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Dear Captain,

This seems like a very minor thing to be asking for help with, I know. But I feel like even if there’s no solution to my “problem”, getting the input of a bunch of neutral parties (particularly neutral parties with solid understandings of boundaries) would make me feel better, and if you feel like this letter is a waste of time you can just delete it, no harm done.

I do not own pets, for a number of reasons. I feel like it shouldn’t matter, but in case it does, in no particular order those reasons are: 1) My husband is deathly allergic to cats/dogs. 2) My husband very explicitly does not want pets even if he wasn’t allergic. 3) I have had pets in the past and found that no amount of wanting to be a good pet owner changes the fact that I am not a good pet owner (I am not patient, consistent, or stable enough). 4) I am an extremely high strung (or anxious) person, and being in a constant state of panic (did pet just eat something they shouldn’t have!? Is pet sick!? What if their collar slips off while I’m walking them!? If I go to a dog park, what if pet runs away and I can’t catch them!?!) would be awful for both me and the pet. 5) I’ve now lived for a couple of years with no pets, and oh my goodness, I have learned to love not having fur everywhere so much.

I have 2 adult sisters, who have 2 dogs each. They are very much the “this dog is my baby” sort of people. They consistently ask me to care for their dogs while they go on vacation (which happens several times a year each). Years ago, I almost always acquiesced. When I moved in with my husband, however, I mostly stopped agreeing to pet-sit. I cannot bring the dogs to my place because my husband is allergic, so pet-sitting always requires driving 30 minutes across town, several times a day, or straight up living at their house for however many days they’re gone. In addition, these dogs are not well trained. The dogs are extremely food aggressive, they get into fights, they beg, they jump on people, they destroy furniture, etc. etc. etc. Hiring a professional would be too expensive, they say, although I also feel like part of the problem may be that a professional would not accept caring for aggressive dogs.

I have made it clear that I do not want to pet-sit. But they keep asking, piling on the guilt any time I say no. I am, at this point, known for being a terrible, selfish sister because I won’t take care of their dogs. I do not work, so they point out that they’re willing to pay me, and I have plenty of free time, so there’s no reason I can’t pet sit for them. I have turned them down several times this year, but yesterday my sister came over to “catch up and chat”. Turns out, that was just an excuse to ask me in person to pet sit for 4 days while she and my other sister went to Vegas together for a holiday vacation. She knew I wouldn’t be able to say no in person, and she was right. Now I am pet sitting next week. I guess I have a few questions for you and your commenters: Am I in the wrong for turning them down just because I do not want to pet-sit, when they’ve offered to pay me and I do have the free time ? Obviously I and my husband are pretty biased and think I shouldn’t have to regularly take on responsibilities because someone else has pets, but it seems like every pet owner we know disagrees and thinks we are just selfish, lazy people. (As a side note, I have no problems helping them with non-pet related things; I regularly edit resumes and help with landscaping projects and help decorate for parties, so it’s not like I’m refusing to ever lend a hand with anything.) Are there any scripts you could recommend for saying ‘no’ to favors for family, especially when saying no means potentially ruining major plans for them? And finally, is this just a thing I need to get over and stop being annoyed at (people are always going to ask for favors you don’t want to do, and you’re always going to be considered the bad guy if you turn them down, too bad, so sad, stop complaining)?

Thank you so much for your time,
Not a Willing Pet Sitter

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Dear Captain Awkward,

My brother died suddenly in an accident in May. He was my only full sibling. The only sibling I grew up with and lived with. I also have 3 older half siblings from my father’s first marriage- we’re not super close, we see each other at holidays and text quarterly updates. After the funeral, I had to plan my wedding happening just 8 weeks after my brother’s death. The trouble starts when I am texting with T (the oldest half sister) and say that I am having a hard time because my mother is emotionally unavailable due to her grief. T has a tense relationship with my mother and uses this moment to tell me how unreasonably angry my mother was acting when she last saw her. I am LIVID and stop responding. T says “sorry, it just made her sad.” I lose a day of wedding planning to being angry and trying to figure out how to respond. I give up and send no reply.

In the following weeks, T sends a message explaining her behaviour and then tells me that I am acting unacceptably. I tell her that I need some time and space. My other sister K is sent to get some answers and I tell her to mind her own business. T gives me 10 days and then tells me I’m being abusive and I’m just mad because her siblings are alive and mine is dead, that everyone was at her wedding and my brother won’t be at mine. She doesn’t want to come to my wedding because she’s not sure if I even love her anymore. I tell her that needing space was about me not her. At this time she also makes a plea to my parents to get them to make me talk with her- they say she should just leave me alone. My father sobs and begs T to attend the wedding.

At the wedding, T shows up late and leaves early. I generally avoid them and have a fine time. After the wedding she blocks me and my parents on facebook and gets her husband and mother to do the same. I text T that I am available to talk now, but understand if she needs space. No response. I text K and say apologize for being snappy and telling her to mind her own business. She blasts back demanding I take responsibility for everything – for making my “wedding into a battle ground”, shattering all of the relationships, and “single handedly tearing our grieving family apart”. I’m at a loss. Am I selfish? Are they? How much of this is my fault? Should I just cut my losses? Help?

-One wedding and a funeral

(Preferred pronouns she-her)

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Hello! This is a question that is hopefully less fraught than a few of the other Holiday Questions and I hope will be an easy question for you all to answer.

My partner and I have been living together for over a year and together for much longer than that; it is a thoughtful, committed relationship and I’m very happy. My parents took some time to warm up to him but now like him very much (him wading in (yes, literally) to help at last Thanksgiving’s Sewer Explosion in the Parents’ basement went a long way towards them recognizing how good of a man he really is).

The problem: my family is deeply Catholic (not me) (and in the liberation theology, Nuns on the Bus, Vatican 2 kind of way, which helps). Until my partner and I marry, my parents will not allow us to stay in the same bed. We have no plans of getting married unless there is some extenuating circumstance, and then certainly not in the church.

I haven’t brought it up in the last year or so because 1) I want to respect their beliefs and 2) most of the times we’ve been home, I’ve been sleeping on a couch or with my sister anyway since it’s been for other family events where there’s a full house. But now it’s gone on for a long time, and aforementioned sister yesterday got in a fight with my parents about creating a “boys dorm” and a “girls dorm” for our next family vacation (this also will impact my brother and his girlfriend, who have been together since they were sixteen but also are unmarried). They told her that it’s clearly not an issue since I haven’t brought it up and she’s overreacting. She is not.

Look, I’m not trying to have wild kinky sex under my parents’ roof. I would like for my partner to not have to sleep on the floor (or as happened on other vacations, in a tent outside), and I would like to feel like my parents respect our relationship. How do I broach this topic and make it clear that this does, in fact, bother me, but I’ve thus far respected their wishes — but it is a problem that they don’t seem to respect me or my relationship as responsible, adult, or mature without the parameters of Catholic marriage? Do I even bother? Is this a passive aggressive nightmare waiting to blow up ten years down the road if I don’t say something now?

Help me, Captain Awkward! You’re my only hope!

Sincerely,
Grandma’s sleeping in my bed this year anyway so it doesn’t even matter right now

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Hi, Captain,

My mom and I have had a fraught relationship for most of my life. Her parenting was often verbally and emotionally abusive, she spent much of my adolescence self-medicating with alcohol, and she’s both extremely volatile and prone to interpreting criticism as an indictment of her entire being (so, for instance, “Mom, I feel like you don’t really listen to me” is met with “Well, I’m SORRY that you have the WORST MOTHER in the WORLD!” and similarly manipulative, derailing crap).

Because she’s very conscious of how others see her, she’s a pro at turning on the Cool Fun Mom routine, which she used to win over most of my childhood friends. Any time I was critical of her parenting or expressed frustration about not having my needs met, she would invalidate me by pointing out that my friends thought she was awesome, and therefore the problem must be me. It made me feel terribly alone and doubtful of my own perceptions, which of course was the point.

Our relationship is marginally better now that I’m an adult and we live in separate states, but lately she keeps trying to pressure me into a closer relationship that I’m frankly not interested in. After years of reaching out to her and being rebuffed, her newfound zeal to be my pal feels like too little too late, and very one-sided. Like, “I know I was checked out for most of your childhood, but please get over it because being your mother is finally convenient for me.” I also can’t help but notice that the way she talks about being closer always necessitates me changing to accommodate her, but never includes any explanation of how she plans to meet me halfway by, say, addressing her anger issues and constant need to criticize with the help of a therapist.

As far as I can discern, her vision of our new and improved relationship basically amounts to me giving up my boundaries for her comfort. Example: I asked her to stop prying into my dating life because a.) it’s annoying and b.) it’s not a subject I feel comfortable discussing with her, and I assured her that if there was anything she needed to know I would clue her in. She responded by telling me how hurt she was that I wouldn’t be more open with her and then asking if I was secretly gay.

Occasionally she’ll get tearful and ask why I won’t give her more of a chance. This is a trap, because then if I try to explain (“Well, Mom, you’re relentlessly judgmental and kinda mean, you refuse to admit fault for anything, and you won’t respect my boundaries, all of which makes you not a lot of fun to be around”) the inevitable outcome is a heated, defensive lecture about why my feelings are wrong and her toxic behavior is totally defensible.

This does not make me want to be closer to her.

Captain, I would like to have an amicable, well-boundaried relationship with my mom. I would like for Christmas Eve to never again involve “IT’S OBVIOUS THAT YOU HATE ME!” being shrieked in my face. I would like to be able to work through disagreements with her peaceably instead of getting baited into a shouting match over who’s right and who’s wrong. But I don’t get the sense that my mother is prepared to do her share of the emotional heavy lifting that building a better relationship would require.

What do?

Difficult Mom Is Difficult

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Hi Captain,
I’m wondering if you could give me some advice on dealing with my challenging Mother when I’m going through stressful times.

Right now I’m nearing the end of my Master’s degree, so I’m working long hours, stressed out, and have a lot to do (your posts on graduate life have been very helpful!). And today my Mom calls me to let me know that we’re having my Dad’s birthday dinner tomorrow (the next day). I ask if it could be moved to the weekend (as to give me some time to get a gift, and to just better deal with it in my schedule). She says no, and gives no reason. The dinner will only involve my Mom, my Dad, and me so it’s not a big deal where many people’s schedules have to be accommodated.

This is just typical behaviour for my Mom (my Dad isn’t perfect, but he’s easier to deal with). I’d say she has a lot of narcissistic traits (your recommendation of ‘Will I Ever Be Good Enough’ by Karyl McBride was also very helpful!). She makes everything about herself. I predict if I approach this situation in a reasonable manner, and say something like ‘Could you give me more notice for family events? Especially when you know I’m on deadline?’ it will cause a huge fight where she makes it about herself, and there will be no recognition of my needs.

My usual way of dealing with my mom is 1) emotionally distancing myself from her, and 2) being very passive and going along with whatever she wants to avoid a no-win fight (which is why I am now having dinner with my parents tomorrow night, showing up with no gift, then coming home and writing until God knows what hour to make up the lost time). It would be really great if I could mix in some assertiveness in there!

I don’t want to make things worse between us. And I want to continue having a relationship with my Mom (there are some good things). But I want to be myself much more than I am right now. I feel like I have to chop off parts of myself at the door when I deal with her :/

Thanks so much!

Work in Progress

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Hi there CA and screeners. Long-time reader, first time writer. I’m writing to ask for some advice on how to get my extended family to treat me like an adult.

I’m 21 years old now, about to graduate from college and start my life in the real world and I’m starting to find that my family is still treating me like I’m part of the “younger crowd.” As background, my parents waited until much later than any of their siblings to have kids, so my younger brother and I are both in a weird place where we’re actually closer in age to the next generation than ours (my next oldest cousin is in her 30s, while the next youngest after my brother is 14 now). As an example of what I’m talking about, at Christmas my grandparents have a stocking for every descendent of theirs, all the way down to the youngest great-grandchild, and there are two sets of stocking gifts: the “adult” stockings, which have things like lottery tickets and kitchen utensils, and the “kids” stockings, that have stuffed animals and coloring books. Every year I’ve gotten a kid stocking, which didn’t bother me…until I turned 18…and then last Christmas, when I was 21 and *still* got a kids stocking.

The reason I’ve been thinking about this lately is because my cousin’s wedding is coming up, and I’d really, *really* like it if I got my own invitation to it instead of being lumped in with my parents and brother (maybe even with a +1 but I totally understand if that’s not possible), but I don’t know what to say to the family at large that isn’t rude. My parents treat me like the adult I am, but what do I say to people like my cousins and my grandparents? I’m an adult, I pay taxes, I have a stable romantic relationship, and I’d just like a seat at the big kids’ table these days, you know? Or is it like being a king, where “if you have to say you’re an adult, you’re not an adult?”

Yours in awkwardness,
Sick of Coloring Books

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Hi Captain!

Husband and I have been married a year and to make a long back-story short, I have found your responses re: “dealing with difficult people” immensely helpful for dealing with my MIL.

So here’s the current issue: while my in-laws have very few lasting friends, they do consider themselves close to my FIL’s cousin, Rick- and by extension, his wife, Rena. My FIL’s father died last summer and we took the time/days off work/expense for all pre and post funeral gatherings. Rick’s mother died a few months ago, and as we’re both fond of him PLUS knew it was important to my FIL, we made that funeral too.

Right now, Rena’s father is very close to death.

Unfortunately, my MIL has been using the status of dying people as an easy manipulation technique. She sends strings of texts “updating us” on the status of various aging people’s diagnoses, operations, etc. and it is hard not to engage with these texts because of the subject matter. While we know she doesn’t have empathetic or even sympathetic (unless towards herself) abilities, it similarly seems inappropriate here to focus on that. But this has become a pattern and she clearly assumes we will attend Rena’s father’s funeral. She has also started claiming she is close with several other people who also don’t have long to live. (FYI all of the people involved in this Q live 6-8 hours away.)

Is the “right thing” here to attend Rena’s father’s funeral?

We have a tight budget, are out of bereavement days, and were saving remaining vacation days for a belated honeymoon. My husband will now have to use up a few unpaid sick days to attend any other events during the work week. He is worried at prospect of no real sick days, plus thinks more absences will reflect negatively on him at work. But he is also HIGHLY nervous at idea of saying no to his mother.

Rena is also a difficult and unpredictable woman who often provokes/creates drama seemingly just for the hell of it.. MIL tends to encourage this/holds us responsible when we are Rena’s target because it supports MIL’s own goals- so we both expect her to pull the “hurting Rena” card if we try to miss this funeral.

Am I being a huge bitch? I have a bank of rage/resentment issues re being a doormat in abusive relationships in the past and so maybe my feelings here are from a knee-jerk negative response, which isn’t appropriate here because death is involved?

Would love to hear your thoughts on what we “should” do in this scenario, what we should do when the other claimed close ones die, and what any scripts could be.

Thank you!!
Ragey (But Want to Retain Relationships)

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