Carolyn Hax: Back to the dysfunctional norm?

09/20/2013 12:00 AM

09/18/2013 4:50 PM

DEAR CAROLYN: So, here’s the issue: My mother-in-law spends lots of time in warmer climates. Brother waits until Mom is away, goes wild, and it upsets my wife. Well, Mom was away, and my wife asked her brother to baby-sit for us (two kids under 5). He said he was busy (“new girlfriend”), but I called him to encourage him to baby-sit for us.

My wife was upset, so I had a few not-so-kind words with Brother. He hung up on me.

Well, it has been over a month with no contact. Mother-in-law is back, and she and my wife are upset that he won’t attend any family functions because I told him not to come to our house unless he apologizes and starts getting it right.

I guess I should have let their family drama play out as a spectator, but now that I am in it, how do I gracefully get out of it and return them to their previous dysfunctional selves?

– Mouthy Husband

DEAR HUSBAND: I see overstepped boundaries, but kicking out your brother-in-law till he “starts getting it right” wasn’t one of them; you had standing and justification to do that.

It was not your place prior to that, however, to “encourage” him to support himself or even “encourage” him to baby-sit after his initial refusal. I also question your wife’s asking with whom she’s in a pitched battle over his immaturity to baby-sit.

You two can’t get up in his business and then ask for favors. You just can’t. Each action undermines the other, because he’s either irresponsible in your eyes or not; he can’t toggle between the two based solely on what you need from him at the moment. Not if you value your integrity.

Likewise, your mother-in-law can’t absolve him of adult responsibility while also chastising him for his irresponsibility.

And, neither she nor your wife has any right to browbeat the son-brother for his choices and then get upset at the one person who actually holds him accountable.

I realize the latter two issues are not yours to resolve, but I include them to illustrate that inconsistency reigns throughout.

Your path out of this dysfunction is for you to get consistent, starting now: Buy Brother lunch and spell out that you’ve been wrong to pressure him, be it to move out or baby-sit your kids or change whatever aspect of his life you all have opined on uninvited. It’s his life.

Then explain that, with the baby-sitting bail, it wasn’t his life anymore, it was your children. Say you’d like to hear that he gets that. Then listen.

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