Hi Captain Awkward!
I came out to my parents about 3 years ago, when I was still living with them before moving abroad to start my PhD. They were horrible – and it made the next 6 months of my stay a traumatizing experience, to say the least. I think you could describe my parents as controlling, and when I came out there was a lot of ‘we HATE all the career choices you’ve made, but we had the goodness to tolerate them, and now this!’ Anyway. Moved out, moved countries, got a fuckload of therapy, and started the process of healing.
I told my mother (via a text) that I was moving in with my girlfriend and she freaked out. She is “devastated”, and my father, with whom I have not had an actual conversation since my coming out (made summer visits home real fun, if you can believe it), is “furious, and wants to disown you”. I… am not sure how to cope with this? The worst part is that I have a ticket home to visit them for nearly a month, in three weeks. Captain, I’m not sure I want to visit them (for three whole weeks!) after this terrific display of parenting. At the same time, I’m pretty sure that not visiting them will be taken as this huge display of disrespect and an indication that I *want* to be estranged from them. So the options are to either stay away for my own peace of mind and be a bad daughter, possibly irrevocably so, or to grit my teeth and spend 3 weeks at home enduring silent disapproval at best and emotionally abusive confrontations at worst.
Like I said, I don’t have a relationship with my father. My mother is the one I speak to on the phone and text with. I told her “I’m sad and disappointed that you feel this way about my moving in with my girlfriend. I don’t feel safe coming back to visit you, and I don’t think you’d feel comfortable either.” She replied and the preview contains another allusion to my disappointing career (for the record, worked at a non-profit, doing a PhD now, only a failure insofar as “not earning hundreds of thousands as a corporate lawyer” is a failure) and… I haven’t seen the rest of it because I get avoidant when I’m anxious. Do you have any scripts for like… how to respond and how to navigate what may potentially be a long, torturous process of becoming (formally) (even more) estranged from my parents?
P.S. My pronouns are she/her!
P.S. Just wanted to give a heads-up that you’re almost definitely going to recommend therapy, which I know is a big part of the answer! The most recent therapist I had didn’t really work for me, and since I’m moving in 2 weeks, I might not have a huge amount of time / resources to devote to finding a new therapist.
Dear Pretty Great Kid,
I confess, I want to embroider a sampler for all of the homophobic and transphobic parents in the world. It will say “Kindly get in the fucking sea.”
How fucking dare they.
How dare they talk about “disowning” you as if “owning” you was something they get to do in the first place.
How dare they act as if there is a mold fitted with the exact specifications for “daughter” that you were supposed to climb into so you could have the inconvenient parts of yourself, the parts called “gay” and “made a slightly different career choice than they hoped for” sheared off, how dare they act as if that is the price of being loved and being part of your family.
How dare they treat their love for you like an audition that you have to pass. How dare they act like you are in danger of failing it.
How dare they respond to your good news, the news that you are in love and happy, with disapproval and threats.
Can your parents possibly, possibly, possibly be more disappointed in you, I wonder, than I am disappointed in them at this moment? (No)
What a poisonous, empty love they offer you if these are its terms.
Let’s talk about this proposed trip. I hope I’m reaching you in time to cancel it.
I think your text to your mom about the trip was perfectly stated: “I’m sad and disappointed that you feel this way about my moving in with my girlfriend. I don’t feel safe coming back to visit you, and I don’t think you’d feel comfortable either.” You were honest, clear, and specific, you shared your feelings and acknowledged hers without taking those on as your problem.
Let’s talk about your understanding of the dilemma the trip creates. You write: “I’m pretty sure that not visiting them will be taken as this huge display of disrespect and an indication that I *want* to be estranged from them. So the options are to either stay away for my own peace of mind and be a bad daughter, possibly irrevocably so, or to grit my teeth and spend 3 weeks at home enduring silent disapproval at best and emotionally abusive confrontations at worst.”
You’re not wrong, that is exactly the dilemma that your parents are setting up for you: “Either return home as scheduled and submit to our abuse and grovel for our approval, or know that if we write you off forever we get to blame it on your latest failure to perform filial piety and tell ourselves it’s what you wanted all along.”
You’re not wrong but also: It’s a trap. Accepting this dilemma at face value means accepting that you are at fault somehow for [checks notes] being an adult human who is happily in love with another human, pursuing graduate studies at the highest level of your chosen field, and not presenting yourself as scheduled so that your parents can download all their fears and bigotries in person instead of from a safe (distant) distance.
Listen, there’s nothing quite like flying a very long way at your own expense to visit people who think they get to be mean to you about who you are, while the knot of dread in your stomach rises until it’s a whole elaborate braided dreadloaf that fills your torso the entire trip because you know something terrible is going to happen but you don’t know exactly when or what. Will it start on the ride from the airport, when you’re trapped alone in a car and there’s plenty of time for the person to unload all their stored disappointments on you without witnesses? Or will everyone be nice for a few days and lull you into the idea that this time it’s going to be okay, maybe they are changing, maybe you can survive it, and then, SLAM, there it is, the vitriol and deep disappointment that they’ve been saving up for you all this time? Or will it wait until the last day of the visit, the way people in a long-distance romances pick the fights they’ve been saving up all weekend to make the parting easier? Once I stood (Unless we’re in the car I’m almost always standing when it happens, the other person is seated comfortably and I’m standing there in attendance like a messenger who just ran in with important news for the King and can’t sit or leave until the Royal Decree is handed down) while a relative unloaded their saved disappointment on me only this time I spaced out completely, just looked out the window and didn’t really listen to the words (there was nothing new, I’d wager) and when asked What I Had To Say For Myself I said “Hmmmm, interesting, and you’re always wondering why I don’t visit more often” and they were sincerely and honestly shocked. And like, WOUNDED. How could I say THAT? How could I imply that how they treated me whenever I visited might have anything to do with how often I would want to visit in the future? And then I watched them, I watched them do it in real time, I watched them make me The Bad Guy in the story, the mean, ungrateful child who threatened them with estrangement when they were just trying to help me stop being such a loser. Because that’s what Love looked like to them, me standing still while they (metaphorically speaking by my 30s, at least, thanks for small favors) licked their hand and aggressively smoothed my hair down to make me more presentable for [church][representing their class and parenting aspirations to an invisible but highly critical audience][who the fuck even knows].
You don’t have to do it. You don’t have to go. If you stay home with your girlfriend and the family rift widens (the rift that is already definitely here) after that, your parents might try to sell you and the rest of your family the story that it was you who caused the rift and that you can fix it any time you want to [by climbing into the Daughter-Mold-O-Rama][by taking your medicine i.e. their verbal abuse and neglect][a series of impossible fairy-tale tasks like spinning straw into gold that are never meant to be completed, they exist only to place you into a state of permanent failure and pre-emptive apology]. Somebody who tells you that their love for you can only be found if you travel east of the sun and west of the moon isn’t planning on you making a successful quest.
If you submit to your parents’ terms, if you decide what the hell, you’ll peel off your beautiful selkie-skin and hide it under a rock or trade your voice to the Sea Witch so that you can stealthily pass for what your family defines as human for a couple of weeks — and a lot of people do submit, under threat of escalating violence, out the very real fear that being ‘disowned’ means homelessness, worrying that that “rebellion” means being ostracized from any and all family connections, or because disability, inadequate safety nets, and/or legal discrimination against queer people force a choice between abusive care-taking and no care-taking at all, or even because you still love your parents so much and you need a temporary break from being the Lost Lamb of the family and want to feel like the Prodigal One for a minute, please know: If you’re out there reading this from inside the un-safety of the Mold-O-Rama because all the other options are even less safe, I see you, friend and I need you to know that your choice to try to preserve an unfair and difficult relationship doesn’t make them right about you.
If you decide to take the trip after all, Letter Writer, please think hard about your own comfort and safety. Can you stay with Not Your Parents (siblings, friends, other relatives, a hotel)? Can you make sure you have your own local transport so you can leave situations whenever you want to? Can you cut the parent-part of the visit short and spend most of the time visiting friendlier faces? Can you recruit local “buffers” (old friends, supportive siblings, extended family, etc.) to help you be alone with your parents less than usual, possibly not at all? Do you need [noise-cancelling headphones][pharmaceutical assistance][a code word to text to a safe nearby person which means “extract me immediately”]? All I ask, as you build this logistical moat and human chain of protective kindness and the expenses and inconveniences start to total up, can you do me a favor and at least think about chucking the whole thing and running off somewhere relaxing with your wonderful girlfriend or a stack of books you’ve been meaning to read or literally a potato with googly eyes on it (the potato, unlike your parents, is guaranteed not to be mean to you).
You don’t have to go. If you go, you don’t have to accept being mistreated as a condition of belonging to your family. If they are mean to you, you get to leave. If relations deteriorate even further, you are not to blame, additionally, please know that making the other choice would not have fixed it.
As for the long run, I don’t know what your parents will do. I can’t promise you it will get better than it is right now, though I can tell you a true story about how, in my middle age, I’ve stopped standing for Why Are You So Disappointing? oral exams and I’ve mostly stopped being subjected to them. I’ve written about that long, messy process a lot here, both directly and indirectly, probably this is the best distillation of it.
As a cisgender woman whose career failures and your-body-is-the-wrong-size disappointments were stacked so deep that I never even bothered pulling out the one marked “lazy, occasional bisexuality with a hetero-romantic curse” where my family could see it, I’m not going to pretend that my struggles have ever been on par with people navigating the kind of parental disappointment that is backed up on an institutional level by churches and governments, but I think that some of the emotional territory is at least recognizable. Here are some of the lessons I try to pass on in case they are useful to someone else navigating the possibility of family estrangement or redrawing of boundaries:
Your parents have choices about how they treat you. If they choose to lead with disappointment, criticism, bigotry, and threats, if they demand unconditional love from you but make their love conditional on your achievements and conformity to their idea of you (at the expense of the wonderful, kind, loving, thoughtful, actual, living, breathing child they are lucky enough to have had accidentally wash up in their family and were lucky enough to have the care and feeding of), that’s their mistake and their loss. You can’t “fail” at being yourself.
Estrangement is painful but it can be a great equalizer. Sometimes staying away for a good long while and severely limiting the Permanently Disappointed Parent’s access to you is the only language they understand and respond to, because it’s the one thing that reshapes the balance of power. “I can live with your disappointment if I have to, but I won’t subject myself to your mistreatment anymore.” Does “You can’t fire me, I already quit” feel childish, and selfish, and like you deeply wish you could be a bigger person than this, and all the yucky things your parents will accuse you of being if you were to say those words out loud? HELL YEAH. I mean, you’re only going against everything your family and culture have ever taught you was the Most Important Thing, Ever, what do you want, a parade? Lots of people who don’t know your life will try to tell you that you are making a mistake and that you just need to try harder. When that happens, come find me, I’ll throw you your parade, the one called “Holding onto yourself in the face of a mean family is difficult and brave work, well done.” We have glitter, and floats, and EXCELLENT costumes.
It might get *better* without ever getting *fixed.* “Do you want peace or do you want justice?” is a question I often ask, when reading letters here, when navigating my own complicated situations. What is it worth it to me to excavate the past right now and receive answers for what happened there (answers that might never satisfy me because the person does not have the self-awareness or the capacity to process what really happened) vs. what is it worth to me to leave the past alone in order to have the most peaceful possible interaction in the present (Is it possible to create a history of positive interactions moving forward and push the negative ones further back?) Therapy (which I agree is useful but not something that can be implemented swiftly or is the most important thing right now, dear Letter Writer) has one of the places to sort this out, to sift through the pile of what I need vs. what I am owed vs. what can I reasonably expect vs. what can I safely live with, to grieve for the missing pieces and start to learn to show the kindness and acceptance for myself that all human beings crave and deserve.
Your family is not a monolith and your parents do not have the only say in your belonging there. Do some families absolutely enable their worst members, band together against uncomfortable truths, and punish anyone, including victims of abuse, who threaten the status quo aka their extremely fragile but necessary belief that We Are All Completely Normal And Okay And Nobody (Especially Me) Did Anything Wrong Here, Why Are You Insisting On Ruining Everything By Bringing Up Ancient History (Like A Glaring History Of Sexual Abuse) Or Inconveniently Recent Nazi Leanings? Yes. Unfortunately yes. All the fucking time. Disappointingly, yes. I’m never gonna tell people that real and depressing risks around this don’t exist, but I’m also not going say that your only path is to give up and let the worst person in your family define all the terms of it, forever, like the final boss in a video game that you have to defeat before there’s a seat for you at the holiday table.
To counter this narrative specifically, I would advise people to not let the meanest people in your family get away with the idea that they speak for everyone and that their personal disappointment in you is a matter of settled group consensus. If a family member tells you “Plus, everyone agrees with me that gay people are icky ” I’d be pretty quick to ask, “Well, who is this Everyone and can I talk to them directly about that? If that’s how they feel they can say it to my face, otherwise I’m not going to assume that everyone is as hateful and shriveled as you, how odd, why would I insult them that way.” You don’t have to follow through with a “Do you think I have the right to exist y/n” investigation with the relatives, mind you, just stop and think before you accept that someone who is acting like they hate you is a) the boss of what you are supposed to be like or b) the sole gatekeeper to where you get to belong. (“Self-appointed truth-tellers who only say mean stuff” make up a large amount of my true enemies on this planet, please shelter here in my grudge-shack a moment while we discuss how deeply awful they are.)
“‘Forever’ is a long time, Sally.” That’s a quote from Mr. Awkward’s intensely quotable Grandpa, who I never had the pleasure of meeting, who, upon hearing of a grandchild’s possibly premature engagement said something like, “Forever is a long time, Sally and I was married* to your Grandma…forever.” (*extremely lovingly married but definitely not always smoothly married from what I gather).
When I think about how “forever is a long time,” one thing I mean is that family situations where people are considering estrangement didn’t get that way overnight and they won’t heal overnight, either. For some people there is safety and power in the idea of permanence, the words “Fuck off and die, I am done with you forever,” and the giddy freedom that comes when you decide once and for all that you’ll stop trying to engage with someone who hurts you. If that’s what you need, and you need someone to be on your side about that, again, come find me, your parade is waiting. There are some parents who do some seriously unforgivable shit to their children in this world, and nobody ever wants to acknowledge that, but nobody else had to live through what you did, either, which means nobody else is the boss of what you should be made to put up with in the name of making everyone who is not you feel okay about what parenting should be like. Hard pass.
For me, when things were strained but not unforgivably so, I got considerable safety from knowing that permanent estrangement was an option but also in knowing that I didn’t want to go there if it was humanly possible to avoid it, and that as long as I could stand it I would try to choose another way, and the best gift I could give myself and everyone in the story was “more time.” To be clear, this was my path, I ask it and expect it or advise it for nobody else, I never think anyone is obligated to keep trying or exhaust all alternatives before they give up on something that is not working. While I traveled this path, the idea of “forever being a long time” has helped me resist ultimatums, especially the whole “what if the person DIES and you never MADE PEACE” narrative the fixers of the world are so invested in you adopting (“Idk, what if someone who is mean to me does die and they never ever made the choice to knock it the fuck off, apologize, and make amends while they were alive, yeah that would be pretty sad! Here lies an asshole who never missed a chance to double down, RIP!”) but also smaller ultimatums. It’s helped some of the “Is this the hill I want to die on?” peaks shrink into manageable little bumps and provided helpful reminders that I can make decisions to keep myself safe and intact on a case-by-case, visit-by-visit, call-by-call basis, I don’t have to stay endlessly open or close all the doors right now on the basis of “forever.” It might be like this forever, it might not be, if I give people another chance to act right that’s a gift I’m giving them, if I withhold that gift temporarily to regroup, the way we got here doesn’t automatically become All My Fault.
There is no universe where you are the disappointing one and your homophobic (& otherwise abusive) parents call the shots of what it is possible or desirable for you to be. You are good. If you doubt that, I’m here, we’re here, this community is here, we’ve got your back, we’ve got the glitter bombs and the rainbows and the fierce unstoppable dancing and the quiet (consensual, possibly telepathic) hugs and affirmations, we’ve got your parade right here, you could not possibly un-deserve the love we have for you in a million years.