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Dear Life Kit: Is a recital really more important than my wedding?

On the left side of the frame are feet in ballet shoes standing in a line. On the right side of the frame is a wedding cake. The border of the image is surrounded by letters and stamps.
Photographs by Photo by Jess Zoerb, James Bold/Unsplash; Collage by NPR
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Our families can frustrate us, trigger us and hurt us in ways we wouldn't expect. On the scale of things that are not fun, dealing with family conflict is probably somewhere above dental work – it can be really painful and fill you with dread.

If you're facing a conflict with a relative, it can be easy to forget some of the "best practices" that you'd easily employ in other conflict situations. That's why we're tapping an expert to answer some of your anonymous family predicaments: Natalie Lue is the founder of The Baggage Reclaim and the author of the forthcoming book, The Joy of Saying No: A Simple Plan to Stop People-Please, Reclaim Your Boundaries, and Say Yes to the Life You Want. She answers three of your questions for Dear Life Kit.

My fiancé's sister told us that she'll "let us know" if she and her 8-year-old will be attending our wedding because the daughter has a dance recital. I find this to be extremely hurtful. Am I wrong? — RSVP already

No. It's understandable that you feel hurt. What you need to consider is, where is this hurt coming from? Is it because you really value the relationship with your niece and your sister-in-law and you're really disappointed they won't be there to be part of your big day? Or is it because, even though you're not close, you feel as though it says something about you that they're not going to be there – like you're being snubbed? This will help guide your response.

Rather than being confrontational, you can get in touch with her and let her know that you'd be disappointed if they were not able to make it. Let her know how much you'd love them to be a part of your big day. But also, express interest in the recital. What's big for an 8-year-old isn't necessarily big for you. This recital might be a really big deal to her, and her mom might not want to let her down.

My parents are always making snide comments about my career and life choices. How can I deal with their unrealistic expectations? — It's my life

I totally empathize. It was only a couple of years ago that my mom described my own work as a "hobby." Our parents are of a different generation, and their idea of a successful or high-status career may be very different than ours.

The key here is that you have got to make sure that you're not looking for their approval and sign off on the choices that you've made because your choices are valid. Yes, they raised you. But you don't owe them all of your choices.

The next thing is to choose between either humor or broaching the subject of what they're saying. So with humor, you get to run the joke first. "Let me guess, you're going to make a joke about my work." That way it's clear that you know what's going on here.

Or you can turn around and ask, "What did you mean when you said..." and then repeat what they said. This gives you an opportunity to hear what they have to say, but they also get to hear how it sounds when they say certain things.

I cut off my abusive family over 10 years ago. I'm getting ready to go to my new boyfriend's huge family gathering. How do I navigate the inevitable questions about that part of my life? — Small talk only, please

I suspect that as you prepare to go to this huge family gathering, it's taking on monstrous proportions in your mind – that you're imagining that this family is amazing or that everyone is going to want to know the ins and outs of what's going on with your family. The key here is that before you even get to that party, you need to be clear with yourself about what you are and are not OK with talking about. This is your boundary for you to maintain.

You do not have to disclose all of your life information to these people. This is a big family gathering. You'd like to think that this is not a deposition about what's gone on in your past. Share as little information as you need to. You don't need to tell them that you're estranged if they're just asking where your family is from. If they express interest in what you do with your family or when you hang out or they say, "When are we going to meet them?" You can then turn around and say, "Actually I'm not in touch with my family at the moment." Keep it brief and keep it light.

I would also recommend that you express some of the anxiety that you have about attending this gathering to your partner so that they can be of support to you as well.


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