Navigating the South as a genderqueer Christian androgyne. Trans* and neurodiverse. Educator & Spanish speaker.

For those of you who have been following what’s been going on with my family (in the last five posts), you know my relationship with my family is pretty rocky and getting worse as they learn more about my identity and relationships.

I’m currently uncertain as to whether I will ultimately pursue an ongoing relationship with my parents. Right now, we’re back on somewhat-steady footing, and I’m not going to tell them anything new for now. I’m going to concentrate on healing up from this last mess with them, and trying to keep myself at an emotionally healthy distance.

I anticipate that when I tell my parents I am nonmonogamous and in two relationships, that may well be the last straw for them. Given that their treatment of me-as-nonconforming has been pretty awful so far, I think I will need to set some boundaries between us. I’m just not sure what, or how. You can call me when you can treat me, my partners, and my choices/autonomy with respect? We can stay in touch but not talk about anything gender/sexuality/relationship-related until you can do so respectfully? I don’t want to hear from you again?

I know I have several lovely Twitterfriends who have gone through similar with their parents. What boundaries did you set? How did you do it? How has it gone? Can you all help me?

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Comments on: "Help me set some boundaries" (8)

  1. I hope it’s ok for a new reader to jump in here. :) I have a few ideas for you:

    1) http://toxicfamilies.com is a fantastic blog about setting boundaries with people who act like your family members.

    2) http://www.etiquettehell.com has helped me figure out polite ways to avoid certain topics with dysfunctional relatives. What has helped the most there was learning that not all questions need to be answered. They warn you not to JADE (justify, argue, defend, explain) yourself to people who want to pick fights or force you to see the world their way. Also remember that “no” is a complete sentence.

    3) Have you considered giving your family time to miss you? I have extended family members whose dysfunctional behaviour “magically” improves when our visits are short, sweet, and occasional. They really want to see me more often, but every time I give in they revert to awful old patterns. So I keep my distance and watch what I say to them. Even innocuous comments have been blown way out of proportion in the past.

    4) From what you’ve shared about your brother on your blog you it sounds like your mom loves triangulation. I don’t necessarily think you should do anything different right now, but be aware that this is going on when you speak to both of them.

  2. I know I’m mostly an observer of your tweets and not someone you know, but I do feel I know a little bit about you in the months I’ve been following you. What I’ve seen makes me ache for you. It reminds me so much of the spiral of guilt and shame I’ve gone through with my own mother, though not nearly to the same degree.

    I walked away from my family over less than yours is putting you through. It wasn’t an easy choice, but the process of pulling away had already been going on for several years before I decided I was through. It took a very bad visit with my mother to show me how essential it was for my mental health to break contact. For all the rocky road I have travelled since then, I have never once doubted it was the right choice for me. I do think it works for me partly because I’m the sort of person who functions best alone. I don’t see you as quite the same personality, so I’m not sure what the right answer is.

    Perhaps your method of contact could change. Phone calls can easily get emotionally charged and difficult to walk away from without hurting feelings. Perhaps short emails on a schedule would work better for you? This was an idea floated to me by a councilor which I could see having merit if written word is enough of an emotional barrier for you.

    Another way to help you with your decision might be to attribute a cup size to the value you place on family and then consider how much your family fills it. How important is family in your values? How much need do you have for it? Is it a big cup or a shot glass? How much is your family filling it? How much do they drain from it? Can you get your cup filled or topped up from other places? You can do this cup exercise with all of the 5 basic needs. It can be very eye opening.

    I don’t know if any of this helps, but if you want to know more about the cup stuff, I’d be happy to try to explain it better. It works better with pictures to be honest.

    Ro

  3. I don’t have much practical advice. I think http://captainawkward.com/ has a few good posts on boundaries and toxic families. Mostly writing to say you matter, your needs matter, you are a wonderful person, and there are many people like myself who simply read your blog and forget to comment who support/are cheering for you. I hope you are able to figure out some things that work well *for you* (and your lovely partners, they sound awesome).

  4. Let me first say this: losing your family because they’re toxic sucks. It truly does. And sometimes you have to do have to walk away from them.

    I do have to say this, though: it sounds like they’re trying to understand you. It sounds like they’re talking about what you’ve told them, at least to each other, and it’s not all negative things. I really think that you should see if you can get some family therapy sessions going, to at least open up communication between you and your parents. It sounds like your mom had her own issues to work through, and maybe group sessions could get her to realize what her own damaged relationships are causing her to do to you. If they won’t go for it… well, at least you tried.

    And as for telling them about being nonmanogamous… I wouldn’t. At least not yet. They don’t need to know every aspect of your love life, especially if you’re not going to be bringing your significant others along to family functions right now. Once your family has gotten their heads around the information you’ve given them and they realize you’re still their child, and haven’t grown two heads or whatever it is in their hearts that they fear, then test the waters and tell them about your relationships.

    But that’s the ass-vice of someone who’s the product of a toxic family. :-p I wish you luck and understanding.

  5. relaxmammal said:

    Oh Charlie. I wish I knew exactly what to tell you, or magically present you with a quick fix for all of this, but if I had one if I would have taken care of my own situation many years ago. So I’m probably just going to talk a lot and see if anything useful comes from my ramblings. I come from a family that is rather on the extreme side of toxicity – extensive physical and emotional violence, severe neglect, intentionally / directionally induced mental illness, all surrounded and exacerbated by poverty and danger in the neighborhoods I inhabited. In adulthood, I faced some of the same shit you are getting now, as well as threatening things like health insurance, and having my literal boundaries violated in ways like having my home burglarized.

    Of course I say all this not to minimize anything you’re going through (no no no, and no doing that to yourself either), just to emphasize that what may be good for me might not be the right solution for your situation, and to say that any advice I give is colored by my own experience.

    First, though, I consider your situation a true emergency. People have died or gone crazy for less. The most important thing you can be doing is taking care of yourself as best you can, as intensely as you can, and allowing others to help.

    Do you think, in your heart of hearts, that healing is possible? Not a rhetorical question. And what does that healing look like, in your mind? Realistically speaking, of course; your mom will probably not stop being a narcissist, nor your dad an enabler. If you do think it is possible or at least worth the attempt, then I would urge you to consider counseling, at least. If you aren’t sure right now, or if you think attempting to fix things right now would cost you too much by way of spoons and mental health and energy, then perhaps a break is in order. Distancing myself from my mom at first and then allowing her back in gradually definitely worked for awhile. But if your gut is telling you that the only way to make it out alive is to get out and get out now, you have to consider that possibility.

    I did not cut ties from my family all at once, and I think it would be unrealistic for you to expect that to happen. No matter how stringent or mild your new boundaries are, your mother is going to fight them tooth and nail. Narcissists are not usually in the habit of disowning their children; how, then, would they be able to control you?

    I would NOT tell your mom anything further about your love life, your identities, or anything else she is currently wielding against you with intent to wound. Certainly not right now, at the very least, while you are in the vulnerable position of not being sure what to do. Your mother is an emotional terrorist, and giving her personal information is tantamount to giving her ammunition. I know the urge to be fully, openly yourself is unignorable, but you know how narcissists turn personal information into weapons. You are lucky to have two wonderful partners by your side, and you withholding their identities and their role in your life and each others’ to the toxic people in your life in no way means you are ashamed of them. It’s essential that all three of you understand this.

    I (and Max) love you very very much, you know this. You have a very strong chosen family behind you; don’t be afraid to let us help, even if you just need to talk. I can tell you that it’s going to be okay. Hard, but okay in the end.

    Love,

    Rocky

  6. I’m afraid that you may find my reply to be deeply unsatisfying, though I’m happy to try to help. :( First of all, my deepest sympathies, and allow me to reiterate that the crap your mother pulls reminds me of mine – and neither is RIGHT when they say the problem is us, we’re unreasonable, and if we’d only play nice they’d be the mother we dreamed of. I know what it’s like to face someone whose certainty in their own gaslighting is like a gravitational pull, but she’s still manipulating you by insisting hers is the only truth.

    I had some previous success with setting smaller boundaries using the only leverage I had : my own attention/affection. “Don’t call me when you’re driving; I’ll hang up every time.” “Don’t call me a fucking bitch, I’ll walk out on the conversation.” Etc. (As an aside, the key to setting boundaries with someone like this is *consistency.* If you don’t enforce the consequences every single time, as awful as that can be, you’ve only taught them that it takes 100 tries [or whatever] to get you to give in.)

    However, when it came to the final showdown, I asked for something so limited that other people are shocked now when I relate it. I told my mother I expected to be able to refer to my wife MYSELF with respect and correct pronouns, and not to be contradicted about it. They could say whatever they wanted themselves, though I wouldn’t deign to acknowledge it. That was step 1, with the hopes of eventually getting them indoctrinated to further steps on the road to being halfway decent people. Instead, the next time my mother spoke to me was 7 months later, and it was to demand my grandmother’s heirloom jewelry back because I didn’t deserve it if I refused to be part of their family. (I declined, btw. She was pissed. I hung up. It was about another year before she tried with similar shit. We’re up to 3.5 years with about 3-4 phone calls and one stalkerish yelling visit [I locked the doors]), and I hear now she’s telling people I’m dead.)

    Personally, I’d suggest starting with “We can stay in touch but not talk about anything gender/sexuality/relationship-related until you can do so respectfully,” and simply refuse to engage in the conversation when she tries (and she will). Do it politely but firmly. “I said I wouldn’t talk about that. How about this other thing? No? Well, I’ll catch you later, then.” The thing is, as impossible as this seems the first time you try, you don’t owe her your attention when she throws an abusive fit. You can simply… ignore her through all avenues. She’ll get over it or she’ll die mad, as someone once said to me. And yes, she will probably try to threaten you with abusing your father or brother instead, as my mother tried to use my legally-classified-disabled sister against me. You are not obligated to go through hell for another adult, either; in the end, nothing you did to placate her would guarantee that she would not mistreat them, anyway. It’s horrifically hard to accept that, and to implement the plan at first, but you may be amazed by the peace and relief when she finally cannot control you at all. That does *not* necessarily entail never speaking to her again, for all that it apparently did for me – just getting to the point where all the land mines and levers she installed in you don’t work for her anymore, and you can shrug off her crap.

    In the end, you have no idea yet of how free it can feel to be totally divorced (and I use that term advisedly) from all of the emotional baggage that comes from being a child of an emotional abuser – to not care anymore about her moods instead of reading them like a barometer marked in gradations of potential misery, to not feel like your own needs and mental health are hostage to hers, to not be told constantly that you’re the scapegoat for whatever happens that she didn’t like. I felt like I took my first truly deep breath in my entire life when I realized that I’d stood up to my mother, and she couldn’t drag me back down. You have few enough spoons as it is, and she’s co-opting most of them. As I said on Twitter, it’s impossibly difficult to let go of this dream that if we were just good enough, perfect enough, figured out every single nuance she wanted and complied enough, we’d get the mother we so desperately needed and wanted. But you can’t. That mother is a lie, one carefully perpetrated and tended by the one you have; you can have a relationship with her as she is, thorny and scary as that can be, or you can walk away. But you can never capture that mirage. It hurts. I know. But you’re stronger and braver and more wonderful than she could ever imagine, right now.

    Good luck. You have a lot of people who love you.

    (Oh, and my sister goes by Lily online. :) Funny, since I dropped a flower name myself when I hit the internet ["Tasha" is not my legal name] and she adopted one.)

    trigger warning of my own, cissexist language :

    that first conversation ended like this :

    “Mom, what would you say if I told you I wanted you to pretend Dad didn’t exist, which is your new compromise?”

    “That’s different. Your father didn’t decide to pretend to be a woman. Are you saying you support [him] in this filth?”

    And I hung up.

  7. (ARGH. I put in a bunch of spaces before the final commentary, and wordpress appears to have stripped them out. I’m so sorry; I don’t know how to hand-code that kind of stuff.)

  8. Adelene said:

    A bit late to the party here, but I cut my family off a few years ago and don’t regret that at all, and some things from my experience with that might be useful:

    1) It’s okay to look purely at what you want. It may be useful, in the context of that, to frame the other things that people want in terms of you wanting to give them what they want, and to look at 1) how strong that want is for you and 2) whether you’re actually going to be able to do that. For example, with my mother – she wants to have the kind of parent/child relationship she thinks is normal. I don’t care about that specifically, but I do want her to be happy… but there’s no safe way for me to actually do that, so there’s no point doing a half-assed job that stresses me out and doesn’t give her what she wants anyway. (This also works when the other people in question are friends/strangers/society who want you to live in certain ways; it is okay to care about that, though of course you don’t have to.)

    2) You don’t have to justify your decision. The last tip was useful for me because I honestly was conflicted, but if you find that you honestly aren’t, that’s fine too; go with it. Same if the only thing you’re conflicted about is whether the situation is bad enough to justify it.

    3) If you decide to cut them off, keep in mind that it is a unilateral decision. You don’t need their permission; they don’t have to like it. They probably won’t like it, in fact, but that’s not your problem; you’re not obligated to care, or to pretend that you care, or to respond in any way.

    3a) If you do respond, you run the risk giving them a hell of a lot of power over you in the future – now they know exactly what they have to do to make you back down, and can skip right to that next time they want something. By the same token, they’re likely to pull whatever kinds of bad behavior have worked before. Be prepared for that, and keep in mind that if you stand your ground, you’ll only have to go through that phase once. (Setting it up so you only see their communication when you want to, rather than as soon as they send it, can help immensely.)

    4) Feeling sad or nostalgic or regretful later doesn’t necessarily mean that you were wrong to cut them off, if that’s what you choose to do. The ‘families are 100% good’ narrative is a strong one; it’s easy to forget that that’s not the reality of your situation. Make sure you stop to think about what the *actual* outcome is likely to be before resuming contact.

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