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Toxic Family Ties

Toxic Family Ties

By Amalah

Dear Amalah,

Introductions first. I’m a first-time mother with a wonderful husband, a ten month old son, and an extended family which takes the whole “it takes a village” thing literally. We moved in with my aunt and uncle for a year when I was a kid after my parents divorced and they, and my grandparents, and my great aunt and uncle, pretty much helped raise me and my sister.

All of which might help explain why I’m not willing to walk away even though I’m at the point of pulling out my hair.

Trouble started at the beginning of this year when my aunt and uncle decided they were seperating. No affair apparently, no big reason, just my uncle was “sick of the bickering”. He moved out a couple of months ago. However, despite the fact that there is no big reason, they haven’t stopped being at each other’s throats since January, and none of us are allowed to not take sides (despite telling them repeatedly we won’t).

The problem is they helped my mum when she got divorced, and they’ve helped us a lot of times since, and now she feels obliged to help them no matter what. So, she’s ending up in the middle of such conflicts as my aunt calling her crying because my uncle came around to get something and was horrible to her, to which my uncle responded that he was going to be nice but he walked in and she had an expression on that said she wanted a fight so he gave her one. Now we’re ALL sick of the bickering (THANKS, GUYS!). You can’t visit my aunt without knowing what’s happening or how she’s planning on hiding money. Telling her to stop because I don’t want to hear this just results in a long detailed story about why her actions are justified. Meanwhile, my uncle is apparently refusing to talk to anyone about it, including my aunt who still doesn’t know if he wants her to sell the house.

The latest escalation is that my aunt decided the day my grandmother got back from vacation was the appropriate day to tell her that she didn’t feel she was supporting her properly in the divorce. My grandmother cried. My mother stepped in to talk to her and my uncle. According to my younger sister (who still lives with my mum and is really sick of all of this) she got in at 7PM, and then she cried. I called my aunt this morning to see if maybe she could lay off my mum and consider outside mediation. She said she couldn’t deal with me and cried. I hung up, and I cried. SO MUCH CRYING.

If I had the option to tell them both I loved them but I wouldn’t deal with them while they were being idiots, I would. However, my mum is refusing to walk away and my sister and I are honestly scared that if we leave her to deal with this alone she might have a breakdown. Meanwhile, I’m getting more stressed than I need to with a teething baby to deal with (stress insomnia is seriously not what I need right now), and starting to have flashbacks to my own parents’ messy divorce. I’ve investigated mediation services in the area and sent them Facebook links begging them to go, but I’m fighting against the tide here because my mother is convinced outside services will take all their money (they’ll cost, certainly, but currently the pair of them are spending money so the other person won’t get it). I wouldn’t mind so much if I even thought Mum was helping, but I feel like she’s just being used as an emotional punchbag while they both keep refusing to actually sort anything out.

Amalah, help me. What do I do?

Okay. Let me see if I’ve got this cast of characters right: We have at least two adults who are refusing to act like grown-ass adults, another adult who who is allowing other adults to treat her like a doormat while not-so-subtly enabling the whole toxic situation, and two younger adults who see what needs to be done but 1) can’t really do much of anything, because again, you can’t force other (GROWN-ASS) adults to sack up and do the right thing, and because 1) oh my God, there is so much obligation-fueled guilt and emotional blackmail being misinterpreted as familial love and loyalty that I can’t even begin with that part yet.

Lady, you need to walk away. You’ve tried. No one could ever (from this side of sanity, at least) claim that you did not try. But you need to get yourself and your baby away from this horrible, toxic situation. You can’t fix this. You can’t help this. You can only get dragged deeper in, like your mother has. You can see how she’s being used, and how her guilt over past help from your aunt and uncle is making her feel like she has no choice but to…I don’t even know! Get yelled at? Get belittled and guilted and used as a pawn because two really unhappy people have decided to go all War of the Roses on each other?

“But they were good to me once, so now I’m obligated to let them emotionally manipulate and abuse me forever!”

Is that how you want your son to see you someday?

Harsh, I know. I know! And I also know that when you’re really IN a situation like this, it’s different. And it’s really, really hard and you probably feel like oh, maybe I didn’t explain things enough, because I really can’t walk away because FAMILY and the PAST and TIES, and also a deep need to feel like I can fix things, I can fix everything, and I just need to figure out how to fix everything before all my hair falls out and I snap and maybe lose my temper at my own child or husband or spend too many more nights crying on the couch. Please tell me how to magically fix things, please?

I agree with you that your mom is not helping. Her response to your (EXCELLENT) mediation suggestion is pretty much exhibit A that she is complicit/enabling this situation, or stuck in her role as martyr — “Oh, that won’t fix anything and isn’t even worth trying. And now I’ve tried nothing and I’m all out of ideas, because it’s just all so awful and let me tell you all about what she said and what he did, so I can do to you exactly what they’re doing to me, because I want you to take my side, and we can make this divorce’s effects cross multiple generations! YAY!”

So here’s what walking away should look like, more or less:

You and your sister have a sit-down with your mom. You will have a prepared letter that you will read aloud, detailing your love and fears for her, your wish for her to release herself from her obligation to these people — functional families do things for each other out of love, no strings attached, and believe me, LOVE HAS LEFT THE BUILDING here — and remind her that again, these are two GROWN-ASS ADULTS who need to sort this mess out themselves, and that there is no magical fix or divorce-balm-fairy-dust. Only a layer of toxic sludge that is figuratively threatening to consume you all. I suggest writing this all ahead of time because it’s obviously highly emotional, and having a piece of paper lets you set the ground rule that she’s not allowed to interrupt you with explanations and defenses. Have your sister write one too, especially since she’s still at home and has even fewer options for escaping the drama.

And that’s it. After that, I want you to find yourself a really good, understanding family therapist and start going. Maybe have an open invitation for your mom and sister to attend, but only if you can do that while also releasing yourself of the obligation to MAKE them attend, to MAKE them take care of themselves. Because you cannot. Your primary obligations right now are to take care of your son and your marriage. And real talk: You cannot take care of either of those things if you are not taking care of yourself.

As for your aunt and your uncle, I’d just go full on NOPE NOPE NOPE with them. They’re past a family intervention at this point and clearly, desperately need professional help. Stop visiting. Screen phone calls. Your foot is put DOWN, HARD. If you’re feeling particularly strong and feisty (post-therapy appointment or kickboxing workout, maybe?) at some point in the future, call them, tell them one last time that you are not taking sides, that BOTH of their behavior is reprehensible and tearing the family apart, and you will not be part of it anymore. Once they are in mediation or doing SOMETHING to actively work through…all of it, they can contact you again. Until then, they can see baby photos on Facebook or something. (While you mute them both completely on your end.)

Yes, they will probably run right to your mother and tell her that you are being awful and ungrateful and all that. Which SHOULD be a secondary lesson for your mom that hey! My daughter is also a GROWN-ASS adult whose behavior I cannot control, nor should I bear the emotional responsibility and guilt for her behavior just because of “family” or whatever. I SENSE A THEME HERE.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Raquel

    June 16, 2014 at 11:58 am

    I would also suggest reading Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud. This book really helped me to see how others often make their problems yours. It really helped me and I cannot recommend it enough. 

  • MR

    June 16, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    I just want to second what Amy said. OP, you said you don’t want to just walk away, and I want to make sure you understand that setting appropriate boundaries is NOT walking away. It is saying, “I would love to spend time with you, if you have appropriate behavior.” Then it is THEIR choice as to whether they will walk away. They want to be childish and start bad mouthing, whining, and complaining, “Nope, we aren’t doing that. You need to leave.” Then REPEAT, REPEAT, REPEAT until they learn that they need to act like adults around you.

    • IrishCream

      June 16, 2014 at 1:25 pm

      That’s a really good point. You’re not abandoning them, or your mom. You’re just saying that you won’t get involved in this particular issue, and if you need to end a phone call or a visit abruptly sometimes to protect yourself, then they’ll learn to not bring up those topics.

    • Tiffany

      June 16, 2014 at 2:01 pm

      Indeed. Setting boundaries with family behaving like children isn’t abandonment any more than setting boundaries with actual children is. We set boundaries with children BECAUSE we love them. Same with adults. 

      • Michelle

        June 17, 2014 at 3:54 pm

        I second what Tiffany said, this is precisely what I was thinking while reading along.

  • Cassie

    June 16, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    Yes, yes, yes to all of Amalah’s and other’s comments! My inlaws have been going through a contentious divorce (while still living together!!!) for over 5 years now. It’s so very hard for my husband but he’s learned that he needs to just shut them down whenever they start talking about the other or the situation. It’s not at all easy and it definitely hurts him, but it’s the only way to cope so that HIS life is not consumed with their toxic situation. Please be sure to take care of YOURSELF and don’t be afraid to lean on your husband for support!

  • Elizabeth Williams

    June 16, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    I would just add this: Staying involved isn’t helping. It’s not helping and it’s hurting you and your mom and sister. So why would you stay involved? I totally get the guilt you feel at the thought of walking away but you’re not equipped to fix the situation.

    If your uncle was getting heart surgery, you wouldn’t insist on being in the operating room because you’re not a surgeon and you could possibly make things worse. This is the same– they need professional help and it’s not you.

  • Tami

    June 16, 2014 at 5:21 pm

    Yes, yes, yes. To everything Amalah said. I have nothing to add other than good luck and I hope for everyone’s sake they get the hint and grow up already.

  • Lauren

    June 17, 2014 at 10:15 am

    First: Go buy the book “Co-Dependent No More” by Melody Beattie. Go now. Then read it. And then read it again. Then give it to your mother to read. 

    It’s terrible that you have to go through this, and I think Amy’s advice about you and your sister confronting your mother is spot on. Your decision to remove yourself, your husband and your son from this situation is being made with love, not malice. You and your sister need to be prepared for the backlash that will most likely result from this and tough it out. I can understand your feelings of obligation and your mother’s feelings as well…but I’m willing to bet that if this situation had been occurring while you and your sister were children, your mother would removed you from it. You need to do that now, for your son. Do it before he is old enough to become aware of the tension and be upset by the arguing and crying. Babies are much more aware of things than we think they are, so stress that if your aunt and/or uncle can’t pull themselves together, they will NOT be permitted to see your son. I know you feel a sense of obligation to your family, but as a mother, the well-being of your son has to trump everything. Good luck!

  • Kat

    June 17, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    Agree with pretty much all that is said above. My MIL does this thing where she constantly brings my SIL and BIL’s problems up to my husband. She sends cryptic text messages and hints that there are “issues in their marriage” and that “she’s not sure how much longer they will be together”. It is infuriating to me, and just reminds me of how people that dwell on problems/drama become toxic, even when the problem isn’t necessarily their own. Now, my MIL’s behavior is intended to get attention, which I don’t think is what your mom is doing…but at a certain point you have to wonder if this drama is starting to eclipse the healthy, normal conversations you could be having with each other. The stuff like “my son is teething, I’m so tired! Come over and cook me dinner, mom!” is missing. Maybe your letter could be about that, if you miss that type of positive, normal interaction with your mom. I think people forget how long it’s been since they had a nice, calm conversation just focused on the good stuff. Like a 10 month old baby and what it’s like to be a new mom 🙂