Category Archives: family


No gifts, just pay my bills

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, DEC 13, 2012

Instead of unwrapping new gizmos, I’d like help with my debts

Dear Mr. Tennis,

I have a fairly simple holiday question to ask you. But I fear that even though the question is simple the answer, or advice, may be much more complicated.

So here goes…

In all of your intuitive sagacity do you believe that it would be bad form to ask family members if they could contribute to helping pay outstanding debts (i.e., bills) instead of giving presents? A little clarification may be in order (I told you this would be sticky). Now this would not be the same as asking for money outright, which would be pretty ballsy and probably not welcomed warmly. No, this is more like saying, “I would really enjoy getting some new-fangled electronic gizmo or the entire set of Robogeek I-XII on Blu-ray… but this year what I really need is leg up to get back on my feet, so to speak.” Cash in hand says to me that it says to other people that I may take this to Vegas for partying and bail money or that groceries might not be the only bags I purchase with this money. Also, a check is usually something from grandparents or for an unrelated celebration from an entirely different sect. I am a decent person and I am fairly responsible but times are tough and the bestest gift I can think of is the gift of freedom. Clearing up that debt gives me the freedom to visit and do more of those things I had to politely decline so that I could spend more time at work slaving away to make more money to eventually have more time to do more things with family. Deep breath … OK. You can see how this could foul up a person’s “rasoodock” and lead to unwanted existential angst in the middle of a time of good will and good cheer. The holiday season is a time for charity but where the line should be drawn is kinda blurry. Or maybe it isn’t.

Thank you for your time and consideration, sir.

No Presents of Mind


Dear No Presents of Mind,

If it is bad form to admit to family members that you have money problems, then I’m all in favor of bad form. If swallowing your pride in order to try to pay off your debts is bad form, then I am all in favor of bad form.

So I actually got to thinking about how you would make it possible for people who want to give you gifts to help you pay off your debts instead. People might want to do it anonymously. They might not want you knowing the exact amount of money they sent. So could people send money to your creditors? Well, they could, but it would have to have the right account number on it. Do you want to give out your account numbers? Maybe not.

So it could get complicated. So I made some calls.

One guy I talked to, a press contact at the American Bankers Association, suggested that maybe people could write a check to the lending institution you wish to receive the money and send the check to you and then you could fill in the account number. So the check would be payable to, say, Chase, or American Express, or PG&E, and then you would put your own account number on it. Of course, that means you would know who was giving what, so it wouldn’t be totally anonymous. Or maybe, I thought, they could send it to an intermediary who would do this final step for you, so you would never really know who contributed what. Different lending institutions might have different policies. You might call your creditor and set up a way that people could send checks to them and identify your account.

I’m sure there are variations on this and other ways to go about it, like using a crowd-funding site such as Indiegogo or Kickstarter, or setting up a PayPal account that people could send money to. Have a party and collect cash in a hat and send it to Mastercard. There are lots of ways to go. You could easily over-complicate it. But basically I’m all for it. Especially if it’s in bad form! Let’s try to use this holiday for some rational economic improvement!

I am all in favor of being honest about your financial situation, and trying to do the thing that makes the most sense.

This could be a gift you would remember forever.

Good luck and happy holidays.



Holiday nightmare: Here it comes again

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Cary’s classic column from SUNDAY,  DEC 4, 2011

How can I make this year’s gathering tolerable, at least?

Dear Cary,

So, this is a boring question but a timely one. It’s That Time of Year again, when the secular and religious Christians descend upon the homes of their relatives to give gifts no one wants or can afford, and to torment each other emotionally.  

I am dealing with the Ghost of Christmas Past That Won’t Go Away. My childhood was horrible. The holidays generally involved going to my paternal grandmother’s house for the obligatory exercise in guilt and the giving of gifts that no one ever liked and which were always wrong and not good enough. My family didn’t like me, and they had severe problems that I won’t go into, but suffice it to say that these gatherings were damning, draining, discouraging and demoralizing. So much so, that once I got into my 20s I quit talking to my relatives for seven years and moved 3,000 miles away. They were not invited to my wedding. They never met my children.

Anyway, my grandparents, uncles and father have long since died. I have abandoned any semblance of Christianity — no trees, no Easter eggs for me — and have instead become interested in the religious tradition of my mother’s family. I still have a cousin from my father’s side who lives about 40 minutes from me. Every year, she invites me and my husband and kids over to her place for Christmas Eve. She is one of those highly repressed, chronically nice yet inwardly seething people who always tries to do the right thing and resents the hell out of the world for not appreciating her, but she’s too polite to go on direct attack. I feel she wants to go through the motions of maintaining the myth of family connection, as if that group were less horrible than they really were. She’s a very nice, good person who has been generous with my kids, and is reliable. She’s done a lot of stuff for me over the years, but I never felt like it was for free, thus I don’t feel safe with her emotionally. It doesn’t feel like an emotionally honest relationship. There is a subtext, but I don’t know what it is.

None of us can afford to spend a lot of money on gifts. She can’t, and I can’t. Nobody can. But I am afraid that we will be invited, and my kids will want to go, and I will feel obligated to go over there, even though I am probably not wanted anyway, and we will all give in to the pressure to shop in order to go through the ritual of giving gifts nobody wants or needs.

What is the deal with the competitive gift-giving thing, anyway? In my family of origin, it was supposed to prove that people cared because they couldn’t express caring in any other way but through money or gifts. They couldn’t say anything nice, they couldn’t be affectionate or warm — they were all bundles of grudges, resentment, suspicion, insecurity and bitterness.

Miss Manners would be appalled, so I’m not asking her, I’m asking you: How can I get out of this event? Is there any nice way to say to my cousin, to acknowledge, that none of us can afford to go through this charade? And then just not do it? Because what I wish is that anything anyone would spend on me they would simply take for themselves and buy something they really want and enjoy rather than give me something I don’t need or want and resent me for it. Do you get that receiving anything from anyone in my extended family carries the burden of resentments and unmet needs and accusations? It’s a drag. Why do we keep doing it?

You may wonder why I don’t invite my cousin to my house, which could be an option if my place were not such a dump — broken plumbing, holes in the wall, non-working electricity, a neighborhood eyesore, broken oven, rotting doors, chunks of house falling off, etc. Far from the Better Homes & Gardens image our grandmother lived by. No dining room, no place to sit. I hate the Holiday Season and wish I didn’t have to do this stuff anymore. Frankly, it would not surprise me if she really doesn’t want to do it, either — but how to address the issue? Or just make other plans?

Dreading It


Dear Dreading It,

Here we go again.

I was at Salon’s panel discussion last night about the meaning of the Occupy movement and, more broadly, this moment in our social and political history.

Every now and then what we all know and have been repressing becomes visible. Someone does something and it catches on and things change. It is hard to know when such a moment is at hand.

But certainly now is such a moment. The moment is at hand to make courageous changes both public and private.

It is especially hard to make changes in family practices when there is no larger context for them. One risks being labeled an eccentric or a troublemaker. But when a large social context appears — such as when the feminist movement happened, or during the era of civil rights protests — then individuals in families have an opening. It is as though taboos are lifted and people may speak. That is when we may make changes — particularly when everyone has known the change needed to be made but no one had the courage or the opportunity to speak up.

Your critique of how your family celebrates Christmas is nicely linked to the larger critique of our general economic arrangements. If we can speak of the unfairness of our current system, and its waste and destructiveness, we can also speak of the unfairness of our individual practices, and how wasteful they are. We can do this with a clear conscience. We can do it in context.

It is a time to make changes, some large, some small. These changes may be “political” in certain ways. But what is great about the current moment is that when “political” movements take hold they always touch individual lives in important ways.

One interesting thing about the panel discussion last night was that those of us who have lived through previous social and political movements were able to acknowledge what we learned from those past attempts to change our society. One thing we learned was that a nonhierarchical, consensus-based approach leads to a more durable — if messier — group process.

It was refreshing to consider afterward the wonderful benefits of just leveling with people, of just telling the truth and being heard.

So I hope that in some way this holiday season you can tell the truth to those who matter to you, and that you can be heard, and that you can be yourself and be loved for who you are. My guess is that you are indeed loved for who you are. My guess is that this relative of yours who has invited you over has a real appreciation for you. But, like you, she must struggle to find an “appropriate” way to put her appreciation into practice.

There are many dangers in trying to “fix your family”! But there are ways to simply be present in it, and there are ways to appreciate the flawed but sincere ways that people come together this time of year and try to share what is in their hearts. That is what many people are trying to do, however imperfectly they are doing it.

One idea that comes to mind is for you to give each person an envelope with a personal letter in it; make it a card, as a nod to holiday convention, but put a longer letter in it, too, telling that person the truth about your experience, and inviting that person to confide in you, if he or she wishes, about his or her real experience of the world and of your family.

This could be done quietly.

You might have to give these cards at the end, as you are leaving. Or you might write them in such a way that you are comfortable with each person reading what is in it. If you write what you truly believe and are comfortable with each person reading it — that is, if you refrain from slander and venting — then it might indeed be an empowering act by which you cease this compulsive and harmful thing everyone has been doing for years while acknowledging the universal drive to connect with others at this time of year and celebrate our humanity, such as it is.



I detest my parents, but I’m turning into them!

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 29, 2005

As a student of biology, I fear that genes are destiny. I feel powerless to individuate!

Dear Cary,

My parents are pretty nice people. They raised me and my brother in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, provided us with food, attention and a first-rate education, and generally gave me a pretty good childhood. They might even say that everything that they did, all the jobs that they hated, all the sacrifices they made (they are immigrants) and all the trouble they went to, they did for us.

Here’s the catch. I can’t really stand to be with them, and somehow as I am aging, I can tell that I’m turning into them and I’m starting to not be able to stand myself. My father grew up in a household of eight siblings and the father was physically abusive and the parents played one child off another. My father is always referring to his mother’s favorite child (not him) or the indulged child (not him either). All eight children moved to the U.S. and all are not speaking to each other since there was a Terri Schiavo-like argument over their mother’s last year of care. My own mother grew up in a poor village where her father left the family for 11 years (!)(sending back little letters of $$) to work on seagoing vessels and she left her village to get a better education at the age of 13.

Now, when we get together for family gatherings (once or twice a year), we just stare at each other and don’t have anything to say. My parents are very judgmental people, always complaining about what slights other people are doing to them and how we aren’t living up to their standards. Every single sentence out of their mouths is a slight dig into my way of life. I find them, in a way, to be talentless. Bright enough to get a nice-paying job, but in other ways, with no redeeming qualities. They have no friends, they can’t tell nice stories at dinner, they can’t seem to get promoted at work; my dad, especially, wants my mother to cook and clean for him and he sits on the couch after getting home from work and watches TV. His mental challenge is to give the highway toll workers 100 pennies for his toll. They are depressed, sullen people.

You know, I want to be something special (doesn’t everybody?), and I feel like my parents aren’t special people and they keep saying that they have these terrible genes that make us all stubborn and have a bad temper. I keep reading self-help books that say, you are special just being you! Bah! You know, when you go to pick out a new puppy, the first thing that people tell you to do is to look at its mother and father and then you’ll get a good idea what they will be like when they grow up, and this is true! I don’t want to be biologically related to my parents! Lots of people say, “Oh, I’m nothing like my crazy mom and dad,” but I was trained in biology and I know that either these people were secretly fathered by the mailman or they are more like their parents than they choose to admit. How do I not loathe my parents? How do I not loathe myself for being like my parents?

Gene Therapy


Dear Gene Therapy,

How do you avoid being like your parents? You make choices. That’s it in a nutshell. That doesn’t mean you don’t occasionally say things they used to say, or find yourself having attitudes they used to have. But particularly on the big, life-changing issues, you take responsibility for your own life and you make careful, considered choices.

Those choices, in turn, go to work, long-term, like little machines in the background. They set in motion various habits and opportunities that over time mold you into the person you would prefer to be. You put yourself in a different environment, one more suited to who you want to be, and your environment, like a little identity machine, cranks out the recommended daily requirements of the life you want to live. If it’s the suburban lifestyle of your parents that you dread getting sucked into, then you make a major choice to live in a lively, provocative city, one that will teach you things you can’t learn in the suburbs, one that will bring out parts of your personality that you want to bring out, one that will nurture you in ways you want to be nurtured and discourage you in ways you want to be discouraged.

In that sense, a city can be like a new parent. You submit to its authority and bask in its love. It will suggest for you new opportunities and will admonish you for your old habits. Indeed, a new city can be a cruel master, and will punish you severely if you cross it. But it will also help you be the person you want to be.

As well as choosing an environment that molds you, you also can choose specific, targeted activities that result in actual long-term fundamental change — in how you generally feel, how you react to situations day-to-day and, in a very real sense, in who you are. They can range from highly specific things like quitting smoking or learning tai chi to broader things like concentrated study and mastery of a field you are drawn to, difficult and dangerous challenges such as rock climbing, travel, psychotherapy, religious studies, pilgrimage, marriage, child rearing. All the big, life-changing experiences will change you fundamentally to some degree if you remain alert as you undergo them. And if you respond to them deeply, each experience will take you closer to who you are and farther from the dreaded replica of your parents that haunts your sleep.

There are, as well, many cooked-up, concentrated experiences available, meant to transform the individual in a weekend. A good massage can sometimes work wonders. Anything is worth trying once. Some New Age hucksters may promise too much and deliver too little. But take what you can use and let the rest go. There is often a little wisdom in the craziest babblings of crackpots and charlatans and fools.

It sounds simple in words, doesn’t it? No problem. All you have to do is change your whole life. Ha ha ha.

So be prepared for monumental resistance from within! That is where the real struggle begins — in attempting to not become your parents you realize that you don’t really know where you begin and your parents end! You are indeed, in many ways, the same! It’s not just a question of future choices and molding yourself, but of conscious dismantling of heavy, well-installed machinery, bolted to the floor and clearly meant never to be tampered with or moved! So you walk where you can walk to get where you have to go; sometimes you have to go around, so you go around.

And occasionally you will have to fight for your life. In dismantling these mechanisms that have worked for you for so long, it can feel as though you’re losing your grip. At times of great challenge, you need faith; you need something to hang on to; you need support from people you trust; you need a map, a method, a solid sense of where you’re going. At times you may not have any of that. You may be desolate and alone, racked with doubt and regret that you ever started on this journey. At such a time all you may have is just a dim and fading notion that you started out somewhere and you’ll end up somewhere. That will have to be enough. Know that you’ll have periods of numbness and confusion. That’s the price of differentiating yourself.

Look at it this way: Even if you didn’t undertake this journey, you’d be numb and confused much of the time; you just wouldn’t know you were numb and confused.

Some of the things I have outlined above you may find unacceptable. You may say that something is “impractical” or “not your style.” You may think if you move to a city too far away from your family that it will bring down years of shame and heartache and just won’t be worth it. That sort of thinking, I would suggest, is why we do end up like our parents — we go pretty far but not far enough; we fail to challenge the very ingrained attitudes that we detest in our parents. So it is not easy. You may not recognize some of these ingrained attitudes as your enemy. They may make you feel safe and connected to your heritage. It is hard to tell sometimes. This resistance could go to the core of your being. For instance, the very notion of individuality and control over one’s destiny may feel foreign to you.

And there will be a price. If you move far from your family, if you choose paths that take you away from them both geographically and spiritually, you will miss the closeness you think you might have had. There will always be the life unlived, the road not taken.

So, in short, I would say that we can avoid becoming our parents because identity is fluid. Between us and biological destiny stand the power of choice, the power to change one’s environment, and the power to undertake activities that transform us in deep and lasting ways.


My family gives me no respect

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUN 7, 2006

I’m accomplished and responsible but they treat me like a loser.

Dear Cary,

I have a great job, own my own home, car, dog and medium-size 401K, have put myself through college and law school. I am not a loser! So why does my whole family treat me like one?

My family is not a normal set of folks; we are in a whole new category of dysfunctional and it would take 20 hours’ worth of couch time to even come close to describing the crazy things below the surface. Anyway, the issue is that I want to be loved and respected. I am loved by some but respect is just not there.

My youngest sister is forever telling me how poor my judgment is, how bad my understanding of people is and how unprofessional I am, despite the evidence of my high-powered job at an internationally renowned organization. I have a résumé to die for. That is not just a boast but a statement of fact (OK, a boast, too. I need to bolster myself since I am not getting it from outside sources). She tells me that she has no faith in me, in my judgment or in anything about me, that my house is awful, my neighborhood sucks, my dog is poorly trained, etc. And this is the sister I get along with best.

My mother makes it clear that a woman of 39 (me) without a husband and without children is a loser by definition. I had a husband, a drug-abusing, foul-mouthed yet charming brute who almost bankrupted me, stole from me and my friends, cheated on me with other women and possibly men, and verbally abused me in public and private. Dumping him after seven years of marriage was the best decision of my life. I feel lucky that any of my self-esteem survived that one. Yet, here we are five years later and my mother still criticizes me for not keeping that guy! Her current advice: Find a man who wants American citizenship and trade my bed for a green card!

My father barely speaks to me because I dated a guy he did not like a year ago. Two of my sisters do not speak to me at all. I honestly do not know why but both claim to be angry at me. My brother thinks I am an irresponsible idiot. My last sister, who is the only one who acknowledges me as a fully grown and responsible adult, still tells me that my divorce from an abusive ex is a sign of my inability to keep a commitment!

For God’s sake, what is it going to take to get these people to admit that I am fine as I am and why the hell do I care! Are these people overly judgmental or am I insane?

Dissed by My Family


Dear Dissed,

You are fine as you are. I know that. You know that. It’s the truth.
But your family is never going to give you what you want. That’s also the truth.

You will never be at peace with your family until you stop wanting what they will never give you.

It is easy to say, “Accept the way things are.”

But exactly how do we accept things? What is this action called acceptance? I would say that acceptance is knowing rather than wishing. You studied law. You committed many laws to memory. You may wish they were one way but they are the way they are. If you go into the courtroom and expect the laws to be different from the way they are you will not succeed. You must accept that the law is the way it is. You must know the law.

The same is true with your family. You must know your family as it is. You must study your family and know it thoroughly. That is your route to acceptance. Regard your family as a fact, immutable as the law. They are what they are. They behave in a certain way. The facts are unpleasant. But they are facts.

What happens to people who do not like the law and so do not obey it? They get their asses kicked.

You may not like what you know about your family but you must accept it or you will get your ass kicked. You will step into the ring expecting a kiss and get slapped. Don’t do it. Don’t let them kick you around.

You may find it hard to accept your family as it is. There are reasons for that. One reason is that in accepting your family as it is, you have to give up, or mourn, the ideal family that never was. You may have to go through a sort of grieving process. You may have to feel the hurt, the lifelong ache of wanting a family that is loving and kind and supportive and never getting it. It hurts. It hurts a lot. It hurts for a long time. But that is the price of knowing the truth.

I think the truth is worth it.

Here is a consolation: This other family, this ideal, imaginary family that you always wanted, this family that really gets you, that supports you, that appreciates you as you appreciate yourself: It is a real family, too. It is real in your mind. You can keep it, in fact. You can keep this imaginary family in your mind. This dream family is your family, too. It’s the family you deserve. It lives on a different street in a different neighborhood where only you can go.

Here is another consolation. Sometimes if you leave something alone long enough it begins to heal on its own and one day long after you have given up even thinking about it a gift arrives in the mail that is so delightful you break down right there on your doorstep because you had given up all hope of such a thing ever, ever happening.

I’m just saying it’s possible. Maybe one day if you leave this alone it may fix itself. But don’t hold your breath. Let it be.

Your family today is sad and difficult and dangerous. Remember that. Accept it. Don’t give them the opportunity to kick you around anymore.

Get what you need some other way. Get it from people who have it to give.


My 8-year-old misses his old life — should we move back to the suburbs?

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, OCT 19, 2006

It was good to separate from their alcoholic dad — but I feel bad about bringing my kids to the city.

Dear Cary,

My husband and I are recently separated. To make a long story short, he developed a serious drinking habit over the course of our nine-year marriage and refused to seek treatment. He became violent, mismanaged his business, squandered an inheritance and was terribly irresponsible with money, so much so that when we sold our house a few months ago we narrowly escaped foreclosure.

I could not afford to purchase another home in the idyllic suburban town in which we lived, so I moved with my two children, ages 4 and 8, to the city. I love it here, as I am a 15-minute walk away from the university where I am a graduate student in a very demanding biomedical research program. I am sharing a house with my sister, who is helping me immensely. She watches my children so I can run to the grocery store and is home when I have to stay late in the lab.
Five months into our move, my 4-year-old has adjusted, but my 8-year-old is miserable. He misses his friends and his old lifestyle, and his best friend who lived next door. There were 18 children on the block where we lived and they were always outside playing together. There are few children where we live now (unless you count the rowdy undergrads), and even if I allowed him to go outside by himself there would be no one to play with. Though we go to the park on weekends, he is not spending nearly as much time outside or with friends as he used to. Yes, there are great cultural opportunities here and it is more diverse, but that matters little to my son.

I feel so guilty for having removed my son from such a wonderful environment that I am considering moving back. Although I could not afford to purchase a house in that town, I could rent something small there. However, this would mean a longer commute for me, getting home later in the evening and the loss of my sister as a housemate, as she wants to remain in the city.

My dilemma is this: The city is better for me, but Mayberry is better for my son. Should I move yet again (an exhausting prospect) or make him tough it out?

Even if we did move back we would not be on the same block. I am aware that on the scale of possible human tragedies this one ranks pretty low, and though I remind him of this and offer him Lemony Snicket books, it does not comfort him. I know I had to leave the marriage, but did I have to leave the town too? I’m starting to think that in the turmoil of a dying marriage, I put my own needs before those of my children.


Guilty in the City


Dear Guilty,

I can relate to what your son is going through. When I was 12 my family moved to a world I did not recognize.

I did not know what to do to feel the way I used to feel. I did not know what I needed or how to get it. I did not know what I was feeling or what I had lost.

Knowledgeable adults could have helped this sensitive kid adjust. But such people were not available, and the adults who were available were overburdened with challenges of their own. So I was left to my own devices.

I did not do well in that situation. I did not develop the coping skills I needed. I now know that to adjust and grow in my new surroundings I needed to do two things: to maintain ties with my old world and to forge ties with my new world. But I did not know that then. I was just a kid.

So I had some troubles.

Therefore, my heart goes out to your son, who is much younger than I was when we moved. His connection to his home has been torn. He is doing his best to adjust. But he does not know how to adjust, nor does he have the powers to create a new world in which he can feel comfortable and confident.

Luckily, he has you. You are going to have to create that world for him. I suggest that rather than moving back to the suburbs or suggesting that your son just “tough it out” you consciously set about to create structures for your child that maintain some ties with his old world and help him cope with his new world.

Drive back to your old neighborhood and let your 8-year-old hang around, breathing in the air of the old place. Let him go play with his friends for a while in the old neighborhood. Have his best friend come and spend the night. Let him spend the night at his best friend’s house and then pick him up. Maintain the connection to the old neighborhood without having to move back there.

At the same time, create structures in his new world so he can develop new ties. I don’t know what organizations are available or what his interests are. Nor do I think this is going to be easy. I remember what it was like to live in a neighborhood where all a kid had to do was walk out of the house and his playmates and friends were all right there. In such a setting, there was no need for formal activity programs such as the Boy Scouts or what have you. But that world is gone. Your son is going to have to do things differently now. He is going to have to participate in more formal social structures. Pick some fun activities that will put him in regular contact with others.

He may resist. I certainly did. But I suggest that you be firm. You know what is necessary. He does not. He may think he knows what he needs, but he is just a kid. You are the mother. You know best. If he finds it hard to get to know new kids, help him. Keep at it. Do not let him fail.

You have a chance here not only to help your son adjust to his new surroundings but to counteract the lesson that an alcoholic father imparts to his children: that when stressful change arises, one responds by collapsing inwardly and drinking. You can demonstrate a more positive pattern — that one responds to stressful change by creatively adapting, by coming up with new ways to interact with the world.

You don’t have to explain all this to your son. Instead, teach by example. You can simply say, “We’re adapting to change.”

I do suggest that for the sake of maintaining a positive attitude you think of it as “adapting” rather than as “toughing it out.” Try being grateful for the opportunity you have gained — that you don’t have to spend the rest of your life watching the father of your children kill himself in front of you, fearing that he will crash his car into the neighbor’s garage or collapse on the front porch with his pants down around his ankles. You have escaped that danger. You and your children are safe. You may find, when you consider your good fortune, that you feel some measure of gratitude to the wrinkle of fate or cosmic force or God that brought you this far unharmed.

Your kids are going to find this hard. They are going to miss their dad. And they’re going to be sad and upset sometimes. But I think, all in all, that you have a very lucky 8-year-old.


My brother abused me — now our parents want us all together again!

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Cary’s classic column from Friday, May 23, 2008

I would like to help them celebrate their 50th anniversary, but I dread being in the same room with that man.

Dear Cary,

When I was a teenager, I was sexually abused by my older brother. I’ve been through three different therapists trying to work this out. Three must be a charm because through talking to the third one I found a way to confront my brother and come to peace with this issue by forgiving him. Forgiveness in the C.S. Lewis sense of wishing him well in the rest of his life but not feeling that pursuing a relationship with him is part of the deal. Consequently we haven’t spoken or had any contact for years. I don’t wish to see him or have him anywhere near my children. I don’t want to be near him. He lives on the other side of the country so it has been pretty easy to avoid him.

Here’s the catch. My parents’ 50th wedding anniversary is coming up. We were discussing what kind of a celebration my parents would like over dinner the other night with my parents and my other brother and his wife. My mom said that her wish would be for the whole family to be together and, in fact, if this couldn’t happen, that she would not want any sort of celebration at all. She knows what has happened between my brother and me and knows that I have no contact with him.

It really bothers me that she is trying manipulate me into spending time with him by threatening not to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary unless we all get together. She has never handled this issue sensitively and wonders why I can’t just get over it so we can all be one happy family again. I feel that she is being selfish and inconsiderate by forcing the situation. I feel pulled in two directions. I want her and my dad to have a happy celebration. Getting to 50 years is no small feat in our world today. But I also want her to understand that it is important to me to not be expected to spend time with my brother. I know that it hurts her that her family is torn apart, but having us all show up together in the same room for a party isn’t going to magically create the perfect family that she so desires.

The biggest downer in all of this is that the responsibility for the family celebration and whether it will happen or not rests on my shoulders. I didn’t ask to be abused. It was no picnic coming to terms with the abuse and I don’t see why I should be the one who has to make the decision to make or break the party. I’m not the bad guy here. But if I don’t concede to spend time with my brother, it will look like I am. It won’t just be the two of us in the same room for the first time in eight years; it will be family pictures and forced hugs and conversations and … UGH!

So, do I stay true to what I want to do for my own sanity and personal emotional safety? Or do I give in and spend my parents’ 50th having one of the most hellish days of my life? How much does one need to sacrifice to honor and love one’s parents, or mother anyway?

Forgave but Did Not Forget


Dear Forgave,

I cannot resist the idea that you might, by seeing your brother once more, finally extinguish the remaining embers of power he holds over you. For to know finally, with deep unshakable certainty, that the person who hurt you can never hurt you again — that would be a good thing, no? To know that you can be in his presence safely in any place, at any time of the day or night? And to know that you had a safe place to go and a way to extricate yourself should the trauma of contact prove too uncomfortable, this might make any such contact more bearable, might it not?

That he still renders pieces of the earth’s territory uninhabitable for you: Isn’t that a circumstance that should be finally laid to rest? Would you not like to be able to walk anywhere with impunity, even into his own house — not that you would want to, but simply that no place on earth ought to be walled off from you, since you have done nothing wrong?

You need to know in your very bones that he can never hurt you again. I may be wrong; it may be too much of a magic trick; but I am thinking that seeing him in the midst of the family, in a setting from which you have a pre-planned exit, having prepared adequately, might finally extinguish his hold on you forever.

When we still feel a person holds the power to hurt us, we live with residual fear, and our movements are restricted — through our own choice, we say to ourselves; we’d simply rather not see him. But a choice made in fear is not really a choice but coercion. If in fact this person can no longer hurt us, and yet we continue to live in fear of contact with him, then simply knowing is not enough; we need to experience, firsthand, that he has no power over us. We need to feel it vividly. In such a case, we may need to have contact with him even though the prospect fills us with cold fear.

I can see how it would bother you that by participating in this party you are fostering an illusion — that he never did what he did, or that it didn’t matter as much as it mattered. But this is not about the perceptions of others. It is about reinforcing a truth for you.

This must be said also: You do not have to do this. It is your choice. You are not living for other people. They can celebrate if they want to. They do not have to include you. It is not your fault if your mother persists in being rigid. She is trying to control you. You do not have to let her.

But if you can see it as a test of your own capacity for remaining in the flame and not flinching, if you can see it as a test of your humility and your distance, then perhaps you can take this event like a trophy. You can set it on your mantel. You can say quietly to yourself, I did this just to see if I could do it. And I could. So he no longer has any power over me. So if I can do this, what else can I do? How I must have expanded! I am so much stronger than I thought!

My reasoning is that the risk is worth it. If you find you can be in the same room with this person you will have acquired a new power. It won’t mean that you have a relationship. It will only mean that your sphere of free movement has expanded. It will mean that you need not fear this person any longer. It will mean that you can gaze upon him as upon a stranger.

Of course, this is a magic trick and there is no guarantee that you would perform it flawlessly. Dragons may sprout from his head and threaten to attack. Spirits, stinking, vile spirits may surround him. There may be a force field of evil around him such that you find yourself propelled out of the room into the yard. You may have to go to a hotel. But you will have tried it. You will have made an approach to the physical manifestation of this awful evil, this monster of the past. And for that you may count yourself the hero in this drama.

The choice is yours, but as I look at it, I feel you have more to gain by approaching the fire than by staying away. Just be sure that you have someplace safe to go, a hotel room that you control, and that you have someone to report to at a specified time. Make appointments to call, and to limit your exposure. If you will be there with a partner, have a signal with the partner so that you can excuse yourself if you want. Have that choice.

Because choice is what this is about, in a way. In being abused, you were deprived of choice. You were deprived of choice and personhood. It may be that in some small way you could now retrieve some of that choice and that personhood by standing in the fire and seeing it can no longer singe you.

That is what it is: It is a test of fire. But you will have a net. You will have a watch you can look at and say, I’m sorry but I must leave for an appointment. You will have a rental car to get in. You will have a hotel room to go to. You will have a plane to catch.

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Can therapy fix my parents?

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 6, 2005

We’ve been in counseling for about six months now, but it doesn’t seem to be affecting them.

Dear Cary,

You and other sage advice givers often recommend that people seek therapy for their problems, especially when a couple or family needs a mediator to help settle their issues. I’m a big believer in the power of talking it out with a disinterested third party. My question is, how do you know when it’s time to quit?

I’m 24 years old, and have a college degree, a good job and enough friends to keep me from getting lonely. I’ve been in individual therapy for a few years now, and it’s really helped me deal with some self-esteem and emotional issues, many of which are connected to my difficult family situation. I’ve been in family counseling with my parents for about six months. My parents probably seem to strangers like very pleasant people, but they are in massive denial over all sorts of deep-seated psychological issues, and they don’t want to take the risk of trying to deal with them, so they’ve basically shut down emotionally. Being raised in an environment where people were afraid of their feelings has had a profound effect on me, and I have a lot of buried anger toward them for raising me in such a repressive, unhappy environment.

When I was in college, I dealt with them as little as possible, pretty much only when I needed a check for my tuition. Once I graduated and no longer needed their money, they got upset that I wasn’t interested in continuing a superficial, dishonest relationship with them. We started counseling, at my request, because I was hoping I could explain to them why I’m so angry, so that we could be more honest with one another and move forward. However, it’s clear to me that they’re not interested in honesty — they just want me to go back to pretending that everything is nice and happy. They don’t want to deal with their own issues because they’re afraid, and they don’t want to deal with my issues because that would mean they’d have to admit that something might be wrong with them.

My therapist seems to think that they might eventually come around, but he has never met them. The family counselor says I can quit anytime I want, and that I should leave if I don’t feel the counseling is productive, but she has demurred when I asked whether she thinks continuing could be productive. I don’t want to give up on my parents, but at the same time, being around them drives me absolutely crazy (to the point of literally needing to spend two days curled up in the fetal position crying after spending the weekend with them) because either I have to pretend to feel something I don’t, or we end up fighting and they tell me it’s my fault for being “irrationally hostile.” We go around and around and never get anywhere, and I’m constantly upset about it. I feel like I’m wasting my time and energy trying to fix a situation that’s out of my control.

So do I quit? Is there any good reason to stay? And if I do quit, should I just cut them out of my life entirely? Is there something to be gained from putting myself through the pain of dealing with them? And can I fix a relationship with people who don’t want to fix themselves?

Thanks for listening. Even if you don’t answer, it feels good to have been able to ask.


Dear Daughter,

Nice to hear from you. It sounds like it’s too painful for you to deal with your parents right now. Why not take a break from them and focus on other areas of your life? At age 24, I imagine you are entering the workforce and establishing yourself socially and professionally, and perhaps beginning to look for a mate. The kinds of changes you want in your relationship with your parents may be impossible to obtain at this time, while other achievements may be well within your grasp.

So if I were you, I would continue in therapy but put your parents on the back burner. I would define some other goals therapy could help me with, like getting a better understanding of myself, clarifying my purpose on earth and finding out what might be holding me back from truly purposeful action.

If, however, you do come to feel that it’s your relationship with your parents that is holding you back, then try this: Ask yourself not how you feel about your parents but what you owe your parents. What are your obligations at this point in your life? They have put you through college but now you’re on your own: How can you fulfill your obligations?

This is different from asking what your parents want from you. Our parents may want us to fulfill certain unconscious wishes they retain from childhood, from their own relationships with their parents. We cannot help them with that. You can determine, however, what your concrete obligations are. And I think you can probably fulfill many of those obligations.

So what are our obligations to our parents? In general terms, you might come up with a list something like this: To speak with them or visit at least once a month. Not to cause them undue pain. Not to shame them. Not to steal from them. To treat them kindly and with respect. To help them when they become no longer able to take care of themselves. To be a comfort to them when possible.

Beyond fulfilling such obligations as these, we can get into trouble. For not only do you have obligations to your parents, but they have obligations to you. One of their chief obligations is to provide an environment in which you can become who you are. So if you betray yourself, then you betray your parents as well. For instance, suppose you conclude it’s your duty to your parents to become a plastic surgeon. If you are not suited to be a plastic surgeon, then in trying to become one you undermine your parents’ chief duty to you.

So the best you can do, as an adult, is to fulfill your concrete obligations to your parents. The rest — the emotional tenor of your relationship, your compatibility, your taste and politics and ideas, their projected wishes for you — is chancy.

If you can satisfy yourself that you are doing what is right and necessary as a daughter, perhaps it will ease some of the pain that arises when you see your parents. Perhaps it will also allow you to limit your contact with your parents without an undue sense of guilt.

It’s hard at 24 to imagine how a lifetime of experience has molded one’s parents, and harder still to keep in mind that time will continue to change them, robbing them of both their acuity and their rancor. If you simply go about living, you will find that these things take place, slowly but surely, seemingly without anyone’s effort.

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Honesty or selfishness: You be the judge

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My husband told me that he and my friend are attracted to each other — two days after my father died!

 Cary’s classic column from  FRIDAY, JUL 18, 2003

Dear Cary,

This past Tuesday, my father died. Although it was not unexpected, I loved him deeply and am dealing with a lot of grief. A close friend of mine has been living with me and my family for the past three or four months. Several years ago, she lived with us for a while, but eventually moved out when she (and my husband and I) became uncomfortable with the fact that she and my husband were attracted to each other. At that time, I assumed that a large part of the attraction, at least on my spouse’s part, was due to the fact that things were not good between us. For my friend, it was largely due to her then-single state.

Things are much better between us now than they were. However, very recently I thought I perceived that spark of attraction between them. There was too much going on (father dying, etc.) for me to give much thought to it. Two days after my father’s death, my husband confessed to me that he and my friend were, indeed, feeling an attraction. My friend is currently single again, which he somehow blamed as the source of the attraction. Apparently they talked about it and both agreed they were committed to their relationships with me and didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that. According to my husband, my friend felt strongly about not saying anything to me. My husband, however, felt that in the name of “honesty” he wanted me to know.

Why the fuck did he have to tell me this now? My dad just died. I’m up to my eyebrows in grief, and I feel like my spouse just dumped this problem in my lap. I feel like it’s his problem, and he tried to make it mine (and pretty much succeeded) so that he wouldn’t have to deal with this issue like an adult, by himself. I love this man, but sometimes he is the most self-absorbed son of a bitch on the planet. Of course, between kids, funeral arrangements, and the fact that I am highly confrontation-averse, we haven’t even had a chance to talk about this. It’s also taken me two days to process all of it, and figure out how I feel about it, but man, I know now, and I am mad as hell that he chose this time to dump this crap on me. Was this just heartfelt honesty or the actions of an adolescent trapped in a middle-aged male body?

Fuming, Grieving, and About to Boil Over


Dear Fuming,

Honesty as a mask for thoughtlessness is a crock of shit. Don’t you just feel like punching him now?

So sorry to hear about your father.

Let me tell you what happened to me the other day, if I may, because it’s related to your story. My father is still living, bless his heart and prostate. Two days ago, as I was preparing dinner for a kitchen full of friends, the phone rang and it was my dad and he said, “Cary? I have some very disturbing news. You’re going to be in an auto accident.”

That was about the extent of the conversation. I thanked him for the news. The next day, my wife and I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. I was the slow guy in the right lane.

I tried to work it out in my head: My father believes in psychic phenomena — prophetic dreams, channeling the dead, etc. None of his predictions have ever come true, as far as I know, so I figured I don’t have much to worry about. He’s always said strange things. He’s getting older and stranger. If it was anybody else I’d dismiss it. But it was my dad, so it creeped me out.

Then I talked to my sister. Apparently, around the same time he called me, he called her and told her I’d been killed in an auto accident. After much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments she got him to explain that I was indeed killed in an auto accident, but it happened in a dream he had.

Is your husband 80 years old? Has he raised five kids, survived prostate cancer and saved the world for democracy? If so, maybe you’d cut him some slack. But he’s not 80, is he? He should know better.

We were raised on a bogus “honesty” standard. We need a new standard. How about: compassion. Think of the other person. What will the news do to her? Will it amuse her? Will it make her happier, better able to cope with life, stronger, more knowledgeable, more confident? For instance, if you tell someone how well you think she’s coping with a recent tragedy, that you admire her strength, that might make her feel better. Even if she thinks you’re lying, the words will have a good effect. I mean, you can give someone an honest massage or a dishonest massage and it’s still going to feel good.

Likewise, if you honestly punch somebody in the face, it hurts just as much as a dishonest punch.

Knowing that your husband is attracted to your friend is not really useful knowledge. Useful knowledge would be something like: What is he going to do?

Could you maybe get that straight with him? Tell him you don’t want to talk about your friend. Also tell him you don’t want him alone with her. It should be the three of you or nothing. Also tell him he needs to work on his timing. And then drop it. You don’t need to talk about it anymore. The only time he should mention it again is if he and your friend decide to run away together to Montana and start an organic farm. Then he should tell you, so you’ll know to pick the kids up at school before driving to Montana to kick the shit out of him.

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My aunt lent me money … with one condition

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I desperately needed money so I agreed to her terms, but I find them chilling and bizarre

 Cary’s classic column from  Sunday, Nov 21, 2010

Dear Cary,

Almost 10 years ago my wealthy aunt loaned me some money. I have not seen or spoken to this aunt in many years now, nor have I repaid the money. I would very much like to repay her, or at the very least set up a payment plan so I can begin paying her a little at a time, but so far it hasn’t happened.

I am deeply ashamed that I haven’t picked up the phone or written a letter to at least acknowledge the situation, but so far I haven’t been able to bring myself to do so. This is partly because of the money and the length of time, but more than that it’s because of the circumstances of the loan. At the time, I was desperate for the money because I was trying to escape my abusive ex-husband, as per his parole officer’s recommendation.

My family has never been close. It is one of those families where there is a history of mental illness and everyone is always not speaking to everyone else. It took a lot for me to ask anyone for a loan at all. I was very scared and nervous about it, and the first relative I asked turned me down, which made it especially difficult to work up the nerve to ask my aunt but I was desperate.

My aunt immediately agreed to loan me the money, but the conditions of her loan broke my heart. Rather than requesting your standard IOU, she made me write and sign a form stating that if I should meet an untimely demise she would get her money back from my estate. At her request, my IOU specified that I might die soon. She was worried that my husband would murder me and she wouldn’t get her money back.

I was so anxious to get away from my husband that I wrote and signed whatever I had to, but I was stunned and hurt. I kept thinking of my own nieces, knowing that if one of them came to me with a situation like that, the very last thing that would ever cross my mind would be concern that I would not be paid back if she were murdered. My aunt did not even so much as ask if I was OK. My aunt does not love me. No one in my family loves anyone else, it seems, and that has as much to do with the fact that I haven’t seen or spoken to anyone in so long as any of the rest of it.

My horrid, vindictive mother insists that I not repay my aunt (her sister) because of what my aunt did, but I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want to keep her money as payback for being cruel to me. She doesn’t owe me that money for revenge purposes. I would like to pay her back in full, but I am not interested in a relationship with her, or with anyone else in my family for that matter, including my mother. I have thought about it very seriously for a very long time, and I have decided that they are too far gone. The dysfunction is too severe and too deep. There is not one single relationship there worth even trying to salvage.

I am in serious financial trouble, to the point that I left the U.S. entirely because I could no longer afford to live there. Despite this, it’s been so many years. By now, had I even paid her $10 a month, I would no longer be in debt to her.

I like my new life in my new country, where everyone else seems to be as poor as I am. I am happily remarried and I have two baby sons. I am now a part of an extended family who does love each other very much. My own family is a part of my past that I’d like to forget, but I can’t stop thinking about the money. I need to pay it back, but in order to do that I have to make contact. I have to write or call my aunt and potentially open myself up to even more pain and humiliation.

I am in so much debt. I owe thousands of dollars to stateside hospitals for the baby I recently gave birth to and also for the baby I lost before him. I haven’t even been able to keep up with any kind of payment plan for those bills, and I can’t imagine where I’ll find the money to pay my aunt. For years now, every single time we are tallying up our bills and our debts and trying to figure out what to do about it I tell my husband, “And my aunt … don’t forget I need to pay my aunt.” Invariably he reminds me that it’s not a priority. He has seen very little of my family, and what little he has seen was enough for him to realize he didn’t want to see any more.

When there is so little money, and so much emotional and literal distance between us, I am not sure how to go about even beginning to pay my aunt back. Where do I start? What do I say? Should I just stick to the finances and not mention to her how it felt to realize that she would be willing to take money out of my traumatized and motherless children’s hands? Several years ago when my grandparents were terminally ill and their dryer broke, this same aunt bought them a new one, and she made my grandfather sign a paper stating that she got to keep the dryer after he died.

I keep thinking of things like this, and of the way my family works, and it’s making it so hard to pick up that phone. I have struggled so long to rid myself of the pain that comes with being a member of that family. I don’t know how to protect myself, other than by staying away entirely.

Thank you for your time,



Dear G.,

It’s clear that you feel it’s important to pay the money back. But I don’t think that’s the most important thing right now. I think, rather, the most important thing right now is for you to take care of yourself and your kids.

So I suggest you not think about the money right now, but about the emotional content of what happened when you went to your aunt for help. What happened was bizarre and shocking. Of course, it was shocking that you were fleeing for your life as well. But your aunt’s coldhearted requirement was shocking. I mean, in a way, it was rational. But it was inhumane. It must have felt inhumane to you. It must have felt like some way of lowering you, diminishing you, to treat your life so cavalierly, as nothing more than a ledger line in her budget.

Of course there may be more to the story. Your aunt may have previously lent money that was not repaid and decided on this policy to protect herself. You say there is a history of mental illness in your family so perhaps there is a history of money being borrowed and not repaid. Perhaps your aunt has her share of problems as well. But you came to her in a moment of crisis and were presented with this morbid requirement. It must have thrown you.

So I can understand why you have not been able to touch it, and why to this day it lingers in your mind. I can see why you’d want to close the books on it.

Maybe you can close the books on it without reentangling yourself in this painful and destabilizing drama, at least for now. How? Well, one way might be to write your aunt a letter telling her all about why you came to her and what has happened in the interim and why you haven’t paid it and asking for her forgiveness.

Writing it to her might help you focus your feelings and uncover feelings you may not have realized you have. And it could be a way of saying goodbye to that chapter. You could even tell her, in the letter, that the reason you are writing it is that you just can’t deal with the craziness of your family right now and you just need for it to be over. You could declare it over.

Then maybe read the letter aloud. Maybe read it to a picture of your aunt. Light a candle and lean her picture up against the candle and read your letter to her and, I don’t know, burn the letter, or bury the letter. Just don’t send it to your aunt.

Write it but don’t send it.

Do a ritual that brings you some peace. You could use some peace.

And then, if you still want to pay your aunt back, open a savings account and begin putting money in the savings account. Put in whatever amount you can afford to put in regularly. Give this savings account a name. Call it Aunt Payback or something, so that it’s clear it’s an account to pay your aunt back. Just keep putting money in it. It might take years. But when it’s full, you can send the money to your aunt.

And, to return to that utterly morbid requirement in the IOU, I suggest you put instructions in your will such that if you should die before the payback account is filled and your aunt has been repaid, and if your aunt should indeed show up with her IOU demanding repayment from your estate, then whatever is in that should be used to settle her claim. That way, it’s sort of an insurance fund, so neither your kids nor your husband will be fully liable for this debt, should it come due.

You know, there’s a lot of talk about symbols in psychology and literature. And you hear people talk about what something is a symbol of. And maybe some symbols are like letters of the alphabet, in that they always have the same meaning. But it seems to me symbols are more like tools, or weapons, whatever is at hand for the psyche to serve her current purpose. If we are sad, deeply sad, ineluctably sad about how our family turned out, and if we grieve for a life that will never be, and if we grieve for many hurts and slights and insults received over many years, and if we go through a number of shocks and hurts and upsets and dislocations until we are thoroughly rattled, and we are always wishing that there were some solution that would ease the pain and bring back a sense of ease and delight and calm, then we may indeed come to seize on some object or idea and believe that it is the central object or idea, and that if we can just accomplish that, our other problems will evaporate.

It doesn’t matter what that symbol is. We’ll take whatever is available. For me, once I became attached to a truck and it symbolized everything I needed at the time. At other times I will become attached to money, or to a past event that I feel I must rectify, or to … oh, I don’t know, like a child believing if he gets a train set for Christmas he’ll be happy for the rest of his life and if he doesn’t nothing will console him.

So the work we must do as adults, in untangling all the threads of our tangled lives and emotions, the work is to take each piece and deal with it as it is, knowing that no one magical act can transform everything, knowing that there is no magic fix, but that if we patiently perform the painstaking operation of untangling each thread, we will make progress, and we will find increasing calm and order and hope. So we have to do the hard work of deciding which strings we are going to untangle first and which can wait and which ones we are just going to let go of.

Some strands we just leave tangled. It isn’t worth it. It may be appealing to perform one dramatic gesture that sums up the whole of our voluminous complaints and past injuries and imagine that if only we did this one thing, we would be in the clear. But that’s not how it works.

It’s too bad. I generally want to fix everything right away. That’s my nature. Believe me, it has not been easy to learn new ways of thinking. But I have, to some extent, and I think you can, too.

So there’s two parts to my suggestion. One, I’m serious about doing the ritual, to get to an emotional peace with this event. And then the other part involves practical action, because crazy as it is you apparently did incur this debt and it’s good to do what you can to repay such things and to prevent their becoming a burden on your children or husband, in the case of your death.

And then, do me a favor? Just try to enjoy your life? You’ve been through enough. Find some time to relax and enjoy your life. Don’t let this thing hang over you. Say goodbye to it. Bury it. Burn it. Let it go.

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My sister’s engaged to a jerk

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Do I boycott the wedding?

 Cary’s classic column from  TUESDAY, DEC 28, 2010

Dear Cary,

My sister, who is 34 to my 30, has been dating a man in his early 40s on and off for the past 10 years. To give you some background on his character, when she first met him, he was in his early 30s and dating a 17-year-old girl (statutory rape where we come from). My sister began dating him shortly thereafter. Over the years he has cheated on her, dumped her because he felt she was socially inferior to him, and been caught in many, many lies. He has a child with another woman that he has completely abandoned. He has worn — in public and in photos online — vintage war pieces that are emblazoned with swastikas (he states that he is a war enthusiast and not a Nazi, but I and others have heard him make racist comments before). He was and currently is a teacher and has been accused by at least one female student of inappropriate sexual conduct.

For all of these reasons, he and my sister have broken up several times, sometimes for a year or longer, but they always end up back together. Each time they break up, my sister inundates our family with the kind of information about him I’ve mentioned above, yet when they get back together, little explanation is given and we are all expected to just accept him back with open arms. I have complied with this expectation three times now, but I reached my breaking point two years ago after they’d separated for a year and then got back together. This was after he was accused of sexual misconduct with his student. I asked many times and no explanation was given for her forgiveness of him, other than that the student had made the whole thing up. Given his track record, I am not willing to accept that.

For two years, I have asked that he be kept away from me. The other members of our family have made their peace with him and accepted him back into their lives, but I’m the lone holdout. Holidays and other family gatherings are awkward as we work in “shifts” — my husband and I spend the morning at my parents’ house and in the afternoon we leave so my sister’s boyfriend can come over. Well, now things have changed. Over Thanksgiving they got engaged. No one in my family told me (I live in a different city now) and I read about it on Facebook the next day. I am now faced with a choice of accepting this person — my sister’s future husband — back into my life so that I can be involved in their wedding, or of continuing to maintain my distance from him, thereby severing my relationship with my sister.

This situation has become polarizing and it has left me extremely depressed. I dearly miss my sister and the relationship we used to have, but this has affected us so much. She feels that I am judging her and her choices and that I do not love her “unconditionally.” She has dismissed most of the accusations that have been made against him over the years as misunderstandings. She says it is not her place to defend him to me and that if I have further questions I need to ask him. But the thought of even sitting down to have a conversation with this man makes me very uncomfortable. He is extremely intelligent and manipulative and I feel in many ways, he’s dangerous. I spent eight years getting to know him and I came to the conclusion that he’s just not a good person. My family has said that he’s changed and has been attending counseling sessions, but in my opinion if he hasn’t even admitted to the things it seems obvious he’s done, then how much can he have changed?

I am flying home for Christmas, but she wrote and said she would not be seeing me because if I do not accept him, I do not accept her. I don’t feel this is true as I love my sister very much. She is an intelligent and caring person, but for the life of me I don’t understand why she has chosen to spend her life with this man. I know I can’t choose her mate for her or tell her what to do, but I also don’t feel that I should be forced to accept someone like him into my life.

I don’t want to lose my sister over this. Should I suck it up for the sake of the family and have a discussion with him, or am I right to stand my ground?

Scared and Depressed


Dear Scared and Depressed,

Your sister has made a choice that places her beyond your reach. The relationship you remember having with her is gone for now. It might come back but it is gone for now.

There may be many reasons for this. There may be things in her personality, or her life journey, that require her to be with this man. There may be things in her nature that blind her to his obvious flaws. You may have to accept the possibility that in her way she is just as messed up as he is.

What that means in practical terms is that you have to protect yourself. You cannot protect your sister. So you protect yourself.

That is a terrible thing to realize, that you cannot protect your sister. Yet you know it’s true. You have tried to protect your sister and she has again and again shaken off your protection and has gone to be with this man who is obviously a danger.

So in a way, you have lost your sister. That is hard to accept. Such a thing is heart-rending. Such a thing grinds away at one’s happiness. But the sooner you accept it the sooner you can begin living with it. Living with the truth is better than grinding away in fruitless battle.

Your sister gets something that she needs from this man. We don’t know what that is. We wish that she would get into therapy and discover her reasons for returning to him, and we wish that, having discovered those reasons, she would find alternatives that enrich rather than impoverish her. We wish she would find the unacknowledged needs that are driving her to make poor decisions. We can wish this. But we must also know that she is a free being, and she will make choices, and we have no power over those choices.

It’s a terrible thing, freedom. Freedom of choice is nice when people make choices we approve of, but when they make bad choices we want to yank that freedom away from them and make their choices for them. But that’s another price of freedom: People get to mess up their lives terribly all on their own, and we have to stand by and watch.

Your only reasonable choice is to keep this man out of your own life. If that means some separation from your sister, that is a necessary price.

You do not have to go to her wedding. You do not have to be a party to this. You can tell your sister what you believe and tell her why you are not participating in the wedding and let her go.

For now at least, she is lost to you.

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