communication, family, mental health, psychology

Once more with feeling…. “Get down off the cross, SMIL!”

I could certainly write more about my banking woes today, especially since I just read news that indicates that my misgivings with USAA are not unwarranted. They just got hit with huge fines “for failing to timely report thousands of suspicious transactions by its customers.” I don’t know that this incident has much to do with my current issues with USAA, which mainly have to do with them erroneously flagging my account for fraud, but then missing actual fraud… and then when I shifted payment methods because I don’t have access to the violated account, I got another false fraud alert. I called about that, and spoke to a very rude customer service guy who basically treated me like he wanted me to “keep sweet”. I had some fun tweeting at USAA last night, noting that I wasn’t the only one who is pissed off at them. Anyway, Bill and I are now hunting for a new place to do business. I think we found one, so today’s business will be to get the ball rolling with that, so at least I can start the process of divorcing USAA. I am done drinking the Kool-Aid.

Now… on to today’s topic. This one is about family, so if you find my “family” posts inappropriate, you best move on to the next Internet station. I’m in the mood to vent.

A few years ago, I blogged about how my husband’s stepmother has a habit of sending manipulative private messages as a means of getting people to pay attention to her. Her late husband, Bill’s dad, also used to lay guilt trips in a bid for attention. Since my father-in-law is now dead, I’m just going to focus this rant on SMIL.

SMIL used to send manipulative messages to Bill, mostly about how his dad was “getting old” and wanted to see Bill. Bill would get really upset about the PMs, which were loaded with fear, obligation, and guilt. She finally quit sending them when Bill had a rather direct discussion with her about her guilt mongering ploys. He told her that if his dad wanted to see or talk to him, all he had to do was place a phone call, send an email, and make a mature, direct request, instead of sending passive aggressive text messages and private messages on Facebook.

SMIL has apparently been hosting Bill’s ex wife all week. At one point, SMIL (or perhaps Ex using SMIL’s phone) tried to call younger daughter. She decided not to answer the call, because she’s busy. And she also didn’t answer because when she does call SMIL back, SMIL doesn’t bother to answer the phone and “ghosts” her. Younger daughter, thankfully, is pretty smart and resilient, and she realizes that she doesn’t have to drop everything to attend to her step grandmother’s “needs”. But because she’s a decent, basically caring person, these texts are still upsetting and troublesome.

Younger daughter is pregnant and has two young children. Her husband has a demanding job, and they don’t have tons of money. But SMIL apparently doesn’t care… or maybe she just hasn’t considered what’s going on in younger daughter’s life right now. She still sends those maudlin text messages that are all about her. I just want to tell her to get down off the cross!

We are preparing a box of gifts for younger daughter, which we picked up in France a couple of weeks ago. In the box, I have included a well worn copy of Dr. Susan Forward’s excellent book, Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate You. I bought and read it years ago, when Bill and I were fairly newly married. It offered great insight into the emotional blackmail perpetrated by Ex, SMIL, and, on occasion, late FIL. I could just send younger daughter a new copy of that book, but I want to send her my copy because I see it as a sign of solidarity. Having watched Bill deal with these bullying tactics over the years, I have an idea of what she’s going through.

Last night, after I finished complaining about USAA, Bill and I talked about this situation. I suggested to Bill that maybe he should ask his daughter if she would be friends with someone who treated her in that way. Legally, SMIL is basically not much more than friend. Younger daughter doesn’t owe her anything. But because SMIL has known her for so long, she knows younger daughter cares about her and values their relationship. So SMIL uses that caring nature as a tool against younger daughter. SMIL is also the type to hold grudges and declare people “dead to her”. But honestly, who’s got the time for such nonsense? Especially when there’s so much else going on in the world?

I was prompted to write about this today because of an article I read in Carolyn Hax’s column in the Washington Post. A woman wrote in about how her sister-in-law loves ski trips and tries to guilt her and her husband into going on them with her. But, for many completely valid reasons, the letter writer doesn’t like ski trips. She writes that her sister-in-law is the type to get drunk and cry when people say no to her. She doesn’t want to be subjected to the guilt trip.

You know what my response is to that? “Just say no.” Seriously. That was Carolyn’s advice, too. If sister-in-law has a meltdown, that’s on her. Hang up the phone. Block her on social media. You don’t have to put up with that. It’s abuse. Or, if that seems much too harsh, just tell the sister-in-law, in a kind way, that you don’t like skiing. Then offer to participate in a different activity that you like better. If you know sister-in-law also enjoys it, so much the better.

Bill loved his father very much, but he didn’t enjoy calling him. Every time he did, his dad would lay tremendous guilt trips on him about not visiting more often or calling him. But then when Bill would call, his dad would be busy. Or he would lay a bunch of manipulative crap on him designed to make him feel bad. Who wants to be subjected to a bunch of guilt when they make a phone call? I know I don’t. Life is painful enough as it is. If a person’s aim is to get someone to call more often, shouldn’t they make the call a pleasant experience? Seems logical to me that that would be the goal.

I do understand that it’s hard not to be a victim of shaming. I’ve been there myself a lot of times. I have a sister who used to try to manipulate me in similar ways. It was uncomfortable and unpleasant to say no to her. But eventually, she came to realize that I make my own decisions. She finally quit with the emotional blackmail, and life has been relatively more peaceful ever since.

If you do give in to the shaming, chances are you’ll just feel resentment. If someone really loves and cares about you, they don’t want you to feel shame and resentment. A healthy relationship should be respectful, kind, and even loving. It shouldn’t be based on fear, obligation, and guilt. I know I can tell when someone resents me and is faking being nice. I’d rather be alone than be with someone who feels compelled to spend time with me.

Anyway… I know younger daughter does love SMIL. She cares very much about her. But these messages are not welcome or helpful in preserving the relationship. I also know that if younger daughter tells SMIL this, it probably won’t go over too well. But again… you can’t control how other people feel or react. If the relationship is really that important, SMIL can try to adapt. I doubt she’ll ever change, but she can certainly try… or suffer the consequences.

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psychology

Putting on the brakes: not getting on the bus to Abilene…

A couple of nights ago, Bill had a Skype session with his daughter. She told him that not long ago, she got a phone call from her mother, beseeching her to jump in her car and drive to a hospital a few hours from where she lives. Evidently, younger daughter’s cousin had been in a car accident and Ex felt that someone from the family should go to her. Younger daughter, in her infinite wisdom, declined to drive to the hospital. She’s pregnant, and has a toddler aged son. The hospital was a few hours away from where she lives, and she’s not particularly close to her cousin. She also had no idea what condition her cousin was in. She could have loaded up her toddler in the car, driven several hours, wasted precious gas and spent money she didn’t have, only to find that her cousin had only gotten bumps and bruises and was released. She had the courage to say no, but was apparently feeling a little guilty about it.

I listened to Bill explain to his daughter that sometimes her mother gets these ideas that something has to be done no matter what. She doesn’t stop and think about logistics, costs, or practicality. She just jumps in the car and goes… or she manipulates someone else to go in her stead. She reacts, rather than thoughtfully responds. I’m sure these kinds of reactions make her feel better in the short term, even if they turn out to be disastrous decisions. She feels like she has to do something. If she can’t do it, she’ll get someone else to do it, and that will make her feel better about herself. She’ll even take all the credit, even if she’s not the one who actually did anything.

I was instantly reminded of a similar situation I experienced back in 2010. Bill and I were living in Georgia. My dad was still alive, and was being hospitalized in North Carolina, near where my eldest sister lives. I got an email from another sister who lives in the Midwest. This sister was feeling guilty that our oldest sister was exclusively taking care of our parents. She felt like I should be doing more, so she took it upon herself to try to convince me to drive to North Carolina to visit our dad.

I remember the conversation started in an underhanded, manipulative way. She asked me how long it takes to drive from Georgia to North Carolina. I responded that it would take a few hours. Then she delivered the pitch. She wanted me to drive to North Carolina, split a hotel room with another sister who lives in Virginia, and visit our dad. She said she couldn’t do it herself because plane tickets were too expensive and she had work. She assumed that I could go in her stead and “help out”, even though the people directly involved hadn’t asked me for my help and were fully capable of asking. They are also not the type of people who wouldn’t ask for help if it was necessary. My mom is direct to a fault. She doesn’t keep quiet to spare other people’s feelings. It’s one of her best, and worst, qualities.

It so happened that I had just talked to our mother, and she had expressly told me she didn’t want me to visit. I hadn’t wanted to visit, nor had I suggested it, but she said things were hectic enough as it was. So, since I had just talked to our mom and she’d asked me not to add to the stress of the situation by visiting, I told my sister out in the Midwest, who was probably feeling guilty and helpless, that Mom had asked me not to go up there. Moreover, even though I don’t work outside of the home, I had other responsibilities. For one thing, I had dogs to take care of. I couldn’t just hop in the car and go, just because she suggested it. I would have to do something with them, since Bill works long hours and they aren’t used to being alone.

It takes discipline to do this, but in the long run, it will spare you a lot of grief.

I sent a calm response to my sister, indicating that our mom had specifically asked me not to visit and that I had other things going on. My sister proceeded to send me a pissy email full of guilt trips, which, of course, really annoyed me. Still, I managed to stay calm in my next response. I explained that I wasn’t going to just jump in the car and go up there on her say so, but I would call Mom and ask her if there was anything I could do for her. My sister seemed alright with that. She responded with a gushing, appreciative email, and added that I should email her to let her know how our parents were doing. I never did do that, and she never said anything about it. So much for her concern. Really, though, she was just feeling helpless and wanted to feel helpful. She figured she could bully me in to acting, which would make her feel better about herself, even if it was disrespectful toward me.

I called my mom, and she clarified that she wouldn’t be upset if I visited our dad, but that he was being transferred back to Virginia, so we might as well see him there. Then, she said she would like me to go to our house in Gloucester, which at that time she was trying to sell, and pick up the piano. I inherited my mom’s piano. It’s currently sitting in storage in Texas. It’s extremely heavy, and she needed it out of the house.

This situation happened to be going on over Memorial Day weekend, so Bill went to UHaul, got a tow bar put on our SUV, and we made the arrangements to board our dogs and go to Virginia to get the instrument. We drove up to Gloucester, got a UHaul, and picked up the piano. Then, we visited my Dad, who was in a physical rehab hospital.

My dad was not in his right mind. He called me by my sister’s name and complained that I’d gained weight (my sister has dark hair and is a size two, and I’m a blonde and… not a size two), then he completely ignored me and talked to Bill, who was just great with him. In my dad’s mind, he was still an officer in the Air Force. My dad was talking as if he was in a briefing. Bill caught on quickly and started speaking to my dad as if he was a general. Dad responded in the most uncanny way. He calmed down. Afterwards, Bill and I took my mom out for a drink. Just as we were about to get in the car to take Mom home, a nurse called and asked her to come back and sit with Dad, because he was agitated. Mom bitched out the nurse, which made me feel a little sorry for Dad’s caregivers. I remember her telling them that she didn’t have the stamina to sit with him all the time and it was their job to deal with him. I guess they were able to, since we left and Mom got to rest.

What would have happened if I had just done what my sister had demanded? I think it would have turned into a wild goose chase. If I had gone up to North Carolina, I probably would have missed seeing my dad. I would have wasted gas, and there’s no way I would have been able to do what my mom ultimately needed done, getting that heavy piano out of the house. I needed Bill to help with that. Maybe my sister would have been temporarily happy that I’d done as she demanded, but in the long run, doing her bidding wouldn’t have been very useful. She thought she knew better, though, and incorrectly assumed she could still order me around. News flash… I’m not eight years old anymore.

My sister wanted to do something, but wasn’t able to do it herself. She was feeling guilty and helpless. She figured I wasn’t busy, and decided to use manipulative tactics to try to spur me into action. When I demurred, she laid the guilt on even thicker and heavier. The end result is that she really pissed me off. I lost some respect for her when she resorted, yet again, to manipulation instead of making a respectful request of me. But then, this is something my sister has always done. Somehow, despite being raised by very direct and forthright parents, two of my sisters have learned that in order to get their way, they have to be manipulative. It’s a very common strategy. I no longer have much patience or tolerance for it. When people use fear, obligation, and guilt to try to get me to do something, I usually resist.

I think sometimes people who have grown up in abusive situations, or are surrounded by people who are manipulative and prone to employing guilt trips, are conditioned to do the bidding of others without ever questioning it. My husband calls this “getting on the bus to Abilene”, although I’m not sure he quite gets the euphemism right. Getting on the bus to Abilene suggests group think– people giving into a bad idea because they don’t want to be the person who resists, even though secretly, everyone is against the idea. The trip to Abilene is pointless and uncomfortable, but everyone goes along to get along and everyone suffers for it. And then it turns out no one wanted to go in the first place.

Maybe this anecdote isn’t helpful for everyone, but it’s helpful for me. There’s no reason why I can’t rely on my own good sense to make my own decisions. I don’t have to respond to people who use guilt tactics and manipulation to get me to do their bidding. In fact, it’s in my best interest to teach them NOT to approach me that way.

You’re not a marionette. You can dance to your own tune.

I did end up helping our mom, but I did it in a way that was doable for me and ultimately more helpful for her. I’m glad to hear that Bill’s daughter has similarly learned to say “no” to her mom when she pulls this kind of manipulative shit. If you’re an adult, and you’re functional, you don’t have to take manipulation from other people. Manipulation is, at its core, a kind of bullying. It’s unfair and disrespectful. It may seem easier to give in to manipulation, but in the long run, it only encourages more of the same behavior. Set boundaries and enforce them. If someone proposes a bad idea, you don’t have to go along with it. Do what works for you.

Back in 2010, I wrote about this incident as it was happening. I was unusually calm about it. I would have thought there would have been more ranting and swearing, but in 2010, I was more circumspect than I am now.

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