By Esther Mann, LCSW
I come from a large family, and the message about loving family was always expressed by my parents. I have wonderful memories of spending tremendous amounts of time with aunts, uncles, and cousins. There was always extended family around, and I loved it.
I was one of three children, but it felt as though I had many more brothers and sisters. Our home was always loud, boisterous, and fun.
Fast-forward. The extended family members have more or less moved on. Some to different countries and states and some not too far away, but still not walking distance. I’m accustomed to spending every holiday with family and even just any old Shabbos meal together with relatives. My wife doesn’t come from a close-knit family and we don’t get to spend much time with them, for various reasons.
My brother, sister, and I all live in the same neighborhood and we’ve continued to carry on this tradition. Often, one of us has our parents over for a Shabbos or yom tov. It’s really nice. Everyone gets along; we’re close and so are our children. Our other sister, I’ll call her “M,” married late and at first lived in the city with her husband, “P.” We would often invite M and P out to stay with one of us for holidays or in general, but they never accepted our invitation. We figured they were newlyweds and wanted to spend their time alone. Since that time, they’ve had two children and last year moved not too far from us. We were all thrilled.
So now we’ve had a chance to spend lots of time with M and P and really get to know P. Besides the fact that I can’t relate to him at all, it’s become obvious that P’s idea of conversation is telling off-color jokes, even at a Shabbos table, or bragging about his various accomplishments.
The first time I witnessed P in full bloom, I was kind of horrified. I thought maybe he was nervous and his behavior was just some kind of fluke. But now I can tell you that this is all he knows.
I’m finding P unbearable to be around. I refuse to attend any holiday function if he’ll be there. He makes my blood boil. Everything about him is offensive to me. For some reason, everyone else seems to be able to tolerate him and his behavior. It’s shocking to me, but I guess as close as we all are, we are still different in this basic way. They don’t take P too seriously and still prefer to continue the family tradition of (the illusion of) one big, happy family.
My wife is a terrific person. She’s kind of on the fence with this entire situation. I think she misses the family get-togethers, which we haven’t gone to lately, but respects my feelings. My children miss spending more family time with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
I’m just wondering whether I have a right to stay firm with my decision to keep myself and my family safely away from P, or whether I’m being over the top and unfair. By no means am I a prude, but I have standards about decency, and being in P’s company completely shatters those standards. What are your thoughts?
You are in conflict. On the one hand, you understand the beauty of a tight-knit, wholesome family that enjoys spending significant amounts of time together and participating in holidays and important events collectively. It’s a wonderful feat for a family to accomplish.
On the other hand, you hold yourself to a certain standard of finekeit, which is not something you are willing to compromise on. We can all easily be tempted and influenced to lower our standards. Holding on to our values and constantly improving upon them is a noble cause that is worth aspiring toward.
But as with all conflict, one has to measure the risk/reward ratio on both sides and come up with a solution that, although it may be far from perfect, brings the best results both in the moment and for the long term.
Before I try to help you weigh the pros and cons, there are two things I’d like you to consider.
Think back on those wonderful childhood days and honestly ask yourself whether behind all the laughter and smiles, there were certain individuals who were less than perfect players within your perceived happy flashback. Was there possibly an uncle who liked to drink too much and maybe behaved badly? Was there a depressed cousin who brought down the energy level all around? Maybe there was a mean-spirited individual who always had something nasty to say?
Is it possible that you are romanticizing your childhood memories, deciding to remember everything as perfect and raising the bar so high that it would be almost impossible to measure up to? We tend to do that as we look back, remembering only what serves our purpose, so that we can hold on to the larger, happier picture. But few families are truly unblemished, with everyone playing their roles to perfection. It’s just really nice to believe that things were that way.
The second point I’d like to address is whether you have tried talking to your brother-in-law. I can already picture you shaking your head and thinking that I must be delusional, thinking that a man like P would ever be the least bit interested in what you have to discuss. I’ve met many “P’s” in my life. I know that particular m.o. But I also know that sometimes, with the right approach, such individuals can take in a new idea. It’s all about the context of the messaging and the manner in which it is presented.
Cushioned in a great deal of sensitivity and positive reinforcement, I would encourage you to try and talk to P. True or not, tell him how much you care for him and that you miss spending time with him and his family. For better or for worse, you have a hard time exposing yourself and your family to off-color humor and wonder if it’s possible for him to be more mindful of curtailing this type of conversation around you and your family, so that you can all spend meaningful times together.
Use your own language so that it’s sounds authentic, but if you can bring yourself to have this type of conversation with P, you may be pleasantly surprised at his understanding of your needs and his desire to work on himself. But of course, you may not . . .
Which brings us to weighing your options.
Clearly, you are no fan of P. But to segregate yourself from everyone else in your extended family is such a shame. Would it be helpful to sit at the opposite end of the table, so that there is a buffer between the two of you? I don’t know the age of your children, but if they are old enough, would it make you feel more comfortable if you had a little talk with your children about your feelings towards P’s sense of humor and general attitudes, so that they understand that they need to take him with a grain of salt? Could these and other types of strategic moves enable you to focus on everyone else rather than on P and keep your lovely family tradition going? If so, that would be the best choice. P is only one person, and by enabling him to upset the apple cart for so many people, it seems like you are giving him a lot of unjustified power. Why go there? It’s a serious move and one that could have lasting consequences.
If you decide that P’s behavior is just too much, and being around his talk ruins your yom tov, Shabbos, or even Thanksgiving, and you are willing to walk away from large family get-togethers in order to protect your sensibilities, you certainly have that right. Not all families are willing or able to do the whole “extended family” thing. Some families are happy to be alone or to bring together various friends and their families. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if you choose that option, be clear that your motives are pure and that you aren’t acting out of anger or from a desire to punish P for being who he is.
Which brings me to a final point. Who is P beyond the jokes and boisterous comments? Is it all a cover-up for an insecure, frightened man who behaves badly because he is self-protecting in some way, covering up a fragile individual? If that’s true, and you can see him in that light, you may find yourself able to be less rigid and more forgiving. The ball’s in your court.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.