Carolyn Hax: Minding the middle of brother and nephew’s estrangement


Dear Carolyn: My nephew is estranged from his dad, my brother, and by all accounts for bogus reasons. Be that as it may, our family is tightknit and wants to continue to include him in family gatherings. He will only come if he is assured my brother will not be there.

He has now become engaged and is excluding his father from all wedding-related festivities. My brother has offered to do whatever it is his son wants to do to sort this out, such as family therapy, to no avail. Earlier on, my nephew asked his dad to do some things to show he was serious, but when his father met the request, my nephew raised the bar yet again.

My problem is that I love them both dearly, and I continue to pretend (with my nephew) that I can do this crazy dance. Earlier on, we had discussions around it with my nephew, but now if we do, we are shut off.

On one hand, I’m tired of pretending, and on the other, I’m devastated that one misstep will alienate my nephew and his new family. My brother encourages all of us to continue our relationship with his son. I feel torn. Is there a solution here?

Anonymous: I’ll start with a small thing, because it may be huge: The reasons aren’t bogus by “all accounts.” Presumably, your nephew believes that they’re valid, and that counts as an account.

Presumably, too, you believe that he believes in his own reasons, even if you don’t. If he didn’t, then he’d be doing this capriciously to inflict pain on his father — which would be indefensible, wouldn’t it?

Like I said, this can be a small thing — a mental typo on your part — or the biggest possible thing, that one of them has knowingly done harm to the other but, to remain in good standing with the “tightknit” family, isn’t copping to it. So decisions to “side” with one, neither or both of these relatives are worth as honest a reckoning as you can give them using the information you have. Sometimes we have no choice but to throw up our hands and say, “I don’t know who’s to blame,” and sometimes that’s a massive, even malfeasance-enabling cop-out — and it’s always on us to be honest with ourselves which is true.

When you’re genuinely caught between two decent souls at odds with each other, then it’s tough and exhausting, yes.

But the solution is actually pretty basic.

1. Keep inviting both nephew and brother, openly, and let each of them decide whether to come.

2. Don’t talk about your brother with your nephew. There are ways to make that easier: Center discussions on his life, for example. (Nothing like a wedding for that.) Or talk about nonfamily things. Or follow his conversational lead.

3. When you slip, apologize and move on. If your nephew won’t move on, then so be it. If he has zero tolerance for frailty in the well-intentioned uninvolved humans going out of their way to respect his boundaries, then plug in that information and revisit your solution.

Just because these boundaries are emotionally tough for the family doesn’t mean they’re technically hard to respect.

The best way to respect boundaries, in fact, is to have them yourself — and declining to do a “crazy dance” for anyone, for any reason, is one of the best ones you can set.

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