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Dear Captain,

My parents keep visiting me over the summer and living in my apartment on my couch. One of my parents is looking for a job both in my current state and in the state of my hometown (where she actually officially lives when she is not visiting me). She sometimes has interviews out here and I am her host.

My dad, meanwhile, stayed three weeks at my place over the summer. I repeat: three fucking weeks. I did not need his “help” (his reason for visiting), but I felt bad telling him because I know he is going through a difficult time in his life (unwanted retirement) and wants to feel useful. I know I don’t *have* to satisfy those feelings for him, and I’m in therapy to try to get over this thinking.

I feel like crying. I was (and still am) a “parentified child” (chaotic home, traumatized parents told me about their adult sexual and financial struggles as though I were a healthy confidant) and having to host my parents now in my early 20’s is really triggering the sad feelings of powerlessness and numbness I used to feel. The feeling that I have to care for and baby my parents rather than enjoy being young, being a kid and having a fun place to live *on my own*.

I was saying to my therapist yesterday that I need to balance what my parents want from me as a daughter, to what society thinks a daughter should reasonably do to help her struggling parents. I burst into tears because she said, “Well, and you also have to balance those things with what YOU want.” I hadn’t even considered my own desires in terms of my apartment and my boundaries with them.

Do you have any scripts on re-setting (or rather, setting for the first time) boundaries with my parents? I know that part of the process will probably involve my knowing what I actually WANT for boundaries–but frankly yesterday is the first time I have ever thought about it with such precision.

My mom still doesn’t have a job yet, and I know she is probably going to come back out for more interviews. I have suffered enough of my parents’ rage and regret over finances and lost jobs. I am so tired and fragile right now. I also am terrified of setting boundaries–I don’t know that I believe they can get on without my help. Plus, you know, I love them.

Any help or advice or scripts would be amazing.

–Healing from parentification

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Lady Sybil and Branson the Chauffeur from Downton Abbey

Lady Sybil and Branson the Chauffeur from Downton Abbey

Dear Captain Awkward,

I just read your response to the question of how a person can deal with disapproving parents in the relationship area. It was a very good response. I am now asking as a PARENT what we are to do when our daughter is involved with a person we do not approve of. Our main complaint is his lack of manners, a lack of confidence, and a lack of personal motivation. Our daughter is a beautiful 32 year old professional, and part owner of a successful small business that we, her parents built. Her boyfriend is 36, a nice unmotivated man who seems to us to be looking for an easy deal. They plan to move in together soon. He just doesn’t fit in with our family. We doubt that he could really ever provide for our daughter, and hate to see her waste time waiting for him to kick in. We have been very patient with our daughter in the past, always hoping she would find a strong confident man for a life mate. Should we just say nothing and keep hoping that this fairly new relationship will soon come to a graceful end?

Dear Parent,

It doesn’t sound like this man is mistreating your daughter. It sounds like your main concerns with him are about class, career, and/or economic standing (“doesn’t fit in with our family” “doubt that he could ever really provide for her,” “manners,” “unmotivated,” etc.) It sounds like she provides just fine for herself (and that you, by building a business, have put her in a great position to provide for herself), which leaves her free to seek out other priorities in a partner.

If things aren’t meant to be between them, trust that your daughter will figure that out for herself in time. At thirty-two, she is the sole decider of her love life, and even if she were making a mistake, it’s her mistake to make. I think that trying to separate her from the man she loves will only alienate her from you. So, what do you lose by being kind to him?

Hi Captain,

I need to know if my boundaries are reasonable when dealing with my legally blind mother. She needs extra help while my dad is in the hospital. My job has mainly been to drive her around and help her with things she can’t see.

I have two things that make that complicated. I’m on antibiotics for a deep cut in my foot and the pills make me dizzy. I also cannot multitask and go crazy when someone “navigates” (backseat drives).

The dizziness means I can’t accompany her on lengthy errands without needing to sit somewhere cool. She’s been extremely dismissive of this.

She is also dismissive of my need to drive without distractions. She ended up walking home yesterday after I stopped the car for the second time that day to tell her to either stop backseat driving or get out.

Maybe I’m a bad driver, but I just cannot deal. It creates a dangerous situation. I think on some level she’s attached to “navigating” because she wants to be independent. Maybe she feels she’s been replaced by the faulty gps on my phone. In my defense, I always get where I’m going. I feel for her, but it’s too much. My siblings and dad just cope better than I do, I guess.

I wrote her a note reiterating my limitations and went out for the morning. I’m here for 6 more days. I predict major guilt-tripping from siblings and dad. Should i just politely reiterate boundaries and be prepared for silence and hostility? Are there any other tools to deal with this situation?

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Oh Captain My Captain:

I’m running into a communications problem, and could use some advice.

First the backstory: I live with my parents. My mother, who is nearing seventy, is having arthritis issues and needs a little bit of extra help around the house; generally more help that I can reasonably provide while being a full-time student. A year ago, a friend of mine had to choose between an abusive situation and homelessness, and I convinced Mom that we could offer her a third option. Now we have Kat in our guest room, doing dishes and minor housecleaning tasks for ten dollars a day plus room and board.

Now, the problem: Mom is unhappy with Kat’s performance. A lot of this is coming from the fact that Mom isn’t actually talking to her. She doesn’t remind either of us of routine tasks (because we’re intelligent people and she shouldn’t have to explain the obvious), and deals with extraordinary requests by telling me that they need to be done (with the unspoken riders of “so get Kat to do it” and “you should already know how I want that task performed” and “I will be Very Upset if you do this yourself instead of making sure Kat does it to my specifications.”) When, somehwere along the line, communication inevitably breaks down and something *doesn’t* meet with her approval, I get to listen to Mom rant about how she’s not getting what she’s paying for and how Kat isn’t ever going to be able to make it in the real world if she can’t complete simple tasks. Mom does not, generally speaking, ever voice concerns directly to Kat.

Do you have advice/scripts/etc. for how to stop being the Mom-to-Kat translator in this arrangement?

Sincerely,

The Messenger Is Tired Of Being Shot

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Dear Captain Awkward:

My father and his lovely new partner – she’s really nice – recently visited my area. They planned to spend a day or two with her relatives first, but wanted to know if I wanted to meet up with the two of them after that, for a meal at my brother’s new restaurant.

I agreed. I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of spending cab-fare to the city for a sub-standard meal (my brother hasn’t changed things yet), but wanted to see them, so sucked it up, gathered up my introvert spoons and headed out into the wilds.

I got a text about an hour before the meal – my father asked me to change the booking from 3 to 5 people.

Wait, what?

Apparently they wanted to bring along NewPartner’s granddaughter (teenager) and one of her teenage friends.

I didn’t handle that very well.

The next hour was a tangled blur of considering “calling in sick” to the meal, changing the booking at the restaurant, frantically checking the number of social-interaction spoons I had remaining (not enough for sudden dinner plans with strange teenagers), and resigning myself to my fate.

The reality was even more awkward than I’d feared. I sat there for a good 30 minutes of tense, stilted conversation.

I made my apologies and fled before the mains arrived (I hadn’t ordered anything).

Dad called after I got home, worried that I might not have been feeling well.

I ended up admitting that I just hadn’t wanted to stay. That I didn’t want to spend time with his partner’s family. He said he was disappointed in my behaviour.

I’m honestly not sure what to do.

I love my father, and want to be supportive of his relationship. I also really like his partner, I’d hate for her to feel bad in any way.

But I don’t want to spend time with her family. It feels weird and creepy when they’re around. I feel like my father is thinking of us as one big, happy family – when I barely know their names, and don’t actually want to get to know them better. I end up feeling stressed and resentful.

Part of me thinks that the best thing to do would be to talk to my father about it – to come to a new shared understanding of what our expectations are of each other going forwards.

But another part of me worries that, if I do that, I might end up with no relationship with my father at all. That I might have irreparably damaged it anyway. So I’m currently a little bit paralyzed with fear.

Am I being unreasonable? What do you think?

– Possibly unreasonable person.

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CA,

I have a great stepdad, and a pretty not good dad. My dad has been in my life the entirety of it, so he’s not an absentee dad- but he’s controlling, emotionally abusive, financially manipulative (he’s a millionaire, and uses that to try to exact control over you) and just pretty cruel in general. He is married to a woman who hates me and my siblings, and they have both been honest with us about this since we were kids and they got married. They both think we haven’t tried hard enough to get her to like her or to “earn” our way into being part of their family, which we currently don’t deserve (his words.) I have tried to keep him in my life as much as possible and do what I can to prove to him I’m a good person, and always have.But he’s been pretty consistent in his vocal belief I’m not a good person, and never will be.

Now I’m an adult and I take nothing from him, and pay my own way 100% of the time. I wanted him to see what I wanted was the relationship, not the money. When I got engaged, he offered to help with the wedding, which I should have just said no to. But I was seduced by the idea we could all be a family and do this big day together, and as dumb as it is, I love my dad. Of course, by two weeks after our engagement, things had devolved. My dad, and then his wife had called to insult me and my mother (whom my dad still hates, almost two decades later) and call me names etc. My dad was apparently in the room and let her do it. We haven’t spoken since. That was 3 months ago.

I don’t want his money. I just wanted him to be a good dad. The shitty part is, I LOVE my dad! I wanted him to be a part of it and walk me down the aisle and be my dad. But I don’t think he can be. My stepdad is a good dad and always has been. I want him to walk me down the aisle, but I know this will break my dad’s heart. And frankly, now that my dad can’t show off his money, which he loves to do, and the event won’t be about him, I don’t even know that he’ll come.

My fiancé hates him and doesn’t want to invite him. I don’t want to invite my dad’s wife, but know I will have to if I even want a chance to have my dad there. Which I’m not sure if I want, either, to be honest.

How do I even begin to decide how to handle this? to be fair to my dad, my fiance, and my stepdad all at once? And most of all, to keep our wedding the happy day it’s meant to be, and not the Divorced Family Dysfunction Hour?!

Thanks,
K

PS- Yes, I do have a therapist. Specializing in family conflict. And a great support network.

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Hi, Captain and company,

Recently I was reading through your archives and I found a great discussion on how to deal with a parent’s significant other who co-ops all conversations into another round of ‘Who’s right-er?’ with the answer always being “me.” (of course I cannot find that question now to give you context)

You gave some great advice about how to disengage from the conversation, how to change the subject, and how to set boundaries with that person, and I’m wondering if you have any advice on how to take this a step further, with a group discussion where you are not being addressed personally, in which you are one of say, six or so, who does not agree with one person.

Because this all feels very vague and theoretical, let me give you an example:

I am a very liberal person in all aspects of life: political, social, and religious. I am part of an extended family who cares very deeply about these things in a much more conservative way. Most of my family is super cool and can accept that I disagree (while still thinking I’m wrong) and I’ve had good discussions with them about these issues before.

My uncle, however, is mean and loud about it. He says awful, hateful things about our president and social issues and most of the rest of my family lets him talk until he’s done, even though I suspect (and in some cases, know, like with my mother) they do not agree with him or the way he expresses himself. No matter what the group is talking about, he’ll turn it into a discussion of politics, religion, or social issues. As I am writing this I realize that he’s a bit of a missing stair.

I am usually the youngest family member in these conversations, and also a lady person. Leaving the room would mean that I don’t get to spend time with the other family who is there, like my grandparents.

How do I co-opt a conversation from the man who has co-op’ed it in the first place? I’m not as loud as him, nor as pushy, nor as heard in the family, due to my age.

Signed,
There Will Be No Third Term

Dear There Will Be No Third Term,

Hi! Your sign-off made me literally LOL, so, good work there.

I think the old response you are looking for is this one. Or maybe this one.

You’re not the hostess of these gatherings, so you have less standing to say, loudly, “How interesting, Uncle. Cousin, how is your landscaping project going?” and redirect the conversation of the whole table like Ye Dowager Countess of Olde. But one thing you can do is tune him the fuck out on the micro level, by turning to the people sitting close to you and saying, quietly, “Cousin, however did you grow this pumpkin?” or “Grandma, I loved reading about the new church choir in that last letter you sent, how is that going?” and starting up a murmur of side conversations. Do it quietly, so you aren’t challenging your uncle directly , but also rebel by visibly tuning out and physically turning your body away from him while he talks and focusing your attention solely on the person you’re asking.

No lie: It will feel incredibly rude and weird the first time you do it, but no more rude than making the entire group listen to his rants. Think of it as throwing a conversational lifeline to your neighbor. If they pick it up, you two can have a little side conversation. Others may see this and gratefully flock to it. Suddenly the overall subject will be changed, and Uncle will flail, as he will not quite know what happened. If they don’t pick it up, try it again with someone else. You can start small and sort of work your way up to it.

Uncle may attempt to turn the conversation back to himself, and he may pick on you in the process, like “How rude, didn’t you hear that I was talking?” If he just talks louder, or whatever, without picking on you, keep doing what you’re doing without comment. If he makes it about you, this is where the advice to Have The Argument, Already kicks in.

  • “Sorry, Uncle, you seemed to show know sign of stopping, and I really wanted to catch up with Grandma since I’m here for such a short time.”
  • “Wow, Uncle, I wasn’t aware that we’d hired you to lecture us for this gathering. I thought this was a family dinner, and that everyone is allowed to talk.” 
  • “Uncle, I really didn’t feel like arguing with you about politics, so I asked other people at the table to talk quietly about other things.” 
  • “Uncle, I kept waiting for you to come to the end of your point, but then 30 minutes passed, and I wanted to talk to Grandpa while he’s still with us.”

This is one you could deploy in the moment, or one you can ask your parents & grandparents about ahead of time:

  • “I don’t know how everyone else feels about this, but maybe it’s time for a No Politics At The Dinner Table rule. I know I get really fatigued by discussions like that, especially when I get so little time to see you all.” 

Others may be willing to adapt a “no, really, this rule is for everyone!” stance rather than take on your uncle directly. You may get some friction from your family around this, like, you’re the one making it weird. Stay strong and keep trying, little by little! There is *someone* else in that room who is grateful to you and who will pick up your conversational lifelines and throw you lifelines in return.

Finally, when you’re not all at the dinner table together, consider pulling favorite relatives aside and hanging out with them in twos and threes and volunteering for tasks away from the main action. “Let’s go on a nice after-dinner walk.” “We need more milk from the store. Grandma, want to come with me to get some?” “Cousin, want to stay out here with me while I clean the grill?” That way you get some quality time in without anyone having to make a scene.

Readers, what strategies do you have for rescuing a gathering from That Guy or That Lady?

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