Carolyn Hax: Getting right with the family

Carolyn Hax
Columnist July 7, 2013

Dear Carolyn: My brother and sister-in-law have been critical of the fact that we are planners. If we invite them for a dinner party, then we generally send out an invitation, date, time, occasion and ask for an RSVP. We never hear back. We’ve called and left messages on the phone, texted, e-mailed, but they don’t let us know if they are coming. My husband is gracious enough to say, “Just make enough. If they don’t come, we’ll have leftovers.” They are a family of four.

We’ve heard through others that they are upset that we don’t check the dates and times with them before making plans.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

So another Father’s Day came and went. My dad was so hurt when they didn’t show. It turned out that their son had a game. If they had asked, “Can we reschedule?,” then we would have. If they had told us they couldn’t make it, we would have understood. The no-show felt disrespectful.

Are we in the wrong? Should we be checking with them first when we host dinners to see if it fits their schedule? Or are they in the wrong for not RSVP-ing, and if so, is there anything we can do about it? We can’t make them RSVP.

Or is my husband right, should we keep inviting them and make enough food just in case?


(Nick Galifianakis)

We would like to keep a relationship with them. We’re just not sure how to best navigate the non-responses. — An Organized but Frustrated Host

Depends. Do you want to win, or gather?

The etiquette angle here is a no-brainer. Their non-responses to your invitations and voice mails and texts and e-mails are as rude and passive-aggressive as it gets. If these were friends of yours, I’d be saying right about now that these aren’t really friends of yours.

The family angle here is a no-brainer. You set a Father’s Day dinner for your dad without clearing the time with his son? Really?

If I had to guess (which I don’t, but will anyway, because I’m in a bomb-throwing kind of mood), I’d say you’re looking at a sister-in-law who is bent out of shape over mistreatment, real or perceived, by you specifically or by your family in general, and is using these occasions as her proverbial duel at dawn. So far, your response has been to clean your pistol and set your alarm, under the faultlessly polite guise of “planning” and “ask[ing] for an RSVP.”

Maybe it’s more 10-foot-pole than pistol, but no matter. It’s still not the kind, compassionate or mature answer. The answer is to treat your brother and sister-in-law as family, and not guests. It’s to talk to your brother — “Hey, let’s figure out a way to handle these family events that works for both of us, because the current standoff is ridonkulous” — instead of relying on grudge reports from third parties.

And, mainly, it’s to loosen your grip on Your Way of Doing Things and consider a more flexible way to handle the events you host.

When you want to host a family-centric gathering, CALL YOUR BROTHER AND SISTER-IN-LAW, for the love of lasagna, and yes, I’m screaming. Ask them if Saturday the nth works for a celebration of so-and-so’s birthday.

Conversely, when you are just being social and including this family among friends of yours for a dinner or cocktail party, then give them the standard invitation treatment, where you pick a date and if they can’t make it, then, oh well, see ya next time. As a gesture of peace, also follow up your formal invitations with a quick voice mail: “Hey, just sent you an invitation to a party we’re having the Saturday after next. Would love to see you there, but totally understand if you have other plans, lemme know,” click.

It may be they’re too invested in this grudge to let go so easily. That would be unfortunate, but also out of your reach. You can only fix your half of it — which begins, as always, with admitting it’s there.

Dear Carolyn: I have an amazing and supportive husband who I am thankful for every day. Recently, I have been overwhelmed at work and my husband has stepped up and taken over pet care, housework, and even drives me to work when his schedule allows.

Of course, I’ve thanked him, but any recommendations on new ways to show him appreciation? I’ve brought home nice wine or taken him to dinner so much that it’s beginning to feel too easy. We’re also on a tight budget. — T.

It is too easy — nice wine is what you give a neighbor who gets your mail while you’re away.

To thank your husband, take care of him in small ways that you’re able to and that you normally don’t. Examples . . . hard to give, since it’s only right if it’s something he values. Foot rub, anyone?

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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