How much do you depend on your extended family? How much do they depend on you?
May 4, 2010 6:03 AM   Subscribe

How much do you depend on your extended family? How much do they depend on you?

My wife and I have a longstanding disagreement that I would like to query the hive mind about (and I am going to do my best to describe here as objectively as possible!). I get irritated when family (both her's and mine) call us and ask us to do them favors. Admittedly it doesn't happen too frequently and is more likely to originate from my family than her's, although when her family calls it is more likely to be a big favor (my family mostly all live nearby whereas her's lives farther away, which probably accounts for a large degree of the difference as both our families seem to have similar tendencies in this regard).

I get irritated because I feel like my wife and I try to be as self-sufficient as possible and almost never ask either family for help unless it is a genuine emergency or as a last resort. I feel like both of our families do not do the same and ask for our help as a convenience or as a first option rather than when they have no other alternatives, which makes me feel like I am being used. For example, my sister used to frequently call me last minute and ask me to babysit my nephew, which irritated me not because I didn't want to watch him, but I thought it was disrespectful to continually ask me to watch him on a moment's notice instead of giving me a reasonable heads up. Another example is family on both sides has asked us to keep their pets while they travel (including a puppy that was not very well house trained at the time) even though my wife and I usually kennel our dog when we go away.

My wife says this is crazy since helping each other out is the whole point of families in the first place, although she certainly gets more angry with me when it is her family that I am irritated with rather than mine. I otherwise have a good relationship with both my family and her's and genuinely enjoy their company and spending time with them in social situations, so its not like I just just don't like the people. I just try to not be a burden on others and get irritated when that notion is not reciprocated, whether it is with my family, work, etc. I do understand that genuine emergencies and the like do occur sometimes, and when these situations do occur I have no problem helping wherever and however help is needed.

Have you experienced this with your family? How did you deal with it? Am I being crazy and just need to stop "keeping score" and get over it? Your insights are appreciated.
posted by jtfowl0 to Human Relations (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Yes; my family do this with me a WHOLE LOT.

Sometimes I find it annoying because I too am reasonably self-sufficient and don't ask them for help. But I've made my peace with the situation because I have accepted this as part of the "organisational culture" of my family: younger members of the family doing favours for the older ones. It's just part of being my family.

And it comes with positives such as brownie-points and also knowing that if I ever really need help I wouldn't need to feel bad about asking them.
posted by Ziggy500 at 6:10 AM on May 4, 2010

It's not clear how often you refuse these requests. If you consistently do the thing that's asked of you, then you are training these people that it's okay to ask. They can only know that it's a problem if you tell them that it's a problem.
posted by jon1270 at 6:13 AM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Sounds like "ask culture" vs. "guess culture," with you being "guess culture" and your sister being "ask culture." You're saying it's rude for her to ask. How is asking rude? Why don't you just say no? Because you think this would be rude of you? Why?
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:13 AM on May 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

"Can you take a look at my computer?"

Enough said.
posted by schmod at 6:14 AM on May 4, 2010

Have you ever asked your family to give you more notice for things, or said no to them? That might be a place to start if you have not. A simple, "Hey, from now on, can you give us at least 24 hours notice when asking us to babysit?" or "We can only take care of your pet if it is house-trained" can work wonders. Sometimes people just don't realize that what they are doing is thoughtless.

Also, are you sure that these things do not constitute emergencies in the eyes of your relatives? Did the scheduled babysitter cancel at the last minute -- or were the plans made last minute? Can your relatives afford to kennel their pets? Do these people vocally appreciate your efforts on their behalf? If the family dynamic is that they believe family should be there for each other, that doesn't mean family should take each other for granted, so maybe that could be a part of your conversation.
posted by shamash at 6:16 AM on May 4, 2010

I think families are ideally for support systems. Right now you may feel your family is more take than give, but if something catastrophic were to occur you would probably be grateful for the buildup of goodwill. No knowing anything about your sister's situation her motivation for calling you for babysitting may be that she trusts you more than a babysitter and she wanted her son to have a strong relationship with his uncle. The late notice may be because childcare is very difficult to juggle; if you are not a parent yourself with considerable resources you may not realise how difficult it is. Something about your post makes me wonder if there is financial imbalance that you are sensitive to as well
posted by saucysault at 6:18 AM on May 4, 2010

I live close to my husband's family and far from my family. We help each other out a lot, but we do it very respectfully. My husband is very handy and helps his brother and sisters with some of their house or car troubles. Sometimes these are emergency situations (like a broken pipe) but usually they are maintenance things (pulling a stump) but he is reimbursed for his time somehow. Even if it's just buying lunch after a day of work.

I've watched all my nieces and nephews, but the date is made well in advance (usually at least a week) unless it's an emergency. We also get together fairly often for family projects like re-roofing somebody's house or laying sod. We don't keep track of these things, everybody has needed the family at some time and we know that we'll need them again.

I don't think your problem is that your family is asking for things too much, I think that the problem is that they aren't respectful about it. Family should be able to count on each other, but if they are abusing the relationship I can see how you'd get irritated.

As far as being self-sufficient, sometimes asking for help is a good thing. It lets other people feel useful, and it's good for family to help each other for the balance of the relationship.
posted by TooFewShoes at 6:18 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you experienced this with your family? How did you deal with it? Am I being crazy and just need to stop "keeping score" and get over it?

Yes, I have. I think it's normal, to an extent, to ask family for favors...but as Jaltcoh referred to the Ask vs. Guess culture thing, my family is solidly of the Ask Culture. They can ask me anything I want, and I am fully comfortable saying no.

I do think you need to stop keeping score. Scores are for sports and Scrabble games, not for personal relationships. Get comfortable saying no when it's inconvenient for you to cater to their requests, and maybe get comfortable asking for favors now and then so you don't feel so resentful.

How do you respond to the favors asked of you? If my sister constantly asked me to babysit on short notice, I would certainly tell her "Listen, while I love [nephew] and am happy to help out if you've got an emergency, for the most part, I really need you to ask me several days in advance if you'd like me to babysit. It feels like you don't respect my time or other obligations when you ask me last minute -- and I wind up feeling like I can't say no because you'd have a hard time finding a backup babysitter on short notice. So, please either start asking me in advance, or I am just going to start saying no on principle."
posted by tastybrains at 6:22 AM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

since helping each other out is the whole point of families in the first place

This is pretty much my philosophy. There have to be reasonable expectations, of course, but having family to back you up when you need it is never not a good thing.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:24 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I never get no calls from nobody and I like it that way. But I sometimes buzz a nephew or two if I'm moving house.
posted by turgid dahlia at 6:27 AM on May 4, 2010

Acts of service and small gifts are often used as a way to cement relationships, particularly close ones. And in fact, social psychology suggests that in some contexts, doing a favor for someone makes you like them better-- it's called the Ben Franklin effect.

So while you seem proud of never asking your family for anything, and hurt when they don't "reciprocate" this behavior, they may actually be hurt that you remove yourself from the mutual giving that's part of their relationship model. No reason why you shouldn't set reasonable boundaries, have a meta-conversation about the timing of requests, or say "no" to favors that are too inconvenient for you, but you might do some thinking about whether radical mutual independence really is the best basis for a family relationship. And perhaps if you asked your family for help occasionally, you'd feel a bit better about rendering help to them?
posted by Bardolph at 6:28 AM on May 4, 2010 [5 favorites]

It seems to create boundaries in families and communities when people insist on handling everything themselves. I'm much closer to those of my friends who will confide in me when they need help. It reassures me that I can do the same in return. A web of friends/family who have got my back is much more valuable to me than a collection of people I just hang out with every now and then.

Also, sometimes it's more efficient to ask for help. If your FIL is better at carpentry than you, and you're better at fixing computers, helping each other out will result in you getting a better kitchen and him having a better computer, all the while spending less money.
posted by emilyw at 6:30 AM on May 4, 2010

My aunt and uncle live across the street from my Mom. My Mom is dealing with the early stages of Alzheimer's. Since I live 70 miles away, I can't be there regularly for my Mom. My aunt and uncle make sure Mom gets to her doctor appointments as well as other trips, since Mom is no longer safe behind the wheel of her own car. They ask nothing in return. If they ever DID ask for my help with anything, I'd gladly be there.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:35 AM on May 4, 2010

I've seen this kind of conflict between spouses before, and it usually stems from the fact that the two birth families have a very different family dynamic.

But as a member of a large family who does help each other out fairly often, I lean towards your wife's view of things. With a couple of caveats.

The first is, yes, it's reasonable to expect consideration from others when they are asking you for favours, i.e., a fair amount of notice, loans repaid as promptly as possible, the sum total of favours asked should not be excessive, etc.. You give one example of your sister frequently asking you to babysit your nephew at the last minute, and yes, it's only fair to expect that you get reasonable notice unless it's an emergency. You say your sister "used" to do this, so I hope that means you spoke to her about it and that she agreed to plan ahead better. Human nature being what it is, sometimes family members can be thoughtless and take advantage and you should absolutely set some limits on what you're able and willing to do and insist that those limits be respected. Don't keep score too carefully, but don't let the favour to ravour ratio be 100:1 either.

My other thought is that maybe you should consider relaxing your self-sufficient stance. Doing things for each other and working together builds family bonds, and burdens become much lighter when they are shared. Somehow in Western society we've gotten a skewed sense of how independent the individual and the nuclear family should be, and our quality of life has suffered thereby. If you are willing to ask for favours, your life will get easier and then you'll find it easier to give back.
posted by orange swan at 6:36 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

What happens if, after the second last-minute babysitting request, you say, "[Sister], I need more lead time if you want me to look after [nephew]--for last minute things, you're going to need to find a different back-up babysitter"?

I don't get upset when family members ask me to do something. I get upset when they assume I'll do something. When something comes up, my way of handling it is to do it the first time, and then find a time to say, "Listen, I love you, but you can't spring that on me again. Next time you make vacation plans, please don't assume I'll petsit for you. I was able to make it work this time, but I'm frustrated that you asked me so last minute."

I wonder if communicating clearly with your respective families, "I find [whatever] about the way you ask for help frustrating," might aleviate some of the tension. Figure out what you're willing to do (babysit in a genuine emergency? petsit if the dog is housetrained?), then determine a respectful way to talk to your families--not with "You always... and I hate it!" but rather, "Several times, you've asked us to babysit last minute, and we love you and [nephew], so we've done it; however, we can't keep doing that, so instead we'd like to [whatever the new plan is]." And then say yes if they make requests that comply with the boundary you've set up (or are in emergency circumstances) and say no when they make requests that don't. I think family members deserve the courtesy of the explanation (i.e., we will X but not Y), but it's ok to say no--they have other friends and relatives who may be more willing than you to do what they're asking.
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:42 AM on May 4, 2010

My wife's family depends on me for tech support, and her mom babysits for us occasionally. That's about it. My own family lives much too far away for it to be an issue. The question of "what families are for" varies so dramatically by family that I'm not sure comparisons are really all that useful.

But yeah, you do need to stop keeping score: it really seems more like you're annoyed about the fact that you're being asked to do something than by what you're actually being asked to do.

If your sister asks you to babysit on short notice, and you're busy and can't do it, then just say you can't do it. If you're not busy, and don't actually mind babysitting, then there's no reason to get fussed about her "disrespecting you": this is an imaginary thing that is happening entirely inside your head. Get over it. If you really need more advance notice, then tell your sister that you need more advance notice instead of fuming about the fact that she doesn't give you enough advance notice.

Same goes for the dog. Is it really such a hassle to look after their dog while they're away? If it really feels like such an imbalance since you use a kennel, why not ask them to watch your dog when you travel? (It'd save you money, and your dog would surely be happier about the arrangement...)

My answer would be different if the favors being asked were burdensome or frequent; but you say yourself this doesn't happen all that often. You're not irritated about the favors, you're irritated because you're keeping score and believe that the favors aren't being reciprocated. If you really need to keep score, ask more favors of them so they can catch up. But it'd be better to just let go of the irritation.
posted by ook at 6:45 AM on May 4, 2010 [9 favorites]

I think it's entirely cultural.

I'm from Italy, my family lives there, and it would be ridiculous for us to not be supportive. Hell, they ask for favors continuously and I live an ocean away. This doesn't mean we're not independent, but we're close knit and, admittedly, a little crazy. When my parents were alive it was even more intense, I talked to my mom three times a day, and last minute requests (up to and including, "can you come home next month, please?") were pretty common. I just got off the phone after sorting out a friendly dispute between my cousins and I'll be back home in May for a week to help out with some construction.

If I lived there it would be even worse, quote unquote. My cousins all live within a mile radius of their parents, my aunts and uncles. Everybody babysits at a moment's notice, lends cars, shops for, coordinates medical appointments, makes lunch, takes care of each other's pets, the whole nine yards. It would be inconceivable not to. Your attitude towards family is, to me, utterly incomprehensible. But it is absolutely and entirely a cultural difference. I was raised this way, in an environment where this was par for the course and expected. It's hard wired in me, a pleasure, and a comforting safety net should anything go wrong.

I agree with your wife, and I'm lucky in that my partner and his family share these views too. That's the core problem, it seems to me, not your attitude per se. You and your wife are a family yourselves and you have diametrically opposing attitudes towards family obligations. What is she going to expect from your children, if you have any? Are you going to resent what you perceive as intrusions on their lives? What will happen when both you and your relatives grow older and need more assistance?

You guys need to honestly talk it through, as a couple, because the way I see it this is a fundamental disconnect in your relationship.
posted by lydhre at 7:28 AM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think I have to side with your wife. I think family members should be there for one another. I wish my family lived closer to me, so I could see them more and be there to help out.
posted by MorningPerson at 7:30 AM on May 4, 2010

I can, to a great degree, understand where you're coming from. My mother sometimes seems to be of the opinion that you should never pay strangers for something your family can do for you as a favor. I'm somewhat exaggerating, but when it comes to things like house sitting, picking people up at the airport, playing host to out of town visitors, even if they aren't visiting you but just visiting your town, she'll always assume that family is happy to play that role, even if it's inconvenient for them to do it.

I didn't inherit that gene, and I tend to assume that many of those things are an imposition, and will take that approach only when I've been invited to, or the cost to me of paying someone else to do it is really, really high and the inconvenience to them much lower.

But this is, as most things are, a spectrum. And there's no bright line of right vs. wrong. Maybe your families are more demanding than average. Maybe you're unusually miserly when it comes to helping other people out. Family culture can come into play, as well -- if you've got a fiercely independent family, one needy sibling can seem to upset the balance, if you've got a 'let's all help each other out as much as possible' family, then one 'we can afford to pay for someone else to do this' couple can similarly upset the balance.

I usually assume most AskMe participants have framed their question in a way that makes them seem more right and the other side of the argument more wrong. Unless you're vastly overcompensating out of a need to be scrupulously fair, I have to say, it feels like they're asking pretty normal family favors, and you're getting irrationally irritated. You're the 'we can pay for this' person involved in two different 'let's all help each other out' families.

So what can you do?

Set boundaries on what kind of favors you're willing to do and with what kind of notice. Work with your wife to figure out what is acceptable and appropriate. Are you willing to babysit, but only if you have at least 3 days notice? Are you willing to dogsit, but only if the dog is old enough to be left home alone and have someone come in and visit rather than bringing them to your house? Will you help people move the occasional piece of furniture they bought on Craigslist, but not a whole house? Figure out where your lines are -- in agreement with your wife -- and then stick with them. Say 'no' to things that don't meet your boundaries, explain that you can't help. If there's something less taxing you could do that would help somewhat, explain that, too.

And learn to ask for the same favors yourself. If they leave their dogs with you while they travel, they'd probably be perfectly happy to take your dogs while you travel. You feel taken advantage of because you aren't participating in an exchange of favors, it's all one sided. But the only reason you aren't participating in an exchange of favors is because you've never asked them for anything. There's nothing in your post that suggests they wouldn't be happy to do the same kind of favors for you.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:37 AM on May 4, 2010

I agree with everyone that says that your family is and should be your support system.

And just up front, I might as well say I almost never understand the people here in Ask that talk about weddings and babies being "just about us, and not about anyone else". I think that marriage does not take you from, say, a family of five to a family of two (just the married couple). Instead, I think it extends the couple's family by whatever is the number of the -in-law family. Some people have really nasty in-laws, so there are obviously exceptions.

My husband and I use our families for help and support all the time, and we get used too. We absolutely don't keep score, although I do sometimes do favors that I don't want to do, out of thinking I should be nice and generous, since I also ask for favors all the time. Some examples of favors that have been asked recently:
-my sister asked to borrow my SUV, since her car couldn't make it off-road to where they were going
-we were asked to babysit a few times
-I asked my mother-in-law to bring me some foodstuffs from a trip she took to the US (I'm in Mexico)
-my mom asked my sisters and me to go spend some afternoons with my grandma, since she's going through chemo
-my husband asked my dad for some US dollars, since we were taking a trip to the US and didn't have time to change currency
-My mom offered to make a salad when I told her my mother-in-law was busy and upset planning everything about her parent's 60th anniversary party

Anyway, just some examples to answer the original question. I must add, though, that at least with my own family, we ask for things all the time and we don't get hurt feelings whenever someone says no. I do have a philosophy of thinking "it's better to ask and maybe get a yes, maybe get a no, than to never ask". Although it's hard to ask my mother-in-law things because she doesn't know how to say I'm more cautious with her than with my mom or sisters.

I do think that if I ever had to move to another city, not being close to my family and to my husband's family would be a BIG loss in many ways, the "help" being one of them.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 8:03 AM on May 4, 2010

Response by poster: it really seems more like you're annoyed about the fact that you're being asked to do something than by what you're actually being asked to do.

This is exactly it. I wish I would have said it so succinctly.

Sounds like "ask culture" vs. "guess culture,"

I have never heard of this distinction before. Are there additional sources of information out there so I can learn more about this? I think it really gets to the core of the problem. Upon further reflection, I think I am resentful about this whole situation because I am so uncomfortable about saying "no" when a family member directly asks for a favor that I almost never say "no" regardless of the request. I think that in my mind I seem to have decided that somehow everybody is aware of my discomfort and takes advantage of it.

I actually really enjoy helping people (especially friends and family members), I guess I just like to have the opportunity to volunteer to do so rather than to be asked.
posted by jtfowl0 at 8:19 AM on May 4, 2010

Sounds like "ask culture" vs. "guess culture,"

I have never heard of this distinction before. Are there additional sources of information out there so I can learn more about this? I think it really gets to the core of the problem.

As far as I know, the comment I linked to originated the distinction. You could ask tangerine about it.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:25 AM on May 4, 2010

I think that in my mind I seem to have decided that somehow everybody is aware of my discomfort and takes advantage of it.

Aha! You know this is not true. They are assuming your friendly "Sure, I can do that" means what it sounds like.

You need to be more honest and learn to say No. That, or stop stressing about it.

posted by General Tonic at 9:02 AM on May 4, 2010

I just started saying no. Then I moved out. Then I moved 3200 miles away. I love my family but I make an effort to be nearly completely independent of them.

My wife and her family are super close. There was a time I found this weird and difficult because they would ask me to do all kinds of stuff. When I realized that they didn't mind if I said "no" and in fact where often asking just to make me feel included, Life got a lot easier.

On the flip side some people are just thoughtless and selfish. Saying no to them is harder because they make me feel like a ass about it. so i make a point of saying it all the more resolutely.
posted by French Fry at 9:39 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I guess I just like to have the opportunity to volunteer to do so rather than to be asked.

I was actually going to suggest this, on the babysitting thing: if you plan to say no to requests that are inconvenient (or if you've already done this), you might also offer to take the nephews/nieces somewhere once in a while. Before we had kids, we would take our nieces and nephews to fun stuff now and then -- the park or science museum, even a waterpark once. I think it would establish that you are fond of the children and want to spend time with them, but that there are times you can do that and times you can't.

And now that we have kids, my sister and I exchange babysitting pretty much constantly. It's so nice to have established that free give-and-take, now that we have a use for it, too. Even if you don't plan to ever need your families, life takes turns that you can't foresee. Someone could become ill and need care, or develop some chronic problem that makes certain physical things too difficult; someone could have a a major job setback and need some help. It's easy to think you're an island right now, but there might be a time when you're glad you helped contribute, when you could, to the family's mutual support system.

And heck, might as well board your dog with someone whose dog you've watched, next time you go on vacation! Save some money, and also let that person feel like they've reciprocated.
posted by palliser at 12:37 PM on May 4, 2010

I don't think that blood relations are at all meaningful, so I don't make a distinction between family and friends; they are all just people.

For example, my mother and sister are good people, so they can rely on me for just about anything. My father is an ass, and I wouldn't give him the time of day.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:48 PM on May 4, 2010

I don't think there's anything wrong with the way either you or they think about this stuff, it's just that there's a mismatch.

Seems like you might be best served by working on this from both ends. You can try to loosen up and ask them for favors yourself so you don't feel things are so one-sided, and see if you can ease up from the perspective that any favor that's not asked as a last resort is a disrespectful imposition. And you probably should try to get better about saying no and setting boundaries. But you can also try to talk with them about the fact that you're not happy about being asked for any favor, any time-- ideally you can phrase this in a way that's less "you're trampling all over me and it's terrible" and more "There's nothing wrong with the 'families are for helping eachother with anything and everything' approach, as long as everyone agrees and it's more or less reciprocal, but I personally don't feel comfortable with asking or offering help to that degree. I'm definitely glad to help when I know it's important, and that's part of why saying 'no' to you is hard for me-- I'll try to get better about saying 'no' if I'm not comfortable with things, but would you also be willing to try to limit your requests to favors that you feel are pretty important?" And if there's recurring stuff that comes up like the pet-sitting and the babysitting, set some boundaries on that at a neutral time rather than in the moment when the request comes.

Upon further reflection, I think I am resentful about this whole situation because I am so uncomfortable about saying "no" when a family member directly asks for a favor that I almost never say "no" regardless of the request. I think that in my mind I seem to have decided that somehow everybody is aware of my discomfort and takes advantage of it. I actually really enjoy helping people (especially friends and family members), I guess I just like to have the opportunity to volunteer to do so rather than to be asked.

The real question here is, is your family Guess or Ask culture? I think you really need to reflect on this. Because while it's really easy for a Guess person to misinterpret people from Ask culture and feel unnecessarily put-upon when they could really just say "no" and it would be fine, and it's important to be aware of that-- but if your family members are Guess culture people too, and if they know you'll feel obligated to say yes, and they'll try to make it uncomfortable if you say no, by guilt-tripping you, etc (as opposed to you just feeling uncomfortable personally) then that's a whole other ball of wax. Just because Guess culture people unfairly see Ask culture people as rude/taking advantage of them, doesn't mean that there aren't also Guess culture people who are actually being rude and taking advantage of others! Do other people in your family typically say "no" to requests, or does everybody operate on the "well, now that you asked, I guess I've got to do this unless there's a good reason not to" principle?

But yeah, either way, doing more volunteering of help on your own account should hopefully help you feel more comfortable saying no when you're asked for things, because both you and they are aware that you're not saying no because you're not willing to help out. (I know it's easy to do less volunteering of help when you feel resentful about being asked too often, but if you can break out of that cycle it's probably for the best.)
posted by EmilyClimbs at 4:24 PM on May 4, 2010

Do other people in your family typically say "no" to requests, or does everybody operate on the "well, now that you asked, I guess I've got to do this unless there's a good reason not to" principle?

This is a really good question. And needs to be approached from the right angle. I've been fighting with myself / my family over some of the same issues - I'm at a busier point in my life than my nearby relatives, and so I see them never say no to anything, always happy to help, and think that's expected of me too. But they're actually very understanding when I say I'm busy and can't help.

It's not that there's anything wrong with families where you ARE expected to be always available to each other; just that dealing with that is a major cultural difference and huge lifestyle change far beyond simply learning to be comfortable saying no. So it's good to know which one is your situation.
posted by Lady Li at 12:10 AM on May 5, 2010

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