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Our first relationships are with our family members. They’re the relationships we hold dear, struggle to maintain, and agonize about whether to let go. And sometimes, they drive us crazy. The readers who turn to Heather Havrilesky, the writer behind the Cut’s advice column Ask Polly, are often struggling with the complexities of family relationships. Read on for Ask Polly’s best advice about family.
A reader with a lifestyle different from her family’s wishes they would meet her in the middle more. Or is she just being stubborn? Polly describes her annual extended-family trip, which leads to an important conclusion: “Spending time with your family means compromising.” It might be that the reader ends up compromising more than her other family members — and that, Polly says, is okay because: “You belong to them and they belong to you.”
Daughter in the Doghouse wants to improve her constantly rocky relationship with her mother. Polly cautions against the use of the word “crazy,” but thinks this reader has been hurt enough by her mother. “It’s sad to give up on someone and write them off and protect yourself from them,” she explains. But if the reader can find ways to guard herself, she can find ways to give her mom her love.
A woman whose brother isn’t keen to compromise and spend time with his extended family asks Polly what to do. Polly recommends asking the woman’s parents to ask the brother what’s going on. This way, he’ll have room to explain whatever might be going on with him and his nuclear family. “We have to work hard to show up for them,” Polly says of families, “but we also have to forgive those who do a bad job of showing up.”
Gutted wonders what to do or think about life, now that her sister has terminal cancer. Polly reminds the reader her shock and sadness aren’t without purpose, despite how pointless the world feels. “Your sister is here now,” she reminds her. “You are being called to show up for her, to spend time with her, to help her through this.”
A woman whose father sexually abused her feels like she’s beyond the point of ever having a loving relationship and family of her own. Polly does nothing to diminish the woman’s pain over her situation: “Your father made it so that you essentially couldn’t stay conscious and still survive. He made it too painful for you to exist.” But it’s the depth of her longing, the richness of her desire for love, that could be the starting point for hope.
What should a depressed, broke 20-something who lives at home for financial reasons do while living with an also-depressed mother? Polly recommends therapy, straightaway: “So tell your parents that you’re sorry you’ve been such a mess and ask them if they can help you pay for therapy temporarily.” From there, Polly says, the reader will have an easier time accepting that a depressed mother can’t give very much to her child. By doing very small things, the reader can keep moving forward.
On the heels of the 2016 election, a reader struggles to reconcile the man she loves with the man who voted for Trump. Polly points out that parents are difficult to change, and that trying to change them often results in failure. “Our frustration must be used for the greater good,” she advises. “It can’t be funneled into petty arguments with people who aren’t going to move an inch.”
Stuck and Uncertain wonders if she’ll ever be able to move beyond certain toxic lessons from her childhood. “So, are you a mess?” Polly wonders. “Maybe you are. It is not at all uncommon for someone with your family background to be a big mess in her late 20s.” Accepting the struggle ahead, she reminds us, will make her happier in the end.
Dispirit of Christmas seeks advice about spending the holidays with her family, her mother in particular. Polly explains dashed expectations make sense; society conditions us to expect love and warmth around the holidays. And yet: “Looking for comfort and reassurance from your mildly dysfunctional family of origin is usually a mistake.” Instead, Polly says, the reader should accept her family for who they are and concentrate on taking care of herself.
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