The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carolyn Hax: When dating people from good families just feels bad

(Nick Galifianakis for The Washington Post)
3 min

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: My family is really dysfunctional. I’ve made peace with it, except for when I date someone from a big, happy, close family, which just highlights the weirdness, such as when they ask what they think are harmless questions, and I’m left either dodging them or answering: “No, I don’t have a favorite food my mom makes, because she stopped cooking after my dad threw a hot casserole at her when I was 9, so it was cold sandwiches until I learned to cook.” Or: “Nope, I don’t see my dad on Father’s Day. My visit would interfere with his drinking.” Or: “No, we don’t really have holiday traditions, because my mom joined so many weird cults.”

At first I tried telling the truth, because a therapist once said to “own” my past, but that was so awkward. Lately, I’ve been dodging, and it’s exhausting.

So I’ve decided not to date anyone unless they come from a similar background. My friend says that’s an “incredibly limiting and self-destructive choice,” but I don’t see another option. Do you?

— Exhausted

Exhausted: I do, and I agree with your friend.

There is vast acreage between dodging completely and telling entire truths every time. For Father’s Day queries: “Not a big thing in my family.” It’s a truth, complete unto itself, and covers a functional family that skips Hallmark holidays, or a “really dysfunctional” one. Only you know the difference until you choose to share.

Same with favorite foods from Mom: “Sandwiches? Mom didn’t cook.” True, and true enough. People aren’t as attentive to your history as you are.

Or tell truths without the sledgehammer: “Mom joining cults was our tradition. My childhood was … ‘interesting.’” [Air quotes.]

I’m thinking you know this, though — and maybe your erf-it-I’m-done-with-happy-families is less about what to say than how to stop being constantly reminded of the chances you didn’t have.

And if so? Absolutely fair.

But, back to your friend’s observation: Denying yourself an entire category of people — one that almost by definition won’t reenact your family trauma on you — seems like a permanent, self-defeating fix to a temporary problem.

Last thing: Close families have their weird, too. They’re people. Can’t help themselves. You fit in more than you think.

Last last thing: A healthy, compassionate family will welcome you and not treat you like an exhibit.

Readers say:

· Do yourself a favor, and date the happy family! You are worthy, regardless of your parents’ choices. I dated dysfunction for years so I wouldn’t be rejected by healthy families. Thank goodness I didn’t marry until I realized I belonged at a healthy table, too. My husband’s family welcomed me, even with my extended family struggles. Hugs to you, friend!

· Stick to people who take you at your word about the weirdness. I have a family of real oddballs, and I wouldn’t date anyone who said, “Oh, that couldn’t really have happened,” or, “I’m sure they meant well.”

· When I want to give the straight dope on my crappy family, it’s usually because I’m sad, insecure, jealous or angry — but, most of all, resentful — that others didn’t have to grow up with the kind of abuse I experienced. When I can accept that none of what happened to me was my fault? I don’t feel that need to slam on the conversation brakes with a shocker about my mom. Resentment is not something you want to bring into any relationship; might be worth exploring what triggers it. And if you need to hear it: You do deserve to be happy.