DEAR AMY: I have been married for 15 years. My wife and I have three children. My in-laws are all the products of failed marriages, so there are blood relatives and step relatives to deal with on both sides of the aisle. For years, my in-laws have told my children that my wife’s stepmother’s grandchildren are their cousins. This alone is not true, since these kids are only involved in our lives due to marriage. I just keep talking to my kids and explaining to them the way the family tree works, and that these kids are not their cousins. At one point, my oldest son got mad and told one of these kids that he was not his real cousin, and then my in-laws confronted my son about what he said. They were apparently upset about it. Amy, I am not going to create a world that does not exist. Why should I allow someone else to create and force my kids into it without consulting me first? They are stuck on taking in these kids that have zero actual blood relation to them at all. I stand my ground on this, and my wife just thinks that I am being an ass. Because there are no other siblings for her nor myself, she says that this is the closest to cousins that my kids will ever have in their life. Your thoughts?
DEAR DISTURBED: I agree with your wife: you are being an ass.
Before you spend the rest of your life obsessively poring over a family tree at every potluck dinner, remember that “family” isn’t some exclusive club that you get to join by having two or more of the same biological relatives.
My own family is a complex web of second marriages, step-families, adopted siblings, lifelong friends with honorary family status, (and pets).
People in highly functioning and inclusive families will tell you that all you have to do to be a part of any family is to be considered part of the family. This means being included, regardless of your biological status, and reveling in relationships that are aunt-like, grandparent-like or cousin-like. It is wise to explain truthfully all of these many and varied relationships to your children, but to use loaded terms like “real family” only underscores your emotional ignorance about relationships.
Your in-laws are doing a wonderful thing accepting these children, so put down the genealogy chart and apologize. After all, if we follow your logic, then your in-laws shouldn’t be accepting you as family either; you aren’t related to them by blood, so you aren’t their “real family.”
You say that you don’t want to create a world that doesn’t exist by embracing these family members that aren’t blood relatives. The good news is, if you continue to treat your wife’s family this way, you won’t have to worry about keeping the blood relatives and the step-relatives in this family straight — given your lack of good manners, these family members might disregard you in favor of someone who is more open, accepting and inclusive.
DEAR AMY: My best friend is having a party, but I can’t go because I have already accepted another invitation for the same night. I want to tell my friend, but I’m afraid she’ll get mad at me. I need your advice.
Tired of Delaying
DEAR TIRED: Life gets busy and full, and friends, especially best friends, understand that.
You should respond to your friend’s invitation right away. Give her a call and let her know that you can’t come because of a previous commitment. I’m sure she’ll miss your company, but she shouldn’t get mad that you’re behaving like an admirable party guest, and politely committing to the invitation you’ve previously accepted.
If she is angry that you’re doing the right thing, then maybe it’s time to revisit your friendship. If the tables were turned, wouldn’t you understand that sometimes pals have commitments they just can’t get out of?
If you’re feeling bad about missing the event, offer to take her out for coffee or lunch a day or two after her party.
Most importantly, don’t let feeling guilty prevent you from having fun at this other party. The person whose invitation you accepted deserves your full attention.
DEAR READERS: Sometimes people who dispense advice run out of answers. If you’ve ever been curious about the life behind my advice, read my new book, “Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home” (2017, Hachette).