Q. My husband, “Steven,” was raised by an abusive father. He received regular beatings and humiliation (in front of his friends) as punishment. He was not a bad kid. His mother stood by passively and did nothing about it.
Steven had two siblings who were not treated badly. His mom and dad continued to “put him in his place” in other ways when he was an adult. Since he could no longer be beaten, at family gatherings they liked to humiliate him by bringing up “bad” things he did when he was a child.
No matter what his accomplishments were, they never praised him.
He is a 60-year-old man now. He has suffered his entire life and was made to feel like there was something wrong with him.
When we noticed that our daughter was also being singled out and treated as if she was inferior to her cousins, we finally felt we had to do something about it and decided to no longer celebrate holidays with them.
We send cards and e-mail greetings, but we do not feel it is healthy for us to spend time with them.
This has made us so much happier, and our holidays are now stress-free.
Steven’s father has Alzheimer’s now, and his brother has contacted him acting contrite for his past behavior. He wants to get together.
I am fearful about this. My husband is a wonderful person and wants to do the right thing. What is your opinion? Worried Wife
A. I think your husband should seek a meeting with his brother, and perhaps visit his father.
I believe that the right thing to do is to give people a chance to make amends, while still reserving a self-protective skepticism and overall release from specific expectations about how things will go.
Your husband’s parents created a toxic atmosphere in their home, where one child was singled out for tough treatment and the other children were enlisted as part of the abusive system. Understand that when parents do this, all of the children suffer. The child being abused suffers, of course, but their siblings grow up witnessing this behavior, knowing that they might be next and feeling extremely conflicted and guilty.
Now that the father is no longer a threat, Steven’s brother might have had a genuine realization regarding the family dynamic, and it could be healing for Steven to talk to his brother about it.
I know from my own experience with a tough and sometimes frightening father that my willingness to spend time with him at the end of his life proved liberating. I hope you will support your husband’s choices through this challenging time.
Q. My father-in-law is dying of pancreatic cancer, and may only have months to live.
I was assisting him on his cellphone and found evidence that he had an affair. I saw an exchange of X-rated messages and “I love yous.” I pretended not to see anything and said nothing to him.
I assume the affair is over; he can barely care for himself and my mother-in-law is his caregiver.
But what now? I know the information would hurt my wife, her sisters, and of course my mother-in-law, who have all been taking care of him through his journey. I am angry at him for betraying our family, but I feel that saying something would make things worse in this hard time.
If I say nothing, they may never learn about his affair, and he can be remembered as a faithful and loving husband and father. Do I keep his secret? Worried Son-in-law
A. When faced with a dilemma regarding divulging a secret, the questions to try to resolve are: “Who would benefit?” and “What good would it do?”
In many cases regarding family secrets, the “good” is simply “truth.” If it is the truth, then those affected by the truth — even if it is a tough truth — should be led to the light.
In this case, your father-in-law has no opportunity to alter his behavior, and little opportunity to explain, apologize, and make amends.
I think you should let this one lie.
Q. You were too easy on “Fed Up in Chicago,” the vegetarian whose mother-in-law brought meat dishes to their home. Even Fed Up conceded that her MIL was probably just trying to be social. Her characterization of these dishes as “disgusting” was revealing. She’s the rude one.
A. I agree that this trashing was quite unnecessary.
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