Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“I Hate Keeping In Touch with My Family”

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What do you do when family wants to keep in touch but you have no interest in pursing a relationship with them? Is there a way to stay true to yourself without hurting their feelings?

A few months ago, my brother-in-law (my sister’s husband) was deployed as a soldier for a humanitarian mission abroad. He has asked me to write to him, but I still haven’t emailed, sent a care package, or tried to contact him in any way. I feel incredibly guilty about my indifference towards him, since it feels as if I’m failing both a family member and a member of our military. However, we’ve never been close, and, when we talk, both he and my sister inevitably put me down about my personality, career choices, and political opinions. It’s probably unintentional, since they’re good people at heart and genuinely care for me, but we’re so dissimilar it’s unlikely they’ll ever stop. I’m still trying to develop my identity in some ways, so their contact feels especially damaging right now.

For background, I’m in my early twenties and come from a small family (parents, myself, and a half-sister who is thirteen years older than I am) that has never been very close, but places high importance on formalities and keeping in touch. It feels like my entire life I’ve been coerced into communicating with family for the sake of “that’s just what families do,” and as a result I avoid communication with everyone until they get mad enough at my silence and I give in to contact.

My avoidance strategy worked well enough for the past decade since I could always attribute my absence to work and life. But now, if I don’t contact my brother-in-law at all, I fear the relationship with him, my sister, and my three young nephews will be irreparably damaged when he returns. A large part of me would be thrilled to live without siblings, but the other part feels pressured to fulfill their expectations to avoid disappointment. I wouldn’t mind keeping in touch with my nephews since they crack me up and we’re very alike, but I also feel bad for them since I can see my sister forcing them to talk to me because “that’s just what families do.” I don’t want history to repeat itself by creating resentment in them as well.

What can I do to make myself sane and stop this unhealthy avoidance cycle? — No Desire to Keep in Touch

Yeah, I call bullshit on all this — or at least the part where you avoid keeping in touch with family solely because you’re afraid that, if you do keep in touch, you won’t be able to deal with inevitable put-downs about your “personality, career choices, and political opinions.” Your BIL is deployed; do you really think that sending him a postcard once a month is going to invite put-downs from him? Do you honestly think that a soldier deployed in the military who has a wife and three sons he’s far away from is going to take the time to sit down and write to (or call) his wife’s younger sister and criticize her political opinions and career choices and personality because she sent a card saying she was thinking of him and hoping he was well? For someone who says she fears irreparable damage to this relationship (and possibly, by extension, with her sister and three nephews as well), you sure are stretching things A LOT.

I don’t buy it. I don’t buy your reason for not staying in touch. I mean, I believe that your sister and BIL disagree with your political opinions. I believe you probably feel very different from your family and have had heated discussions with them in which you feel put down. But I don’t believe that your reason for not sending a card to your deployed brother-in-law is because you fear continued put-downs from your family, especially when you think the alternative is irreparable damage to your relationships with them and alienation from the three nephews you love and enjoy.

You know what I think? I think that, deep down, you LIKE being “coerced into communicating” with your family. I think you might like the attention you get from ignoring them. Why else would you seriously be agonizing over whether to send your deployed brother-in-law a freakin’ postcard letting him know you’re thinking of him? A postcard or even a brief phone call or short letter or email once or twice over the course of several months is hardly going to invite the kind of criticism you claim to want to avoid. I also think you need to figure out what kind of communication keeps you in touch just enough to avoid “being coerced” while minimizing whatever criticism you’ve faced before. If phone calls are too personal or invite questioning and conversation you don’t want, stick to cards and letters (which are more one-way). Or consider limiting your interaction to FaceTiming (or Skyping) with your nephews. Experiment until you find what works best for you. And if/when communication veers into territory you’re uncomfortable with, try to change the topic or find an excuse to end the conversation.

Honestly, it sounds like you’re making this much, much more difficult than it needs to be. Unless your family is demanding weekly visits from you — and it doesn’t sound like that’s the case — staying in minimal contact, with some boundaries in place to protect yourself — is pretty easy. If your relationship with your family is so complicated though that the thought of exchanging occasional emails or phone calls gives you a panic attack, find a good therapist to hash things out and help you, as you say, “stop this unhealthy avoidance cycle.”

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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at [email protected].

23 comments… add one
  • becboo84

    becboo84 July 28, 2015, 10:08 am

    Whoa, LW, reading this letter, something just doesn’t add up. I almost have to assume there’s more to the story, or perhaps, like Wendy said, you just like the attention that comes along with your family begging you to reach out. Either way, you’re being crappy to your BIL and your family in general. If you really have zero desire to have a relationship with them, even if your reasons are weak and don’t make sense to someone on the outside, I think you should just level with them, although their feelings will, needless to say, be extraordinarily hurt.

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  • avatar

    jlyfsh July 28, 2015, 10:24 am

    If you don’t make any sort of contact with your BIL your relationship with him and his family will change. Your sister, her husband and kids will put less effort in to reaching out to you. It’s hard to tell from your letter what this putting you down is. Are they telling you that you’re stupid? Or are they just having a different view point. If you don’t want to stay in contact with them, stop responding to them. Or you can be an adult and tell them that you no longer value having a relationship with them and need this time to put in to developing your identity.
    .
    I’ll admit that it’s hard for me to understand people who aren’t close to their family at all, because I am extremely close to mine. And I always think that it’s sad for people to not have that, because for me having that connection is important. If it’s not important for you, that’s fine, it seems you are happy without your family connections. But, there is no way to not hurt their feelings with this.

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  • bagge72

    bagge72 July 28, 2015, 10:40 am

    “I’m still trying to develop my identity in some ways, so their contact feels especially damaging right now.” You in your twenty’s now, you are supposed to be a grown up, I don’t think I get how their contac is damaging your identity. You are person and you ge to chose what you like and don’t like. It almost seems like a 22 year old is trying to speak for a 12 year old. Also your sister probably forces her kids to talk to you because you put no effort into it so they don’t really know you. I agree with Wendy’s bullshit call out here.

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  • avatar

    joanna July 28, 2015, 11:02 am

    I’ve noticed with some people, especially with young women, seem to feel slighted or insulted when someone else expresses an opinion that does not agree with theirs. Not everyone will always agree 100%. It’s why there should be discussion and not an automatic “My opinion trumps yours.” If they feel differently about politics or what have you, it does not make them bad people just because they feel differently. It tends to get lost that people who hold the other point of view are human too and deserve respect. It’s like that great quote (who said it escapes me at the moment), “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend your right to say it.”

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  • avatar

    Thunder_Power July 28, 2015, 11:04 am

    LW, it doesn’t sound like there’s a history of family trauma or abuse that would lead you to pushing them away so bad, unless you left that out. I sort of get where you’re coming from when you say you’re “developing your identity…so their contact feels damaging…”. I too resisted closeness with my family during my coming out process because I feared rejection.
    *
    But when times get tough (and believe me, no matter who you are there will always be tough times in life) family are the people there for you at the end of the day. You are so lucky to 1. have family living 2. Have family who WANT you to be a part of their lives. Not everyone is so blessed. I don’t believe you when you say your sister only reaches out to you “for formality”. Your sister reaches out to you because she loves you and wants you to be a part of her life. It’s a little cruel for you to wish that away if you truly have no traumatic reasons for doing so.
    *
    My dad’s twin brother had a massive, horrible stroke that nearly killed him a few years ago. He has made a slow, remarkable recovery, but his life is forever altered because of it. Our family (brothers, grandparents, Nieces, etc) have reached out to them, visited cross country, phoned, written, but he and his wife have severed ties with our whole family for reasons unknown to me. He was not able to mend ties with his father before he passed away and we all fear the same will happen with his mother. The last time he came to a family function was for the funeral of his 30 year old niece. To just be a “funeral family member” (a member of your family who you only see at funerals) can be a sad, sad way to interact with your family if you truly have no reason for so much ill will.
    *
    Try to imagine what your sister is going through: her husband is far away on the other side of the world and she is left home with two young children. She’s probably a little sad, a little scared, a little lonely. These are the moments families are made for. To bring comfort, to bring joy, to bring a little distraction. You have the ability to chat with her a couple times a month at the very least. You might even surprise yourself how your relationship develops as you become a “real adult” moving through your twenties.
    *
    No one is asking you to move in with them, just be a part of them. You can do that much and still be developing your own identity. Don’t waste this time because life can be so tragically short. And it’s too short to make up silly excuses like what you state above.

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  • avatar

    Samantha July 28, 2015, 11:11 am

    LW, I have a sibling living overseas as a member of the military. She’s stationed apart from her husband for the time being. Neither of them have time for in-depth correspondence, so I usually just send them postcards or letters with pictures of stuff I know will make them smile, or silly news bits they can share with their fellow sailors. If it’s so tough for you to think about contacting your brother, maybe think of your super casual correspondence or care package as something that can benefit all the people he’s serving with.

    I understand that some people are just more private and individualistic, but it doesn’t sound like your family is terrible – just different from you. At the very least, stay in touch for the sake of your nephews, in case one or two of them need someone like you when they’re feeling lonely or different. I think once you have a better sense of your own self, communication will be easier, but don’t destroy that line in the meantime.

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  • thatswhat-she

    Meg July 28, 2015, 11:12 am

    I am probably projecting my own experience onto this situation, but I figured I would put this out there just in case it’s the right thing:
    .
    I find that I have a major tendency to avoid communicating with people, and that it’s very tied to my mood. If I’m depressed, I find it much easier to avoid talking with anyone who might be able to tell, but with whom I’m not comfortable enough to be anything but my best self. I’m also pretty good at justifying this behavior to myself, coming up with reasons why I don’t necessarily want these people in my life- when really it’s just that, in that mindset, it’s easier to risk losing a relationship than to risk being found out.
    .
    Is there any chance that you’re avoiding these relationships for a similar reason? Sometimes it’s hard to be vulnerable with family- people with whom you share blood but not necessarily other traits that you would seek out in friends, etc- and it can be exhausting to feel like you’re going through the motions. At times, it may not even feel worth it– but I urge you, if this is what you’re going through, to think objectively about what you’re risking. Not every family has the same type of relationship, but there’s probably a good chance you will reach a point where you want them in your life- and that would be worth a fairly minimal investment in maintaining those relationships now.

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  • juliecatharine

    juliecatharine July 28, 2015, 11:25 am

    LW, do you have any close , long-lasting relationships? If you’re avoiding a small, not terribly close family, who’s worst fault is an older sibling criticizing your choices, I have to wonder a) whether the choices you’re making might warrant concern and b) whether you enjoy staying in touch with other people in your social circle. Family isn’t just a social formality-it’s (or should be) a unit that offers support when it’s needed most. That’s a pretty valuable thing to throw away without good cause.

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  • avatar

    dinoceros July 28, 2015, 11:59 am

    I feel like you’re overthinking this. I have several family members who I don’t have much interest in keeping in touch with, but barring any kind of abusive situation, it would be inappropriate for me to not keep in touch. So, I do. In the case of your BIL, no one is asking you to be his BFF or to put forth much effort. Send an email or a postcard with a short message and then repeat as needed. That’s all. It’s not a cycle to break or whatever. Sit down for 10 minutes and write a message and send it. The end.

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  • avatar

    ktfran July 28, 2015, 12:04 pm

    Alright. I’ll bite. I’m one of those “close to family” people so my viewpoint is obviously skewed. But what the hell? It kind of sounds like you really don’t like your sister at all. If that’s the case, own that and cut off ties. I promise that you not even sending a letter or e-mail to your brother-in-law will accomplish that.
    .
    What about your parents? Do you not want contact with them either?

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  • avatar

    SpaceySteph July 28, 2015, 12:30 pm

    Yeah I agree this is very…odd. But to answer the LW’s specific questions from the beginning of the letter:

    If you want to sever ties with your family, then do it. We definitely don’t have the information to tell you if you should or not. We can tell you how sad it is when families have infighting and don’t reconcile before death, we can tell you that family is there for support during the tough times that will eventually come up (and your sister is in one right now, solo parenting 3 kids while her husband is deployed) but if you aren’t interested, you aren’t interested.
    But if you do, then you can’t do it without hurting their feelings. Sorry but there is just no way to tell someone “I don’t want to keep in contact with you” that won’t hurt their feelings. That’s just silly. Cut ties if you want, and then ignore their hurt feeling if that’s what you want.

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  • othy

    othy July 28, 2015, 12:44 pm

    I’m not one of those ‘close to the family’ types, and my family is scattered all around the country. And we don’t agree on many things, be it politics, career choices, hobbies, etc. And yes, they can get judgey about it. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t make the basic effort to keep up with them. A phone call to my parents every couple of weeks, a text message to my sister-in-law about her kid, a Facebook message to my younger brother with a funny website he might like. It’s very minimal effort to keep these things up, but it’s worth it. It lets them know I’m thinking about them without being too “imposing” on my life.
    .
    Your brother in law is currently stationed abroad (and, while I’m not military, I’m pretty sure a humanitarian mission is just as hard/dangerous as many of the ‘regular’ missions) and asked you point blank to write him. Sure it isn’t too imposing to take 5 minutes out once every couple of weeks to write him an email to say hi. I’m sure the connection with all family members at home would greatly help to lift his mood and make his time away from home easier.
    .
    TLDR – You’re feeling guilt about not writing because you should and have no good reason not to. So take 5 minutes and write him to fix that guilty conscience.

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  • coconot

    coconot July 28, 2015, 1:40 pm

    Just a thought, but there are more ways to communicate love than words. Depending on your interests & abilities, you might send drawings or photos to your BIL (they don’t even have to be taken by you — I send cute puppy photos that I find to communicate with my husband when I don’t have anything to say, and comic strips to my brothers), or perhaps compile a Spotify playlist or a list of e-books on Amazon that you think he might like (with a gift card or not depending on finances). For your sister and nephews, maybe you could give homemade or store bought snacks (eg a basket of muffins) with a simple note like “thinking of you”.

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  • avatar

    Kaluu July 28, 2015, 3:18 pm

    Can you email him a brief “hope you are holding up”
    Along with a photo of you and friends or maybe a photo of somewhere you visited? Or perhaps if this works, a few links to YouTube funny videos? The idea is to not write that much because it’s probably the writing that feels forced and insincere.

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  • avatar

    Eve July 28, 2015, 4:10 pm

    Cheeeez people here can be so ridiculously judgmental and harsh with so little information to go with and so little proof.. Although to be fair it is partially the LW’s fault for providing so little information in the first place.. which gives too much room for anyone to interpret the letter however they want to.
    I’ll assume that you totally can’t be bothered to keep in touch with your family more than anything, because you don’t feel them close and hence don’t feel the true desire to communicate with them, which most people feel.
    I am really, really bad at keeping in touch with people too, especially family and family friends. We’ve had a pretty rough history with most of my family members, hence why I just can’t be bothered to keep in touch, I don’t feel the need to, the desire to, I feel I have other more important stuff to do than write superficial emails and messages to people I am not that fond of and who have hurt me in the past.
    But you know what? I grew up and I do it anyway (btw I am about your age). I write the superficial messages and emails and organize meetings and dinners and even holidays with these people, because at some point it hit me that just because I don’t care to keep in touch, doesn’t mean that I get to hurt the feelings of people who actually care enough to write me emails, send me photos, let me know how their day has been, suggest meeting up for dinners and going on holidays together. Because there are too many people out there who don’t care about me, so why should I hurt the feelings of the people who do?
    So the way I do it, I treat the whole “keeping in touch” thing as a work task I absolutely have to do. In my to-do list, among things like “Prepare presentation” and “Finish report”, I actually have “Answer uncle’s email”, “Send card to dad”, “Congratulate cousin on *achievement*” etc… It may be sad that I consider these things almost as “chores” as opposed to something which I derive pleasure from, but they don’t need to know that, right? As far as I am concerned, my task is completed = the person is happy that I have been thoughtful enough to keep in touch in these various ways.
    If you truly feel as bad as you say you do in your letter, then I suggest you do the same thing. Don’t overthink this so much. Make this as part of your routine – something that NEEDS to be done. If you hate speaking to them that much, use the nice ideas for keeping in touch that Wendy gave you in her response. The point is, you don’t need to be that happy to keep in contact with them – just think that by considering this as a work task you absolutely have to do, you are making their life a little bit happier by sending the odd card or writing the odd letter (or, even giving the odd phone call).
    I have noticed that the older people get (e.g. mine and your parents age), the more they start appreciating these things you do for them, because they start realizing they won’t be on this planet forever and they won’t get to talk to you forever either, that their time with you is limited. This may well be why they want to keep in touch with you, it might not be just because “that’s what families do”. It won’t hurt you to make their day once every few weeks.

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  • Dear Wendy

    Dear Wendy July 28, 2015, 5:50 pm

    From the LW:

    Hm, you’ve definitely got the wrong end of the stick on this, but if so it’s only because I didn’t express myself adequately to a person who wouldn’t know me well enough to have the backstory. Thank you for taking the time to write me, in any case. Suffice to say, ultimately I did contact him before I heard your reply, although it took a significant amount of courage for me to do so since I’ve spent so long trying to do right by their opinions and standards for a “good life”. As you said, it was the least I could do to write him since I do love him as a brother. Although the conversation again devolved into the same well-meaning critiques, I found a way to respond with kindness and firmness despite his comments, which I’m proud of. The claim that I want any attention from them was pretty bizarre (as well as the click-bait title quoting something I never said??) since I’d prefer to be left alone, but I sincerely appreciate the honest advice about setting boundaries and finding a good therapist to discuss things over. These are good things I can and will work on.

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    • Dear Wendy

      Dear Wendy July 28, 2015, 5:53 pm

      Re. “click-bait title”: I put every column title in quotes and it’s quite obvious to anyone who reads the columns that the title is a summary of the letter and not an actual quote-quote. I don’t know that the title I used is any more “click-bait-y” than if I had used an actual quote of yours like, say, “My entire life I’ve been coerced into communicating with family.”
      .
      At any rate, you’re right – more backstory would have been helpful.

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      • Cassie

        Cassie July 29, 2015, 12:24 pm

        “I Hate Keeping In Touch with My Family” is actually a very, very accurate summary.

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    • avatar

      dinoceros July 28, 2015, 6:38 pm

      Yeah, I found the title to much tamer than the content of the letter. I didn’t realize until reading the letter how extreme the LW’s feelings were on the topic, so I didn’t find it click-baity at all.

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  • avatar

    Laura Hope July 28, 2015, 7:29 pm

    My stepmother and I are polar opposites politically and I know she doesn’t approve of all my life choices. But we absolutely adore each other. She is one of my best friends in the world. Politics, religion, lifestyle…none of that has to be a barrier to a great relationship. Just saying.

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  • avatar

    Ele4phant July 28, 2015, 8:16 pm

    Do you have a toxic relationship with your family? Like honest to god they negatively impact your well-being each and every time you interact with any of them? If so, yes do what you gotta do to preserve your mental health and to protect yourself.

    That said, it doesn’t sound like that’s the case, it sounds like they’re just different than you and you’re not really interested in maintaining ties. And to be honest, that’s kind of odd. Virtually everyone has family members they wouldn’t choose to associate with if they werent related, but most or us suck it up, because family. Even in less close families, most people make a modicum of effort.

    However, you’re a grownup now, you can do whatever you want and maintain whatever relationships you want. You don’t need permission from anyone to cut your family off, certainly not strangers on some website, if that’s what you want to do.

    But, since you asked, I’m going to try sell you on keeping in touch. Here’s the thing about family. They’re going to be there when you need someone. When you need a helping hand – and we all will at one point in our life – you can count on family. Friendships fade, relationships end, but unless you cut off all contact for years, your family will be around and show up when you need someone. So if for no other reason but your own self interest, throw them a bone now and again. Writing a sentence or two on a postcard or in an email every couple of weeks is pretty low effort on your part but will be enough to maintain family ties. You don’t have to call them every day and chat for hours – just a superficial “Hey how you holding up? Been thinking about you” every now and again should work.

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  • avatar

    trixy minx July 29, 2015, 12:55 pm

    I get how she feels. I’m traveling to a new place every six months and I haven’t been home in a couple of years. Aside from my grand parents I’m kinda meh when it comes to keeping in touch with family.

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  • avatar

    Wendy (not Wendy) August 2, 2015, 10:16 am

    I get this but am probably projecting. There’s a member of my family who really wants to be in closer contact and I just don’t, and I’m sorry, but after years of trying to do polite notes (and her always hinting for more), that was just causing too much stress in my life. It seems like a little thing from the outside, but it can feel big when it’s you.

    On the other hand, I am in a similar situation to the BIL and most of my immediate family is terrible at making an effort to stay in touch. But because I know they love me, it doesn’t really matter.

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