Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Jul 27, 2011
I think my stepmonster is a borderline personality case
I’m writing to you because, much like many of your readers, I have a family dilemma over a decision I’ve made and I’m getting so many different reactions that I don’t know what to do.
The short version is that when I was 16, after my father’s business tanked and all the money was gone, and my mother was left with nothing in the divorce, my father moved across the country to be with an old girlfriend. He tried to take me, but I refused to leave the place I loved and our depressed, often drunk mother whom I dearly loved and refused to abandon in our usual sick, but well-meaning role-reversal. He did take my little sister.
Clearly this is already a dividing event, but the true problems came when his new wife began to show her true colors. An angry, religious bully of a woman, she pushes everyone around to the point that I’m pretty certain she may have borderline personality disorder. She is extremely quick to anger and almost enjoys seeing terror in our faces, making threats but never getting physical. My beautiful younger sister, 14 at the time and the most loving, guileless human I’ve ever known, was very much caught up in this. One day my stepmonster accused this wonderful girl of coming on to our father at the dinner table. My sister kept this secret from me for years and asked me to do the same from others that could help until she was out of that house. As a result, she often hid herself in baggy clothes, spending very little time with our father for fear of being accused again. This is particularly infuriating as our parents had taught us to never be ashamed of our bodies — that being naked and sexual nudity were very different things. Once my sister moved out, I told our mother and the resulting shit storm has caused a serious rift that my father solely blames me for. As a result of his inability to see his culpability in this (what parent doesn’t immediately leave someone that shows no remorse for doing this to their child?), I have decided to no longer speak to him.
When I told him this, he repeated the same things he said to me when I expressed anger at him leaving: that I’d understand when I got older and that I’d “get over it.” I’m 24. Half the family seems to think that he’s just weak and I should pity him, allowing him to take part in my life. The thing is, he hardly ever communicated before. The only things I got before this were cards to me on my birthday or Christmas that he didn’t even sign (she did).
I feel like making it final was important, that he needed to see that his actions had consequences. He can’t just give up on his girls and expect them to love Daddy unconditionally. Others in the family can’t believe that cutting him out is right or that it’s what I need to do to protect myself emotionally. Did I do the right thing? Or is cutting out a parent, no matter how weak-willed or stubborn, the wrong thing to do as a child?
Thanks Cary. Hope you’re well.
Cut Him Out?
Dear Cut Him Out?,
I think you did the right thing. It was what you needed to do. You did it for yourself.
I don’t think there’s any hard-and-fast rule about never being allowed to cut off contact with a parent. Often it’s something you have to do. It may not last forever. But that’s for you to decide.
This is a hard thing to get but it’s important. Sometimes we have to do things because we are taking care of ourselves. It’s not going to make sense to other people. Other people are going to say that we’re not following the right code of conduct. They will say we owe something to someone. We are going to get all kinds of grief from family members when we do things we have to do that violate the unspoken code. That’s the price of doing what you have to do.
It would be nice if we could all do what everybody else wants us to do. But that’s impossible. Why? Because not everybody wants us to do the same thing. If you do what your dad wants you to, you won’t please your sister. If you do what other family members want … see what I mean?
Conflict is good. There’s no escaping it. We all want different things. We’re in conflict because we’re individuals. Knowing that there is no escaping conflict and disapproval is a good thing. Every time I write something, somebody is going to disagree. No matter how hard I try to be on good terms with everyone I know, not everyone is going to like me.
There are a great many unknowns. That’s an amorphous truth that may seem to mean nothing to some but to certain people in certain situations at certain times can seem quite profound. In a family where many relationships are contingent and shifting, it’s helpful to keep in mind just how much is unknown. So you do what you have to do to keep your own sense of balance and well-being, and you recognize that not everybody is going to love you for it.
It’s also helpful to remember that you’re not teaching your dad a lesson. You’re taking care of yourself. The family is beyond your power to fix or control. All you can do is take care of yourself and refuse to be drawn in to the craziness.