Functional Dating for the Dysfunctional Family Survivor

Happy Memorial Day! Have a most excellent time watching parades, grilling animal flesh, and jumping into swimming pools and take a moment to think thankful thoughts for the men & women who serve or have served in our military.

Holidays, however, are always bittersweet for me. You see, I’m a dysfunctional family survivor. The last family event I attended with my parents was my brother’s wedding, during which I had to listen to my mother bitch non-stop about everything.

Everything except the soup at the reception. The soup was good.

…but the first dance didn’t come soon enough. All through dinner she complained about it not being time for the first dance, and as soon as the first dance between my brother and his new wife was over, Mom dragged Dad out the door and went home.

My boyfriend at the time sat quietly. He’d been warned that my mother hated my sister-in-law and that it was probably going to be an unpleasant experience. Luckily, with all the possible eye witnesses, my mother kept herself on semi-good behavior.

What’s your dysfunction?

I grew up in a home where I was never good enough. Not pretty enough, not thin enough, not well-groomed enough, not smart enough, and not talented enough. Were there good moments? Sure. But the older I got, the more I grew into the person I love today, the harder my mother tried to shit on everything I did, every award I achieved, and every person in my life.

It got to the point where I couldn’t be around her or talk to her without becoming a) really depressed or b) really angry. (Those who know me know I’m not an angry person.) So I did what every conflict-avoidant person does: I avoided talking to her or coming home from college on breaks. My college was glad to give me part-time on-campus employment and housing, and I was glad to stay in an environment surrounded by adults who loved me and nurtured my talents.

But my little avoidance bubble didn’t last too long. My mother finally called me out on it. I wrote her a very long email explaining exactly how I felt, in the nicest words possible. I used the “When you ____, I feel ____” statements that you’re supposed to use to diffuse people’s anger and defensiveness.  I ended it with a wish that we could get along better. I ran it by a few adult friends who had children about my age. They said it didn’t sound confrontational or accusatory or anything horrible. Just honest.

I hit send and waited. The phone rang and my mother started the onslaught of screaming. (This is why I didn’t call to tell her things – I wouldn’t be able to get a word in edgewise after the first sentence.) She brought up all the money she spent on me (especially for violin lessons and orchestra). She accused me of calling her a horrible parent. (I didn’t.)

Then she broke down into tears and said I needed to come home this summer so we could go into therapy together. I perked up. Fix things between us? SURE! But as soon as I agreed, she did a 180.  I ended up disowned, the plug pulled on my college tuition (I had just finished year 2 of a $32k/year school).

There’s more saga after that, but it would take a week of posts to cover. Suffice it to say that things got much worse before they got better, but thanks to the adults at my college, I was able to remain in school and get into therapy. I spent a lot of time on a couch, crying to Bob the therapist.

Thanks to Bob and a truckload of supportive friends, I made huge strides in learning to love myself and realizing that I *am* good enough. Through Bob and the therapist after him, I accepted that I could be a normal, functioning, well-balanced adult without my parents in my life. My brother and sister-in-law have come to the same conclusion.

But it wasn’t always easy when it comes to dating…

Dealing with the Danger Zone

I feel really bad for my college boyfriend.  He was the first person I dated after the split with my folks and naturally, when holidays came up, I traveled with him and took part in their festivities. The first time I saw his family together, all happy and laughing and totally in love with each other… I had a nervous breakdown. Right in their living room.

Embarrassing. But I was on overload. Why wasn’t *my* family like that? Why didn’t *we* have holidays like that? All the family gatherings I remember involve people screaming at each other, doors slamming, and me feigning serious allergic reactions to cigarette smoke to get us to leave Relative X’s house early.

If other people’s family functions are a danger zone for you…

  • Take a deep breath. Continue breathing.
  • Realize that it’s not YOUR fault your family functions were dysfunctional.
  • Be thankful for the “family” you have in your friends and their families. (I’ve always referred to my friends’ and boyfriends’ moms as “Mom” and dads as “Dad.” Moms love it. Dads are skeptical. ;) )
  • As much as it hurts to be out with other people’s families, it hurts more to isolate yourself. You don’t have to stay long, but get out and about for holidays and enjoy yourself.
  • Live in the moment and make that moment the best you can!

Your dating profile… a danger zone?

Your dating profile can be a danger zone if you let it. Remember, your profile is the place to feature all the wonderful and attractive things about you and your life.

If your family life isn’t wonderful, don’t write about it!  Simple as that. The profile I used when I was on match.com didn’t involve any mention of my family and had no problem reeling in the dates.

What makes you a totally awesome person? You’re more than your history – look into your bright future and to the person you plan to spend it with!

Don’t avoid the happy family folks

When you see a profile in which the person goes on about how great their family is and how close they are to their parents, don’t write them off. It’s tempting, because you may think, “We’d have nothing in common. They’d never understand my situation.”  But don’t shoot yourself in the foot.

If you are attracted to someone, go with the flow. Write them. See where it leads. Are you going to get hurt in the dating game? Yep, but we’ve all been hurt. There isn’t a person out there who hasn’t gotten burned at least once. But you miss all the shots you don’t take. It’s worth it to try.

Answering awkward questions

At some point, the questions are going to come up. Remember, when your (potential) date says, “So…. tell me about your family” they don’t know it’s a loaded question.

  • Note where you are in the relationship (or pre-relationship). If you’re just chatting via email or IMs or on a first date, it’s perfectly acceptable to give a brushed-over response. “We’re not very close. My mom’s an accountant and my dad’s a draftsman. My brother and his wife have an adorable baby.”  Then move the conversation to easier topics. (Hint: Ask your date a question!)
  • Only discuss what you’re comfortable discussing. Me, I’ll gladly tell the entire story to the whole internet, but it’s taken me a long time to get here. Don’t be afraid to say, “I’m really not comfortable talking about that just yet. It doesn’t affect who I am today, other than being a stronger person for surviving it.
  • Emphasize what you do want. If you’re dying to start your own family (and do it RIGHT), don’t be shy about admitting it. Bonus points if you can tie it into your date’s family. “When I see the way your family interacts, it makes me excited about the family I want to have one day.
  • Praise the people in your life who are practically family. By discussing your parental figures and/or practically-siblings, you show that you have close, long-term, loving relationships.

Keep on surviving…

There will always be little things that remind you of the childhood or relatives you wish you had. And (sadly), there will be people who will reject you as a romantic partner because they see you as damaged goods. Keep your head up and remember that you’ve survived through worse and come out a better person because of it.

Family doesn’t mean sharing genes; it means sharing love. Happy dating, geek friends, no matter who your “family” may be.

About e

Since 2008, E. Foley of Geek’s Dream Girl has been helping geeks from around the world find love. She writes amazing online dating profiles for her fellow geeks and guides them through the perilous waters of the dating scene and out the other side. She's totally proud to report that she's even caused a couple geek weddings! She lives in Maryland with DaveTheGame, her adorable cats, Mr. Peanut & Don Juan, and Titania, Queen of the Cocker Spaniels. (Email e, or follow @geeksdreamgirl on Twitter.)

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