Guilt Is Not Up for Grabs / Don’t Step into that Minefield!
Dear Dr. Hurd,
I moved to the beach 20 years ago after growing up in Baltimore. My parents had previously followed my sister and her husband to Phoenix, Arizona, to “help” with the grandchildren. That was many years ago. My mother has since passed away, and my father is in a nursing home, needing constant care. My sister and her husband try to run a guilt trip on me that I don’t “do” enough—though I handle most of my father’s bills, keep track of his bank account, call him every day; deal with his cable, phone, etc. I refuse to accept that guilt—I’m not the one who moved hundreds of miles away, they are. I’m happy where I am. Am I wrong to feel this way?
Dr. Hurd replies,
Never accept unearned guilt! Guilt is not rational unless it stems from something that you caused. Did you choose to move to where your parents moved years ago? No. That’s not your responsibility.
If you’re interested, ask your sister what it would look like if you were doing “enough.” Ask her for specifics. Don’t ask defensively; ask as sincerely as you can. Be open to the possibility that she has something in mind that you’re perfectly willing to do. People sometimes won’t ask for a certain thing though that certain thing might be something you’re happy doing. Instead, they choose to act like victims, sighing the martyr-like sigh and then trying to make you feel guilty for something you were never asked to do. Or they think, “I shouldn’t have to ask.”
If that’s what’s going on with your sister, then you won’t get anything specific in the way of a request. You’ll just get the equivalent of the martyr’s sigh. Don’t get upset about it. People like that are getting something out of being the martyr. It might not be rational, but it’s something they need on some level. Be serene about this, and don’t let it ruin your day.
Do for your father whatever you’re able and willing to do, and whatever you feel reasonably obliged to do. Short of moving to a whole new area—something I would argue is not your obligation—there’s nothing you can do to take over for your sister. Those are the breaks.
One last thing: Are you prepared to assist your father and move him to Delaware? Don’t offer it unless you mean it, but if you mean it—offer it. I’d never suggest a bluff, but I’d be interested to know the response from your sister if you made such an offer.
Dear Dr. Hurd,
I’m at my wits’ end. What do you do when your best friend is so very obviously in a dysfunctional and possibly even abusive relationship, but he won’t do anything about it? I watch how they fight with one another constantly, complain about one another to others, and try to embarrass one another in front of friends. I can’t stand it anymore. Should I say something?
Dr. Hurd replies,
Don’t tell your friend that he shouldn’t be in a relationship with someone. Not unless you’re done with the friendship and don’t care about the consequences. The worst thing a friend or loved one can do is tell another who to love or not to love. In fact, isn’t that the whole demoralizing thing about being told it’s wrong to be gay? No matter what the context, you simply cannot tell another who they can or cannot love.
If you’re uncomfortable around your friend’s partner because of the way he treats your friend, it’s OK to say so. I advise doing so privately. Try to make it in the form of a question. It’s OK to make a statement about how YOU feel, but don’t suggest he’s wrong to love this person. For example, you might ask, “When your boyfriend says or does such-and-such, this is how I see it. Am I missing something? How do you see it?” I call that “marking” the issue. You’ve hinted at the elephant in the living room, without going full-blown direct. Normally I’m in favor of being direct, but in cases of romantic love it’s worse than futile, for all the reasons I said.
I’m a great fan of something called serenity. Yes, serenity is nice for the world, but it’s for you most of all. Serenity means accepting what isn’t yours to change or control. You like or love your friend. He’s important to you. This person, for whatever healthy or unhealthy reasons, is important to him. That ought to be enough, quite frankly. If you’d like to foster serenity in yourself, that’s the best way to go about it. Why fret and fume over others’ choices—for better or worse?
A romantic choice is the most important choice we make, and possibly the only kind of relationship (outside of friends) that’s really and truly a choice. Respect your friend’s choice, if you can. And if you honestly can’t, it’s OK to let go of your friend. That’s up to you. But either way, serenity has to be the goal.
Michael J. Hurd, Ph.D., LCSW is a psychotherapist and author. His office can be reached at 302-227-2829. Email questions or comments to Dr. Hurd.