Dear Harry and Louise:
Four years ago, we were visiting my parents in Florida when my brother-in-law had a run in with my son, who was 11 at the time. My son was running across the living room when my brother-in-law stuck out his foot and tripped him. My son wasn’t hurt badly, but he came up crying. “Why did you trip me?” he asked. My brother-in-law thinks of himself as a jokester, and he probably didn’t mean to hurt my son. But he said, “I didn’t trip you. You’re a klutz. You fell down.” My son, who’s small for his age, couldn’t believe it and said, “Uncle Stu, you stuck your foot out.” Instead of admitting it or laughing it off, Stu replied, “You’re a liar. Don’t be such a girl!”
I didn’t see this, but my wife was in the room. She was aghast. I asked my brother-in-law to apologize so we could move on. He refused. We have not spoken since.
My mom has invited us to Thanksgiving dinner. It would the first time we would be with my brother-in-law. My wife wants to make peace, but my son is still wounded, and I never got my apology.
Should we go to dinner?
• • •
This is about your son. Everyone else matters less.
He was 11 when your jerk of a brother-in-law tripped him and added insult to injury. Calling a boy in puberty a “girl” can be extra hurtful and perhaps damaging. Now your son is 15, and more of his own man. I would take your cues from him. Is he still affected by the encounter? Does he value your brother-in-law? Have you spoken about it?
Perhaps he’s making less of the offense than you and your wife, and that would be a good thing. If that’s the case, I would lean toward attending Thanksgiving. By acting normal and mending fences, you would be taking any residual venom out of the offensive act. If you continue to react in a negative fashion, you actually honor the jerk. You essentially give him power, as if his misbehavior still matters.
Show up, be a gentleman, smile at your sister’s husband—and break bread with the family. That would be a manly response, for you and for your son.
• • •
Your brother-in-law is an asshole.
That may not help you, but I feel better.
Your mom is much more important than your brother-in-law. Have a chat with her. She doesn’t need to replay the nasty event, but she should know that you won’t be able to pour on the charm toward her son-in-law while enjoying the family dinner. After you and Mom briefly discuss the family dynamics—very briefly, with no added drama—it’s time to have a talk with yourself. Commit to thinking about how your brother-in-law will affect your day so you can avoid reacting to his every gesture. Remind yourself that you owe nothing to a bully who has caused your family despair. However, for the sake of a genial family dynamic, you can decide to provide a polite handshake and hello to the brother-in-law upon arrival. At any family gathering, or any gathering for that matter, there are folks who receive more of your attention. You will spend time doling out your conversation and laughter toward those you love and respect.
This move will have the added benefit of being a great example for your son. He will watch you be kind and generous toward the family while not allowing the brother-in-law to dampen your spirit and goodwill. He will learn that while it is really, really difficult, the turkeys should never get us down.
• • •
There’s always the chance that the obnoxious brother-in-law is ready to admit his bad behavior and make amends. Accept it, but I would never trust the guy.
Unless the brother-in-law has been ensconced in a remote redoubt without phone or Internet service, don’t count on an apology. And if he lays a hand on your son, deck him. In the backyard near the unused swing set, of course. I like things congenial.