Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax
Columnist

Daughter’s excessive concern about father could actually be abuse

Dear Carolyn: We live a long way from my wife’s father, who lives in his own home but who now needs assistance. We’ve been providing financial assistance to my wife’s sister, who otherwise has limited employment prospects, to live with their father and assist him.

My wife’s father and sister have verbal sparring matches pretty constantly, but both would be happy eating pancakes and ice cream every day. To me it seems like they have a right to eat what they want, even if it might be unhealthy. But my wife sometimes spends up to three hours a day on the phone, providing “guidance” to her sister and father on what they should eat, how they should clean the house, and other things.

Carolyn Hax

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997 as a weekly feature for The Washington Post, accompanied by the work of “relationship cartoonist” Nick Galifianakis. She is the author of “Tell Me About It” (Miramax, 2001), and the host of a live online discussion on Fridays at noon.

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She gets pretty bossy and demanding at times, and I’m concerned that what she is doing may actually be abusive. She claims she is saving their lives by spending all this time on the phone with them and they should be grateful.

I’m particularly concerned about the potential for abuse because her sister depends on us for financial support and may feel she can’t hang up the phone. Any ideas on how to change this? — Concerned Spouse

Your concern is that the place for one adult in another’s choices is a limited one — right?

Well, those are your handcuffs. You can’t micromanage your wife out of micromanaging her father’s household, especially since you’ve already challenged her approach once. (That’s where her “saving their lives” defense came from, right?)

That said, you have standing, and good cause, to talk to your wife about it again. And you can calmly hold your boundaries at home* when she gets “bossy and demanding” with you.

Start by speaking your truth fully: Prepare what you’d like to say, think of examples to support your point, imagine how you’d feel if you were the dad or sister, and imagine how you’d feel if you were in your wife’s position. Then, choose a time when you’re not in a hurry to be anywhere and neither of you is upset about something.

Then, start with any insight you gleaned from trying to see things from her perspective. For example: “I realize you are worried about your dad and sister, and I realize how hard that is, to know they’re not taking good care of themselves. I know I’d be worried that if they die prematurely or become ill, I might blame myself for not trying harder to prevent that.”

Then share any conclusions you drew from imagining yourself in her dad or sister’s place. Maybe: “But I’d realize I can’t make them live the way I want them to. And I know how I’d feel if you spent three hours on the phone with me, dictating my menus and chores. If I were counting on you financially, as your sister is, then I might be afraid to stick up for myself.”

Then hand the thinking and talking over to her: “Have you thought about how you’d feel, and react, if you got so many hours of such calls?”

If she doesn’t say, “I’d probably hang up on me and go eat ice cream,” then she’s lying, to you or to herself or both.

And that, in turn, would mean your chances are slim to imaginary that your wife will do anything except micromanage them off this mortal coil. However, please don’t let that stop you from interrupting calls when your wife sounds abusive, and consulting a therapist who specializes in elder care. (*Discuss boundaries, too, if needed.)

And do not fail to thank your sister-in-law for her efforts on the family’s behalf. I don’t want to think how rarely she receives gratitude calls, if in fact she ever does.

* * *

Dear Carolyn: Two of our friends broke up several months ago. The woman is a closer friend to me, but my husband is closer with the man. We would like to have a party, but I am perplexed as to whom I should invite — her or him? We don’t want any awkward situations at our house. My husband thinks the man has made more of an effort to host events at his place, so we should invite him.

It was my idea to host a party, so shouldn’t I choose who gets to come? Who is right? — Name Withheld

Neither. Invite both friends and tell both the other is invited.

Who wants “awkward situations”? But when you’re willing to hurt someone’s feelings (by exclusion) just to avoid awkwardness, you’re letting party perfectionism muscle its way to the top of your priority list.

Your friendships belong at the top of that list. Honor them and let the exes sort it out like the adults they presumably are. If they touch off a melee over the canapes, then your next guest list will write itself.

“It was my idea”? Really?

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

 
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