The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Time to stop being tugged between family’s and boyfriend’s demands

(Nick Galifianakis/The Washington Post)

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

My family is forcing me to choose between them and my boyfriend, and I feel torn. I am 24 and the first to leave the nest; Boyfriend and I have been together a little over a year and plan to get engaged next year. My family is not crazy about him and does not want to invite him to some family events since he isn’t family yet.

My natural inclination is to cave in order to keep the peace, but Boyfriend is not one to cave. He sees my parents’ exclusion as hurtful, arbitrary and controlling. He has told me I can go without him on my family’s cruise (he was not invited) if I want, but expressed concerns that it would strain our relationship.

I certainly wouldn’t stand for his exclusion after we are married, but he seems to want proof before we are married that I will fight for us.

I declined to go on the cruise, and my parents canceled the trip. They were very hurt, blaming him for causing the problem and for changing me. I don’t know what to do.

Torn daughter

Your “natural inclination” is a very precarious position from which to make life decisions.

Both family and Boyfriend can be wonderful and still lead you to an unhealthy capitulation — not because allegiance to one or the other is bad, but because you don’t know yourself well enough yet to understand which one fits you best.

Given the whiff that one or both parties in your tug-of-war have controlling tendencies, you’re all the more vulnerable to losing yourself to this battle of overpowering forces. I’m not just saying this because Boyfriend called your parents controlling and he himself is “not one to cave.” There’s also history here, asking to be acknowledged.

The child of parents with controlling tendencies is primed to pair off with someone controlling. It’s a matter of emotional comfort zones. What’s familiar to you is pleasing a dominant party. What’s familiar to controlling people is having someone scramble to please them. You could drift from parents to partner without so much as tweaking your emotional role.

Your boyfriend wants your loyalty, fair enough. Likewise, you should want “proof” he will respect your needs as equal to his own. For an intimate relationship to remain in balance through various challenges, your commitment to the other’s well-being must be mutual.

Right now, you’re focused on your family’s needs and your boyfriend’s, and who’s looking out for yours? Plus, you’re used to doing what will satisfy the dominant emotional force in your life; faced with two now, you’re torn over which to appease.

The answer is, of course, neither.

You have to understand, satisfy and stand up for you. Knowing ourselves, knowing who we are and what we need, knowing the difference between what we were taught and what actually works for us, knowing our triggers — that constitutes the foundation of our best decisions. Then taking a side isn't caving, it's choosing.

Without that clear sense of self, most people will see you as an opportunity to get what they need, and keep taking until you're depleted. Not because they're bad, but because they're human, and it's the rare human who doesn't overdo it at a buffet.

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Carolyn Hax

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