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Advice Column #10: Making the "Right Choice" When It Comes to Estrangement

This month, the advice columnist answers a question about maintaining connections to cherished relatives after estrangement.


Blue and white background with text that reads, "When it comes to family estrangement, how do I know that I'm making the right choice?"

Q: My mother has always been comfortable to tell me her views on how I'm disrespectful, overweight, stupid and irresponsible I am. I know I should cut her out, but know it will also mean no connection to my grandmother and nephew. Struggling with working out which is the right choice. Help :(


A: Hi there, anonymous friend,


Thanks for writing in. You’ve already done a great job of laying out your situation as it exists right now, identifying the factors that are important to you — and what’s you’ve landed on which is so hard (and yet, so very common) is that you probably can’t get everything you want and need, without the risk of losing other things you care about too.

 

But that doesn’t mean things are hopeless — certainly not! 


Because, when we break this down a little more, you may find you have more options than you think.


First — You say your mom has been consistently mean to you throughout your life, so you know you should cut her out. But I’m wondering, what makes you say you should? From where I’m sitting, estrangement isn’t a matter of ‘should’ or ‘ought:’ It’s an intensely personal choice, and it’s entirely your call to make. 


It’s very true that your mom is being unkind to you. She’s being mean; she’s being cruel. On a simple, human level, you — just like everybody else in the world — have the right to not be spoken to that way. You deserve better. You deserve kindness, warmth, and loving words borne from a foundation of kind, warm, loving beliefs and actions. At the very least, you deserve neutrality. 


But when that’s not what you’re getting, you also have the right to choose what to do about it. 


You might decide, ‘you know, it’s true, my mom is mean to me. She has always been that way. But it turns out, I don’t want to cut her out of my life. I’d rather have her around — knowing that her mean comments have been part and parcel of her character and behavior towards me, at least so far — than not have her around.’


Or you might decide, ‘My mom has always been mean to me, and I don’t ever want to be spoken to that way again, so I will make the choice to cut her out.’


Or you might even decide that you don’t want to decide, quite yet — you want to wait it out, see if anything changes.


You might make one decision, then change your mind later on!


But none of these are obligations; these are choices. 


So let’s keep talking about this, but shift the framework from ‘I have to do this’ to ‘what is the best possible choice I can make right now?’


Second —


It sounds like your grandmother and your nephew are very dear to you. Reading your letter, I wondered if you might have already cut your mother out, if not for the risk of losing your relationships with these relatives, too. 


But maybe there are more options for what these relationships could look like, too: Something in between the status quo and losing them completely. 

If you were to cut your mother out, how do you think your grandmother and your nephew would feel? Would they be angry? Sad? Upset? Conflicted? Proud? Supportive?


Would they agree that your mother is mean to you, and that you don’t deserve to be spoken to that way?


Would they be glad — would any part of them be glad — that you were choosing to protect yourself from further hurt and harm?


If you think they would disagree with you making the choice to leave — if they (wrongly) think you do deserve to be spoken to that way,  or that you shouldn’t ‘make waves’ about it, or that it’s your responsibility to keep the family peace no matter what — does that affect your relationship with them?


Do you think, if you were to cut your mother out, your grandmother and nephew would still want to have a relationship with you? 


In my own life, one of the most important ideals at the core of the loving, close relationships I cherish is that we all want each other to be safe, loved, and well. We might (sometimes) disagree on what that looks like, or the best way to go about getting those things. But whether we want those things for each other is not in question.


If somebody in my life did not want those things for me — if they didn’t mind the notion of my being unsafe, unloved or unwell — then I’d be wondering about what kind of relationship I wanted to have with them, too. 


It’s important to me that the people I share my love and life with have my best interests at heart, as I have theirs. 


Is that important to you, as well? Are the people you want to stay connected with able and willing to love and support you in the ways you need to be loved and supported?

I truly hope that they are, and they do.


But even the most loving, supportive relationships don’t exist in a vacuum. 


Presuming your grandmother and your nephew would be completely on your side if you decided to cut your mother out, there are other reasons it could be hard to maintain those connections. 


Maybe your grandmother and your nephew are relying on your mother — or people who would follow your mother’s lead — to meet some of their essential needs; for housing, for caregiving, for transit, for financial support.

 

In those cases, even if they wanted to support you, they might not be able to speak up or take action to maintain their relationship with you without risking their own health or well-being. 


When this happens, it’s heartbreaking. I think back to the ways my own relationship with my elderly grandfather changed, shortly after I became estranged from my folks. I had decided not to delay my estrangement until after his death — at the time, he was a very healthy centenarian, and I wanted to celebrate and cherish all the years he had left. Had I stayed for his sake, I was afraid I would resent him for it. But I also knew that my folks, and other relatives who disagreed with my estrangement, were essential caregivers for my grandfather during the last years of his life.


Because of that, I wasn’t able to be as present. We had long phone conversations every week — actually, more often than we spoke before my estrangement — but I couldn’t come and visit. I never saw him in person again. When he died, I paid my respects on my own instead of going to the funeral. 


But until the day he died, I did still have a close and loving relationship with him — and I wonder if something like that might be available to you, your grandmother and your nephew, too.


Maybe, if you cut your mother out, you can’t come by the house to see them. But you could talk on the phone. 


Maybe you won’t be at the family gatherings. But you can send text messages, postcards or care packages through the mail. 


Maybe you can meet at a coffee shop, at a park, or at the library. 


Maybe they could come visit you at your place. 


Would they do that for you? Could you do that for them? Would that be enough to maintain that connection?


Third —


If you decide you don’t want to cut your mother out of your life — and you also don’t want things to stay as they are — there is another option you could take: You could have less of a relationship with her than you do right now.


There are quite a few ways that could look.

 

Some examples:

Maybe hearing her mean comments in person is especially difficult for you (because you’re right there with her, reacting in the moment). So maybe you plan to spend less time seeing her in person, and more time talking on the phone, when you’re comfortable in your own space. 


Maybe she behaves better towards you when there’s ‘company’ around. Can you recruit friends and relatives to join you and have your back?


Maybe there are some topics you just don’t bring up with her; she’s still in your life, but there are some conversations she doesn’t get to be a part of.


Maybe you just see her, speak with her and communicate with her less often — whatever you feel like you can sustainably manage. For some people, that’s a visit on the weekend; for others, that’s a phone call on birthdays and holidays. 


You can also be very direct with her about this. For example:


Your mom: [Makes another one of her mean comments]


You: “I don’t appreciate that thing you just said. That was mean, and I’m not going to stay here and be spoken to that way, so I’m going to leave now. We can try again [next time you’re seeing her.]”


She might not like that. She might double down. But if you start consistently showing her that being in your life is contingent on her being tolerably decent, over time, she might learn the lesson.


None of these options are easy. All of them are within your power.

 

Whatever you choose, I wish you a future full of more kind, caring words and actions from people who love you and want to see you thrive.


Hila

 

Hila (any pronouns) is the Advice Columnist for the Together Estranged Newsletter. They have been happily estranged for a number of years, and now live with their chosen family and beloved, silly dog in rural Canada. They have a background in mental health, peer support, writing and journalism. Outside of work, Hila can be found recreating desserts from The Great British Bake Off, running on the beautiful trails near their home, singing show tunes, and learning to knit.

 

Please Note: The peer to peer Advice Columnist is not a licensed mental health professional; this is not medical advice. If you are in crisis or you think you may have an emergency, please go to your local urgent care center to talk to a professional counselor.


The views and opinions expressed by Advice Columnists are those of the Advice Columnists and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Together Estranged.

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