mordax’s accounts of hiding in cabinets and cupboards were a feature of life while I stayed with his grandmother and step-grandfather waiting for the divorce to go through. The unsupervised visitation was a nightmare. I hope any judge who hands that out gets dick - shot and burns in Hell.
My mother went from being everyone’s patsy to a very pushy, manipulative person. I think I disappointed her gravely. I had to be estranged from one of my sisters because she was in denial about her then boyfriend betraying our where-abouts to my ex, forcing two moves. One of which I REALLY did not want to make. To top it off my mother blamed me for marrying the man who wound up abusing me when they pushed legal marriage for all they were worth when I was totally disinclined to make things legal. Back then a non - married father did not have quite the same rights as a married one.
I have no idea what happened to mordax while he was away for his court ordered visits. There was no coaxing the information out of him, he was only 3 annd a half. Just from the hiding before and after visitation and the screaming nightmares, I’m afraid it must have really been bad. His water phobia was extreme. I could not bathe him in a normal way. I had to wet wash cloths and hair washing was a nightmare. His biological father got involved with ‘Men’s Rights’ groups.
I hate those groups. I not only had to leave several different cities and towns to avoid this horrible man, I had to live like a spie. Literally an underground, undercover life. I had to estrange myself from people who once were my friends. When mordax reached 16 and his sister reached 12, my mother wanted us to move back there.
I refused to do it. I no longer had my own trustworthy ties there. I’d made a life where I am now, many real friends and had different jobs. She passed away thoroughly unrepentant about ways she made things harder. In her defense, she had been a member of CPUSA back at the time when they went underground. Her training in how to go underground saved our lives. She did leave that organization shortly after I was born. We had to live in hiding partly because of that and even left the US for a couple of years. I don’t consider that my childhood was miserable, but I am the product of two people who had no business marrying or having children. I probably could have been a better parent. Hell let’s be honest, I probably was a crap parent in a few ways. There is this, I would have killed in defense of mordax and his sister. A couple times I almost had to. Also, they still talk to me. I am extremely proud of them both for turning out more than OK.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 1:03 PM on February 28, 2019 [7 favorites]

I get the feeling that estrangement from close relatives is becoming more accepted, or at least more openly discussed. People used to get somewhere between confused and horrified if I mentioned my situation with my father, but nowadays they mostly just nod understandingly.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:37 PM on February 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

So much of this rings true for me and my experience (as different as the particulars are, in my mind, to those shared in the article and these comments). This thread has given me some much-needed perspective on my own struggles. My heart hurts for everyone sharing their stories. Hugs to those who find them comforting; commiserating head nods to those who don't.
posted by malthusan at 2:52 PM on March 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thanks to all the people telling their stories here.

Coming from a culture with filial piety and a family that's apparently quite good, I have a lot of trouble understanding friends who were distancing or had distanced themselves from their families. I think they were understating things for discretion's sake, and as a result I was thinking of more forgivable examples from my own family.

I hope things work out for you, whatever that means in your situation.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 10:40 AM on March 3, 2019

I don't know who my birth father is (yet. Ancestry/DNA research I've done has identified 3 half-sisters on his side, one of whom has tentatively reached out to me). My BM did nothing as she allowed her husband (who was not my father) and her brother-in-law to abuse me from when I was 1-3 years old. The abuse was bad enough that I was removed from their home and made a ward of the state I was living in in 1973, but somehow, neither this man nor his brother went to prison for molestation, physical abuse, and attempted murder; nor was my birth mother held accountable for any of this herself, maybe because it was 1973. I saw my birth mother only 2 times between then and my 11th birthday. She ended all contact with me after that. I have no idea where she is now, or if she's even alive. She stopped contacting anyone in her family after her divorce from this man in the mid-80s. I don't know the kids she had with him. They were both sent to his people in BVI in the mid-70s as toddlers.

Physical custody of me was granted to her sister, my aunt, who didn't want to hear anything about anything that had happened to me in her sister's home at all. This woman then proceeded to abuse me herself in physical, emotional and sexual ways. Her son, who I acknowledge was hurting as well, nevertheless beat and molested me, also. And the less said about my uncles, aunts and grandparents on my mother's side, the better. I left at 18 for uni, stopped coming to my aunt's home for any reason at 22, and stopped speaking to her and the rest of that side for good at 32.

I was literally meant to be the scapegoat, the repository for all the family's sins, and the depository of my aunt and cousin's worst impulses to hurt people or exert control over someone. Yet I was also supposed to "get rich" and lift them all out of poverty. As if money would heal them. As "the smart one", I was also supposed to be able to fix all their emotional crises, and they all came to me with problems that I was supposed to listen to and solve. I don't know any teenagers or 20-somethings with that kind of experience, do you? They would get angry when I had no answers and no money to shower them with.

Yet I was not allowed to tell them (or anyone) what my birth mother let her husband and brother-in-law do to me. My aunt threatened more violence if I went to her siblings or parents or anyone with what she did to me. Her son was the same, and I couldn't tell his mother about anything he'd done to me. If they wanted to complain about me for being "selfish", I was supposed to take it with no back talk, and yet somehow be a close and loving relative. I tried for as long as I could to be understanding and forgiving, but it was too much.

Did I feel guilty when I finally broke away completely? I sure did! Does it feel lonely sometimes, as I untangle the mess in therapy these 17 years on? Yes. Did my fear of finding out that I'm "really like them", and the shame of not having that filial piety make me afraid to pursue relationships? Yes. I had bf's who witnessed my relatives' emotional abuse, but who couldn't understand how I wouldn't put up with them, "because that's the only family you've got!" And I'd always learn that these men were dealing with similar dynamics in their families, and I had to let those men go. I wasn't up for a repeat. When people tell me "the good ones are always taken off the market early", I despair inside a little bit, and I hope that that's not true, because I'm not young, and I don't want to go not having been loved or given love. I have always been afraid because of my background with such cruelty and pain that men like the man my birth mother married, my cousin, and uncles (or weak-willed men like my grandfather) are the only sorts of men I'll attract, and I'm definitely working on changing this mindset in therapy.

I'm still learning how to value myself, to be confident in myself, to assert my wants and needs, to stop feeling overly responsible for how people feel, to reconcile the intellectual knowledge with the inner knowing that what my relatives did to me wasn't my fault, nor did I deserve their treatment, nor are their opinions about me the truth. It's been a slog, I can't lie about that. But I'll be damned if I leave this life not having loved myself, and spent as much time on this plane fulfilling the purposes I feel drawn to carry out on my deepest level. I am never going to fix my relatives. I can't fix them. I can't make them love me or even see me as a person in my own right. They don't want to deal with me on my terms, so, then, taking care of myself is the priority. It's tragic, but there it is. I'm grateful for the friends and help I've gotten and continue to have, and I live in hope of continued personal progress, and of making my contribution to the world.
posted by droplet at 11:55 AM on March 3, 2019 [9 favorites]

When people tell me "the good ones are always taken off the market early", I despair inside a little bit, and I hope that that's not true

It's not. It's definitely not. Consider this: you yourself are a good one. Many good ones are born to bad ones and live as you lived for a while, and many good ones get snared by bad ones. Eventually, a whole lot of good ones escape, just as you did. And then they, too, have a slog to get through. As you slog along getting better and stronger, you don't have to imagine being alone forever. You can imagine that the person you will eventually love and who will love you is slogging along, too, and that the slog is bringing you near to one another. It can happen.
posted by Don Pepino at 12:26 PM on March 3, 2019 [8 favorites]

Every family tree needs a good pruning now and then. Sometimes roots - sometimes branches.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 12:16 AM on March 19, 2019

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