Ask Sahaj: My family wants to spend more time with me. I’d rather not.


Q: My immediate family tries to limit time with our extended family. We love them and enjoy visiting but once “cocktail hour” begins it extends until bedtime and they bicker and can just be plain mean. Dinnertime is no fun and is sometimes unbearable.

After turning down a dinner invitation recently, I was asked, “Why do you not want to spend time with us?” This is after we had spent several days with them! How should I have responded?

My young adult children think I should confront my family head-on, but this would cause pain and I have zero expectation it would change anything for the better. Sadly, we are dealing with older people who won’t be with us much longer. A part of me wants to be honest, but another part wants to simply continue to manage this as graciously as we can. Thoughts?- Sad

A: You don’t want to hurt your family, yet you are frustrated by their expectations and behaviors. Loyalty and peacekeeping can be valuable qualities, but at what cost?

Unconditional tolerance for harmful behavior, such as bickering or guilting, often means that there is a lack of boundaries in the family. This may be why you feel obligated to do what your family wants and unable to express your own needs. Your family is weaponizing guilt to maintain the status quo of your relationship.

My guess is you wrote in because you are no longer able to avoid that something isn’t working. It sounds like your kids recognize there’s an unhealthy dynamic that needs to be addressed. You even admit to trying to limit time with your extended family, but I wonder what you’ve tried?

You need to build up the tolerance for disappointing these relatives. While being honest about your feelings is an important tool for healthy relationships, it sounds like it may be new or scary to you. That’s why I recommend starting small.

If boundaries have never been modeled to you, it can feel challenging to set them. Boundaries are about protecting your finite energy and resources, like time. They are not about changing other people. Setting boundaries is about taking care of yourself so you can show up more fully in your relationships.

Just because you set a boundary doesn’t mean you don’t love your family. Challenge the all-or-nothing mind-set you are internalizing about drawing these limits. What are you afraid will happen? Why does this feel wrong? Consider the behaviors you want to model for your kids. They are learning from you how they should be in relationships.

You’re frustrated that your family keeps taking or asking more from you. I don’t blame you, yet this is a clear sign that you need to set a boundary. Otherwise, they will continue to take what they can get.

Being clear and direct will be important when you set boundaries, because if you are vague, you leave room for interpretation. You can’t control how your family acts or reacts to your boundaries, but you can control how you engage with them. If any version of “no” feels combative to your family, then that indicates a lack of healthy communication or a power imbalance.

Clear communication can sound like, “I look forward to coming over but we will leave at 8 p.m.,” and then leaving at that time. It’s imperative that you follow-through and commit to the boundary. You may even ask for support from a partner, your kids or other family members.

In the case where your relative asked why you don’t want to hang out with them, you could say something like, “I appreciate that you want to spend more time with us, and I know you’re disappointed I am busy tomorrow. I had a great time with you this week.”

Be honest with yourself about what you actually want and what is workable for you. Do you enjoy spending time with your family at all? Or do you see these visits as obligations? How much time do you ideally want to spend with your family? Can you imagine what a different relationship could look like?

Where can you make small changes to make these visits feel less challenging? From your letter, your family is “mean” and “unbearable” after having drinks. Can you provide an alternative, such as meeting for lunch on a weekend, that will allow you to spend time with them in a setting where you feel more comfortable engaging?

Meeting in a more neutral environment rather than always at their house, where there’s no “end” to the evening, may also be beneficial.

Alternatively, you may want to share how you feel in the moment during these visits. This may sound like, “I feel like you’re not being kind right now.” Or, “I don’t appreciate you talking to me like this.” Starting with small boundaries or addressing small moments, will help you build the confidence to be more forthright.

Relationships often need space to readjust when a dynamic changes. You’ll need to work on managing the emotions that come up after you assert yourself. Remember, just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it’s wrong. By being consistent and direct, eventually your family will come to accept – and maybe even respect – the new normal.

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Sahaj Kaur Kohli. Photo Twitter @SahajKohli

Sahaj Kaur Kohli is a mental health professional and the creator of Brown Girl Therapy and Culturally Enough, communities focused on people with bicultural identities and immigrant parents. You can submit questions here:



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