DEAR CAROLYN: My husband does not want to invite his brother and family to our son’s upcoming bar mitzvah. He thinks they are bad people, in part stemming from some stuff that went down with their sick mother.
I feel very uncomfortable with this. I think you just don’t do something divisive like that and, moreover, I don’t want to introduce that kind of family divisiveness to our son. I don’t want to teach him that cutting off family is an option, particularly since my younger son has significant special needs and I don’t want “dropping” family to be an option to be considered.
Thoughts? The idea of inviting his brother and family is making my husband very angry.
DEAR F.: Then you don’t invite them. It is with his family and his feelings and at his expense that you’d be teaching your lesson about family – and what would that be teaching the kids about valuing, respecting and supporting a spouse?
You have a valid concern about “dropping” family. But even if we set aside the husband issue – say, we pretend this is your brother we’re talking about – you’re still trying to use apples to teach a lesson about oranges.
Your younger son’s needs are a fact of who he is; of course you don’t drop family members, or otherwise punish anyone, for circumstances they can’t control. We all have our own version of these. These are the oranges.
The way people choose to behave is a different matter – the apples. Being human comes with a full set of frailties and so loving people requires forgiveness, period. But while you obviously don’t want to teach your kids it’s OK to drop people for minor infractions or just because things aren’t easy, I imagine you haven’t, for example, hired a whole lot of violent felons to baby-sit your kids. We all draw lines on behavior we accept from others.
And so that’s an area of teaching that’s also important: when, where and how to draw lines when you object to someone’s actions. You and your husband have an opportunity here to show your kids not just how loving partners reconcile their conflicted feelings and purposes, but also how some behavior causes long-term, even permanent damage to your relationships with others. You can show them that when someone is harmful or exploitive, it is sometimes necessary to step away – even from someone you love. And you can show that a family’s love isn’t a be-cruel-with-impunity card.
How to be compassionate and how not to be a victim are lessons aptly taught in tandem; they’re also fitting ones, even in this unfortunate circumstance, for a boy’s coming of age.
DEAR CAROLYN: I am in my mid-20s and recently married. My husband and I had a very small civil ceremony that we could afford; we are both in grad school, and neither one of us is religious. His and my parents were thrilled.
On my last visit back home (just me), my grandparents came to dinner and didn’t acknowledge me or speak to me once all evening. I tried to ask them questions; they turned away.
I found out later they feel we are “living in sin” and were trying to make a statement. My parents didn’t say anything about it, which also surprised me.
I asked my parents later why they allowed it to continue, because the most hurtful part was their doing nothing to stand up to it. My mother’s response: “They are my parents, I owe them respect, and I didn’t see it coming.” What? What about me, her daughter?
I am reeling and fear this inability to stand up for ourselves may run in the family. I want to think that if I have children, I would defend them with gusto.
Please give me some insight into how I could have handled this better, and how to approach this again with my parents and/or grandparents since I can’t seem to get past it.
Still Stunned and Hurting
DEAR STILL: Of course you still hurt – shunning is brutal.
I think you know how you could have handled it, though: by speaking up firmly and, if that didn’t work, leaving.
So the real question is, what now? You just got startling news that you aren’t as assertive as you want to be. As terrible as it feels, it’s good information to have.
Instead of trying to fix this with your parents or grandparents, I suggest you focus instead on using this good information to fix you. Do an informal self-inventory, and mentally revisit past confrontations and their outcomes. Are you conflict-avoidant in general? Or was this a just one-time gobsmacking – it’s the rare person who can’t recall even one instance of stunned inaction.
Only you can say, based on what you find, whether this warrants therapy or a letter to your grandparents or just an “I blew this, but I'll be smarter next time.” The best approach to any of these paths is to be honest with – and kind to – yourself.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.