Carolyn Hax: How little can you see parents and not be a bad person?


Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: What is the bare minimum amount of time I need to spend with my parents to not be a horrible person? I did not have a particularly happy childhood and do not think my parents are particularly good people now that I am an adult.

They want to see me and spend time with me but every time I do, I just feel exhausted afterward from having to put on a front like we have a loving relationship, when I just do not feel that. I try my best by sending emails or calling and giving them gifts at holidays, but they clearly want more. How much more do I need to do?

Exhausted: There is no “need” and there is no set “amount of time.” It all depends on so many things. How bad these not particularly good people are is one of them, a big one, though not the only one.

I am sure you can easily imagine a range of approaches: Some people live in the same building as the relatives they do not like very much and feel a duty to see them daily. Some move to the other side of the world just to answer once and for all the same question you are asking. Some sever ties completely and never look back.

Some sever ties and have second thoughts. Some calculate that it is easier to be in the same town and see them in relatively painless 15-minute increments. To others that would be the vision of hell. It is like one of those sound boards in a recording studio, with all the various levels you can adjust. Here are your components.

1. How you define “horrible person” relative to relatives and “good person.”

2. How much exposure it takes to exhaust you.

3. What your exhaustion level with one type of exposure versus another is. Think call, text, email, you visit them, they visit you, or neutral site.

4. How you can arrange all these pieces to get the maximum “good person” points by your definition, see above, with minimal exhaustion.

Let these steps determine whether you set up bimonthly restaurant visits or move to a yurt 10 time zones away.

· Why do you need to pretend everything is okay? Maybe talk to a therapist about why you feel you need to maintain a facade instead of being more authentic. You may still decide the facade is easier than confronting a parent who is never going to change, but at least then it is you choosing your path.

· Even people who have better childhood memories and better parents can struggle with this issue. How we spend our time, and with whom, can be tough with competing demands of work, family, friends, hobbies, significant others and more. You are not alone in trying to figure this out.

· Maybe challenge the “not good people” issues when they appear. Answer a mean remark with “I am not sure I know why you would say that.” That might help clarify things.

· Exhaustion and stress due to family can be related not just to who these people are presently, but also to your history with them. My in-laws are, to my eyes, slightly stressful but totally manageable and fundamentally nice. My spouse, who has a long and more complicated history with them, literally cannot function for a week after one short visit. It is worth considering what you get, if anything, from your current relationship with your family.

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