Dear Carolyn: Me? Mid-50s, reasonably successful and comfortable, with meaningful work and wife (no kids). I’m pretty happy with my life, including its high and low points.
This wasn’t the easiest place to reach: I come from an extremely dysfunctional family (alcoholism, drugs, suicides, general horribleness). Basically, I have no contact with my living relatives, and they don’t really talk to each other, either. It’s my choice, and I’m at peace with it, because sometimes it’s the only choice you can make unless you want a life of endless crazy.
Yet everybody else seems to have a really happy family with mostly deep, satisfying relationships. Well, maybe not everybody, but this is how people talk. Those fortunate enough to have this kind of family have my envy and admiration, because I know they worked hard for it. The problem is – what do I say when people ask me about my family? Of course, I can just try to change the subject, but more often than not, people want details and quiz me.
I’m comfortable with not having some version of the Waltons as my family, but others are not. Suggestions?
– At a Loss
A: Their comfort is not your problem. Truly. Repeat whenever your doubts bubble up.
I realize it feels like your problem when you’re being grilled and life-coached by fellow backyard barbecue guests, but thinking of it that way is what leads to the temptation to make stuff up. A happy lie, after all, protects you only by satisfying their need for you to fit into whatever box they hold dear.
If instead you approach their curiosity as not your problem, then you are free to deny them whatever need drives their deep (and rude) dive into your business. Stage 1, deflection: “They’re fine, how are yours?” Stage 2, the smiling brick wall, for those who miss the deflection cue: “I’d rather not talk about my family” or “My family doesn’t interest me. Any thoughts on the weather?” Stage 3 for those who believe their curiosity trumps your comfort? Escape: “If you’ll excuse me, I need to” refresh my drink/make a call/put myself somewhere else. Because their comfort is not your problem.
Even happy families are complicated, at turns opaque, frustrating, self-interested and staunchly resistant or just oblivious to the passage of time. What keeps them close throughout challenges, generally speaking, is a combination of deep love, shared history and strong enough boundaries to override any impulses to try to control or undermine each other.
It strains credulity that someone pumping you for family details – and then presuming to fix you – is standing on that healthy of an emotional mountaintop.
So keep that mentally at hand at the barbecue: I have my crazy, you have yours, let’s talk about something else.