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I Am Estranged From My Toxic Mother. Should I Go on Her Birthday Trip?

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I Am Estranged From My Toxic Mother. Should I Go on Her Birthday Trip?

A year ago, I cut my toxic mother out of my life. It was a good decision. The problem: My father, whom I still see one on one, is distraught that I skip family events to avoid her. Now, he’s decided to pay for the whole family to go to an expensive resort to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday, and he is pressuring me to join them. I think it would be hypocritical to go on vacation to celebrate a woman whom I no longer speak to. But my dad is 85. He has always been loving and supportive to me, and I know my being there would mean a lot to him. I’m torn: I don’t want to subject myself to my mother, but I don’t want to ruin the vacation for my father. Thoughts?

SON

I think you may be misunderstanding what your father is asking of you. And if my hunch is correct, your decision may be even easier. He is not requesting your mere presence on a family vacation; he is also asking you to engage (nicely) with everyone else, including your mother — no avoidance or silent treatment allowed. If that’s not possible, don’t go. Your absence will probably be less upsetting to the group than wall-to-wall conflict.

Now, it’s hard for me to assess the situation with your mother, thanks to our national fondness for the language of pathology. You say she is “toxic.” But if I deleted every letter that used the word “narcissist” or “toxic” to describe people who seem vaguely selfish or unpleasant, my inbox would be practically empty.

So, I defer to you. Some parents are truly destructive. Steer clear of them and invest your energy elsewhere. More commonly, though, many adult children can recognize — by the time our parents turn 80 — that our mothers and fathers may not be the ones we would have wished for, but we can live with them and our ambivalence anyway. If you can keep your equanimity for the length of the vacation, great. If not, I respect that, too. But going on your mother’s birthday trip is not about your father. Explain that to him.

My husband and I went to dinner with close friends and another couple, who ordered an expensive bottle of wine for the table without mentioning its price. During dinner, they ordered a second bottle. We never complain about splitting bills, but there were comparable, less expensive wines on the menu, and my husband didn’t even drink any. We don’t want to say anything about this to our close friends or even to the other couple. What would you suggest for next time?

DINER

Let me tell you why I love your letter: There is an obvious solution to your problem. (Ask for separate checks.) But you don’t want to do that, I assume, because some people find the request cheap or tacky, right? Instead, you want me to concoct a solution that doesn’t require telling anyone what’s on your mind. That’s very human — but also absurd!

So, which option bothers you least: paying your share for expensive wine you don’t want, asking for separate checks or talking to close friends about a relatively minor issue that strikes you as unfair? Choose your own adventure. But for your sake, I hope it’s not the one that lets an unspoken grievance fester among friends.

My 82-year-old sister, who lives in a rural area 300 miles from me, refuses to pay for long-distance service on her landline and doesn’t have a cellphone. If I want to talk to her or check that she’s OK, I have to call her. When I do, she dominates the conversation and rarely shows interest in what I have to say. This may sound like a trivial complaint, but I don’t think she’s making an effort to stay in touch. Am I being petty?

ELIZABETH

This doesn’t sound petty or trivial at all! I’m sorry you feel estranged from your sister. Be careful about personalizing the situation, though. It’s possible that your sister can’t afford long-distance or cell service. And you haven’t said anything about her health or cognition. In my experience with older relatives, untreated hearing loss — which is common in older people can put a damper on phone calls (and connectedness in general). None of this would be a reflection on her feelings about you.

So, how would you feel about an old-fashioned correspondence — with stamps and everything? She may communicate better that way. I hope you keep trying, in any event. You may not succeed, but she’s the only 82-year-old sister you have.

My twin brother and I (age 15) play competitive tennis. So does our younger brother (13). The problem: They cheat like crazy on line calls and scoring! What can I do about it?

HONEST BROTHER

You have come to the right place, my friend. I have two brothers, too. (Vicious cheats!) Here’s what we did: set up round-robin singles games with the third brother acting as official linesman and scorer. Or start playing with kids who are not related to you. It’s much less loaded.


For help with your awkward situation, send a question to SocialQ@nytimes.com, to Philip Galanes on Facebook or @SocialQPhilip on Twitter.



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