Family Boundaries. How not to do them.

I wrote the following on a Captain Awkward thread about supporting parents who are separated/going through difficulties/actually divorced while maintaining your own boundaries. It was at the forefront of my mind at the time because Christmas was coming up and I knew it was going to be awkward. In fact, I had a difficult moment in a mindfulness session when, in paying attention to how my body was feeling, my heart welled up. I was most definitely NOT looking forward to Christmas. At all. I was outright dreading it. Yay holidays! </sarcasm>

Onwards then to what I wrote before Christmas, and after that, what actually happened when I was at home and how I feel about the whole thing.

My parents are trying to work out a divorce settlement after being separated for three years. They’re arguing about the value of the house. The difference in valuations is about twenty grand. That is a lot of money here in England. It’s more than I earn in a year for starters. It’s worse because Mum is keeping the house by buying Dad out with the help of her mother, and as he was the one that left her, she’s expecting recompense. I, obviously, want to smack their heads together and tell them to grow up but they aren’t going to do that any time soon. As it is, I’m in the situation of trying to maintain the boundary of You Do Not Chat Shit to Me about the Other Parent. I do not want to hear about their money troubles. I don’t want to know who they blame for the divorce dragging on (the other, obviously, clearly they’re not responsible at all and they’ve done what the other has asked!) But I also want to support them because I am sad that they are sad. It is HARD.

Also, since it is Christmas, Mum’s mother is coming to stay. Unfortunately she’s recovering from a serious fracture and is the most emotionally manipulative person I know. In other words, she’s going to be demanding.

I also cannot stand her.

My own issues with her, aka Gran, stemmed from how she behaved towards me when Dad first left Mum. It was the first time I’d seen her since Dad moved out and she decided over dinner was the ideal time to begin bad-mouthing my Dad to me. She phrased it in a way that was meant to sound supportive of me but came with undertones of ‘give me all the dirt on your good-for-nothing father so I have something else to hold over your mother’s head’. I shut that one down quick. By sulking. Which did not go down well with Mum once we got home.

But seriously, no-one gets to bad-mouth my parents in front of me, except my two brothers. That’s it. I do NOT want other extended-family members trying to get me to pick sides.

My means of shutting it down were a passive-aggressive mardy strop and refusing to speak to her, for which Mum called me childish. However, it’s a tactic she uses all the time and learned from Gran in the first place! I refused to speak to Gran for months, would not answer her calls or letters and did not go to visit. Eventually I wrote a letter to her saying exactly what she’d done wrong and why it had upset me so much. Writing that letter was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I felt so much guilt, and I dreaded what my mother would say if Gran told her what I’d done because of the ‘We’re faaaaamily’ pressures, with a side helping of ‘we’re the only family she’s got and you’re her only grand-daughter and your brothers don’t see enough of her and refuse to help’. Yay sibling gender dynamics and expectations.

But (and this is where it gets good and shows there is hope!) although Gran never actually apologised either in writing or in person, we did re-open lines of communication after that and now she never tries to bring up Dad or the separation/divorce with me at all. Result! Setting boundaries for the win!

That’s what I wrote before Christmas. Now for the events themselves.

Gran came to stay. We managed to be polite to each other for two days. I coped with it by avoiding her as much as possible while still maintaining plausible deniability, and being super polite the rest of the time. Christmas Day went off without a hitch.

Unfortunately, Mum and Gran fight if they have to spend more than two days together, mainly because Gran expects Mum to be better at mind-reading than it’s possible for any human to be. Therefore when Mum doesn’t anticipate Gran’s wishes precisely, Gran gets all huffy but won’t say what’s wrong. Before you say anything, yes, I know this is completely fucked up. As does Mum. That does not make it any easier to cope with because they’ve been at this game all of Mum’s life, which is nigh on fifty years at this point. Anyway, Mum and Gran went for a walk and came back not speaking to each other.

Mum came into my room, waking me up, and I knew just by looking that something was wrong.  I gave her hugs and enquired as to what the matter was. Apparently Mum had upset Gran by not bringing her a cup of tea first thing in the morning, and also Gran had gotten cold during the night but didn’t want to wake Mum up to get her to put the heating on, blah, blah, blah. Clearly, it’s all Mum’s fault just because Gran refuses to “use her words”. Crap reasons essentially. But then Gran also gave her an earful about the house valuation issue. Which Mum was rightly upset about.

I then got Mum’s side of the story and she was in tears in my arms.

It breaks my heart to see her like that. The man she was with for nearly twenty years walked out on her and now she can’t get shot of him because they’re too busy using their property and belongings as bargaining chips. Which double up as weapons of guilt. It’s been three years already, dragging on like this.

I want to support her.

But I want to support him too.

He’s undoubtedly being an arse.

But she’s also being unrealistic.

And I’m stuck in the middle. Their eldest child. Their only daughter. It hurts me too.

They forget that, often. Or they give lipservice to ‘I don’t want to burden you’ and then they tell me anyway. A massive part of me doesn’t want to know. I can see where they’re both being stubborn and unrealistic, but I can also see the feelings of both parties. I want to knock their heads together and tell them to sit down and talk to each other like adults, but they’ve hurt each other so much that it’s almost impossible at this stage. And we haven’t even mentioned how it affects my brothers, who both live at home in the thick of it. The youngest is avoiding it by being stupidly busy at uni and being generally uncontactable by phone or email. The elder is dealing with it by working his socks off and spending time with his long-term girlfriend and going off on holiday to Europe. He unfortunately doesn’t have the luxury of not being up-to-date with what’s going on like I do, because he’s still at home whereas I’m at the other end of the country (which is not that far because this is England, not the States, but still). So, try as I might to enforce the “Don’t Chat Shit to Me” boundary, it’s not going well. This stuff hurts and is complex and confusing.

Oh and did I mention how Gran tried to enlist my brothers to put pressure on Dad to take Mum’s valuation? Most of me rages that it is none of her goddam business. The other bit points out that as Gran is providing Mum with the money to buy Dad out, she does have a stake in the matter. Either way, her attempting to put pressure on us is completely unacceptable. Emotional manipulation and guilt-tripping of people is not the way to go about anything.

On the other hand, in a few years time, once both my brothers have left home, Mum won’t need a reason to keep a four bedroom, two bathroom, two sitting room house. And it will sell for a lot of money, if not quite as much as they hoped, due to the Recession and all. If it was me, I’d want to move as soon as I could. I’d have too many unhappy memories tied to the place. On the other hand, it’s been her home for nearly a decade. Hell, it’s been my home for the majority of my teenage years and the entirety of my brothers’. It’s not my home any more but it’s still a place I know I can come back to whenever I need to. It hurts, knowing that this era is coming to an end, it really does.

I am not as okay with this as I make out.

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