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I worked as a waitress in college, and while the money was good, I often had to deal with jerks who would hit on me at work. One of my regular customers started to stalk me despite repeated rejections. I found him waiting for me with flowers outside of my Japanese language class one day. He had managed to track me down based on my first name, my school, and the schedule of Japanese classes on campus. He found my Facebook profile and even memorized the kind of bike I rode and recognized it on the bike rack outside. I had to file a restraining order and quit two jobs in a row because he kept showing up where I worked. I can’t tell you how awful that period of my life was. Since then I’ve been careful about keeping my face and location off of any kind of social media. I only keep in touch with friends by phone, and don’t put any pictures up online. My problem is this: I’m engaged to be married, and my sister-in-law-to-be tags me constantly in posts about the places we go to. She knows my history, but she still ignores my request to keep my name and picture off of social media. It has gotten to the point where I refuse to take any pictures with her and don’t want to go out to eat with her: She still mentions me in her posts. She has created engagement posts for my fiancé and me, and it has caused friction when he told her to take it down. My fiancé backs me up completely, but the thought of policing his sister’s media presence for the next nine months while we plan this wedding makes me sick. Frankly, I am seriously considering a destination wedding with just our parents. Can you give me any help at all?
—Quit Tagging Me
Your future sister-in-law’s behavior is not just thoughtless but dangerous. She cannot plead ignorance; she knows you’ve been stalked in the recent past, and that part of your stalker’s MO included tracking your movements via social media. You and your fiancé have both asked her to stop tagging you, yet she persists in a habit that scarcely benefits her but clearly distresses you. It’s time to set clear boundaries, with clear consequences, and to follow through with them. “You know I’m concerned about appearing on social media because I’ve been stalked. I’ve asked you not to tag me in your posts, but you’ve continued to do so. If you can’t stop mentioning my name on social media when we go out to eat, I’m going to stop socializing with you.” Let her know that if she does this again, you will take it as a sign that you cannot trust her, and you will not invite her to your wedding. Then stick to your guns. She can’t say she wasn’t warned, and what you’re asking of her is hardly difficult or unreasonable. If she can’t honor your simple request, then you’re not going to spend time with her. She can either have your name in her Facebook updates, or she can have you in her life—it’s her choice.
* * *
My dad was recently clearing out his book collection and offered me a chance to take some before he got rid of them. He showed me one he said he’d never opened, and I realized it was a book I bought him for his birthday over six years ago. At the time, I was completely broke and living in my car. I scrounged around to come up with enough money to buy it, and wrote him a note inside the front cover that described my gratitude toward him for being my father (I was adopted) and describing a few memories of us that I loved. Writing this was very emotional for me. When I gave it to him, I showed him that I’d written something inside, but he was too busy to read it at the time. In six years he’s never opened it up to read what’s inside. This is bothering me immensely. There has always been a disconnect between me and my dad, and a huge difference between the way he treats me and the way he treats my younger brother, his biological son. I really can’t get this out of my head. This feels like a breaking point for me, but I don’t know if I can talk to my dad about it, or how to start.
I don’t know the nature of the disconnect between you and your father; I don’t know how he would respond if you said, “Dad, I got you this book you’re planning on throwing away for your birthday six years ago. I wrote a message inside it about how much I love and appreciate you, and it hurts me that you’ve never read it, and that you seem to have forgotten where you got it from.” He might change the subject and turn away, he might get defensive and pick a fight, he might try to cover his tracks with a transparent lie that makes you feel both condescended to and insulted. He might also apologize and read the note. I can’t promise you that he’ll respond lovingly and sensitively, but I do think it’s worth being honest with him about how this makes you feel. You don’t have to accuse him of favoritism or of being a bad father. Just stick to talking about what he did and how you feel, not who he is. If his response is thoughtless or dismissive—and it may very well be—you’ll have to figure out how to have a relationship with a parent whose ability to demonstrate love is clearly limited. But if you don’t speak up, you lose out on the small but very real chance that he can apologize and try to make things right. Worse, you’ll have made yourself feel like you don’t have the right to say something when you are dismissed and pushed aside. You do.
* * *
My older sister has no relationship with our other siblings, a strained relationship with our mother, and strained relationships with her two sons. One of her sons is getting married next year, which is bringing out all kinds of stress, tension, and drama. My sister has a hard time understanding the need for boundaries in relationships, especially with the son who is getting married. This is her pattern: She’s nice. You inevitably disappoint her. She lashes out. It’s like Lucy with the football. From time to time, her youngest son pulls back, leaving her distraught and threatening to skip the wedding, and most recently she has been threatening suicide. I listen, I try to empathize. I try to reassure her that all is not as bad as it seems. I tell her to go talk to a therapist, to go see a doctor to change her prescription, to read a self-help book. But I cannot help my sister find self-awareness. I cannot get her to realize the role she plays in this mess. I have no idea whether her threats of suicide are legitimate cries for help or attempts at manipulation. I really don’t know what to do. What should my role be? I feel like I’m not helping. I’m afraid I’m going to get a call one day that she’s taken her own life.
While I don’t think you should get in the middle of your sister’s relationship with her son—it’s up to him to decide what boundaries to draw between them—I do think you should take her threats of suicide seriously. If you’re truly afraid that one day you’re going to get a call about her death, then that means at least a part of you thinks she’s willing to harm herself. Call the national suicide prevention line at 1-800-273-TALK. They can direct your call to the center closest to your area code and recommend local resources, in-patient treatment centers, and crisis counseling.
If your sister threatens to hurt herself again, you might also call 911 and ask for a psychiatric hold. If the police and ambulance staff agree she poses a credible threat to herself, she can be held for up to 72 hours on a psychiatric hold until her mental health can be evaluated and they can recommend possible courses of treatment. You say you’re worried about manipulation, so be upfront with your sister. If you think she’s threatening suicide in order to get you to do something for her, make it clear that you will not be guilted into capitulating to her demands, but that you will take her threats of self-harm seriously and that you’ll call the authorities if you think she’s going to try to hurt herself. You’ve already realized that you cannot help her become more self-aware, that you cannot repair her broken relationships with the other members of her family, and that you cannot force her to behave appropriately at her son’s wedding, so free yourself from the burden of those expectations. All you can do is try to keep her safe as long as she poses a danger to herself, and to help connect her to as many mental-health resources as possible.
* * *
My mother-in-law’s house in under threat of foreclosure after she used her home as collateral to bail her youngest son out of jail. He’d killed a man in a fight and then fled the state as soon as he was able. He stayed with his sister until she found his stash of drugs in her home and kicked him out. He then moved back in with his mother, who stopped speaking to my sister-in-law. My mother-in-law is always making excuses for her “baby,” and it’s killing my husband. My husband is the oldest child and has been taking care of his mother since he was 19, when his father died of a heart attack. I am not very fond of my mother-in-law. She once berated my husband for not rebuilding her broken fence after he had back surgery, but won’t stir to wake up her “baby” before noon. I received a large inheritance after my grandfather died, which I consider the beginnings of a retirement nest egg and a college fund for our daughter—everything my husband and I have worked for. My mother-in-law will not be destitute if she loses the house. My sister-in-law is willing to take her in, although it would mean my mother-in-law would have to move out of the state, and my good-for-nothing brother-in-law would not be able to keep leeching off of his mother. My husband agrees with me in his more rational moments, but it is very hard to be rational when your mother is sobbing on the phone about losing the home you grew up in. I can’t see anything good coming from wasting what my grandfather gave me. Even if we spend the money to save the house now, my brother-in-law is going to come crawling back in and destroy everything. And my mother-in-law will welcome him with open arms. How do I make my husband see this?
—Helping or Hurting
I’m so glad that your husband is able to see the rightness of your position in his saner moments, because that means you only need to bolster his resolve, not convince him to change his mind. I’ve counseled letter writers in the past to help out family members who needed a loan when it seemed like the relationship was healthy and the money would make a significant difference in their ability to function and thrive. That’s not the case here. Your mother-in-law has a history of making foolish, risky financial choices in order to protect her youngest son from the consequences of his actions. Moreover, if she loses the house she’s living in now, she will still have a place to live; she’s not in immediate risk of homelessness or abject poverty. Few people get to stay in the home they grew up in forever (particularly if they used said home as collateral to bail someone out of jail who then skips town). It’s sad, but it’s not insurmountable, and it’s not the worst possible outcome. Your mother-in-law took a gamble, and she lost. If you were to spend your daughter’s college fund (not to mention your own retirement account) in order to help your mother-in-law keep her house, you would be robbing not only yourselves, but your child’s future, in order to reinforce the unhealthy behavior that enables your brother-in-law’s poor choices and consequence-free life. You should not consider, for even a moment, using this money to help your mother-in-law keep her house. It would not help her; it would be deeply damaging to everyone involved. If your husband wavers on this point, or if you suspect that he might try to give his mother the money in secret, I urge you two to seek couples counseling around this specific issue, so that you two are on the exact same page and have strategies to support one another in your decision to hold firm. It will be difficult for your husband to break a pattern that’s been in place since he was a teenager, but he has to realize that he is not his father, and that his mother is not his responsibility. Her choices are her own, and there are ways to offer assistance that aren’t tantamount to a bailout. You say your mother-in-law is not yet in foreclosure, only that she’s in danger of it; you and your husband might recommend to her a foreclosure lawyer who can lay out her options and suggest a plan of action that minimizes her financial losses and prepares her for whatever comes next.
* * *
When it came time for my widowed father-in-law to move into a retirement home, the question of what to do with his old Victorian house came up. This house has been in my husband’s family for over 100 years, and now the house needs tons of work, a new roof, and updated plumbing. Nobody in the family did anything about this until my husband and I volunteered to buy the house and fix it up. I am sincerely regretting this now. Despite not lifting a finger to help my father-in-law keep the place up, every relative now feels entitled to voice unwanted opinions on our renovations, from the slick-talking nephew who wants the roof contract (we are going with a professional roofing company with excellent reviews) to my sister-in-law who has decided that she hates my color scheme (I don’t care what she likes). My husband has been traveling a lot, so the day-to-day operations fall to me, but it has gotten so bad that I actively avoid calls from his family now. Is there a diplomatic way to tell people to shut up?
—Out of My House
I encourage you to take up the art of gentle non-engagement. “Thanks for your feedback, Skerrin.” “Thanks for letting me know your thoughts, Steleanor.” “We’re going with Professional Roofing Inc. for the repairs, but thanks so much for your kind offer, Psteven.” “We appreciate your input, Skinthia.” Do not explain your choices, do not argue, do not attempt to change their minds. Simply offer a bland, empty expression of gratitude and be willing to repeat it ad nauseum. Do Not Engage is the policy going forward; practice the art of saying “thank you” while really saying “that’s enough; you can have all the opinions you want, but they’re not going to alter my behavior.” “Thank you so much. Thank you so much. Thank you so much for your concern. We’re still going with the green tile, but I appreciate hearing from you.” (You don’t, of course, but the niceties must still be observed.)
* * *
My sister and her ex-husband tried desperately to get pregnant. It took them three years and thousands of dollars before my nephew was born, and my sister spent the last two months of her pregnancy in the hospital. The emotional, physical, and financial stress took its toll on their marriage. When my sister said she wanted another baby, her husband refused, and she filed for divorce. Since then, my husband and I have tried to stay neutral. We see them both regularly and spend a lot of time with our nephew. While my sister and her ex are good co-parents, she has had very little luck dating, while he has recently gotten serious with a widow (who has two children of her own), and my sister speaks very bitterly about his new relationship. This puts me on the spot, because my ex-brother-in-law’s new girlfriend is a wonderful woman who treats my nephew very well.
Here’s the problem: My ex-BIL just told my husband and me that his girlfriend is pregnant, that they’re planning on getting married, and he was going to adopt her other children. He’s very excited, but he wanted to give us a heads up before breaking the news to my sister. I am completely torn about what to do. Do I tell my sister and let the subsequent explosion rip apart our lives? My sister will never forgive me if she found out I knew and didn’t tell her, but she has been so irrational when it comes to her ex that it’s hard to know what to do. My husband says my sister needs to grow up and can’t keep acting like the wounded party. I just feel that I need to be on my sister’s side now, but I don’t feel snubbing her son’s new stepmother is the way to do this. How do I get out of this knot?
—Caught in the Crosshairs
If ever there was a Gordian knot that called for a swift thrust of Alexander’s sword, this is it. Your sister’s ex is not planning on keeping this information from her; he simply wanted to give you and your husband an advance warning before telling her that he’s getting married and having a child with his new wife. As long as he’s planning on breaking the news to her in the near future, there’s nothing for you to do here. It’s very much his responsibility to tell his ex this news, not yours. You can encourage him to do it as soon as possible, so that you are not put in the awkward position of keeping information from your sister, but you should not attempt to mediate this announcement between them. Your sister needs to learn to deal with her own emotions about her ex’s new relationship and should not be enlisting you to provide her with updates or to snub her son’s stepmother-to-be on her behalf. Let her ex break the news. This is between the two of them.
* * *
I volunteer for the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, and get to spend time with a really great kid every week.* In recent months he’s been out of sorts: He found out earlier this year that his father was not dead, as his mother had always told him, but lives abroad. He now texts with his father regularly, but his father has never come to see him, and only makes vague promises to visit sometime “next year.” I’m worried that this boy is becoming too reliant on me to fill the void, and I’m especially worried because I’m moving back home this Christmas. He calls or texts multiple times a day to tell me he is sad and lonely, that no one understands him except me. Other than being sympathetic, I find it difficult to know what to say. What should I do to help, other than mention all this to his mother? Is it overstepping my bounds to suggest that he needs counseling of some kind?
—Little Brother, Big Issues
Your first step should be to get in touch with someone at Big Brothers Big Sisters—this is quite literally part of their job, and they should be able to provide you with institutional support as you figure out how best to help your charge in the few months you have left together, as well as guidance on whether or not it would be out-of-bounds for you to recommend therapy to your Little Brother’s family. They should also be able to help find a suitable replacement Big Brother/Sister to take over after you move away—perhaps early enough that the three of you can spend some time together before then, so he can get to know them before they are thrown together. In the meantime, continue to respond with sympathy and kindness to his calls. Sometimes “I’m here, and I care about you” is the best response to a declaration of loneliness. You can’t fix his family life, and you can’t change how he feels. All you can do is listen, and let him know that you care.
* * *
I recently hit it off with a friend in my biking group. He is funny, insightful, and smart. We have flirted on and off for a few months when he asked me out to dinner. I have never been so turned off so fast before. It was a burger joint so I wasn’t expecting perfect table manners, but I didn’t expect to hear every chew either. He smacked and slurped and I nearly made myself sick from trying to finish my burger while listening to him. He texted me for another date and I pleaded work exhaustion and skipped biking a couple of times. Since then he hasn’t asked me out again and we have been friendly and it has come up in the group that he has gotten a lot of first dates but not a lot of second ones. He is a good guy who wants to get married and have kids. Do I owe it to him to be truthful? How do I say the sounds you make when you eat made me nauseous? I feel this conversation would be awkward as hell, but I don’t feel like taking one of his buddies aside and springing this on him. Any thoughts would be welcomed.
This is an easy fix. A 30-second, slightly uncomfortable conversation in the moment could have spared both of you from bewilderment and a sense of distance. “You may not have noticed this, but you’re chewing with your mouth wide open and making loud smacking noises, which makes it hard for me to focus on our conversation. Could you please slow down?” I understand a general sense of reluctance to call someone out on their table manners, but if just listening to him eat a burger “makes you sick,” the time has come to speak up. That said, you’re also not responsible for his single status, so don’t feel like you’re the only thing standing in between him and a happy, fulfilling relationship. Obviously, the moment has passed, and he hasn’t confided his dating woes to you directly, so I don’t think you should pull him aside now to say, “I think the reason no one takes you up on a second date is because you chew like a demon cow on a nightmare cud,” but if he asks you out again, or if you find yourself out at dinner with the rest of your biking group, take a moment to pull him gently aside, kindly but truthfully tell him how off-putting his chewing is, and then leave it at that.
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*Correction, Sept. 8, 2016: This article originally misidentified the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization as Big Brother, Big Sister. (Return.)