Ask Natalie by Natalie Bencivenga

Her Ex Makes Family Time Weird

DEAR NATALIE: After several years apart, I'm in a place in my life where I have the opportunity to spend more time with my sister, her adult children and now their children. It's been wonderful to spend this quality time together. But I'm perplexed about one thing: she often invites my ex-boyfriend to some of our family gatherings. We dated for several years when we were in our 20s. It was a difficult split, and we went our separate ways after. I've now been married for 40 years and have grown children of my own.

My ex is my sister's family's electrician, and I guess over the years they've all become close. I've tried to be understanding and just roll with it when he was at my nieces' weddings, their kids' baptisms and a Christmas party. Those are, after all, occasions that tend to have large and varied guest lists. But I was surprised to see him at a small Mother's Day brunch my brother-in-law hosted for my sister, my nieces and me earlier this month. (My ex is single and childless, and his mother isn't in the picture.) It made me feel uncomfortable, plus it was challenging to make conversation. I also felt sorry for my husband having to spend the afternoon dining with my once-serious boyfriend.

My sister is renting a cabin for a family camping trip this summer and has invited my family to join hers. When I asked sort of jokingly if my ex would be coming along, she said yes (and she wasn't joking). I want to continue spending more time with my sister and her family, but it's awkward for me and my husband when my ex is invited, too -- especially at smaller gatherings when he's the only one there who's not a relative and it's more difficult to dodge him.

I find myself wanting to decline her invitations in order to avoid him, but I do want to accept them. Plus, I don't want want her to think that I don't value our relationship. On the flip side, I'm nervous to bring up the ex-boyfriend thing because I don't want to come across as controlling or stubborn. After all, she's free to invite whomever she wants to her parties and vacations. What should I do? -- ELECTRIC SHOCK

DEAR ELECTRIC SHOCK: This is weird. While people may often get close to others who work with them for many years, inviting the electrician to an intimate Mother's Day brunch is bizarre, especially considering that this is your ex. But, because you have recently rekindled your relationship with your sister, I understand the need to want to tread lightly.

The fact that you were very serious with this man (even though it was a long time ago) and are uncomfortable being around him (especially with your husband present) should be reason enough for her to think about when and if she invites the electrician on vacations or to family functions.

Talk to her about your feelings and this upcoming vacation. It's one thing to have to sit and stare at him awkwardly across a brunch table for a few hours, it's a whole other thing to be sharing a cabin with him. Say something like, "While I completely respect your friendship with (ex-boyfriend/electrician) I would really feel uncomfortable spending an extended amount of time with him. What can we do to remedy this so that I can come with you on vacation and spend time with our family?"

This way it makes her part of a solution, not part of your problem. There are some ways you can deal with this: 1. Rent a smaller cabin nearby so you don't have to wake up to the ex in the morning. 2. Plan your own trip and invite her on it (instead of waiting on an invite) so that you can create the guest list and he doesn't have to be on it. 3. Grin and bear it at the cabin and just avoid him as much as you can without being rude. 4. Take him on a hike and "get lost" and come back without him. I kid, I kid!

Whatever you decide, remember that your relationship is a two-way street with your sister, and you have every right to stand up for yourself and tell her how you feel.

Please send your relationship and lifestyle questions to nbencivenga@post-gazette.com or tweet them to @NBSeen. You can also send postal letters to Natalie Bencivenga, 358 North Shore Drive, Pittsburgh, PA 15212

(This column was originally published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)