Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax
Columnist

Carolyn Hax: Trying to set boundaries with judgmental parents

Hi, Carolyn: This question has been stewing for a long time, and I really don’t know what to do. 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 leading up to the wedding that they almost uninvited them. That relationship has since repaired a bit, though there is still a lot of tension.

My parents are now applying the screws to my relationship, my life and all of my decisions. They disapprove. Have resorted to screaming and yelling, angry 2 a.m. e-mails, 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 when we saw him in August” — but the “civility” was palpable tension and anxiety.

Carolyn Hax

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997 as a weekly feature for The Washington Post, accompanied by the work of “relationship cartoonist” Nick Galifianakis. She is the author of “Tell Me About It” (Miramax, 2001), and the host of a live online discussion on Fridays at noon.

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((Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post))

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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 early 30s, and their attitude is a major negative force in my life. How do I make it go away without cutting them out? — 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. e-mails, I feel stressed and [your other feelings here].”

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

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

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

Dear Carolyn: My daughter is engaged. This will be her second marriage and her fiance’s first. 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 are approaching retirement and need to continue throwing money there. We have a son who will probably 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. My daughter is in her early 30s and the fiance is a year younger. — 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.

Preemptive answer for other parents with a question like this in their future: Plan ahead, and not just financially. Also prepare yourselves philosophically by figuring out how you’d handle a child who remarries or doesn’t marry at all; or one who can afford to pay his or her own way vs. one who can’t; or one whose vision of a tasteful wedding differs vastly from yours or from a previously married sibling’s; or just different kids wanting or needing different things from you. We’re all familiar with the power of unintended consequences, but unintended messages pack some serious power, too. Don’t risk sending one by failing to think things through.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

 
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