Social discomfort, family obligation
January 27, 2009 10:29 AM   Subscribe

Cousin Zach is a sweetheart, but I don't have the time or inclincation to attend everything he invites us to. How to say no tactfully? Guilt is involved.

Last year I was contacted by my cousin Linda (can't remember the fake name I used before). I hadn't seen her in about twenty-five years. She had cancer, knew she was dying, and -- though I didn't realize it -- had been feeling guilty all that time about her previous failure to contact me. My mother and father had died when I was pretty young, and I guess Linda had been beating herself up for keeping away from me during that period. I mostly wasn't bothered. I vaguely wondered where she was on occasion, but it wasn't like her absence ever made a real difference to me. She had never been around, so I suppose I didn't know what I was missing.

It turned out there wasn't much time to get to know Linda. Her house was just jam-packed with people toward the end. But I snatched a few moments with her, and she sent me some emails. She was tired what with the chemo, and it's too bad we didn't have more time. She passed away a few months ago, and I hope she's at peace.

In the meantime, there's Linda's husband Zach. He's a great guy. But you can't just be with Zach. He's always with about a million and five people. My husband and I are both socially challenged, and all of these people were a bit intimidating the first time we went over there. It's like I have no family for twenty-five years, and suddenly I've got four hundred instant relatives.

But except for my Uncle Morris (Zach's father-in-law), the most adorable 87 year old on the planet and a person who sets me completely at ease, I'm not jumping up and down at the prospect of a long term association with Zach and Co. I'm bewildered and alienated by the waves and waves of people that keep frothing up around me whenever I get within a few feet of wherever Zach's standing. My husband and I bowed out of one of the holiday-time gatherings he invited us to, but we felt bad and asked him if he could meet us sometime for lunch. He said sure, but it didn't happen and I'll bet it never will.

I'm starting to get cranky about it. Apparently Zach is the only one who can initiate anything socially. He only wants to do things his way, with his people, at his house, etc. When my husband and I suggest something, it's a no-go for whatever reason. Zach doesn't want to be alone with us I feel. It's an intimacy-avoidance thing. Or that's my gut sense about it. It's like he's got to be shored up by a cast of thousands. He can't just sit and chat and look me in the eye. He simply can't do intimacy, and doesn't feel the need to try.

Which is fine, but it's just the opposite of how I am. I love chatting with just one person. It's the only way I feel I'm ever encountering the person in a real way. Groups of folks don't do it for me as a rule.

So we're just different. And it's okay. Except --

Zach keeps inviting my husband to events we don't want to attend, which necessitates our refusal, and I'm starting to feel like a gigantic jerk. I do think Zach's urgency about it has something to do with Linda having pressed him for a promise to make things right with me after her death. Don't have hard evidence--it's just a suspicion. And I can understand the sentiment.

But it's so one-way. Why does Zach assume his family is so great? I mean, I'm not a kid anymore. I'm forty-something already. I've got a little life in place here. I've been put-putting along without this branch of the family for twenty-five years, thanks, and I haven't been irreversibly damaged by their absence. I feel there's an arrogance in Zach's attitude, and it rubs me the wrong way.

But I don't want to hurt Uncle Morris' feelings. He's the last living relative I've got that I care about. He's lost two daughters over the past fourteen months. He's bearing up, and I want to support him utterly. But how do I frame this to him? I can't just say, "Zach weirds me out. We don't feel comfortable over there. I won't see you there anymore, but let's you and I keep doing lunch!"

Is there anything else I can say, that would save my relationship with Uncle Morris -- and Zach? And if I'm being a total asshole, let me know.
posted by frosty_hut to Human Relations (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Just tell Zach 'We aren't really much for big shin digs but we'd love to have lunch with you and Morris now and then. How about next Tuesday?' When Zach bows out, you can still have lunch with Morris.
posted by ian1977 at 10:55 AM on January 27, 2009 [4 favorites]

Why not invite Uncle Morris to go to lunch and leave Zach to his adoring fans? Zach isn't, apparently, willing to make a change to suit your desires/needs and that kind of paints him as a bit of a jerk.

I don't think you're being a total asshole, I don't particularly care for large crowds myself.
posted by fenriq at 10:57 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

From what I understand you're Uncle Morris's blood relative and Zach is an in-law to both of you, right?

I agree with fenriq that you could/should just do stuff with Uncle Morris. LOTS OF STUFF if you feel at ease with him like you say. Keep it totally separate from any dealings with Zach. Deal with Zach in the usual manner "thanks, kind of you to ask but no thanks" (if he only does this because he promised Linda he'd make an effort he won't really care anyway)

If you feel the need, you can bring it up with Uncle Morris a few weeks/months in, outlining what you said above. If you don't, then there is no need to do so unless Uncle Morris brings it up himself.

That's my $0.02. Disclaimer: I suck at families.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 11:17 AM on January 27, 2009

Best answer: I don't see why you should feel guilty turning down his invites, he clearly has no qualms about turning you down when you invite him to do something. Just invite Uncle Morris out to lunch.
posted by missmagenta at 11:32 AM on January 27, 2009

You're assuming malice where there is none. Zach isn't being a jerk or controlling or arrogant or avoiding you or is incapable of real intimacy. Just as you have your own life, and you prefer to do things your way (in small groups or alone with people you know), Zach has his own life and is doing things his way (surrounded by friends and loved ones). He's inviting you to take part in his activities, but you've presented no evidence that he thinks less of you or is upset when you decline. That's you projecting, assuming that he knows why you're saying no and is judging you for it. Similarly, when he declines your invitations, it's most likely not because he's trying to force you to do things his way; if he has as much going on in his life as you describe, he's probably just busy.

He's not your top priority. You say you don't need him in your life. That's fine. You're clearly not his top priority, and he apparently doesn't desperately need you in his life either. He keeps inviting you because he's being nice and polite and trying to include you in something he thinks is fun. If you don't think it's fun, just say no. And you're welcome to keep inviting him to things you think are fun, but there's no reason to be insulted if he doesn't think your plans sound fun, and thus says no. If you want to see him, keep inviting him and maybe accept one of his invitations every once in a while if it sounds like something that might not be torturous for you. If he wants to see you, he'll keep inviting you and maybe eventually say yes to one of your invitations that's more his speed. But stop being so judgmental and accept the fact that he's different from you, and that's okay.
posted by decathecting at 11:32 AM on January 27, 2009 [6 favorites]

If the only reason you're keeping in touch with Zach is for contact with Uncle Morris, just cut out the middleman and meet with Morris directly. If you don't care about Zach, then don't pretend to.

I can't just say, "Zach weirds me out. We don't feel comfortable over there. I won't see you there anymore, but let's you and I keep doing lunch!"

Why not? OK, perhaps saying Zach weirds you out might be taking it a bit too far, but why can't you meet for meals and such with Morris? If he brings up the subject of you not meeting Zach in conversation, then you can explain, but if he doesn't mention it, and you don't, there shouldn't be any unpleasantness. You could always invite Zach along to whatever for appearances sakes.

I don't think you're being an asshole at all. I do think though, that it's 6 of one and half a dozen of the other. You don't like the way Zach has parties, and he doesn't like the way you have parties. Neither of you are wrong, you're just different.

So, just leave Zach out of the picture, aside from politeness when necessary, and just go for Morris. That way, everyone is happy.
posted by Solomon at 11:33 AM on January 27, 2009

Best answer: In my experience there's lots of extreme-extrovert types who will never, ever understand the desire to not be around swarms of folks all the time, and especially not the need to not be around swarms of folks any of the time. However, the silver lining is that most of the people I've known who meet this description nevertheless aren't hurt at all by having their invitations turned down.

Make dates to go out for lunch with Zach and Uncle Morris. If Zach rudely brings other people along, make dates to go out with Uncle Morris.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:34 AM on January 27, 2009

To Zach you say:

Sorry, we have other plans.
Sorry, but we're just not into big get-togethers.
Sorry, we can't make it, but thank you.
Sorry, some other time, maybe.

And to Morris, you say:

Let's go to lunch.
posted by sageleaf at 11:45 AM on January 27, 2009

I don't think you're being a total asshole, but I do think you're projecting a bit.

Zach keeps inviting my husband to events we don't want to attend, which necessitates our refusal, and I'm starting to feel like a gigantic jerk.

I'm guessing you're starting to feel like a jerk because if someone repeatedly refused your invitations, you would feel offended. But hold that thought a second. We've already established that you and Zach are very different people—you prefer very small groups while Zach prefers very large groups, etc. Consider that what offends you might not offend Zach, and that Zach sincerely might not be offended by your repeated refusals.

If you haven't already seen it, check out tangerine's classic comment on Ask vs. Guess culture. I suspect there might be a bit of that at play here. If Zach is an Ask type, it's likely that he's not at all offended by you saying no.

Has Zach said or done anything to suggest that he's offended? Or are you just projecting how you would feel if you were Zach? Empathy is a good thing in general, but it can also be dangerous if it trivializes personality differences.

Why does Zach assume his family is so great?

Most people think their families are great—what's wrong with that? Why should it bother you that Zach thinks his family is great? He's not compelling you to agree on that.

I feel there's an arrogance in Zach's attitude, and it rubs me the wrong way.

Nothing in your description of Zach's actions seems arrogant to me. He's trying to be nice. The particular kindness he's offering is one which doesn't particularly appeal to you, but I'd still be pleased he's thinking of you and trying to be kind.

But I don't want to hurt Uncle Morris' feelings.

Do you have any outward indication your refusals will hurt Uncle Morris' feelings?

I can't just say, "Zach weirds me out. We don't feel comfortable over there. I won't see you there anymore, but let's you and I keep doing lunch!"

No, but you can leave off the first part and just say "Let's you and I keep doing lunch!"

I don't see anything in your post to warrant the assumption that Zach's or Morris's feelings are hurt by your refusals. Of course, things change if you do see something to indicate that (they come right out and tell you they're offended, or they start behaving passive-aggressively), but absent that I see no reason to believe they are, or will be, offended.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:09 PM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

...asked him if he could meet us sometime for lunch. He said sure, but it didn't happen and I'll bet it never will.

I'm starting to get cranky about it. Apparently Zach is the only one who can initiate anything socially. He only wants to do things his way, with his people, at his house, etc. When my husband and I suggest something, it's a no-go for whatever reason.

While I agree with the above advice–there's no reason you can't meet with Morris on your own–that part jumped out at me. Are your invitations as vague as in your example? I've found it works much better if you set or figure out a specific time and place. Meeting sometime for lunch kind of puts the onus back on the invitee and really isn't a good way to make things happen. Disregard if I'm reading too much into your words or if you actually had something planned and Zach was a no-show.
posted by 6550 at 12:10 PM on January 27, 2009

Best answer: Lest Zach be painted a certain way right out of the gate, let's remember that his wife just died a few months ago. No doubt his circle of friends and loved ones are buzzing about with particular energy to make sure he's feeling tended to and comforted. And surely he's still grieving. You don't know him well enough to know what he's normally like.

That doesn't mean you need to go see him and all those people though. Clearly he was moved by his wife's seeking you out toward the end, and wants you to feel welcome and "included." When push comes to shove, even he knows there's not enough of a connection to sustain the attention, which is why he can't quite bring himself to see you on his own. It's perfectly understandable.

Make plans with Morris whenever you want, and invite Zach along so he feels "included." He'll appreciate the invitation, but probably never come, and everyone will get what they want/need. In the meantime, just let him know that you're not in a frame of mind lately for big social events, and unless he's totally witless he'll get the drift.
posted by hermitosis at 12:22 PM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am so not sure why everyone here is on your side. I do not think you are being kind, considerate or gracious. I think you are being selfish.

I hope that when I die, my house is jam-packed with people towards the end. I don't mean to be unkind, or to trivialize your introversion, but Linda was DYING. you being there wasn't about YOU, it was about *her*. "I guess she was tired what with the chemo" - YOU THINK? What did you expect her to do? Bake you a pie and sit down with you personally? I commend you for helping her work out her affairs towards the end of her life by closing a loop that was causing her pain, but THE WOMAN WAS DYING OF CANCER and you are complaining that you didn't get alone time with her and that she was TIRED?

Maybe Zach feels insecure about his relationship with you? That he's worried about keeping up a conversation if he doesn't have people around him to create something for him to talk about?

His wife just fucking died. He gets a free pass for a while from most people.
posted by micawber at 12:30 PM on January 27, 2009 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, thanks for all the great input.

I didn't know about Ask vs. Guess, thanks for that.

Quick clarification--Uncle Morris is Zach's father-in-law and they're really, really close. Morris seems to be a little baffled and hurt that I haven't been seeing Zach. They're kinda sorta connected at the hip, which is why it's going to be tough to cultivate one and not the other.

Thank you all again so much for these thoughtful responses. I've got a lot to chew on here. That's why I keep coming back. Thank you from the heart.
posted by frosty_hut at 12:40 PM on January 27, 2009

Morris seems to be a little baffled and hurt that I haven't been seeing Zach.

Not to belabor the point, but Morris is surely very, very concerned about the man who just lost his wife to cancer, and wants to make sure he is adequately tended to.
posted by hermitosis at 12:48 PM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Micawber, thanks for your input.

Yes, I was hoping to get some personal time with Linda before the end. She had mentioned she wanted to spend some time with me and chat with me about my mother, whom she knew well. We never got the chance, and I'm a little sad, because whatever she was going to tell me is gone forever. My mom died when I was twenty two, and it would have been nice to hear more about their relationship. It would have alleviated some of my bad feelings around my mom's death to have discussed her and her life with Linda. But I knew it wouldn't have been right to push her.

Hey, I KNEW Linda was tired from the chemo. That's all I said. I wasn't complaining that she was tired.

For the record, I don't think everything is about me -- but this is at least partly about me. My main issue is that I don't want to hurt Zach's feelings or Morris' feelings. That's why I posed my question.

Your hostility is out of line here.
posted by frosty_hut at 12:58 PM on January 27, 2009

Uncle Morris is Zach's father-in-law and they're really, really close. Morris seems to be a little baffled and hurt that I haven't been seeing Zach.

In that case, maybe the next time you talk to Morris, you suggest an outing for just the three (or four, if you want to include your husband) of you: "I thought maybe you and Zach and I could have lunch/play golf/whatever some time next week. Do you think Zach would like that?" If Morris doesn't think Zach would like that, maybe you can gently prod Morris to suggest something you could do that Zach would like.

Anyway, if Morris does think Zach would like that, or comes up with something alternative, then you can invite Zach and Morris to do that thing. And maybe Zach accepts, and you get to know Zach better in the small intimate gathering you prefer, and Morris sees that you're not avoiding Zach. Or maybe Zach declines, but Morris still sees that you're making an effort to include Zach, and maybe Zach is comforted that you're thinking of him even if he's not into the particular activity you suggested. (And if he declines, don't take it personally.) I know you said you discussed having lunch with Zach, but Morris may not know that. (And, as others have pointed out, it sounds like it wasn't a specific invitation anyway.) Soliciting Morris' opinion on what Zach might like to do ensures Morris knows you're willing to include Zach.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:10 PM on January 27, 2009

In times of crisis, we tend to stay within our social comfort zones. Yours is small groups of people and low-key events that foster intimacy, and his is big, crowded, noisy gatherings that avoid it. That isn’t to say you should feel obligated to join him for these big gatherings, just that his natural gravitation toward his own preferences and the things that give him comfort shouldn’t be cause for offense, necessarily, given that he is (presumably) in crisis-mode. You can tell him your preferences--next time he invites you to a big family gathering at his house, you can let him know that you’ve been turning down those invitations lately because you don’t like big crowded events where you won’t even get to see much of him, not because you want to avoid him. You can tell Uncle Morris the same thing when he asks about why you’re not spending more time with Zach.

Also, did you actually set a date for lunch and he bailed, or did you just say “sometime” and he never followed up? If it’s the latter, what if you tried asking him over for a small-ish dinner party? Something like: your house, a few other people (your friends and/or a few of your “new” relatives), you and your husband, Zach and Uncle Morris. I wonder if there’s a compromise that would surround Zach with enough people to make him comfortable but not so many that you feel overwhelmed.
posted by Meg_Murry at 1:24 PM on January 27, 2009

Mod note: Cool it a bit, please.
posted by cortex (staff) at 1:57 PM on January 27, 2009

A little story: once I had a friend who always was inviting me to group events at her house. It took forever to set up any one-on-one plans, and those we did set up seemed to always get canceled at the last minute. At various points, I imagined she was: avoiding me, mad at me, selfish, arrogant, dumping me as a friend, etc. Then one day, we stumbled onto a thing to do (have a drink right after work near our offices) that worked perfectly for both of us. We realized that all the things I'd invited her to do (eg, going hiking, watching a movie) just hadn't really worked for her (eg, weak ankle, too late at night). We set up a once-a-month date to do our new favorite thing, and we've been perfect friends ever since without any of this imagination, frustration, guilt, anger, betrayal, and worry coming between us.
posted by salvia at 1:57 PM on January 27, 2009

Also, there's nothing wrong with saying, "Thanks for the invite but we're not really interested in that sort of thing."
posted by trinity8-director at 2:35 PM on January 27, 2009

Also, you mentioned that Zach always has a lot of people around him at all of the activities he organizes. Guess how he does it? He invites lots of people. Often. A lot of them say yes. But a lot of them say no and there is nothing bad about that.
posted by bsdfish at 4:52 PM on January 27, 2009

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