Here's the Thing: You Can't Go Home Again

SWEETIE EXTRAORDINARE:

My girlfriend and I (we are both 25) have moved in with my parents for two years while we save money to emigrate to Canada. I've always had a fairly good relationship with them—of the kind where everyone has a lot of fun together and literally hang out together voluntarily a lot and we do a lot of cute family photos and are friends and have a lively group chat—but also when hard things happen in my life I prefer not to share them with my parents, because they (my mom particularly) are sometimes of the just-tough-it-out mentality and find it hard to see where I'm coming from a lot of the time. Anyway.

We are living with them now. Everyone was very enthusiastic about this arrangement when it was suggested. I originally moved out for college and never moved back in, so it's 7 years since I lived at home. I remember the things that were difficult then, and my girlfriend and I talked over potential pain points, and so we very proactively sat down with them and went through a list of "roommate questions" and specifically worked out what we would be responsible for in terms of cleaning, cooking, laundry, caring for pets, garden work, etc. I thought, great! We've taken care of the hard bits! Well, we have not.

I thought everything was going great. Then my mom came to speak to me while I was home and my girlfriend was at work. She got very emotional, cried, raised her voice, and the gist of the conversation was that they feel like they run around after us and we never reciprocate or "help out without being asked". 

Here's my problem. This conversation hurt me really bad. From our perspective we've done everything according to what we agreed. Her point was that, when we're not busy and my parents are doing something (e.g., my dad recently built a new shed in our backyard, just because he enjoys DIY and garden work—there are six sheds out there, it wasn't any kind of actual requirement) we should go offer to help. Our arguments were firstly that we are rarely not busy (both of us work full time AND are studying part time for degrees), and secondly that we would assume if someone wanted help with A HOBBY, they would ask for it (as we have repeatedly invited them to do). But I can understand somewhat where they're coming from on this one. It goes against my natural instincts to clearly communicate what you want and need from people, but I get that they approach this differently.

It was the other parts of the conversation that were really hurtful. I was told I was selfish for asking my parents to drive me places (the place I ask them to drive me is to the train to work, because I can't drive yet - working on it! - and it's too far to walk/bike) when they are on holidays from work. I was told it was "ridiculous" that we stayed in bed late on a Saturday. There were some very pointed comments made about "our need for fresh air and exercise" that were blatantly meant to be fat-shaming. I was repeatedly told about how selfish we are for NOT DOING TASKS WE DID NOT KNOW EXISTED (e.g., "I'll do your laundry but why did you not hang it out when it's done?" when we didn't know she was doing the laundry). 

The flip side of this is: she talks about me. To other people. A LOT. This includes to my girlfriend. I hear reports back all the time, from my girlfriend and from friends who come to visit, that my mom has had some long conversation with them about how confusing I am, how she thinks various things I do (going to the gym, studying for my degree, my career choice, my interest in books, being vegetarian, etc etc) are weird, how she just "doesn't get me". You may be gathering that we have terrible communication.

So how on earth do I address all these hurtful things she said, and maybe work out a way for both of us to be happier living together, when we already find it so hard to communicate?

Look, I don’t know why I picked this photo but it made me smile.

SOPHIA:

Okie dokie smokey, there is a lot to wrangle here so let’s put on our cowgirl boots and get to it. I assume that things have likely shifted (and even more likely deteriorated) in the time since you wrote me, but I’ll address what you’ve written here and hope it helps. First things first, the fat shaming is not ok. Neither is her talking about you to your friends, your girlfriend, or anyone. Those are incredibly violating and harmful things of her to be doing, and they are not ok. I’m not sure what order this will all unravel in, but you will need to address these things simply out of respect for yourself and out of the hurt her actions caused. I would say something like this, “Mom, I was really hurt by X, Y, and Z. I know that was not your intention, and that you love me a lot, but I need this to stop. I’m an adult who is taking care of my body and I’m doing fine. As for talking to my friends and girlfriend about me, I’m asking you to stop. It’s hurtful, embarrassing, and rude, and a lot of it gets back to me. If you have issues, please come talk to me.”

Obviously, there are varying degrees of possible responses from her, and it’s unlikely that she sees her behavior is wrong immediately, is fully contrite, and then fixes it all. But you have to start somewhere, and communicating how she hurt you and what you’d like her to do differently in the future is the best first step on your end.

Now, onto the other stuff!!! This, I’m sorry to say, I feel you will not like to hear. It’s always rotten to hear someone not fully take our side, so I apologize in advance. I think you make a lot of very valid individual points, but I don’t know that they add up to you and your girlfriend being in the right.

Maybe you simply neglected to mention this, but it seems that you and your girlfriend are living rent free with your parents out of the kindness of their hearts and wallets. I’m not in the You Owe Your Parents Everything Including Ironclad, Immovable Deference Camp, but I do think you and your girlfriend have been wearing thin the bounds of your parents hospitality. Yes, they are your parents and they are family and closeness and generosity ought to come easily and smoothly in an ideal world, but ultimately, you two are guests in their home (since you aren’t renting) and you don’t seem very interested in doing anything more than the bare minimum.

Giving the bare minimum is great for when you’re dealing with the government or shitty bosses or your ex who sucks. The bare minimum does not, however, bode well for loving, longterm relationships with loved ones. It’s kind of a slap in the face, in fact. Now sure, they could have and should have communicated their expectations and desires better (We want you to be involved in our lives and help out whenever you can). You and your girlfriend also could have communicated your expectations and desires better (We want to have quite a bit more free time than that and be left alone a bit more). But it’s hard to know your expectations sometimes because often they feel so obvious to you. E.g., WHY THE FUCK WOULD I HELP YOU WITH A HOBBY?!!? vs WHY THE FUCK WOULD MY DAUGHTER LAZE AROUND AND NOT EVEN OFFER TO HELP WITH THE SHEDS?

In a situation like this, you have to be over-communicating at every single turn. Moving back in with your parents, or really staying in anyone’s home long-term is like running a three legged race. You must be constantly communicating. This is nothing that a roommate agreement (which is brilliant and I’m glad you did that!) ever had the possibility of addressing or fixing. It’s not a failure of that agreement. It’s a post-agreement failure. It’s not unlike how certain people in the US (ahem!) think we should be following the constitution based on what a bunch of old slave owners thought the country should be like. That document is simply inadequate in terms of the world today. Now, you and your parents aren’t slave owners or bad people!!!!! SORRY I USED THAT METAPHOR!!!! But you do need to learn the value of flexibility and adaptation. Rigidity is not your friend when it comes to living with new people. Grace and patience are. Chipping in extra, saying thank you extra, buying or making dinner once a week— those things will get you so much further than “well that wasn’t in the roommate agreement!”

This might sound like a lot. IT IS!!!!! YOU’RE GETTING FREE RENT!!! You have to be $800 Agreeable (or whatever the rent is in your area). This requires a lot of navigating and conceding what you want to do for what someone else wants you to do. It requires energy. Being a guest is fucking hard. Being a host is fucking hard. It’s hard for one week, let alone TWO YEARS.

I don’t know your financial situation, but it may come to a point where the cost of living with your parents outweighs the benefits, and you might feel like making a new choice. I think that if you can afford to, that might be good. You don’t want this time together to cost you the closeness of your family. That’s a very, very high price to pay. Maybe you don’t have the choice to move out right now. I understand that. Have a talk with your girlfriend first and get on the same page; talk about how you underestimated the work (emotional and otherwise) that moving in with your parents would require and come up with a plan that you both agree to. Then, go to your parents and talk about what they need and what you need, what patterns and habits aren’t working, what new patterns you should try to create. At that talk, set a date for another talk about a week later to check in. This is going to be a lot of work on everyone’s part, but it’s not impossible. And it’s worth it to keep your relationship with your parents.

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Sophia Benoit writes this very newsletter, she also writes about sex & relationships for GQ, tries to write about Fleetwood Mac for GQ, avoids writing by tweeting at @1followernodad, works full-time as a researcher for Lights Out With David Spade, and has had bylines in The Guardian, Reductress, Refinery29, Allure, and The Cut. She’s also working on a book and at least five TV pilots at any given moment. (But for real, there will be a book soon). You can reach her or yell at her at 1followernodad@substack.com.