What duty do I have to my grandfather (or, more generally, to my extended family)?
November 21, 2006 1:40 PM   Subscribe

FamilyEthicsFilter: What duty do I have to my grandfather (or, more generally, to my extended family)?

My maternal grandfather has always been nice to me. As a kid, I'd see him once or twice a year and I always loved it. But since I graduated high school (I'm 25 now), I've gradually grown away from him. There was no incident to speak of, but I find that I don't really like him.

I don't want to go into a detailed list of reasons why I don't like this man, so I'll try to keep this brief. He plays my mother and one of her sisters off of one another emotionally. Another sister had been estranged from him for years until just recently (he met his grandkids from this daughter when they were 12 and 14 years old). I've heard whispers that he physically abused my mom and her sisters as children, but never anything definitive. My mom still loves him and has a good relationship with him overall. And he's never been abusive to me at all. He's been a little passive-aggressive with me, but nothing serious (example: he recently asked my mom to ask me to call him recently to talk--but I know for a fact that he has my email and phone number, so I think he's using my mom to guilt me into it).

But all that is really just justification--the reality is that I just don't enjoy being in his company. He talks about himself incessantly and I feel like I'm just his audience. This was fine when I was younger and thought he knew everything--I was in awe of him--but now that I realize he's done some astoundingly stupid things (both personally and professionally), I can't really take him seriously.

He's coming to town for Thanksgiving and I'm not looking forward to spending time with him. And I probably won't have to spend much time in any case, but I feel guilty about the way I feel. My relationship with my parents is great and I enjoy spending time with them. Same with my younger brother.

To a lesser extent, I feel the same way about the rest of my extended family. I don't feel any sort of bond with them, and I don't want to form one. The people I'm thinking of all happen to come from my mother's side of the family--my dad's only family are a couple siblings that live out of state and call or visit infrequently. I actually kind of like them, but I'm happy to maintain the status quo.

Is it wrong to limit my family activity to just my immediate family? Do I have any obligations to my grandfather or other extended family? Emotionally or otherwise? I feel like I certainly do have an emotional obligation to my parents and brother, in addition to an obligation to support them as much as I can if they fell on difficult times.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Will you miss him when he's dead? Will you share in your family's grief when he's gone?

If no, then you have no duty to him. Otherwise, listen to the old man yap away and hope someone does the same for you when you're old and not taken seriously.
posted by infinitewindow at 2:12 PM on November 21, 2006

Best answer: This is a tough call. I feel the same way about some of my extended family (although I am close with other segments of my extended family, especially on my dad's side).

I wouldn't go out of your way to spend time or even call him, but I would do a few things to just keep him in your life, like sending him Christmas cards and birthday cards, and trying to at least be civil. He hasn't done anything to deserve being excommunicated from your family, and it's possible that if you wind up having a family of your own and he is still alive, you may want to have some family ties so your child can meet its great-grandfather and vice versa.

Most of my extended family I don't go out of my way for, but I send them holiday cards just to let them know that they are still a part of my family & I wish them well. If they called me, I might be inclined to give them a call back a few weeks/months later, but for now, holiday cards are the amount of energy I'm willing to put into it. YMMV.
posted by tastybrains at 2:31 PM on November 21, 2006

I think the only obligation you have is to be polite. If he's in town for Thanksgiving, you're going to have to listen to him yap away without outwardly expressing how you feel. Beyond that, no, I don't think you have any obligation to him. He hasn't done anything terrible (that you are absolutely certain of anyway), so there's no need to tell anyone that you don't like him, and you can just avoid him at all other times.

I don't have a very close connection to any of my family, although I maintain a good relationship with my parents. There haven't been any issues arising from this so far, especially since I don't live close to any of them.
posted by Joh at 2:37 PM on November 21, 2006

Is it wrong to limit my family activity to just my immediate family?

Um, i can't see how it can be. In my book, if you treat the people who you are in contact with, with respect, and don't harm them, then what is the issue? Surely we can not expect ourselves to maintain relationships with people simply because of a connection by birth.

I try very hard to live my life in an ethical fashion, and part of that is not faking relationships. Some of my extended family are toxic and I choose not to see them so as to not cause unpleasantness (which expands, you know, to fill an entire family). Some of my extended family I just feel no connection to, and even though we tried for years, there was no payoff, so I think we mutually just gave up.
posted by b33j at 2:43 PM on November 21, 2006

If you're feeling guilty over this, then it's worth spending a little time with Grandpa, if only to make yourself feel better. Also, from what you say, he's not the sort of guy who deserves to be purposely cut out of his grandchild's life. That said, yours is the kind of "seeing grandparents twice a year" family, so IMHO you don't have any obligation toward him other than that, unless you care to start a deeper relationship yourself. If you see/call your grandfather about as often as the rest of your immediate family sees/calls him, and you're polite and kind during those times, you've fulfilled your obligation.

The extent of familial obligation really depends on the family -- some families are close-knit, some are more distant, etc. My general rule of thumb is to do, at minimum, what the rest of your immediate family does. If you feel that this level of contact is not enough, you can always do more, but either way, nobody can accuse you of shirking.
posted by vorfeed at 2:58 PM on November 21, 2006

I assume you treat him in a civil way. Since he has not been a bad person to you I think you should just deal with seeing him. If we cut out everyone that is a "bore" at times then our list of friends would continually get smaller. He is your grandfather. Treat him as such. What does your mom feel about the way you feel toward her father? I suspect your mother can see you distance your self from your grandfather. Why not talk to your mom about all of this when you two are together.
posted by JayRwv at 3:30 PM on November 21, 2006

I think old people should get a bit of slack, so I think it would be nice if you spent a little bit of time with him, maybe a lunch or breakfast, or just stop by wherever he's staying and visit for 15 minutes. You don't need to feel guilty about how you feel, it sounds like you act well to your extended family.
posted by theora55 at 3:42 PM on November 21, 2006

I just spent a day and a half with my sister at the weekend, mostly out of a sense of obligation (my pre-Christmas visit). Our parents died about 25 years ago, and, apart from a 90-year-old aunt and a couple of cousins, there's not much more in the way of family.

We are chalk and cheese. I don't like her much and if we weren't sisters we wouldn't be friends. She's racist, homophobic, closed-minded. I live far enough away that I only see her twice a year. If we lived closer, it'd be very difficult. I feel obliged. But I don't feel guilty if I don't call or see her.
posted by essexjan at 3:45 PM on November 21, 2006

I had a very similar relationship with my grandfather, except the cheating on my grandmother, favoritism among children, abuse, and general poor-human-being-itude was confirmed and factual. When he died, I told my mom (his daughter in law) that I didn't feel very badly about it, because I'd always found him to be creepy. So had she. Throughout his life, I was respectful and polite to him, and that's the end of anyone's real obligation to someone with whom you spend two days a year.

And that's okay.
posted by Medieval Maven at 4:24 PM on November 21, 2006

You have to live with your decisions...imagine them, see how you feel, act accordingly. A basic belief that you have a responsibility to not be cruel to another human being makes the decision making a bit easier.

There is no obligation to maintain or leave behind a family relationship, the choice is always yours.
posted by HuronBob at 4:41 PM on November 21, 2006

My grammy always said that the people who are hardest to love are the people who need it the most. If that concept of reaching out to him to fill a need he might not even be able to articulate resonates with you, then reach out. If not, then no.
posted by ersatzkat at 4:44 PM on November 21, 2006

I think the majority of people will have someone at the Thanksgiving dinner table this year who they'd really rather not spend too much time with. Not necessarily a deep hatred, but just someone they could do without spending time with.

Personally, I'd just suck it up and spend a little time with him. Certainly don't go out of your way to make plans with him or anything, but if he comes over to visit the rest of your family, it probably wouldn't kill you to be there, too. I think this could avoid a lot of potential conflict / oddness.

As a quick out, have some sort of 'white lie' ready about how you're visiting friends, so you can't stay long.

Anyway, I really don't think it's uncommon to not care for a family member, especially if they haven't done anything to deserve it. But isn't spending time with the people you really can't stand what Thanksgiving is all about?
posted by fogster at 5:55 PM on November 21, 2006

There is something to be said for distancing yourself from a person on principle (really, allegations of abuse aside, what kind of person baits their children against one another?), and just because he's never done anything to you personally doesn't mean you're obligated to go out of your way to tolerate him until he does.

Also, it seems like your gut is telling you your grandfather is not a good person for you to maintain a relationship with, and listening to your instincts is rarely a bad idea.

Some people never really understand why a person might choose to distance themselves from family, because they could never imagine distancing themselves from their family. It's great that some people are so fortunate, but sometimes you just have to cut your losses and do what's healthy for you.

I don't think you owe your grandfather anything more than the minimum eqtiquette demands, and please don't feel guilty about distancing yourself from him.
posted by AV at 6:11 PM on November 21, 2006

I may be completely out of the norm here, but the concept of being obligated to, or owing your family some amorphous "duty" without there being some limits seems really strange to me.

Spend time with who you want to be with. If on Thanksgiving that is going to mean you're also with your grandfather, then you have to decide which is more compelling - your desire to be with your other family members or your desire to avoid him.

Personally, I find the emotional manipulation of your mom and sister, and his attempted manipulation of you by proxy of your mom rather distasteful. A person is responsible for how they behave, and how they come across to others, whether they're our family, or elderly, or whatever. I assume the "abuse" issue is family gossip that you haven't verified with your mom. Was it when you learned of this that you stopped liking him?
posted by Meep! Eek! at 6:14 PM on November 21, 2006

You absolutely do not have any obligations. My husband has a very similar situation. He doesn't have much contact with his grandparent, but we are always civil and very polite when we are with her.

My husband has a great loyalty to his parents and maintains civility with this grandparent because his parents do, even though they have their own issues.
posted by LoriFLA at 6:14 PM on November 21, 2006

Best answer: Put it this way: Have you ever been unhappy with how you said something or how you completed a task, not because it was terrible but because you could sense there was a better way closeby? Have you ever said, 'Rrrgh, I'm looking for another word, but I can't find it,' or 'There has got to be a better way to get that burnt stuff off this pan'? You know that dissatisfaction?

Is it possible your dissatisfaction in the relationship is really the same thing? This may be an unpopular hypothesis with this crowd, but when you do something with your grandfather, or think something about him, that feels like justification or that induces that little twinge of guilt—maybe that's because you can almost see a better way of relating to him, one that's gonna be more satisfying and edifying for both of you.

Take a chance. See if you can relate to him directly out of his humanity and yours, apart from the scripts and obligations and plans or wishes to change him. So often we interact with piles of roles and ideals and stereotypes and projections and suspicions, and not with the underlying person at all—if they were replaced with an animatronic dummy and we didn't notice, it really wouldn't affect our impression of the person all that much. We're really conversing with a construct in our heads that we happen to have stitched to their physical presence. I know I've done it, and I've seen lots of other people do it too. Trouble is, it makes us uneasy and discontent. Breaking out of it is pretty amazing and will make you glad you know people.

That said, this is not all rainbows and good vibrations and such. Grandpa may not have been treated as a real person very often, or very recently, and he may not know how to take it. His usual responses may be inappropriate for your offer, and they may hurt you. That's OK, 25 is not too young to deal maturely with hostility. And he may not be ready for it. Friend of mine had serious relationship problems with her dad, which they were not ready to face until circumstances landed him in a full-body cast, with her holding his hand and him too tired to argue. (I do not recommend arranging this situation for your grandfather!)

Anyway, just an alternative to the 'This man ruddy well is an island!' undercurrent that seems to show in some answers here. See if you find it useful. Hope you find a way to go that satisfies you.
posted by eritain at 7:51 PM on November 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

I would treat him the same as I treat my tv.

Just picture in your mind that he is there for your enjoyment, and if he doesn't appeal to you at the moment, politely excuse yourself and take a smoke break or get some water, or whatever, count to ten, then go back and try to enjoy the company.

If anything, he will talk and talk and you can somehow disassociate yourself from him and pretend he is the TV.

If he did stupid things, then ask him about them, like 'what is the dumbest thing you ever did?' and learn from his mistakes and try not to treat the people you love the same way.

Good luck.
posted by Monkey0nCrack at 10:00 AM on November 22, 2006

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