Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Just because you're family doesn't mean they can walk all over you

These boots are made for Walkin'

My understanding of family has changed since I was growing up. I believe family is not simply a matter of DNA. It really has a lot to do with shared concerns, physical and emotional support. In some cases, it has to do with monetary support. And there are people I consider family who I'm not related to.

This may sound harsh, or odd, but I believe that the concept of family is an agreement between loved ones. I think you can love someone (a family member) unconditionally but understand that the relationship may not be healthy. A family member can not live up to their part of their agreement - just as with any relationship.

And it's okay to set boundaries limiting the relationship.

This is not something that I heard growing up. Family was family, period. For example, if a family member was going to be visiting a state over, you would put all your young children in the car to drive hours to visit them. Whether or not you actually could pay for the gas or would be sleeping on the floor once you got there. Whether or not a family member was sick.

I'm not saying I didn't have a great time hanging out with my cousins. Or that it isn't nice to see people. But I think that there should be an understanding that it's great to visit - but only if it works out financially. And with a family's health and other responsibilities.

I was discussing this with my mother the other day. I was trying to convince her (and failing) that she could have a set of expectations. That she could say something like "I expect you to call every so often" to one of my siblings as a condition for the extensive financial support she is giving that sibling. And if that sibling decided not to meet those conditions, at some point my mother could give her notice and stop or decrease the financial support.

My Mom said that I was describing "tough love". That it was more difficult in practice than in theory. That I should wait until I have adult children and talk with her then.

Setting boundaries and expectations is not tough love.

It's not that they're not capable of setting boundaries. My parents have set all sorts of boundaries in the past with me. My dad has asked us not to bring alcohol into his home. I think that's an acceptable boundary. He's not saying I can't drink. He's not even saying I can't go out to a bar while I'm visiting their home. Just that he'd prefer I not bring alcohol back with me. It's his house and his rules. I'm comfortable with that. I have my own home that I drink alcohol in. And I get to make the rules in my own home.

With that said, I get to make most of the rules with where I spend my money. And, although my adult children may not like this, I can and may stop supporting them financially at any point if they don't live up to their part of the bargain.

As an adult, I know that any and all financial support my parents give me is a gift. Legally, they don't have to do any of it - and many parents don't. While a young adult may not be mature enough to recognize this - it's still a fact. And - someone doesn't necessarily stop being dependent at age eighteen. But they (the parents) also need to protect themselves.

One of the many things my in laws have taught me is that money or gifts do not equal love. On my mother's side of the family, this has been the case for many years. The person who gave the nicest, most expensive gift obviously loved you the most. Of course you want to support your children. You want them to be successfully adults. You want to help give them a good start.

I do think it's okay for a child or family member to decide to take time off from their family for awhile. I support this. But each person has to make their own decisions about these types of things. And time can help many people to gain perspective about what's important and healthy for them.

But if a person decides to take time off - again, I think the parents or family should be able to take their own steps as well. If they want to donate boxes in the basement to goodwill (with notice to that person) it's their right. If they want to clean out a room (my room was cleaned a few weeks after I left for college, by the way). If they want to stop sending financial or other types of support - that's also their right.

The actions go both ways.

This territory is treacherous. I just support anyone standing up for themselves and saying this situation is not okay with me. I need to take these steps to protect myself. In the end, your own thoughts, feelings and emotions are all you can really impact.

Edit: Just wanted to note - I'm talking about REASONABLE and courteous boundaries here between adults. I'm not talking about "you need to go to church or we'll cut you off" type of demands. Or "if you tell us your pregnant, we'll send you a plane ticket to visit us" (yes, I've heard this one from a friend and her parents). Each family and relationship is different and may have different standards. It's important that both sides be able to speak up and say "that's not okay with me" or that a request is unreasonable.

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