8 Dysfunctional Family Dilemmas, Solved

Real Simple’s Modern Manners columnist Catherine Newman, etiquette expert and author of the parenting memoir Waiting for Birdy, guides you through untangling conflicts with your relatives. 

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My niece, who lives near me in the Midwest, would like to invite my son's wife to her baby shower. (They live on the East Coast.) However, we realize that it would be expensive for her to come. Is it appropriate for my niece to send an invitation? Or should she call my daughter-in-law and say that she would love to have her there but doesn't expect her to attend, due to the expense? —S.S.



An invitation to a special event can remind faraway loved ones that they're a cherished part of the group. My mother couldn't fly out for my first baby shower. She was in New York at the time, and I was in California. But she loved being invited and sent a card for a friend to read aloud at the party. I still have it tucked into my baby book.

Why doesn't your niece include a note with the invitation, encouraging a similar approach? "We'd love to have you, but we understand that it's a long way to come. If you can't make it, please join us in spirit by sending a wish or a memory that we can share on your behalf." Or arrange a time for her to Skype in and send her best wishes. The important thing is that your daughter-in-law will know that she matters, and your niece will get love and support in return. Besides, if you ask (baby-loving) me, it makes more sense for your daughter-in-law to save her travel budget for flying out to meet the new addition once he or she is born.

I recently asked my son, my daughter-in-law, and their six-year-old daughter to join my husband and me on a week long vacation. I said that we would happily cover the cost of renting a three-bedroom condo. My daughter-in-law responded that they would love to come and that she intended to bring her mother, too, because her mom could use a vacation. The problem: I did not invite her mother. (I don't care for her.) I sent back a response to my daughter-in-law apologizing for the miscommunication and explaining that we wanted them all to ourselves. Now everyone is furious at me. (They wanted her to come.) What did I do wrong? —M.M.

In a recent community-building exercise, my child's fifth-grade class was asked, "When are your feelings more important than the feelings of the group?" They were encouraged to think about circumstances in which they should all roll with the crowd and occasions when they should speak up about their individual needs. I've started asking myself this question in sticky situations (like when everyone in the family but me wants to see the Lego Movie again). You might want to try it, too.

In this scenario, your wish to have your family to yourself is reasonable, and your daughter-in-law should have asked you if her mom could come. That said, think of the situation from your daughter-in-law's perspective. Perhaps she feels stretched between the competing needs of her parents and her in-laws. Or maybe her mother is going through a trying time and she wants to cheer her up. Either way, including the other mother-in-law in your vacation plans would probably have brought happiness to the most people.

The past is past. It's up to you to decide how to move forward. I suggest that you call your daughter-in-law and acknowledge that everyone's feelings have gotten hurt and that you could all benefit from better communication. Say, "When we plan our next trip together, let's be sure to state clearly who is coming and the best way to accommodate the group." If it is still possible to invite your daughter-in-law's mother, you might want to consider doing so. Or you could offer to include her in another event. Your last option, of course, is refusing to share, but that might well result in your seeing your loved ones less, and I'd consider that the worst outcome by far.

I have a 12-year-old son who is on the autism spectrum. Whenever I gather with my siblings and their families, it's like he's invisible. Neither my brother nor his wife talks to him. (He is very verbal.) My sister will occasionally ask how he's doing, but the focus always seems to be on their children and the wonderful things they're doing. I dread going to family get-togethers, since I feel he's being slighted. I've said something to my mother about this, and she says to ignore it, that no one means anything bad. But it is hurtful. Any advice? —M. M.

I'm sorry. That sounds like such a painful situation, even though I agree that nobody is trying to hurt you. But then, nobody is trying, period. Extend the benefit of the doubt a little further and assume that your family is more nervous about engaging with your son than unwilling to try. People accustomed to interacting only with kids who are neurotypical can worry that they're going to do the wrong thing with one who isn't. Help them. "I know that my son is different," you might say, "but he really likes to talk, and I'd love for you to get to know him better. It would mean a lot to me if you would try." Suggest some favorite discussion topics. Or invite them to join you in conversation with your son so they can learn how to negotiate this unfamiliar relationship. Make it clear to your siblings and their kids that including him is essential—and it is absolutely up to them to make an effort—but that you're on their side and happy to lend a hand.

Ever since my husband's brother got a new girlfriend, he has brought her to every family event. Often he does not ask or notify the host. We are willing to include her on certain occasions, but we would like him to come alone now and then. Is there any way to convey this wish respectfully? —K.P.

The short answer is no. If you were talking about a rotating carousel of one-night stands, that would be one thing. But excluding your brother-in-law's significant other is only going to alienate him.

It sounds as though you (and possibly other relatives) are keen on defining the parameters of "family" in a way that does not include your brother-in-law's girlfriend. You may consider her an interloper. But remember: That's how you may have been perceived back when you and your husband started dating.

Extend the same generosity to the girlfriend that you would have wished for yourself. Like you, your brother-in-law's girlfriend might be sticking around, and your efforts will be better spent getting to know her than shutting her out. Besides, if you try too hard to ditch her, you may also lose your husband's brother in the process.

I truly enjoy cooking. My family enjoys my food, and my husband brags about it to friends and family. That being said, in the three years that we've been married, my mother-in-law has never tasted my food. She lives out of town, so when she visits, I let her cook old favorites for my husband and us. On the days that she does not cook, I prepare dinner, and she says either that she is not hungry or will eat later. It happens every visit. My husband and I joke about it, but I'm wondering: Is it OK to ask my mother-in-law why she never eats my food? Or should I keep the peace by not saying anything? We do have a fairly close relationship where we can be open and honest. —D.I.

I'm no psychologist, but this is kind of a Freudian doozy. It sounds as if she has some issue, conscious or not, with your usurping her role of feeding her son. I wouldn't touch that with a 10-foot spatula were it not for the surprise ending of your question—you and your mother-in-law are actually close! If your relationship is truly open and honest, say something. Try complete transparency ("Am I right to notice that you never eat any of the food I make? Why is that?"), a less direct comment ("You don't seem to eat the meals I cook, and I'm worried you have a dietary issue I don't know about"), or even slight humor ("You do know that I'm not trying to poison you, right?"). Maybe she wants you to notice and will be relieved you've asked. And maybe you can explain to her, in the most caring terms, what's at stake: "I love to feed your son, and I know you do, too. It's something we have in common. But it would mean so much if you would let me feed you, too."

My husband is an only child. My mother-in-law has become increasingly needy, constantly texting my husband, involving herself in our plans, and making excuses for my husband to stop by multiple times a week since her husband passed away over a year ago. My mother-in-law is a capable, professional woman who unfortunately has no other relatives or close friends to lean on. I know she is lonely, and I support my husband in being there for her, but he is overwhelmed. And the stress is taking a toll on our family. How can I help my husband set boundaries? —A.E.

Search for "intrusive mother-in-law" and you will get thousands of hits (472,000 when I Googled it). This is such an age-old problem that it's been parodied in countless sitcoms. It was probably depicted in cave paintings. Luckily for everyone involved, you sound like a compassionate and supportive partner, which puts you way ahead of the game, harmony-wise. Suggest that your husband start small. If he upsets her (backfire alert), he'll probably compensate by redoubling his attentions. "I'm having a hard time balancing the needs of work and my family," he can say. "It might help if we saw each other in a more scheduled way. Why don't you come over for dinner on Sundays? You'll have my full attention, rather than catching me at bad times during the week." He might also respond to all of her texts at once, at the end of his workday. If there are practical needs your husband is meeting—tech advice or yard work—suggest that he hire someone to take care of them. If your mother-in-law has too much time on her hands, encourage her to join a yoga class or a bridge game. The idea is to wean mother from son and compel her to develop new relationships. Your husband can't be his mother's primary partner; he's already yours.

My husband and I are expecting. This is our first child as well as my husband's parents' first grandchild, and we're all very excited. Sadly, my husband's older sister and her husband have been unable to conceive and are now on a list for adoption. Since we told them that we are pregnant, they have made some very rude comments to us both, including that we are not to tell people that we are pregnant in front of them because it hurts their feelings. Both my husband and I understand that this situation is difficult for them and have been giving them their space to deal with it. However, the bitter comments—and sometimes blatant ignoring at family functions—are starting to hurt me. I feel as though I cannot be excited about having my first child or discuss anything about it for fear that they will be offended. What should I do? —M. S.

You're having a baby! You should be thrilled, and you are, so let your abundant joy spill over into compassion for your unhappy sister-in-law. (This is a good rule of thumb in many difficult situations: The happier person should do the harder work.) Ideally, the couple would muster a bit of graciousness at family gatherings. But if they can't, you will have to continue to dial down your excitement. Pregnancy is such a poignantly visual reminder to would-be parents struggling with infertility. Doubtless they feel as if you're flaunting it when you so much as step into a room, and ignoring you may be their best option in their own raw state. So keep cutting them slack, and consider visiting with your husband's parents alone so that you can rejoice openly together. And cross your fingers that the adoption goes through. Once those little cousins are running around together, all will be well again.

My mother and her two sisters have all passed away. My mother died most recently. She left some gifts for three of my cousins who live nearby. My cousins and I haven't stayed close as we've grown up. I have called and e-mailed, saying I would like to see them. It's not as if I'm holding these gifts as a "prize" for showing up. It's been 18 months with no success. I could just mail the items, but I don't feel that honors my mother's wishes. This is emotionally difficult. How can I get it done? L.J.

Grief is hard enough to bear as it is, but it also tends to amplify slights. Perhaps you were accustomed to the distance between you and your cousins. But now, in the wake of loss, it's painful—and that's exacerbated by their lack of response to your efforts. Reach out again and be direct: "I would love to see you. Now that the three sisters have died, it feels important to stay connected. Also, my mother left you a few things that I would like to give you in person." If they still don't respond? Pop the items in the mail and be done with it for now. Maybe the gifts will prompt a reconnection.

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