I like my husband's family better

How do I tell my great new in-laws what a dismal, dysfunctional clan I come from?

Published February 7, 2011 1:01AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

Your column always inspires me with wonderful words of wisdom and advice! I'll try to get right to it. I am a strong believer in the idea of a "family by choice."

I was born into circumstances that many would deem undesirable -- poverty, broken home, loner parents, an emotionally abusive, jealous and hateful older sibling, severe emotional and personality disorders among both parents and said sibling.

There was also the laundry list of addictions they all faced. Each of them had and still has a penchant for making very destructive decisions at every turn. Those decisions affected me as a child, and continue to affect them all, respectively, to this day.

Despite those factors, I was a happy child with a loving heart. I set out to educate myself, stay healthy, give love and support to others, and continually strive for self-improvement. I craved love so much from my birth family, and did all the things one tries to do in order to keep family relationships going. This generally had no effect on any of them. In my mid-20s, I realized that all I was getting in return for my efforts was abuse and requests for more cash.

I decided at that point that what I wanted in life more than anything was to create a big, warm, loving family of my own. Happily, I am well on my way! I have the world's most wonderful husband, two amazing rescue dogs, a warm and happy home, and a sweet baby on the way. We love our life, and I wake up thankful every day. I feel that by distancing myself from my birth relatives, I am protecting my real family -- my family of choice. That includes my baby on the way, and the others that we plan to have or adopt. My husband comes from a wonderful, "Norman Rockwell-ian" style family where (amazingly) everyone loves one another, shows respect, and just generally thinks fondly of all family members, including me. I consider them part of the family I have chosen, and I want to keep those bonds strong and long-lasting. Especially for my children-to-be.

The issue I face is that my in-laws are so ... polite, that they often ask about my family (out of genuine interest and love for me).

They don't realize that I have nothing positive to report when it comes to my birth relatives. They will say things along the lines of, "How is your mom, she is such a sweet gem!" and all I can think of is the pain that her actions caused me over the years, still continue to cause me, etc. Or "What is your sister up to these days?" I can't bear to bring down the mood of the conversation by telling the truth: "They are all terrible. Still in debt, still eating themselves into obesity and insulin shock, still smoking their way through that pesky emphysema, still saying mean things to me every chance they get, and still wanting favors from me."

I've learned that saying anything negative in response to their questions (even when put gently) is very confusing for them, and awkward for everyone involved. I often don't think they realize that for some people, life is just messy, and not always perfect. I've tried giving boring answers, hoping they will lose interest and stop asking: "Oh, they're all the same." But that doesn't work, and I usually just confuse my in-laws with that kind of response.

My husband thinks we need to go ahead and have one good conversation, lay it all out there, paint me as the strong survivor/conqueror of a terrible situation, and hopefully move on. I am nervous to open this can of worms that I have held so secretly for my whole life, and I'm afraid to risk ruining their image of me. I asked a counselor about this, and I honestly don't think she understood. She admitted that she too came from a "perfect" family, and that to her I just sounded bitter. That's not the case at all, so knowing that she was out of touch, I stopped seeing her. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Moved On (Wishing They Would Let Me)

Dear Moved On,

You do need some words.

Mainly the words have to fit the moment and fill the gap that is opened when people inquire about your family. It's a big gap for you, but a small one for them.

I suggest you be prepared with a story. Story is about struggle.

Say your mom has diabetes and continues to eat things that aggravate her condition. You can say that she's struggling to monitor her blood sugar and trying to adopt healthier eating habits. Focus on what each person's struggle is right now and see if you can come up with some words to describe it.

For instance, if your dad got popped for grand theft and he has a court date coming up, say he's got a court date coming up and if things go well he'll be on probation, but there's a chance he could do some time. Maybe it is hard for him to get to the court date because he is forgetful, or because his car is not running, then say that.

Such information may be shocking to some. I recognize that.

If a family member is struggling with an addiction, rather than label that person a worthless alcoholic or an addict, you can say that the person has recently entered a treatment program, or recently got out of one, or has reached a certain milestone, or has had a setback, or is still struggling with it.

Our lives are struggles. Where we are at is where we are at in our struggles.

If your dad's car is not running and he can't afford to get it fixed, or hasn't gotten around to it, and that's why he misses his court date and then sheriffs come with a warrant and he is drunk and tries to resist and that's why he got a little bruised up and had to spend time in the hospital in addition to going to jail, well, these are the struggles our people go through.

If we understand people's intentions and their obstacles, we can tell their stories. We do not need to get into why they drive us nuts. They're doing the best they can under the circumstances.

I have tried to explain why my parents, now deceased, have taken this or that action, and that age-old feeling of bafflement and confusion has dogged me and threatened to take me down into a maelstrom of sad memory where it is hard to breathe because my parents were eccentric and hard to read and there is much pain in my past, though not the pain of abuse and poverty so much as the pain of strangeness and confusion. Throughout this, in every situation however vague and convoluted each person had some goal in mind. Each person was trying to accomplish something and when we can see what it is they were trying to accomplish, then we can see their struggle and tell their story.

My mother wanted to live with nature. That is what she wanted and so she went way up in the hills off the grid up a long and twisting unpaved road that suited her, and she lived there alone without electricity or running water for 20 years. It was sometimes hard to explain unless you thought about it in terms of what she wanted and how she was going about getting it.

My father wanted to spend his last years among his brothers in the land where his parents were buried so he moved there and lived with his brothers, and the obstacles he faced were the currency of his life. That was his story.

So when someone says, So how is your mom doing? And how's your family? you can tell them what your family member is trying to accomplish and what obstacles stand in the way.

When people over the years would ask me how my mom was doing I could say, well, she's trying to keep the bugs out of her pantry. She's trying to close in the east side of the house. She's trying to keep the timbers from rotting.

It starts to sound like metaphor. But it's just what she was dealing with.

Along the way, trying to get what we want we try to avoid pain.

Some things that blunt pain are addictive, and then we have a whole new set of problems and obstacles. Your sibling (I think of your sibling as a she, though I know you don't mention whether it's a sister or brother) may want to enter a new field but there are barriers to entry.

You can say things like, "Well, she's still trying to finish her education and get that job she wants." Her education might be traffic school and the job might be as a prostitute but she's trying to finish up something and move on to something else. Or she might be homeless, but every state is a struggle. You can say that she's still looking for a stable living situation, or that she's thinking of moving.

And when you run out of things to say about your own family, you can tell your in-laws this, which no one ever gets tired of hearing: "It's so wonderful to be a part of your family. I much prefer it to my own."

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By Cary Tennis

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