Care and Feeding

How Do I Handle an Alcoholic In-Law Around My Kids During the Holidays?

What to do when it comes to annual family gatherings.

Child wearing a holiday hat looks at a disembodied hand holding a glass of what appears to be red wine.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My father-in-law’s wife is an alcoholic. Over the years, she’s consistently caused issues at major family functions. She recently got into a drunken physical altercation with my father-in-law and drove home drunk from an afternoon event. She expresses jealousy about his relationship with his kids and grandkids. She’s generally uncaring and mean.

I don’t want her around my toddler and infant, and have told her that she isn’t welcome to develop a relationship with them. Naturally, that’s driven a wedge between my father-in-law and his grandkids, so I’m not sure I’ve made the right choice. My father-in-law is very much codependent, so I can’t count on him to be a buffer. Though they’re often estranged, they’re together at the moment. With the holidays coming up, we will be visiting but not staying with them, and I don’t know how to handle the situation. Do I stick to my guns? Not say anything at all but don’t push the relationship? Apologize? I feel like I’m both trying to protect my children and being insensitive about her serious problem.

—Ugh

Dear Ugh,

The hardest thing for most people to understand about alcoholics is that there is no way to behave around them that will make them act right. There’s also no way to behave around their enablers that will get their enablers to act right. You can’t make decisions based on what you think their responses will or won’t be. You can’t offer or withhold things to teach them lessons, you can’t encourage or discourage bad behavior, and you can’t manipulate or guilt them into outcomes. You have to make choices for your own clarity, comfort, and safety. You have to be honest about what your boundaries are, and you have to stick with them.

If you don’t want your kids to have a relationship with a grandmother who is violent and unsafe, you are 100 percent within your rights to say that and stick to that. That may change in the future, especially if she ever gets sober, and that’s something you can communicate as well. But just remember that you are communicating that not to blackmail her, or entice her into sobriety, but to be clear about what your boundaries are and what you’re comfortable with. You can tell your dad that you’re perfectly happy for him to hang out with his grandkids without her around. If he has problems with that, tough. It’s no secret to him that he’s involved with an alcoholic, and it may even be helpful for him to see that not everyone is willing to put up with the level of bullshit that he is.

These are all boundaries that should be easy enough to hold (if you believe in them) at every juncture—except at holidays, when by design everyone is in the same house. And there, I think you just do your best. You haven’t written anything that makes me think you can never be in the same room with this person for one evening with other people around, so you may have to swallow that. I get that it’s less than ideal, and if you can avoid it you should—but if you can’t, you should be fine. The buzzwords are polite and good-natured. Kindly pass the peas to this woman, ask your nephew how his biology class is going, thank everyone for a wonderful time, and get up out of there before any of the drama starts.

You are in a tough situation. But your father-in-law and his on-again, off-again partner are in a tougher one. Here’s hoping everyone gets well soon.