His brother drives me nuts. He has had enough therapy to learn words like “boundaries” and “self-care,” but not enough to learn what a boundary is. He has actively chosen not to be in our son's life. After my husband had depression this summer, my brother-in-law cut us out permanently, believing my husband just wasn't making enough of an effort. That stung.
The point is that my poor son is getting very low on family members. All five biological uncles and aunts are estranged. He has four grandparents, two estranged. We have two cousins far away, and my two best friends, who are the most involved “aunties” you'll ever meet.
What is this teaching my son about family? That it is expendable? Not worthwhile? That there is no permanence, import, between parents, children, siblings?
We have already decided not to have more children because we don’t trust sibling relationships. I’m truly fearful he’ll get the idea that you estrange from a family member as easily as you throw away a napkin. What do I do?
— Low on Family
Low on Family: You do your best with the family you have, and you invest yourselves most in the people who treat you well.
Because that's what you want to teach your son, isn't it? Not to force harmful attachments to people just because you share DNA or grew up in the same home?
There is a lot of room between that and discarding people like used paper products. You know that, so trust it. Trust that your son will see your efforts with your husband's family. Trust that your heartbreak over your family, and the members you miss but lost to the “package deal,” will come through when you explain more to him as he's ready for it.
And trust that you and your husband yourselves teach your son every day that family is the first place to look for connections that are meaningful, trustworthy, safe. Yes, your family was not those things for you — which is why you want your message to be that it's the first place to look but not the only. You and your husband and his parents and those best-friend “aunties” can teach your son as much about maintaining a loving network of support — and breaking bad cycles — as he will ever need to know.
I understand this may feel acutely difficult, for good reasons. Please also trust, though, that it's really just one of the many impossibly complicated things we somehow manage, sometimes blindly and always imperfectly, to teach our kids.
The world we’re sending them into is not only as big and strange as it has always been, but is also in the grip of technologies with implications even their creators can’t fathom, not to mention adults who apparently can’t even agree there’s such a thing as objective reality.
So what your complicated family teaches your son is that family is complicated, like every darn thing else. Even love.
But you can keep some things simple: Be there for him, always, the best you can. That's his model for every loving connection he makes.
Dear Carolyn: I am engaged to a fantastic man nine years my junior. He is divorced and I am widowed. Lately he has been using the term “obey” in regard to our relationship. I don’t like it and it makes me uncomfortable. I have not obeyed nor will I ever obey any man.
Should I say something or just let it go? Otherwise he is very loving and attentive. I feel lucky to have him at this stage in my life. He has a 17-year-old daughter and we get along great. She calls me “mom.” Advice?
Uncomfortable: Yes, when my head stops exploding.
“Obey” is just an infuriating distraction from the most salient point:
Any time you are uncomfortable in a relationship, you need to speak up. Any time.
In this case, if he does expect obedience — while he's “loving and attentive,” that old coercive combo — then you need to know immediately so you can get out immediately. For your values and safety both.
The point of speaking up is not only to be true to yourself. It’s also to learn whether your “fantastic” partner welcomes the truth, reflects, and stops doing the thing that disturbs you — or resents that you’ve challenged him, which no one is “lucky to have.”