Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Readers’ Comments On “An Incident Changes Inter-Family Dynamics”

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Several readers had comments regarding my column, “An Incident Changes Inter-Family Dynamics.”

Reach Out, Try to Understand

A couple of readers suggested that knowing more about the outburst might be helpful. For example, one writes: “Once again you bring a very needed perspective and plan. However, I am left wondering if it would be helpful to know what caused the rupture in the adults’ relationships. Will some work on that bring the family closer and make sure no one needs to walk on ‘eggshells’ and maybe help with the underlying tension?”

My response: Under a different set of circumstances I would tend to agree with you (that is, try to work things out), but in this case, the fear of a physical attack changes things in significant ways. It sounds like anger management has been an ongoing issue — Andy and Abby are described as having “hair trigger tempers” — so a relationship time-out seems the best (and safest!) option right now. If Andy and Abby were to come back with a sincere apology and assurances that no one need be fearful of them, well then, maybe taking slow and considered steps toward reconciliation would make sense.

Although I was not asked, I have to say that personally, I would not leave my young grandchildren alone with Andy and Abby, as I would worry that Andy’s and/or Abby’s emotional and/or physical anger could at any time be unleashed on my grandkids.

Change the Relationship

Another reader writes: “Since we first met, I’ve been on the receiving end of my sister-in-law’s meanness and coldness toward me. I always felt stuck between trying to make it work and feeling guilty that it wasn’t working. I felt my only choice was to suck it up. Reading your book [on relationships] helped me realize that not only could I change the relationship to be acceptable to me, I learned how to make the changes. And, as pointed out in this situation with Andy and Abby, putting a relationship into a time-out, or terminating it, are often the best courses of action. I am so glad that I learned how to keep my relationship with my sister-in-law ‘cordial and pleasant, and on my terms,’ as you say in your book. And no drama!”

[Note: Thank you! I appreciate the positive shout-out for my book on relationships.]

Some Relationship Changes Are Out of Your Control

As evidenced in this reader’s comments, some inter-family disruptions are beyond one’s control, no matter how good-hearted one’s intentions might be.

My 65-year-old-sister has been fiscally irresponsible her whole life. Many years ago, after our parents passed away, she came to my brother and me and said she was going to run out of money and end up homeless. As a way to honor the memory of our parents, my brother and I set up a trust for her with me as her trustee. We set her up with a financial planner, paid off all of her debts and provided her with a new car. We felt very good that our plan would keep her in a nice condo and provide her with a decent income for the remainder of her life.

I kept track of all of her paperwork. She constantly badgered me for money for non-necessities and was generally very needy. For her own good, I kept her on a pretty short leash, but I also felt that I gave her a nice lifestyle within her budget. For example, when she wanted to take a life-long dream trip I let her have the money to do that.

We knew she always resented our involvement in her life, but the reality was that she needed us to protect her from herself. Truth be known, she sucked a lot of time and emotion from us, especially me, but we hung in there with her because we knew this is what our parents would want us to do. And, most important, she came to us and asked for our help!

Then, a few years later, without any warning or discussion from her, I opened a letter from a local law office stating that I was being removed as her trustee. She also removed all of her money from the financial planner.

Since then, now over a year ago, no one in the family has had any contact with her, nor have we pursued contact. As my husband said, “She divorced us.” We have decided that when she gets into trouble (which we think is inevitable) and reaches out for another financial bailout, to now protect ourselves we will not get involved with her financially in any way. I know that sounds cruel, but after years and years of helping we just don’t have any more to give.

I was talking with a friend recently about this and told her that my fear is that our sister is going to blow through her money and end up homeless. My friend said whenever she saw a homeless person, she always said to herself, “That’s someone’s mother/father/brother/sister/friend – why is no one helping?” She said that after following my family’s efforts with my sister, she now understands how complicated these situations can be.

Key Takeaways

Yes, complicated and often emotionally draining are the operative words in many situations.

The key takeaways regarding relationships in situations like Abby and Andy’s, as well as those shared in the readers’ comments above, include:

  • Some relationships cannot (and perhaps should not!) be fixed, regardless of intentions.
  • It is okay to declare a relationship time-out, or terminate a relationship, when people have outbursts of anger, especially when the outbursts are physically threatening.
  • Be cautious in judging others’ decisions about how they handle relationship disruptions. Herculean efforts behind the scenes to preserve a relationship may have taken place.
  • Some people may deserve a second chance when they have caused problems, whereas others may not.
  • Children in particular need to be protected from any kind of emotional and/or physical outbursts of anger.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
E-mail queries to [email protected]

Dr. Rancourt’s most recent book is,
Its All About Relationships: New Ways to Make Them Healthy and Fulfilling, at Home and at Work

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