SENSE & SENSITIVITY
Sister Needs to Put the House in Order

DEAR HARRIETTE: My sister and I recently got into a huge disagreement about a summer house that has been in the family for years. Every summer for the past few years something comes up and we have been unable to make it up to the house. I suggested to my sister that we should rent it out to people and she said that we might as well sell it. I don’t want to sell the house because it’s been in the family for generations. We’re having difficulty in reaching a type of agreement. What should I do to resolve this matter? — Sarah, New York, N.Y.

Sarah: Do some research so that you can come to your sister with facts and figures to support why it would be valuable for your family to hold on to the summer property. Contact real estate agents in the town where your home is and ask about average rental prices for a property comparable to it. Go there with an agent and get an assessment that you can bring to your sister to show how it can stop being a financial drain and become a financial asset. Find out how selling prices have changed over the years. Many summer communities are experiencing a boom in price. If this is so for your area and has been consistently growing over the years, you can show your sister that the likelihood that the property value will continue to increase is great. Offer either to manage the property yourself or to find someone to do it so that she doesn’t feel any burden. 

If she’s unwilling to budge just now on the idea of renting and you absolutely don’t want to buy, free up your schedule and spend time there this summer. Stake your claim at your family homestead and invite her to come out too. This friction may be just what your family needs to bond together.

Mama Drama With Her Boyfriend’s Son

DEAR HARRIETTE: I am a 34-year-old single mom with three kids. I have a boyfriend, and we love each other. His son comes to visit us in New York for his vacations. When he returns back to his home, he tells lies and his mother complains about my household. It hurts to see us arguing over stupid things and it happens every time he visits. I’m tired of the stress of dealing with this drama. What should I do? — Lucy, New York, N.Y.

Lucy: Chances are your boyfriend’s son still holds onto the notion that his parents will get back together, and you stand in the way of that. If you’re up for it, invite his mother to come on one of his trips to see for herself how you run your household. It makes sense that she would be concerned for her son’s safety and comfort. You can dispel any of her worries and establish a respectful relationship with her by addressing her concerns head on. 

Long-Distance Dilemma

DEAR HARRIETTE: I am married and have three children, ages 14, 12 and 10, who I am very proud of. Several months ago, I accepted a position in another state. My wife and I agreed that we would work through the back-and-forth commute. My dilemma is that I miss the kids and, more important, I miss the intimacy with my wife. I know she doesn’t want to move, since she has done this with me on several previous job changes. I am only home for short durations and we have very little time together. What do you suggest I do to address this? — G.B., Greenbelt, Md.

G.B.: Have a heart-to-heart with your wife, letting her know how much you miss her and your children. Talk about the options before you. Can you look for a job in your home state? Will she consider moving again even though she is apprehensive about another change of venue? Does she have any ideas on how to keep the family strong during this tough time? By openly discussing your situation with your wife, including your tender feelings, you will be sharing essential information: that your family really does come first. I imagine that you are working at this new job in order to support your family. Even though it’s tough now, especially in this challenging economy, assure your wife that you want to find a solution that will nurture everyone. Many families endure long-distance marriages for extended periods of time because of work. If you and your wife commit to the path before you, you will be able to find a way to endure. Planning a vacation is one good way to jumpstart your intimacy.

Parents Ruin Family Relations

DEAR HARRIETTE: My cousin and I used to be close, but my parents think she’s a bad influence. She is two years older than I and like a sister to me. I want to stay in touch with her, but I do not want my parents to think that I am defying them. I don’t know if I should speak to them directly or just continue the relationship with her without their knowledge. — Caressa, New York, N.Y.

Caressa: Explain to your parents that you want to stay in touch with your cousin very much, but do not want to dishonor them in the process. Ask them about their concerns. Encourage them to tell you their reservations about your cousin. Parents do often have valuable insights about people’s behavior, things that you may not be able to see clearly yourself. Depending upon how serious your parents’ concerns are, ask them if you might be able to have limited contact with your cousin — visits with other family members, communicating via e-mail, talking on the phone. You might be surprised at how open your parents may be to your suggestions. As long as you keep the lines of communication open with them and talk about your life, including your experiences growing up and your challenges, they may be much more willing to allow you to welcome others into your life.

His Live-In Lover Won’t Clean Up Her Act

DEAR HARRIETTE: I moved in with my girlfriend of the past 18 months and I’m beginning to regret the move. I love this woman even though she has three qualities that turn me off: selfishness, laziness and slovenliness. We’ve talked about her selfishness, and are making some headway in that area. That leaves laziness and sloppiness. I come from a home where we were taught that there was a place for everything and, as best as one could, you returned things to where you got them. In this household, that is a foreign concept. Whenever we talk about these things she becomes defensive and we end up arguing. If we don’t talk about them, I become resentful. I try to tell her and her two sons and younger brother who also live with us that it doesn’t matter what kind of a day I had at work, if I come home to a messy house it wrecks a good day or makes a bad day worse. I explain to them that I am one of those people who becomes really uncomfortable in an untidy environment. Is there something wrong with me, or is my girl just a slob with whom I will never truly be happy? — Felix, New York, N.Y.

Felix: When people move in together before addressing the basics of how they will share an environment, trouble often ensues. Love is not enough to sustain a relationship. You need a healthy dose of mutual respect as well as a clear understanding of how you can live together comfortably. You didn’t state whether you moved into your girlfriend’s environment or if she moved into yours with her family. If it was already her home it explains why she’s less eager to change the way she has lived in the past. Your request is huge for her, and she probably doesn’t believe she has to do it, if she even thinks that she can. Schedule a meeting to discuss your concerns about cleanliness. Let her know the severity of your feelings — that you aren’t certain if you can live with her if you can’t agree on a better way to keep house. Together, you should consider the options: giving everyone rotating household chores, hiring a housekeeper for support, or you moving out. State how you believe her domestic habits are negatively affecting your relationship. Be prepared to live with some degree of untidiness if you decide to stay even as you strive to teach her and her family techniques for manageable housekeeping.

Teen Daughter Wants No Part of Adopted Sibling

DEAR HARRIETTE: I am a 42-year-old married mother of two. While I’m happy with my beautiful children, a 16-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy, I’m interested in expanding my family through adoption. My husband is all for it, but my daughter is against this idea. She told me I’m too old to parent a little one and, moreover, she would feel uncomfortable with an adopted sibling. She suggested I wait for her to have a child to experience that energy around the house. On the one hand, I do care about how this will affect my children. On the other, I believe it’s totally up to my husband and me to make this decision. Do you think each member of a family has to give consent before proceeding with an adoption? — Rita, Alexandria, Va.

Dear Rita: Your daughter and son are at vulnerable points in their development: the teen years. Anything that could possibly threaten their bond with you would naturally cause them alarm. It’s natural your daughter would be apprehensive about your decision to bring a child into your home.

Lovingly present to her and to your son what you envision your family life to be like, why you want to adopt a child and what benefit this child will be to them. You don’t have to get your children’s blessing, but it’s wise to make the effort. Take the time necessary to make them comfortable with the idea. Bring books and other literature home. Invite a counselor to talk to them about the process. Proceed with caution and loving care so your family can welcome the new addition with open arms.

A Picture Perfect Problem

DEAR HARRIETTE: I am a 24-year-old who has basically been independent since I started working at 15, and I rarely ask my parents for anything. This year for my birthday I decided I wanted a digital camera, and I asked my mother for one since my father isn’t working. When I asked for the camera, I had no idea my mother was under financial strain and couldn’t afford the camera. Now my birthday has come and gone, and I haven’t received the camera because she couldn’t afford to buy it. I feel horrible and want to rescind my gift request, but I know doing this will only make my mother feel worse because I usually don’t ask her for anything and the one thing I asked for she couldn’t provide. Should I tell her how I feel? — Shanelle, Bronx, N.Y.

Dear Shanelle: Tell your mother how much you love her and that you didn’t realize it was bad timing to ask for that camera. Assure her that you don’t care about a gift. You care about her. 

Jingling Coins are Jangling Nerves

SENSE & SENSITIVITY

For son-in-law, jingling coins are jangling nerves

By Harriette Cole

DEAR HARRIETTE: I have the most wonderful father-in-law in the world. We both have hearing problems, but when he talks to anyone he tends to jingle the change in his pocket, making it even harder to hear him or for him to hear others. I am trying to discover a way to break him of this habit without hurting his feelings. He is very intelligent. Any suggestions? — Vince, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Dear Vince: Because you have a hearing problem, you know how tricky it can be to realize this fact and also to realize how your behavior impacts other listeners. On the one hand, it may seem natural that a person with compromised hearing would be overly sensitive to other people, even assuming others may not hear efficiently. Many people who are nervous when they are communicating, for whatever reason, develop habits that corrupt their communication without their knowing it. It’s one of the great ironies of the human experience. 

What you can do is pay attention to your own behavior. Do you have nervous habits you can identify? Chances are the answer is yes. Common habits include tapping a pen, kicking your leg, shaking and frequently averting your eyes while talking.

Should you notice something about yourself, use that as an entree to talk to your father-in-law. He will likely be grateful you are identifying his habit. With kindness and compassion, you can point out that his actions make it hard for you to hear him. He may be slightly embarrassed but will surely be happy to know.

Her Sister Has Gained Weight

DEAR HARRIETTE: I visited my sister recently, and I hadn’t seen her for about a year. I was surprised to see that she had gained a lot of weight. I mean a lot. Heck, I’ve gained weight, too, but I don’t know. I feel that if she doesn’t do something soon, she could get really sick. Our family has a history of high blood pressure and diabetes. I bet you anything she has got some of those conditions right now. She would have to. I also know how sensitive it is to talk about weight gain. She has been on the gain for years, and she would never talk about it. Now that I’ve gained weight, maybe I could bring it up about myself, too. I don’t want to do or say nothing and then see her get sick or die soon. Advice? — Annie, San Francisco, Calif. Dear Annie: You are right to be concerned and sensitive to realize how difficult it can be for people to address weight issues. Who knows if you will ever break through to your sister to get her to take action? But it’s definitely worth the effort. Why not research a weight-loss program that you can participate in together — remotely. Invite her to join you in a contest to see who can lose anything in the next month. See if you can bait her into the competition. There are many national programs that are monitored online or with telephone support. Find one and then work together on the honor system to see how you do. If your sister says no, go for it anyway and keep her in the loop. E-mail her with your progress, including the triumphs and difficulties. Be mindful not to brag. Instead, celebrate little victories and admit defeats. Continue to invite her to join you. Remind her that you love her and want both of you to be healthy.

Make Room For Your Stepson

DEAR HARRIETTE: I’ve have been married for 10 years. When my husband and I were dating, he cheated with his ex-girlfriend, which resulted in a baby. His son, my stepson, is 12 years old now and has been living with my mother-in-law for a year. My husband still pays child support. My stepson’s mother does very little for her child. My husband spends a lot of time at my mother-in-law’s helping my stepson with schoolwork and other things.

I feel that our two children and I are not a priority, so it’s causing problems in our relationship. If we tried to get custody, my stepson’s mother would suddenly want to be a part of her son’s life. My mother-in-law is raising my stepson to be selfish and lazy. 

I refuse to ask my husband to choose between our children and me and his son and mother. Would it be selfish of me to separate from him, because I just can’t handle this? — Bernadette, Detroit

Bernadette: I can imagine how difficult it must have been for you from the beginning, knowing that your husband produced a child with another woman while you were dating. Yet you married him knowing this. Whether you like it or not, your stepson is a part of your life. The sooner you welcome him and your mother-in-law into your life fully, the sooner you will experience some relief in your marriage.

Your husband is doing the right thing — paying child support and paying attention to his son. That’s the responsibility of a father. Because he divides his time between two residences, everybody is suffering. Rather than requesting custody — at least immediately — talk to your husband about having your stepson spend some time at your home. Create a space just for him, at least a bed. Welcome him into your family and encourage your children to treat him well. Stop beating up on your husband. He is doing his best in a prickly situation, albeit one that he created. Don’t give up.