How to Handle Tough Family Topics
Let's face it, no family is perfect. From sibling feuds to marriage dilemmas, our relationship expert Dr. Janet is here to help solve your toughest family issues.
Q. Even though we’ve been together for seven years, my fiancé prioritizes his children from a previous marriage over me. I feel ignored and disrespected by the adult kids, who don’t consider me a part of their father’s life. I’m helping him raise his 11-year-old daughter by another woman, but if this situation isn’t fixable, I need to know.
A. Your fiancé appears to be loyal to both his previous and current obligations, which is certainly an admirable quality. Perhaps your concerns are less about his kids and more about what you need from him to feel respected and fulfilled. Building and maintaining a successful relationship requires trust (which it sounds like you have) and communication (which you might want to work on a little). Find a quiet time to discuss how you can both make each other feel more connected and respected. Write down two things that you need from him—and ask him for two things that he needs from you. Keep the requests simple, attainable and doable: for example, comforting or sticking up for you when his kids aren’t kind. If you can listen to each other without bringing up past hurts, this situation will fix itself.
Q. After I caught him cheating several times, I told my husband he’s forgiven but our marriage is over. I’m not angry, just tired of being with someone I can’t trust. Our children are grown but they want us back together. What should I do?
A. Remember that the road you travel is yours alone to choose and you deserve to find the peace that can come from moving forward. Part of that involves what you’ve already done. I applaud your ability to forgive despite the pain he caused. Forgiveness—which doesn’t mean forgetting the lesson learned—is a pillar of healing. The next part is forging ahead. Sit down with the kids and identify their concerns about the future. Change is difficult—even for adult children, who could be emotional about their parents splitting up or have practical concerns about your financial stability or health. There may be solutions that quiet their worries while also allowing you to follow your instincts and take purposeful steps on a new journey.
A. One of the greatest gifts that parents can give their kids—and each other—is a united front regarding rules. Before the two of you talk to your daughter, talk to each other. Take a few minutes to understand your feelings about teen dating without judgment. Talk about your experiences as teens (which you may want to share with your daughter later), review how old you both were, discuss what your own parents' attitudes were, and try to understand the origin of your rules. Then pick an appropriate dating age for your daughter, tell her and stick to it. Even if you agree to disagree as individuals, support each other and hold mutual values as parents. This conflict isn't just about your daughter's maturity. It's also about your maturity as a couple.
Q. My father wasn't the best dad and I have a lot of resentment toward him. We don't speak, but I need some closure and want to make sure he's all right. Is it wrong to bring up the past while his health is declining?
A. It's never wrong to explore a relationship with a parent. Start by asking your father whether he feels up to discussing emotional issues. If he does, mention an event that led to your current feelings. Perhaps a miscommunication resulted in conflict. You might say, "Dad, I know we haven't spoken in a while, but it's important to me that we discuss...? Stay focused on what you need to understand (your feelings and his) and what you want to convey (the impact the event had on you). Focus on a desire to improve communication. If your dad doesn't feel up to a talk, write a letter. Read it, recognize your emotions and consider mailing it. Understand that an open conversation with your father, whether he's healthy or ill, is a critical step toward your ability to release painful memories and move on.
Q. My connection with my mom has been pretty nonexistent since we had a falling-out when I was 18. She brags about my successes to friends but doesn't return my calls. How can I repair whatever is broken?
A. Now may be the time to arrange a meeting over coffee or a bite to eat. Keep your invite simple but indicate you've missed her company and would like to reconnect. When you're together, speak from the heart about the falling-out in an effort to understand and be understood. You might say, "Mom, can we discuss our relationship? Why do you think we don't talk?" Just remember: You want to move forward, not rehash the past. State how you'd like your relationship to be, and consider what you both need to do to make that happen. Prepare yourself for hurtful words, but stay focused on the process of repair over time.
Q. My husband and I frequently talk about moving cross-country with our five kids, but my grandmother doesn't want to come and doesn't have other relatives nearby. I feel guilty for thinking about leaving town, but I don't want to look back one day with regret. What can I do?
A. I admire your willingness to embrace change, but I don't envy your conflict between family obligation and freedom. You may find an answer by examining why you want to relocate. If it's adventure you seek, perhaps a short summer excursion will satisfy your longing. If you're serious about creating a whole new life, put pen to paper. List the emotional, financial and physical pros and cons of moving to specific locations. Everyone has a stake in your decision—from grandma to your kids, who may feel rooted in your town. Whatever you do, avoid burning bridges should you leave. If things don't work out, you may want to return home.
Q. My husband hired his college ex to work at his office. I've told him I'm not comfortable with this or her constant calls about "work." What should I do?
A. A successful marriage is anchored in trust and commitment—two qualities you need to focus on right now. Although you may feel deceived, your husband had the right to make his own staffing decision. On the other hand, you have the right to be bothered by his ex working there. But focusing on her every move forces him to become defensive and push you away. Concentrate on communicating honestly about how each of you feels. And be prepared to listen without judgment. Re-establish trust by reflecting on what brought you together and the values you share. Fear is not a reason to end a union, but it can be a reminder to pay closer attention to your relationship.
Q. I'm married, but a long-term ex-boyfriend found me on Facebook. He wants to catch up and I'd love to see him, but my husband doesn't like the idea. Should I heed my mate's pleas or meet on the sly?
A. Are you happily married? If yes, wouldn't you like to stay that way? Then why on earth would you rendezvous with your old flame? Your husband said he's uncomfortable with it, so going behind his back may cause serious problems in your marriage. Catch up with your ex via e-mail or a phone call—you can be cordial without a face-to-face—and keep it moving. If you're not happily married, be careful of your meet-up intentions. Looking outside your relationship for satisfaction can create a slippery slope. And you might confuse the excitement of doing something new and covert with excitement for your ex. Either way, if you can't resist the curiosity of seeing your old spark, make a reservation for three and invite your husband.
Q. My cousin is always asking me for special favors: Can her daughter tour my office to learn about my industry, or can I use my connections to get her free tickets to special events? I don't mind helping out once in a while, but I'm starting to resent the pushy requests.
A. Today's economy has most of us working our resources (and that includes friends and family) for access to information, employment or experiences. And sometimes that can get out of hand. Before chatting with your cousin again, do a quick assessment of personal boundaries. Perhaps infringing on coworkers with an office tour makes you uncomfortable, but offering up some time after work hours or at home to talk to her daughter about careers is fine. Give your cousin concrete examples of what you can and can't do and you may find her future requests less intrusive. Also realize there's nothing wrong with saying no. Help out when you want and don't when you can't. It can really be that simple.
Q. My mom just moved to a new town for retirement and seems lonely. She calls me at work almost every day to talk about...nothing. I know she's going through tough life changes, but how can I get her to focus less on me and more on meeting new friends?
A. Between her retirement and her relocation, your mom has lost her neighbors, closest friends, coworkers and, perhaps, sense of purpose. Her dependence on you may feel like a burden, but right now she needs you to be a good listener first and offer suggestions second. Have her try this exercise: Ask her to write down three things that she would like to be doing. That might be fixing up her spare bedroom for visitors, knitting great sweaters for the grandkids or finally having the kind of garden that garners compliments. Then list ways to create that experience. Is it time to attend a class at the local library? Could admiring the neighbor's garden lead to an outing to the local plant nursery together? Lastly, list how she's going to be accountable for doing these things. It may feel like you're more of a friend than a daughter right now, but as she creates a new circle of friends, things will shift back to normal.
Q. The coworker I share a cubicle with makes and receives a lot of personal phone calls. It can be distracting, to say the least. How do I tell her without disrupting our rapport?
A. You mean you're not interested in overhearing her thoughts on last night's episode of Real Housewives of Wherever? Didn't think so. But no one likes to be criticized. So bring up the calls without appearing judgmental. Try: "Can we talk about an issue I've noticed? Your personal conversations can be a little disruptive to me. I know we're all working hard and want to perform at the highest level. Do you think you could make those calls somewhere else? I'll do the same." Negotiating is fine. She may suggest confining her talk time to her lunch break. Just remember: Work is work. This isn't about inconveniencing her; it's about pleasantly getting the job done.
Q. I have a friend who always reaches out about seeing each other, only to flake out at the last minute. I know she is busy with her son, but I'm tired of plans always falling through. What should I do?
A. I find it interesting that your friend repeatedly reaches out to you. Maybe it's time to flip the script by scheduling the meeting yourself. It may be tempting to unload your frustration on her when you catch up, but instead aim for understanding. Her last-minute cancellations might be the result of embarrassing financial problems or time conflicts beyond her control. Tell her how much you enjoy the outings and how frustrated you become when your get-togethers are scrapped. Also, having a backup for the day (say, heading to get your nails done when she skips out on a movie matinee) or inviting a third friend along (so you won't need to cancel plans anyway) may help. But after three strikes, you might want to just quit accepting (and extending) invitations.
Q. I heard from a friend that a mutual friend's father has cancer. I want to show my support, but I don't want her to think we are gossiping behind her back. How can I bring it up?
A. Before saying anything, talk to the friend who revealed the information. Get her opinion about how your mutual friend would react if you asked about her father. Some people can get upset if they think a rumor mill is churning. Others welcome good wishes during a time of crisis. You probably won't know which one she is unless you ask. If you do speak to her, it may be helpful to start with these words: "I feel awkward cheerfully asking you how you are when I'm aware of the challenges you're going through. Please let me know how I can make things easier for you. I'm here to support you." Pay attention to her response and follow up accordingly. She might not want to discuss her situation, or she might be overwhelmed and looking for someone to lend an ear and even a hand.
Q. How do I tell my tweens that their father and I are divorcing?
A.: Before you sit down with your kids, you and your partner should agree on what reason you'll give them for the divorce. You'll need to speak honestly but simply about your decision. A statement like "This is our issue" can go a long way. When you come together as a family to discuss the break, reassure them that the divorce is not their fault. It is natural for kids to take on guilt with divorce, but critical that they don't. Finally, encourage your children to express their emotions. When there is a reaction—and you should expect one—be thoughtful and avoid blaming your soon-to-be ex. You're there to support your kids. Tell them their feelings always come first and make them believe it with your actions.
Q. How can my fiancé and I welcome his three grown sons (25, 22 and 21) into our family? They've distanced themselves from him since his divorce and blame me for the split. But we'd like them to be a part of our, and my children's, lives.
A. Your desire to remind your fiancé's sons of their significance is admirable. Since you mentioned that blame might be creating distance, it is important that your communication be both sensitive and direct. Sit down with them or call them and explain your pain over their absence. Request a chance to tell them who you are (not who they think you are), re-establish a relationship and strengthen your blended brood. Then ask for input related to an outing both families would enjoy. If they're not responsive now, try again later. Family is forever.
Q. My two sisters are adamant that I should call them back on my cell ASAP every time I see I've missed one of their calls. I say they should leave me a message if they need to hear from me. Who's right?
A. Aren't sibling spats fun? You're an adult, living your own life, minding your own business and—bam!—they get on your case about something and you feel 8 years old again. The good news is that you're all on good terms and are close with one another. Be glad that your sisters want to stay in touch. You certainly don't seem to be ignoring or slighting them; it seems like you're just busy. So keep explaining, politely but firmly, that if they want you to call back right away, they should please, please leave a message saying so. Otherwise, you'll chat with them when you're able. That's totally fair—and all grown up.
Q. My neighbor recently told me he was facing foreclosure and received a federal bailout. I'm careful with my money and resent that there was no consequence for him for taking on a mortgage he couldn't afford. Am I being too judgmental?
A. What you might want to ask yourself is why you feel the way you do. Was there a time when you needed assistance and didn't get it? Are you struggling with some other aspect of your personal finances? I'm no expert on the economy, but I would think that by helping people stay in their homes, the government is stabilizing the housing market, which is better for everyone. And in many cases, the people who needed mortgage relief weren't completely at fault. Bear in mind that your neighbor, like all homeowners who qualify for aid, had to go through a rigorous process. So unless he was boasting or acting like he pulled a fast one, give him a break. Erring on the side of compassion does everybody good.
Q. I work in a small office with about 20 people and we share a refrigerator in the kitchen. For several months many of us have had food stolen. I happened to catch the thief in the act—and he's a friend of mine. He doesn't know I saw him. How should I handle this situation?
A. It's lousy being disappointed by someone you like and respect, and you must feel really torn. Confronting him could ruin your friendship, but staying quiet isn't right either. Here's the thing: Just because you caught him one time doesn't mean he's responsible for all the missing food. And you shouldn't have to play the role of food cop. So I'd recommend telling your boss what you saw without revealing his name. At the next office-wide meeting, your boss can say the thief was spotted but won't be identified as long as no more food is stolen. As for your friend, I'd suggest having an honest talk about his behavior. He may be having problems and could use a shoulder to lean on.
Q. Last year my younger sister brought me to tears by picking fights about how I was handling my oldest daughter's wedding. She never apologized and we stopped speaking. I'm sure to see her over the holidays. My plan is to be civil and ignore her when possible. Any advice?
A. You certainly have a right to be upset by your sister's intentionally hurtful antics. Walking away was a good tactic to gather your thoughts and emotions. Now may be an ideal time to reflect on your early relationship (both good and bad memories) and identify old conflicts that may have caused your sister to develop a defensive posture toward you. Sometimes we carry childlike thoughts and past hurts into our adult life. As the older sister, consider extending an olive branch by saying: "I realize we've had our differences recently, but I would like to both understand and work out our relationship as sisters. Can we discuss our feelings and think about how to make our relationship better? I want you back in my life." The conversation may clarify her frustration and allow both of you to develop a new way of communicating. Reach out and see what happens. Good luck.
Janet Taylor, M.D., M.P.H., is a mother of four, a psychiatrist in New York City and director of guest support for The Jeremy Kyle Show. Follow her on Twitter @drjanet.
Got a relationship question for Dr. Janet? E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.