How do you untether yourself from your parents?
How do you untether yourself from your parents as a young married adult (even though this should’ve already happened long ago) without hurting the relationship? My parents are somewhat possessive and clingy as I’m an only child. They like to guilt trip me when I am making decisions that go against their wishes, etc. I somehow always find myself feeling guilty when disregarding them, which I guess shows their tactics are working somewhat.
As I am currently visiting my husband in the U.S. while they’re in Europe, where I reside throughout the academic year (free college education is too hard to pass on) and would like to extend my trip, I’ve gotten the request by them to return multiple times so far, always met by anger and disappointment when I said I would not. Now I want to extend my trip even longer, since my university has not yet made any plans for resuming in-person education, and I feel scared and guilty telling them I will “break the promise” of coming back at this set date. I find myself procrastinating telling them my decision as the initial departure is less than a week from now, and it eats me up on the inside.
How can I make clear that my love for them is not dependent on me being physically present, nor do they have the power of possessing me and dictating my decisions anymore, without upsetting them so much that it would taint the relationship we rebuilt the past few years?
By the time I’m writing this, you may have already had that conversation—and my heart hopes that you’ve found a little peace since then. Change can often be painful, and you’re in the midst of a huge transition.
My first thought is this: who is telling you that you are only “visiting” your husband? If your parents are the ones saying you’re only in the US for a “visit,” I’d call BS. Your narrative is yours to claim, and I encourage you with all the kindness in my heart to do so. The “visiting” is now something you do with your parents. Words matter, and can all too easily become tools for manipulation. Perhaps this suggestion will help you get started: you’re living with your husband in the US, but attend school in Europe where your parents are.
I want to tell you to ignore them, but I understand it’s not that easy. I moved far away from my parents and made a promise to return once I started to have children (it felt like a good way to soften the heartbreak). Now, though, I realize that I’ll break that promise if or when I have kids. It makes me sad to know that I’ll disappoint them, but my heart calls me to stay here. To keep building.
And that is the most difficult part of finding your independence: loving your people deeply while making choices that break their hearts. Choices that are right for you. It’d be much easier to do what they want you to do, but will it make you happy?
Many years ago, a friend quoted something that stuck with me. I can’t find the exact citation (maybe it’s from Paulo Coehlo?), but it went something like this: Parents always want what’s good for their children, but not necessarily what’s best. It means that everything your parents are doing is out of love—but if the “best” option for you is to move away from them permanently, they might not want that for you. They want you close because it makes them happy and they imagine that it’ll make you happy, too. Maybe it will.
So to lead with a compassionate heart, remember that they’re (probably) saying the things they are saying out of love for you. While it might not be what you want for yourself, they’re in the midst of a transition with your relationship, too, especially since you’re an only child. You can be both at once: soft in your love for them, and firm in your boundaries.
And that’s just the thing—you’re an adult now. You’re likely close to the age they were when they decided how and where to raise you. Those same choices are in your hands now. Just because you’re their child doesn’t mean you’re “a” child. You are now capable of making your own decisions and mistakes. Once we’re grown, parents can’t (and shouldn’t) keep us from making mistakes; the hope is that they’ll be a soft place to land when we need healing. I hope that for you; and if your family only offers harsh judgment, guilt-tripping, or critique, then it may be time to release the relationship. It has the potential to be painful, but growth always is.
Now there are some practical things that you can do that helped me feel more independent (and act more independent, tbh). Look at the ways you are materially tethered to them. Are you still on their insurance or on their phone plan? It was way more expensive when my husband and I finally got onto our own phone plan together. Still, it was a relief. I had full control and transparency over my bill. (I almost advised you to take control of your student loans; that free college is a BLESSING.) Book your own flights, if you can. Consolidate your finances to be entirely in your and your husband’s control. Financial ties can be difficult to break, but I found that those were important to move past in order for me to feel more confident as a fledgling adult.
It sounds like there are much more complicated issues at hand here with passports, COVID, and the like, but if you can update your address on your identification cards, I advise you to do so. That was another big step for me when starting out on my own!
Another thing that’s helped me is to evaluate my values. For many people in my family, the single most important thing is family. I’ve struggled for many years feeling bad that I couldn’t force the same value. Instead, my most important values are self-knowledge and deep connections. Family matters to me, but isn’t my singular guiding star. Do you have a different set of values than your parents? Meditate on your values, journal about them, talk them through with your friends so you can get some clarity and validation. It is okay if your values are different from theirs; we all have unique motivations.
And finally, a healthy relationship with your family doesn’t lie in your hands alone. If you can, express your feelings to them. It’s alright if you can’t, and I hope you can someday. Either way, boundaries are your friend. You don’t always have to pick up the phone, you don’t always have to tell them everything.
My biggest hope is this: for you to live fully as who you are. And that instead of telling you who you should be, your parents rise to the challenge of getting to know you—and who you are becoming.
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Emily Torres is the Managing Editor at The Good Trade. She’s a Los Angeles transplant who was born and raised in Indiana, where she studied Creative Writing and Business at Indiana University. You can usually find her reading or writing, caring for her rabbits, or practicing at the yoga studio. Say hi on Instagram!