Carolyn Hax: Boyfriend's attitude a tarted up form of control

Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax

Dear Carolyn: I've had difficult relationships with both of my parents (Dad an absentee alcoholic, Mom generally decent but prone to cruel outbursts during my childhood/teen years). After struggling with this, I've come to accept that I simply don't love them as parents — I wish them the best and bear them no ill will; there's just nothing warm or fuzzy there — and that that's perfectly OK.

Accepting this has both taken a lot of stress and guilt off my plate, and I think made me a better daughter, as it's easier for me to call them and do good-daughter things when I'm not expecting myself to feel anything I'm not able to feel for them.

My question is: How can I explain this to a new boyfriend who is very into self-improvement and is convinced I'd be happier if I could somehow build a warm relationship with them? He's generally a great guy and is trying to be supportive. I guess, coming from a happy-loving-if-occasionally-imperfect family, he doesn't get that, for me, friendly-but-distant is the best to be hoped for, and attempting more isn't worth the cost to my mental health. — Not Understood

If he were "very into self-improvement," he'd be trying to get closer to your family, or his own. Pushing you to do this (or anything else) means he's into "other-improvement."

Be very, very wary of that. (Yes, my irony meter is working.) It would be a lot easier if rescuer-types would just say outright, "I think you'd be better if you did things my way, meaning I don't accept you as you are or respect the choices you made to get there." But they never do others that favor, do they? Instead, someone who wants to fix you generally will present that disrespect as loving concern.

It's so easy to fall for it, too — to believe it's just about caring — because the emotions are familiar from having parents, teachers and mentors. It's especially easy for those with difficult parents to get sucked in, because feeling off-balance is familiar, too. They push because they want the best for us ... right?

But actually it's more like a boss who pushes to get the best from us — a subtle distinction with an enormous long-term impact on our well-being.

This boss-partner is someone to please, in your home, which over time ranges from exhausting to thoroughly demoralizing. The partner who trusts you to decide what's right for you, by contrast, is a place you feel safe working hard or putting your feet up, emotionally speaking, based on what you need. There's enormous comfort in that. Not coincidentally, it often motivates us to try harder.

This may sound like a sharp response to the soft notion of his embracing the cause of Family. But what his embrace rests on is his certainty that you can do better and that he knows best. If he doesn't grasp that, even after you explain it to him — please do, immediately — then what's to stop him from supportively insisting you can eat better, discipline the kids better, manage your career better?

Wanting to be our best selves is noble and important, yes — when it's our idea. When someone else wants it of us, it's just a tarted up form of control.

Email Carolyn Hax at, or chat with her online at noon each Friday at

Washington Post Writers Group