How to have a healthy relationship with my anxious parents.
April 11, 2013 1:03 PM   Subscribe

How to have a healthy relationship with my anxious parents.

My parents loved and took good care of me. They supported every dream and person I wanted to be, and always made me feel smart, loved and wanted. Beyond their mutual love for me, our household was anxious. My parents fought constantly. Both were and are anxious and depressed and the type who won't seek help. The houses I grew up in (military family, moved a lot) were smoky, jangly, loud, jarring, tense and full of passive-aggression that eventually bubbled into screaming matches (never at me -- only at each other or my sister, who is much older and still lives at home).

I left home for college halfway across the country when I was 18, and never lived at home again (I'm now mid-30s). Since then, I've married and made a life for myself in my college town, and have learned how to normalize communication and family structure. My house is peaceful, quiet and clean, and my husband and I have learned to communicate effectively without the screaming/passive-aggression I grew up with. We don't have children.

I have severe anxiety and depression that is mostly controlled because I have a routine here (including therapy and medication) that keeps me in check. When I visited my parents in the past, I left each visit feeling completely screwed-up, asthmatic (my asthma is bad these days and exacerbated by their chain-smoking and animal fur) and shaken. This has always been confusing to me as my parents are terrific parents to me specifically, but live in a depressing, dirty, anxious place. I've tried to help by being cheerful, cleaning when I'm there and trying to be a calm, normalizing force, but I realize I can't get them to be happier or less anxious.

My parents are ostensibly well-off, but due to fights about finances, they keep separate finances. My sister, my mother's child, has endless legal battles with her substance abuse and has drained my mother's finances dry. My dad has long-since given up trying to support my moochy sister. My sister and mother have both asked me for money over the past few years (even though my parents make more money than my husband and I do), which I eventually started saying no to because I didn't want to fund my sister's manipulations.

I haven't visited home in five years, though my parents have visited here once or twice. Part of this is an extreme airplane phobia, but I used to drive there (they're a 2-day or so drive by car) and now I haven't even done that. They are getting older (mid-70s) and while in good health, will likely not remain like that forever.

I can't figure out what kind of relationship to have with them. Right now, we have awkward weekly phone calls. I've shut off my life to them completely and only chat about inconsequential things. I never talk to them about any accomplishment or disappointment and don't want to. My mother guilts me for this and claims that I love my husband's family more than I love them, that I will regret not spending time with them since they're getting older and generally gives me a lot of grief for not being her best friend (which is what she wants). I get it. I do. But it doesn't make me want a relationship with her.

I have nothing in common with my parents any more and get no comfort from them and seem to be unable to live up to the comfort they want from me. They are not the type who will just let our relationship be quietly, distantly adult -- me living my life, and they theirs.

I am conflicted since they were so loving to me and supportive over the years. But just thinking about talking to them or seeing them makes me clench inside. I'm slowly working on this in therapy and my therapist encourages me to try to let go of my guilt and set my boundaries, but I feel enormously, enormously guilty for not visiting or not wanting anything to do with two people who obviously feel like they need me, and who I loved so much as a child and teenager. I feel selfish.

Any advice? Do you have similar family woes? I'm looking for coping mechanisms on how to have a healthy relationship here.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Honestly, it sounds like you've handled this very, very well and have established some norms that work for you. Your Therapist is right. Hang in there, find some like situated individuals (if possible) to form a mutual support group. You've worked hard to remove yourself from a negative situation, good work...
posted by HuronBob at 1:10 PM on April 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Wow, i was pleasantly surprised by the ending of this post.

I think you're handling it pretty much perfectly. If you lived any closer in such a way that it would be practical for you to visit for a few hours, or however short of an amount of time you felt comfortable i'd suggest that... but when they live that far away i think you're in the zone of what amount of communication and interaction is really healthy for you.

This has always been confusing to me as my parents are terrific parents to me specifically, but live in a depressing, dirty, anxious place. I've tried to help by being cheerful, cleaning when I'm there and trying to be a calm, normalizing force, but I realize I can't get them to be happier or less anxious.

What occurred to me in this situation though, is that it seems like it's both the grossness of the place and it's associations that makes the visit so awful, not so much them specifically(at least with how you've described it).

Could they possibly come visit you and stay in a hotel so that you can still have some proper boundaries of them not just taking over your house while they're around? Bonus points if your place is small enough that there wouldn't be anywhere for them to stay but the couch, so it would be an easy sell. If not i'd come up with some kind of excuse, sell it as you're putting them up in a hotel so they'll be comfortable, etc. Hell, i live in a major city and a halfway decent hotel room for a couple nights is only maybe $220. And that's within one 10 minute bus ride, a short loop of a drive, or a 20ish minute walk from my place.

I think the easiest way to still have a serious visit with them and still set your boundaries would be to have them come to you. That is, if you're interested in it being more than it is now.

Don't feel guilted in to giving more than you have to give, or want to give just because you feel like you're missing some arbitrary target of "decent child in a family" that they, and "society" are trying to create. They're playing off that guilt in the back of your mind, and not really respecting your well being.

On preview, i saw

though my parents have visited here once or twice.

Why not again? did they not want to? did it not work out?
posted by emptythought at 1:27 PM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Mod note: From the OP:
My parents have visited a few times, but are homebodies and nervous about traveling and leaving their dogs alone (or with my sister). My mom visits about once a year, and my dad every few years. I like when they visit, as I'm in control of the atmosphere and they never travel together, so everything is less tense. However, they seem to be as uncomfortable in my house as I am in theirs, and have also chosen to put more time between visits. They said because of their age, I should visit there instead. (Part of the guilt. I agree with them.)
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:01 PM on April 11, 2013


It's too bad they don't want to come and visit you, as that would be ideal. Unfortunately, it sounds as if your parents are "yabbutters" (the kind of people who shoot down every suggestion with "Yeah, but we can't because...") and want it Their Way and you get a guilt trip if you don't do it Their Way.

Just because they were good parents to you doesn't mean they create(d) a warm or welcoming atmosphere for you as an adult to hang out in. And that is something you have to respect, that staying with them makes you tense and anxious. Feeling this way doesn't make you a Bad Child, and I don't think you should feel that just because of their age, the onus should be entirely on you to stay with them.

If you feel you must visit, can you make it a series of day-trips instead? That is, you and your husband stay at a hotel for a week or so, and get together with your parents for lunch, shopping, trips to the local tourist whatever, walks in the park, etc., during the days, have dinner, and everyone go back to home and hotel, respectively, after dinner? That way you can visit them without actually having to stay with them or be in their house (which seems like the big anxiety trigger for you).

And, btw, your own physical health is a perfectly good reason to not want to be in a house full of allergens. An asthma attack is no fun. Can't they be as considerate of your health as you are of their age?
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 2:25 PM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I understand not wanting to travel if you're in ill health (my grandma stopped flying when she 85, I think), but mid-70's and in good health doesn't seem like a reason to stop visiting if they enjoy spending time with you. If they prefer phone calls, that's fine too. (And for the record, you call your parents way more often than I do, and I think I get along pretty well with them.) Also, I only manage to visit my mother (about three hours away by car & ferry) about once a year, despite adoring her. It's just annoying to pack up and drive all the way out there (and stay with someone else and have someone else choose the food, etc.). So I can understand why you don't want to drive for two days to stay in a place where you can't breath. (And if you do follow Rosie's idea for a visit, make sure to let yourself know how often you'd plan to do this, like, every two years, I will take a five day vacation staying at a hotel near parents, and don't let yourself get guilted into doing it more often. You know what feels good for you. And maybe see if you can do most things separately so you don't have your parents arguing. That's probably another thing you enjoyed about their solo visits to you.)

Also, if you enjoy being around your parents while you're actually there, you may regret not spending more time with them. But if you hate it, you probably won't regret it. Unless you can find a way to enjoy spending time with your parents (such as how you've felt when they visited you) you're probably better off not doing it. Keep yourself healthy and sane. You're worth it.
posted by Margalo Epps at 3:21 PM on April 11, 2013


my boyfriend would go visit his mother, who is also a smoker, and when he stayed with her, he was just miserable - he couldn't sleep because of the smell (we don't smoke), he would wake up coughing and with his lungs on fire. he would get maybe 2, 3 hours of sleep a night and be a total grump the rest of the time due to it, which made the time that they had together non-enjoyable for them both. but he thought she would be put out by him not staying with her.

but it finally came to a head and they agreed - he stays at a hotel when he visits his mom, and they spend the days together - but then he goes and gets some sleep and time alone. and it's worked out well. he gets sleep, and they have a much more pleasant visit when he's there due to him being well rested.

can you stay in a hotel when you visit them? it would help your allergies to sleep in a clean place, and would get you a break from the anxieties of the day.
posted by koroshiya at 4:44 PM on April 11, 2013


it sounds as if your parents are "yabbutters" (the kind of people who shoot down every suggestion with "Yeah, but we can't because...") and want it Their Way and you get a guilt trip if you don't do it Their Way.

Wow, yea this says something that i couldn't really properly articulate when i wrote my first post.

I think a big part of this is that you're their kid in their head still. As in, you're not an adult who is allowed to make decisions that supersede their own, and they have the final word no matter what and are only willing to toss you tokens of you getting any agency, while having to maintain absolute control if only in their own heads.

in their(early?) 70s and in good health is not that old. My coworker is in that age range and is still a gainfully employed consulting technician on fairly complex stuff, and still travels and has many hobbies.

After the update though, i think your best options are either to stay in a hotel near them, or why not plan a trip where all of you go somewhere that is neither of your houses? I realize this costs more money, but just go stay somewhere moderately cheap on the beach or something and take a little family vacation? I feel like that would lead to just spending quality time with eachother and no one feeling put out by being in someone elses space they're uncomfortable with.(Completely ignoring my feelings that the big reason they're uncomfortable in your house is because they aren't in charge for a moment)

I feel like meeting on neutral ground might be the easiest way to have a relaxed decent time, or see how much you even could.
posted by emptythought at 5:08 PM on April 11, 2013


It sounds like you find routines helpful. Whatever you do, could you make a routine of it? Fourth of July you go to their place for a 3-day weekend; Thanksgiving they come to you? Maybe routine will also reduce the guilt trips because they won't be asking "when will we see you?" as much if they already know the answer.
posted by salvia at 11:26 PM on April 11, 2013


My parents loved and took good care of me. They supported every dream and person I wanted to be, and always made me feel smart, loved and wanted. Beyond their mutual love for me, our household was anxious. My parents fought constantly. Both were and are anxious and depressed and the type who won't seek help. The houses I grew up in (military family, moved a lot) were smoky, jangly, loud, jarring, tense and full of passive-aggression that eventually bubbled into screaming matches (never at me -- only at each other or my sister, who is much older and still lives at home)

OP, I just want to mention the disconnect I'm seeing here; they may have loved and supported you in general, but providing a safe, sane place to live should have been part of that. I agree with your therapist that you should hold to your boundaries and they can come visit you if it's so crucially important. Don't let them guilt you into doing things that aren't healthy for you.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 12:35 PM on April 12, 2013


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