Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax
Columnist

Carolyn Hax: When should a giver give up and cut family ties?

Dear Carolyn:

I’ve always been the one in my family to give whenever possible. When I went to college, I took on student loans so my sister wouldn’t have to. A few years later, when her car died, I purchased a new one and gave her mine. When family needed help, I was always there.

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)

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Now I’m trying to purchase a house, and no one seems the least bit interested in helping me. I swallowed my pride and asked for financial assistance, even if it was a “loan,” and was told tough toenails.

Would it be wrong for me to cut my family out of my life? I feel as if I was the great son whenever I went out of my way to help, but now I’m just some annoyance.

Always the Giver

It would be wrong, because it’s the family version of going nuclear in response to, technically, a first offense.

There is a qualifier for sure: For you to have been so giving in the past, and for you now to be receiving zero sympathy from your family, suggests this isn’t a first offense so much as an awakening to the possibility you’ve been taken for granted for quite some time.

Nevertheless, your awakening — “Wow, my family isn’t what I’ve always thought it was” — is resounding in its banality, except perhaps in degree. What young adult doesn’t experience that first moment of seeing childhood assumptions through adult eyes and thinking, “Ouch”?

If everyone reacted to that pain by deciding to sever all ties to family, then we’d have to redefine family from “emotional core” to “food and shelter till the day we can bust out and not look back.”

That’s some bankrupt stuff, especially for a man with a generous heart.

So please look at your family with some of your signature generosity. Consider, say, that they’d have helped if they were able but aren’t right now. Maybe they didn’t explain this out of shame. Maybe you didn’t anticipate this because you’ve long been seeing the family you want to see, and not the one you have.

Or, maybe they always saw your sacrifices as thoughtful but ill-advised and didn’t try to stop you because they were letting you be you, something else you could have missed by seeing them as you wanted to see them.

Or, maybe they’re exactly the takers you see them for now. But isn’t it sad for them, in that case, to lack the emotional range to appreciate the beauty in giving?

No matter which revised view of your family is accurate, you can maintain your integrity without cutting ties by expressing your disappointment and listening to their response, waiting to see what else you learn about your family with this new information in mind, remaining in touch but saving your generosity for people who appreciate and reciprocate it and remaining generous knowing you can’t expect the same of your family or anyone else.

Giving as a transaction isn’t giving. The only return on true giving is to feel good, and if you don’t feel good, then don’t do it.

These people made you the giver you are. Consider letting this latest experience with them make you emotionally smarter about your gifts, instead of just angry and gone.

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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