As cases of COVID-19 are surging throughout the United States, I cannot help but wonder about my birth family, how they are faring, and if they are safe. It is a strange thing to have no idea, to be aware that I may never know, to be glad for the estrangement which prevents that knowledge, and yet to wonder and hope that they are well. It creates a paradox of conflicting emotions, a cognitive dissonance, to be so concerned, and yet know that it is far and away in my best interest to retain the distance of estrangement I created.
There are countless reasons why people may be estranged from relatives. If you are estranged, it might be because you chose it, they chose it, or everyone involved mutually agreed they wanted nothing to do with each other. There might be relatives or friends who act as informational intermediaries, keeping one or the other or both parties informed even if there is no direct contact. Sometimes such informants are betraying trust on one side or the other. Sometimes they are helping one party stay safe, especially if the other is an abuser.
In my case, the estrangement is entirely at my instigation. In 2016 I finally cut off all contact with my immediate family, a step I should have taken decades earlier. It was necessary for my mental health and wellbeing, and I do not regret it, even for an instant. What few genuinely good memories I have of any of them are dwarfed by the completely toxic, dishonest, and selfish nature of their attitudes and actions towards me. Emotional abuse and manipulation are no joke, and leave lasting damage.
My brothers have not tried to contact me since. Whether that is out of respect, or because they see nothing to gain by trying, is of little consequence, though I strongly suspect respect has nothing to do with it. I told my parents in absolutely no uncertain terms that I wanted no contact in any form, and yet at least a couple times each year they feel compelled to send me fancy letters with pre-packaged pithy declarations of how much they care.
What is the Big Deal About a Card?
If the pattern holds, I am likely to get a new holiday or New Year’s card in the next couple weeks. The colossal levels of disrespect involved in them even sending those letters always makes me angry. Those letters are a continuation of exactly the kind of disregard for my wishes that has permeated all of my experiences with them. What they want is always more important than what I want or need, and they will bend rules and push boundaries in pursuit of their own desires, almost always through “innocent” means that are societally approved and “no big deal”. Their efforts will give them social brownie points when they go to their friends and bemoan the unfairness that their child has boundaries and no longer wants anything to do with them.
What is the big deal about a card? They are innocent enough, right? It might be trite, but it is a way to brighten someone’s day and let them know you are thinking about them. That’s harmless, right? That’s not a big deal, right?
Well, when you have history, tiny and seemingly harmless things can be a very big deal. Just ask anyone who deals with microaggressions on a daily basis.
It is a big deal for me, and for them, because it is a demonstration of exactly why I needed to cease all contact with them. They are incapable of respecting my boundaries, and by extension, respecting me. I spent decades attempting to establish less severe boundaries against their toxicity, only to have those boundaries violated again, and again, and again, and again, and again. Eventually I realized my only real options were to either abandon all my boundaries or place the ultimate boundary – No Contact. The stress of constantly fighting attacks on my boundaries was not worth it, especially since they were persistent enough to consistently erode those boundaries over time.
What my parents desire is more important to them than my boundaries, my needs, and my desires, no matter the harm it does to me. I specifically told them no contact. They send cards, because that is the most innocent means of contact they can think of, the one that is easily brushed off or dismissed. It is perfect fuel for gaslighting, internal, external, and social. It is an attempt to erode the boundary of no contact, because my parents cannot stand the existence of boundaries of any kind.
If I were to reply to their letters, as social norms say I should, that would destroy my no contact boundary. I would likely receive a text message or a phone call in very short order, and they would be overjoyed about it. They would “win”, because to them my boundaries are obstacles to be overcome, not limitations to be respected.
There should never be “winning” or “losing” in personal relationships. If you have a relationship which has a “winner” and a “loser”, that is a giant red flag that the relationship is toxic, and probably abusive as well.
Emotional Paradox in the Time of COVID-19
I am not certain that letter will come this year. I have been writing a book detailing the emotional abuses of my family, and I have publicly posted about it periodically on social media. I have also mentioned my experiences from time to time in articles like this one, experiences that cast my family in a less than flattering light. If my parents have been paying any attention to my internet postings, they cannot help but be aware that I am publicly revealing their behaviors and attitudes and abuses. I do not know if that might cause them to finally throw up their hands and give up, declaring me a lost cause, or if they will “take the high ground” and continue as they have.
Expecting that card is causing a paradox of conflicting emotion because I still do not want any contact from them. The existence of another letter is still a violation of my boundaries, part of an ongoing assault on the very existence of those boundaries. Yet, if I receive a letter, I will know that they are still alive and managing, which would be a relief.
I do not wish them ill. I do not wish them dead. I still care, even though I do not love them. I hope they are well, even though I cannot have them in my life.
I want to know that they are safe, healthy, have everything they need, and are taking precautions. I want to know that my brothers are doing OK. I want to know that my niblings, the only relatives I regret not having contact with, are healthy and managing the ins and outs of school during COVID-19. The problem is that due to my parents’ complete lack of respect for my boundaries, I cannot reach out to them and ask. I cannot take the risk of being vulnerable with them, of reaching across that boundary.
It is a conundrum, and causes a bit of cognitive dissonance. I have no desire to be in contact with them, and yet I want to know that they are well. I cannot risk asking, so I must retain the estrangement as completely as possible. I must hold my boundaries firmly, because my parents cannot interact with me without attempting to undermine and destroy those boundaries. If I show any vulnerability, they will use it to their advantage. I know they will because they always have. Interacting with them taught me that if there is a difference between action and word, believe people for what they do, not what they say.
I have one aunt I am still in contact with who will tell me if they get sick, so there is that. But, I have serious concerns about whether or not she will remain well herself. She posted on social media last summer about how worthwhile it was to have large family gatherings and birthday parties despite lockdown orders. I have not had the heart to check if she is posting about large holiday gatherings, but I would be surprised if she has been cautious. Family means enough to her that she will risk COVID-19 to be with as many of them as possible. I cannot help but worry for how heartbroken she will be if that behavior decimates her family and she loses them forever.
I Cannot Make that Cognitive Dissonance Go Away
I have no idea what to do about any of that. I wish I could offer some solid advice to anyone else in a similar conundrum, needing distance and yet still wanting to know, but I am at a loss. I have absolute conviction that estrangement for the rest of my life is the best thing for me, and yet I have the emotional conflict of wanting to be able to reach out for a moment and ask them directly how they are doing. I wish they were not so selfish and abusive that momentary vulnerability is impossible without sacrificing my own wellbeing, but I cannot change that.
I cannot change them.
If you are in a similar situation, all I can do is advise you to look very critically at your situation before you initiate contact and show vulnerability, especially if estrangement has been a positive thing in your life. Think long and hard about why that estrangement exists, and what risks you would really be taking just to know. I know exactly what risks I would be taking, and I cannot do that roller coaster with them, not even for just one minute, let alone the likely months or years of renewed efforts to dismantle my boundaries.
Just posting this article is a bit of a risk, a bit of vulnerability. If they read it, there is a chance that they will decide to take that step for me and call. It would be innocently meant, of course, just to let me know how they are doing…
It would not be innocent. It would be part of an ongoing pattern of selfishness and abuse masterfully gaslit into love and caring. It would not be OK. I do not want that call. If I wanted that call, I would make it myself.
Also, be wary of the emotional pressure piled on by holiday motifs of forgiveness of all things, because FAMILY! Sometimes reconciliation is possible, but not always, and most efforts to find that holiday miracle will result in renewed abuse and toxic interactions. Genuine reconciliation must always start with acknowledgement of wrongdoings and sincere apology on the part of the abuser or toxic individual. Forgiveness on demand is usually toxic. It is easy for a quick, “How are you doing?” to turn into an expectation of forgiveness and renewed toxicity or abuse. After all, you extended that olive branch, right? That means all is forgiven, right?
If you do think reconciliation is possible, and want to try for it, be very certain of your boundaries before initiating contact. Be honest and clear with yourself and with them about what you will and will not tolerate in the relationship, and be ready to cease contact again if the nature of the relationship remains toxic. I know from first-hand experience how hard that is to do, no matter how simple it sounds, and yet it is vitally important.
Seeking Inner Peace
Shadow work may help. That is how I am handling it, even if it is not an easy or fast road.
I hope that you can find a way to handle that paradox for your own situation. I hope you can make peace with it. If you are struggling with it, know that you are not alone. I am personally struggling to find peace and acceptance, and I believe that is an extremely normal emotional response to such a messed-up situation. Asking how someone is doing should be a very easy thing that is good all around. It is profoundly wrong that my family created a dynamic where I cannot do that without paying rather severe personal consequences.
I am a little angry about the family dynamics, but mostly I am just disappointed. I am usually disappointed in my family these days, but I spent a lot of years being angry before I had done enough shadow work and healing to let the anger subside. Now that I am not so angry, it hurts less than it used to to care about people who have proven time and time again that they only genuinely care about themselves.
I do not regret that I care. Caring is a natural part of who I am, and I value it greatly. I am glad that I care, even if it does cause cognitive dissonance to care about people who do not deserve it.