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Cutting grandma out of the loop

Columnist

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

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

Is there ever a time when cutting a grandmother out of the picture is the right thing to do? If she has shown manipulation to the kids and parents, clear favoritism and poor safety measures (but does not admit to any of it)?

Washington

Of course — once you’re sure she poses a risk of real damage (vs. just being a nuisance), and you’ve tried all possible ways of preventing the damage while still having the person in your life.

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

That might include shorter/infrequent visits; avoiding visits at emotionally charged times, like holidays; hosting visits only on your own or neutral territory; sharing activities (going to a play) vs. conversing; combining visits with neutralizing third parties; etc.

It may seem ridiculous to go to such lengths to accommodate someone toxic, but I think there’s a tendency to oversimplify villains. Often people become manipulative as an almost feral response to past emotional trauma. Consider that Grandma herself is a victim, and see whether that illuminates anything for you.

If it doesn’t, or if there’s just too much opportunity for her to scar the grandkids emotionally, then estrangement might be your only choice.

Dear Carolyn:

This is at least the second time recently that you’ve advocated for letting a “victim” behave inappropriately.

I suspect everyone who mistreats others was once mistreated; I’m sure it’s a big part of why they make the choices they do. I agree that compassion is important, but shouldn’t we hold people responsible for their actions?

My mother was abused as a child, and I sincerely grieve for her many losses. It seems tragic that we would add to those losses by saying that because she was a victim, she can’t make better choices herself — she can’t find the courage and dignity to live a different sort of life. Excusing manipulation, dishonesty and abuse because someone was a victim seems to communicate that they can’t be better than that.

Anonymous

I don’t advocate for “letting a ‘victim’ behave inappropriately.” I advocate for making estrangement a last possible resort. I listed a bunch of adjustments a family can make — all geared toward denying opportunities for bad behavior, and encouraging good behavior.

I wish there were a direct channel to everyone’s better angels, and that people would be moved to tap into their “courage and dignity” when someone simply stated to them that X is the rule of your household or Y will not be tolerated.

Unfortunately, though, many bad behaviors are intractable, and there has to be a third option between re-raising an adult relative into a better person and kicking them out of the family. If I favored “excusing manipulation, dishonesty and abuse,” then I’d urge people to pity these relatives and embrace them without reservation. That’s not what I’ve advised.

I’ve said that some people are living the only way they understand, and if forthright attempts to elicit better behavior have failed, then estrangement isn’t the next step. Containment is: Honor the complexities of family ties, and try to make things work within specific, increasingly firm limits. If that fails, then estrangement.

Every step includes accountability in the form of consequences, following a thoughtful, logical sequence — providing troubled/troublesome relatives, at every step, a chance to make better choices.

Write to Tell Me About It, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com.

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