Why Do You Love Me When We Barely Know Each Other?!
December 14, 2010 12:14 PM   Subscribe

How do I respond to a very distant and very needy relative who recently started emailing me, begging me to correspond with her?

A distant relative (my estranged father's first cousin) who I've met once more than ten years ago, recently contacted me through Facebook. She followed this up with several lengthy emails, detailing her lonely life, her mother's death two years ago, her back surgery, other assorted complaints associated with being 67 years old. From what I remember when I met her all those years ago, she's kooky and weird, but I liked her. This sudden outpouring of contact from her, pressuring me to email her back, is making me very uncomfortable and I don't really know how to respond to her.

Probably contributing to my discomfort is the paragraphs she writes expressing open adoration for my dad's wife. My dad had an affair with his current wife for the last four years of his marriage to my mother. My immediate family no longer exists because of his relationship with his wife, so my feelings toward her are perhaps understandably cold. It's entirely possible that my relative doesn't understand this dynamic, given her geographical and emotional distance from those events (we live 3,000 miles apart).

I just don't know how to respond to her. I'm very introverted and find this outpouring confusing and uncomfortable. At the same time, I don't want to disappoint my relative or hurt her feelings, which seems like an inevitability if I'm left to my own devices to puzzle this out myself. She clearly has an enormous need for contact, but I'm not sure I'm the right person to fulfill that need.

What do I do? Write back a cheery response, which will likely just egg her on? Explain my feelings toward my dad's wife? Explain how her pressuring me to contact her is making me uncomfortable? Help!
posted by hollisimo to Human Relations (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I tend not to want to outright reject people who aren't causing me pain. In your case, given this bias, I would reply with redirection towards mundane or less emotionally fraught topics. Tell her "hi" and "here is a photo of my cat" and "you wouldn't believe the snowstorm we got last night" and ignore comments about your stepmother or your cousin's health.

Also, restrict some of her access to you on Facebook. She'll be less inclined to reach out if she sees only occasional boring updates.
posted by SMPA at 12:22 PM on December 14, 2010 [13 favorites]

I'd write back a cheery light response like the one above that emphasizes how busy you are. That way you're able to maintain contact with a relative you liked, but quietly build boundaries establishing that you can't respond to her every missive. Ignore painful subject that you don't really want to discuss (the father's wife) or overshares, and build boundaries where you want them.

That said, if she escalates, it'd be find to send one more email stating that you're sorry you can't write more, but you're so very busy (with work, anything, you can make something up). And then start ignoring the bulk of her emails.
posted by ldthomps at 12:26 PM on December 14, 2010

In my experience, people don't just suddenly contact folks like this for no reason; they want something, like money for drugs, or some sort of validation as they spiral into mental illness.

Yup, boundaries. Say hello, it's nice to hear from you, what are you up to, and leave it at that. If she's upset that you're not engaging more then that's her problem, not yours.
posted by Melismata at 12:33 PM on December 14, 2010 [9 favorites]

Well I am in the she wants something crowd as well as the don't hurt her crowd and the be brief and vague when/if you do respond. I would take a week or more to respond with everything ok here very busy hope you are feeling better.

Could she be working on behalf of your father to slowly rekindle that relationship?
posted by AugustWest at 12:43 PM on December 14, 2010

Best answer: I agree with SMPA. Something similar happened to me once before, although it wasn't a relative. I replied to her emails a few days after receiving them (as opposed to right away), and kept them pretty short and mundane. Eventually the emails stopped. I hated to ignore her because she hadn't done anything bad to me, but that was not a relationship I was going to pursue or encourage.

Had she not gotten the hint, I would have probably resorted to tapering off contact.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 12:48 PM on December 14, 2010

It seems like she's given you a good excuse -- if she persists after the first efforts as suggested by answerers above, you can write something about how you can't bear to be in touch with someone so fond of your dad's new wife...
posted by Perplexity at 12:51 PM on December 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

If she's really clingy and needy, hints will not be taken. I hate to say it, but you may very well have to be rude to her or just flat out ignore her. Feeding the crazy in any way will only encourage more sob story e-mailing and Facebooking. If you're already uncomfortable with her level of contact, responding is only going to make it worse.

To be honest, I suspect so much as writing back a "hi" is only going to fuel her fire if she's already writing you long e-mails and you haven't responded (much?) yet.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:24 PM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Thanks for contacting me! [Answer any questions she asked here].

I'm not going to be able to write more than once a week or so; please don't worry if it takes a while for me to respond.

I really don't like to talk about my father's wife much, I hope you understand.

Can you tell me more about your garden? It sounds lovely!"
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:25 PM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sounds like she is lonely and trying to reach out.

She may also be new to facebook, so that could be part of the enthusiasm/oversharing.

I'd definitely set profile settings to a level that you are comfortable with and respond in a way that gives her realistic expectations: "I don't always check facebook every day, so I may not respond right away."

If you do want to stay in contact, one thing that has helped me stay in contact with needy relatives while keeping a bit of personal space is just to send an occasional card in the mail with just a simple note. Getting a card in the mail seems special, and lets the person know that you're thinking of them, but you don't have to go into more detail than "Hi, thinking of you, hope you are well," etc. In my experience, the people who might write lengthy emails or make ten facebook wall posts a day probably aren't going to sit down and commit all that to paper.
posted by bbq_ribs at 1:31 PM on December 14, 2010

Best answer: Just a few things to consider:

People who are weird and lonely for a long time tend to communicate in off-putting ways. Indirect hints don't work because they've either lost the ability to read subtle social cues, or never had it at all. Before writing her off you can try being blunt: "Cousin X, I'm glad you're back in touch because I've always liked you. But if we're going to stay in contact, my dad's wife is an off-limits topic, and I don't want you talking about me with her either. If you pressure me to write back, I won't, because I don't like feeling guilty if I'm busy and can't reply. If you're okay with all that, let me know and we can start getting to know each other again." Or whatever to set up the boundaries you want. That way she'll at least have a chance to play by your rules. You can always let her know if she presses a button you don't like, and drop her if she just can't adapt.

Also it helps to remember that a lot of people in her age group don't "get" email or Facebook. They don't know how to keep it light, they don't know it's ok not to comment on every picture someone posts or write novellas in response to a "how are you?" posted on their wall. Like my dad, he keeps fretting to me because he's not on FB so he's letting everyone down. So part of her off-putting effusiveness might be that she's using email to write you letters, which people mostly just don't do anymore.

Sorry to be yet more longwinded, but one thing that's always struck me about Jane Austen and lots of other 19th cent novels is there's inevitably a poor and eccentric older relative or single neighbor who is included in the heroine's family teas and walks and whatnot because it was just what one did. That obligation was exasperating at times, and at times hilarious, but then every so often...the eccentric would deliver some astounding bit of sensitivity or insight, the kind that's only available when you live in the margins of life. The heroine then feels a pang that such meager kindness yielded such rich reward.

You're an introvert lady. I'm an introvert lady. I don't know about you but I've often wondered what will happen to me if I lose my few close loved ones. Will I get yet weirder than I already am? Will I write long sentimental screeds to obscure relatives and near-forgotten friends in desperation for connection? Who will show me kindness, meager or otherwise?

Chances are your cousin thinks the new wife is nice because new wife is one of the only family members talking to her. She might be doing that calculatedly because she has no other allies in the family, who knows. It doesn't mean you have to revise your opinion of the woman. But maybe she's the one person in your family who is consistently kind to your weirdo cousin.

Anyway, it's the holidays. People get sentimental and longwinded this time of year. Since you're on the fence, I say give her a chance. If it all goes to hell, please accept my apology in advance.
posted by melissa may at 2:12 PM on December 14, 2010 [53 favorites]

Response by poster: "but then every so often...the eccentric would deliver some astounding bit of sensitivity or insight, the kind that's only available when you live in the margins of life. The heroine then feels a pang that such meager kindness yielded such rich reward."

melissa may, what a wonderful thing to say. thank you for that, and for the rest of your insightful response.

thanks to everybody who answered. this thread helped me a lot to finally write a response to her that i felt okay with and that i'm pretty sure will scratch some of that itch she has for contact with others, at least for a while.
posted by hollisimo at 2:23 PM on December 14, 2010

It's also possible that your relative says such nice things about your father's new wife because your father's new wife is saying nice things to her about you. You can assess better than us the potential sincerity of such comments, but there are reasons sincere and insincere that she might choose to make them. If that's true, then touching on the subject of your estrangement from your father could blow back at you weirdly from unexpected quarters.

I'd recommend just deflecting if possible.
posted by endless_forms at 2:39 PM on December 14, 2010

If you have friended other family members on facebook, maybe suggest them as friends to her too? It may help her feel a little less lonely and mean that she doesn't rely quite as much on you being her only source of contact. A few lines of "how are you's " from others, even if it's just light chit chat, can really help just to fill a social void for her.
posted by Jubey at 2:43 PM on December 14, 2010

Introduce her to Farmville. That should keep her busy.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:05 PM on December 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

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