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Miss Manners | by Judith Martin

Message was received, but not well received

Message delivery system not without fault

Q: Two years ago, an acquaintance of mine — and friend of my sister-in-law, "Jane" — repeated to me Jane's ventings about our family. Our family thinks highly of Jane; she has two special-needs children, and my brother, her husband, is controlling and not an easy person to live with. She is from another country and without benefit of her family nearby. My family hasn't always supported her as they wanted, but most of us had small children. My mother was the most helpful.

When this acquaintance shared all the failings of my family with me, I was stunned and said, "I know my family has issues." To which she replied, "I'll say." She has based all this on Jane's venting.

At the time I thought, Jane has a difficult life and we all need someone to vent to. I never told my family and don't plan to, since they love her.

However, two years later, I can't forget the way she spoke poorly and unfairly of my family, particularly my mother. Should I talk to Jane about it, or just chalk it up to her falling off the pedestal I put her on? I think she has noticed a little less warmth from me, but we are still friends.


A: How about that indiscreet, judgmental, boundary-oblivious acquaintance of yours — do you have a little less warmth to send her way, too?

Because she, not Jane, is the wolf in this fairy tale. Your initial, charitable take on Jane was the right one. She is stranded without her family, she is married to a difficult and controlling man, she does have a relentless set of responsibilities in her children's special needs, she does have reason to believe her husband's family hasn't been fully supportive, and we all need someone to vent to. This is all drawn straight from your own words, and unless you've never ever been guilty of piling on during a vent session, each is a valid, extenuating circumstance in Jane's favor.

I'll go one further, though, and say that pedestals are lonely places. The lonely are quick to let their guard down, and so are particularly vulnerable to those who would abuse their trust — who would, say, leverage their private frustrations by blabbing them to the source.

Maybe this friend didn't intend to undermine Jane and instead thought she was helping — but still that's casting herself as the hero in a drama where she has no role.

And look what it wrought: You've cooled on Jane and this mutual friend is unscathed.

Instead of distancing yourself, why not try to see the venting through Jane's eyes, and take it as constructive criticism? Yes, she should have spoken to your family directly and, yes, she confided in the wrong friend — but don't dismiss the message just because the messenger botched the job.

Stop bankrolling grown daughter's life, choices

Q: After graduating from art school in 2008, my daughter, now 26, worked an assortment of odd jobs before landing a job at an art gallery last year. I've been giving her $2,500 a month to help cover her living expenses, but I feel like she should be able to shoulder more of her own expenses, given what she earns. There always seems to be some unexpected expense that crops up, though, preventing me from cutting back my support.

To make matters worse, she and a co-worker are fed up with the boss and now want to quit and open up their own art gallery. The co-worker apparently would be able to secure financial backing. My daughter would work as director.

I want to retire, but my retirement income would not be enough to support both me and my daughter. Meanwhile, I feel that after a lifetime of support, including college costs and a new car, I've done enough. But if she fails, then she might have to move back in with me, which would be an intolerable situation. So I feel stuck. Any suggestions?

Sad Dad

A: Only one, since flicking you in the forehead is both impossible via typography and generally frowned upon: Cut this parasite off.

(Or, adopt me! I'd take $1,500 without so much as a harrumph. I'd even bake you a pie.)

When your daughter worked odd jobs, your enabling had the fig leaf of need. Now that she has steady employment, though, which she's poised to discard for something sexier, you have proof that you're not pre-empting poverty, you're insulating her from the cost of her choices.

Was it your parents' problem when you outspent your income, or did you have to manage? Why can't your educated adult daughter do that? Why infantilize her?

Sure, wean her instead of cutting her off abruptly — but finish the weaning by your preferred retirement date, and start today.

Subhed subhed

Q: My mother is a member of the Facebook community, where she often goes in search of people from her past. She has found many friends from her childhood, including a man whom she grew up with.

They began talking on Facebook and then moved on to texting over their cellphones. They have become close and have developed a romantic relationship. Since they live in different states, their relationship is mainly over the phone. However, on occasion, they each have driven cross-country to visit the other.

My mother wants my sister and me to be close to this man, so much so that she becomes pushy and almost tries to force it.

My problem is that he is married. Worse yet, his wife is ill and dying. When I finally agreed to meet him, he explained that he still loves his wife, as opposed to being in love with her, and that he refuses to leave her while she needs help, but that he cannot ignore his heart.

How do I respond to their relationship? Do I just accept it even though it makes me feel uncomfortable? Do I refuse to be a part of it?

I'm conflicted because I feel what they are doing is wrong, especially to the man's wife (I can't help but picture myself in her position -- I would be heartbroken!), but my sister is married and dating another man and it doesn't bother me. She and her husband have been separated for three years now.

Am I a hypocrite for accepting my sister's relationship but not my mother's?

A: Let us rather say that you are doing some selective empathizing. It would be simpler if you took a principled stand, either that married people should never date, or that extenuating circumstances permit it.

Miss Manners would have been prepared for you to argue that you knew your brother-in-law didn't mind his wife's activities, but you did not. And while it is likely that the wife of your mother's friend would mind her husband's romance, you do not know that -- sometimes a dying person wants to know that the spouse will be taken care of.

So it does look a bit as if, in the absence of guidelines, you are simply opposing your mother. That is not to say that your mother is right, nor that you need to befriend her beau now. But you should bear in mind that you may end up related to him.

A technique that many people scorn as cowardly, Miss Manners recommends as useful: hedging. She suggests asking your mother not to force the issue now, but to allow you some time before treating him as one of the family.

Message was received, but not well received 10/20/12 [Last modified: Saturday, October 20, 2012 4:31am]
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