DEAR CAROLYN: I’m very frustrated with my parents right now and need an outside opinion. I moved in with them earlier this year because my late girlfriend’s parents were suing for custody of my 2-year-old daughter. It was clear they were going to use the fact that we lived in a small studio apartment against me, so I moved in with my parents to remove that disadvantage.
Last month I finally won my court case and retain full custody of my daughter.
They asked me not to hold the custody battle against them but I do. I hate them and I always will. They say they did it for my daughter, but they did it to punish me for surviving the car wreck that killed my girlfriend even though the other driver was at fault, and to replace their daughter with mine — and they didn’t care what they were putting me through to do it.
My parents are supervising their visits with my daughter now, which is great because I never want to see them again. My mom told me she’d like to invite them for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner and I said absolutely not. We’ve been fighting about it ever since.
I can’t believe my own parents aren’t taking my side against these people. They say I’m just holding a grudge and it’s bad for my daughter. That’s a low blow, and even if it was true, don’t I have the right after what they did?
How can I make my parents see how wrong they are? They are taking the side of these awful people against their own son!
Frustrated With My Parents
DEAR FRUSTRATED: Your question could just as easily be phrased, “How can I make this fight go on for the rest of our lives?”
And it’s already devastating. Grieving parties in legal and emotional combat instead of lifting each other up.
It would make things easier for you if your parents understood your position, of course. They could say the same thing, though — if they could just “make” you “see” that it would be good for your daughter if you forgave these parents.
Notice where this leads you? Into an endless loop of arguing and rearguing your core convictions. And, wow, all parties have already suffered profoundly and don’t need any more anguish — my deepest sympathies for all of it. You don’t need another battle.
You don’t even need to win this one, for what it’s worth, because you have full autonomy; if your parents invite your late girlfriend’s parents, or just insist on insisting on it, then you can simply choose not to be there.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Your goal of winning this argument doesn’t serve you, so I urge you to set a new, achievable one: disengaging from battles you don’t need to win. All that requires is a polite refusal. “You have my answer. I won’t discuss it anymore.”
People tend to push back when you deny them leverage, so you need to be ready to hold your lines. Calmly. Without engaging. “I won’t have this argument with you.” Per your goal.
It can help, though, to serve up less for them to push back against. You throw around the “a” and “n” words — as in, “I hate them and I always will” and “never want to see them again” — and you presume to know these parents’ motivations. When you do that, you invite the logical challenge that you can’t see inside other people’s minds, and you can’t know what you will “always” or “never” feel.
It’s still your prerogative to say whatever you want — but why not choose words that pre-empt such arguments? “I am still angry at what they put me through and will not share my holidays with them.” Your feelings now, your prerogatives now, your decision now, are all truths, not assumptions that muddy things up.
It also helps to focus on what you have in common with people to counteract an issue that drives you apart. In this case, your common interests are both obvious and urgent: Honoring the woman you all loved, and nurturing your little girl. A loving and stable home environment and extended family would accomplish both. Acknowledging your parents’ point of view, even as you decline to do as they ask, can advance that cause immeasurably. “Mom, I appreciate that you want what’s best for Daughter. I do, too.”
And maybe even: “On some level even these parents must have thought what they were doing was right, and they’re obviously traumatized.”
That last part is first-string varsity disengagement, which can take years of practice. But it’s something to aim for as you heal.
Speaking of: Your anger sounds justified, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for any of you, or even necessarily fair. If therapy — or a grief support group — is within your reach, then I urge you to get yourself there, soon.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.