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How to Compromise with Obnoxious Parents

Updated on August 19, 2014

Bring respect to the table.

This table has no head and no foot. All sides are equal. Parents of adult children should figure this out, lest their table remain unoccupied by their kids.
This table has no head and no foot. All sides are equal. Parents of adult children should figure this out, lest their table remain unoccupied by their kids. | Source

If somebody told you that you were obnoxious . . .

how would you react?

See results

Yes ... that IS the title

I thought it would get your attention.

I know it seems extreme, but how do you deal with obnoxious parents, day in and day out?

If you are a teenager, come back in a couple of years. Most teenagers think that their parents are obnoxious. It is part of finding your own identity and owning your own experiences apart from those of your parents.

If you are over the age of 20 and still find your parents obnoxious, perhaps there is a kernel of truth here.

Maybe it isn't a "kernel" but rather an entire cob.

If you are over the age of 30, and you STILL find them obnoxious, I would consider "stalk" or "field" to be more adequate analogies.

But before I go any further, I would like to point out that sometimes the obnoxious one is the person labeling the other person as such. There is a phenomenon called "projection" in which we attribute our own flaws to those around us. This is a coping mechanism that some people employ in order to evade painful self-analysis.

But even if YOU are the obnoxious one, and your parents are indeed awesome, this article might help you because it brainstorms ideas on how to compromise. And compromise is something that is incompatible with obnoxiousness.

Just to clarify, compromising and being obnoxious are mutually exclusive. It is like being asked to sit and stand at the same time. (Well actually a compromise would be a squat but now I am being obnoxious).

So without further a-due, let's solve this obnoxious parent problem once and for all!

Healthy boundaries protect us.

If my own personal boundaries could be illustrated, they would look something like this. Yes ... you could probably drive a bulldozer over this barrier, but most reasonable people won't. This fence keeps most bad stuff out, and some good can leak in.
If my own personal boundaries could be illustrated, they would look something like this. Yes ... you could probably drive a bulldozer over this barrier, but most reasonable people won't. This fence keeps most bad stuff out, and some good can leak in. | Source

The importance of boundaries

If you have a problem with obnoxious parents, chances are it is because they are not respecting your boundaries.

We can also play the inverse game: If you have an obnoxious relationship with them, chances are, you aren't respecting theirs, even if they respect yours.

Honestly in my entire 40 years of existence, I have never observed a family that has sane, normal, respectful, well-adjusted and dignified parents with biological children who consistently, persistently and relentlessly drive a tank over their boundaries.

They might exist, but I have never seen it. It is usually a mutual disrespect, or it is coming from the parents.

Your parents were here first, and are responsible for your conception and birth, long before you were conceived. They chose each other. You had nothing to do with that.

They were the ones who brought you home from the hospital, and they have set the tone ever since you were this barely sentient newborn blob of human flesh that they had to feed, clothe, shelter and diaper. They set the pattern, they were the ones who gave you the first examples of how to bond with others, and behave.

It wasn't the inverse, so if you are told that YOU brought the problem into the house, I call B.S. and so should you. That is the kind of stuff that I heard from my parents and I say "no way Jose."

In other words, kids behavior is generally a symptom of the family dynamics, and not a cause.

Now that you are an adult, you may have picked up some very obnoxious habits but my point is that if you think your parents are obnoxious, that doesn't mean that you AREN'T obnoxious but it would be a rare to have an obnoxious demon who was engendered by two angels.

So returning to boundaries . . .

A world without boundaries

Would you be comfortable sleeping in the middle of an open field?

See results

Choose your "boundary" metaphor carefully!

Hey .... if you put up a boundary like this one, keep in mind that nothing positive can penetrate it either.
Hey .... if you put up a boundary like this one, keep in mind that nothing positive can penetrate it either. | Source

How about a house with no doors, curtains or fences?

Would you want to live there?

See results

Boundaries pt. 2

Boundaries are important because they are what prevent somebody from violating you. They are essential for your mental and spiritual health.

OK here is an analogy:

Is there a single person on the planet who would feel comfortable falling asleep in the middle of an open field?

There might be but that would be rare indeed. If I were to sleep outside I would want to be in some kind of shelter or against a wall because I wouldn't feel safe otherwise. I would be highly vulnerable to attack from all sides and from above. I could get preyed upon my man and beast alike.

Another more culturally determined analogy would be our notion of fences, doors, windows and curtains for privacy. Those are boundaries in the literal sense of the word.

Would you feel comfortable living in a house with no doors?

OK ... like imagine you have an open yard, no doors, windows without locks or curtains. You go off to work every day, think nothing of it, come home, shower and walk around naked under artificial light, la-dee-da?In essence, people's need for boundaries is a basic instinct, and you could argue, it is a survival mechanism.

When we discuss "things" that aren't objects, such as our emotions, or even "things" that are alive and sentient, such as our bodies, the discussion of "boundaries" can not depend upon hardware, such as locks and bolts, or materials like glass, wood or metal. Therefore we are dealing with far more subjective terms, because you can't see, hear, taste or touch these types of locks and keys.

At the risk of alienating people, I would dare say that truly obnoxious parents don't acknowledge those boundaries because after all, they can't see them. So therefore they aren't there.

So if you feel drained, angry, defensive and somewhat defeated after an afternoon with Mom and/or Dad, chances are it is because they busted into your emotional equivalent of a fortress, desecrated the walls and made a huge mess everywhere, blamed you for it, told you that they actually own that fortress and it is on loan to you, and yelled at YOU to clean it up.

So ... with that being said, establish boundaries and sensitize yourself to it when they are being trampled.


To what degree can you trust people?

Can you be safe behind a fence like this? It might be more beautiful to look at, and to look through, but make sure that you are safe.
Can you be safe behind a fence like this? It might be more beautiful to look at, and to look through, but make sure that you are safe. | Source
You can see through this fence, but don't dare climb it! It might not be a pretty sight but it might be necessary for now. These are choices that we all need to make for ourselves.
You can see through this fence, but don't dare climb it! It might not be a pretty sight but it might be necessary for now. These are choices that we all need to make for ourselves. | Source

What boundaries should you set?

This is highly subjective.

My sister and I, for example ... share the same set of parents. But when she discusses how they irritate her, it is almost like she is talking about different people, than when I discuss them.

We are only two years apart, so the difference has nothing to do with growing up in different decades and/or phases of their lives etc.

My sister finds it horribly irritating when my mother tells her how to cook something.

As for me, I could really not care less if my mother thinks she can make a better bowl of mashed potatoes.

In this case, you have the same person (my mother) who is acting in the same way (claiming that she can smash a spud better than you and getting in your face about it) ... but two different ways of reacting to it. In my case she doesn't violate my boundaries, I just tune it out. My sister finds these types of interactions to be aggravating beyond the pale.

Another example:

My father likes to discuss money, constantly. Money money money. He likes to get drunk and gossip and discuss other people's money, especially.

For me, that type of behavior is insidious. Not only is it immoral, it is intrusive and insulting.

My sister tunes that stuff out.

OK ... where were we?

Oh yeah ... obnoxious parents.

Too bad we got off subject.

So my point is, your boundaries are personal to you, and it would be indeed a massive violation to tell somebody how to regulate their emotional and intellectual life.

Whatever boundaries you set, be mindful of clarity

This is my advice, but how you regulate your own existence is sacred, to you.

Think of an impressionist painting. They are blurry and vague when you get close but at a distance they are clearer.

People with that type of "impressionistic" speech and/or thinking patterns are generally difficult to deal with because they are so non-specific and they expect YOU to read their minds and second-guess their intentions and well ... boundaries.

Here are some examples of what I am talking about:

  1. "I don't want people to say demoralizing things to me." vs. "I don't want my immediate family members to speak to me in ways that they know can injure me."

  2. "I don't want my mother to meddle in my life, anymore." vs. "I don't want my mother to criticize choices that I have made."

  3. "I don't want people to talk to me about religion." vs. "I don't tolerate evangelism."

  4. "I don't want to hear offensive comments." vs. "I refuse to discuss human sexuality in lewd or obscene ways."

In all of these examples, the first version is very vague and impossible for you, or anybody else to navigate successfully. The second version enables the individual to clearly separate out specific actions and contexts that make him or her uncomfortable. I have found that when people don't think in very clear terms, they have less control over them, and it is harder to regulate their emotional reactions. By the way, I invented these examples.

  1. Is there a single person in the world, who has never said something that another individual considered "demoralizing?" It is unrealistic to go through life expecting other people to read you like a book, know where your sensitive spots are, and avoid them for your sake. What "people" are you referring to, anyway?

  2. Any gesture that a mother makes toward her daughter or son could be interpreted as meddling, even a phone call hoping that you get over the flu faster could be taken as such. Therefore holding her to such a vague yet damning word is unfair.

  3. Not wanting to ever hear about religion is not reasonable, especially because a lot of people discuss God, angels and miracles as if they were everyday things and those things are as real to them, as your cup of coffee is to you.

  4. Regarding "offensive comments:" What is offensive to you, is not offensive to somebody else, and people offend each other all the time without even intending to.

I am not suggesting that you EVER articulate your boundaries to to your parents in this way:

"Mom and Dad, I am establishing boundaries, and here they are."

If your parents are anything like mine, that would subject you to challenges, mockeries and a world-class bonfire, in which every last piece of your boundaries would be burnt to ash.

Instead keep them to yourself unless one of them is challenged and then I would articulate it like this:

THEM: Well we all know that Black people are ______ and that is why they are _____ because they are Black people and them stupid ____ because they _____ ......

YOU: You know Dad, when you engage in conversation that is clearly racist, it offends me and I don't want to be around you. I consider it socially unacceptable, indecent and vulgar. If you don't change the subject immediately, I am going to leave.

He does not need to know that he is being held to new "rules" as in a new "contract" with redefined "terms" that don't favor his comfort zone or the upper-hand that he should have relinquished years ago. Chances are such an overtly self-empowering action on your part will put him on the defensive.

What he does need to know, is that he can't behave like this if he wants to be around you.

Make a private list of the behaviors you would like to see changed

Keep it private and on your own terms.

For me I have a "dream" list and a "realistic" one.

If I get half of the items on my "realistic" one, I would consider my relationship with my parents to be at least tolerable.

Choose your battles wisely

You can't change everything about your way parents relate to you and I strongly advise accepting that some things you can never change about somebody.

I would pick 5 of the most intolerable behaviors, address them when the time/moment/place is right, and I would let the rest go and just accept that you have obnoxious parents.

Also your parents might not want to change. They probably like themselves the way they are, or they think that even if they get on their own and each other's nerves, that you should stoically take it, because it is your duty and they are entitled to act like jerks.

When the obnoxious behavior surfaces, I would take the moment to articulate why you find that behavior offensive, and make them accountable: tell them what the negative consequence will be, if they don't comply.

YOU: I do not like it when you discuss sex around my 10 year old daughter. She is coming of age, and this is an example of socially unacceptable conversation that I do not want her to imitate.

THEM: Oh blablabla yeah yeah yeah. We've heard it all. Oversensitive, blablabla. Always has to be morally superior.

YOU: If you continue to discuss sex around my daughter, I will not allow you to interact with her until I see that you respect my wishes. It will be a very long time until you see her again.

Notice how "YOU" overlooked how "THEM" denigrated your character?

This is what I mean by choosing your battles wisely and not over-saturating them with "violations" and "consequences" that imposes a schedule that none of the parties will ultimately be able to conform to successfully.

If you make too many ultimatums your parents might tune out but pick the top 5 or 10 ... as many as you can implement without hitting the law of diminishing returns.

When you express your frustration to your parents, give them terms that are realistic for them

Be specific, and make sure that you are setting them up for success, and not failure.

They can't change the past. Neither can you, so I suggest scooting that one aside, as hard as it is.

They might not want to change their drinking habits, gluttony, hoarding tendencies, or constant gossip. They also might have a hard time letting go of the pleasure of putting people down just to make themselves look and feel better.

They might have an even harder time giving up their power to remind you of your many failures, and give very solid recommendations on the changes you should make in your own life. [OOPS!] (They just lassoed YOU into their gossip and put-downs.)

Let's admit, some of these habits are hard to break because they are FUN and offer DISTRACTIONS from their own problems. In fact most obnoxious behavior is easier to perpetuate, than extinguish.

Otherwise people would quit acting like jerks.

So if your parents behave like hedonistic adolescents behind closed doors, all the while maintaining the self-image of "Dr. So and So" that is their problem until they make it your problem.

Asking them to change all of their hedonistic and obnoxious behavior (for YOU) implies that they would have to change their mindset and habits and that is a bit much to ask. In fact that would be obnoxious on your part.

BUT you CAN ask them to keep a lid on it when you are around, and tell them if they don't cut it out, you won't be seeing much of them. If they rope you into it, and start giving you toxic, meddlesome and patronizing feedback, that is a battle that is worth fighting. I am fairly certain that mature adults can control the content of their conversation in the brief duration that they come into contact with you.

That is realistic and if it isn't, it should become realistic.

I suggest making a note of "the problem" and keeping it "their problem" and when they try to make it "your problem" that is when you erect a boundary that is so thick, high and deep that you wouldn't even be able get an armored bus loaded down with dynamite through it.

Resist the urge to call mom and "tell her about it"

Yeah, I stopped doing that.

Bad habit, left over from childhood when I went "Mommy, Mommy ... "

My mother wasn't really interested in what I had to say even when I was 6, 7, 8, 9 years old. She gets bored with me and tunes out or tells me I am wrong to think or say this or that.

It is still a psychological hang-up ... we want Mom's attention and interest and approval. I kept looking for it until my 39th birthday. Then I gave up, realizing that the joke really and truly is, and has been ...

on me.

If you and your mom have that kind of "talking" relationship where you tell her stuff and she wants to hear it and listens and gives you positive and constructive feedback, don't change anything.

But if she takes that data and distorts it or doesn't give a damn about it, forget it. Grieve for the death of the mother you would have liked to have, and accept the one you got.

What I am saying sounds damning. But look at it from the other side: if {society} (whatever that is) expects mothers to have purple hair, and your mother chooses to dye hers green, just let her be herself.

If you impose culturally-determined norms on your mother, you could argue that you are doing her a disservice because you are forcing her personality-dough to be molded as if by a cookie-cutter.

So if your mother doesn't conform to that nurturing, caring, offspring-centered image, that actually isn't her failing you, but the rather the image.

See what I am getting at?

When I tell my mother about a problem, dilemma, political concern, milestone, achievement in my life ...

that does not directly interest her, she:

See results

Resist the urge to pick a fight

Ever get that feeling ...

You are in the kitchen or the car with your mom and she says something that reminds you of some irksome aspect of your relationship ...

And you throw the first fireball, albeit a small one. Perhaps you simply light a match ...

KA-BOOM!

(Don't do it. Be the bigger person.)

When all else fails, leave or hang up the phone

I mean seriously ... as addictive as drama really is (and I am not joking) ... just pick up and leave if things get too obnoxious.

Even if your residual childhood family dynamics are unhealthy, they are probably comfortable. So it takes an act of will-power to walk out or hang up the phone,

Also you might think "if I just hang on a bit longer, they might see my point of view or we can solve this problem once and for all."

If they finally acknowledge your point of view, awesome. By all means, send me an email when this happens, and tell me how this type of thing (I believe it is called "resolution" or "reciprocity" or something like that) is experienced between dysfunctional aging parents and their adult offspring.

Until that happens, leave or hang up the phone when things get too weird.

Understand that your parents will probably continue to annoy the hell out of you

Deal with it, you are an adult. I am sure you can handle it.

Ask yourself if you are annoying them in return

Chances are, you are annoying them in return.

Consider it mutual.

Have an excuse on hand

Come up with something respectful, at least.

Leave when things hit a 3/4 "saturation point" ...

Here is an analogy:

When you are boiling water for pasta, you start with cold water and then it gets warm and then bubbles begin to accumulate in the bottom of the pot. Then it hits a rolling boil.

Make a polite excuse when bubbles begin to collect on the bottom of the pot.

Some excuses are obviously better than others, depending on your parents' values, comfort zone and levels of familiarity with different aspects of life.

Some excuses you might want to be careful with, because Mom and Dad could "own" them. For example if Dad was a carpenter and you tell him that you have to get home because you have to get the cabinets mounted before Monday when the linoleum guy comes, you might be inviting him to say "well spend some more time Son, I'll help you with those cabinets tomorrow."

Yeah, 1-2-3 backfire!

He is probably acting out of kindness. But if your family is like mine, the clock is ticking and sooner or later, somebody is going to do or say something destructive and hurtful. Cutting off the time actually short-circuits the opportunity for somebody to say or do something aggravating.

Dogs can be a fantastic excuse, especially if your folks are allergic to them or phobic. Having to walk the dog is great, if they don't like dogs. However "I have to walk the dog" can invite a family excursion if the dogs are there. Be warned.

Having to get home to feed the dog might smell like B.S. if they know that dogs eat only once a day.

Sometimes a plausible but slightly absurd and somewhat incoherent excuse can be effective.

"We have to get home because our cats keep fighting over this feather toy and they tend to get aggressive if they are left alone for more than six hours at a time. They both seek comfort in this one toy and then they fight over it and when I came home late from work the other day, FiFii had scrapes and was bleeding and we figured that it was because they both found that feather toy comforting and fought over it. But when I don't leave for more than 5.5 hours .... "

blablabla

That would give them something neutral to complain about and figure out, and it would thus keep them busy and you will get out of there before the water hits a rolling boil.

So . . . in conclusion

I hope that I could give you some tips on how to deal with difficult parents. Many websites on the theme of toxic parents suggest going "no contact" and they even have an acronym widely used: NC.

I have mixed feelings about going NC. Right now, at this point in my life, it really seems like the only way to keep my sanity. But I find it ill-advised to advocate such a drastic measure for others, especially people who you have never met. It is also an extreme measure to advise if you don't know what the offending parent is actually like. These complex human affairs can be argued one word against another and without hearing the other side of the story, cheering the "victim" on for estranging his parents seems reckless. This is a one-size-fits-all solution, that is actually quite devastating for aging parents, even ones who completely and totally deserve it.

I am not sympathetic in the least, to abusive old coots. Trust me. And I can not think of ANY reason for why an abuser should have unlimited, unfettered and unconstrained access to his or her victim. We need to wise up and move away from seeing the the state of being elderly as necessarily one of helplessness, wisdom or victim-hood. Keep in mind that a nasty old lady will play that card to a point that it is greasy, faded, flimsy, filthy and frayed at the edges.

An acquaintance of mine hasn't spoken to his mother in over 25 years.

That is pretty harsh. But I don't doubt that he has his reasons.

Frankly if you can salvage even a fraction of your relationship with your parents, my advice would be to preserve what you can that is good by visiting them in very limited doses. Every family is different but if they are toxic and abusive I suggest taking measures like meeting them in public places for short periods, keep a phone conversation under 15 minutes and at most once a week, etc.

I would advise that you engage in more like a type of "damage control" and get into the "salvage operation" mode. If your family is like mine, there is probably not a snowball's chance that they will ever become the family that you wish you had. This is just something we need to accept and I am getting there relatively late in my journey.

When reasonable measures fail and if your parents really don't "get it" and the situation becomes overwhelmingly toxic and frankly, parasitic and dangerous to you, then at least know that you tried everything.


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