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Family Conflict

A Teller Of Tales

I told my daughter I didn't think my daughter-in-law paid enough attention to her oldest son, 8.  He has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is on Ritalin, and lately has been kicking and hitting little kids.

My daughter and I had a falling out, and she told my daughter-in-law what I said.  My daughter-in-law was furious.  I tried to explain that I did not call her a bad mother.  Well, you can imagine what happened.  We haven't spoken in a week.  Do I let time take care of this, or do I send her the letter I wrote trying to explain myself? 

I am very family oriented and, most of the time, pretty direct.  Probably to a fault.  My daughter and I are not speaking either, so at this point I am estranged from both girls, and my four grandsons.  By the way, I am 57 and divorced.

Selma

Selma, you shouldn't be surprised by your daughter's actions.  As she grew up, how many times did she watch you make statements about others when they were not around?  This time the person not present happened to be you.  You fashioned your own punishment. 

The statement you made about your daughter-in-law accomplished nothing.  It was nothing but criticism.  It wasn't said to aid or assist.  She is dealing with a difficult problem which medication helps but doesn't cure, and you offered no solution.

Now you are estranged from your daughter, daughter-in-law, their husbands, and your grandchildren.  Is this what you want?  Doesn't it indicate a need to look within yourself for a solution?  Someday you may finally say something that an apology won't fix. 

It is never too late to admit we have more to learn.  If family is what you value, then redefine your role within the family.  Your role is not to speak whatever thought crosses your mind.  Your role is to love, care, and help.  If what you are thinking doesn't do one of those three things, don't say it or do it.

It will be easier to get past this if the other family members believe you are going to make a true change.  But if you apologize and don't change, that will make your apology worthless.  The others will say, "She wasn't really sorry.  She's at it again."

Revise the letter to your daughter-in-law, then send it.  Strive to be the person admired by your family as the one they can trust to help them when possible, the one who maintains a confidence when she can't help, and the one who loves them always.  

Alice Roosevelt Longworth said, "If you can't say anything good about someone, sit right here beside me."  It's a clever line, and criticism makes us feel superior to others, but there is always a price to be paid.

Wayne & Tamara
(The best of relationship advice from Direct Answers.)

 

All About Me

My sister uses people with no conscious thought of the repercussions and hurt she causes.  Two years ago my father let her and her husband live in a house he owned at no cost.  Dad did many unnecessary and costly renovations at their request.

After Dad toiled long hours on top of his regular job, they asked to buy the house.  Thinking they would remain there, he reduced the price by about $30,000.  Shortly afterwards they conjured up a plan to buy a beach house with Dad.  This was my father’s dream, and they offered to go halves

Dad trusted them.  At the paper signing, my sister looked at him with wide eyes and said, “Are you sure you want to do this?”  My father was dismayed at the sudden singularity of the venture, but knew there was no backing out.

Then my sister and her husband announced they were selling the house my father built with his own hands.  Since they planned on building a dream house, they couldn’t give any money toward the house on the beach.  This put my father in financial straits.

My sister began going to bars with another nurse from work.  At a surprise birthday party for Dad, she announced she was splitting from her husband to be with her boyfriend.  Since then she has flirted with other men while dating this man, but she told her husband she might move back with him, if he buys her a new vehicle and a new computer.

My sister is cocky and argumentative.  I feel literally sick when I am around her.  She is on anti-depressants now, which makes her even more intolerable.  The counseling she receives hasn’t helped.  They told her to tell her family, “I’m not responsible for your happiness!”

I need to get her out of my life because she is toxic.  The problem is, she uses her two children as pawns, threatening us with not seeing them.  How can I get her out of my life without alienating the kids?

Valerie

Valerie, your sister is a taker, and it works for her.  Therapy hasn't changed her, medication hasn't changed her, being in a helping profession hasn't changed her.  There is no reason to believe she will change.

She is blackmailing you.  The only way to take power from a blackmailer is by letting them carry out the threat.  Once your sister understands you are willing to let her withhold contact, the power dynamic changes.

It is in her selfish interest to drop the kids off with you, when it's inconvenient for her to have them.  It is in her selfish interest to let the kids receive birthday and Christmas presents from you.  Taking the power of the threat away from her, restores the power to you.

Wayne & Tamara
(The best of relationship advice from Direct Answers.)

 

Commercial Break

My problem is my father-in-law.  When we go over to visit him and my mother-in-law, I dread it.  I feel he doesn't respect me.  I know we have totally different value systems, and I know he comes from a different generation, but it doesn't help.

His typical response is to chuckle and dismiss me when I voice an opinion.  He has the attention span of a flea.  This is nothing physical; we know that.  Conversations about anything always come around to the same thing.  He ends up giving a lecture about how to be better in business or how to be more successful.  He is a broken record.

I am more of a people person and evaluate people on how kind and nice they are.  My idea of a successful person is not based on money, importance, or power.  My father-in-law looks more to the surface and how much money a person makes.  If someone is successful or important, he hangs on their every word.

What I do is spend more time with my mother-in-law.  My other strategy is, if he asks me a question, to answer with a yes or no since he tends to dismiss me when I talk.  Last week I was just fuming after a visit. 

This is frustrating.  I don't have this reaction from anyone else I know except maybe my brother-in-law.  Surprise, Surprise!  Thank goodness my husband is like his mother.

Gretchen

Gretchen, there is no point in talking back to the television or expressing your opinion to a dial tone.  There is no point in fuming over a television commercial.  You're not buying, so don't fume.  Besides, commercials are there so you can go to the bathroom or make a sandwich without missing anything.

Listening to your father-in-law is like listening to a small child discuss his invisible friend.  It's all very real to him, even though it is not real to you.  With some people you are never going to break through and have a genuine conversation.  You've found two good strategies: spending time with your mother-in-law and limiting answers to yes and no.  There is another strategy to consider.

Imagine you work next to a woman who says "God bless you" each time you sneeze.  If you grew up with this practice and enjoy it, you say "Thank you."  This encourages her and she continues.  But perhaps you think this practice is a medieval superstition that has no place in the modern world.  In that case, if you meet her expression with silence, you will find she soon stops.

A variation on this principle is called "shaping behavior by its absence."  In other words, you respond favorably to everything which is not the undesirable behavior.  If your father-in-law remarks on the beautiful day or how nice it is to see you, respond in kind.  If he starts playing his broken record, greet it with silence and make this your unvarying rule.

As a people person, you may find this difficult and perhaps offensive.  It smacks of dog training.  But it is likely to be the best thing you can do to set a positive tone with your father-in-law so that one day you can share genuine, two-way conversation.

Wayne & Tamara
(The best of relationship advice from Direct Answers.)

 

Harm’s Way

My younger brother and his wife called me days before my first child was born.  I thought they were calling to see if the baby had arrived or to congratulate us, as I made a huge effort to fly out east when they had their first child.  I helped them financially as well.  However their call was stressful and rude.

I never expected them to treat me so horribly at the birth of my son!  I moved across the country when I was 18 to go to college.  My mother, adoptive father and I have been estranged ever since.  Our parents were extremely destructive, emotionally and physically abusive.  So much so I was diagnosed with PTSD and suffered from depression for many years.

My brother was favored.  I have been back east to celebrate his milestones, yet my family treated me like garbage in front of my fiancé, who they were meeting for the first time.  In the years I’ve lived out west they have never visited.  None of them—including my brother who I took good care of when growing up—made an effort to attend my wedding!

I did not understand how this phone call started so tense and became so draining so fast.  When my husband came home, he insisted I get off the phone.  I try to set boundaries with my brother, but he bullies me.

Later I sent my brother an email.  I told him I love him and would speak to him after my son was born.  The next day I was sent the ugliest most abusive letter from my sister-in-law.  She attacked my character left and right, yet I flew out when her daughter was born, and we gave them thousands of dollars to help them buy their house.  I’ve never mentioned that to them.

My husband and I took our only vacation to fly out and offer support when their daughter was born.  I thought my brother and I were survivors who would stick together.  I always thought of him with love.  What should I do?

Bonnie

Bonnie, poker is interesting because it is not only a mathematically sophisticated game, it is psychologically sophisticated as well.  Poker players say poker is not a card game; it is a people game played with cards.

In poker there is a basic rule known as the fundamental theorem.  The fundamental theorem states that every time your opponent plays as if he can see your hand, he gains.  While every time you play as if you can see your opponent’s hand, you gain.

With your brother, you are playing as if you have no knowledge of his hand.  In fact, you have perfect knowledge.  Give and he will take; defend yourself and he will abuse you.  His strategy is no more complicated than that.

When you arrived on the planet, you were dealt an unplayable hand: an abusive stepfather, an uncaring mother, and a favored brother.  At 18 you escaped, but you are still hoping to turn losing cards into a royal flush.  A good poker player would tell you it’s time to mix up your play.

Is the way your family treats you just?  No.  Is it fair?  No.  Would a psychologist recommend you stay in this game?  No.

A behavioral psychologist would say by treating your brother to money, time, and attention, you are strengthening his bad behavior.  A developmental psychologist would say you were damaged growing up, so you must repair the damage to yourself and protect your children.  Allowing them to be in contact with people who abuse their mother abuses them.

Game theory, justice, and psychology all point in one direction: minimize or eliminate contact with these people.  Being estranged from your family is nothing to be ashamed of.  No fault attaches to you.  It is what you must do to protect your children, your husband, and yourself.

Wayne & Tamara
(The best of relationship advice from Direct Answers.)

 

Statute Of Limitations

My sister's husband and I had an argument a couple of years ago.  I forget what the argument was about, but since I was angry at the time, I wrote my sister a letter and told her I had unresolved issues with her husband.

Before they married, her husband would grab my bottom when I walked by.  I felt this was disgusting and not respectful of me since I had my own fiance at the time.  I told him off a few times, but still he did it.

So I told my sister, though this happened 15 years ago, it bothers me.  My sister confronted her husband and he denied it.  Later I was invited to my sister's house for dinner, and I tried to make peace.  I put my arm around her husband and said, "Let's let bygones be bygones."

In front of the whole company, he said, "Get your hands off of me!"  I cried to my sister and said I tried.  She said, "I'm sorry, he does not trust you."  But it is god's honest truth he grabbed my behind for the six months that they dated.  He and I have not spoken since.  Please give me your opinion.

Maria Elena

Maria Elena, for many offenses a statute of limitations limits the period of time during which action can be taken on a certain issue.  The time limit passed for your brother-in-law's offense, but you were angry.  Unable to think of another argument, you dredged up this event. 

That was a mistake.  The second mistake was putting an arm around this man.  When a woman has a problem with unwelcome intimacy, she should never open that door again.  This time, however, it opened the door for your brother-in-law to humiliate you.

At future gatherings, realize you are there for your sister and the part of the family you feel close to, your brother-in-law there for his wife and the ones he is close to.  Even armies at war can call a truce, but if you can't, then don't go to these events.  And tell your sister it is your failing.

Tamara
(The best of relationship advice from Direct Answers.)

 

Neither A Borrower…

I moved from Los Angeles to Europe with my husband and children.  My sister's husband left her with three children.  She sent an email today asking me to "give" her $1000 so her lawyer will continue representing her.

My sister already owes her lawyer $9000.  She owes my other sister $5000, and she never talks about paying it back.  She is trying to convince a judge she needs more money from her ex so she won't have to move.  Her ex-husband has offered 65 percent of his paycheck, which is about $550 per week.

It sounds like a lot, but my sister has taken out second mortgages on her home and her house bill is $1500 a month, not including taxes.  I don't know if she is in debt, or if she is just used to being able to pull money out of purse whenever she wants and not having to budget.  I know she rarely cooks and usually takes the children out for fast food.

She asked for government aid, but they say her income is too high to qualify for any help.  My husband is worried if we give her $1000, she will assume she can keep asking.  Do you have any suggestions?

Trish

Trish, you are concerned about your sister's welfare and would like to respond to her needs, but your husband understands the actual situation.

Your sister goes through money as if it is water.  She doesn't budget or live within her income.  The equity in her home has vanished.  Her ex gives her most of his income, and it is still not enough.

Your sister engages in magical thinking.  She is trying to make reality conform to her habits and outlook.  Offering her financial help will only encourage her belief in magical solutions.

The obvious solution is to sell the house, reduce the debt load, and bring expenses in line with income.  She may need to move to another neighborhood and make other lifestyle changes, but that is what is called for. 

Give her unlimited emotional support and guidance, but don't subsidize her flight from reality.  That may sound harsh, but it is the kindest thing you can do for her.

Wayne
(The best of relationship advice from Direct Answers.)

 

Workhorse

I am a mother and wife with two grown children. I am also an educator. From the age of nine my life has been taking care of other people. My mother got sick when I was nine and from that time I took care of my mom, dad, sister, little brother and the house chores.

At 19 I married and my role never changed. At 20 I became a mother, and then again at 25. Now 47, I still take care of my family.

I have talked to my husband and my two children about how exhausted I feel emotionally and physically. I even said my workplace is my escape from them and everything else. I just want to run away from my family, though not from my friends or work.

I am tired of saying the same things over and over to them. They respond that I am a mother and wife and that is my role in life. They say I should get over it and enjoy life, because we have today but tomorrow may never come.

Should I get up and leave, or stay and be the person I have been all these years: the caretaker.

Millie

Millie, in one of his mountaineering books, John Krakauer describes the New York socialite he met while climbing Mount Everest. This woman not only brought climbing gear, she also brought gourmet food and an espresso machine, and she had fresh copies of Vogue and Vanity Fair delivered to her on the mountain.

A Sherpa rolled up her sleeping bag each morning and packed her rucksack. Another Sherpa even pulled her up Everest at the end of a short rope. That is how she "climbed" the mountain.

Your family expects you to be the faithful, underpaid Sherpa. They will be mad if you aren't. Too bad for them.

Let them stomp, kick and throw tantrums. The longer they protest the more you will learn how much they care about themselves and how little they care about you.

Don't try to win the argument. Pick the things you want to do and do them. Let them schedule around your activities and interests. Then let the chips fall where they may.

Not only will you feel your life is worthwhile, you will stop feeling like a constant failure because too many people are asking for too much. Discover what you have zeal for. Your new life is about finding your own way to the mountaintop, not carrying someone else's espresso machine.

Wayne & Tamara
(The best of relationship advice from Direct Answers.)

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