Q. My family consists of 20-plus people. Every Thanksgiving we gather at my sister's house and Christmas at mine.
Our niece, who is divorced, has three children, but two are adults so they only show up later to snack and I guess visit us. Her youngest is under 10 so she brings him, and if she has a boyfriend at the time, she asks if it's OK to bring him.
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I am getting tired of meeting these guys only to find out she is no longer with them and/or they have hurt her. How do I gently tell her I no longer want to meet or have these short-term boyfriends in my house? Any gentle advice is appreciated.
A. Can it be gentle if it denies you the thing you want?
This short letter hints at chaos in your niece's personal life; if nothing else, there's some swirling mix of poor choices, poor treatment and sketchy priorities when it comes to men. Plus a kid who's still very young.
And while I sympathize fully with the impulse to insulate yourself from this pain (her emotional pain, your pain in the backside), I'm not really worried about you, or the other 17-ish people who are holiday bystanders to this chaos. My worry stands with the son who has no say in what for him is the daily presence of an ultimately transient figure who eventually dumps on his mom.
I also feel for the niece, though she at least has the power to help herself. Here's hoping she wakes up and uses it.
In these situations, one of the strongest forces of love and stability, as in the soil in which healthy choices take root, is an extended family that acts as a safe place, a patient example, a steady source of compassion where put-downs too often preside. No matter how you phrase it, nixing the boyfriends will come out as a request that she keep her trash out of your house, and that's not building her up.
You also can't know when one of these boyfriends will become the one who stays.
For the sake of her emotional health and her son's, show them what good treatment feels like and what the word "home" represents. You can't make them get that message, much less apply it, of course, but you can set it down before them every chance you get.
Q. How do you deal with a spouse who has been angry at you for almost a year for not attending a family function? They give the silent treatment or have just superficial conversation, come and go as they please, but expect you to cook dinner. When you want to discuss issues, you're met with agitated body language.
A. You stop cooking dinner, for one, unless you're already planning to cook for yourself. Micro answer.
Macro answer: … and you stop waiting for this spouse to make everything better. Instead, figure out what you can do on your own to improve your life, then do it (just make sure it passes the don't-become-a-headline test).
Anyone who takes vows has to honor the marriage, but you do get to decide how long is long enough to be the only one willing to try.
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