Q. I need some relationship calibration heading into the holidays. A year ago, my father-in-law (“Sam”) left my mother-in-law (“Abby”) after 43 years. Things have always been tense around her. Sam frequently defused the situation, and the kids learned to “just shut up and do what Mom says.” As a newcomer to the family, I attempted my usual direct style of communication, but was told to knock it off. After 10 years, I assimilated and played along.
Although Sam had spent more than half of the past six years living on a different coast, Abby was completely shocked when he finally left her. She was devastated and went into what I can only describe as a psychotic depression: strange e-mails and phone calls to her children, threatening to hurt or kill herself, calling my husband by his father’s name, accusing him of physically assaulting her at a family function, and destroying all the family portraits. Several days after a particularly hostile conversation with my husband, I confronted her about her recent outbursts and said I didn’t feel comfortable with her around our daughter given the way she had been behaving.
She has since informed my husband that she has no intention of interacting with me until I apologize for my “egregious and abusive” e-mail. She wants to see only him and my daughter. Hubby says she can’t pick and choose which parts of his family she wants to see. Now she’s threatening to sue for visitation rights. He repeats the same message.
We have told my daughter that her grandmother is hurting badly because of the divorce, and that we’re giving Grandma space to heal. Our daughter hasn’t seen her grandmother in almost a year. I know she misses her, but I fear that person no longer exists. I am beginning to feel some pressure from my husband as the holidays near. What should I say to my husband?
A. Agreed, your mother-in-law is clearly not wrapped real tight. Because her son, your husband, wants to test the waters again, go along with it. But if she displays aggression in your direction, do not respond. Just get your coat and exit stage left. If, however, she behaves, give peace a chance. If she goes after you, you will have powerful ammunition to lop off the relationship.
Q. My cousin recently came out to the family. This wasn’t really a surprise, because we guessed as much. I have no problem with it, as I believe this is something that’s not a choice. My question is: What is an appropriate response? “Congratulations!” doesn’t seem right, but neither does “Oh, we’ve known for a while” or “It’s about time.”
I muttered something awkwardly, but I wish I’d said something more eloquent that expressed how I love him, no matter what, and that I’m glad he wanted to share this with us.
Can you help me with a good response to a friend or family member who comes out the next time?
A. You know, whatever you say that is supportive is fine. I have a girlfriend who, when her son came out, did respond: “Ta-da! I’ve known for quite some time.” With certain relationships, “Congratulations on coming out” would be just fine.
If you want a do-over with this cousin, you might drop him a note saying what you wrote to me at the end of your letter. My all-purpose response when someone tells me she or he is gay is to say, “I hope there’s someone wonderful in your life — or that there will be.”