Every week, Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. Broke: My brother-in-law borrowed our lawn mower and broke it three years ago. We couldn’t repair it and had to get a new one. Neither he or my sister offered to pay us back. We wrote the cost off but agreed not to let either of them borrow anything else. My husband told my brother-in-law “no” when he asked to borrow our trailer to move his storage unit, and he had to rent a U-Haul. I later let my niece borrow it to move a friend. This greatly upset my sister and brother-in-law, and they demanded to know why. My husband told them about the lawn mower. In response, they said it was three years ago and we were being petty. Now they will not talk to us. My husband doesn’t care but I don’t want a feud to interfere with family events. Thoughts? I could use some outside advice.
A: Sometimes in a feud there is fault on both sides and careful internal emotional work to be done by both parties. This is not one of those feuds! Your sister and brother-in-law are simply being unreasonable, and that is not your problem to resolve. The last time your brother-in-law borrowed something from you, he broke it and did not offer to replace it. As a direct result, you have decided not to let him borrow something of yours again. Perfectly reasonable! One can see the direct line of cause and effect perfectly clearly. This was not, however, a blanket policy, and you were free to lend something to your niece, who has never broken your lawn mower, who is in fact an entirely different person!
It is very easy to accuse someone else of being petty when they will not give you what you want.
Your sister and brother-in-law are behaving very childishly, which is a real shame, but there is very little you can do, short of giving in to their temper tantrum. They broke something of yours, did not replace it, and three years later are trying to give you the silent treatment because you won’t let them borrow something else—I think if you give in to that, they will attempt to take advantage of you again.
Let your sister know that you care about her and your brother-in-law but do not agree that they have been materially harmed in any way, and that you have every right not to lend things to someone who has broken them. If they want to continue to pout, that’s a shame and a waste—but not your problem.