Lately, I’ve gotten so many anguished questions from people who are being criticized and rejected by family for making relationship choices the families don’t like, usually for cultural or religious reasons, that I changed my mind about what I was going to write this month.
If your choice of a partner, lifestyle, religion or place to live has received a lot of criticism and threats of rejection from your family, you are probably experiencing pain and confusion. Families do this because they don’t accept that you’re an adult, free to make your own choices, good or bad, and they assume your choices will either be bad for you or a negative reflection on them. Otherwise loving and caring parents can become surprisingly cruel and heartless in these situations, because they are afraid—and they turn that fear into anger. It may not be possible to get them to approve of your decision, but if you get them to think of you as an independent adult, they may be able to accept it with a little more grace.
If you’re an adult, and in college, working, or married, it’s time to grow up and move on from your family and your childhood. While it’s lovely to be close to your family if you have a good relationship with them, it is also time to build a life of your own, and the sooner you begin, the quicker you will become well- established. It’s a big change when you first leave home to think of yourself as being in charge of your life. “I’m 31 years old,” said a client “and I still feel as if someone else is running my life.” That is not a good place to be.
The key is to decide that you, and only you are in charge of what you do from this day on. You can discuss your life issues with your parents, siblings, spouse and friends, and make use of their experience and differing view points; but in the end, you are the one who must make the decisions about what to do. Even if you manage to allow someone else to make the decisions for you, you will have to live with the consequences of those decisions.
To change your relationship with your family from that of a dependent child to a fully respected adult, you must first change the way you think of yourself in relationship to your family. In other words, to stop being treated as you were when you were a child, you must stop behaving the way you did as a child. If you treat the others in your family as “fellow adults”, you’re more likely to get treated like one yourself. The ways your family interact are just habits, and they can change. Following are some guidelines:
Guidelines for Growing Up within Your Family
1. Call your parents “Mother and Father” or “Mom and Dad”, instead of childlike names such as Mommy, Daddy, Poppy, etc. It will make you think differently about your interaction.
2. Change your conversation to be more like the conversations you have with friends. Don’t limit it strictly to family memories, or gossip about family members, or questions about your personal life. Before you speak with family members, take a minute to think of what “adult” topics you’d like to talk about. Current events, sports, work issues (just facts and events—avoid complaining) political or local neighborhood issues are all adult topics.
3. If you have children of your own, share with your parents on a parent -to parent basis.
4. Don’t react if your parent does or says something annoying. Just ignore it, and change the subject.
5. Don’t ask your parents for advice—try offering your own expertise instead—but offer it as you would to a friend. Don’t push.
6. Pay attention to the balance of your interaction. Don’t let your role slide into all giving or all receiving, try to keep the score even, as you probably do with your friends.
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