Dear Carolyn: I am in my 30s and live on the opposite coast from my family. We speak about once a month and exchange casual e-mails. Our relationship is generally fraught and I have gone years at a time without more than cursory communication with them.
I got divorced this year; it was as amicable as possible. I decided to try being open with my parents about it, and they ramped up our communication to phone calls every other week and more frequent
e-mails. They also gave me a significant sum of money to clear some debts, which I did not solicit but have really appreciated, and they know it.
I had wondered when I’d have to pay for their kindness, and the answer is now. They think I should give up my career and life here and move back in with them. I have refused this, but we had agreed I would come stay with them for Thanksgiving week. My sister, who lives locally, will also be staying there with her cats.
My mother recently called to worry at length about how my presence would affect the cats. Once I calmed down, I sent my dad a brief e-mail saying my feelings were hurt. He replied immediately saying never mind about the cats, and they are all very much looking forward to reconnecting with me, but I should understand that my mother has been very stressed about my divorce, among other things, and it’s important I’m there to cheer her up about it.
He then added that they are holding off booking their summer vacation for next year until they know what my future plans are, and as the delay is costing them money I need to confirm where I will be next summer as soon as possible.
None of this is out of character for them, but it’s still pretty hurtful. I was prepared to grit my teeth and get through Thanksgiving to show my thanks for the money and try to improve our relationship, but not if I’m expected to play second fiddle to some cats and arrange my future to my parents’ convenience. I feel like I’m being blackmailed.
If I cancel this trip, I feel like this will cause a rift that will be almost impossible to repair. How do I handle my parents? I need to begin repaying this money, right? — More Important Than My Sister’s Cats
Yes, you do, in the biggest installments you can manage.
More important, though, you need to recognize that taking offense reflexively at each bizarre thing your parents say is undermining your goal of getting along with them. Seeing your mom’s cat ramblings, for example, as a straight declaration of preference for the feelings of the cats? That’s looking for the negative, which puts you on the defensive, which moves you to distance yourself, which Mom will notice and likely respond to with more angsty, off-topic concerns like the cats’ social graces.
Instead, take a step back and look at your mom’s call in the context of your years of tetchy relations. You might instead see her whole detour into cat psychology as a convenient proxy for her fear this visit won’t go well.
It’s certainly not a stretch to conclude that she lacks the emotional skill to say to you, “I know we’ve struggled to get along in recent years, but I miss you and hope we can do right by you this week” — or to say nothing at all while resolving to be patient, flexible and upbeat. Communication problems are your letter’s prevailing theme.
Take the vacation loopiness (please). Couldn’t it be that your parents are fretting (anachronistically) about your social and financial place in the world post-divorce and their subsequent duty toward you — and, lacking the ways and words to make this anxiety manageable, pinning it to their travel plans?
You can apply context and perspective, too, to the way you respond to your parents, combined with strong resolve to break the habit of assuming the worst of them. Assume instead they’re trying their best — and remain focused on your let’s-all-get-along goal: “Hmm, maybe I will freak out the cats . . . but let’s play it by ear. I’m sure we can solve any problems that arise.” Or, “Oh gosh, Dad, don’t hold up your vacation plans on my account — I’m not moving anywhere. Well, except forward, right?”
As for your “cheer[ing] her up about” your divorce, that’s a nutshell explanation for your fraught relationship: Your parents see your problems as theirs to solve — and, by extension, they want you to relieve any discomfort or stress they incur. Ugh. For that, long term, you can only hold the line — “I’ve got this, thanks” — and pay them back ASAP.
Last thing. Thanks to some delightful antecedent trouble, your dad assured you the cats “are all very much looking forward to reconnecting” with you. Just a smile to pack for your trip.