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Originally published Sunday, November 3, 2013 at 6:30 AM

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How to set boundaries with badgering parents

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax hears from an adult whose parents are “applying the screws” to a relationship and other life choices.


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Dear Carolyn

DEAR CAROLYN: Two years ago my brother and his now-wife were preparing to get married and felt so much pressure, judgment and negativity from my parents that they almost uninvited them. That relationship has repaired, though there is still tension.

My parents are now applying the screws to my relationship, my life and all of my decisions. They have resorted to screaming and yelling, angry 2 a.m. emails, and making it blatantly clear my significant other is unwelcome at holidays. They say, “But he’s welcome! I think we were very civil to him” — but the “civility” was palpable tension and anxiety.

I’ve explained boundaries to them: that if this relationship DOES work, they’re making it really stressful, and if it doesn’t, I will distance myself super far away from them to avoid this type of intervention in the future.

I’m a happy, successful person in my 30s. How do I make it go away without cutting them out?

— Concerned

DEAR CONCERNED: I appreciate the idea of a boundary, but what you set down is not a boundary, it’s a pair of consequences. Consequences are an important part of boundaries, which I’ll get to in a second, but they need to be immediate, concrete and directed at the people whose invasiveness you’re trying to thwart.

One of your consequences is so deep into the future as to be nearly abstract: If your relationship doesn’t work out — in however many months or years you give it to play out — then you’ll move away? Imagine a mousetrap that snaps two years post-snatching of cheese.

Your other consequence is “making it really stressful” — for you. So, they snatch the cheese, and you get snapped?

A viable boundary involves a cause (their behavior), an effect (your response to their behavior), a clear statement of your position and a direct consequence:

Cause: “Mom, Dad — recently you’ve responded to my choices with pressure, judgment and negativity, and you did a similar thing to Brother as he was planning his wedding.”

Effect: “When you scream, yell and send me 2 a.m. emails, I feel stressed and (other feelings).”

Position: “I will no longer discuss my relationship or decisions with you — not until you’re ready to trust that you raised me well enough to handle my own life.”

Consequence: If they keep up the hysterics, you respond calmly and decisively by ... hanging up the phone/leaving the room/deleting the email/opting out of the family holiday.

This gives your parents a chance to make an immediate connection — that if they impose their opinions when you haven’t asked for them, you will not stick around to be badgered. Better they learn this now, in low-conflict, single-encounter-size increments.

DEAR CAROLYN: My daughter is engaged. This will be her second marriage. Her first wedding was a traditional, expensive affair that my wife and I paid for.

We are wondering what we should be doing for her second wedding. We have a son who likely will be getting married in a year or two and another son who hopefully will be following suit in the not distant future. First marriages for both.

– Anonymous

DEAR ANONYMOUS: Short answer: Do whatever you want.

Slightly less short answer: Do what you can afford and think is fair to all your kids.

Preachy answer: Don’t let your opinion of marriage or remarriage influence your decision. When your kids are old enough to marry, they’re old enough to be spared attempts at puppeteering by purse strings.

Contingent answer: Hope she doesn’t expect or ask you for anything and makes this whole question a moot point.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com and follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax. Find her columns daily at www.seattletimes.com/living



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