Keeping family from getting too close
Carolyn Hax advises a reader whose parents want the family to get together every weekend.
Adapted from a recent online discussion.
DEAR CAROLYN: My parents want to hang out with my husband and me every weekend, and often invite us to do things far in advance. We enjoy spending time with them, but we need to start turning more of these invitations down to see other people and prepare for our upcoming baby.
How can I politely decline an invitation when I can’t give a specific reason? We can’t offer to reschedule because we already have plans with my parents for the weekends before and after the one in question. Whenever I turn them down, they ask what we’ll be doing that weekend instead, and they are very sensitive to any impression that we’re choosing other people over them.
– Packed Calendar
DEAR PACKED CALENDAR: Oh my goodness. You say, “We have other plans,” and when they press, you draw a line. “Mom/Dad, I love you and enjoy your company. We have friends, though, too, and also need our alone time.” If they press even more, then you say, “I’m happy to make plans with you (your preferred frequency). Beyond that our time is spoken for.”
That “very sensitive” says they almost certainly won’t take it well, but the longer you put off this reckoning, the worse it’s going to get.
Parents and adult kids with healthy relationships (by my U.S. standards, for sure) don’t have to have this conversation. Kids start “choosing other people over” their parents in early elementary school and hardly look back. They come home to family, yes — and count on them, and feel strongly attached ... and after they launch into the world they usually reserve meaningful times for family ... and sometimes even move near each other — but the expectation that you will be each other’s entertainment to the exclusion of others is atypical.
If there is not a cultural foundation for this expectation in your family — if they expect you to fall in line just because they want you to — then please consider talking to a good family therapist about the mechanics of drawing boundaries.
DEAR CAROLYN: Yes, I have been to therapy about my relationship with my parents — things were much, much worse for most of my life, with a lot of blowups and silent treatments on their end and tears on mine. Now I’m much more able to tell them no and (privately) roll my eyes at their reaction rather than getting upset.
It’s not a cultural thing for us, but I’m their only child, they don’t have any other friends or strong family ties, and they don’t even get along with each other that well, so I get a lot of focus and pressure. It’s good to be reminded that isn’t normal. I guess it’s time for a harder line.
– Packed Calendar again
DEAR PACKED CALENDAR AGAIN: It is. I’m sorry you’re in this position. Parents choose to have children and assume obligations to care for them accordingly. They do not confer obligations to their kids, be it to support said parents in their dotage, or entertain them on weekends, or even to show gratitude for all the bottom-wiping and rides to soccer.
Certainly thoughtful children come to a sense of gratitude and duty on their own, but it’s not the parents’ place to decide the what, when or how.