Dear Carolyn: I have two very close girlfriends who live in the same destination-friendly town, “Emily” from college and “Jane” from high school. Both have children the same age as mine, both mean a great deal to me. Every summer I visit both, trying to split equal time between the two.
I can’t bear to be around Emily’s child. He is impulsive, defiant, has been outright malicious toward my son, and in one instance caused him physical harm. I have tried to confront her about my issues with him, and she becomes quite defensive and accusatory, and doesn’t seem to see his behavior as cause for alarm. She tends to laugh it off and he takes full advantage of her lackadaisical approach to behavior management. My husband and high school friends note the same concerns.
I try to be patient and understanding, but my husband refuses to come with my son and me on visits to see Emily. This summer, I have planned to spend most of my trip with Jane and her family.
Emily is offended that I am not splitting my time equally between the two. I have no issues with her as a person, and still value her friendship. However, I can’t handle the stress of being around her son and I don’t know how to express this without hurting her feelings and ruining a 20-year friendship. I want to do the right thing here, but I don’t know what that is.
Carolyn says: You’re tiptoeing around this thing because you’re afraid of how Emily will react.
Fearing Emily’s reaction, though, validates her defensiveness, because it reveals your tacit agreement that protecting your son and reducing your time with Emily are mean, terrible things to do to her.
But they’re not. You’ve seen how the boys (don’t) get along, and your actions are a rational way to deal with that.
So stop hiding your logic and instead be upfront about it. “Emily, this isn’t personal; it’s also temporary. The past few visits, Butch and Chachi haven’t gotten along. I’m taking the pressure off. When they get older and settle down some, we’ll go back to the way things were.”
Note, though, that this suggested script is just about the way the boys interact (fact) and not about her son or her permissiveness as monster-creator (opinion). You may well be right about all of it, but her son might also turn out just fine; you won’t know this for years. In the meantime, strong friendships can survive some creative scheduling, but they rarely withstand one friend’s judging another, especially on her performance as a parent.
So you need to protect your boy, done. But what belongs next on the priority list? Protecting your 20-year investment in someone strikes me as a valid priority over your husband’s protecting himself — at least, for a once-a-year visit. It wouldn’t be unfair to ask your husband to do better than duck for cover: He can enjoy some one-on-one time with your son while you give Emily her fair share of your attention, or he can stick around and directly supervise the boys while you spend unburdened time with your friend. Surely there’s a similar trade-off, somewhere in your marriage, that you can make for him in return.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at email@example.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.