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I’m the only single person at weekly family dinners, and they’re a nightmare

Ask Roe: When I have made my feelings known to my siblings in the past, I have felt dismissed as inexperienced for being single and childless

Dear Roe,

I usually visit my parents at home every Sunday, but I am finding this an increasingly uncomfortable and stressful experience. My siblings also attend with their partners and children, whereas I am single and gay. I find this dynamic difficult. Due to my relationship status and sexuality, I feel out of place and can’t fully be myself. We lead different lives. But the added stress comes from their children. While I enjoy spending time with them, I find them loud, poorly behaved and lacking in parental discipline, making what should be a relaxing visit extremely draining. I have suggested to my parents about setting ground rules (such as no toys or tablets at the table) but they haven’t pursued this. And when I have made my feelings known to my siblings in the past, I have felt dismissed as inexperienced for being single and childless. I now feel myself simply withdrawing, saying very little at these occasions and leaving as quickly as possible. It feels like I no longer have the space to speak “normally” with my siblings and parents, and so our relationships are fading. Instead, I’m just attending out of obligation and “keeping up appearances”. Am I being unreasonable?

You’re not being unreasonable. It’s difficult to not only feel disconnected from your family but to feel ignored and dismissed on a weekly basis. There’s a big divide not only between the supposed aim of this gathering – for your family to get comfortable, connect and share quality time together – and the reality of it, but there’s also a divide between how you and your family are experiencing these dinners. This routine is working for them but it’s not working for you, and that’s really difficult, as it can feel like your needs are being trampled in favour of the group. The fact that you’re the only single and gay person in a gathering full of straight couples can also be really difficult, as many people have experienced.

I do wonder, however, if there’s a better way to approach this issue. In your letter and apparently, in the conversations you’ve tried to have with them, you seem to largely focus on the children’s behaviour and trying to change that. But frankly, kids are kids, and are neither responsible for setting the tone of a gathering nor for acting in a way that fulfils your needs. (Criticising other people’s parenting decisions also rarely goes well, even if your idea of what constitutes good table manners is inarguably correct.) This is an issue that needs to be addressed with your adult family members. I suspect that you might have the most success by either asking outright for some support, using a framework of valuing having time to connect with them and making family gatherings feel inclusive; or by disrupting the Sunday dinner pattern and creating some new opportunities for connection that feel more fulfilling for you.


The aim of these approaches is to try to disrupt the deeply entrenched group dynamic, and you can do that in a few ways. The first thing you could try is to speak to your parents and siblings individually about how you’re feeling. You could try calling each of them or pick the one you feel closest to and ask them to have a chat before the next family dinner, flagging in advance that you have an issue that’s been making you feel a bit down and that you’d really appreciate their help with it. Giving them this kind of notice about the conversation can be really helpful, as it subtly helps them prepare to step into the role of someone who cares about you and your wellbeing, and to be your team-mate in tackling this issue. Then give them a call and explain that you love them and that family is important to you, but that Sunday dinners often leave you feeling isolated. Be careful to frame the issues you’re having as what is happening and the impact it is having on you, rather than making judgment statements. For example, “Your kids have no table manners and none of you ever ask me any questions” may be a true statement, but it could feel attacking and put people on the defensive, making them shut down. Instead, you could say “I feel like we tend to discuss a lot of parenting stories and while I love hearing them, it also makes the dinner table feel unbalanced for me, and I often feel like there’s no interest or engagement with me and my life. I really want to connect with all of you but a lot of the time this dynamic makes me feel isolated.”

Then, let them help you brainstorm ways of making dinner feel more inclusive, whether it’s asking them to help redirect the conversation in ways that are more inclusive or even simple steps like shifting who usually sits together so you have an opportunity to have some good side-conversations with your table neighbours. Another idea is to start bringing a friend to dinner (with the host’s permission). New people can help disrupt group dynamics and can offer you some support.

Another thing you could try is to make small changes to the Sunday gathering so you have more one-on-one time with family members. For example, you could create a small group that helps prepare dinner, dessert, or do the clean-up so that you have an activity to do together and some time to chat away from the larger group. Or you could start introducing something like a card or board game into the post-dinner routine, which could include everyone, keep the kids engaged, gives all of you something to focus on, and allows you to engage in different ways while having some silly, competitive fun. If you’re not confident that everyone will go along with this, go back to recruiting individual family members beforehand and asking them to help you get the ball rolling.

If your family proves resistant or the small changes don’t stick, it may be time to make a bigger disruption. Tell your family members that you love them but that the way family dinners make you feel excluded and because nothing has changed despite your efforts, you won’t be attending for a while. However – and here is the important bit – tell them you still value them all and would love to see them separately. Try to arrange to see one household a week, whether that means popping over to one of your siblings’ houses for a cup of tea, offering to join them for one of the kids’ activities or inviting them to yours. This way, you’re setting boundaries around what kind of gatherings you’ll come to while still seeing your family regularly and getting to engage with them differently.

You could also try to start a new tradition for family gatherings that allows you to set the tone. If you’re in the position to, could you hold a gathering in your home where you could welcome everyone and tell them that phones are banned at the table, or organise to do something together that doesn’t involve just sitting around a table talking? Could you organise a walk, a group swim, a games night where everyone could come? Or every couple of months could you arrange a siblings-only evening where you all go for dinner and drinks without their partners, giving them the opportunity to have a kid-free night?

I’m really sorry that you’re feeling disconnected from your family, but don’t give up on them. Sometimes a routine shake-up is all that’s needed to change a dynamic, and I really hope they meet your efforts.