Dear Carolyn: My brother and sister-in-law have two little girls, 5 and 2, and I love the four of them very much.
My brother is a doctor and works many irregular and overnight shifts; my sister-in-law must necessarily manage the girls by herself a lot.
My brother and sister-in-law fight frequently. Typically at very low volumes, and never ever physically, but I tend to witness at least one fight per day when I visit.
During the last visit, I was coloring with my nieces in one room while their parents fought in the other. The 5-year-old looked at me and said, "We'll just be quiet, Auntie. I see this a lot." That broke my heart.
My husband and I were in couples therapy recently, and it helped us so much — something I've shared with my brother and sister-in-law. I desperately want to suggest they begin seeing a therapist because their small children are very clearly being affected by their fights — but I don't know how to do this, or if I should bring up what my niece said to me.
Carolyn says: Ugh. You have to tell your brother what your niece said.
Only a parent who is openly pro-denial wouldn't want to know. He might still respond to you with something short of gratitude for telling him; the two aren't mutually exclusive.
Anyway, as you approach this difficult task, stay focused on these three essential elements: truth, compassion and discretion. Tell your brother exactly what you witnessed, tell him privately, and tell him you don't judge.
Then say you've shared your one reportable fact and are officially butting back out, unless and until he requests otherwise. I hope your message gets through.
A deep dilemma
Dear Carolyn: I met a woman through a friend, and we soon began a fun and interesting relationship. After we went out a few times, she told me she had a serious, chronic illness that makes her extremely fatigued.
Now, that illness has gotten worse, and she sleeps basically all day and is awake only in the evenings. Fortunately she has enough money to support herself — but as her condition has worsened, her personality has soured, and the person I enjoyed at the beginning is rarely seen.
I want to help, but I also didn't sign up for this. The life I had envisioned for myself — and us — isn't possible, and there's no end in sight. She's told me that if I leave her, it would wreck her.
I have dreams and aspirations too, and she won't be able to have children or to lead a normal life. I believe in supporting a married partner, but this is a relationship of less than a year where I'd like to think I still have some choice.
Carolyn says: Sometimes there is no good answer. There is only a bad answer, and a worse one.
The bad answer is that you break up with your seriously ill girlfriend. The worse answer is that you stay with someone you don't love and have not committed to, just out of guilt. Sharp pain now, or — at best — dull ache always.
She has choices too. She can recognize you didn't sign up for this before and aren't invested enough to sign up now — and lovingly set you free. That she hasn't done this, and in fact chose instead to apply heavy stay-with-me pressure, would matter to me if I were in your place. Illness doesn't justify threats.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org.