Dear Carolyn: I’m very lucky to live close to my sister, whom I love being around, but I am having a hard time with her husband. He talks often about his stressful career and all his money. He works from home at a very lucrative tech job that provides him ample time to be around his family.
My husband works with at-risk youth in a job that has become even more physically and emotionally taxing for all of us during covid. I’m really proud of the sacrifices my family has made so that my husband can do the meaningful work he does, and I want to be sympathetic to whatever stress my brother-in-law feels in his day-to-day, but my well has run dry. I think he’s trying to impress us but he really doesn’t get his audience.
Is there a way to tactfully bring this up to him? Or can you provide some motivating new perspective so that I can be more sympathetic?
— All Out of [Figs]
All Out of [Figs]: Maybe he’s trying to impress you, sure. He could also hate his job, though. Genuinely. Good money and good hours are nothing to scoff at, of course, but they alone can’t give a job meaning, purpose or a soul.
They don’t take stress away, either, necessarily; they just factor into the calculation of how much stress to put up with for how long.
In fact, good pay and flexible hours can become the “golden handcuffs” that keep, say, devoted parents in jobs they loathe — because finding work with the same kid-friendly schedule that supports the family and builds the nest egg and that’s also morally rewarding can feel like hunting unicorns.
So instead of assuming the worst — then resenting him for it — shake things up by assuming the best. “Sounds like your job is getting to you. What do you wish you were doing?” If you get a brushoff: “I mean it. Dream a little.” You’re either bonding or calling BS, win-win.
Also consider the who’s-impressing-whom energy runs the other way. Your husband sounds like an everyday hero — and maybe your brother-in-law is not feeling so great about himself by comparison, and maybe that comes out of his mouth as, “Ugh, my stressful job!” Because many of us aren’t great at identifying exactly what we don’t feel great about, much less articulating it.
It’s a theory. But even if it’s way off, I doubt your relationship with this couple will suffer for your effort to see him in a kinder light.
Dear Carolyn: A dear friend is a steam-shovel mom. With covid numbers down and after much pressure from her husband and parents, she’s let her kid “try” a return to school. It’s not been smooth (understandable after two years away) and she jumps in at everything, telling the teacher what to do, calling the principal. I don’t think she’s helping her kid and it’s super hard to listen to. Is there anything I can do besides rushing off the phone?
Anonymous: Yes. For the love of all that is holy, beg her to leave the teachers alone — and treat her anxiety medically, because she’s miserable. “The other parents love their kids, too. Imagine if all of them called this much?”
I realize this runs against my decades of butt-out advice. But good teachers are quitting in droves due in part to pressure from parents. There comes a time when it’s necessary to [tick] friends off for the greater good. This is one of them. Thank you.
Hi, Carolyn: I was diagnosed with breast cancer this week. I have a treatment plan, and I am confident I can mentally deal with it. The thing I cannot do presently is to be sympathetic or help solve other people’s problems or complaints, like I did in the past.
Only my close family is aware of my predicament. Do you have suggestions on how to deal with this without telling everyone about the disease?
Anonymous: The reasons to be a good listener, respectful confidant and supportive friend aren’t just that they’re the right thing to do.
They’re also a foundation for when you need these things from your friends.
Having respected their limits in the past makes it so much easier to say, when needed: “I can’t be your shoulder right now. Please trust that I have my reasons — I’m not ready to share them.” Say this any way you want, of course, but include these two points: You aren’t your usual sympathetic self and won’t say why.
Stand firm: “Please respect my choice.”
Unfortunately, this is when some people learn their “friends” are there only to receive support from you, not provide it to you. I hope that’s not the case here. But if it is, then phrasing your request just right wouldn’t change anything anyway. All you can do is spell out what you need using only the information you’re willing to share, and hope they prove themselves to have been worthy of your friendship and sympathy.
I’m sorry about your diagnosis, and hope the news gets better soon.