Monday, October 02, 2006

Dismaying Story #62: The Tyrannical Aunt

Dear Andrew,

We moved to a very small town a year ago because it has one of the best VA hospitals in the country and we have family here. When I first announced we wanted to move, the family out here was very excited and offered all sorts of help. However, I made the mistake of buying a house that my aunt did not look at. I didn't think it was a big deal. I needed to place an offer on the spot or risk losing the property. I knew it was perfect the moment I first saw it. The house closed, and my husband and I began to pack for the move. All of a sudden the cousins out here couldn't be available to help. Not one family member bothered to call us when we arrived. It was a nightmare.

Then the gossip began getting back to us. My relatives had been told that we bought the house in haste, didn't have any furniture and had moved here to sponge off the family. I couldn't understand where this was gossip coming from. It was not based in truth in any way.

I soon learned that my aunt is the self-proclaimed matriarch of this family. She will tell you what you should think, how you should live, and what you should do - and if you don't abide by it, she makes you an outcast with the rest of the family. She has always had major control issues, so this behavior is not a symptom of old age. To the public, she is a very sweet lady. To us, she is evil.

I am physically limited and it sometimes leaves me unable to function. When I suggest she allow me to do the things I physically can (such as washing dishes) instead of walking up and down the steps to put things away in the basement, my aunt refuses. If I sit down to catch my breath and calm my heart, I am avoiding work. If I don't call her, I am not calling out her just to be spiteful. Should I need to cancel a visit due to being unable to move, I am doing it only to be lazy.

I have basically written the whole family out here off. I want nothing more to do with a bunch of weak willed human beings who worship my aunt as some sort of chaotic goddess. I was raised to be a strong person, despite my limitations, and I don't need to ask someone's opinion on whether or not I should use the washroom before I eat (trust me, the woman is that controlling.) I enjoy being self-sufficient, and that angers my aunt most of all. She seems to have this deep desire to be "needed" by the world. My husband will no longer tolerate her. My mother is angry, and very hurt that we are being treated this way. The family was not involved with us before we moved, and the only side of the aunt I ever saw was the "polite side", so I don't have any qualms about parting ways.

My problem is that she is too controlling to leave us alone. When people don't please her, she goes out of her way to discredit them, which she has already done to me at one church (I changed parishes, and I don't tell anyone we are related.) I worry she will try to discredit us should we seek to adopt our child. She has lived here so long and been so involved with everything that almost everyone knows her.

I have tried talking with her (she won't let things go), I have tried being polite, and I have tried reaching out to my cousins. They won't acknowledge me, in fear that it would get back to the aunt. What's your opinion of all this? Any ideas on how we can protect ourselves from her, other than moving away, which we can not afford to do?

Signed, Caught in my Aunt's Town

Dear Caught,

Let's assume your aunt is basically a happy and contented person, who knows that everyone admires and likes her. Can you imagine someone in that frame of mind engineering such a destructive chain of events as has befallen you? No? Well neither can I.

Your aunt is almost certainly a desperately unhappy person. She has towering, raging, monumental insecurities. She is neither blind nor stupid, so she knows what others think of her. She has come to be this way because many years ago she had no faith that others would like her or pay any attention to her of their own free will. So one day, probably as a child, she tried being overbearing. Lo and behold, it worked! She was able to bully someone into listening to her ... and there was a momentary high, a personal validation. For a brief moment your aunt actually mattered -- the reaction of that other person made it so in her mind. Her fear became a self-fulfilling prophecy; it caused her to become a person who is difficult to admire.

So her niece moves into town and tries to be polite and reasonable in an attempt to get her to change her time-proven strategy. It won't work. Your aunt could change, but it would mean identifying and addressing all those personal fears of inadequacy. These have been part of her self-image so long that at this point she believes them to be carved in stone. This is her reality. People don't like her (she believes down deep inside, perhaps not even consciously) and they never will. Such longstanding fear is resistant to change. It would require a will to change on her part and considerable therapy to make headway against it. Unfortunately, nothing you say or do will be enough to change her.

Ironically, she has no power over anyone unless they willingly give it to her. If every single person she talks to understands what is going on and refuses to give in to the emotional pressure, then her approach would be utterly ineffective. Unfortunately, many of us are averse to confrontation so her strategy tends to get people to knuckle under to her will. Do you have a shot at changing how most of your small town reacts to your aunt? I doubt it.

The only person you can control in this scenario is you, and it sounds like you are doing what you can in that department. You are holding your head high and refusing to play her game. Good for you. You have put some distance (figuratively) between you and your family, including her, to insulate yourself from the effects. That works for me.

As I see it, though, your primary problem is that you can't insulate yourself from everyone in town. Living in isolation is no fun. So you seem to have two possible strategies. You can seek out others within the community who have also refused to fall under your aunt's spell and choose to fill your life with those folks. If that doesn't seem possible, I would start planning for the day when you can afford to move.

You moved there for the hospital and family. The second one has ceased to be a draw, so that leaves the hospital. Surely other communities have good medical facilities. Your house would sell ... in time. If jobs and income are an issue, start looking elsewhere and something will eventually pop up. You may not be able to afford to move immediately, but I bet you could do so in time.

In a larger community, I would simply advise you to seek out other people. If this is not possible in your small town, your best bet might be to cut your losses and head for less poisoned waters.

All the best,


  1. love this andrew - - the only person you can change is yourself...

    i've been so reminded of that lately!!!

  2. One further comment I have (excellent advice, as always) is that should the folks handling the adoption paperwork decide to spill the beans to the aunt that niece is seeking to adopt, that's grounds for legal action as it's an invasion of privacy & leaking confidential information. The adoption procedure shouldn't be public to anybody that YOU don't tell. Not to say that the aunt can't give everybody a bad impression just by talking, but any person working for the adoption agency talking to the aunt ABOUT the adoption is legally liable for breaching of confidentiality. If it were me, I'd make MY understanding of that clear to the folks running the agency, when I went in to fill out paperwork & whatever else is necessary. Not to come right out and say niece would sue their butts in court, but that she knows her legal rights on the matter. That should give anybody at the agency pause, if they were to think about sharing private info with the aunt.

    Hope it's ok that I add that little aside. Hate that this woman is worried that her aunt will try to go so far as to keep the niece from adopting a child, just out of spite.

  3. I agree, she has no control over anyone unless you let them. This is not the same but I have a baby now. Everyone tells me what I should and should not do. If I don't mind my saying I am doing a great job, and everyone can tell me all I want that he sleeps too often or too little...but my son is just fine.

    They cannot make me something or someone I am not, or make me do something I do not wish to do!

    Hope that helps!

  4. This is an interesting blog and I look forward to reading more of it, but I have to say my eye was caught immediately by the photo you've chosen for the "tyrannical aunt." Readers outside my geographical area may not recognize her, but she's actually a beloved, hardworking public figure. I won't identify her lest someone think she's the real aunt. !! :)

  5. Hi Marnie,
    Thanks for the heads up. Turns out that photo was of a person from an different location and is not a public figure. Since she looks like the person in your area, though, I'm happy to replace it. I've used a painting this time so there is no chance of mistaken identity. Thanks for your help!

  6. Anonymous6:38 PM

    I can say that having been in a similar situation, Andrew's advice to just move is best. You will never, ever change your aunt or your cousins' kowtowing to her (she must be loaded with money and they're waiting for their cut.) And small towns can be terrible for this sort of thing - often life is so routine and the people in them so insular, that they adore every breath of scandal they can get their hands on, gossip endlessly and inaccurately, and make newcomers' lives miserable.

    I hope you're able to change things soon. I've lived with similar situations, family members who behave this way, and small towns where everyone listens to whatever nonsense certain people feel fit to spew. Your only hope for a pleasant and normal life is to get out of the sphere of tyrannical aunt entirely. There are whole parts of the world where nobody even knows who she is! Go for it!

  7. ignore the aunt and lead your life the way you want to.I am sure she is quite transparent and the society out there is not that the mean time explore other avenues as Andrew said.

  8. I used to have an overbearing female boss who was the same way. She was not only interested in running me out, but she wanted to follow me with a long arm.

    I vote move. Forget that part of your family for now. It will change down the road, but not at this point. Not with you living there. Your family is siding with the bully so they won't be her next target. People tend to try to make themselves worthy of a bully. example: school bus fight... students who have no fault with the victim jump in to beat them up.

  9. Hi All,
    No one has brought up narcissism or borderline personality disorder. But, I am leaning toward narcissism. I am going to change the aunt's nickname to Evil Aunt, or possible Evil Ant. Evil Ant is small and powerless, but has a giant ego and self-estimate. She gets off on bullying and controlling everyone around her. Her bullying and control is pathological since it appears that she treats everyone this way if they don't allow her to run their lives.

    I have a mother-in-law who is this way, only more extreme. She is such a bully that her hairdresser and masseuse LITERALLY fired her. She was wreaking so much havoc in my marriage that I started reading every self-help book I had find. But I needed to know more and this situation partially influenced me to get a Master's in Clinical Psychology. This is my second Master's degree. Well, I finally understood what I was dealing with and that people with personality disorders are not able to change. My husband finally put his foot down after I started explaining to him what was going on. Now, he has always suspected narcissism, but since his mom would never see a therapist, there is no diagnosis. My MIL could be a case study for the DSM. No joke.

    So, here is how we deal with it:
    First, we live about 1,500 miles away. Next, my husband goes no contact when she misbehaves horribly. She has insight into the fact that what she does toward me or others s wrong, but she says over and over again that I caused her behavior. Bullshit. That is every abuser's favorite phrase: "You made me hit you" or "you made me threaten you." No, not so. While we cannot control what life throws our way, we can control our response. There is never a legitimate reason to physically attack someone (unless that someone is a stranger in a dark ally and trying to kidnap you or attack you.) We can always choose our behavior and choose our response.

    Have I tried telling her that she hurts me when she acts that way? Of course, I have said, "when you tell me that I am stupid, it hurts my feelings. I would like for you to stop saying that please." Her response? "Well, you are stupid and I am pointing that out to you because I am not a liar like other people. Everyone else thinks you are stupid too, but they are too cowardly to say it." Nope, ghat doesn't work. It's another typical abuser's response.

    So, we live far away and we don't see them often. My husband stopped calling her because every time he does, she tears him down. She tells him he is looming old and needs to lose weight. She tells him he doesn't know how to parent or doesn't make our kids study enough. She tells him that he should not have married me.

    But am I special? No again.

    She did ALL of these things to his ex-wife and caused her to abandon the marriage after about 8 months. His ex-wife was a beautiful physician who had her medical degree from an Ivy League.

    The point I am trying to convey is that no one deserves to be treated that way and your aunt is very abnormal in her behavior. There is no winning with such people and the best thing to do is to move away. Being around people who tear you down day in and day out becomes emotionally and physically exhausting. Your body will start releasing too much cortisol because it doesn't know the difference between a bear chasing you in the forest and an extreme bully. Cortisol ages our internal organs and affects our health. It is just not worth it.

    By the way, I just found this blog yesterday and it is GREAT. It's one of the best psychology blogs I have come across. Sorry for all of my commenting and thanks for listening.