A: You address this directly, factually, and unemotionally. You say he's probably completely unaware but his table manners are not standard and they unnecessarily detract from people's impression of him. You get him a basic book on etiquette and ask him to read the portion on dining. If he doesn't crack it open, ask him, for the sake of your relationship, to go to a short number of etiquette classes. I'm sure you can find an expert in your area who will work with an adult one on one. If you are in love with a man who you could never go to a dinner party, a restaurant, or a family gathering with, and he won't change that, then you're involved with a guy you're soon going to have to dump.
Q. Domestic Violence: My parents encourage my brother to be verbally and physically abusive toward me. When we gather at my parents' home for the holidays, my brother tends to become physically violent if we are ever at odds with one another, even over very innocuous things (for example, earlier today, he jerked my arm and hit me in the face when I sat down in his place on the sofa when he got up to get something from the kitchen). My family does not tell him to stop or say anything to him, and when I protest, they yell at me and tell me it is my fault for "frustrating" him. My brother and I are not children; we are both in our 20s and are much too old for the sort of hitting and physical fighting that sometimes happens between young siblings. We are also part of a culturally conservative Asian family that places a high value on sons and comparatively little value on daughters (I am a woman), and my parents have always preferred my brother to me since we were very young. Short of calling the police, which I do not want to do because it would cause a serious rift in our family, how should I deal with this when it happens?
A: It's very sad to have to estrange yourself from your family, but that may be your only recourse. You could, if you're willing to have a next visit, announce to everyone you will be calling 911 if your brother lays a hand on you, and if he's verbally abusive, you will leave. You may not want to charge your brother with assault, but that's what you should do with someone who's assaulting you. If for your entire life your brother has been exalted and you've been denigrated, then exempting yourself from family gatherings may be liberating for you. Please also seek out a support group for people who have been abused, or a therapist—this is a tough legacy to overcome and can lead to your choosing abusive partners. The only way for you to "deal with" this kind of abuse is to make sure it never happens again.
Q. Family Past: One of my most painful and reoccurring childhood memories is of getting tearfully and terrifyingly ripped from my father's arms by a police officer at the age of 4. My mother was dealing with complicated grief over the loss of my youngest sister, and for reasons no one understands, she accused my father of horrible abuse. My surviving sister was 2. We spent a few weeks in the care of other family members until my father was cleared, and then by some miracle, the family was patched back together and we went on with our lives. My sister and I are now in our early 30s. I thought her too young to have any recollection of the events, and have silently nursed the trauma, slowly and privately dealing with feelings ranging from rage at my mother to (unfounded) doubt of my father's innocence. I fought myself over it. And then my sister reached out to me, asking about her own, shadowy memories that match mine. She wants to know what happened. I do not want to tell her. I want to spare her the years of complicated emotions I've dealt with, and let her go on knowing with no doubt that both of our parents are loving, if flawed and complicated, individuals with no secret histories. Except that they do have those secret histories. Do I owe her the truth as I understand it?
A: Obviously, there is a whispered family story here because it seems unlikely a 4-year-old would have been privy to, or understood, the kind of accusations you say your mother made. Since your sister has picked up on some dark family history, I think you should tell her the truth. Say your mother had a breakdown after your sister's death and in her grief and temporary insanity blamed the death on your father. Fortunately, she got help and as your sister knows, your family healed and went on. You say your mother suffered from "complicated grief," which is the inability to move on after a loved one's death. You sound as if you're suffering from your own long-running version of it over this childhood trauma. Please seek psychological help. It's time you were freed from these continual thoughts.
Q. May–December: I'm 52, well-educated, financially secure, single with no dependents, own my home, have multiple pursuits and passions, and am happily employed part-time. I’ve had no relationships the last many years. I met someone whom I share many interests with and he's a vibrant, athletic, intellectual and intelligent ... 72-year-old. I am really torn. Very drawn to him, but the age difference is an obstacle. Do you have any advice for me? Should I forget the age difference and enjoy the relationship? I have no interest in his money or anything like that—I have my own. I like him for him. I am looking for a way to think about this but it clearly bothers me or I would have cut ties or plunged in. Help. Thank you.
A: Sure, you don't have an endless timeline when you fall for someone in his 70s, but you've been alone for many years, are comfortable in that, and have suddenly found yourself happily spending time with a vibrant man much your senior. I say go for it and see where this unexpected connection leads.
Q. Re: Old mom: Where does this woman live and work? The 1960s? She's getting more grief than my mother got when she had her first child at 43, back before there was any IVF. Of course, there was also no legal abortion and reliable birth control was a new thing, so no one expected her to have had any control over the situation. (Her doctor refused to believe a woman could have a first pregnancy at 43, wouldn't perform the "rabbit test," and prescribed tranquilizers for the next couple of months. I'm lucky I wasn't born with flippers.)
A: I agree the whole thing sounds bizarre. And indeed you are lucky you weren't damaged by your mother's doctor's ministrations!
Q. Being Turned Into a Black Sheep: My family is convinced that my smart, hardworking, caring boyfriend of nearly two years is a deadbeat because he has a disability. Nothing I say will convince them otherwise. They declared him persona non grata after just one meeting, so there's nothing he can really do to change their minds either. I hoped that time would soften them up a little, but we are living together and nothing has changed. At this point, we are talking marriage and kids. I guess what I'm asking is for advice on how to be the black sheep of the family. On the one hand, I wouldn't want our future kids to spend time with people who can think such hateful things about their dad. On the other hand, I don't want to burn any unnecessary bridges. What do other people do in this situation?
A: Who are these people? Parents who let their sons beat up their daughters? People who suggest abortions to pregnant women? And now an entire family who wants to shun someone with a disability? You are not the black sheep. Your family is a flock of them. You don't have to announce, "We are now officially estranged." But you do have to say that you and your boyfriend are a couple and either he is welcomed as your partner, or you won't be able to attend future family events without him.
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