My girlfriend's family is suffocating our relationship

They call constantly, they drop in, they even check when each member goes to bed every night.

Published August 11, 2006 9:55AM (EDT)

Dear Readers,

On Thursday several of you pointed out that the letter I answered on July 28 was also answered in Slate's Aug. 10 Dear Prudence column.

The Slate columnist and I largely agreed, which I found interesting: We both thought that the teacher should curb her activity and consult a lawyer. The major difference was that I kind of went off on the whole teacher-as-female-sexual-predator media hype.

Duplicated letters happen occasionally. One reason is that people don't write letters just to get advice. They write them to get published. In fact, in my column at least, you can't get advice unless your letter is published. So asking for advice in Since You Asked is also to some extent a competitive, though anonymous, public act; a bit of exhibitionism and craftiness is to be expected.

Is there anything wrong with making multiple submissions? I really can't say there is. It feels a little funny. But let's face it: There is competition to get published; people will sometimes seek unfair advantage to achieve that aim; and every now and then somebody's going to fool us all. That's a hazard of the job.

This column is not pure journalism. We don't verify every letter. We rely on trust and on instinct. Weird stuff is going to happen now and then.

P.S. This particular incident fueled speculation on Slate about a conspiracy among advice columnists(!) -- speculation to which I responded here.

Now for today's letter:

Dear Cary,

After two and a half years of long-distance dating, I recently moved in with my girlfriend. I knew from the start that this was the woman I wanted to be with forever. She is an incredibly caring and loving woman. When we started talking about living together, she was more grounded at her job and she wanted to stay near her family. I agreed to be the one who moved. Now, we live together in a small one-bedroom apartment in a big city.

OK, here's the problem, Cary. I mentioned that her family lives close to us. However, I didn't realize how close they would be until I moved in. It feels like they are involved in every aspect of our lives. My girlfriend can't go a day without talking to or seeing her mother ("Mommy,") her father ("Daddy,") her crazy aunt or her even crazier sister. They call in the morning. They call at night. They call whenever they are bored. On average, my girlfriend talks to her family members seven to 10 times per day. They have no concept of time or a respect for our schedule. If they call while we are eating dinner, my girlfriend will patiently tell "Mommy" that we are eating and she will call them back later (my girlfriend only recently started doing this after I told her that it's rude to have a conversation while we are eating dinner). Mommy just keeps talking, as if she hasn't heard a thing. This happens quite often.

If I ever pick up the phone, I can tell they are disappointed to talk to me because I'm not great at small talk. I am polite, say hello, then quickly pass it off to my girlfriend. The worst part is that each family member needs to know that every other family member is home and in their respective beds every single night. If not, a barrage of phone calls starts until they know the exact location of the missing family member. I feel that they should all be tagged and tracked on GPS satellites.

We spend time with "Mommy" and "Daddy" at least once a week. Sometimes more. To be honest, they're not completely painful to be around. They are really nice people, and I can tell they like me and want me to be part of the family, which is great. But I want to start my own family, not just extend their existing clan. Trust me, the last thing I need is two more parents.

Cary, this has become a major point of contention within our relationship. Maybe it's because my family is extremely different. I feel very close to my parents, but we only talk once or twice a week and that's it. They moved to a different state when I was still in college, which forced me to grow up very quickly. As a result, I feel I am an independent person ready to start a family of my own. However, my girlfriend seems to be stuck in "daughter" mode, and she isn't ready for "wife" mode. One night, "Mommy" got mad at my girlfriend for something that wasn't her fault. Most people would shrug it off, but my girlfriend broke down crying and ended up vomiting from being so upset at the thought that she had disappointed her parents. An adult would have stood up for herself, even to her parents.

So I just don't know what to do here. Part of me thinks I am being selfish. Who am I to say how often my girlfriend can talk to her family? The other part of me, though, wonders if a 27-year-old professional woman should be calling her parents "Mommy" and "Daddy." I moved here with the understanding that this was a temporary living situation and we could move somewhere more affordable and conducive to family living in five years or so, but it just doesn't seem like she will ever cut the cord herself. One night I asked her when we could move to another city, and she said, "Let's wait and see where my parents retire."

Is there anything I should do, or should I just have a good book ready for the next time they call? By the way, that will be any minute now...

Annoyed in the City

Dear Annoyed,

This is so sweet! They make sure that everybody is in bed every night!

What to do? I don't know. Coming from a family that is very split up and scattered and sort of not all that warm and cozy, I have no idea what to do with family members who actually show too much concern for your well-being.

The situation just sounds lovely to me.

But it is not lovely for you.

So there may be solutions. Let me think. First, though, let us begin with a celebration of this remarkable phenomenon. Before you fight it, celebrate it. Show it to your friends. Bring your friends over and say, "Watch." Wait for the phone to ring.

Make movies. Get a camera and make movies of the crazy aunt and the crazy sister. Record your life. Document, document, document. See it for the amazing thing that it is. Help others see it for the amazing thing that it is, too!

I do not think the situation sounds, um, pathological. Maybe it is. But these people do not strike you as crazy -- except for the aunt and the sister. Well, OK, so two are crazy. But the rest? I do not think that just because your girlfriend is incredibly close to her family that there is something wrong with her.

I personally have grown to feel awful about how scattered about the country all our families are. She sounds lucky to be so deeply, deeply connected to her family.

So celebrate. But get your own needs met, too. Find some space of your own. Create boundaries. You will have to figure out what those boundaries are. It doesn't matter as much what they are as that they exist. For instance, somehow you must get some time away from the telephone. Perhaps you could not answer it during dinner hours. You could tell the relatives that you're not answering it then. They can leave messages.

Likewise, schedule. Create one night a week that is relative-free. Make this your going-out night, even though you might not be going out. Tell them that this is the night you go out. Establish it. It will be useful later when you have kids: They will be used to your being out and they will understand that this is a perfectly reasonable time for them to come over and baby-sit. A tight-knit family is great for baby-sitting!

Here is an idea: Try to find one family member of hers that you can claim as your own, that you can be particularly close to. Cultivate a personal relationship. That way you can have an ally.

And have fun. My God, I think this is a hoot. As you say, they're not terrible. I say enjoy them -- especially the crazy aunt and the crazy sister!

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