DEAR CAROLYN: I am in my 30s and live on the opposite coast from my family. Our relationship is strained.
I got divorced this year. I decided to try being open with my parents about it, and they gave me a significant sum of money to clear some debts, which I did not solicit but have really appreciated, and they know it.
But now they think I should give up my career and life here and move back in with them. I’ve 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 convey how my presence would affect the cats. Dad later told me I should understand my mother has been very stressed about my divorce, and it’s important I’m there to cheer her up about it.
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He then added that they are holding off booking their summer vacation until they know what my plans are, and the delay is costing them money.
I feel like I’m being blackmailed.
If I cancel this Thanksgiving trip, I feel like this will cause a rift that will be almost impossible to repair. I need to begin repaying this money, right?
– More Important Than My Sister’s Cats
DEAR IMPORTANT: 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.
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.
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.”
As for your “cheering 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, you can only hold the line – “I’ve got this, thanks” – and pay them back ASAP.