Thursday, February 7, 2019

Shunned by Family That Deserves to Be Shunned

It’s always a pleasure to find a therapist doing a good job. One would like to say the same about New York Magazine columnist Ask Polly, but, alas, she always says the same thing... a mix of psychobabble and mindless drool. Her column's value lies, as always, in the letters that people send her. I will, as has become my habit, ignore what Polly says… because it is barely coherent. Not so much because it’s wrong. But because the reasoning does not merit the name of reason.

The letter writer is hurting. So much so that she calls herself “Hurting.” She ought to have ghosted her family a long time ago, but she is now being ghosted by them. Specifically, by her mother and sister. These two have spent their lives criticizing and complaining about Hurting. They have found fault with her over and over again. They have punished her and made her the scapegoat for everything that has ever gone wrong in their lives. It's not just her. They mistreat and abuse her husband and her in-laws. They are a true horror show.

And they are responsible for the emotional afflictions that Hurting has suffered. We are happy that Hurting has broken free from her family, that she has a good job and a loving husband. And we are naturally horrified by the way her family mistreats her husband. Of course, we should not fail to mention that we know nothing about Hurting’s family and her husband. And we imagine that there are no grandchildren in the picture. Surely, that would change the family dynamic... somewhat.

Anyway, Hurting is being shunned by her family. It feels very bad, and she does not understand why it does not feel good. One might say that being shunned never feels good. But, one should also note that Hurting should have long ago done the shunning herself. She should not have kept trying to hold on to people who have been trying to destroy her.

We would like to know whether Hurting has father, whether her mother or her sister has a husband. We assume that they are both manless, but we do not know.

Her current therapist has sagely told her not to reach out to her parents and not to apologize. Good advice. Excellent advice. The notion that the person who has been systematically mistreated ought to reach out to those are abusing her is absurd. And Hurting ought not to apologize…. She has done nothing that requires an apology. The fault lies with her family, not with her.

You will see in the letter that Hurting is confused over who is cutting whom out of whose life. In her opening she suggests that she has cut her mother and sister out of her life. Later she says that her mother and sister are no longer speaking to her.

For your edification, here is the letter:

It feels like everybody who cuts out “toxic” people from their lives talks about how good they feel afterward. So I don’t know why it feels so terrible for me.

I was very close with my family growing up. But my mother and younger sister have some deep-seated problems (and likely undiagnosed mental illness) that, my whole life, have manifested in regular cruelty to me. Between bouts of this, they can be loving, funny people who are a joy to be around. But over the years, they have called me unattractive, overweight, lazy, etc. and have expressed disapproval almost every time something good happens in my life. I have a great job and a loving husband and they never have enough awful things to say about both. It’s like I’ve been the repository for every resentment and bad mood they’ve ever had, and whenever I’ve protested or pulled away, they’ve made it about me being a bad sister or daughter.

For so long, I thought I was a “bad kid” only to realize years later that that was something that they had invented. In case you can’t tell, I’m in therapy, and it’s been immeasurably helpful. But it took me several relapses of an eating disorder before I finally realized that the years of comments on my body, clothes, jobs, boyfriends, etc. have taken an extremely painful toll that makes it hard to spend any time with them.

What movies and TV shows don’t ever show you is that abusive family members can also be kind, generous, magnetic, and fun to be around. It’s also very difficult to reason with people who say stuff like, “Why do you only remember the times I called you fat? Why don’t you remember the nice things, like when I paid for your first car?” And she did pay for my first car! But for a long time, that’s meant — to both of us — that she’s allowed to say and do whatever she wants. It’s a huge mind-fuck. It would be way easier if she and my sister were pure monsters 100 percent of the time. I’ve tried saying, “I love you, but I don’t want any more unsolicited opinions about my life anymore,” and they’ve told me that they’re allowed to criticize me because I am family and therefore their “business.”

I tried to see them only at holidays and keep up over text and email. But the last time I saw them, they were horrible to my husband and in-laws, and we ended up having a huge blowout over the fact that I didn’t want to spend the holidays with them on another continent without my husband, who is never invited because they think he was an unsuitable choice. If that sounds like I’m living in a Victorian novel, it definitely feels like that, and worse.

They’re not speaking to me. It’s been months. I know, intellectually, that they’re being crazy and have done fucked-up things to me my whole life. But this estrangement still hurts. My therapist has told me not to reach out to them or apologize. I don’t feel particularly eager to mend a fence that keeps getting broken by the same two people, but I’m wondering why instead of a sense of freedom, I only feel this leaden dread. I keep asking myself how I would feel if one of them died while we weren’t speaking. I guess what I’m asking is — what happens when you’re at this kind of impasse? I love my “chosen family” of my husband and friends, but can people live happily without their “family” family?

The answer to the last question is Yes. It takes some getting used to, but it is certainly possible. Family deserves the benefit of every doubt, but there comes a time when one might need to choose between between submitting to abuse or walking away from it. She should rejoice in being shunned by poisonous people... but she should have been the one to initiate the shunning. 

Surely, this toxic couple, mother and sister, have no manners and no couth. We do not know why they dislike her husband so much, but they could at least pretend. If they believe themselves to be socially superior their lack of common decency says otherwise. We do not know about anyone’s financial circumstances, but if mother and sister and going to spend a holiday on another continent, we must assume that they are not destitute.

But, we note the tactics used by abusive and manipulative people. Mother and sister have moments when they are kind and generous, funny and congenial. Those times never seem to involve her husband, but the abuse visited upon Hurting is not constant. It is mixed with kindness.  

Strangely, Hurting's mother believes that since she has done some good things for her daughter, this accords her the right to criticize and complain whenever she wants. It's an appalling piece of thinking. It's good to see it in such raw form.

This means, as Hurting’s therapist seems clearly to understand, that the mother/sister couple is monstrously manipulative. They employ a carrot and stick form of abuse. You draw someone close to you by showering them with charm. then, you beat them down. You make them feel loved and cared for. Then you tell them that they are worthless.

In this form of abuse, you want your victim to feel like the abuse is something that they deserve, a punishment for something they did wrong.  Thus, that you are meting out justice. And then, when you are suffering agony for being abused they will come along and offer a helping hand, even a loving affectionate hand.

Hurting does not realize that walking away from this cycle of love and hate is extremely difficult. And that it is not going to feel good right away. And yet, walking away is surely the right thing to do. The best solution would be this: when mother and sister manage to get over their manipulations and reach out to her… she should not reach back. They are offering a poisoned gift. Hurting will feel better if she shuns her family... they have certainly earned it. Then she will feel like an agent, not a victim.


Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: Hurting will feel better if she shuns her family... they have certainly earned it. Then she will feel like an agent, not a victim.

I'm not sure if shunning is the only strategy available to feel like an agent, but I guess anything we do to try to control or punish other people can feel like agency. The word "no" is the most powerful word, so powerful that even 2 year olds can learn it.

But if you don't want to be abusive yourself, if your goal isn't to hurt people, then you shouldn't think of this as permanent shunning, but setting boundaries, which can still include walking away temporarily when you have to. If your needs for connection and acceptance are met elsewhere, and you are aware of your own reactions, you can hear hurtful criticisms as expressions of their own suffering rather than being about you.

Sam L. said...

Mom and sis are two-faced. I know there's a term for people whose personalities can quickly flip from nice to mean, but I can't remember it. Do mom and sis live together?

whitney said...

"I only feel this leaden dread." Because they're going to come back and she knows it. And either she's going to allow them back in her life or she's going to kick them out and both options suck

Ares Olympus said...

Sam, psychological splitting seems related. If your identity, your self-worth is split, a good and bad self, and changes based on how you feel at the moment, you will treat others as split as well. And if you are only cruel when you feel bad, and only cruel to people who are making you feel bad, when you feel better, you don't want to own that cruelty and expect others to forgive and forget without any apology on your part, because that apology risks the bad self being felt again.

south park conservative said...

I don't get that last comment. Isn't everyone split" as she defines it, being "cruel" (I prefer "distant")to people who are treating them badly? Why would you apologize when it was the other people treating you badly?

Who is she saying owes the apology, which, from Hurting's letter, didn't even seem like an option for either side? Don't we all have a good side and a bad side (meaning, don't we all do what's right sometimes and what's wrong sometimes?)

"...that apology risks the bad self being felt again"? How can an apology risk something, esp how can an apology "risk the bad self being felt"?

Actually, I'm still back at "psychological splitting seems related," period, at the beginning...."related to what?"

I'm all confused. Anyway, wish I could tell Hurting that sure, she can get along fine with her "chosen" family and not her family of origin. I've been estranged from my own FOO for decades, and the longer I am, the more I keep seeing that more and more behaviors that I thought was normal all these years...was really stone cold manipulation, with me the odd man out (also known as "the scapegoat")

When I was 19, I was living in another state, and I came home for Christmas. When it came time to return, my mother refused to give me the money to go home. My brother and sister, 26 and 27 and married, had to have known, but they didn't say a thing. Now that I see how my husband interacts with his younger sisters, I see that of course, he would have warned her, driving her home from the airport (my brother picked me up and drove me an hour, home) "Watch out - Mom's got something planned--I don't think she's coming through with the ticket home." Instead, he was completely silent for the entire hour.

The disapproval of me, the black sheep, was intense inside that car. Still, I didn't realize till lately, decades later, that in most families, the older brother would have said something (like maybe "Welcome home" and given her a hug, not to mention the warning about mom), but nope -- and I didn't even question it. Anyway, yeah -- ditch those people and admit that some people are just poison....even family. Sometimes especially family.