Question

My granddaughter-in-law’s mother has multiple sclerosis and is fairly home bound. Our family does lots of things together. We alternate holidays so she spends every other one with her mother. She is an only child as her father died young. I feel so bad for her mother being on her own. I always invite her to come share in the fun, but she never comes. She has a limited fixed income and feels that if she can’t contribute, she would feel guilty. Our family has more than enough to share. We have room and a one-level house to accommodate her disability. I know her daughter would love her to join us and my family would welcome her. Last year for Christmas she agreed to come, and I got her a present for under the tree. Her daughter went to pick her up and she said that she couldn’t come because she had no present or could not contribute to the dinner. Can you suggest any way we can make her realize we really want her, and she need not feel like she doesn’t belong?

Answer

It’s so thoughtful and aware to include your granddaughter-in-law’s mother in your family traditions. The holidays are such a difficult time for many individuals, especially those who have lost loved ones and at risk of being unintentionally left out. You have lots of love to share, so I can see why it’s confusing that she doesn’t reflexively receive your offerings. I’ll share some considerations and possibilities as to why she may be struggling to join you for your celebrations.

First of all, if she’s telling you she doesn’t want to attend, perhaps she really doesn’t want to attend. Even though something might be right for you and your loved ones, it doesn’t mean it’s right for her. I’m reminded of a scene in the western comedy, “The Villain”, where the hero, Handsome Stranger, spots an elderly woman on the edge of a busy intersection where horses, wagons, and dust are spinning all around her. He walks up, grabs her by the arm, and carefully escorts her through the mayhem to the other side while she shrieks in terror. When they safely arrive on the other side of the street, he smiles and waits for her appreciation. Instead, she smacks him on the face and tells him she never wanted to cross the street in the first place. It’s natural to see someone in a situation that appears to have a simple solution and offer it without recognizing they may not be interested.

While it’s common in our culture to offer a false protest when offered something valuable, I think it’s important to expect others to mean what they say and relinquish our offering if it’s refused. We can trust that other adults know what they want and don’t need us assuming we know what’s best for them. Perhaps a warm and consistent invitation over time will give her regular opportunities to assess her readiness to join your family.

Also, recognize that she may be perfectly fine being by herself. Solitude and loneliness aren’t the same thing. There are many people who feel lonely in their crowded family gatherings while others can feel perfectly peaceful alone in solitude. She’s clearly experienced tremendous loss in her life with the passing of her husband and her multiple sclerosis. She may also be more comfortable managing her physical limitations privately than having the navigate them in front of a crowd of people who she doesn’t know as well.

While I believe your offer is coming from a sincere place, your response when she declines seems like it’s unacceptable to you. Why is this? Perhaps I can ask a few direct questions and even conjecture about why you may be sensitive to this:

  • Are you personally insulted that she doesn’t want to gather with your family?
  • If she doesn’t want to gather, why is this painful for you personally?
  • Do you have difficulty taking “no” for an answer from others?
  • Do you know what she would prefer to do?

Please make sure you don’t unintentionally make her feel guilty for not wanting to gather. Making a large fuss over her preference can come off as patronizing and disrespectful. In fact, it can even be somewhat objectifying to need her to respond to you in a specific way. If it’s uncomfortable for you that she doesn’t want to attend, please check the story you’re telling yourself about her and about you. If you can’t relinquish your offering, then the offering is more about you needing something back from them instead of you giving freely.

In short, you simply can’t make someone know you care about them. You can’t force someone to offer your gift, no matter how wonderful it may seem to you. I have no doubt your family home is a lovely and wonderful place to gather. Perhaps you can spend more time in her home getting to know her outside of the pressure and expectations of the holiday season. Build a relationship with her so she can receive the love you have to give year-round in a more personal way. You can simply ask her what works for her and do your best to accommodate.

Our offerings can come loaded with unintentional pressure and expectations. We can’t always know the reasons people won’t accept our gifts. If we really want to give to those we love, then offer what we have and allow them to have an authentic reaction. They will feel more loved by your ability to truly see them and honor what they need.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples, pornography/sexual addiction, betrayal trauma, and infidelity. He is the founder of LifeStar of St. George, Utah (www.lifestarstgeorge.com) and Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com). Geoff is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, the host of the Illuminate podcast, and creates online relationship courses available at www.trustbuildingacademy.com. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCc05gV4t9A0B8-TDT1EfWhQ?view_as=subscriber
Website: www.geoffsteurer.com 
Twitter: @geoffsteurer
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT
Instagram: @geoffsteurer