Emily Yoffe recently chatted online to give advice on readers' holiday-related quandaries. Read the transcript.
My only sister has harbored feelings her whole life that she was not as loved by our parents as my brother and me. She has seen therapists for this and struggled with these feelings for many years. After we all learned of this as adults, we tried to be as loving and kind to her as possible. So when our father died a few years ago, my brother and I were horrified and baffled to learn that she was indeed excluded from his will! Our mother let us in on this awful secret, and we all conspired with her to ignore the will and never speak of it to anyone, lest our sister find out. Unfortunately, my sister's husband was also in the room when the will was read; he is an attorney and was there to help with legal issues. He agreed to keep this secret to protect our sister. For some unknown reason, in a fit of complete idiocy, this brother-in-law recently spilled the beans and told our dear sister that she was, in fact, never included in our father's will. My sister completely fell apart. Her deepest fears were proved true, and she now does not want to be a part of our family anymore. Our entire family is furious with her husband, and we cannot understand why anyone who loves her would possibly want to reveal anything so hurtful. We have all tried to reassure her that we love her, our father loved her, and that it was all a mistake, but she believes none of it and now feels that our father hated her. What should we say to her now that she knows?
—A Wounded Family
What your father did wasn't a mistake; it was deliberate. Out of a misplaced desire to protect your sister, all of you have forced her to live a kind of Gaslightversion of family love. She has known all her life something was seriously amiss, yet has always been told it was just her imagination. Then when you learned just how right she was, your family tried to cover with what must have seemed to her like phony, unctuous displays of affection. This reminds me of the days when people diagnosed with illnesses like cancer or multiple sclerosis were considered too delicate to handle the truth, so they were told that what they were experiencing in their bodies wasn't really happening. I know you all did this out of love, but she has been betrayed by you just as painfully as she was betrayed by your father. He sounds like a despicable man, and she deserved to know that. She also deserves to know that she hasn't been crazy since she was a girl, but that she was right—her father hated her. Stop being mad at your brother-in-law; he should never have entered into this pact, it was a violation of his marital vows, and it's good that the truth is out. Now that it is, all of you owe her an apology. Explain you were all so horrified to find out about your father's actions that you made the mistake of trying to cover them up. Ask her forgiveness and say you now understand the best way to show her how much you love her—and you do—is by telling the truth.
My husband has three children from his first marriage. Every year the three of them—now ages 16, 21, and 25—come to my mother's Christmas party and line up on the couch sullenly, grimly, and silently. This rudeness is extremely embarrassing to me in front of my other relatives. Worse, my husband is kind of powerless when it comes to his kids and tends to join them, silent, on the couch. I would just like to have them not come, because I don't think I can make them talk, but this thought distresses my mother no end. What do I do?
—Lumps of Coal
Be grateful you have such a kind, patient mother and work very hard to emulate her. Usually when relations with stepchildren break down to this point, it starts in one of two ways. One, the children refuse to accept the end of their parents' marriage and treat the new spouse as an evil interloper. Or, two, the new stepparent sees the children as unsightly paraphernalia left over from the previous marriage that need to be unloaded. I note that you say nothing about how your efforts to have cordial relations have been rejected. And you refer to these offspring only as his children, never acknowledging that they're also your stepchildren. There is no excuse for their rudeness, and two of them are adults, for goodness' sake. But perhaps they're acting out, and your husband is not stepping in, because you have always made them feel an unwelcome part of their father's new life. Changing the dynamic will not be easy; it may be impossible. But you need to try. Tell your husband you are really sad about how strained relations are between you and his children and that you would like to enlist his help in making things better. Perhaps before your mother's party you can have all of them over for brunch and tell them your hope for the new year is that you can repair your relationship with them. Don't expect much at first, but keep at it. If you're the kind of second wife who can't stand sharing your husband with his kids, give them all some room and let him spend time alone with them during the year. As for the party, just concentrate on the guests you can make conversation with, and stop sending death rays to the sullen group on the couch.
The manager of our department at work has a cat that got sick and is now being treated at a veterinary hospital. The cost is quite high—my boss estimates that it will be more than $2,000. All of us in the department feel sympathy for our boss. Somebody suggested we get a "get well soon" card for the cat and all sign it. Somebody else suggested we all chip in $10 or $20 to help with the vet bills. I'm OK with the card, but I balk at giving money. There's an implied obligation—nobody wants to be seen as the person who will not contribute (especially when it's for the boss). And there are some in the department who do not think this is a worthy cause—they would rather give their charity dollars to causes that benefit people, not animals (or pricey vets). But because we are doing this as a department, they are afraid not to contribute. What is the best way to handle a situation like this?
Your boss is entitled to spend whatever she wants (I'm going to make a wild leap that your boss is a she) to save her darling puddy cat. However, if the entire department is speaking with the hushed tones of concern you use around someone whose loved one is gravely ill, then your boss is injecting way too much feline drama into the workplace. If we're lucky, our pets' kidneys give out before ours do, and while an owner can decide it's worth it to pay for dialysis for her cat, surely no one else should be expected to help with the tab for the tabby. This is the not what the presidential candidates were referring to when they talked about the health care crisis of the uninsured, or when they said America needs to do more to ensure the well-being of our vets. And it just seems silly to make everyone sign a "get well soon, Sugar Paws" card. Your boss is in distress, so politely inquire occasionally about the prospects for her cat, then move on to more appropriate topics, such as work.
My husband and I have a difficult relationship with his family. There have been years of insulting behavior on the part of my in-laws, directed at not only my husband and me but my parents as well. As a result, we keep our distance while trying, for the sake of our children, to maintain some level of contact. In contrast, we have a great relationship with my family. During Christmas, we divide the holiday and spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with alternate families. This year, we are spending Christmas Day with my in-laws, but they just invited themselves to Christmas Eve dinner with my family. The tension will ruin the day, and it doesn't seem fair to my parents, who won't have time alone with the grandchildren. Are we wrong to tell my in-laws, in the nicest way possible, they aren't welcome?
The reason awful people so often get their way is that they are willing to do things decent people wouldn't dream of. Sure, they can say they're coming on Christmas Eve, but someone, preferably your husband, has to counter with, "I'm afraid getting together Christmas Eve as well is not going to work. But we very much look forward to seeing you Christmas Day." Then to all the cries of: "Why not?" "We'll bring our own food," "Are you saying we can't see our grandchildren Christmas Eve?" just repeat: "We look forward to spending Christmas with you this year. We can't get together Christmas Eve." If they throw a fit and cancel altogether, then Merry Christmas! And if they show up at the door Christmas Eve, tell them you simply haven't got the space or the food to accommodate them, and you will see them tomorrow.
Photograph of Prudie by Teresa Castracane.