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posted: 7/29/2012 1:33 AM

Communication is key in sticky relationships

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Q. My mother has recently decided she wants to move in with my family. My husband and I are not so happy about this decision. We have expressed our feelings to her about this, but she doesn't seem get that my husband and I would like to raise our son alone. She has different ideas from ours about parenting. What should we do without hurting her feelings?

A. Key points recap:

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1. You've already "expressed our feelings," which I take to mean some fluffinated version of "You're not welcome because you'll be all up in our grills about our child rearing methods."

2. She "doesn't seem to get" this, which I take to mean that she's still declaring her ... desire? intent? to move in. (Not coincidentally -- do you know who would have taken "no" for an answer? Someone who also would have respected your boundaries and not imposed herself on your child rearing decisions.)

3. And, you want a solution that won't hurt her feelings, which I take to mean that you want her to change her mind so you won't have to be the bad guys.

1 + 2 + 3 = a reminder that I'm a pragmatist, not a possessor of magic powers. There's no option here that's cost- or consequence-free.

That means the only good choice is the one that most honestly reflects your priorities. So far, you've cast this as a decision between your interests and your mother's. It might help to clarify things if instead you cast it as a decision that must be in the best interests of your son.

Would he benefit more from having your mom there, from seeing adults learn to reconcile different beliefs and practices, from having another adult to care for him, from seeing you treat an elder with compassion even though it means you and your family must make sacrifices?

Or would he benefit more from living in a consistent and harmonious environment, learning from parents who aren't hostage to their own conflict-avoidant tendencies, and who are mindful that adhering to their beliefs often leads to unpopular choices?

Wanting to make everyone happy, or wanting an awkward situation to go away, creates prime conditions for wishful thinking. Chances are you know enough about yourself, your husband, your mother and your son to know who needs to be protected from whom, and why; now's the time to be truthful with yourself about these dynamics, brutally so, and to make the difficult call.

Q. I have a very dear Christian friend. We have attended church and study groups together for years. I am no longer a believer and would like to stop going to church, but I know she would perceive that as a sin and end our friendship. I can understand that because her allegiance is to God. Do you see a solution?

A. From the Godless side, I see this: Either you admit your change of heart and be brave about any consequences, or you maintain your church facade to trick a woman of faith that a central tenet of your friendship remains intact, simply because you don't want to risk losing the pleasure of her companionship (and/or her approval).

In other words, there's hardly a decision to be made.

Since this friend apparently regards her church as a guiding authority in her life, you can also approach your question from the God side, and talk to a pastor you've found to be particularly accessible. Yes, I know, it'll be a bucket of giggles to share your nonbelief with a church leader, but part of any faith involves living in a world where not everyone agrees. Since you seem distraught over how your friend will respond, why not brush up on the template she'll most likely use?

Q. Throughout their relationship, my friend has been the person to help her boyfriend out financially, from rent, groceries and bills to plane tickets for international trips!

The boyfriend broke up with my friend and it was a pretty bad breakup. Can my friend ask to be compensated for the money she spent on him? She has a history of being nice and has helped out past significant others financially. How can I make sure this doesn't happen to her again?

A. Lock her in a tower? Or is that too Rapunzellian.

If the ninth time is the charm and experience works its educational magic on your friend, then she won't need a how-to from either of us; she'll just add "I'm sorry, I'm not comfortable being your financial fallback plan" to her romantic phrase book.

And if she hasn't reached this point, then no amount of pleading will keep her from trying to buy love and acceptance again. As with compensation from her ex, asking and receiving are entirely different things.

• Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her online at 11 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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