Carolyn Hax: Banishing ‘disappointing’ relatives may cause them painful distress

Carolyn Hax
Columnist August 3, 2014

Adapted from a recent online discussion .

Hi, Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

In a past column , you talked about the difference between cutting off a harmful family member vs. dealing with a disappointing one. If I read correctly, you were saying if the family member is merely a disappointment, then keep the lines of contact open (paraphrasing).

I have a family member who definitely falls on the disappointing end of the scale, but I wonder how much disappointment I’m really supposed to take. Where’s the line? How far do I need to adjust my expectations down before the family member is at the same emotional level as a stranger on the street?


(Nick Galifianakis/The Washington Post)

I’m not opposed to pegging expectations that low, at least in theory. (In practice, yes, it’s nearly impossible to detach that completely.)

Here’s where I’m coming from:

I get a lot of mail and I’ve gotten it for a lot of years, and so when someone describes a family problem, chances are I’ve read some other version of that same family problem a few hundred times, and from many possible vantage points.

One topic that has always been common, but lately seems more so, is the distress of someone whose relative has cut off all contact. And that means I’ve heard from hundreds of parents whose grown children won’t speak to them, or from siblings who’ve been cut off completely, or from the parents/kids/sibs who’ve done the cutting-off.

There is nothing, just nothing, these people can do about it. Most describe living in agony, lying awake at night, replaying things they’ve said and wondering, was that it? Or was it this other thing?

Or they know what they did wrong, are consumed by regret, have apologized sincerely . . . but it wasn’t enough, or the other person won’t even open e-mails or voice mails to let the apology in.

Or the so-called toxic people have refused countless opportunities to see their mistakes — but they’re obtuse, not malicious.

This is not to diminish the pain of being burned by family. My inbox is also jammed with the awful things parents do to their kids or sibs do to each other. Abusive? Goodbye.

“Disappointing” is gray, though, and I see people respond in black-and-white, without full appreciation for the power they wield. Parents can devastate a child. Children can devastate a parent. And so when I see a question like yours, my first thought is, “Use your power judiciously.” Don’t go to war over trifles, and don’t go nuclear — estrangement — unless you’ve exhausted less potent means to save yourself. Estrangement is for relatives who are malicious, unrepentant, harmful. Short of that, my advice is not to be the person who puts that hole in someone’s life. Stop expecting this relative to be anyone but exactly who s/he is, and interact accordingly.

Or just send a birthday card, pick up the phone once a month/quarter/year, send pics of the grandkids, something. Figure out what you can bear, and do it — for yourself and your conscience alone, if it comes to that.

Ultimately you don’t know what the disappointing family member thinks or feels, or how deeply it’ll cut if you vanish. You just know you’re availing yourself of a chance to be the bigger person, and that rarely leads to regrets.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at

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