I’m graduating from college very soon, and I’ll be the first in my immediate family to do so. This road has been a long one, and I am so happy to finally be done. I’ve had amazing support from key people in my life, aka: My Home Team– a mix of family and chosen family.
In an ideal world, my Home Team would have an exclusive invite to the graduation ceremony/dinner. I have a hard time with Big Life Events, and my last graduation ceremony did not go well, so this is bringing up *things* for me. Having only the people there who make me feel comfortable would help a lot.
There are people not on the Home Team who are expecting to be invited. Here are the problems:
– My mom is currently housing a family member who has some serious mental health/addiction issues. This person would expect to come to any graduation events. I do not want this as this person takes up a fair amount of emotional space and makes me/others feel awkward.
– My in-laws also wish to attend from out-of-state. This would mean they would have to stay at our house, for at least 3-4 days (hotel is not really an option). My in-laws are nice people (and they are very excited for me), but I have difficulty spending time with them, let alone hosting them in my house. They often make me feel uncomfortable with the way they talk to/about me. There are more detailed issues here surrounding money, religion, and general boundaries (in-laws, go figure). Also, they have sort of already invited themselves. My husband would be a buffer for some of this but he can’t mitigate everything.
– I have packaged group of cousins who I’m not close with but who have invited me to their events, and I feel obligated to reciprocate. Some of them are very nice, but some of them are awful (like blatantly racist/homophobic/sexist) and their presence would mean that the other people listed above would definitely have to be invited. It would be an obvious slight if they weren’t.
I feel like I only have a few choices here:
1) Lie and tell everyone that I only have limited graduation tickets so as to only invite the Home Team. This would be a very obvious lie. These things can be Googled.
2) Try as delicately as possible to not invite the people listed above. Deal with the emotional fallout, not just for myself, but for my husband and mom, for whom this would be awkward as well.
3) Suck it up and invite everyone and deal with my feelings on my own.
I have a hard time telling others what I want (even/especially with my Home Team), so the “do nothing and internalize” option feels easiest. In theory, this should be simple. You invite everyone and they show up and stay in their emotional lanes. Instead of focusing on this exciting thing, I feel like I’m playing Emotional Traffic Director when I want to be playing Happy College Graduate.
Are there options I’m not seeing? Am I an immature person for even wanting to not invite people I don’t like? I am being a spoiled ass who needs to grow up and not make this about me?
*(29 yr old, female)
Dear Sad Grad (#1180),
Like weddings, whenever you combine “public celebration of a milestone event” and “crossing the streams of friends and family” things have potential to get weird. Whenever “I want to celebrate authentically with the people I most want to see in a way that has the most meaning to me!” vs. “I want to invite/include my family and show awareness that I didn’t get here all on my own, even though some of those relationships are not what I’d hope them to be” are incongruent, it’s going to be awkward and painful to be reminded of how far apart those things can be, esp. when you add in the extra load of “Wait, these people just probably want to celebrate with me, am I the jerk if I don’t want that?” guilt.
There’s no perfect way to make everything perfect, but I think there are ways to get closer to the celebration you want.
You could certainly invite only the people closest to you who you truly want to attend to the graduation. What’s the worst thing that happens if you do this? Send out invitations to a small number of people, send out graduation announcements (not invitations) to the rest (these go out after the ceremony so that they/the event is formally acknowledged but you don’t have to worry about people showing up to anything).
One thing you have going for you here: Graduation ceremonies are, on the whole, BORING AS FUCK, and I can’t speak for everyone but I suspect a lot of people want to be included/acknowledged more than they actually want to go and sit through the thing. Some fancy stationery and postage might get a lot of this done for you, consider it strongly. Additionally, it’s normal for tickets to the actual event to be limited, so I think you shouldn’t ever lie about how many ceremony tickets are available, but also, you never have to actually mention how many were available.
If these folks grumble and want to be invited after all, are they even gonna grumble directly to you? (Or are they gonna grumble at your mom, who’s gonna pass it on to you, which is a different problem but not necessarily your problem.) If they do that, what’s the worst thing that happens if you tell your mom “If relatives bother you about this, blame it 100% on me” and keep a more general script of “Oh, hey, thanks so much, I really appreciate your support and good wishes! It’s such a hectic time of year, so we decided to keep the ceremony & events that weekend for a very few close friends and the parents this time” ready to go. They’ll feel about it how they feel.
Second Choice: Invite away (and let the chips fall). You don’t actually have to manage everyone’s behavior or feelings, and there’s no good way to handle invitations that aren’t real invitations or split hairs about this. (My personal feeling is: People are either invited or they aren’t, any time you try to invite someone But Only A Little Bit or invite them But Not Really or invite/disinvite them in a way that is designed to communicate a hierarchy of how you feel about them, shit gets horrible and there’s a bigger chance that you end up doing a ton more work to smooth everything over in the end), so what’s the worst that happens if you invite everybody who expects to be invited, break bread with all who actually show up to and sit through a graduation ceremony (verily these people are heroes, whatever other graces they might lack), and find a way to gather together with just the Home Team on another day?
To make this less daunting, what if we could find a way to reclaim this celebration a little bit and set some overarching boundaries that allow you to include everyone who wants to be there but minimize the hassle for yourself? What if we made some rules about that weekend that apply to everybody and gave you some breathing room?
Rule One: NOBODY CAN STAY AT YOUR HOUSE THAT WEEK/MONTH. Nobody. You are busy with Graduation Stuff (which usually comes hot on the heels of finals), so you know you won’t be up for hosting guests, time for “here are some lovely nearby hotels, please enjoy those, book early for the best rates!” And if your in-laws absolutely can’t do that, then they should find another time to come visit when you can put them up. Once you make that rule, lots of things get simpler, right? Your in-laws can either come or not come. Not your problem, you invited them to the celebrations, it’s a busy weekend (YOUR GRADUATION) where you are TOO BUSY TO HAVE HOUSEGUESTS. Get on the same page with your spouse and lay down this law. Script: “We’d be delighted if you can join us, but FYI it’s such a busy month that we aren’t having any houseguests! We’ll understand if you can’t make it, if that’s the case let’s find another time that will work better.” Hold fast. The first time you stay somewhere that is not With Family or ask family to stay somewhere that is not With You, it is very difficult, it means busting through expectations and taboos, but I think it does get easier after that.
Rule Two: Everybody in the family who wants to make the trip is invited to the graduation ceremony plus ONE celebratory thing (A dinner or lunch afterward? Casual cookout at your place? Whatever it is: There is one of them.) Good news, during the ceremony graduates usually all sit together so you won’t have to deal with awkwardness from family members during that, they’ll entertain/manage each other (or not). At the post-graduation dinner, the cousins who already know each other will amuse one another, you’ll end up with tight little pockets of people here and there that you circulate among. Whatever the post-graduation celebratory thing is, plan it now, make it clear what it is when you share the invitation to the graduation itself, and don’t commit to anything else during that entire weekend. Script: “Oh, it tends to be such a busy weekend with events around the school, we don’t want to plan too much beyond that since [LW] will be pretty occupied. We’ll see you at [ONE THING] though!”
Once you put plans & rules like that in place, doesn’t it get easier? No houseguests. One (boring) ceremony where you’ll be sitting far away from everybody, one lunch/dinner/cookout/celebratory thing of your choice, some posing for photos and smiling and saying thanks to everyone who came. Maybe you can organize a quiet friend-breakfast the morning after for your Home Team & friends if you like when you’re closer to the event. (Key words: Last minute. Informal. At a place with limited seating. Make your best-guess reservation and then invite your mom (and people who would be most likely to squawk to the extended family) at the very last minute, like, “We’re grabbing breakfast tomorrow, want to join us?”) Schedule a lot of down time, quiet time where you don’t have to be “on.” DO THE ABSOLUTE LEAST, and trust that people will self-sort and self-amuse.
Also, Difficult Relative is either going to behave or not, it’s not your job or your graduation’s job (or wedding’s job or funeral’s job or christening’s job or quinceañera’s job, or bat mitzvah’s job, or ordination’s job or or or or) to spackle over your family’s imperfections. I hope they’ll do the best they can and feel loved and included. If they don’t, there was nothing you could have done.
Letter Writer #1180, if you read all this with absolute terror, like, “I can’t Just Not Invite people!” or “I can’t tell my In-Laws they can’t stay with us!” please know, I feel you, I understand you, I have been you, and I would guess that you are in a very distinct and important stage of learning to set boundaries, which is balancing: What you know is right for you vs. The possibility of other people’s displeasure. You’re used to, I think, feeling responsible for a lot of other people’s feelings within your family. Maybe this is an opportunity to level up in assuming less responsibility for this?
You’re the boss of you and you get to decide what your risk tolerance is. Sometimes my risk tolerance is “Put a brave face on it, suck it up, go along to get along, it is really not worth fighting about this.” And sometimes my risk tolerance is “This is important to me, and I’m betting that my most important relationships can survive some mild disapproval of the way I’m handling a major life event.” I don’t know your specific family, but my overall question for you in this response is, what if everyone (including you!) could survive just fine if you decided to set a few limits around your celebrations? Which is more work over the next few months, curating a select guest list and keeping everyone firmly at bay or choosing a few places to stand firm like ‘no houseguests’ and letting the rest wash over you?
The one secret I can tell you is that there’s absolutely no way that you can be perfect enough, handle this perfectly enough, say just the right thing, accommodate people enough around this particular event (or literally anything in your life) that magically fixes all the conflicts in your family or makes everything smooth and perfect and comfortable. You can smile and say “okay!” until your face cracks in two and your in-laws won’t become less exhausting, the problematic cousins will keep right on problem-ing, awkward moments will remain awkward, people who are inclined to criticize you will find some grievance to suck on as if their disapproval can make a little pearl inside their pursed, complaining mouths. So, choose your battles. Your family won’t die if they hear the word “no!” and I don’t think you’re a bad person if your graduation is a little bit about you.
My Dear Captain,
Thank you for all the work you do. I have been a devoted follower of your blog for years, and I’m hoping you can shed some insight onto a knotty situation I’m trying to solve.
I (they/them) come from an abusive family of the violent and emotionally terrible variety. I left the house as fast as I could to go to college, at which point they were disgusted with me, disgusted with my life choices, and I cut them off for a couple of years with a smile on my face. Over time I began to re-establish contact on a very limited basis, provided they stuck to rigid boundaries of being polite – your blog helped me work that one out!
As I started a career, and then became extremely successful, they morphed into “proud parents” who had “always supported and loved me, even though I was such a sensitive and unhappy person.” They want to send me money, have me spend time with them, and they keep telling me (and everyone else) the story that they were ideal parents to a very troubled child – they’ve LOVED me coming out as queer because suddenly they have a reason for how hellish my growing up was, and it has nothing to do with them. I’ve tried to walk the fine line of never directly challenging them on the facts of their abuse, but also ending the conversation and putting the phone down whenever they try to tell that story.
Now I’m graduating from my doctorate, in a different country to the one my parents live in, and they’ve gone from “why would we come to your graduation in such a boring place” to “of course we’ll come, you have to give us the dates so we can book an extended whole-family holiday around you.” Captain, I do not want them to come. I want to celebrate this massive achievement that I’ve worked so phenomenally hard for, and I want to share it with the people who have supported me and loved me and made it happen. But that places me in the position of saying to my parents “I do not want you to come,” and then having to explain why, and that’s a fight I’ve been avoiding for decades. It feels like I’m being trapped into either treating them like real parents and living that social script, or smashing the walls down entirely.
Can you give me any advice on how to make that decision? Or how I can negotiate some kind of middle ground where they come, but my friends and chosen family are still the most important and central figures in the moment?
Thank you so much
Hi there Dr. No (aka #1181), I hope the previous answer helped you with some logistical limit-setting and middle ground ideas if you choose to include your parents in the end. (For instance, you’re not putting them up, there will be a graduation ceremony + EXACTLY ONE celebration thing they attend + that’s where your responsibility for their amusement begins & ends, byeeeeeeeeeeeeeee).
This thing where abusive parents come claim their children once we’re successful enough on paper (and try to retcon everything about the past) is a depressingly common one, so the other things I want to say to you are:
a) You’re not alone. So not alone. I believe you and it’s not your fault.
b) You are 100% allowed to say “Thanks, Parents, it’s very nice that you’d want to make the journey for graduation, but that’s such an intense and busy event that I’d prefer to stay focused on my colleagues. Please find another time window for a visit that works for both of us.” and leave it there.
Shorter version: “Thanks, but no. Let’s find a different time for a visit.”
Let me be clear: My suggestion that you ask your parents to identify an alternate time window to visit is strategic, only. You don’t want them to visit ever, and the time window for a visit that works for you can be NEVER, but there is no need to show your hand right now. Without the chance to crash your very special party and make a giant dominance display, they might sulk and decide not to come at all. That’s a win for you! If a distraction keeps them away from the important event, that’s also a win. In the meantime, volunteer nothing. Let this question of nebulous “mutually agreeable” dates play out as long and tediously as possible, and do zero work. Keep putting it on them to suggest alternatives, were the answer every single time can be “That doesn’t work for me, but if you have some other dates that work for you I can check my schedule and let you know!” Literally never tell them the correct dates of your graduation (they can Google this, almost certainly, so let them! Giving them dates implies that you want them to be there, and you don’t, so, don’t.)
Important: They cannot be *persuaded*, so don’t even try. Remember, reasons are for reasonable people. Unreasonable people use your reasons as opening points for negotiation and argument. Since this isn’t a negotiation, and your parents don’t need to agree with or understand your logic in order to do the most basic thing (not come when you’ve told them to not come), keep it terse and repeat it like a broken record.
c) You’re right, when you push back on the graduation thing (or anything that implies that they are not the world’s greatest parents and that all your current success accrues from them), they’re going to fight you and try to make you fight them. The opportunity to collect this much reflected glory + an international vacation where they are maximally imposing (and possibly maximally dependent on you for getting around successfully in the country, needing maximum time and effort from you?) Irresistible. And yes, either they are gonna try to make you say whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy you don’t want them there (and then make you comfort them for how hurt their feelings are that you don’t love them or have gratitude for all they’ve done for you) (while they conveniently ellide or outright gaslight you about your own memories about all they’ve done TO you) OR they are just gonna crash the thing.
I mean, there’s always All Of The Above, they can rattle every dollar and second of parental concern they ever spent on you like it’s Jacob Marley’s ghost-chains in A Christmas Carol, they can pretend none of the bad things they did ever happened (or if they did happen you’re remembering it wrong, or if you’re remembering it correctly you need to stop being so dramatic), AND they can crash the thing (or at least threaten to, this works just as well as them actually coming because you get maximum dread but they save money). (P.S. 100 Internet points to whoever had “The ex did not actually send any jewelry” in the comments of this question, ’cause he didn’t, turns out dangling the prospect of it was enough for him and heart-butts cost money).
Your parents are extremely good at finding conditions where you feel like you can’t win, where the “easiest” path would be to just let them do what they want. This hasn’t changed, so if you’re looking for a place to keep your expectations about how they’ll behave and react, start “Under the Basement” and dig down from there.
d) Here’s how you win, a tiny bit, here’s how you at least preserve your truthful memories of what you went through in their house and your ownership of what you survived and how you became this beautiful person and brilliant scholar that you are today:
Become a broken record and be extremely boring. “Oh Parents, I already told you, it’s such an intense and busy event that I’d prefer to spend it with only my colleagues. We’re going to have to find another time that works for both of us, why don’t you send me some other dates and I’ll check my schedule?”
Don’t fight on the battlefield of the past.
Don’t fight on the battlefield of your feelings.
Don’t fight on the battlefield of arguing your case or making them understand or see.
Don’t fight on the battlefield of what “normal” families do or “what’s expected” in this case.
Fight on the battlefield of consistency and detachment. “I appreciate the congratulations, but as I said, it’s not a good time for me.” Then stop discussing it. “I already told you that doesn’t work for me.” Don’t give the reasons again. Don’t negotiate or re-explain. Get off the phone, change the subject.
Your fight is on the battlefield of following the fuck through. This is tricky but you have some key things on your side:
You cut them off before, and you can do it again if you have to.
I know you’re not ready to cut contact with your parents and want to preserve at least the idea of a parent-shaped place that might possibly suck less someday, and you don’t want to waste all the scar tissue you’ve built up over the years that lets you interact with them on somewhat civil terms now as they have (seemingly) mellowed, but you already know: If things get bad enough, you can bail. You can insist on a baseline of good behavior if they want to have any contact with you. Some people only understand power dynamics, and you have already done the hard work of teaching your parents important lessons like, “I can live with your absence from my life, and I can live with your disappointment and displeasure, but I cannot live with your unkindness, so behave or get lost.” Time for a refresher?
You don’t have to go full nuclear/no-contact in order to remind them that only their good behavior gets your attention. You’re just so busy these days, way too busy to answer emails or call them back right now, oops, it’s a no-go on graduation but did they have alternate dates? Oops, bad connection, time to hang up.
You can tell the truth about them and what they did.
You told us the truth in your letter, you undoubtedly told loving friends (and maybe some therapists) along the way, and you can tell the people in your life now – colleagues, friends, advisors, university security – the truth about your parents. You can tell the truth, you can ask for help, you can ask people to put buffers and safeguards in place in case your parents do try to override your wishes.
I know this is possibly terrifying, I know you don’t want to bring vulnerable messy family stuff into your hard-won safe professional space, but you didn’t do anything wrong, you’re not the only one whose family makes their shoulders go up around their ears, you don’t owe anyone the whole story. You are allowed to present short, factual editions of the truth to anyone you like, any time you like, with no obligation to make your parents look good or be fair to them.
You don’t have to tell everyone “My parents violently abused me as a child, and while we’re working on making peace as we get older, it’s an unsteady one. I’ve asked them not to come to this, they won’t take ‘no’ for an answer, so time to put the shields up.” But you can. Not wanting people who violently harmed you invited to your amazing achievement celebration is actually incredibly reasonable.
If you do decide to let them attend after all on a limited basis, that could be as simple as enlisting a gregarious friend or two to be the social buffer, and telling them a version of the truth that goes like this: “My parents really stress me out, can you help me by being a buffer and talking to them if I need to get some space? My Dad is into watercolors and my mom likes mystery novels, whatever you do, don’t mention Brexit.”
You can use institutional supports (like security) if you need to.
For another example, if you tell your parents flat out not to come and you’re worried about them crashing events anyway, you could ask the university: “Some estranged family members have threatened to crash Graduation. What kind of security protocols are available in case we need to have them escorted out?” I mean, who is the ridiculous, “dramatic,” strange one here – A long-time student/colleague who asks politely “So, is there a protocol for making sure events are limited to invited guests only, I have some estranged family who are making odd rumblings” or people who throw a transcontinental tantrum in order to crash a party where the one person they know there explicitly told them to pick a different weekend to visit?
That can be the scariest thing to contemplate. What if people don’t believe you? Or take it seriously? (“But faaaaaaaaaaaamily!” “Surely you aren’t going to call security on your parents?”)
But…what if you knew you really could call Security on your parents if you had to?
You don’t have to give anybody more detail than “Look, I don’t want to go into details, but when I say we’re estranged, it’s for a good reason, and I don’t want the graduation events to be disrupted for me or the other students who have worked so hard. I don’t know that my parents would be violent toward me, but they are very capable of making scenes and being extremely disruptive. You know that I would never ask this lightly, so, what security protocols are in place to keep unwanted intruders out of the building during important events? Has this ever come up before with other students, or visiting speakers?” Technically this is a professional event, you are at work at university events, this is a workplace issue. See related post.
If your parents do decide to actually crash your graduation despite you telling them not to, they are rolling some giant dice called “Dr. No Won’t Tell” and “Dr. No Won’t Risk Making A Scene.” These dice have been shaped and molded and thrown again and again over the course of decades, right? Every time your parents tried to destroy you in private and then sat in the front row clapping at your dance recitals or science fairs or other “public recognition” moments, playing the role of doting, supportive, normal reasonable parents, they rolled these dice. And every time you performed on cue, they felt like they won. They got to feed on your success and they also got to feed on the power and the secrecy they got off on because once upon a time it was “too risky” for you to tell anyone.
Remember: You’re not a kid anymore. You’ve already survived everything these people could throw at you, you’re not going to wither and die because they make it weird at a party.
So does it change the calculus, does it change your fear, if you knew for sure that if your parents crashed your party and you called Security, they would be escorted out of the place? And if you knew that you, their shining, glorious adult offspring could truthfully tell all the other shining, glorious people in the room, “So sorry about that, my parents and I are estranged, they like to do weird stunts like this sometimes, it’s so disruptive and embarrassing for them but they never learn. So, you were saying about your research proposal?”
Maybe that’s overkill? I don’t know. What I do know is that abusive people depend so much on the shame and silence of their victims to keep abusing and to keep their self-image intact long after the facts have fled their side. Nothing can ever fix what they did, but if you can throw away the shame they tried to burden you with and if you can remove the obligation to keep their secrets that they tried to burden you with, you might regain incredible power in the face of anything else they might try to do.
Maybe University security can’t help you, so, maybe you can hire personal security during that weekend to eject these people for you. Or use a phalanx of friends to surround you with light and love and keep them at a great distance. Maybe you don’t have to make decisions about that this second, so you can keep this all theoretical, a fantasy, or something to be invoked only as an extreme contingency. (And, keep in mind, reasonable people hear, “And if you come anyway I will have security kick you out” and stay home, but abusive people hear a challenge, so I’d never advise threatening your parents with this or even mentioning the possibility to them).
I just want you to know that if you need to, you have rights. Such as:
- You’re allowed to say “no” and expect others to respect that.
- You’re allowed to call your parents’ bluff.
- You’re allowed to allocate resources behind enforcing your boundaries.
- You’re allowed to kick people, including your parents, out of spaces you told them not to be or deny them access.
- You’re allowed to protect yourself from being abused again.
- You’re allowed to fight them in the way that the little kid you used to be could not.
- You’re allowed to say the unsayable paragraphs, the ones you think they’ll never forgive, the ones that start with, “I got here in spite of you, assholes, not because of you, and while I do want us to be in each other’s lives, we’re definitely not on the kind of terms where I trust you to celebrate my big milestones without immediately hogging all the glory” and ends with “…So if you actually love me and want to be happy for me you’ll listen to me and pick another time to visit, because like I told you, graduation is off limits.”
- You’re allowed to maintain polite fictions, imperfect interactions, and hope if you want to. You’re allowed to give it a shot if you want to, to invite them if you want to. You don’t have to fight them, and you don’t have to do it on my terms or anyone’s but your own.
- You’re allowed to grieve and feel messy and conflicted. You’re allowed to cry, to shake, to feel your feelings.
Please always remember, your parents had choices, all this time, your whole life, they had choices. If they’d made the ones that allowed you to warmly and lovingly and safely welcome them into the room when you celebrate your great achievement, this wouldn’t be a question, they’d be there with bells on, you’d welcome them with bells on, everyone would wear bells.
They made different choices, so here you are in the Fuck-Its, deciding if it’s safe to let your old tormenters in for a few days in the name of celebration and form. It’s scary because you remember how bad it can get, but it’s different now because you’re in charge. You’re allowed to decide that if scenes are to be made, your parents are the ones who will look terrible in those scenes, they’ll be the ones with the most to lose. You’re allowed to decide that they get to plead their case from Parking Lot D while you drink champagne inside the safe, beautiful book-lined place you belong, the place you’ve earned, the place nobody asked them to barge into like a bunch of assholes, the place you gave them every chance to do the right thing (and stay far away from) or do the right thing (and behave themselves). You & only you.
Huge congratulations to both Letter Writers, finishing a degree is a very big deal, and I hope you celebrate and are celebrated as you both deserve.
I’ll leave both of you (and any commenters) with the same instructions: Resist all attempts to perfect or optimize these situations, to find the only mistake-free and consequence-free way that will never upset anybody. It doesn’t exist. What do you want? What do you need? What do you value? What can you reasonably ask for? What must you defend at all costs? Only you know the right balance, only you will have to live with the consequences of what you choose. Choose, be clear and consistent with others, and be kind to yourselves.