Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: We're going to see my partner's family, including her 25-year-old child, who has acted like a sullen brat since we married 10 years ago. As in, has not spoken to me or acknowledged me in any way and treated my partner poorly as well.
Generally I let my partner go to family things without me, but this is a must-appear milestone event for the family matriarch. I am afraid I am going to lose it when I see them and tell them exactly what I think. Other than no alcohol and staying on the other side of the room, any suggestions?
Carolyn says: Disengage. Disengage from this adult child if possible, but, more important, disengage from your ego.
You accomplish nothing if you "tell them exactly what I think" in a planned-unplanned outburst of righteousness, except to announce to everyone that you're diving to the kid's level. And who gains from that?
If instead you treat this family member with respect, then you can respond to any insults: "I am civil to you, and expect the same." From anything less than civility, again, disengage on the spot.
Plus: This "brat" — terrible word — at an age south of 15 saw his/her parents turn against each other somehow, and if the child was old enough to understand it as it was happening, then it was a very big deal at a formative time. And, when the child at 15 handled the arrival of a new stepparent quite badly, apparently neither parent nor stepparent read that as pain or addressed it accordingly.
So now it has ossified into fixed hard feelings on all sides, yes? And sure, 25 is (more than) old enough to start owning bad behavior, but the foundation of that bad behavior was laid by people who were supposed to have the child's back.
There's only one softener for this. Forgiveness. Ideally from all sides, but the best source is actually you, because you were an adult to this child's 15 when things were set in motion. And because parent and child have a natural pathway for forgiveness to travel, if either is so inclined, but coming from you it's unexpected and therefore potentially has more power.
If you're not convinced, then I suggest you try it in small steps:
(1) "This is not about me." Because it's not — this was always rooted in the family of origin.
(2) "But I can be a positive force instead of a negative one." Because you can:
(3) You can say hello, you can smile, you can ask polite questions, you can choose not to react when any of these is ignored or rejected. You can play the long game.
(4) You can say to your partner: "Your kid has treated both of us poorly, and is well beyond the age for any kind of pass for doing so, but there's no denying we were the adults when this started. Maybe it's time to look at this differently."
Even if it doesn't work, you lose nothing by trying besides a chance to make a spectacle of yourself at somebody's milestone event. And, the rewards for such an effort — the usual high-road-taking benefits — await you no matter how the weekend turns out.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at email@example.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.