Ask Your Comradde: Toxic Family Members–Cutte ‘Em Offe Versus Control Communication

Our correspondent asks:

My question: how do you draw a line on when a parent or sibling is so toxic as to warrant being cut off? I don’t have any of the horrendous histories of abuse that I read so my history of emotional neglect seems puny in comparison. I find the narcissist mother/golden child duo hard to take, when all my interests and activities and problems are ignored in favour of tedious monologues about the minutiae of her life and how hard the sibling has it. Seriously, I was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness and the parent greeted this news with a long rambling discussion on the weather and her shoes. And the sibling has made no contact whatsoever. Shitty response there.

But OTOH the contact my mother seems to want is minimal: a weekly phone call is all. I listen to her rattle on, say mmmhmm a bit, and she’s happy. I’d prefer not to have it, but I’ve tried not picking up. What happens is that she chases me all over all my phones & social media until she finds me, and then she pretends it’s just that I was busy, and not ignoring her, and then she tells me all about the menu from the last time she went out to dinner, or how much mail there was or something.

OK. There are a few different issues to address here. Let’s start with the easier one, which is how to regulate phone and Internet communication by a toxic family member.

The bottom line here is that by ultimately letting your mother “find” you after her chase, you are rewarding her annoying behavior. You need to think about this like training a pet: you only reward desirable behavior, and you always punish undesirable behavior. This means that the more your mother “chases” you, the less opportunity she gets to communicate with you. And the more she leaves you alone, the more she gets to communicate with you.

So as a practical matter, what this means is that you *never* answer the phone when she calls, no matter how many times she repeatedly calls you. You only talk to her on the phone when you call her, and you should time your calls to her so that they are completely unrelated to when she reached out to you. Social media is a little more complicated, and I am not a social media user, so maybe others can weigh in with better ideas. But I have two ideas.

One is that you completely ignore your mother’s communications on social media, and only communicate with her on the phone, when you call her. If she complains, you can simply say that you really prefer to talk to her than to communicate on the Internet. The other is that you lock down your social media so that she can’t see you, and you can’t see her. That is more drastic, but perhaps more effective. And if she complains, you can tell her that you are drastically limiting your social media exposure, and that’s just the way it is.

And as far as the rewarding, if her “chasing” behavior tails off, and she hasn’t attempted to contact you for a longer time than is the norm, then you call her to say hello. If she goes on and on about shitte you don’t want to hear about during phone calls, and you want to keep the duration of the calls to a minimum, then the trick is to always place your calls to her in the context of a time limit that is out of your control. Call your mom at 3:50PM: “Hi, Mom! I had a few minutes before [important appointment] at 4, and wanted to say hello! [blah , blah, blah] Great to talk to you! Appointment’s starting! Bye!” Or what I frequently do is call my parents from the car: “Hi, Mom! On my way to work, and wanted to say hello! I’ll be there in about ten minutes! [blah, blah, blah] Pulling in now! Great to talk to you! Bye!”

The much more difficult question is whether to cutte your mother offe completely. My suggestion to you–based on my own experiences with my parents–is to first try out my suggestions for limiting communication and keeping your mother from intruding on your peace of mind. My parents were making me miserable with constant unwanted intrusive manipulative dramatic communications, and I was getting ready to cut them offe. But I decided to try to “train” them in the way I described above. It actually worked! Now they basically never call me or reach out to me, and I only talk to them when I call them. We see each other once in a while for a meal, and they actually behave mostly decently! Because they have learned that the more of a pain in the fucken asse they are, the less they get to interact with me. And the more decently they treat me, the more they get to interact with me. So my suggestion is to see if your mother is trainable, and put off deciding whether to cutte her offe until you find out.


  1. gingerest says

    An addition to the limited-duration call notion: until you build up some experience successfully ending calls, I recommend scheduling the call around a fictional appointment (hew to the timing as if it were a real one) to reduce stress on yourself. Don’t get caught, though, and don’t reinforce her bad behavior by allowing her to overlap your deadline and make you “late”. Hang up on her if necessary. Learning how to hang up calmly on a toxic parent and go about your day is a freeing skill, especially with the avoidant kind of parent who won’t make a fuss about it because it would require them to acknowledge that sometimes you can’t stand them.
    Block your mom and sib on social media, or drop ’em down a privacy hole (e.g. on FB, make a list consisting only of mom and sib and customize your posts so that they can’t see them; on Twitter, set up a separate pseudonymous account for actual friends and don’t tell mom and sib about it, and/or use a client like TweetDeck so you can mute them.)
    You will need to do all this if you cut them off, anyway, so it can’t hurt to sort out whether you can get the result you want by controlling communications more tightly.

  2. mytchondria says

    This is all fine if parents are trainable. If you do this with someone who is old, invasive AND had borderline personality issues (the ‘all good’ and the ‘all bad’ child your writer refers to suggests this may be a thing in play), I’ve not seen it work. n=1. Maybe these are the ‘cut them the hell off’ people…..

  3. wagnaye says

    How impressive that you have managed to “train” your parents so that they don’t even feel they can make an unsolicited phone call without you biting their heads off and throwing your toys out of the pram like an ungrateful toddler.

    You sound like a complette cuntte.


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