FAMILY ALMANAC

How to maintain a relationship with a family that’s dysfunctional

Posted Nov. 17, 2013, at 12:57 p.m.

Q. My ex-husband’s sister — his only close relative — lives 500 miles away, and her family is as dysfunctional as any family you’d see on “Shameless” and TV shows like that.

This sister and her husband don’t love each other anymore, and they’ve had massive parenting failures, too. Although their 8-year-old daughter is doing alright, their older daughter, who’s in her early 20s, can’t even get into a hairdressing academy because she dropped out of high school after a brutal sexual attack, then flatly refused therapy and now, she just parties all the time with her friends. And their teenage son? He has been placed in a special school for teens with anger issues. I eventually had to report the parents to the Child Protective Services, but CPS wouldn’t intervene without more evidence.

I’m glad that I’m cutting my ties with these parents because my sister-in-law seldom speaks to me unless she’s drunk, and her husband is uncomfortable with me because I grew up in a different country, follow a different religion and am “posh.” Even their children are distant with me, although I was married to their uncle for nearly 20 years and have known them for most, if not all, of their lives.

When I call them, they pass the phone as if it was a hot potato. They don’t answer my texts either; they ignore me on Facebook; they say that Skype is too hard to use, and they don’t like my postcards because I go to interesting places and they don’t. They don’t even tell me if one of them has been in an accident or spent the night in the hospital, although my ex sometimes keeps me in the loop.

They do send brief messages for my birthday and for Christmas, but they seldom thank me for the presents I send. I stopped sending money after a bad incident a few years ago, however, and we stopped taking the children on annual weeklong vacations after my nephew got mad and punched me.

I’m about to move out west however, and I want to keep these children in my life because I love them; because they’re not getting a fair deal, and they’re not as awful as their parents — at least, not yet.

I really care about these kids. But how do I make them care about me?

A. Your nieces and nephew probably care more about you than you realize, but they’re simply too disorganized to write their thank you notes, too self-focused to think that your feelings are important and too insensitive to see that good manners are a way of being kind to others and making them feel good about themselves.

Their parents may have even wanted you to give their children some Emily Post pointers but not if you were always telling them how to rear their children and certainly not if they knew that you had reported them to CPS. That would make most parents pretty peevish and rightly so. Unless children are in danger or the situation is egregious, they have the right to rear their children in their own way, even if they’re wrong.

Parenthood varies so much because each parent is different, even a husband and wife who have been married for years. And parents are different because each one of them has a backstory that is as unique as a snowflake, and it colors everything they say and do. Once you know this back story better, you’ll realize that none of us is perfect, but we do the best we can.

An acceptance of mankind in general may not make you like your ex-sister-in-law any better, and it may not tighten the bonds with your nieces and your nephew, but you should be able to meet good people out west as long as you can be a little more empathetic and perhaps a little more gentle.

You can do that best if you open your heart to the young and the old, the straight and the gay, the single and the married, the divorced and the widowed and to people from all walks of life. When you find out which friends share your interests and your values best and treat you with the same kindness that you treat them, they will become your family. You may not be related to them by blood or by law but it will be a family of your own making and it will suit you very well.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

 

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