This month, our advice columnist answered a question about a situation where becoming estranged from one relative might mean losing contact with another beloved relative too.
Q: My mother has been an alcoholic for the past 17 years, in and out of hospital. My father loves us dearly but always chooses her because she has no family herself and had a hard upbringing. She is a nasty drunk and has no want to change her ways even when it’s literally meant life or death. I don’t want her in my life or my 3 kids life but love my dad and keep her in my life because of him. He won’t see us without her as she has become socially incapable, doesn’t drive and it would cause him more issues at home. He stays for love. What do I do?
A: Hello, anonymous friend.
Thank you so much for writing in.
If only human relationships were neat and tidy things, where choosing to have no contact with one person was a decision between you and them alone, and we weren't all tied up in all these other threads of people we love and care about, who are free to make different choices than we do.
But then, I suppose, that's what 'community' is — one great big ball of threads woven together, where pulling on a frayed edge might pull the whole thing apart.
You already know there is no simple 'right' option here. But you do have options, so let's talk them over.
1. Keep on with the status quo
You keep going to visit your dad and your mother (or they come and visit you) every once in a while. Sometimes you go alone, sometimes you go with your kids. You do your best to shield your kids from your mother when she's being nasty and drunk — which might mean leaving early and cutting the visit short, as soon as you can see things starting to go downhill or she says something out of line. You believe that the worst she will get (especially around your kids) is ‘unpleasant’ not ‘abusive’ or ‘actively endangering,’ so you can make a decision that it will be, at minimum, physically and emotionally safe enough to bring the family together. You decide in advance what your boundaries are — towards your kids, and towards yourself. What are you willing to tolerate, for the sake of a visit? At what point will you pack up and head out? Where will you draw the line between 'that was kind of mean' and 'that is not an acceptable way to behave towards me or my kids, ever'?
You carve out as much good time with your dad as you can, and help your kids make as many good memories with their grandpa as possible (and possibly their grandma, too, if you catch her on a day when she's able to be present for them in a good way). If your kids have questions, or are bothered by the way your mother acts towards/around them, you can offer age-appropriate explanations (“Grandma is sick, and sometimes, when she's sick, she says things that aren't very nice” can be a place to start. So is ”no one is allowed to try and hurt your feelings or make you feel small. If that's how you feel about something Grandma said, you're allowed to leave the room. I'll be there to stand up for you“) and encourage them to make their own decisions about whether/how often they want to keep up their visits.
2. Pretend it's COVID/love him from a distance
Especially since 2020, it has never been easier to use the digital tools at our disposal to keep in touch with somebody we can't see in person — for whatever reason, whether that be 'pandemic' or 'my mother gets nasty when she’s drunk and my dad won't see us without her.'
If you want to keep your dad in your life without having to face your mother every time you see him, could shifting more of your relationship to phone calls, video calls and emails be an option? Could you start a text thread, where you send him pictures of your kids' art and thoughts about your day, and have that be a conversation just between the two of you?
It won't be the same as in-person visits, of course, but it might open up a door to a relationship with your dad without having to see your mother so often.
If this is an option you're considering, you can be as straightforward or as subtle as you like when you introduce the idea.
As in: "Dad, you know I love you and want to see you, and you also know my mother does [x, y, z] when she's been drinking. I don't want to be around her, and I definitely don't want her around the kids, when she's like that. I know you feel you can't leave her at home without you, so under the circumstances, this is how I want us to stay in touch."
Or: "Dad, I've got three kids — you know we're so busy, and we just don't have the time for as many visits as we used to have. Going forward, it'll be so much easier to stay in touch mostly by phone and email."
Depending on your parents' relationship, your mother might read these emails/texts, or want to participate in the calls, in ways that are still more contact than you want. But she also might not.
Also, if you choose to go the email or text route, you can even ask a trusted friend/partner/member of 'team you' to screen them in advance, to make sure you don't see any message from your mother you didn't want to see. And you can screen them, too, before you pass messages along to your kids.
3. Cut off contact with your mother completely — at the risk of your relationship with your dad
As you so clearly laid it out, your dad is choosing from a menu of bad options. He wants to support your mother, and he feels an obligation to be 'in her corner' because she has no other family and had a hard upbringing. And the more he keeps choosing her, and she keeps driving other people away with her behavior, the more isolated he becomes — especially if he feels he can't go see people without her without it causing 'issues at home.'
But the choice he's making is for himself.
He is not choosing for you.
If, someday, you choose to act on your desire to not have your mother in your life at all, you can do that and let your dad decide how he'll respond.
I know, from the pattern you described in your question, you don't think he'd choose a relationship with you over a relationship with her, and you may not ever want to take that risk.
But: ”Dad, you know I love you very much, and I'll always be glad to see you. But I'm not up for doing any more visits with my mother. So if you want to come and catch up just us (and kids), that would be great. This invitation doesn't come with a plus-one“ is a perfectly sensible thing to say to him.
And: ”I love my dad, for many reasons. But when the rubber hits the road, he's choosing his relationship with a person he feels obligated to support (and who is often drunk) over his relationship with me and my kids. So I'm going to let him make that choice, and let him know that my door is open to him, and cherish my memories of the good times we've had and all the good qualities that make me love him, while keeping him at a distance unless/until he's ready to put me and his grandkids first“ is a perfectly sensible decision to make for yourself, if that's what you want.
I wish you all the best as you continue to navigate these difficult choices while leading with love.
You will set a powerful example for your kids, as they grow up and learn to navigate the world, by teaching them that family doesn't mean suffering to 'keep the peace' — it means a lifelong journey of joining the threads of our own lives with those of the people around us, weaving patterns that make us all stronger while undoing the tangles that keep us stuck in place.
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.
In addition, 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.