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Resenting elderly parents will only get you this far: miserable

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Resenting elderly parents will only get you this far: miserable

Q: I spent the weekend with my elderly parents, and was overwhelmed with anger and envy when I witnessed how differently they respond to my sister and to me. My sister called from across the country, and my father spent 20 minutes chatting with her. When I call, he asks me how I am doing and hands the phone to my mother.

My sister leads a traditional life, with a husband and kids and grandkids. I love my sister, but I don't want that life, never did. I don't even like my father all that much. But this really upset me — it felt like getting the lump of coal while the other kids get diamonds. How can I get past this?

Sister Envy

A: One way is to consider that you're filling in blanks with your own assumptions versus facts. You imply this is about your father's approval of your sister's path, when it's entirely possible they just converse easily, for reasons that have nothing to do with "traditional" choices. Can't those 20 phone minutes just be native compatibility versus a negative judgment of your worth?

Your natural differences from your father could have been the start of a cycle, with these differences prompting you to make life choices very different from his, which gave you less in common, which robbed you of the very conversation aids that could have helped you bridge your natural incompatibility.

You say yourself that you don't even like him. Think about it: You can dislike him, but it feels like a ceiling collapse to consider that your dad doesn't like you. Why is that? Is your dislike for him a defense mechanism, or is it based on his personality? If the latter, why is it more of an indictment of you not to have your father's affection than it is an indictment of your dad not to have his child's?

Even better, why is it an indictment of anyone? An it's-not-personal-it-just-happens view of not getting along is something we're generally good at accepting in theory, touch-and-go at accepting in practice with colleagues and friends of friends, and often downright terrible at accepting when it comes to family. But the truth that there will always be someone out there who dislikes us is just as applicable in the ancestral home as it is in the cube farm or classroom or clubhouse.

You can take it personally, or you can be disappointed in your bad fatherly luck but confident in a strong supply of people who think you're great.

Let's say instead that disliking him is your defense mechanism, a years-in-the-making: "Yeah? Well, I don't like you, either." And let's say for the sake of argument that you're right, he's chatty with your sister only because he favors her and/or approves of her choices.

Then you have one question: What are you able and willing to do about it? Are you ready to say, for example, "I wish we talked more. Does our not being close have anything to do with my not taking a traditional path?"

You can progress only to the extent he wants to, of course, but making yourself vulnerable is the threshold you have to cross to find out how far he's willing to go.

Resenting elderly parents will only get you this far: miserable 06/02/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 31, 2013 10:32am]
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