Baggage Check Live: "Let's hope this town has a lot of new stores"

Oct 23, 2018

Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Andrea Bonior was online to take your comments about her advice column, Baggage Check, and any other questions you might have. These comments may appear in an upcoming column running in Express and online.

Want to read more? Read Baggage Check columns.

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Welcome, everyone!

What's cookin' with you today? Got your lottery tickets? Am I the only one wondering whether LW from a few weeks ago is "letting" his wife spend a little extra on them this week?

Today's Baggage saw some in-laws who are desperate to pull LW into their melee, and a person who may just be holding on to a few too many grudges for a little too long. Can you relate? 

Let's get started!

I agree with the need for therapy, but a specific goal is for the grudge-holder to realize that s/he cannot control other people's actions -- ever! only his/her own reactions to them. Insisting that "they make it right" is the adult equivalent of a child's insistence on getting their own way about everything. I'm sorry if that sounds harsh, but learning to let go is just realizing that that's how the real world is.

It is an excellent point.

A lot people who perennially need to 'even the score' are stuck in a trap of not being able to accept that sometimes, life serves up a &*%$ sandwich-- by another person's hand. And the more we can accept that, the less we will forever be struggling with our inability to control that, and instead will free ourselves up to feel more contented within the things we can control.

Thanks.

I married a man whose ex walked out on him and their 6-year-old daughter. We gladly raised the girl because the birth mom had no interest in doing so. Over the years, she blossomed in our care, excelling at school and extracurriculars, and enjoying a close relationship with us. But five years ago, she cut us off after we expressed concerns about the man she was marrying (a rebound situation), even though we attended the wedding, where "his" family and friends basically ignored us and she barely spoke to us. We thought by giving her space was the best thing for everyone and friends have passed along that message that we love her and want her to have the space she needs. Now, she's telling those friends that she thinks she'll reconcile with us when she can do so on her terms. But Andrea, I have become so hurt and bitter about this long silence (which feels more like punishment) that I'm not even sure I want to reconcile (e.g. she's visited our town twice to see friends, but never contacted us, which really stings). I feel like a reconciliation on just one person's terms is bound to blow up again eventually, and I'm not sure I want someone in my life who still has the power to hurt me. Yet I don't want to keep my husband from his child or put him in the middle. Any advice for healing these sorts of family rifts?

This is tough. It must be excruciating to see someone you raised and tried so hard to do right by, choose to cut you out in this way.

Is there hope here? I think it depends on her "terms."

That really is the million dollar question, as I see it. There's a big difference between someone whose terms just mean "It's not right for me right now, but I'm building up to it and will initiate things in a few months-- I don't want to be rushed, and I want to be the first to reach out" versus whose terms mean "I am going to dangle our potential relationship as a carrot, but will not let you have it unless you do as I say up to my specifications forevermore."

I mean, do you have any inkling of what her terms are?

In general, I am neither pro nor anti-estrangement. I don't absolutely think it has to be a terrible thing-- sometime it is simply necessary-- but in general, when there is the potential to work things out, I think it's worth devoting effort to. The key variable there is, of course, her insight into the situation, and what she is willing to give and to understand of her role.

Here's the thing, though-- every single person we love has the power to hurt us. And hurt us mightily. So you can't avoid it-- that's just the way love works. What makes it worth it is when we put our trust in a person that they won't wield that power irresponsibly.

Which brings us back to her and her terms.

Chatters?

For the first time, your Tuesday live chat is on the front page. I am so happy for you. "They" have take notice. Better days lie ahead for your career, and you deserve them. Yay you Dr. B! Mary In Tucson (who is still not a relative)

I really feel like everyone should be lucky enough to have a Mary in Tucson! Thank you so much for your kindness.

I am not sure what the front page exactly means-- I have a sneaking suspicion that perhaps there was just one fewer chat today, so on the live chat menu it means that I came up third and got shown first thing in the morning with the upcoming chats, rather than being shoved down farther in the list and not yet shown-- but hey, with someone like Mary in my corner, anything feels possible!

Also, while we're on the subject, Dr. Andrea's columns are back on the Advice page, in addition to the live chats! Woo!

I have been good friends with someone long-distance for several years. She has moved around a few times for her husband's job and she dislikes the transition every time of settling in to a new place and making new friends. I am very sympathetic and try to be supportive. She has been unemployed for a long time and has a husband who works 16 hour days. She has complained that friends (other than me) have not been good at keeping in touch. But every time she wants to talk it is for hours (literally 3 hours sometimes) and at least a few times a month. I have a full-time job, kids and lots of commitments and I don't have that time to give. I feel badly being the first to end the call every time, or anytime I take two or three days to call her back. I don't want to be another "bad friend." I am not asking for advice about how to advise her to change her situation - that's not what she wants from me, either. Could you please offer some suggestions for me about how to support her while keeping healthy boundaries for myself? I know my tendency is to privilege other's needs before mine. Thank you.

I understand you don't want to give her advice about how to handle her situation because that is not what she is looking for. But, as you do understand yourself (given your use of quotes in "bad friend"), part of what you're looking to avoid here is her negative and unfair judgment about what it means to be a friend, and her unrealistic expectations of what friends can and should offer. It's impossible to separate those concepts from each other: her unrealistic expectations will need to be addressed, not only in terms of your setting your own boundary, but also as a way of helping her cope and not be so frustrated.

So, be open and kind about it. "I value our relationship so much, and I know how hard it is for you that other people have let you down. But I also don't want us to get into a situation where you're frustrated with me as well. The truth is, it's very hard for me to be able to talk for three hours/talk several times per month/call you back right away. I wish it were easier, but with my other commitments, that's just the way it has to be. Can we talk about how we can bridge this gap in a way that feels good for our friendship?"

You do need to address your own expectations with yourself as well-- you're allowed to have a life, you know, and you can't and shouldn't try to be her therapist, and a 3-hour chunk of time that's not better planned takes you away from your other commitments and roles in a way that's not fair to anyone-- but I also think that her willingness to hear what you are saying will inform how to go forward quite a lot.

I'm thinking a good compromise could start with a (less frequently) scheduled phone call per month, for instance-- where you block out the time already, rather than getting railroaded into it in the moment.

Chatters?

The thing about grudges is that they keep you stuck where you were when the offence happened. You've given control to the offender, letting them determine your level of happiness. Better to chalk it up to experience, and move one. Take your power back.

Another potentially very helpful way to look at it. Thanks!

The line that jumps out to me: "Yet I don't want to keep my husband from his child or put him in the middle." His child? You raised her from age 6. Don't you mean "our child"? Ouch. I think there is more to this than just whose terms this is on. I think there is some underlying anger and frustration that needs to be worked through before a reconciliation would be possible. (I have 2 bio-parents and 2 step parents, I know who thinks I'm "their child" and who doesn't, and that definitely changes the relationships.)

First of all, I'm sorry that it feels that way in your own family. That's the type of nagging itch that never quite disappears.

And yes, very good catch about the "his child." I think terminology in these situations can be tricky-- for all we know, OP is oversensitive to not wanting to declare herself the parent if that is something that stepdaughter has made an issue of in the past; it can be a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation-- but I do wonder if there is a more complex history here than meets the eye.

Thanks!

Can't you just say, "sorry, it's bedtime, I have to go" or "sorry, I have dinner in the oven and need to go" or something like that? Or switch to e-mail, where you can answer at your leisure and the length you'd like? Her demanding immediacy for that long is just rude.

I suppose that IS what OP is doing at some point, but it's that deeper issue of the fact that that feels like such a "bad" thing to do-- and that she even has to do it in the first place. You're absolutely right in that it should be a very reasonable thing to not be able to devote that much time to the phone calls, but my take is that the dynamic has become so ingrained that it's started to seem unreasonable/rude to do so.

Is it ever okay to hold a grudge forever? What if the person that offended you is your pastor? After a recent sermon about his intolerant views, I never want to go back. Spouse says it is best to just forgive him and return to the church. It is just hard for me to just forgive and forget of someone who is supposed to be leading me.

Ah.... this is where we can get into the weeds with what a "grudge" means.

To me, a "grudge" means a simmering resentment for something that no longer should reasonably affect interactions.

It is NOT an informed decision about how to interact with a person going forward.

I think forgiveness and forgetting don't always have to go together.

If your pastor has revealed himself to be someone whose values don't align with yours, to me that's not a grudge at all. That's recognizing a very valid reason not to consider him your spiritual leader anymore.

Will it help to see things a bit from her angle, right or wrong? She probably sees you and her father as turning against the man to whom she is pledging her life. This has to hurt beyond belief. There is hurt on both sides. You love someone - there will be hurt. Often it goes both ways. Keep the channels of communication open and see how the three of you might be able to move forward. I hope you can.

An extra dose of empathy is rarely a bad thing. Thanks!

I have intense feelings for my boss who is married. I'm almost certain he knows this although I've never confirmed it to him. He has a deep level of respect for me: he listens to my concerns and he acknowledges my presence whereas he doesn't pay attention to anybody else and I can't help but wonder should I pursue something with him or at least tell him my feelings? I hate myself for feeling this way but I can't help it.

Your header says it all: this is not a good situation.

In general, doesn't it make sense to focus our romantic pursuits on people who-- I dunno-- are actually reasonably healthy choices of people to pursue?

Yes, you have intense feelings for him. I have an intense desire to flee to the Maldives. But to lead fulfilling lives that have a reasonable amount of well-being, we need to make choices that are mindful of long-term consequences and aren't just postponing severe problems for the sake of short-term pleasure.

You didn't ask me for advice on how to handle being in a situation where you have feelings for your boss but can't and won't pursue him. If you want an answer to that-- and are really ready for it, let us know! I think we'd all be breathing a sigh of relief!

(In response to last week's chat.)

I'm sure OP did not intend it this way, but the line " actually experience/"see" the complex range of my emotions and feelings that I've been numb to" rubbed me the wrong way a bit. I'm currently on an SNRI and likely will be for the rest of my life, according to my doctor. It doesn't numb me out (a major fear that prevents many people from trying medications), it allows me to get beyond the "nothing" that was there before. Allie Brosh, the creator of Hyperbole and a Half, made a comic that shows my experience quite well http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2013/05/depression-part-two.html

Thanks. I can certainly understand this perspective, and I'd hate to perpetuate any stereotype about antidepressants dulling a personality or an ability to engage with life. For many people, they are the absolute opposite and allow them to fully function in a way that is truly their best self.

I do think for others, it really does feel differently, though, and they do feel in retrospect that maybe one of the effects was a bit of numbness. But you're right-- we don't want to stereotype or stigmatize much-needed medication regimens in the process!

Sometimes it's not so easy. I actually ended a friendship over this. There was alway a (minor) crisis of the day. I would set time limits. She would go over and I would sometimes literally hang up. She would actually shout at me about how controlling I was over this ... when we'd have been on the phone for a least and hour every day for several days running ... . It Just Had To Stop.

Yes.

It's funny how so many of us DON'T talk on the phone anymore, so we can easily forget just how difficult and fraught the endings can be. Especially when there is this kind of problematic dynamic.

Hey, maybe that's why some of us don't talk on the phone anymore.

Which reminds me-- isn't it interesting how the etiquette of ending a text conversation is sort of a work in progress? No one is really sure of the rules yet. I have talked to two different people in the past couple of weeks who have struggled with someone "disappearing" in a text conversation, seemingly mid-interaction.

Keep a timer handy, and set it so it goes off LOUDLY when you're ready to end the call, so you have a plausible excuse (e.g., dinner in the oven, or anything else you'd need to set a timer for).

Another tip. Thanks!

I saw this all in real time. I never got along with my siblings either as a child or an adult. Same thing with my mom and her siblings. Same with my grandfather and his siblings. My mom would say "The [Grandfather's family name] Genes." My dad was at my mom for pitting one child against the other or making one us feel better by putting another one down. But I don't want to repeat this as I'm about to have a second child. I figure it will be years before their relationship with develop, but I mention the family history is that I worry both I don't know what a good sibling relationship is and also too familiar with bad siblings relationship that I might just have ingrained in my thinking without knowing.

I am sorry that this has been such a toxic pattern, perpetuated for generations in your family.

But just because certain things may have become ingrained does not at all mean you can't mindfully choose to reject them as you raise your own kids.

There is no shortage of people out there raising children with an eye always toward what scripts from their own childhood they want to reject, versus which ones they want to keep or just revise.

It's okay to not have a perfect script or road map. It's the looking and being open to observation and trial and error and questioning that's important.

First of all, I'd say-- ditch the "It will be years before their relationship will develop" mindset. You set the tone from day one. Not to put pressure on you, bu there is so much precedent that can easily get set (for better or for worse) when the new baby is just an 8-lb swaddled pooping machine. Your older child learns so much about respect (how you talk to and about the baby, whether you blame it for things versus blaming the situation), compromise (how you'll choose to divide your time between them), sacrifice (what you and that child will sometimes give up for the baby's sake), conflict resolution (when there is frustration and anger at the baby or toddler for a situation they've created.) And your older child will be paying attention from Day One.

It seems like you already have some specifics of what not to do. So why not fill in the other column a little more fully-- what do you want to see? Who among your friends has a good relationship with their siblings, and can you talk to them about things they remember from their childhood that helped make that happen? What do you observe among the parent friends that you'll start to make who have more than one child? How do your children's personalities lend or not lend themselves to strengths in this arena-- and where is there room for improvement? What are the signs that things are going well, versus going poorly? (Hint: all siblings fight. Even-- or perhaps sometimes, especially-- the ones who are on their way to a close and healthy relationship.)

It's a work in progress. But if you make it a priority, you don't have to have all the answers right now. It's just a matter of knowing that you want to ask the questions.

Chatters, do you have specifics of what your parents did/didn't do in order to create certain relationships between you and your siblings? For good, for bad, or for ugly?

Try to focus on how badly this would turn out for you, your boss, your job, HR, etc. Keep focusing on that.

Yes.

As those in the recovery community might say, "Play the tape all the way through!"

My father is an alcoholic (functional) and has been for about 10 years. It used to be that we knew if we spoke to him after about 7pm he would most likely not remember anything we talked about. Then it was weekends and evenings. But always before he was generally able to retain information that was in an email, and usually things that he was told twice. But lately even that has stopped. I am pregnant and have told him on 4 different occasions and through different media formats (twice through email) the gender of the baby, and yet he still asks me about it every time we have contact (which isn't often). He is definitely narcissistic and a pathological liar and has been his whole life--outside the alcoholism (I've been amused at the shock so many people have shown at Trump's willingness to blatantly lie--"I never said that"--when you literally have video of him saying it, because that was how I grew up) and I'm sure there are probably other undiagnosed issues there that are masked by the alcoholism. I'm thinking that the alcohol intake has increased, but I live 1000 miles away so I don't know. And there's also a pretty good chance that he just doesn't care--he has very little interest in me. So my question is what I should do at this point? He's in his early 60s, swears he'll never retire (he has a job that brings with it some distinction, but the ability to absolutely skate by at this point in his career) and has a wife who is a bit younger and 4 stepkids. So I'm sure I'm not the only one who has noticed, but apparently I'm the only one who is concerned. None of my three brothers have any interest in getting involved, we all have our own lives and let's just say there's very little to be sentimental about when it comes to our dad. And I think his wife may be a bit of an alcoholic too--and therefore not want to touch the subject for fear that she'd have to confront her own issues. Do I owe it to him to say something (if he'd even remember...)? Do something? Try to rally my brothers into a transcontinental intervention? He's tried things like that before when he and my mom got divorced, and it would seem like he made some breakthroughs during some hard conversations (through Skype w/a therapist) but of course, nothing stuck or had any lasting effects. Can I just ignore the whole situation with a clear conscience?

Here's the sad thing: he may very well have increasing  memory loss, not because of an uptick in current drinking, but because of permanent damage caused by past drinking.

If this were the case and you knew things would never improve in this arena, how would you want your relationship with him to look?

And would it be different if it was dementia that was NOT related to alcohol abuse?

And-- if it's not cognitive deterioration at all but rather a lack of motivation to care about your life and strengthen your relationship-- how will you adjust your expectations?

Or what about a personality disorder in the way of the narcissism?

If you want a conscience-clearing, I'll give it-- he has a partner, he is still employed, he shows no clear signs of being an acute, imminent danger to himself or others. So it is not up to you to "save" him from his drinking. In fact, the most devastating symptomology that you're seeing hurts you and you alone.

So to me, it boils down to how you want that hurt to inform your behavior moving forward. How many chances you want to give him. How much you want to let him into your life. How much you'll hold your breath that things will change.

There's no right answer here, except you doing what feels right and most healthy for you and the family you are now growing.

My heart goes out to you.

I am having a difficult time letting go. My father passed away and left me in charge of the trust with my mother as co-trustee. My brother was angry he was not left in charge and essentially campaigned with the rest of the family against me. He had my mother remove me as co-trustee and put him in charge. As an attorney I was extremely ethical about the administration of the trust. My brother is not. I would like to write them out of my life but my mother keeps calling me asking me to lend money to my sister, since she is living in Mexico; instead of contacting my brother who apparently is not permitting her to use her money the way she wants. I want out of this loop. What can I do?

This hurts. I am sorry.

First you need to decide what "letting go" means. If I am interpreting things right, it seems that you are okay with seeing your relationship with your brother come to an end, at least for now.

So, where does that leave you with your mother, and your sister?

What if you told your mother that you want to maintain a relationship with her, but due to the way that things have gone down with your brother, you no longer want to engage in any discussion about any of the estate issues?

Or is your hurt over what your mother herself did enough that you wouldn't want to salvage that relationship either?

And how about sister? Are you willing to be her advocate in getting her part of the inheritance? Or would you rather leave that alone as well?

It is terrible that these issues can wreck relationships, even permanently. But I don't blame you for your reactions. I do think you have to exactly define what "out of this loop" means-- and be willing to look realistically at it as a cost-benefit analysis, as you prepare to establish/propose/ask for what you want with these relationships going forward.

Sometimes you can settle for partial closure. In the case of one person who wronged me terribly, we ran into each other two years later just hours after a taped interview with him regarding an issue dear to us both ran on our local NPR station, so I blurted out that I'd heard it, and congratulated him; he thanked me, which is about as close to an apology as one can reasonably expect. OTOH, I once had a boss so cruel that she made Miranda Priestly (of "The Devil Wears Prada") seem almost benign; when an article ran in our local newspaper about an employee she'd wrongly fired who then sued her and the company, I telephoned the reporter and was able to provide lots of other "dirt" on my vile ex-boss, as well as names of a couple dozen other ex-employees whom she'd wronged. This led to subsequent articles on the ex-boss and the company, while also providing me with a type of partial closure, which is sometimes all one can hope for.

Thanks. I think partial closure is actually a helpful and less-unicorn-like way of thinking about these things than full closure!

It's interesting how in both outcomes, you felt a little bit better, through almost opposite means. In one you were able to share something positive, and it helped lessen the sting. In the other you were able to contribute to a punishment that felt rightful.

I always called our daughter my daughter, so that wasn't an intentional slight. It's only because I am struggling with how to reconcile with her, but recognize that my husband might feel more strongly about the issue because it's his blood child. And for context: when we first married, we went to therapy to make sure we could get off to a good start. The therapist talked about what a primal wound it can be, when a birth mom walks out, and he warned me I couldn't "love her out of it." He also said words that turned out to be true: "And when she's ready to deal with her mother's abandonment, the person she's going to target for her anger will be you." Apparently, he felt that if I had the audacity to love her, she would go after me for reminding her that her mother didn't.

Thanks for this response. This all makes a lot of sense.

These kind of dynamics are so fraught at times-- and how disheartening that it's true that sometimes one person's love can be a painful reminder of another person's lack of love-- but I do really hope you are able to move forward with this, in whatever ways that looks like. 

Last night my elderly neighbor rang my doorbell late at night bc her phone isn't working and her daughter wasn't waking up. I called 911 and rushed over and performed CPR until the paramedics came. They took her to the hospital but things don't look good. We stayed with our neighbor for 2 hours trying to call relatives and finally was able to contact a friend to come over. We left our house phone there for the night so she could use it in case the hospital called. She wouldn't go to the hospital bc this was the third time in weeks this has happened. We have know these neighbors for years and try to help out shoveling and things like that, but I don't know what else I should do. I don't feel good knowing she doesn't have much family and the daughter is somewhat estranged from her ex husband and 2 young kids. Her older son just went back to jail recently after getting back into drugs with his mom. The neighbor didn't want to call most of her family to get help. I want to make sure my neighbor is ok but I'm not sure what the boundaries are for getting involved in this. I am not ok leaving someone in a time of need, but also don't want to get sucked into drama that isn't my responsibility to fix. I am an overly empathic person, so I know drawing boundaries is something I need to work on and this seems like a big test for me to push against my natural inclination to help see it through until the end. I haven't dealt with this kind of issue in my life so I'm at a loss at what I should do.

This is a heartbreaking situation, and you sound like someone with a good heart.

So, you can do the math there-- this hurts.

And you're wise to put in place whatever means you can to protect your own well-being.

So, at the risk of hearkening back to my dissertation days, here's what we need to do: operationalize our variables.

By that I mean-- what does it mean to "see it through until the end?" How much is too much? How far is too far? What, exactly, do you think is reasonable to give, and where do you think it's reasonable to stop?

You can think about this in many different ways. Time spent. Details heard. Favors lent. Offers extended.

You may have different rules for an acute crisis: (example: of course you'll give CPR to an unconscious person, or drive a person to a hospital, but you won't lend a phone overnight if that person is not willing to go to the hospital themselves.) The more that you can spell these boundaries out to yourself in advance, the better you will be able to stick to them without guilt (or, okay, let's be realistic here-- with guilt that is not debilitating.)

For the situation at hand, you've got to ask the same questions. If the worst happens and your neighbor's daughter passes away, what will your role be? What if she is permanently disabled? What if she has a long period of rehabilitation?

The more specific you can get, the better. And the more you can continue to suggest/require that she also bring her other friends and family into the support fold, the better.

Reading Carolyn Hax’s column today really gave me an “AHA” moment. Specifically, her line that “Unacknowledged hostility from one partner toward another is the toughest relationship problem there is.” My husband will stew, and I can tell he’s mad about something, but he won’t tell me what it is until he bursts out in anger. (Usual thing he blames is that the house is a mess, but we have two kids and both work full time. We can’t afford a maid.) He’s never gotten physically violent with me or the kids, and I wouldn’t classify it as verbal abuse, either, just a sharp tone and an unmistakable edge. He had a lot of stress the past couple of years with a bad job, but he recently got his “dream job”. I thought things would get better, and they’re not. He told me before he would not go to marriage counseling. Our tween son goes to counseling, and my husband only reluctantly attended a family session and asked before we went if it was a “blame everything on the dad” session. Neither of us make enough on our own to afford the mortgage on our house, and rental prices here are more than our mortgage, and I know that’s literally the only thing keeping me from taking the next step. I did confide in one friend what’s going on and she asked me if I told him how serious I am if he’d agree to go to counseling, and I now realize I don’t even think I want to save this marriage. I’m really confused and don’t know if I should talk to a lawyer, a counselor, or possible both.

Yeah, as your letter went on it seemed to go from "Here is a behavior that my husband does, that I now realize is corroding our marriage" to "My husband doesn't seem motivated to change the fact that he is corroding our marriage."

The first situation is an infection that can potentially be treated.

The second is often a terminal diagnosis.

How much time has he been in the new job? Enough that he is truly out of the transition phase, where this no longer just heightened stress and very likely the new normal?

I would definitely start with a counselor before a lawyer-- though just an information consult with an attorney could be helpful-- but whether you end up with legal proceedings or not, you need some additional support to help clarify for you what you really want here, and whether or not there's a last-ditch chance of him being able to give it.

I am sorry. Do keep us posted.

How can I improve things with my sister, who lied to and gaslighted her spouse to cover her affair? She is now living with the affair partner and child. She feels judged, and it's true that i am aghast at her behavior since she's done this before and she was needlessly cruel. (Never seeing the spouse again but asking to see their dog, etc) After almost 2 decades of sobriety she decided to start drinking socially and it has gotten her in trouble. She had one attempted affair a few months before her marriage blew up that the other person, a work colleague, rebuffed. She's stopped sending Christmas and birthday gifts to my kids after previously spoiling them. We can only have superficial conversations now, and when I call her on the stuff that affects me (promising to send them presents and then not, several times) she gets mad again. I told my teens that they need to adjust their expectations of her, but it's a shame that she's destroyed their trust in her, too. I told her this, and that made her mad, too. I think I am extra bothered by her BS because of all the lying flying through the air in politics these days. She cheated with a married person about twenty years ago, and insisted she wasn't doing anything wrong because she wasn't the one who was married. Why is she still doing such destructive and hurtful things? When I asked about the role of alcohol in this, she blew that off. She goes to weekly therapy and has for decades, because of her previous drinking. I am worried about her, but we are thousands of miles away. We used to be close, but I feel like I've lost my sister. To top it off, our father just did the same thing with his longtime second wife, so it's really just the cherry on top when she asks me for the "dirt" on that situation.

This must be really, really hard to watch.

The truth is, there is no easy "why" about the nature of her destruction and hurt. It's addiction, it's personality, it's life experience, it's neurotransmitters, childhood wounds..... you'll never know for sure (and I'd venture it's a combo platter of everything.)

The main thing, then, becomes understanding what you can and cannot do about it. You feel like you've lost your sister, and unfortunately-- part of you might need to actually look at it that way in order to help you move on.

You cannot change her actions.

You cannot get her to take better care of herself, or of others.

You can express your feelings, but in the end, it is up to her to do something about them.

So, you've got to find your own personal threshold in all this. Do you communicate with her only so often, and no more? Do you have certain topics that are off-limits (including your father)? Do you decide ultimately to set some sort of boundary that gets into ultimatum-terrritory in terms of her getting help or making changes?

In short: what's going to help you create a moat between her toxicity and your day-to-day well-being?

I know this larger concept is one that a lot of people here have struggled with. Chatters?

I'm having a really frustrating time with my boyfriend's parents. My boyfriend and I have been dating for almost three years. I've visited them a handful of times now and each time, I feel like I'm at a complete loss of what to talk to them about. I think the more frustrated I get, the less I like them. They are nice people and my boyfriend is absolutely wonderful, but they are so unlike him. Neither went to college, they don't travel, they aren't interested in art or movies or music really, and his mother doesn't work anymore. I try and ask them questions, but I feel stuck. The hard thing is is that they don't seem to be interested in asking me questions either. On this last visit, my boyfriend's sister and brother in law were there and his sister asked more about my job than either of his parents ever have, in fact, I'm not sure they could tell you what I do or who I work for even if asked. His mom just continues to tell me the same stories over and over again while I try and smile politely, and his dad isn't much for small talk. My boyfriend seems close to them, but visits like these make me feel like he's not close to them in the way I'm close to my mom and dad, especially my mom. I think my mom could tell you my boyfriend's entire last story, she asks about him every time we talk, knows the name of his roommates, parents, sister, and coworkers. And again, I don't even think my boyfriend's parents would remember that I have a sister, let alone know her name.How do I connect with them or at least don't let these visits make me more resentful? I know my boyfriend is the one but I worry about my relationship with his parents in the long term.

It's sort of startling, how sometimes people can be so offensive-in-absentia. Or offensive-by-attrition. I am not phrasing this right, but I'm just struck by how much of an "Ugh" this brings up, even though they're actively not really doing anything. It's the lack of what they're doing that is causing the offense.

Yeah, here's the thing-- they don't sound very capable of connection. They sound quite disconnected-- from interests, from emotional intimacy, from hobbies, from curiosity-- I mean, there's a big pile of nothingness there.

So, like we've talked about a bit already today, I think it's a matter of learning not to take it personally.

What if you were to view it as a permanent state of being with them, that affected their behavior with everyone? That meant that their having nothing real to do with you, well, had nothing to do with you?

I mean seriously, it could be due to any number of things (anxiety? Dullard-ness? Being set in their ways?) but it does seem clear that it is unlikely to change. And let's be careful here to not equate this with not having gone to college. You mention that, but to me that's immaterial. It's one thing to not have educational backgrounds in common, but it's quite another to show no interest in your conversation partners-- who may very well become family-- whatsoever.

Which brings me to your boyfriend. What does "close" mean? How does he get that with them? What does it entail? Does he have any advice on how you can get there too?

I'm not optimistic, though. I mean seriously, I feel like I could write a skit with these folks as characters.  So-- accept what you need to accept, and learn to adjust your expectations accordingly.

And thank the heavens above for your mom and his sister.

I found those therapist's statements alarming, perhaps because I am close to a child whose mother has abandoned her. Is there any established truth to this? We all worry she'll be screwed up, but frankly the thought that she will resent those who stepped up to raise her has not been a concern previously.

Well, I do think we don't have to generalize too much here. "Targeting for her anger" doesn't have to be a pathological thing, with estrangement or a corrosive relationship. It can be a blip on the screen, especially if the girl is able to be given the space to explore her feelings and work them out with support. And no two people are alike, even two people with similar abandonments.

In short, I took it to encompass a potential wide range of behaviors and feelings. Just like your AVERAGE teenager may target their parents at times, as they try to disindividuate themselves and reconcile conflicting needs between peers and family.

Please don't worry!

Oh my. This is an amazing insight. It would never have occurred to me that this could be the reaction to expect, but it sounds like this was a brilliant therapist.

And... as you can see, we do need to be careful not to make too much of it!

I'm glad it was helpful for you, though!

"I hate myself for feeling this way but I can't help it." Ugh, no. Don't paint yourself as helpless, you do have a lot you can control here. You can stop fantasizing, stop idealizing, and commit to ALWAYS acting professional and NEVER acting on the feelings. You are an adult with agency, not a character in a rom-com.

Love it. Thanks.

Teenagers are more than old enough to understand why crazy auntie doesn't send gifts any more. "Your aunt is a troubled person, and that's what troubled people do. Don't take it personally." If you take the teens' lack of presence on as a cause, you'll only be making the situation worse. Also, what was the point of telling your hopeless sister that she's done another bad thing by destroying your kids' trust in her? Get out of the middle of that situation, pronto.

Yes, that last part did seem a little bit like piling on, and it was doubtful from the get-go it would create a change in her sister.

The whole gift ship needs to sail away permanently.

Thanks for this.

The thing I've come to realize is that you need to parent yourself to be the parent you want to be (or close to it). You're aware of the negative aspects of your own experience with your siblings, which is great, but I would encourage you to specifically address your feelings around this (with support) and develop an explicit game for how to address common challenges that potentially start the moment a sibling is born. How you address those early challenges will set the tone and hopefully push the relationship into a positive space, but be prepared to be triggered if issues arise between your kids that touch on unresolved issues you have with your own siblings, which may make it difficult to implement the game plan. This is where parenting yourself comes in -the best way to be able to do what you want to do in that situation is to be kind and generous with yourself, and to get support when you need it.

Beautifully said.

And much appreciated!

My in-laws went to college and they don't talk. It can be very hard to get through a visit. I finally realized they just run out of social steam quickly, and I try to keep visits short and have something else to occupy me (knitting, crossword puzzles) when they go silent or tell the same story. You can't change them and you shouldn't try.

Makes so much sense. Good for you for being adaptable (and Hey Hey for my twin vices of knitting and crosswords!)

I do worry a little bit that the folks in OP's case aren't just running out of social steam but lacking it altogether.

It also seems to me to be related to "my mother said she loved me, but then she left me, so since you love me, I'm going to cut you off before you have a chance to leave me."

Yes.

The preemptive strike. "Stay the &*$# away from me so that you won't leave me!"

Thanks.

My Ph.D. husband was the son of a widowed mother with a 7th-grade education, and I too hold a graduate degree. Needless to say, my MIL and I had little in common, but the one sure-fire conversation starter was to ask her questions about what my husband was like as a child.

Very sweet!

I love love love hearing stories about my husband's antics as a child as well.

Until they scare the heck out of me in terms of what my kids have inherited.

I take SSRIs because they remove the numbness and allow me to experience my feelings. Pre-SSRIs, I once went a year without laughing. My dreams were gray and numbed-out too. I have to question why that poster felt it was necessary to tell a psychologist's column how much better life is without the meds that make life so much better for so many of us. A little humble-braggy and exhibitionist, maybe, a little passive-aggressive too..

That is wonderful that they have been so helpful for you. I am always heartened to hear of successful treatment for depression, no matter what form it takes!

I don't want to assume any motives on the part of OP, though. I think they are like all of us here, just trying to make sense of our own experiences and call them as we see them. Something I want to encourage!

`Teenagers are also old enough to reciprocate. After a certain point, we began sending birthday and Christmas gifts to the aunt who always sent them to us when we were children.

Good point.

Might get tricky if Auntie becomes estranged, though....

OP didn't say what the age difference is, but what I've learned from my siblings is that it's ok not to be friends during childhood. We were different ages, with different friends and different interests. And my parents didn't try to force friendship, just respectfulness. Now as adults we've developed close relationships, I think in part because we didn't have deep-seated resentments from childhood.

Good point.

I have seen some very interesting dynamics with adult siblings. Even briefly considered writing a book on it once. Sometimes the relationship takes a WHOLE new direction-- for better or for worse-- that would never have been imaginable when they were kids.

yeah, you know that saying "we hurt those closest to us"? And how it can be a lot easier to come home from work and yell at your spouse over nothing than have a long, difficult conversation with your boss? I don't know if there is an "established truth" that an abandoned child will inevitably target their "new" parent with their anger... but I think we can all agree that sometimes it sure is easier to take out our anger/unhappiness/frustration on people we love the most because we trust they will always be there. The key is recognizing what's happening and address it. With a good therapist :)

I can most definitely get behind that!

Great points, thanks.

I saw a clip from one of the Charleston church shooting survivors who is a bigger person than I am. She said you have to forgive to be forgiven. When we have a grudge we can move on with our lives if we can forgive. We do not have to forget, you may say I can never trust that person with this situation again. You remember to guard against future wrongs. But you try to forgive and move on. Think of it as removing a cancer. The tumor is gone. You might be more vigilant about another episode, but you move on with your life.

Yes. I think this is a really helpful conceptualization of forgiveness.

Too many people assume it means being okay with something awful that happened.

In reality, it's choosing not to carry it around anymore, and coming to terms with it in a way that lightens the load, takes away the need for revenge, and lessens the corrosion of anger.

Thanks.

You don't have to discuss world issues. Ask how the weather's been and how it's affecting their health. Ask what's going on in the neighborhood or is there a new store in town.

Let's hope this town has a lot of new stores!!!

Thanks.

I have a PhD and so does my mother. We frequently struggle to find topics to discuss. Our dogs are always the best way to go when jump-starting a conversation. (Awkward silence does not have a causal relationship to education)

Yes. I really do think this is an important point.

Some people are naturally curious and social and question-askers, no matter how much schooling they had.

Some people, very clearly, are not.

I've had several instances in the last week where I'm questioning how much is someone's responsibility versus something more ingrained that cannot be fixed. These examples are: my sibling tells me that he and his therapist suspect our careless hard-to-talk-to parent is "on the spectrum", I just spent several days with an impossibly rude boss who belittled me in front of other people among other issues and is well-known to be a pill and "difficult", and I myself was diagnosed by a new therapist with low-grade depression. I'm struggling with how to react to these scenarios. It's so easy to give other people a pass by saying 'oh it's just how they are' but then at what point does it make sense to speak up for yourself and others? Same sort of question with the depression diagnosis - it's hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that some vague neurotransmitters are to blame and are hard-wiring me to feel down. Is there a helpful way to think through these issues? I just get stuck on feeling stuck. Thanks so much!

Well, I think it's all too easy to create a false dichotomy between "giving people a pass" versus "speaking up for yourself and others."

Like my trying to decide between tzatziki and hummus, there is good news-- you can have both!

For instance, your parent. You learn to accept their limitations, which may come from being on the spectrum (or not), but you also establish a baseline of behavior that you will and will not tolerate, or of hopes that you will or will not let die. You accept that they may not change, but you allow yourself to change your own behavior in order to not have to suffer too much because of it.

Or your boss. So they are difficult. You use that to your advantage in some ways (reminding yourself that it is not just you, that their outbursts are not personal) but you also develop a strong sense of being your own advocate, having stock phrases that you use to defend yourself in certain situations, coping mechanisms that you turn to when your boss is getting you down, or even a long-term escape plan should you decide that you have had enough and that toxic bosses are one of the biggest stressors in life that can actually be escaped.

As for the depression, I'd root against a false dichotomy there as well. Yes, your neurochemical makeup may make you more prone to depression. But that doesn't mean you can't use it to develop other strengths-- learning more and more about yourself, developing coping tools (neurochemical and otherwise) to help affect your mood in a proactive way, making you more empathetic to others, forcing you to think about what's important to you rather than wasting time on things that don't end up contributing to your overall values, and so on. In other words, certain things that you can't control can actually heighten and illuminate the areas of your life that you can, and there's beauty in that. 

Does this shake things up a bit?

Or how about the girlfriend doesn't assume that these parents should be more like her obviously superior ones? People are just different sometimes. It's not about you and it's not your job to change them. How often do you even see these people anyway? Sheesh, this just reeked of conversation/interest entitlement to me.

Well, again, I want to see the best in this. I didn't think it reeked of judgment, actually. I think it reeked of "OMG am I really going to spend probably hundreds of hours of my life in awkward silence with these people who don't show any interest in me at all" desperation.

Do they have interests? Can you ask about their childhood ... ? If you can get them to open up about any interests it might help things not be awkward . But yeah - this us difficult. It doesn't sound personal.

Yeah, I too am curious about their interests and how they spend their time. There's got to be something there!

Thanks.

I think that what the therapist is getting at is: because you are trustworthy and are loyal, she feels safe taking her anger to you.

It's definitely a dynamic that is seen a lot, for sure. Thanks.

I've read several articles extolling the forgiveness of the Amish for the person who shot up their school and killed their children, which is admirable. I've also read several articles on the danger of the "we must forgive" attitude when it is applied to child molesting parents who are forgiven by the church and the family is ordered to take them back in and they keep up the molesting. It's not a simple subject.

It's not at all.

And again, I think it's easy to oversimplify even what "forgiveness" means.

 I do maintain that the data shows it can be very good for us, if we can pull it off the right way.

This was not closure, this was revenge. I don't blame you for seeking it and getting it, but please don't pretend it was anything but revenge. (Disclosure: I am allergic to the term "closure" because I have never seen it used to mean anything but "I want things to turn out differently from the way they did.")

I am allergic to 'closure' as well, though apparently not 'partial closure!'

I do think there are different ways of looking at this, though. Is it revenge to want this person permanently outed so that they won't continue to hurt others?

I caught a bit of that in the original post and I'd like to think it's a matter of "I'm comfortable with my interactions with my family and I'm struggling to figure out how to interact with people who are completely different."

Yes.

Honestly I don't really know how you CAN'T sound a little frustrated that your in-laws show one one-hundredth of the interest in you that your mother shows in your partner.

He tended to slough of his stress and shout and rant. I became a consultant and honestly I could just ignore it. But the good news was he was essentially a fair and decent guy, so would feel bad about it. I always asked for a raise after one of his rants.

haha!

Now there's an example of establishing boundaries that work for you!

This flew, as always! Thanks so much for being here. So much insightful support today.

I will see you here next week, and in the comments and on Facebook in the meantime. (We'll assume that, if my lottery numbers hit, my overwater bungalow will have wifi.)

Take good care!

In This Chat
Dr. Andrea Bonior
Dr. Andrea Bonior is a licensed clinical psychologist and the voice behind Baggage Check since its start in 2005. She serves on the faculty of Georgetown University and is the author of the Publisher's Weekly best-seller "Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World" and "The Friendship Fix.”
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