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Miss Conduct

The secret-keeper

A reader is dropped into a dilemma: Tell her relatives about a hidden family loan or don’t?

Lucy Truman

Last year, my adult nephew bought a car from my father. Everyone praised him for not asking for it as a gift. Over coffee recently, my mother confessed that he had borrowed the whole sum ($6,000) from her. Repayment has been slow and low. No one else knows. My parents (in their 70s) keep their finances separate; my mother has little income and leads a very modest lifestyle, wearing everyone’s hand-me-downs. My father would be crushed; my brother would explode; my mother would insist the loan doesn’t need to be repaid. Although the deal was between my nephew and his grandmother, I feel that I should interfere to protect her. I need an objective opinion.

Anonymous / Grafton

Your family lies and keeps secrets and moralizes about money. That’s my objective opinion. My subjective speculation is that if you’re being put in the position of secret-keeper/family diplomat over this, it’s probably a role you’ve played before. Do you always get stuck in the middle of brother’s temper and mom’s martyrdom and whatever allows your father to keep his wife in hand-me-downs but claim victim status if anyone else rips her off?

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If you do, you might want to see a therapist, ideally someone with a background in family systems. Because whatever you decide to do about your nephew, the fact is that your parents’ practice of separate and private finances is not sustainable. What’s going to happen if they can’t live on their own anymore — he sails off to a glass-chandeliered assisted-living facility and she winds up on a county cot? They’re going to need to start acting like the married couple the state and other institutions will treat them as, and they’ll have to start sharing their financial realities with you and your brother as well.

People who want their secrets kept keep them. Your mother wants her money back or her grandson punished, but she doesn’t want to take responsibility for anyone getting angry or sad, so she tells you. Tag, you’re It. She has put you in a situation where it is impossible to do the right thing by her. Protect her interest, you betray her confidence; keep her confidence, let her be taken advantage of. Of course, whatever you do is going to be wrong. She set it up that way. You can let that paralyze or liberate you.

You have options. You can tell your mother that it’s between her and her grandleech and set about dismantling your role as family caretaker and creating some distance. This may not be emotionally or ethically possible for you, but it is an option. You can call a family meeting of all the involved parties and tell everyone at once, like the detective at the end of a mystery novel. You can use your knowledge to benignly blackmail your mother and nephew into more responsible behavior and more open communication.

Never waste a good crisis, as the

saying goes. This absurd loan and its attendant deceptions are irrefutable evidence that the way your family deals with money is messed up. However you choose to deal with your mother’s secret, your ultimate goal should be to change the family status quo. This is where a therapist, or good friends who get how your clan operates, would be helpful.  I can give you strategy, but tactics you need to work out with someone who knows more about the situation and who can help keep you grounded for the long term.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.

HAVE YOU BEEN DRAGGED INTO THE MIDDLE OF A DISPUTE? Write to Miss Conduct at missconduct@globe.com. And get advice live during a Boston.com chat with Robin Abrahams this Wednesday from noon to 1 p.m.

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