I don’t know what I did wrong: What should I do?

Posted by
3D printed question mark cookie cutter from Etsy seller Atomade

Here’s the deal: My brother and sister-in-law cut off my entire family right after they were married. When we asked them what we had done/what we could do to reconcile, they said, “You know what you did, and you have to apologize.”

My parents said that they were truly sorry, but they weren’t clear on how we all went wrong. Their response: “Then your apology doesn’t count. You can’t apologize until you apologize for what you did.”

It’s confusing and hurtful, to say the least. But we’ve all been left with self-esteem issues, too — worried that we’re capable of causing incredible damage to our loved ones, without even knowing it.

I suppose there’s not much to be done, other than to discuss it amongst ourselves and go to therapy. But if anybody has a great idea for helping us make peace when you don’t know what you did wrong, I’d definitely appreciate it. -Dentata

We have talked so much about working with dealing with difficult family members, ending relationships with difficult family members, and repairing relationships with family members. But what if you’re on the other end? But what if YOU are the one someone’s been reading and writing all those articles about? Let’s talk about how to be the best difficult family member you can be!

I think this is the key statement from your question: “We’re worried that we’re capable of causing incredible damage to our loved ones, without even knowing it.”

Maybe if you appeal to them with that issue it might (for lack of a better phrase) help them help you?

Maybe you could reach out to them and say something like this:

I recognize I may have damaged things irreparably with you, but I hope you can give me feedback so that I can learn from the pain I caused you and make an effort not to inadvertently do it again — either to you, or to anyone else.

I have NO expectation that you’ll accept me back into your life, if that’s not something you’re prepared to do. But I’d love for this to be a learning experience for myself. If you could help me learn from this, I would appreciate it. Though I totally understand if you don’t want to.

Other than that, I don’t really have any more advice other than what you already said: therapy and supporting each other.

What are your pieces of advice for what to do when you don’t know what you did wrong?

Comments on I don’t know what I did wrong: What should I do?

  1. I would take a good long look at stuff that happened around the time they were married if they cut you out right after. Regardless of wether it is objectively “wrong” or not, clearly some expectation they had of your family was not met.

    Did HER family do anything different? Were you asked to do X but couldn’t? Is it a money thing? Was there loud or disorderly conduct? Families work differently, what can seem normal (ie the rowdy drunk argueing on my Dad’s irish side) can be perceived very differently by another (my uptight French mom’s side).

    After that, well it is a matter of you deciding if this perceived wrong is worth the effort of trying to get back in their good graces. Warning; it might not. Speaking with each seperately might help.

    Or let time pass and see how things turn out. I was estranged from my family for a number of years and it truly was a necessary step for me in recovering from a dysfunctional dynamic. Sometimes, it’s easier to just dump everyone in the same boat and cut contact, rather than cultivating shades of (perceived) “evil” and having people stuck in the middle.

    I am currently experiencing the opposite (my brother not talking to anyone) and it sucks and I really just want to tell him I support him. But I understand, and respect his chosen path and hope eventually he will feel strong enough to have contact.

  2. I used to have a “if you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you” sort of person in my life. Honestly, I think it comes down to their expectations for how family is supposed to work, based on what they grew up with. They take it very personally if you don’t follow the same script. Combining family and traditions can sometimes get tricky, and it’s important to maintain healthy communication, which is something your brother and his wife appear to struggle with. If you attempt to suss things out and are rebuffed, understand that for the moment, it’s more about their perception of the situation and they’re tying your hands. Therapy is definitely a good plan. Sometimes it helps see things you may have missed. It helped me let things go and stay open to the possibility of reconciling, without being bitter. Good luck!

  3. I personally find this an incredibly petty and immature way to deal with having been hurt. It’s passive aggressive and manipulative. I have no patience for people who choose to communicate this way, family members included, and if they don’t want to have an open discussion about what’s going on, that’s their prerogative. Of course I would reflect on what I might have done to contribute to whatever problem they perceive, but I would also NOT play this petulant game. And that might mean long-term estrangement.

    • I feel the same way. The “you know what you did” makes me so angry. Obviously, they don’t know. And if you’re not willing to at least express what you’re angry/hurt about, then how can you possibly expect an apology?

      In the same situation, I think I’d say something like “I’d really like to repair our relationship, and am willing to apologize. But I truly and honestly don’t know what I did to upset you. I would love to hear what I did to hurt you.”

      • Yeah, it says that’s what she did, and this would also probably be my initial impulse. If after asking once they continued this bullshit, I wouldn’t try again. I’d certainly try to figure it out by talking to other friends and family, and like I said, self-reflect, but I think this behavior is so toxic, and if this is how they would be going forward, good riddance. I have a lifetime of experience with estrangement from different family members, and I’ve seen how healthy it CAN be (even though it’s hard), so to me, if that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes. And if it’s something really, really serious, they’ll eventually reach out again. It might look ugly, but I have a strong sense they would.

    • Agreed. It’s totally possible that they’re upset by a very legitimate issue, but if they won’t accept an apology because it’s “not good enough” and STILL won’t tell someone what they want an apology for, that’s their problem.

    • Oh, this brings up so many painful memories! “You know what you did!” was a favorite in my family, and I met one other person who did that to me, too. But I ultimately found out it was a cruel way to keep the other person off-balance and to continue to poison their lives without the inconvenience of actually being there. I thought I was horrible! But I have since found out that most people like me, even those who get to know me closely. It’s taken years, but I have had plenty of evidence that I wasn’t the problem, that in fact I’m an all-right human being.

      • This is so what I meant in my comment below by crazy making!

        I had friendship in which the other person took huge offence when we were discussing an issue they were struggling with and I gently played devil’s advocate. Our friendship was very much one of talking over issues (although I realise now it was toxic co-rumination) and I thought we had reached a stage where there was enough mutual respect to do this, in fact I’m sure we’d already done it. This person stewed over it and then called me for a summit where I was informed that my behaviour was unacceptable and not what a friend should do, apparently I should support them completely. I was more than happy to apologise IF my actions had caused hurt and examine whether maybe it was not the right time to play devil’s advocate (and also look at expectations about friendship) but that wasn’t good enough, for this person I had to agree with them and take total responsibility otherwise it wasn’t a proper apology. That’s not a conversation that’s an accusation to which I was supposed to answer guilty as charged, or else I’m out, and that’s not how friendships work for me.

        Long story short we stopped hanging out but re-connected a few years later when it seemed like this person had grown and changed. They did it to me again (this time the charge was that I was spending too much time caring for a relative with serious self-harm issues which apparently I had over reacted to). This time when I was called to summit and accused, I asked this person how they saw the friendship proceeding once I did what they asked and tellingly they couldn’t answer me.
        Each time I examined my own behaviour hugely and agonised over whether this person was right. I was more than willing to discuss it and try and learn but all they wanted was for me to agree, anything else was betrayal. I can look at it now and see how clearly inbalanced that was but at the time it was very very confusing. Bottom line is I can’t work with this person anymore and they don’t make me feel safe, even now several years later. Every so often they try and get me back (and it really was only a friendship!) and I always say I wish them well but am happy with how things are. I can talk about it quite confidently now but it really messed with my mind at time. Evidence that you are not a bad person from other relationships is good too, but when you are really sucked in can be hard to believe.

  4. My brother and sister-in-law did the same thing, except they told us that they couldn’t talk to my family since we weren’t of the same religion. They’re some sort of unknown baptist apparently, my parents are southern baptist and my husband and I are Universal Unitarians. We’re apparently going to corrupt them and their children.

    It hurt for awhile, but we have since chosen to fill our lives with people that want to be with us instead of trying to force people to communicate that do not want to be there. It’s hard, but you need to focus forward, because it is them that will have to either explain what is wrong or learn to deal what they feel is broken. You cannot fix what you do not understand and it could be something completely off the wall and crazy sounding that they found upsetting.

  5. If someone’s behaviour is so toxic that you can no longer have a relationship with them then yes, carrying on talking about it with them becomes pointless and eventually you have to just flat out inform them there will be no contact. I am struggling to see how demanding apologies and refusing to say what for and then setting impossible goals (how can you apologise before you apologise or is there a typo there somewhere?) is the same thing, it seems precisely about keeping engaged in the argument and trying to control the situation to me.

    Clearly the relatives who have cut you off have some kind of standard that you and the rest of your family haven’t met but that you haven’t met it doesn’t mean it was reasonable. It may even be as silly as for example, it’s standard practice in one family to give flowers on a birthday but not in another. A reasonable reaction on not receiving the flowers you’ve come to expect on your birthday would be “Oh well I guess they do it differently” but an unreasonable one (almost certainly from a place of pain from something else) would be “they hate me”. It’s exactly this kind of misunderstanding that leads to the profoundly unhelpful and in my opinion pretty toxic itself “well if you don’t know….” Ever notice how that sentence always ends with dot dot dot and no one learns anything?

    Winkling this out will probably mean finding out what the thing was that set this off and caused everything that followed it to be interpreted in the light of it but it may take time for that to be able to happen. All you can do is give these relatives the space they claim they need and try occasionally.
    It’s true that toxic people don’t often understand how their behaviour has affected someone else or what they did but that doesn’t mean that if someone flings an accusation at you and you just don’t get it, that they are right. I’ve been on the end of this and it’s crazy making, in the end I cut off contact with the person (who wasn’t a family member) after they did it a second time. I honestly think though that time and therapy on your own is the probably the most helpful thing here, it’s really worth taking some time to think how you react to emotional manipulation and giving yourself some emotional armour before any attempts to re-engage.

    Finally I just wanted to say it is amazing how even the worst situations can repair themselves by which I don’t mean hang everything on hoping it will, but know there is every chance the situation can become more bearable. My family is coming together again after some horrible fall outs in the wake of my father’s death, and few months ago I just couldn’t see this coming. Good luck.

  6. Is there someone else close to the couple that you can reach out to and ask? That would probably be my approach, but I don’t know if it’s the right one in this situation. It could go very wrong if they’ve told all their friends not to talk to you as well, and would see that as a violation of trust, but it might be the only way to find out what they’re upset about.

    • I would never try to tell my friends who they could and could not talk to, regardless of my relationship with that other person. How could you be any more controlling without a leash? It’s okay to ask a friend not to tell someone else a secret, though not to choose their company for them, but if the secret is, “Don’t tell them what they did wrong”, that’s just cruel.

      I’d say go ahead and ask around for a third-party perspective. Sometimes the best thing you can do is find a witness with a little bit of objective distance from the family dysfunction.

  7. Is it just me, or are everyone’s red flags going up?

    Limiting/terminating contact with family is classic spousal abuse behavior. Cutting Grandma McHomophobe or Uncle McRacistface out of one’s life (especially after having given them plenty of opportunities to play nice) is one thing….but an entire side of a family?

    Even if the couple’s upset is completely well-founded (say, the entire family behaved truly outrageously, or ganged up on somebody) you deserve to know what you did wrong. Heck, even war criminals and mass murderers get to hear what they are guilty of before they are sentenced.

    This “if you don’t know, I’m not gonna tell you,” philosophy smacks of gaslighting and manipulation…at best, immaturity, at worst, more classic traits of an abuser.

    Even if this is just leftover bride-/groom-zilla-ing, and there is no potential abuse going on, be honest with yourself in assessing your behavior, and try to keep the lines of communication open, if possible (at least with your brother – he may need it down the road). You can continue to ask politely what upset them so, but hold firm that THEY have to grow up and spell out their grievances like adults (they’re *married* for Pete’s sake!) before any blame can be doled out.

  8. Your brother and sister-in-law need to grow up and communicate like adults instead of expecting a whole family to guess at what they’ve done wrong.  Until they’re ready to communicate like adults, I’d focus on your own issues through therapy.  Maybe you were a jerk to them; maybe you weren’t and they’re the jerks.  The only person’s behavior you can improve is your own.

    Sent from my Sprint Samsung Galaxy Note5.

  9. I’m a little intrigued into what single action an entire family can make. I mean, what thing did you all do en masse?

    I can’t offer any proper advice I’m afraid. I would be all “you know what YOU did that started all this nonsense, you apologise”. Flip the vague blame and let it sit in their heads instead. But I would imagine you are a much better person than me!

  10. I am feeling a little skeptical that this has come entirely out of the blue. As has been discussed here before, it’s a big, difficult decision to cut someone off, and keep them cut off. It’s usually a last resort, and comes after other attempts to discuss the estranged person’s behaviour with them. It may be a request that you didn’t feel you could honour (e.g. not talking to another family member), or a request you feel you have complied with (e.g. respecting a boundary around visiting them unannounced), or a request you didn’t realise was important to them (e.g. giving gifts when they’ve said they don’t want to exchange presents).

    You might find “She divorced me because I left dishes by the sink” useful in terms of looking back at your behaviour and identifying tiny triggers that could have lead to this. Often the issue isn’t just the initial behaviour but the failure to change it. If you repeatedly ignores requests to stop doing something that bothers a person, that person is eventually forced to conclude that (a) you don’t care enough to listen to them, (b) you think your desires are more important than their needs, or (c) you actively want to hurt them. And once that point is reached, they find it hard to justify maintaining the toxic relationship any longer, and that include wasting emotional energy on explaining yet again what the issue is: after all, if you didn’t listen before why should they expect you to now?

    In terms of moving forward, you may not be able to identify the cause of the rift, and hard as it is you may just have to accept that. Pushing them for answers is only going to rub their nose in it further. Instead, look at ways to work on active listening skills and how to discuss boundaries (because sometimes you’re going to have different boundaries, and you’ll need to negotiate on how to compromise in both directions).

    • I am also feeling skeptical that this came out of the blue. Have your brother and sister-in-law had a tendency in the past to make unreasonable demands or power plays, or are they generally reasonable and kind people? If they are generally selfish and dramatic people, perhaps this is just the latest in a series of selfish and dramatic power plays and there’s nothing the rest of your family specifically did to cause it. If they are generally reasonable and kind people, though, it sounds like they believe they have previously told you what was upsetting them. Sometimes it can be easy for family to believe a serious request is flippant or not really important (you claim this is an alcohol-free wedding? no big deal, we’ll sneak in some flasks and everyone will be happy!) when it is in actuality a very serious request.

      One way or another, I find it very difficult to believe this was out of the blue– it seems more likely to me that either your brother and sister-in-law have a history of unreasonable demands, or your family has some screwed up dynamics that have been negatively affecting your brother for a long time. We are all capable of causing terrible damage to people we love without realizing it–that’s part of being human. Being good people doesn’t mean never causing damage, it just means trying to do better next time. Either way, therapy is probably a good idea.

  11. This might contrast with some of my earlier statements above, but I’m trying to look at all angles. Could denial itself be the thing wrong? Sometimes we put a lot of work into not noticing the elephant in the room. We can be innocent of everything except enabling, but even that is forgivable because survival might have pushed us into a corner, especially when the bad thing was all we ever knew since childhood, and pretending it wasn’t there was the only way to stay half-functional. Yet even though it’s forgivable, somebody trying to break away might need to escape not only the offender, but those in the offender’s thrall. Perhaps a dynamic rather than a specific person or thing is the culpret.

  12. “No, I don’t actually know what I did because I have to get black-out drunk to deal with your insufferable passive-aggressive ass. So you can either tell me or I’ll just assume it was richly deserved.”

    Sorry. Normally I try to be sympathetic to all sides but I can’t with the whole “you know what you did” flounce. It sounds like your brother and sister-in-law are really enjoying holding onto their “hurt”. Maybe they even have ulterior motives for instigating this breach. ( I mean, it’s a little weird your entire family pissed them off all at once and nobody can figure out why.) Either way you’re not going to get anywhere with them until they decide they want reconciliation. Even if you have been unknowingly horrible, you’re not going to get a chance to make amends until they’re done playing their little game.

    I wouldn’t spend any time second-guessing what you did. You’ll just beat yourself up imagining worse and worse things. I would just delivery the speech Megan wrote in the post and … wait.

    Sorry. Sometimes life is sucky like that. 🙁

  13. I think there is a strong possibility that someone here DOES know what happened. Just because no one will admit it does not mean it did not happen. In fact, that seems the most likely scenario to me.

    It’s possible one of your parents or siblings revealed something awful around the time of the wedding, and your brother and sister-in-law believe you all know about it. Perhaps someone made unwanted sexual advances to someone in the bride’s family. Maybe there’s a history of abuse you don’t know about, and the new bride didn’t find out from her husband until after their marriage. It could be as simple as an unpaid bill from the wedding that your brother then had to figure out how to cover.

    Or they could just be immature jerks. But, since you don’t give an indication that this is normal behavior from either of them, I’d assume this is pretty serious. Someone is hiding something, and it sounds like it’s pretty big, so I’d cut your brother and SIL some slack. If you come to them with compassion and a willingness to believe their side of the story, you might be able to make them feel safe with you. Then the truth might finally come out.

  14. These things don’t just come out of the blue. If there is no previous indications that brother and sister-in-law are crazy drama-mongers, then there’s a reason for this estrangement. Chances are, someone’s been told it. You specifically might not have been, especially if you are used to keeping contact with your brother through another relative, but someone has heard the reason and is pretending they haven’t.

    Now, why would someone do that? In my experience with my husband’s dysfunctional family, “I don’t know why this person is upset” is a statement used to mean “this person has told me why they are upset, and I don’t like that reason/I think it is silly/I don’t want to believe it, therefore it must not be the *real* reason, and so I have not been told why this person is upset. This person is refusing to tell me this.”

    Unfortunately, rejecting the answer one is given does not equal not receiving an answer, and the logic above is false logic.

    For example, when we visited my husband’s family a couple of years back, his sister and mother went out of their way to disparage my husband’s career. When his mother later asked why he didn’t talk to her much after, he indicated that she had not been welcoming to us. She said they’d acted like normal. He said they’d made fun of him. She said stop being sensitive. He then stopped talking to her for a month, and she pretended to be the hurt party because, in her mind, she hadn’t been given a reason. But really, she was rejecting the one she had been given.

    I don’t know what happened in your family, but someone does. If that person is not you, you need to stop relying on group communication and reach out personally to your brother, saying specifically that others may know the reason but you do not and wish you did. Follow the letter in the article above, stating that if they choose not to respond, you will respect their decision and not contact them further, but that you are truly in the dark. Then prepare yourself to listen. They may say things you don’t want to hear. They may say nothing. That’s their decision, and as an adult, you need to accept it. If you cannot accept that happening, don’t reach out.

Join the Conversation