What should adults do when they don’t like their parents? How much time am I obligated to spend with them? Should I be honest with them or just do my best to smile politely, the way I would with a customer I don’t particularly like?
Monster?: Like one’s parents, or siblings, or kids even, is a weird expectation, when you think about it.
These are people of proximity, not choice. Maybe there’s a better-than-random chance of getting along because of shared environment, upbringing, experiences, traits, in most cases genes — but it’s still at its baseline a story of discrete individuals “assigned” to live together before anyone really knows who anyone is.
Lest that sound cynical: A lot of us like our families anyway, or have come up with inspiring ways to make it work regardless. Love, for example, which is different from liking them. Also gratitude, duty, culture, reciprocity, community, security, utility, respect, sympathy — plus the commonalities I mentioned earlier, plus whatever else you can fit under the umbrella of shared history. Family members who might never have chosen each other as friends can find emotional sustenance in familiarity alone.
Still, there are also no rules to say you have to, no “monster” jail you’ll get sent to. You’ve framed your question in terms of “should” and what you’re “obligated” to do, but family experiences are too variable for there to be a single right approach. Kids have no obligation to stay connected, for an extreme example, to parents who chose to harm them.
There is only what you need for your peace of mind.
Which brings us to the under-loving, under-supportive parents you don’t actually like. You must answer to yourself on what “adults” — you — “should” do about them.
That means serving your conscience, which means knowing your values, which means answering big questions I can’t answer for you. Such as:
What do any of us owe our parents for having us? For meeting our physical needs? What about the emotional ones?
Your parents “weren’t very loving or supportive.” Would they agree? Have you talked? Have they apologized, or gotten defensive, or made you pay so dearly in the past for speaking your mind that you’ve learned not to try?
Do you know why they fell short — what their upbringings were like, what their circumstances were during your childhood, what their relationship was like?
Choose one word that best explains the “weren’t very loving or supportive.” Selfish, limited, distracted, ill, whatever. Does that word make you more sympathetic to them? Less? Same?
What reasons can you think of for spending time with them — or anyone — besides enjoying their company? Is there something you’ll feel like a better person for giving, better for receiving?
This is hardly a comprehensive list — feel free to create your own — but make sure you wrap it up by imagining a future where your actual/eventual kids don’t like you. How will you want them to handle it?
You’re asking your conscience and values to come up with a plan. It could involve more time, less time, no time with your parents.
You could also do all this work and arrive right back where you are — making polite sounds and watching the clock. That can feel very different, though, when you’re there because you’ve decided it’s important to you, important to the way you want to see yourself, to be there.
Therapy can help if you can’t untie all the old knots on your own. Whatever you decide, it’s not about meeting your parents’ or society’s demands; it’s about making your own emotional sense.
Hi, Carolyn: Do I really have to spend time with my partner’s parents and vice versa? I don’t dislike them, I’m just introverted, don’t have much in common and would rather do my own thing. My partner feels similarly about my parents. It’s more relaxing to hang out with them and not have to be concerned about whether my partner is comfortable. So we have a deal where we go as a couple for holidays and birthdays or when we ask for their support, but otherwise do our own thing.
Both sets of parents seem suspicious or worried that we’re not showing up together every time. It seems like other people find this weird, too. Am I missing something?
Anonymous: Nope. It works for you, so it’s genius. Treat it as normal and let your families adjust. We can probably all think of something we grew accustomed to (very, very recently) that’s much weirder than this.