DEAR AMY: Our 25-year-old niece was born with severe hearing loss. She grew up in near-poverty, her father left when she was a toddler, and her grandfather molested her for years. She has overcome it all and has recently become an ASL associate professor at a state university with a master’s degree in psychology. Our niece deserves all the praise for her hard work, but could not have achieved her education without the help of my wife, who made it her personal mission to love, mentor and guide her every step of the way. I am so proud of them both. The problem is, this girl, pure of heart, is about to commit her life to a drug-addicted fiance, who has been in her life for four years. This guy showed up incoherent at her graduation, has overdosed in the past and promises to kill himself if she leaves. She tried to break it off a few months ago, but her own mother told her to apologize and go back to him. (My guess is the mom sees stability from his family money.) At that time, the guy’s father told my niece she was too good for his son. Aaagh! I, myself, am the product of alcoholic parents. It is painful to see this dear girl so alone, but so far I have stayed on the sidelines. My question to you is, can I tell her this guy should sober up, or no wedding? She has always seen me as a dependable, loving influence in her life.
DEAR UNCLE: You should not tell this adult, “This guy should sober up, or no wedding.” It is not useful for you to commit to such a paternalistic statement when you have — so far — stayed on the sidelines.
As a male family member who cares about her, you should come out from the sidelines and actively pledge your support to her, not attempt to control her.
As the survivor of so many extraordinary life challenges, she is vulnerable, certainly when it comes to her relationship with men. Her guy’s threat to kill himself is extremely emotionally manipulative and classic abusive and controlling behavior.
You and your wife should tell her very honestly that you are worried about her. Be gentle, kind and communicative.
Offer her your support if she wants to leave the relationship. Don’t present her with absolutes or ultimatums.
She needs to learn the important concept of “self-care,” starting with the reality that she is worthy of healthy love. Even though she has an advanced degree in psychology, she should pursue professional counseling on her own behalf.
DEAR AMY: I have a friend who is “should-ing” me to death. She is a wise woman, so I find myself discussing various life issues with her. Sometimes I ask for her advice. However, every single time we have these conversations, she begins a lecture of “shoulds.” I say “lecture” because her continual use of the word “should” makes her thoughts seem more like a monologue than a warm exchange of ideas. Maybe I’m too sensitive, but when others ask me for my thoughts, I offer my advice with words such as “you could,” which I think allows the conversation to flow, not stop. Do you have any ideas how I can encourage my friend’s awareness of this? I don’t want to lose her genuinely helpful viewpoints.
DEAR COULD-ING: This seems like you want to direct traffic on your friend’s freeway of good advice so that you can continue to take advantage of her ideas without feeling a shred of annoyance about how these ideas are conveyed. But your point about word choice is a good one.
I hope you will be brave enough to simply tell your friend how this affects you, saying (a version of): “I genuinely appreciate your wisdom and you’ve given me great advice over the years. But can I offer some feedback to you now? Whenever you tell me, ‘You should’ make a specific choice, it gets my back up, and I realize I become defensive. But when you tell me I ‘could’ make a choice, it inspires me to keep listening. And I want to keep listening.”
DEAR AMY: I was surprised when you took the side of “Hurting,” the guy whose ex was falsely accusing him of abuse. So often, you reflexively take the woman’s side on any issue. I agree with you on this one.
DEAR MALE: I reject your premise, but I’ll take the (backhanded) compliment. Thank you.