Carolyn Hax: Advice

Accepting parental favortism

Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax

DEAR CAROLYN: My husband’s parents always favor his brother. No matter what we do.

I have encouraged my husband to spend more time with his parents, as you never know when they could pass away. We have tried to set aside time with them, just the four of us, and we are always included with the brother.

On top of that, we have had trouble conceiving and it has been a painful situation for us. So when we are with my brother-in-law, who has a 2-year-old, it becomes about her, and they ignore my husband, cut him off, etc. And they never inquire or ask how we are doing or how our baby plans are coming. On top of the fact they give his brother more time and attention, they help him out financially while we struggle.

I have tried for years to have a decent relationship with them, as has my husband, who recognizes the inequality. What should I do?

In-Law

DEAR IN-LAW: You should stop pushing for an outcome that has no foundation in reality. “[His] parents always favor his brother. No matter what we do.” So, accept that.

The parents have been absolutely consistent, at least according to what you’ve shared here. They favor the brother, they’ve always favored the brother, they bring the brother in whenever you try to see just the parents, and your husband knows all of this.

So why, why are you “encouraging” him to spend more time with the people who only torment him?

On the list of “No matter what we do” efforts, has there ever been an effort toward simple acceptance that these parents will never give your husband his due? Toward choosing not to keep trying to curry favor that has never been, and likely will never be, forthcoming? Toward helping him recognize — if he doesn’t already, which he well might — that his parents’ favoritism has nothing to do with him? That it’s about their emotional shortcomings, not his?

Again, given what you describe: All of your trying involves trying to change other people’s minds. I humbly submit you’ll be a lot more successful at changing your own mind and just giving up on getting anything different from these people. Please recognize that you have neither the power nor the standing to change what they put into their relationship with your husband.

That acceptance will change the one thing you can change, which is your own actions. Acceptance will improve what you give to your husband.

I suggest you give him, wrapped in a big red bow like in those obnoxious luxury car ads at Christmastime, the gift of 100 percent support for him in however he chooses to handle the parents who so persistently and consistently fail to appreciate the wonderful person you know him to be.

Focus on your little family. You’re going through a tough process with infertility, I’m sorry, so it’s more appropriate than ever to invest in what works. Attempts to wring attention from the in-laws do not work.

As for your they’ll-die-someday worries, your husband may feel relieved. Or angry. Or an awkward mix of things. Prepare yourself by resolving not to judge him by any preconceived ideas of how he “should” feel. Instead, simply follow his lead.

DEAR CAROLYN: I am a grandmother to a lovely 8-year-old boy whose parents are about to separate. I am supportive of both parents and want only the best for them and my little grandson. It seems very amicable, and I know they will co-parent with only the best interests of my grandson at heart.

I never insert myself into family members’ private business but I do want to be supportive to my little grandson, as he is the one I am most concerned about. I don’t really know what to do though. They are two states away from me, and while I can call my grandson, I don’t know what to say.

Do I just act like nothing is going on and not ask leading questions? I remember as a child that when I was upset about adult issues or confused by my parents’ marriage, it never occurred to me to speak up and ask questions. I suspect it’s probably that way for many children.

Should I somehow let him know I will be there for him if he wants to talk to someone other than his parents about this serious upheaval in his life? Any suggestions about what to do or not do?

A.

DEAR A.: You’ve already covered so many of the important points just by asking this question. You care about the boy; understand how vulnerable he is in this situation; know he might not be able to articulate his feelings; know not to take sides; are mindful of your place; are not rushing in to the rescue. While your grandson is indeed in a tough spot, he is also fortunate to have as steadfast an ally as he does in you.

My only suggestion is that you extend your good sense from thoughts to actions. Apply your understanding of your grandson’s position by explicitly offering him a place to talk, no judging. Apply your mindfulness of boundaries by mentioning your intentions to the parents first, so they can trust you won’t usurp, undermine or (further) divide them.

And apply your natural reticence by not forcing the issue beyond plain, gentle and infrequent offers to listen if he wants to talk. Your grandson might need prompting to “speak up and ask questions,” yes — but he also might feel better with your remaining as one small part of his family life that isn’t affected by his parents’ divorce.

People who aren’t dead certain what a person needs are sometimes the first to recognize what someone actually wants.

One caveat that might point to your course of action: Kids who start spending time with their parents separately sometimes have less time to spend with their extended families. Therefore, it might not matter so much what you talk about when you call as it does that you call, period. If it maintains the tie, then even the weather will do.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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