Monday, November 14, 2022

Estrangement Isn't All That Strange

Turns out that about 1 in 4 people have a family member they don't talk to.  Why is this?

A recent study and book from Cornell (Caution: Anything from Ithaca, New York is always suspect!) claims that 27% of people surveyed (and you know how I feel about surveys!  Surveys are NOT science!) claim that they no longer talk to one or more family members.  I think that number is low, quite frankly.

Why is this?  And is there anything wrong with that?  The answer to the second question is easy: NO.  You have to live your own life, not the life your parents, grandparents, and siblings think you should live.  If that means going your own way, so be it.  The people you knew for the first 18 years of your life should not dictate the remaining decades.  It's OK to move on, if people don't fit into your life anymore - or if they are actively trying to sabotage it.

The book posits that this is a "problem hiding in plain sight" but I don't think it is necessarily a "problem" at all.  What is a problem is busybody researchers claiming you should reconcile with your abusers or be pals with family members you have nothing in common with.  Family is NOT everything, except maybe for the first 18 years of your life.  And even then....

But why do people go "NC" (No Contact) with family members?  In looking at comments accompanying the article as well as the experiences of my own family as well as that of others, there appear to be a number of reasons, some inter-related and in many instances, there is more than one reason involved.

Abandonment: Some commentators mentioned that family members felt abandoned when someone goes off to college, joins the Army, or gets a job in a distant city.  "You left me behind to fend for myself!" cries a fully-grown adult who can fend for themselves.  In their mind, the errant family member should have stayed in their hometown, to support other family members or be a buddy, or just an audience for their lives.

Mark and I both have (or had) sisters who felt this way.  Being the oldest, they were the center of attention in the family.  They graduated from high school first, graduated from college first, got a job first, and got married first.  We all went to their graduations and were members of the wedding party.  When I graduated from college, no one bothered to come at all - or even send a card.  Funny how that works.  I guess after four kids, it is like getting excited about Christmas after 50 years.  Been there, done that!

So our sisters had children - which was apparently like splitting the atom.  And they got a lot of attention for that as well.  Everyone gathered 'round their house for holidays and to see the new baby.  But of course, as they got older, our sisters merited less attention from the family.   You reach middle-age and life just sort of goes on.  Meanwhile baby brother - that little shit whose diapers you changed only a few years ago - is now at college in a remote city and doing well.  Then they get a job in a remote city and don't visit as often.  They have their own life to live and can no longer be an audience for sister's life.

And the sisters get upset and pout.  The funny thing is, of course, that none of this is expressed outright, it just builds up as a smoldering resentment.  And before long, they are badmouthing you and saying nasty things behind your back and when you do go to visit, it is awkward as all get out.  So you visit less and less.  You've moved on with your life - and you have your own life to live.  You can't be an audience for someone else's life forever!

Abuse:  Abuse comes in all shapes and forms, from basic physical abuse (beatings, violence) to sexual abuse, to psychological abuse, to financial abuse, and even identity abuse.   The latter is a favorite of fundamentalists, apparently, who give birth at home and then never bother to get a birth certificate for their child.  In order to get the birth certificate, the parents have to sign an affidavit, which of course they refuse to do unless the child comes back to the fold and rejoins their hateful church.  People are sick, and fundamentalists are the sickest of them all.

And this is where books, like the one above, are cruel.  Well-meaning busybodies posit that "family is everything!" and you should apologize to people who abused you and then hope they take you back on their terms.  Why, in God's name, why?

Abusive relationships can't be patched up like the cover of the book above shows.   You can't expect someone to "forgive" and then hang out with a family member who raped them.  The best thing they can do for themselves is move on with life and be happy - and not try to reconstruct some sort of ersatz Hallmark Family Thanksgiving.

The same is true for psychological abuse.  Your parent or sibling tells you, for 18 years, that you are a worthless piece of shit.  Where is that relationship going?  Nowhere, fast.  The daytime talk shows are full of tearful family reunions, where people say, "I love you man!  I am so sorry we drifted apart!"  But that is television, not reality.

Financial abuse - little talked about - can also be devastating to the individual.  Parents will steal inheritances from children - money left to a grandchild from a grandparent is intercepted by Mom and Dad who need to pay off their gambling debts.   Or take any one of these child actors - in almost every case, their parents looted  the money they earned, and the child, once 18, has to sue his own parents to get back even a pittance.  They even passed a law about this - Coogan's Law - but it has little or no effect if parents want to break it, and the children are too young to understand their rights.

Of course, in many situations, multiple forms of abuse occur at once, and that makes it even worse.

Moving On:  As you get older, you should move on from your birth family and start your own.  You leave home at age 18-21 and find your own mate in life.  Maybe you get married and settle down and raise children of your own.  This becomes the centerpiece of your life, not your birth family.

Sadly, many today don't see it this way.  They cling to Mom and Dad and Brother and Sis, and their spouse is running a distant fifth place.  Such marriages usually end in divorce, or at the very least, bitter unhappiness.  When your Mother-in-Law is the tie-breaking vote, and she always sides with your spouse (or more precisely, your spouse always sides with her), you will always be outvoted in everything.  You will not matter.

A marriage should be a 50/50 proposition - between husband and wife.  But you'd be surprised how many people think otherwise.

As you move on with life and form your own family, your birth family fades into obscurity.  Mark and I have been together for 35 years now - almost twice as long as I lived with my family, growing up.  As each year passes, memories of my family life growing up get dimmer and dimmer.  What is important to me is my life now with Mark, not some distant memories (often uncomfortable ones) about growing up.

It's OK to move on and live your own life.

Nothing In Common:  I mentioned before that sometimes, as you and your siblings leave the nest and seek out your own lives, you tend to go in different directions.  You may adopt different political beliefs, or may develop different personalities.  You may discover - and this is perfectly normal - that you just don't like one or more family members.  If these were people you met on the street or at work or whatever, you would be polite to them, but not consider them friendship material or invite them home for dinner.  Why would you do that with someone merely because you shared some DNA with them? And let's face it, we all share a lot of DNA with each other.

My hippie brother, for example, liked to run down my career choices.  I "sold out to the man" by working for GM and UTC - and becoming a lawyer (the shame of it all!).  Of course, it might have been sour grapes at work as well - he was living in an unheated barn, and I had a 401(k) and a new car.  Nah, it couldn't have been that!

I'm as liberal as the next guy, but my brother was a wacky liberal.  He looked around the world and didn't see a plethora of nations, each with its own needs and wants and form of government - and each competing with the other to scratch out a living.  No, rather he saw the world as a series of malfeasant acts performed by the evil United States.  No matter what the situation or what the country, it was all our fault that things were going wrong.  The great Pacific garbage patch?  Must be slovenly Americans tossing their Wal-mart plastic bags into the sea! (No, it isn't - it is third-world countries dumping their old fishing gear, which, unlike in developed countries, is made from non-degradable plastics).

This is not to say America is always right, but I just think when you "Blame America First" you fail to take into consideration that people in general are assholes and we are not the only assholes in the planet.  What was worse, was that my brother idolized governments in Cuba, Venezuela, the Soviet Union, and China - he really thought Communism was some sort of answer to a question no one was asking.  And as for the millions killed and tortured under Communist rule?  Well, if you want to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs, right?  We didn't agree on that point at all.

In his mind, what America did was far worse.  How do you "get along" with someone like that?  Why would you want to?  It would just be a series of awkward encounters, where you had to agree to talk about nothing but the weather.   If I met a stranger with similar views, I wouldn't talk to them at all!

The same is true of other political extremists.  People give up on inviting the drunken uncle to Thanksgiving because he wears his MAGA hat to the dinner table and picks on his goth niece.  He starts an argument about how the election was stolen and everyone ends up in a bad mood.  Why inflict this on yourself?

Oh, right, family is everything.

Strangers To Begin With:  I am the youngest in my family, so when I was growing up, I didn't see a lot of my older sister and brother, who went away to boarding schools when I was six or seven, and were in college by the time I was ten.  Their bedrooms were empty mausoleums or museums to their earlier lives.  In fact, when we moved back to New York, they never really moved in to their rooms in our new house, which remained largely impersonal.  There were only a few old record albums, a couple of posters, and a pair of socks in the dresser to let you know they visited once.  They had graduated and moved on with life - as they should (and I never accused them of "abandoning" me, either!  You see how that argument is used as a one-way street!).

So we were never that close - it is hard to be close to siblings that are so much older or younger than you.  It is not like you are going to "hang out" with an 8-year-old brat, when you are trying to smoke dope and maybe get laid, with your teenage friends.  I don't blame them one bit for that!

And this is not a bad thing, either.  My eldest brother also wasn't what you'd call "Mr. Personality" - I think he had that (physicaly and emotionally)


beaten out of him by my Dad, who viewed him (and all of us) as bitter disappointments.  My brother was always reserved and held back, and like to make quiet snarky comments from the bleacher seats.  Mr. Warmth he was not.  And I think he tried, on occasion, to be a big brother, but was never comfortable with the role, particularly since we were so much younger and - let's face it - spoiled brats.  Can't blame him for that!

And I am not blaming him.  We never had a relationship as siblings so why would anyone expect one to blossom spontaneously?  He has his own life and lifestyle and I have mine.  I am glad he is doing well, but I have no need or want for some awkward visit.  It would just be uncomfortable all around.

There are probably 100 other valid reasons why people don't talk to family members.  I recounted before my Mother's alcoholism and how we had to set ground rules for family visits.  She would get drunk and go into a fugue state and all hell would break loose.   You can't blame anyone from saying "no thanks!" to drug addiction or alcoholism - which often accompany one of the forms of abuse outlined above.

There are, of course, healthy normal families out there (so I am told, anyway) where Mom and Dad are not divorced three times, and everyone gets along just swell.  "My Dad is my best friend!" the son says, "We go fishing together once a month!"   Sister loves to go shopping with Mom, who treats her not as a daughter, but a "BFF!"

Maybe that exists on planet bizzarro.  Maybe not.  One of the problems plaguing many families is that parents never want to let go of the control they have over their children, and feel betrayed when children seize control of their own lives - and view their parents as peers and not superiors.  Oh, they hate that, let me tell you!

Living here on retirement island, I see it all.  We have some folks move down here and their sister and brother-in-law move down as well.  They live only a few blocks apart, and yet haven't talked to each other in years.  I know people in their 70's, scared to death of their 90-something-year-old parents.  One queer look or snide comment from Momma will send them into a funk lasting for days.  When do they get to live their own lives?  Sadly, some never do - either they predecease their parents, or even after their parents die, the children still obsess about their parent-child relationship.

My late sister fell into this trap - and women seem more prone to this.  She would read books like, My Mother, Myself so she could "understand" better her relationship with our Mother.  Mother was an alcoholic bi-polar, manic-depressive closeted Lesbian with severe depression and a penchant for knife play when drunk (which is to say, after noon).  What was there to understand?  Stabbing techniques? 

Sadly, my sister spent a lot of her short life trying to "figure out" Mom, and as I reported before, wanted to spend her vacation staging an intervention for Mother.  I told her that was a shitty idea of a vacation.  What was really sad was her life was a train wreck as well - yet she felt the number one priority was to set Mom straight and that would fix everything.

You know, it isn't bad to be "selfish" and take care of yourself - it is not only a good idea, it is a social responsibility.  So many people sacrifice their lives on the altar of "family" and then decades later, wonder where their life went and are resentful of those who were strong enough to walk away from abusive relationships and move on.  And you can, you know!

But it ain't easy.  And books like the one above, whose premise that "fractured families" need to be "fixed" isn't helping, either.  A young woman has the courage to leave home, start her new life, and move away from her sexual abuser.  And some clever psychologist (which is NOT a science) throws it back in her face.  "You need to reconcile with your family!  Why not try family counseling!  I only charge $150 an hour!  You have insurance, right?"  Financial abuse indeed.

Sometimes, the mentally healthy thing to do is move on, live your own life, and be happy, or better yet, content.  Trying to "fix" people and relationships that are too far gone is like trying to restore a car that is just a pile of rusted parts.  It isn't worth the effort and frustration and odds are, it won't work out.

Rather than castigating people for moving on and moving away, we should celebrate their success and courage.  This isn't a "problem" hiding in plain sight, at all.  It is the solution.