Sister seeks a way to support younger sibling's choices
Q: My younger sister is 21; she has dated her boyfriend for two years. They had some rocky times, which made the family a little worried, but in the last 16 months he has really redeemed himself.
The preponderance of evidence that he is, in fact, a great guy for my sister has been good enough for everyone in the family except for my dad and stepmom. While my sister was home from school this summer, they were constantly suggesting that she date others. Furthermore, my stepmom thinks it's just really stupid for "young people" to be in long-term relationships. (I've heard this one, too.) My sister is not talking marriage or co-habitation; she's just been dating him awhile. How can I help her stand up to this? She's a senior in college, so dad and stepmom are still paying half her expenses; this adds an awkward layer to the discussion.
A: This does indeed sound "awkward." I'm sure it also undermines your sister's sense of autonomy, puts her on the defensive, strains her relationship with her stepmother, and thus your dad — and . . . am I leaving anything out? Made her summer a bummer?
This is aggravation, not irreparable harm. Apparently her financial half-support isn't even in peril. So, yes, you can be a huge help to your sister, by declining to join the cast of this shouldn't-even-be-a-drama.
It's a deceptively difficult role, to relinquish one's role. You have to fight the very impulse that moved you to write this letter, the voice that's telling you "I want to help my sister," and "Someone needs to restrain my stepmother."
But your sister needs to restrain your stepmother, and she needs to do it by helping herself.
If she were making a disastrous choice — if her boyfriend were abusive, say — then it would be your duty to get involved. This situation, however, like most, isn't extreme. It may be human nature to see life in terms of highs and lows, but the bulk of it, really, is just navigating the vast, annoyance-flecked stretches in between — without inflating them into dramas.
So the happiest outcome would be for your sister to develop some navigating skills of her own. Champion her right to live her own life, and otherwise bite your tongue.
Help mate to deal with loss in his own way — not yours
Q: My husband's father is dying of cancer, his mother died a few years ago of a different type of cancer. He is the sort of person who deals with things by not dealing with them. Do you have any tips for helping him get through this period?
A: It's tempting in these situations to conclude, "But he has to deal with this!" However, there's no right way to handle bad news, no right way to grieve.
Instead of comparing his reactions to your own experience, hold them up against what you know about him, and particularly against what you witnessed yourself in the aftermath of his mother's death. Different losses create different emotions, of course, but you do have a general template to tell you what he needs most at any given time: a nudge, a hug, an ear, a spouse who takes charge, a spouse who knows when to back off. It's more art than science, not unlike marriage itself.