Carolyn Hax: Parents’ behavior calls for boundaries
Hi, Carolyn: This question has been stewing for a long time, and I really don’t know what to do. Two years ago my brother and his now-wife were preparing to get married and felt so much pressure, judgment and negativity from my parents leading up to the wedding that they almost uninvited them. That relationship has since repaired a bit, though there is still a lot of tension.
My parents are now applying the screws to my relationship, my life and all of my decisions. They disapprove. Have resorted to screaming and yelling, angry 2 a.m. emails, and making it blatantly clear my significant other is unwelcome at holidays. They say, “But he’s welcome! I think we were very civil to him when we saw him in August” – but the “civility” was palpable tension and anxiety.
I’ve explained boundaries to them: that if this relationship DOES work, they’re making it really stressful, and if it doesn’t, I will distance myself super far away from them to avoid this type of intervention in the future.
I’m a happy, successful person in my early 30s and their attitude is a major negative force in my life. How do I make it go away without cutting them out? – Concerned
I appreciate the idea of a boundary, but what you set down is not a boundary, it’s a pair of consequences. Consequences are an important part of boundaries, which I’ll get to in a second, but they need to be immediate, concrete and directed at the people whose invasiveness you’re trying to thwart.
One of your consequences is so deep into the future as to be nearly abstract: If your relationship doesn’t work out – in however many months or years you give it to play out – then you’ll move away? Imagine a mousetrap that snaps two years post-snatching of cheese.
Your other consequence is “making it really stressful” – for you. So, they snatch the cheese, and you get snapped?
A viable boundary involves a cause (their behavior), an effect (your response to their behavior), a clear statement of your position, and a direct consequence:
Cause: “Mom, Dad – recently you’ve responded to my choices with pressure, judgment and negativity, and you did a similar thing to Brother as he was planning his wedding.”
Effect: “When you scream, yell and send me 2 a.m. emails, I feel stressed and (your other feelings here).”
Position: “I will no longer discuss my relationship or my decisions with you – not until you’re ready to trust that you raised me well enough to handle my own life, including any mistakes I make.”
Consequence: If they keep up the hysterics, you respond calmly and decisively by … hanging up the phone/leaving the room/deleting the email/opting out of the family holiday.
This gives your parents a chance to make an immediate connection – that if they impose their opinions on you when you haven’t asked for them, then you will not stick around to be badgered. Better they learn this now, in low-conflict, single-encounter-size increments, than in your abrupt overseas relocation after years of bitter arguing.