Q: I was talking with my wife, her brother and her mother, and the subject of DNA tests came up. My wife and her brother both said they were thinking about sending in a DNA test for their ancestry. My mother-in-law started getting very adamant that it would be stupid for both of them to do it because they both have the same ancestry so there’s no reason not to just have one of them do it.
She was getting quite upset about it, and although neither my wife nor my brother-in-law seemed to pick up on this, I suspect my mother-in-law was reacting that way because perhaps they don’t have the same biological father, which I know would come as a shock to my wife. This is just my suspicion based on the way my mother-in-law was acting -- maybe I’m wrong.
My wife and her brother are now both planning to do the test. Should I say anything? If so, do I privately ask my mother-in-law why she’s so insistent they shouldn’t both do it? Or do I mention to my wife my suspicion? Or just keep my mouth shut and let the DNA test take care of itself?
A: Yikes. So much potential for disaster based on so little substance.
Here’s what you do have, and the only thing you have: You picked up your mother-in-law’s distress signal and her children didn’t.
Since the reason for it could be serious, please do intervene based on that distress, but limit your intervention to what you know and don’t put even a toenail beyond it.
Say to your wife, “When you and your brother were talking about the DNA test, your mom was not only adamant that only one of you do it, versus both of you, but also was increasingly upset the more you talked about it.
“It just seemed like you and your brother were both too caught up in the idea to notice your mom’s reaction. I have no idea what it might mean, but thought you should consider it before you do anything.”
Avoid your suspicions altogether and reveal just what you know -- and therefore just enough. Let your wife take it from there.
Q: My dad keeps oversharing about his relationship with my mom. He goes into extreme detail about their fights and how that makes him feel. When he is finished, he thanks me and tells me he feels more relaxed now that I know. I don’t want to be the one who takes that away from him, but I also don’t really want to hear this. Is that unreasonable?
A: Please, please be the one who takes that away from him. He’s hurting you and he’s hurting his relationship with you, and he’s at least indirectly hurting his and your relationships with your mom.
Just through prominence and proximity, most families already are highly involved in each other’s business. It can be difficult to recognize where one person’s business ends and another’s begins.
But it’s essential to, for the long-term contentment and cohesion of the whole. If people can’t live their lives with age-appropriate independence and without an earful of commentary from over-invested familial spectators, then they will typically do one of two things: They’ll contort themselves to earn more favorable commentary – thereby living someone else’s idea of what they should do versus their own, which is so unhealthy; or they’ll move away at their first opportunity, in a literal or emotional sense or both, as far as necessary to get away from the noise and live an autonomous life – which is the healthier option of the two but also a sad one. Disconnection is a poor alternative to the kind of intimacy families can build through mutual respect for limits.
You’re living the converse of the entangled dynamic: Your father has called on you to be his over-invested spectator, thereby handing you responsibility for a relationship you aren’t actually in. The result you risk is similar, though; either you’ll be drawn into your parents’ story in a way that interferes with your own, or you’ll tire of it and distance yourself from them both.
The good news is, it’s easier to decline to be over-invested than it is to encourage over-invested people to back off; you have more control and options. In this case, you need only to explain to your dad that you love him and wish you could help but aren’t comfortable hearing fight details – and then back that up by removing yourself from any conversation where he brings them up.
Easy concept, tough execution, I know.
You can be light and loving and fierce all at once: “Dad, you know how I feel about this”; “TMI! TMI! I’ll see you later”; “Find a new unpaid shrink, cuz I quit.” Do it while you still feel warmly enough toward your dad to express affectionate exasperation, before resentment’s the only thing left.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org