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My relative is boring and negative. How can I cut her off? Add to ...

The question

I have a relative who wants to spend much more time with me than I care to spend with her. She calls me continuously (often very early in the morning) to go for a walk or whatever. I work part-time, so I can use the excuse that I’m not available, but then she keeps calling and asks me to go out after work or on my days off. She is a good, kind person but is extremely negative, so when I do go out with her I come home angry having realized that I have barely opened my mouth except to grunt out an acknowledgment of her boring rantings. I’m sure she is lonely and wants a friend but it becomes intolerable. I feel I can’t completely cut off the relationship because of the relative factor and I don’t want to hurt her.

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The answer

You guilt-based organisms are a curious crew.

I’m an interest-based organism. To me, there are only two legitimate reasons for spending time with someone: 1) you have to (you work with them, they’re your cell-mate, etc.); 2) you want to.

I hang with my homies because I find them fun, funny and interesting. Why anyone would spend time with anyone they clearly despise out of “guilt” is a source of never-ending, head-scratching puzzlement to me.

Luckily, I’ve been married to a guilt-based organism for 20 years, so I’ve had a chance to study the species closely. She’s changing under my influence, but when we first met, my wife, Pam, had all these – well, I could hardly call them friends – “adherents” might be a better word.

Sucker fish. Remoras. Pam hung out with remoras because she felt too guilty not to. They’d phone her (she never phoned them), then as a way of wrapping up the phone call, she’d say, “We should get together.” They’d get together, then as a way of wrapping up the get-together, she’d say: “Call me.” And around and around they’d go. I’m not even sure these remoras liked her. Once we went to lunch with one, and when Pam went to the washroom, the remora started cutting her up. I stared at her in amazement. Did she really think I’d agree with her? Pam and I had only recently started dating but suffice to say I knew where my loyalties lay. Anyway, based on my 20-year longitudinal study of the species, I have arrived at the following scientific conclusion: The best way to overcome your primary guilt vis-à-vis your relative (she’s lonely and needs you) is to jiu-jitsu it with some kind of contrapuntal counter-guilt.

I’m sorry if my meaning is obscure, there. It’s the only way I know how to put it. Let me give an example: In my late 20s, I lived with a girl in New York. I knew the relationship wasn’t going to last forever, but I felt “guilty” (Okay. I experience it too from time to time) and kept putting off breaking up with her.

One day I realized, if I drag this out for too long, I will have sucked up her primo childbearing era, and she could legitimately point to me and say: “There goes the cad who ruined my life.”

And I didn’t want that. Then I would feel truly “guilty.” Next day I was on a plane. She doesn’t speak to me now, but I did do her a favour by wasting as little of her time as possible.

I think you need to do your adhesive relative a similar service. She may need friends: You are not that. In fact, you clearly despise her (find her “boring,” her company “intolerable” and infuriating, need I go on?). This relationship is clearly going nowhere, and will just grind down her self-esteem and sharpen her edge in the long run.

But instead of simply turning your back on her, why not try to drop a little Henry Higgins/Pygmalion action on her derriere first? Deliver some home truths to her doorstep, like so many pizzas – and, as with pizza, don’t even let 30 minutes pass before you do.

I’m saying push back on everything. If she’s negative, say: “You know, I think you’re being too negative.” If she doesn’t let you speak: “I never get a word in edgewise in these conversations.”

Be polite, yet blunt – and jiu-jitsu your guilt over your bluntness by telling yourself you’re doing her a favour, in the long run. After all, if you find her this dispiriting, others may, too – probably the reason she’s so lonely.

She may squawk. She may attack back. She may even say: “To hell with you.” Personally, I don’t think she will: She seems too dependent on you.

It’s a long shot, but maybe her behaviour (perhaps after time has passed and she’s had a chance to think about it) will improve. Her attitude may ameliorate. You have a chance to really help her – and also as a side-benefit make your encounters more pleasant.

If it goes the other way – well, honestly, how much do you really care, at this point? I may sound obnoxious myself here, but if you think about it, it’s kind of a win-win situation.

What am I supposed to do now?

Are you in a sticky situation? Send your dilemmas to damage@globeandmail.com. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.

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