When my husband (then-boyfriend) and I first started dating, we really hit it off. It took less than a month for us to spend all of our time together. Before long, we had two sets of everything : one for his apartment and one for mine. Then his apartment lease came up, and we decided to move in together. We were eager to take this next step in our relationship.
Having grown up in a conservative household, my boyfriend knew his parents would not approve. He decided to write an email to his folks explaining his decision to move in with me. He took an afternoon off to write it down and didn’t show it to me until after he sent it. When I did read it, I nearly fell out of my chair. It started, “Mom, Dad, I love Deborah, and I don’t care what you think. We’ve moved in together.” The email continued to get more aggressive in tone, ending in the ultimatum, “You will respect her when you meet her next month.”
That’s right. Worse than the email itself, I had never met his parents. Needless to say, when I shook their hands at the airport, I felt like the harlot who had stolen their little boy’s innocence.
There comes a point in our lives when we make a decision that will upset our loved ones – our parents, our spouses, even our friends. Some people hide the issue, hoping it will go away. Usually, the “secret decision” is discovered in such a way that destroys any trust between both parties involved. On the other extreme, people get defensive about their decisions and demand immediate acceptance. This automatically puts both parties on opposing sides, a line drawn in the sand between “us” and “them.”
There’s a middle ground approach that I believe is the best way to handle breaking hard news. While it may not end in complete agreement, it goes a long way to bridging the gap when you need to discuss a difficult decision with your loves ones.
It may be tempting to sugarcoat a decision by padding it with little white lies that make the decision more palatable. However little white lies can be just as damaging as a bigger fib. Why? Because if you are ever caught in any size lie, it will destroy your credibility. You will appear untrustworthy, and all of your decisions will be doubted and misunderstood. You don’t have to go into explicit detail about your decision, but you shouldn’t lie once you start talking about it.
Once you’ve made the decision, don’t appear wishy-washy, as if your loved one will be able to change your mind. You may feel like this will make it easier for your loved ones to accept; they might feel as if they have a say in the decision. Ultimately, however, your life decisions are yours, not theirs. And if your loved ones feel they have a chance at reversing your decision, they will spend your time together trying to talk you out of your decision instead of accepting it. When they cannot convince you, they will feel like “they failed” to get you to see things their way. You can bypass this entire drama by being clear that the decision has been made.
Just because you’ve made up your mind, doesn’t mean you should cut off any true discussion about the decision. True acceptance will come with conversation, two-way communication between you and your loved ones. Making the topic unapproachable increases their anxiety, and might make them feel that you haven’t thought of all the ramifications of your actions (even though you probably already have).
Note that some loved ones may want to have the same conversation over and over again, reverting back to the “trying to talk you out of it” trick. If you find yourself in this position, it’s okay to say, “We’ve already talked about this, and I’ve made up my mind. Please accept this change.” Having the same conversation will only make both of you angrier, whether your loved ones realize it or not.
Above all, you have to be completely comfortable with the decision that you made. More than likely, you made this decision because it makes sense to you. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t convince your loved ones to embrace your decision. Instead, strive simply to maintain a healthy relationship, with the understanding that you may have to “agree to disagree” on this particular issue.
In the event that the worse case scenario happens and your loved ones want to sever ties with you, remember: it takes two people to make any relationship work. Ultimately, it is your responsibility is to do your best to maintain your end of being honest and genuine. They also have to hold up their end of their bargain, which means they should still love you, even if they don’t support this decision. Know too that some decisions need more time to absorb than others, so it could take several months or even a few years for a loved one to come around. However, in the end if you are both committed to making it work, you will eventually find middle ground.
* * *
So what happened after my airport introduction with my in-laws? It turns out my mother-in-law was more hurt that her son didn’t trust her than about us moving in together. We enjoyed a pleasant weekend that trip and became good friends. I always enjoy visiting them, even if I don’t agree with all of their viewpoints. We’ve found a way to not only tolerate, but like each other, and we’re dedicated to the person that brought us together: my husband and their son.
Photo by Mike Baird
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9 thoughts on “Getting Loved Ones to Understand Your Decisions”
I love the humour you injected into the story of meeting your future in-laws. Kind of reminds me of getting off on the wrong start in the movie Meet the Parents. I am glad that things turned out well for you and your in-laws in the end. :)
It is not easy to deliver upsetting news. But going to extremes as you point out isn’t going to work either. I am with you on this middle ground approach to dealing with such a difficult situation. Here are some of the thoughts I had on the points you shared.
Being honest is the best policy. Saying the whole truth with tact is good because it gives your loved ones the big picture once and for all. They will not have to find out bits and pieces elsewhere. That will only destroy whatever trust there is. Being completely honest involves trust. It involves trust that our love ones will be strong enough to manage the truth and if they are not, it is the truth which we will not hide.
People are generally resistant to change and the unknown, it takes time and persistent effort to win them over to your point of view. This means repeated tries and creative approaches. If we do so with sincerity and perseverance, one day we may just manage to wear them down. Or they might end up accepting the situation by default.
Thank you for sharing this article! :)
Irving the Vizier
@Irving: Thanks for your expansion on the “honesty” and “considerate” sections. I’ve found that the “trust” issue is particularly hard. No one really wants to take the first step, since there is always a chance that your trust will be thrown back into your face. But if no one ever gives it a go, you can never build it either.
Thank you for a really helpful post. I am having some trouble with my parents as well and will certainly refer back to this post when the going gets tough again – or ideally before then ;)
One thing that has helped me so far was accepting myself more. Often a lot of energy and reactivity is brought into the situation by one’s own fears, beliefs, inner conflicts. Once we are more aware of these, a whole new basis for communication can be found.
Also, I found it a really good practice to acknowledge any emotions that are going on inside you. When I get angry or frustrated or sad or ashamed, it is intensely difficult to convey this fact in a calm and constructive way. But it certainly beats holding it back and releasing it in one tidal wave of emotion at a later point in the conversation.
Thanks for your great suggestions,
@Jonas: Accepting yourself is definitely key. If you don’t know who you are, it can be hard to convey it to others. It’s okay, too, if you discover yourself changing over time. I used to think of myself more in terms of “black or white,” but found it was easier to understand myself when I let those extreme opposites go for a more middle ground approach that represented me better.
Good luck with your parents. It was easy for me to write about in-laws…much harder to talk about my own folks, as great as they are. I know how stressful it can be and wish you the best of luck.
Awesome article with great sensibility.
Terrific post (as always!) Deborah. As someone who has dished out quite a few bombshells in my lifetime, I love your guidelines. It can be so difficult when we’re giving tough news that it’s easy to lose touch with our compassion for the other person. And your point about being firm is so spot on, we won’t end up defending ourselves or debating the validity of our decisions if we stay firm and factual when we deliver the news.
I love your posts, they are beautifully written and full of great insights.
Thanks, Melinda. As you’ve noted, these are rough guidelines at best. It takes a personal touch and your own experience with your loved ones to fill out the details. Finding that middle ground between what you need to say and how to break it gently has always worked best for me in the long run (even if it’s made me nervous in the short term).
My loved ones know well enough to understand that I wouldn’t make a decision unless I had studied the problem for a long time. So they usually understand my decisions and support me.