Dear LetterBalm: My mother has kept in touch with one of my old boyfriends, which has bothered me over the years because the relationship ended badly. He was abusive and manipulative, and he cheated on me a lot and married one of the women. Mom has an annual tree-trimming party, kind of a big deal in the family. She has invited them this year. I’ve told her that I’m not happy about this, but she and my husband say I’m making too much of it. What can I do? I know in my heart of hearts that the guy is mean and just wants to make me uncomfortable.
–Not Decking the Halls
Ms. L.B. says stop complaining because the matter is out of your hands. Yes, your mother and your husband are being monumentally obtuse and inconsiderate. But you can turn the occasion to your advantage. Go to the tree-trimming party looking your best. Be upbeat and smile. Don’t drink too much or be drawn into old arguments and be unfailingly gracious to the wife. You have a unique opportunity to be the truly bigger person. At first, this may be exhausting, but as the evening goes on, you may begin to enjoy your magnanimous role because it is the right thing to do and it subtly puts you in control. (And, if the evening goes so well that Mom wants you to have more contact with them, write to LetterBalm again, and we’ll see what we can do.) Have a few positive responses ready to put you, your life with your husband, your job and other areas of your life in the best light. Keep this in mind: You’ve moved on, and you belong there. Your ex and his wife don’t. A sampling:
- Jason and I have taken up tennis/golf/working out together. He found us an excellent instructor. There’s something to be said for shared competition – it keeps us fit and motivated.
- I got a new job a few months ago. The best part is, it’s more challenging and I can talk about it when I get home. Jason and I are pretty invested in each other’s work. We cheer each other on.
- Oh, I really like being an aunt. We have a great time taking our niece to the zoo. We went to her kindergarten graduation, which was so adorable. She keeps us young.
- We just finished Jason’s man cave in the basement. The guys gather and make all the noise in the world. I stay upstairs, listening to jazz, trying new recipes and reading books about Paris. In fact, we’ve made plans to go to Paris for our tenth anniversary. It would fulfill a real dream of ours.
- So, Marcie, how are things with you? Are you working now? I do remember that you like to paint. Are you doing anything in that area?
- [Only if this is true] Marcie, that’s a beautiful sweater you’re wearing, and I like what you’ve done with your hair.
- Oh, Lex, let’s not get into that. This is an evening for good cheer.
- Lex, we’re not going to go over old ground. All of us have moved on. Now, what do you think about the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium – the first one in decades to be played on artificial turf?/Are you still into fixing old computers?/Are you still collecting movie DVDs?
Dear LetterBalm: I’m the middle child in our family. We’re all reaching retirement age. My brother and I used to be close, but after our mother died 10 years ago, he pulled away from me (he says we’re “on different paths”) but remains in better touch with our older sister and one of my daughters. He’s gay and has suffered the loss of friends from AIDS. He used to be in the arts, but now he’s a realtor. I think he feels – wrongly – that I have been too judgmental over the years. We live in different cities (Philadelphia and New York), and I feel bad about our falling-out. Since it’s Chanukah, I really want to reach out to him, just to make a connection and tell him I love him. What do I do?
–Missing My Brother
Since you and your brother have been estranged for so long, your alienation won’t be solved in one fell swoop. You also may never know the real reason(s) why he pulled away from you. Ms. L.B. suggests a small first step: Since you’re within easy traveling distance, plan to attend an event – an afternoon play or concert or a museum exhibition in his city. Call your brother and tell him you’ll have an hour or so to meet for coffee just to say hello. He won’t feel pressured, and you’ll have an excuse not to linger. Keep your conversation light. Here’s what you might say, first on the phone, then a sampling of topics during your sit-down:
Hi, Simon. It’s Dora. How are you? I’d love to see you just to say hello. I’ll be in New York next Tuesday for a museum exhibition, and I thought we might meet for an hour or so for coffee. Is there a place you’d like to meet?
Simon, I just wanted to catch up with you, find out how you’re doing and tell you where I am now. I’m retired, and I’ve got a couple of interesting ideas about what I want to do. How is your realtor business going? I know there’s an upswing in home buying now. What’s going on in the New York market? Has it ever really slowed down? Have you seen any recent plays? You were always so good about understanding a playwright’s motivation.
Dear LetterBalm: My family makes me so unhappy that I stay in my room as much as I possibly can. I’m there after school, doing homework and playing video games. I emerge for meals and whatever I can’t get out of during the weekends. Most of the time, I’m on my own. I’m much happier with my friends at school and after-school stuff. My parents try to get me to talk to them, but they’re so lame, I just try to ignore them. I don’t want to tell them how I feel – I think it would be useless anyway. How can I get them to leave me alone?
–Do Not Enter
Here it is, son. You can’t go through life silent, unhappy and alone. Ms. L.B. is very concerned. You need to talk to an adult, whether a counselor at school, an aunt or uncle, a grandparent, an older cousin, a friend’s parent – somebody with whom you feel comfortable and safe. Everyone goes through periods of gloom, but if you don’t talk it out, your mood can be worrisome (and, your parents may be more worried about you than you think). Please, please seek out someone you trust, and understand that you may have to give them permission to tell your parents that you need to talk to a therapist. But first steps first. Start by saying something like this, and remember, it does get better if you talk about it:
Aunt Aliya, I have something serious I need to talk to you about, and I need you not to say anything to anyone right now. For a long time, I’ve been feeling sad and pretty worthless. I don’t want to talk to my parents about it because I don’t think they’ll take me seriously or understand what I’m feeling. My father wants me to tough it out, and my mother doesn’t have a clue. They’ve tried to get me to talk, but I just don’t want to deal with it with them. I think I need help.