Q: Our holiday tradition is that my sisters and our families congregate at my mom's home each year. My mother has been married a few times and for the past six months has been living with someone new in her home. Even though I live less than 10 miles away, I've only met him a few times. She does not invite me to her home.
My mother's marital history has been shaky, to say the least, and I really don't want to get to know this new guy. I don't care if he's nice or not. I'm rather outspoken and have told her that. Her response was, "OK, that's fine. If you choose to come, just don't make a scene and ruin the holiday for everyone else." I feel like she's picking this new guy over me. What's good ex-etiquette?
A: First, let me premise my answer based on the limited information in your question. There is probably more to the story, but on face value, your stance may be setting yourself up for failure. As a married adult, you should know firsthand that when family members give you ultimatums about your partner, it typically causes a rift. Basically, it's asking someone to choose between two people they love. To complicate the situation, your mother and this man live together. I can't imagine you expect her to ask him to leave on Thanksgiving while you attend dinner at her home. If that is your intent, you're way out of line.
Frankly, I think your mother's response was quite fitting, and I don't think it is an indicator that she's choosing her guy over you. In her response she put the responsibility for your actions in your court. She didn't get angry or lash out; she simply made her boundaries clear. That is good ex-etiquette rule No. 9, "Respect each other's turf," plain and simple. She acknowledged your feelings and explained that if you choose to attend, act graciously on her turf (in her home). If you don't think you can do that, the alternative is to find somewhere else to spend the holiday. That's not taking sides. That's expecting those who come to your home to act like adults and be respectful.
With all the holiday parties just around the corner, "Whose side am I on?" and "Who should I invite?" are common questions faced by hosts and hostesses. But, like your mother, hosts and hostesses do not have to take sides. An easy alternative is to invite both parties — advise them of such — and let the parties decide who will attend. The host's only expectation is that if both do attend, they respect the host's turf and act respectfully toward one another in public. The key is to not make others attending feel uncomfortable.
Finally, an important consideration in all this is that there will probably be children present at your mother's holiday dinner, some of whom may be too young to understand your position. For that reason alone, it is your obligation to put your best foot forward and set the example if you choose to attend. That's putting the children first. That's good ex-etiquette.
Jann Blackstone is the author of "Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation," and the founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com.