[advice] scripts for telling a family member to butt out

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[advice] scripts for telling a family member to butt out Empty [advice] scripts for telling a family member to butt out

Post by fakely mctest on Mon Feb 16, 2015 9:42 pm

Okay so I am going to try to keep this under novel length but I think maybe a little backstory is warranted here.

My dad: Emotionally abusive toward at least my mom and me when I was growing up (possibly my brother as well but he and I are another story and we've never discussed it, nor are we likely to).  Pretty much textbook in terms of behavior -- his view on things was always "right," controlling in terms of what version of reality was acknowledged as being true rather than controlling of physical location, controlling about money and created a lot of anxiety about monetary instability as he'd occasionally become convinced that he was going to be fired and we'd be destitute even though my mom also worked full time, hair trigger temper that went off at random, uncanny ability to say the most cutting thing and just walk away, basically never apologized for anything and was fond of accusing people of "keeping score" if they brought up something he did or said that hurt them.  My parents were separated when I was 16 and divorced a year later with joint custody, which I thought about objecting to but didn't for fear of my dad's anger.  I also felt like I had to make nice a) because he was set to partially pay for college and basically never let me forget that and I was terrified that he'd withdraw financial support and b) I felt obligated to smooth things over because my brother was definitely not going to do so, which is super classic oldest child behavior I know.

My brother: According to a therapist I saw a number of years ago the two most common things to happen in a chaotic situation like the one I grew up in are that siblings form a bond or they become quite distant.  The latter happened with my brother and I.  He really shut himself away from the family, did some drugs and underage drinking, got arrested as a minor.  He was pretty popular and his grades never suffered.  He went straight from the Ivy League (which he kind of hated) to law school and is now a lawyer married to another lawyer.  They have a kid.  There are things in some of his behavior patterns that are eerily familiar to me: his vision of how things are going to be seems to win out in his household and he's always been prone to random outbursts of temper (including one that got him arrested as an adult, a situation which required a lot of money and lawyers in two states to remedy).  

My project the last time I saw a therapist was in establishing boundaries.  My family is completely terrible at boundaries in part because, when someone is telling you what's acceptable and what isn't and what they say goes, then there's no need to have that skillset.  One of the boundaries I set for myself is in response to the fact that my brother and I don't really have a relationship because I don't want to be around someone's random hair-trigger temper if I don't have to.  I can deal with him in impersonal, family situations when there are other people around but we're never going to be grab-dinner-and-catch-up-when-you're-in-town besties.

My dad has gotten better I think.  I don't trust him in terms of anything having to do with finances and I never want to be financially beholden to him ever again.  One of his "best" moves was delivering devastating news or personal criticism in public places, which made me dread going out with him for a meal or coffee or anything, for YEARS.  He and I went to family counseling some years ago, which was helpful I think but I really doubt that I can ever feel fully comfortable around him.

In the past few months, he's sort of taken up some of that old behavior again, which really makes me feel that he's just waiting for me to do something he deems "wrong" so he can take me to task in public.  The second most recent time that happened, at least he warned me in advance so I asked if we could speak in private.  But yesterday he surprised me with personal criticism at the end of what I thought was just tea on a Sunday morning.

He was criticizing my behavior at my nephew's baptism, which I didn't see as problematic, only distant, though for personal reasons I've also decided not to attend any more baptisms.  I've been in contact with my brother since then about an unrelated thing and he didn't say anything.  My dad banged the same drum he's been banging since my parents separated because he believes that my mother has turned me against him by telling one-sided stories (I've told him repeatedly that this isn't the case, but he never seems to hear or remember that part).  He also criticized my stance on not having a relationship with my brother.  Basically, I ended our get together, paid for our tea, and left curtly, feeling angry and shitty.

I think, at this point, I need to write to him and say that, clearly, our views on attitudes toward family are very different and that, to me, the relationships you have with people are not because you think they have no shortcomings, but because you want to have them in your life regardless.  That you respect their decisions even if you wouldn't personally make similar ones and you allow them to negotiate their own relationships with others.  There is a place for counsel in interpersonal relationships, but, for me, counsel between adults is the result of one person asking the other person for advice. And it's a two-way street. If you reach a point with someone where you don't think you two make sense together or where you don't enrich each others' lives or where you're endlessly frustrated then the solution may be to scale things back or let them come to an end. I also don't think that being related to someone by blood means that you're obligated to have a relationship with them. On balance, it may mean that you're more receptive to relationships, but they're not mandatory.

Ugh.  A million thanks to anyone who's still reading this.  I suppose I'd love to know if this seems reasonable to you guys, if there's something I'm missing, if I'm way off base.

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Post by eselle28 on Mon Feb 16, 2015 10:28 pm

I'm sorry you're having to deal with that. Your dad reminds me of mine in some ways, or at least some of those behaviors sound pretty familiar. I think your stance here is pretty reasonable. The only thing I'd ask is whether your father is more of a big picture overarching theory person or one who tends to focus on details and specific incidents. If he's the latter, I think you may want to say the same thing but in different ways. "I don't want to criticize me in public. If it happens again, we can see each other at [family event], but we won't be able to go out to dinner anymore," or just the last bit without the conditions, or whatever you think the actual boundaries might be (do you know yet quite where you want to draw them?). I say that mostly because I think a detail-focused person might disregard what you're saying if you don't provide specifics and interpret it as a general expression of unhappiness.
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Post by Enail on Mon Feb 16, 2015 10:37 pm

Fakely, that sounds really tough! It seems like you've got a good handle on how to manage things with him, though.  

Could I ask what your goal is with the script? It sounds a little like you're trying to convince him to see your perspective, which I don't get the impression is what you're going for. If it's not, I wonder if it wouldn't be wiser to just stick to saying what lines you'd like to draw (eg. my relationship with you is separate from my relationship with my brother and I want to keep it that way, please don't bring it up with me anymore, that kind of thing) and not focus too much on trying to explain the reasons for them?
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Post by fakely mctest on Tue Feb 17, 2015 12:47 am

Thanks you guys. Nothing like old sensitive places to make a person in her 30s feel like an impotently angry teenager. I'm afraid part of me will always be back in that old mindset where I feel like if I just explain myself CORRECTLY that will make everything better and magically someone who's had an incomplete understanding/tolerance at best will suddenly understand/empathize 100%.

I think you're right that sticking to what I'd like to see happen is going to be a better tactic. I think that the script about keeping the relationships separate is a good one. What I struggle with is that, my ideal world situation would involve him keeping his ideas about what constitutes wrong behavior on my part to himself unless it directly concerns something I've done TO him. I'm not looking to be above criticism, but I am looking avoid instances of the "here's what you've done wrong to a third party" situation. I don't know exactly how to say that.

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Post by eselle28 on Tue Feb 17, 2015 1:37 am

Parents have a talent for that, don't they? I personally do better dealing with my father when I break things up really specifically, like I said, and don't even try to touch the overarching principles, because I know he's not with me on those. I'm talking literally to the point of, "Dad, I can't be around you if you want to talk about how fat the women on Dancing with the Stars are, so you need to save those comments for some other time if I'm going to keep coming over," followed by the exact same statement about The Bachelor a few months later. It sounds like the vast majority of the discussion about third parties is about either your mother or your brother (it sort of doesn't sound like he's in a position to police your friendships or work relationships or whatever, but if that's not the case, then you might need a more general script), so I might break it down into some mix and match of things like this:

"That stuff with Mom happened years ago. You know how I feel. I'm not okay discussing it anymore."

"I know how you feel about my relationship with Brother, but I've made my decision about this and it's not open for discussion."

"Brother and I are adults, and it's between the two of us how close we are."*

"If Brother objects to how I've behaved, he can talk to me about it himself. I need you to drop the subject."*

"If you want to talk about our relationship, I'm fine doing that. I'd rather you [call me/talk to me privately/however else you'd want him to bring up problems like that] than bring it up when we have dinner, though."

"...if you can't do that, I'm not going to be able to meet you for tea anymore, and we'll have to stick to seeing each other at [acceptable venues].

*These ones are most useful if you're okay with how much you communicate with your brother and if he also isn't pushing the issue. If he's using your dad as an intermediary or you'd rather not talk to him at all, I'd stick to the first brother script.

Does any of that seem like it might be helpful?
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Post by Caffeinated on Tue Feb 17, 2015 11:59 am

I agree with the excellent advice eselle28 and Enail have provided already. I like the scripts from eselle28 in the previous post. They're short and direct, which is good. I would also suggest rehearsing in your mind your next couple of lines depending on how he responds.

If he responds well (which might still be a little shitty but will at least mean not insisting on discussing it further), it would be good to have a topic redirect ready to go. You know, like "how about that [local sports team]" or "have you heard about the new movie starring [actor you both like]" or "so how's work/the garden/some hobby project/etc". It can be tricky to think up a new topic in the moment when you're feeling stressed, so having something already prepared can help (at least it does for me).

If he responds badly (insists on discussing it further), it would be good to prepare for that too. Have a line ready, something simple like "That topic is closed for discussion, can we change the subject now", with a ready followup if he refuses such as "That topic is closed for discussion. Otherwise I'll need to cut this short." And be ready to get up and leave right away. (Like you did at tea, which was awesome!)

Sadly, I don't think you can ever expect him to see things from your point of view on this stuff, or ever be ready to really make amends the way you might want. People are too good at justifying in their own minds the bad things they've said or done, or rewriting history in their own minds if necessary in order to continue feeling they were right. But you're grown now, and not stuck there as a dependent any more, forced to listen to his garbage. You can set this boundary. It might be hard, and it might be a while before it really takes. But it's worth doing, no matter the outcome. And the outcome could be that he learns to stop saying this stuff to you and you're able to have a more pleasant relationship.

Jedi hugs to you!
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Post by fakely mctest on Tue Feb 24, 2015 12:51 am

Just ducking back in to thank you guys again for all your help. Ultimately, I backed off my initial impulse to write him an email right away because, in considering it and your excellent responses, it ended up feeling like I was falling into old patterns of justifying myself and I am done and tired of that.

One of the things he used to rag me on regularly was the way I dressed. He once had a meeting with my college thesis advisor and asked her if she could talk to me about it; and this was right after she said I was one of the best students she'd had in 10 years so I believe that was the dictionary definition of "can't win." And I really tried at graduation! I drove all the way to the nearest city to go shopping at J. Crew and I bought clothes for the graduation events that I thought would be acceptable that I didn't totally hate. And then he made a not-very-oblique joke about how I looked like a prostitute when we were standing with a bunch of family waiting in line for one of the celebratory dinners. So that's the exact moment when I became done with any and all of his fashion critique. It just sort of burned out all the fucks I had left to give in that area.

All of that is a long way of saying that I'm hoping this will be a (quieter) watershed. And I feel so much better now that I've got all these great script options that I can keep in my back pocket.

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Post by fakely mctest on Thu Mar 12, 2015 1:25 am

Okay I am super gauche and double posting, but I just sent the following in response to an email from my dad and hopefully I haven't fucked up horribly. I think it's clear and well-reasoned without being reactive.

Thumbnail sketch of his email was that I guess it was him who talked to my brother about getting my nephew baptized because he felt that my brother and I had missed out on the religious community thing when we were young. And he did say that he's proud of me but feels he has to step in if I've done something to offend.

There have been times in my life where I’ve considered exploring different faiths, but I find none of them speak to me in particular and so I’ve largely set the issue aside. If you want to encourage others to get involved with religion that is between you and them, but I shouldn’t be a part of those discussions. Honestly, I haven’t been to many baptisms because my social group is not really geared in that direction and the people who are observant are much more low key so I didn’t realize how much it would bother me to be there until I actually was in that situation and, having reflected on the issue, I believe that will be the last baptism I attend both in the interest of larger group harmony and for my own peace of mind. I don’t see my lack of religion as a void in my life and it’s not something I wish to put aside anymore than you would ask someone of a different faith to put aside their own beliefs. But at the same time, no one cares to be proselytized to on any issue, so it’s best to remove myself from that particular equation.

My relationships or lack thereof with [brother] or anyone else apart from you are between myself and those people and I find it incredibly damaging to the relationship between you and I when you attempt to mediate those interactions because, regardless of intent, it does feel as if you are waiting for what you see as a misstep in a relationship that doesn’t directly involve you. If someone has an issue with something I’ve done to them, then it is up to them as an adult to address it with me. I know that you’ve been doing a lot in terms of reaching out to estranged or semi-estranged family and negotiating those tricky emotional waters between people, and I think that’s admirable, but part of what makes it admirable is that it’s asked for.

While I’ll always be your daughter, I am also an adult and I believe very strongly that adults manage their own relationships. That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t ask for advice, because I do value your perspective and your angle on things, but it also means that, even if I’m not handling things with someone else the way you would, the response that will make me feel most respected is to stand back and allow me to tend to my own affairs.

You did a great job in encouraging me to develop capable independence, sound instincts, and an introspective bent. Obviously I’m not a perfect person and I have off days and sore spots. I’m keenly aware of my flaws and shortcomings and know that I’m working on them every day. The result may not be 100% in line with what you’d want to see, but I also have to make my own way through things.

I hope you understand what I’ve tried to express here. It comes from a place of love and respect.

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Post by Enail on Thu Mar 12, 2015 12:05 pm

Fakely, that's brilliant. It comes across as firm, clear and mature, but also loving and respectful. Many hopes it's received as well as it was written!
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Post by reboot on Thu Mar 12, 2015 12:18 pm

Enail wrote:Fakely, that's brilliant. It comes across as firm, clear and mature, but also loving and respectful. Many hopes it's received as well as it was written!

Seconded. It is clear and firm without being harsh or unappreciative of his misguided efforts.
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Post by eselle28 on Thu Mar 12, 2015 2:35 pm

Thirded. It expresses what you want from him in language that's hard to misinterpret, and I think it does an admirable job with acknowledging that he has his own perspectives and has made contributions to your life. I hope he takes it that way as well.
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Post by fakely mctest on Thu Mar 12, 2015 11:13 pm

Aw, you guys are so kind! Thank you. Smile Working on boundaries with my boundary-deficient family is an ongoing process and my relationship with my dad is...complex? I do value his input on a number of things, but maybe not as much when it comes to emotional intelligence/interpersonal stuff because I think our perspectives are very different and likewise our goals.

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