Knowing when to cut ties with family
Dear Carolyn • In a past column (bit.ly/1BadDad), you talked about the difference between cutting off a harmful family member versus dealing with a disappointing one. If I read correctly, you were saying if the family member is merely a disappointment, then keep the lines of contact open (paraphrasing). I have a family member who definitely falls on the disappointing end of the scale, but I wonder how much disappointment I’m really supposed to take. Where’s the line? How far down do I need to adjust my expectations before the family member is at the same emotional level as a stranger on the street?
Dear Disappointed • I’m not opposed to pegging expectations that low, at least in theory. Here’s where I’m coming from: I get a lot of mail and I’ve gotten it for a lot of years, and so when someone describes a family problem, chances are I’ve read some other version of that same family problem a few hundred times, and from many possible vantage points. One topic that has always been common, but lately seems more so, is the distress of someone whose relative has cut off all contact. There is nothing, just nothing, these people can do about it. Most describe living in agony, lying awake at night, replaying things they’ve said and wondering, was that it? This is not to diminish the pain of being burned by family. My inbox is also jammed with the awful things parents do to their kids or sibs do to each other. Abusive? Goodbye. "Disappointing" is gray, though, and I see people respond in black-and-white, without full appreciation for the power they wield. Parents can devastate a child. Children can devastate a parent. And so when I see a question like yours, my first thought is, "Use your power judiciously." Don’t go to war over trifles, and don’t go nuclear — estrangement — unless you’ve exhausted less potent means to save yourself. Estrangement is for relatives who are malicious, unrepentant, harmful. Short of that, my advice is not to be the person who puts that hole in someone’s life. Stop expecting this relative to be anyone but exactly who s/he is, and interact accordingly.
Carolyn Hax’s column runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.