Adapted from a recent online discussion.
HI, CAROLYN: My brother got married three months ago. My parents, husband, baby and I are on a two-week-long vacation with him and “Sandy,” our first group vacation with her. We are all sharing a rather large house, and each couple has plenty of time to themselves.
Yet my brother and Sandy are behaving as though their boundaries are deeply in danger. For example, my husband and I invited them to go for margaritas with us while my parents baby-sat. Instead of, “No thanks,” or even, “No thanks, we’re going to [alternate plans],” we got, “No thanks, we need to insist on some space tonight and also that we stick to doing what the two of us want to do this week.”
It was very unexpected, since we don’t see them often at all and didn’t feel our invitation was forceful enough to warrant that kind of response.
They gave a similar response the next time we invited them. This morning, I brought the baby into the shared kitchen for breakfast and the two of them immediately vacated, saying, “Sorry, we’re trying to find a spot for just the two of us to talk.”
I’ve never had any issues like this with my brother — but it’s his prerogative if this is the kind of marriage he wants. Do you have any suggestions for how I can talk to them about the way they’re phrasing these things? I don’t care whether they do things with us, I just don’t like the implication that we are boundary-tramplers.
DEAR NO, THANKS: They: [Overexplained rejection of invitation.]
You: “Hey, no explanation necessary, we take ‘No’ for an answer.”
Or, “No problem — it’s an invitation, not an order”; “OK then, more for us”; “Suit yourselves”; or, “Your loss!” The breezier the better.
Be willfully superficial in your interpretation: Aw geez, they feel so bad about saying no that they think they have to explain, so let’s assure them it’s OK.
The kindly purpose is to let Sandy and Bro off the hook they perceive themselves to be on.
The less kindly purpose, though valuable in its own right, is to signal to Bro that any territorialism around their couple time is coming from inside his house!! (Cue scary music.) Set out clear evidence that you are not, not, not intruding on their space.
If indeed Sandy is a controller, she is laying groundwork to have your brother to herself, and that can trigger an impulse in you guys — Bro’s people — to grab onto him for dear life. That only plays into the hands of someone possessive. Instead, be present while being, again, vocally and demonstratively hands-off. And cheerful about it. This is the trail of breadcrumbs you leave your brother if and when he needs it, if and when he’s ready to use it.
RE: SANDY: As a potential “Sandy” here, please keep in mind that some of us need time and space away during family visits, despite the best intentions of family members. And, they’re newlyweds! Plus, not everyone is a baby person.
DEAR POTENTIAL “SANDY”: OK, but, how you do that matters. Throwing up defensive walls to folks who are just being polite is not the way to do that. A warm, “No thanks,” will suffice.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.