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Carolyn Hax: How to stop the hurt when family relationships fall short

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Dear Carolyn: You have given advice for years along the lines of, “This person/situation will not change, so you need to face reality and change your expectations to align with this reality.”

I hear that. I have relationships with family members where I need to do this exact thing. But … how do I get over the hurt? Why can’t my family members themselves change and become more healthy? How do I get through the pain of realizing the “new” reality and my “new” expectations mean I’ll always be disappointed or hurt by what they should be doing?

Or does this mean I’m actually NOT facing reality, and I haven’t adjusted my expectations?

— Hurt

Hurt: Yes, that. To be disappointed or hurt “always” is a sign you’re still going into situations looking for them to do something different, say something different, be different, and still having those incremental hopes dashed.

Dropping your hopes to zero is not a magic wand. It’s not realistic to suggest you can let go of expectations, longings or entire relationships and not feel any ill effects. It’s still going to feel sad; the goal is merely for it not to feel frustrating or disappointing anymore on an endless, soul-sucking loop.

That’s why a good companion to letting go of expectations is letting go of assumptions, too. You don’t know why they are this way — what they’re able to do, what they want to do, how they feel. Your family members have reasons for not changing that are complicated and fully theirs. The word “should” is not your friend.

A practical take on this is to replace “Why can’t they”-type questions with telling yourself, “They just can’t,” because it will always be true in some respect. They can’t until they do.

About that. You phrase my advice as, “This person/situation will not change,” but that’s not necessarily accurate. They might. Who knows. Other people just won’t change to our specifications on our timelines under our control or pressure. They’ll change or not change based on their own calculations.

We can only ask for the treatment we prefer and accept their answers as final, then choose our path forward accordingly.

Let’s look at your “old” and “new” reality and expectations. First, have you: (a) Identified changes to the way you want to be treated, and (b) asked your family members for them, with (c) consequences attached? To use a common example:

“My relationship status/lifestyle/family planning/body/career is my business (a), and I ask that you stop commenting on it (b).” After which you never again respond to such prying from them except by calmly, calmly, calmly changing the subject, ending the call or leaving the room (c).

If you haven’t taken these steps, then summon the courage to do so. Use your agency in its simplest form, by exercising your right to choose what conversations you will and won’t have.

If you have done this, then have you held your line firmly? And given that strategy enough time to work? Unhealthy people push back against new boundaries, often intensifying the very behaviors you’re saying no to. It can take weeks, months or longer for people to process that you will no longer react or respond to their antics.

If you have done this, then have you accepted that you’ve progressed with them as far as they’re able, and must behave with them accordingly?

Again, no magic here. Although, when you start to trust yourself — when you’re confident you’re doing the right thing and your limits will hold? It can feel suspiciously good.

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