Ask Bear is an advice column written by S. Bear Bergman. Bear is a busybody know-it-all with many opinions who is only too happy for a sanctioned opportunity to tell you what he thinks you ought to be doing (as well as a writer, storyteller, publisher and activist who enjoys telling educational institutions, health care groups, and portions of government what he thinks they ought to be doing). To submit a question to Ask Bear, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions will remain 100 percent confidential, and may be edited for length.
How in the world do I deal with my family's disapproval surrounding me no longer having a relationship, through my own choice, with my terribly abusive dad?
I am 23 years old. I have a mom and a younger sister. All three of us were subjected to my dad's abuse, my mom most severely—she dealt with the awfulness of typical physical spousal abuse as well as the emotional side. She left us with him when I was 9 and my sister was 6, meaning that we lived with him during the week and her on weekends. It really sucked. He has a particular kind of personality disorder, much more commonly diagnosed in women, which makes him an emotional vampire and also sort of a sociopath.
My mom's family, who all now know of the abuse he's perpetrated, still mostly think I'll reconcile with him in the end, because that's apparently just what families do, and that my refusal to talk to him is still just some silly youthful rebellion thing. My sister is in the same boat, and she and I no longer talk to him and have no plans to in the foreseeable future, but we're both subject to major guilt from my mom's side over this, even though he literally strangled my mom in front of us all the damn time. This point does not seem to get across to them. Even my mom seems wistful for a reunion between her daughters and her ex sometimes.
Neither my sister or I live especially close to all of them now, but this could change as we get older and start procreating, etc. How do I deal with the guilt they give me?
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Dear Brave Correspondent,
I guess you have probably ruled out giving everyone the finger and yelling “Not if I live to be 100,” though I would like to say for the record that I would 100% validate that choice. These people are not behaving well, and they are particularly not displaying any compassion or support towards you, and if it occasionally occurs to you that throwing things might be a way to get your point across I think you probably shouldn’t, but I also wouldn’t blame you a bit.
Here’s the thing, Brave Correspondent: These people are choking on their own guilt. I want to be clear that I am not trying to excuse their bad behavior. However, I don’t actually think all bad behavior is equal. Even if the impact is the same any which way it may help you find an extra inch of patience with them when you need it, and so I will tell you: They are all acutely aware that they did not allow themselves to see what was happening, that they let your mom suffer, and especially that they allowed a situation to persist where you and your sisters suffered. They know, in the deep place where people know things, that they didn’t do what they should have or could have. And so, in order to cope with this brutal knowledge, they have minimized it to absolve themselves of their guilt feelings and shame feelings.
Minimizing is a global tactic, though. It’s not possible to minimize only their portion of an experience or event, they have to minimize/dismiss/disregard all of it. Which means if they’ve convinced themselves that nothing that bad was happening really, then you’re clearly overreacting. It’s easier (for them) to make you and your sister oversensitive or even ungrateful than to accept themselves as culpable in the continued abuse of their loved ones.
So, okay. Still, it leaves us with the question of how you deal with it when people who should be throwing darts at his picture right along with you are giving you the gears about refusing to talk to him? The answer to which, I think, is as gently as you can stand while still being totally on your own side. Because there is no reason in the world you have to ever speak to your father again, unless you want to; he doesn’t deserve anything from you or your sister except possibly a swift kick. Which means you’re going to need some strategies.
My first piece of advice would be to try to recruit someone into the idea that it’s not something you’re ready to discuss for now. This looks like getting your grandmother or one of your elder aunties aside and asking them to please help you take a break from this difficult topic by not discussing it for now. Tell them you’re thinking a lot about it and that you’d be very grateful to them if you could have some time to consider and reflect (pray over, if that’s a thing you can say) your own thoughts about it. Ask them not to bring it up with you for the longest piece of time you think you can get away with: six months? A year? Tell them you need to quiet your own mind on the topic. This is useful in that it has the virtue of being true—you do need quiet in your own mind—but also the value of possibly breaking them of the habit of bringing it up all the damn time.
There may be some short-term value in sticking with neutral statements when this does come up, like “hmmm” and “something to think about…” and so forth. Especially for days when you really just need to get through dinner and don’t have the patience to engage, again. I want to caution, though: They may reduce the escalation of the conversation, but they also allow people to feel comfortable continuing to harangue you on a topic that they have no business speaking on. While it’s the general way of family members to insert themselves and their opinions into one’s business, for sure, it’s also totally legit for you to at least try to draw a very firm boundary—either about not being willing to talk about it for a period of time, or until further notice (you don’t have to tell them that further notice will arrive on or about the next of never).
It’s also possible that these people can’t do even a little bit of their own work, and won’t be able to respect your request for a break from talking about this, and you may need to take a break from seeing them for a while. Families of origin can really suck at recognizing the adulthood and agency of members, especially younger members, and they might just not pay attention to your stated boundaries. If that happens, you might have to enforce them on your end. I can pretty confidently predict that they won’t like it and will probably kick and fuss, but I also feel fairly confident that they will start learning that failure to respect your boundaries has consequences. That can only be good for you in the long run (though it may be spiky and unpleasant for a little while).
Mostly, Brave Correspondent, I want to say that I’m glad you’ve been sticking to your guns and I’m proud of you for not letting yourself get guilted into participating in other people’s idea of how you should react to abuse. The culture around the blaming and shaming of victims, especially women and girls, who have been abused is fearsome and brutal. Women and girls are taught to feel—and act as though they are—culpable for their own mistreatement, worry about everyone else’s feelings about it, act as peacemakers, and so on. Good for you, for holding yourself worth more. Double-good for you for standing up for your own boundaries, even when other people want to pretend things are different than they are. I for one salute you, Brave Correspondent, and I hope every good thing for you in the future—in this and in all things.
Love and courage,