This has been a problem for a while but strangely it only occurred to me to write you about it after your recent post on polyamorous parents inviting their girlfriend to their kid’s wedding. I had a lot of feels over that post because I’ve been having a similar concern. Namely, I hate my parents’ new wife. But I feel like the ship on which to mention it has long since sailed.
For the majority of my life I was happy living with the idea that my parents were monogamous and happy about it. But then a couple years ago they approached me with the idea that now that I was grown up they were going to start dating around. I was confused and upset (Are you getting a divorce? But wait, aren’t we Catholic? Why now? Am I supposed to do something about it?) but they were able to explain things for me. I can’t say I’m the most thrilled panda on the planet because on some level I think I just don’t “get” it. I’ve never had the desire to date more than one person -anything else seems stressful and difficult- but I support anything that makes them happy. So I took a few weeks to think about things and decided that their lives were their own and it was not my place to judge.
When they got a new girlfriend I even tried really hard to be nice to her – we did the whole family dinners thing. The girlfriend – “Carol” – was nice enough and I feel like I might have genuinely liked her had we met under different circumstances. We had a lot of “weather talk” conversations and were genuinely polite/pleasant to each other, but that was it. She and I never did anything alone, and her being Mommy and Daddy’s Close Friend seemed to work out for all of us.
But then they got married. Not legally of course, but there was a service and she moved into my parents house. Marriage changed everything. It seems like I can’t see my real parents alone any time, and whenever I want to see them Carol is always around. What’s worse, it seems like they expect my relationship with Carol to upgrade like theirs did. Carol wants that too – recently she’s been pushing for more “girl time” and keeps trying to talk about more personal things as though we’re good pals. The more she pushes the more I realize I actually loathe her. For a while I denied it and tried extra hard to be friends because that’s what noble, progressive, open-minded people would be. (at least, in my mind) But I never wanted to be friends, I was mostly being nice because she was important to my parents. But because I started out being more friendly than I felt I feel like I’m now locked into this permanent state of being cool with Carol. My parents are upset that I’m still keeping her at arm’s length (since we’re all one big happy family now!) and I know that if it came to her or me they’d choose me. Still though, I don’t want to force them to choose but I don’t want to be all buddy-buddy with her either. They feel like I’m rejecting her and their lifestyle, and I guess in a way I am? I’m just not ready for their lifestyle to become mine. How can I tell my parents that I’ll never love Carol as much as them, and that while I value their relationship with her the less of a relationship *I* have with her the better? And is that even a cool thing to want?
Not Down for Family Christmas Carols
Dear Not Down:
Readers, if you are “Carol” in this story, as in, you are the step-parent of an adult child, I have some anecdata for you. Almost every adult stepchild I have ever encountered, even the ones who like their parents’ spouse just fine most of the time, even the ones who love their step-parent, had the same complaint, especially when the relationship was new:
“When I go to see my mom/dad, my stepmom/dad is always, always, always around whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy”
The kid feels like they can never hang out with just their dad or just their mom, and if they ask, they are opening a big can of worms and hurting stepparent’s feelings and causing a fight. And often the parent doesn’t want to rock that boat either, they want to demonstrate to the stepparent that everything really IS working, that they ARE a real family. In some cases the parent has sort of abdicated the whole “expressing or talking about emotions” or “planning outings” thing and the stepparent is trying way too hard to compensate and cheerlead and cruise direct everyone through the visit and gaaaaaah it’s just so awkward.
If you are the stepparent, you should be:
• Included in family holiday celebrations & invitations.
• Invited to everything that takes place in the house where you live.
• Treated with kindness and consideration.
• Allowed to set some boundaries and expectations for what happens in your shared home.
But if your stepkid is like “Dad, let’s go pick up some milk” or “Dad, can I take you to lunch tomorrow?” or “Mom, let’s go see that new movie, okay” and the invitation does not expressly, enthusiastically include you, by name (uttered in front of you in the same room does not count)?
Stepparents are amazing, unsung heroes of the parenting world and it’s gotta be just so nervewracking to never know if you are doing it right. There are so many ways to get it wrong that aren’t your fault and have nothing to do with you and everything to do with other people’s baggage that you don’t control. Love! I send you love!
But I swear, sometimes your stepkid and your spouse just need to fucking muddle through their issues or eat pancakes or grunt through a shitty episode of network television without you. Not because you did anything wrong, but because the parent-child relationship is its own thing and the stepchild-stepparent relationship is its own thing. No one should make you feel uncomfortable or kick you out of your own home, but sometimes you gotta know when to schedule brunch with your friends or a 3-hour massage and pedicure and that time is maybe when your adult stepkids visit. If the relationship is already tense, abdicating for a bit won’t make it worse, and if the relationship is overall good your stepkids will silently, secretly thank you for a little bit of solo time with their parent. Consider this a public service announcement.
Little kids are a lot like cats, in that if they want nothing to do with you you can’t really make them interact (they will punish you for dragging them out from under the sofa, and sometimes your punishment will involve pee) and, if they want to pay attention to you, it’s very hard to stop them.
Adults have learned to modulate their responses, but that doesn’t mean that our emotions don’t sometimes hide out under the futon of You Are Not My Mom And You Can’t Make Me Like You.
I don’t think telling your parents that you hate Carol is the answer. In addition to being unkind and spiteful, the ship HAS sailed and calling it back to port won’t help anything.
But you are the cat right now. So your reactions (“I hate Carol!”) are outsized while you are feeling very territorial and cornered. Try not to make any big decisions until your claws retract. This can all get better with some boundary setting and some time, so don’t do or say anything irrevocable like “But I hate her!” until you’ve tried some baby steps. Your parents and Carol’s “crimes”, when you look at them, are trying too hard to facilitate a relationship with someone they love and being a bit oblivious at your polite evasions when you don’t want Girl Time or to be a confidante. These are not mean people who are trying to hurt you, they are just a bit unrealistic about their great love for each other and their great love for you combining into its own love story. Take a step back and try to find that part of you that tried very hard to be welcoming. That was a good instinct on your part, now let’s try to make it a sustainable one.
Because I don’t think your parents should be pressuring you to lurrrrrrrrrve Carol either. You’re an adult, you are a separate person from them, and as long as you are being nice, polite, etc. to Carol you don’t have to hang out with her one-on-one or be besties. Relationship structures can be transitive (the spouse of my parent is my step-parent) but feelings aren’t (everyone I love doesn’t necessarily love each other). They can’t be forced, and the more you try the more you invoke the cat with its fat tail and its claws out. “Nice kitty, good kitty!” the visitor says as s/he pets the hostile, seething cat and feeds it treats. “I peed in your suitcase,” says the cat. “And while you sleep, I will barf these treats into your shoe.”
Do you live close to your parents, or is it the case where you are coming in every so often for a visit from far away? Because that might determine whether this is a big talk or a series of small boundary-setting/invitation things. What you and your family need to find is a new normal, where Carol is part of the family and you can go back to thinking “hey, she’s pretty neat!”, but without all the pressure on you to feel deeply.
One possible script is for Carol herself, the next time she invites you to have one-on-one time.
“Carol, I don’t want to go shopping with you, or have ‘girl time’, and I know my many refusals have hurt your feelings, so let’s talk.
If there were a manual on how to do this stepmom thing, you would be doing everything pretty right. For example, you are very kind to make such an effort to plan things for us to do together, and I do know that you sincerely want us to be close.
I’m glad you and my parents make each other so happy, and you haven’t done anything wrong. But when I travel all this way, it’s really important that I get some alone time with my parents in addition to the time we all spend as a family. I want some Just Mom Time or Just Dad Time way more than I want Girl Time. That’s certainly not all on you to work out. Someday, maybe we’ll have Girl Time, but I’d like to be the one to suggest it, please. In the meantime, please stop feeling like you have to work so hard at this.”
I also suggest that you look for two or three things you have in common with Carol, like, a favorite show or author or musician that you both like. This gives you a safe, enjoyable topic of conversation when things get tense and gives you a way to connect and build positive experiences to chase some of the bad ones out.
The script above can be adapted for your parents.”Mom, Dad, I know that Carol is working very hard to connect with me and make sure that I know I am welcome. It is very sweet of her. The thing is, I don’t want Carol Time. I want Family Time, when we’re all together (including Carol!), and then I want some time with Just You, Mom and Just You, Dad. Then maybe if there is time left over there will be room for Carol Time. But right now, when I’m so hungry to spend time with you guys, the push for Carol Time just rankles and feels forced.”
If you live close and you see your parents frequently, maybe the big talks are still a ways off. I think your parents will balk at “Mom, Dad, why don’t you and me and NOT CAROL go hang out?” or checking “Will Carol be there?/Is Carol coming?” when they invite you to do something (She will be there and they will see through this question). But they might be up for solo time with you, as in “Dad, you and me, let’s grab a beer!” or “Mom, you and me, I got us 2 tickets to your favorite singer.” If you could get into a pattern of regular solo outings with your parents it will make the Parents + Carol times more chill because the communication and connection with your parents will be stronger.
Even on a rarer, longer visit, can you carve out a tradition of one outing with each of your parents? I know, B.C. (Before Carol) you didn’t have to Friend-Date your parents, but this might be a positive, proactive way to get time with them that isn’t at Carol’s expense or about your tensions around her. You might have to be very blunt about this on occasion. “Mom, when I invite just you to a concert, I mean just you – not that you should immediately secure tickets for Dad and Carol.” Geek Social Fallacies are pretty ingrained.
Of course, if you live close and see your parents frequently, that means the invitations from Carol are more frequent. You could keep saying “No thank you!” without giving a reason and hope that she takes the hint, or you could put everyone out of their misery. “Carol, thanks for the invitation. I keep saying no, even though you are very kind to ask, because I don’t want Girl-Time. I want family time (that definitely includes you!), some time with just my dad, some time with just my mom. Maybe someday Girl-Time will happen, but if that’s the case I’d like to be the one to invite you. Until then, please don’t work so hard at this! Let’s all just relax and enjoy the time when we do see each other.”
Keep whatever you say focused on the invitation and as close as possible to the present – don’t wander into general FEELINGSTALK. You want to avoid spillover where anyone says “You’re just not supporting our relationship!” and you say “Actually, since you mention it…” CLAWS IN. If Carol gets it, and does back off, reward her with kindness. No sulking, no banging the tea mugs around in the sink, no teenage eye-rolling.
It sounds like you and your parents have flirted with these conversation before, and their questions have been along the lines of:
• “But why can’t you love Carol as we love her?”
• “Why can’t you tryyyyyyyyyyyyy?”
• “Why do you have to be so judgmental of our lifestyle?”
I don’t think there is an answer that will make everyone happy. A possible response is “I’m happy that you are happy, but that doesn’t mean that Carol is my Mum now, and when I feel pressured to view her that way it has the opposite effect.“
You clearly have some ick about the poly aspects of this situation. You don’t have to get it or like it for your parents (and many other people on the earth) to deserve to love who and how they choose, and it’s good to know that you realize those issues and prejudices are yours to process.
I also think you have the same complicated ick that most people have when their parents remarry, even when that is a really happy occasion, which is “You are probably ok but this is bringing up a lot of weird feelings. Let’s not force anything and see if we can all ride it out, ok?“
Whatever your feelings are, it sounds like you’ve tried hard to treat Carol like a member of the family and do right by your parents and this new love of theirs, which is what counts at the end of the day. Your actions have been exactly what they should be; they just fall short of wanting to be as close to Carol as she wants or they want. That can’t be forced, though. Lots of people have perfectly nice fine relatives who are nonetheless not close, and that’s okay. So your script in the face of these questions is “I’m willing to give this all the time in the world, but I’m not willing to fake it or force it, and I’d like everyone to stop pressuring me to feel a certain way.”
Things can get better with time, but not if guilt and pressure are the main tools for improving things. No to Girl Time. Yes to some one-on-one time with your parents. Yes to family time with everyone. A structure like that, where everyone backs off a bit, can help the fat tail shrink to normal.