Dear Imprudence: Don’t Pressure People To Resume Family Relationships

Today on Dear Abby, a reader wrote in with a problem that some of us have been on the other side of:

Dear Abby: My oldest granddaughter, “Allie,” is a psychiatrist. I have always loved her, been proud of her accomplishments and have had a warm relationship with her.

Her mother—my daughter—got drunk and made several angry, harsh phone calls to Allie. Since then, Allie has refused contact with everyone in the family. I have written to her numerous times and so has my daughter, begging for forgiveness. My daughter has quit drinking, thanks to the patience and loving support of my family. She has also come out of an abusive marriage.

Allie gave birth to a baby girl last year. I have never seen my great-grandchild and it breaks my heart. Abby, what can I do to restore a good relationship with my granddaughter? I love her and pray for her every day.

—Grieving Grandma

I must say, I dreaded Abby’s response to this letter, given that it painted a tragic tale of family torn asunder, a mother trying to reform herself, and saddened grandmas. I’ve had to cut off family members for my own health and protection, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that some FWD readers have had to do the same, for a wide variety of reasons. So I was expecting a lecture about how Allie ‘owes’ her family something and the grandmother should continue trying to pressure her into repairing the family’s relationship.

Here’s what Abby said:

Dear Grieving Grandma: As your letter proves, being a mental health professional does not exempt someone from having family problems. Depending upon what your daughter said to Allie, it is understandable that she might want to protect herself—and her baby—from her verbally abusive, alcoholic parent. While it may be harsh for Allie to have cut off contact with all of her maternal relatives, including you, she may have done so to prevent you from trying to pressure her to “forgive” her mother for what has been an ongoing pattern of behavior.

Write Allie one more letter advising her that her mother is no longer drinking and has left her abusive marriage. Continue loving and praying for her. But until your granddaughter decides on her own to relent, there is nothing you can do to “fix” this. I’m sorry.

Abby, I want to hug you and hand you a cupcake. This advice is right on. She reiterates that Allie may have been entirely justified in making her decision. Reading between the lines, Abby seems to be gently suggesting that Grandma should not have ‘written her numerous times’ and should have instead given her some space. The letter concludes by giving her permission to try one more time, something I personally feel iffy about, but, in the end, it reiterates that this is up to Allie, not the family, and that Grandma is just going to have to accept that.

Yes, Abby, yes. People who choose to cut off their family members do not do so on a whim. They do so to protect themselves. The last thing that people who make that choice want is badgering from other people in the family, or from family friends. They want to be left alone, and they want their choices respected.

Unfortunately, when these situations happen, many people often take it upon themselves to ‘fix’ them. As a result, people are forced not only to cut off the offending individuals, but the entire family, because they fear exactly this situation, people demanding to play a role in ‘reconciliation.’ In these situations, the offender is often painted as the injured party, and no one talks about the isolation experienced by the person who has to cut people off. If these decisions could be made and respected, people like Allie wouldn’t have to cut off contact with family members they may love very much.

You are allowed to protect yourself by choosing the people you associate with, including your family members, and you are allowed to not have this turned into a big drama with people insisting on getting involved left and right. You have the right to autonomy over your body and in your relationships, and it’s nice to see Abby stating that, albeit in somewhat less aggressive terms than I would have!

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

20 thoughts on “Dear Imprudence: Don’t Pressure People To Resume Family Relationships

  1. Rock on, Abby! I don’t speak to my mother (and have basically lost touch with everyone else on her side of the family because of this), and I’ve definitely had people try to push me into reinstating that contact. I’m glad this column doesn’t do that.

  2. I had a friend who pushed and pushed and pushed me about reconciling with my mother (who I had cut out of my life because of her abuse of me). I ended up having to cut him out of my life because he refused to respect my wishes. He kept telling me that if we didn’t reconcile and she died, I would regret it for the rest of my days. He was wrong. We never reconciled (her wish, not mine) and she died last summer. When my niece called to tell me, the first thought that crossed my mind was “Ding dong, the bitch is dead.” Not a nice thing to think about your mother, but after 50-some years of abuse……………….

  3. I have had to cut of certain family members, and got the never ending requests from my grandmother to “let the past be in the past,” even though the abuse continued in the present. I don’t know if I would ever had had the strength to cut her out of my life, but I know that I had to declare those people off limits for discussion, because it was ruining our relationship. I’m so glad Abby gave the right advice here: people need to learn how to respect other people’s boundaries.

  4. Fuck yeah. I stopped talking with my mother and my brother recently and if she weren’t my landlord I wouldn’t talk with my grandmother either. I’m not gonna regret a damn thing.

    I haven’t spoken with my aunt or her children since I came out as trans* over ten years ago — her decision not mine. It hurts.
    kaninchenzero´s last blog post ..why share when you can overshare

  5. That sounds about right for the most part, but I’m not fully comfortable with the write one more letter suggestion either. Allie probably dreads each and every single one of those envelopes, and if the grandma has written before it’s not like the last letter will have any new information.

  6. Great advice. The only thing I would have added is that the one last letter that the grandmother writes should state (if she can say it truthfully) that she will not try to get Allie to have any contact with her mother that she doesn’t want — Allie doesn’t have to see or talk to or talk about her mother if she goes to see her grandmother.

  7. My advice to those in the grandmother’s position:

    Express your availability. And then hold to that promise: availability. Not imposition.

    It’s not easy, but it’s necessary for an honest and healthy relationship with the harmed person.

    If you force, or pressure, a relationship into being, you aren’t actually relating to the person themselves. You are relating to their image, the image that pleases you best. But not the person themselves. Because to relate to that person would require you to accept them as they actually are, and would require you to respect their decisions, no matter how inconvenient to you. If you aren’t doing those things, then this isn’t about keeping or losing the person at issue. It’s about keeping or losing your own sense of security or lack thereof. The person is just a pawn in the pursuit thereof.

  8. At first as I was reading the letter I wondered why she’d cut off everyone (not just her mother). Then it became obvious: the grandmother’s tone seems to be entirely one of “righteous hurt,” she never acknowledges (at least in the letter we see) that what her daughter did was unacceptable/that what her granddaughter did something that was appropriate (cutting contact), she seems to minimize what her daughter did (I doubt very much that the “several” phone calls were the first of it), and I’m also squicked by this idea that her granddaughte *needs” to be prayed for daily. Admittedly this last one is the one I have least insight into (my family isn’t a “I’ll pray for you” sort), but I’ve always seen it as either a) someone saying that you are wrong and need to come (back) to god, or b) someone saying that you have a major illness/accident/financial difficulty requiring help. Since the granddaughter is not mentioned as having anything in the b column, I can’t help but feel that it must be “a.”

  9. That was a good job of ‘Dear Abby’.

    Although I have never ‘cut someone off’ like that I actually know a few people who need to limit if not sever relationships with people in their life, for their own and their children’s health. We all know how much easier it is just to keep the status quo and not make waves so when a line is drawn it is for self-preservation.

  10. She knew what she was doing, and with a child now, she has to focus on that.

    In 7th grade, a girl told me that I should stop talking about my dad like that. Well excuse me, he was (and still is) a major jerk, among other things.

    When I called him up last month, that was probably the first time we’d talked in years. (Yes, I’d been in the same room as him at court but I did a good job of not looking at him.)

    This came after my sister stopped asking me to come with her to his house for Christmas.

    It started before the call, when mom and I were like, yeah my dad helps my sister he pays her car note – well what could he buy for me? hahaha, Bollywood DVDs? hey. wait. He may like Bollywood. Or be open to it.

    Everything has been on my terms – I mean, the schedule is on his because of work, but I called him first. I said how about watching a DVD at your house (we did, it was wonderful). It’s a new relationship – and I don’t know if I’ve forgiven him or if he’s in two parts, mentally, or if I just focus on the future. And we’re seeing a movie Tuesday.

    But yeah, it has to be their idea – I was not forced to do this. And people must respect your decision.

    You can make your own family, especially as an adult. Sometimes those related by blood are part, sometimes they’re not.

  11. My anecdote is not to say that everyone will change their minds and be BFFs with family members that hurt them. Maybe I want to say what happens after – though I must say his relationship with me is nothing like his relationship with my sister.

    The last time I really talked to him (around my 18th birthday in 2006), he’d recently gone back to the church and was like “you’ll find God one day.” He’s never mentioned politics (we disagree on probably everything) or religion. Also, the sign that it’s different, he didn’t say anything to his mother last week when we watched the movie at his house.

    Turns out that was her birthday. He spent the next day, according to my sister, chewing her out for not even calling. Yes, at one point I said I hated her less than I hated Dad, but that’s changed.

    I applaud everyone who has made the difficult decision to cut out a parent, and would support anyone who does so IRL or online.

    Finally, something not about me – Abby’s answer was great (one more letter versus sending her one every week or something) and the issue cuts close to the bone for PWD. Especially if you’re in a situation where you *can’t* cut them out of your life. If I know my body, then I know that I don’t like this relative. It’s all about respect and autonomy.

    Also, I always think of the right thing to say 5 seconds later – not a problem in class, but it is after the post goes through. My deepest apologies.

  12. Abby is right on for the most part here, though I don’t agree with the final letter – at least not another one about the mother anyway. It should be the grandmother saying she is there if Allie wants to communicate with her and that the mother will never be discussed in any of them, however they might occur.

    It is hard to decide to cut someone out of your life, especially family members. When I stopped seeing my abusive father, I basically ended up cutting out the entirety of his family without actually wanting it. What I regret most is that I never got to see my grandmother again after that.

    But yeah, cutting it short, I wish people would respect such a decision to remove a person from one’s life and realise that this decision isn’t taken lightly or on a whim – it usually comes after systematic bullying, abuse, etc.

  13. A million times this. It’s really not a light decision, and I actually think more people would be better off taking that difficult step.

    Reconciliation, or at least an uneasy truce with the offending party, or at least other members of the family is possible for some (like in my case, after a decade), but for others, they’re happier and safer never looking back at any of the mess.

    I still believe family should be who you choose, whether they’re related or not.

  14. In my culture (because people tend to live close to their relatives), there’s a basic, mostly unchallenged assumption that everyone has a large extended family. With that come other assumptions: that you’re close to them; that they’ll give you whatever practical or emotional support you need in any situation… but for some people that’s just not true, in whole or in part.

    But I never had that experience that is supposedly the norm, and there’s been times when I’ve had to sharply debunk it. So many assumptions rest on that one. People assume you’re coping when maybe you’re not. They assume you can do certain things because hey, you have back-up. I don’t put up with that anymore.

    So yes, I’m all for the advice columnist pointing out that being in contact with your relatives is not always in everyone’s best interest, and that people have the right to decide that kind of thing for themselves without pressure or disapproval.

  15. Oh, the hell I’ve caught for actively avoiding certain toxic relatives and their advocates.
    You rock, Abby.

    I do think the “last letter” thing was both to give Grandma some closure and to emphasize that the barrage of letters must stop. On one hand, it’s one more letter for “Allie” to deal with, but on the other hand, it’s the last letter.

  16. Oh, suuuuch good advice. Thank you, Abby. As a child with an abusive parent, it makes me so distraught every time someone suggests I need to forgive my mother or just get over it or I will “regret” having cut her out of my life or all I need to do is be more loving and accepting or WHATEVER it is. It is hurtful to someone who has been victimized by a family member for your entire life, even as a child, to be told it is your fault for not making things right.

    Also, I am guessing Abby read between the lines, and maybe knew the grandmother was either minimizing or didn’t know about the mother’s treatment of the daughter over a very long period of time leading up to the one incident she recounts. It’s rarely just one incident that makes one cut off a family member; it was just that that one incident was the last straw.

  17. I’m a bit of an advice columnist addict, and this is a situation Abby in particular has faced in letters and responded to appropriately before. I know someone who, years ago, had an old Dear Abby from the newspaper clipped out and pinned up by her desk because the letter fit the details of her life so well that her sister could’ve written it. Abby told the letter writer, who wanted her sister to reconcile with their abusive parents, that it was not anyone’s decision but the person who needed to cut off contact. It gave the person I know mental armor to use against her own sister’s attempts to coerce reconciliation.

  18. I am a chronic deleter.

    I have had way too much pain at the hands of people whom I was powerless to cut from my life to allow people who willfully hurt me or my family to remain in my life. If you hurt me, willfully, and I don’t have to allow you to stay in my life, I will not do it. This has been carried out in many relationships, including my immediate family, people whom I thought were good and close friends, and other relationships I do not feel safe mentioning here.

    That is not to say that you can not be forgiven for the transgressions, but it does mean that you will come to me on my terms, and that you will understand that I am not required to forgive you.

    I have been called selfish and stubborn for doing these things, but they have kept me safe(er) and even alive. I call it part of my Aries nature, and even being a good parent, at times. I feel validated by this advice that Abby has given.

  19. Even if the other family members aren’t pressuring someone to be in contact with the offending member, there are other reasons to just avoid the whole family.

    I’m no longer in touch with anyone on my dad’s side of the family (other than the occasional letter to and from my nana who I know is sad I no longer speak to my dad but never brings it up explicitly) because they are all very close and being close to any of them would put me squarely in the middle of the whole fam-damily. Some of those family members are lovely people that I’d enjoy being in touch with, but many of them are highly dysfunctional and of the type I’d choose to avoid even if I didn’t have this situation with my dad. I know that even the letters I write to my nana get passed around the family for all to read, so I know that being in touch with even, say, the really cool cousin that I’ve always liked, would mean my abusive uncle, for instance, would know all of my business. And I just don’t want that.

    It’s sad to me that when my nana is gone, I will miss her funeral. But there is no way I’ll go and be with all of the rest of that side of the family, so I will mourn in my own way far away. And I know they all must wonder about me, at the least, and judge me at the worst, but they were never close to me as a child and very few of them ever reached out to me as an adult, so it doesn’t seem that big of a stretch for me to not be a part of things.

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