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.”
If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at email@example.com.