DEAR AMY: My mother-in-law has a gambling addiction. She gambles away her and her husband’s incomes, and takes out payday loans. We are constantly barraged with calls from debt collectors looking for her; she has stolen money from people (including her own children); she has gambled away land that had been in her family for more than 100 years; she has taken out a credit card in my husband’s name and not paid it, putting a huge black mark on his previously impeccable credit. She’s been confronted, agreed to seek help, has attempted to pay back what she’s stolen or borrowed, but it always ends with the same things happening all over again. My husband’s sister currently pays their parents’ mortgage and bills, despite my mother and father-in-law both having jobs that should more than cover these expenses. Recently, my in-laws said they needed to make a big purchase, and my sister-in-law informed my husband and me that we needed to help them make it. We feel that it is an expense that they should more than be able to afford. My sister-in-law told us in plain language that it is our responsibility to help them when they need it and that she and her husband resent that we don’t help them financially. I feel that giving them money is only fueling the gambling habit. My husband agrees with me, but also feels very guilty not helping his parents. We’re torn between helping people we love and putting our foot down and saying that we have already suffered financially from her dishonesty and the money she’s taken from us (we’ve never pursued legal recourse against those actions), and our feeling that we want to be helpful to her. How do we reconcile standing firm against what we believe is wrong with not being heartless toward people we love?
DEAR CONFLICTED: Your family needs to redefine what it means to “help.” It might clarify things if you realize that enabling only drives your mother-in-law deeper into her addiction and delays her recovery.
She committed a serious crime when she took out a credit card in her son’s name. And what were the consequences for this crime? More “help.”
Interventions only work when all loved ones say — in unison — “We love you but we won’t support your addiction.” Your sister-in-law is not helping her parents by propping them up. Her own anxiety and guilt drives her to do this. She is very much a part of the dysfunction, and you should urge her to stop.
I highly recommend that all of you read, “Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself,” by Melodie Beattie (1986, Hazelden). This self-help classic will help you to see the role all of you play in your mother-in-law’s addiction.
DEAR AMY: One of my close relatives has a little dog that I loathe. It has often been brought to family gatherings, and every single time it annoys me considerably. The dog stays close to our dinner table and constantly whines for food and attention. The dog’s horrible manners are obviously tolerated (and even encouraged) by the owners by feeding it from the table. This has ruined my appetite. I will hold a gathering at our house soon. I feel that I am entitled to a great time in my own home without that ill-mannered beast, but, since they are very attached to it, I don’t know how to ask the owners not to bring it without offending them.
DEAR PET LOVER: Yes, you are entitled to a great time in your own home, and if you don’t want this dog begging for scraps from your table, you are going to have to be very clear when you are issuing the invitation: “I’d love to see you, but please leave ‘Muffin’ at home this time.”
You can expect these relatives to be offended, and they may choose to stay home with their dog, but your own rights as a host should not come second to their preference to bring an uninvited canine as a “plus one.”
DEAR AMY: “Grieving” was hurt because her daughter didn’t attend a memorial celebration for her father. Thank you for this line: “It is vital after a death in the family that everyone should do their best to be gentle with one another.” I appreciated the reminder.
DEAR ALSO GRIEVING: Gentleness is in short supply after a family loss.