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Carolyn Hax: Unplanned family get-togethers are pushing her away

By Carolyn Hax
Friday, September 10, 2010; C07

Dear Carolyn:

I have for the most part gotten along really well with my in-laws. However, their lack of planning has really started to bug me. Kids' birthday parties, holidays, adult milestone birthdays, you name it, they always plan last-minute and expect everyone to come. It's not uncommon to get an e-mail or phone call on a Sunday for the following weekend.

Twice this summer I asked a month ahead if there would be a party for two upcoming birthdays. Both times I was told no. My husband and I made other plans. Then, last-minute, we were told yes, there would be a get-together -- and in one case that we were expected to help pay for it. I am torn between not going on principle next time this happens, and feeling that family comes first and we should cancel prior plans to attend family events.

I nicely tried to mention to one of the family ringleaders that it would be helpful if we could all plan ahead more, and she told me she is too busy to think ahead. That makes no sense to me.

Do we start canceling on principle, or should I try to broach the subject again -- and if so, how?

Let's Plan Ahead!

Define "expect." If you don't go, do your in-laws punish you with guilt trips, histrionics, silent treatments? Or do they just hope you'll come, and express proportionate disappointment when you can't?

The answer wouldn't change what you need to do about it, which is simple -- attend the things you can, and miss the things you must, for plainly expressed reasons: "Oh, no, we're busy next Saturday."

Instead, what your in-laws expect will determine the appropriate attitude toward this problem.

If you're being treated as outlaws or ingrates for having your own plans, then you're right to wrap yourself in principle. Don't skip anything just to make a point, gack -- getting huffy never solved anything -- but do have the courage to decide what you want and stick to it, histrionics notwithstanding.

If, on the other hand they're just hoping you'll come vs. expecting it, then your attitude needs some adjusting.

It's normal to want to please people, and saying no is hard when you want to please someone. With in-laws, that desire to please often feels more like pressure -- and from that position, saying no starts to look like a risk.

By trying to poke/prod/plead with your in-laws to change their ways (to, uh, yours), you're essentially asking them not to put you in the position of having to say no to them. While understandable, that's taking the whole I-want-to-please-you transaction a little too far, by blaming them because you have to say no.

If, again, you're not getting any nasty blowback for missing some family events, then they're not really doing anything to hurt you; it's hard to see collective disorganization as personal.

So that puts the responsibility on you, to act on your preferences without rancor. If you prefer attending family events, then cancel your other plans. If you prefer to stick to your original plans, then own your feelings about it: "I wish we'd known sooner -- I feel bad when we miss family parties."

Whether these consequences motivate your in-laws to start thinking ahead is, rightly and entirely, up to them.

Write to Tell Me About It, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com.

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