DEAR MISS MANNERS: My sister, early 60s, and a good friend, early 50s, both recently suffered painful divorces from men they now abhor. My sister was married for 40 years and my friend for 15.
I spent a lot of time with these people and have many experiences. I am totally stumped how to avoid going into a landmine field, that I don't see, every time I talk to them.
I have gotten many photos of my sister's first grandchild, and we've all played the who-does-he-look-like game. Apparently, I said the baby has an "attitude" like the ex-husband, grandpa (a philanderer, etc.). Since the baby is 4 months old, it seems ridiculous that my sister would be upset that I was ascribing her ex-husband's negative personality traits to the baby. But she said I really hurt her feelings. Of course, I apologized and said that wasn't what I meant (obviously).
My friend thought she was married to a man who never divorced his second wife. They were "married" in a small ceremony, but he never filed their marriage license with the county. I understand she now refuses to refer to her relationship as a "marriage."
OK, but this sensitive feeling around words (relationship or marriage, this man was very sick), leaves me anxious about what, how and when to say things.
Do I just pretend, like these people do, that the past doesn't exist? I understand why they don't want to go there, but the past is where many of our experiences are. There were good times. I feel anxious about what and how to say things, and it is changing my relationship with these people in a negative way.
I never warmed to my friend's "husband," but I really loved my ex-brother-in-law. I still consider him family and hate the rigidity my sister is imposing on him when she is around. She battled twice with anorexia through her divorce, which took 10 years. And I am pretty certain she'll go into old age with this big dead zone called her 40 years with her ex-husband.
Do you have any wisdom regarding an attitude I can cultivate, inside my head, that will improve my time with these people whom I love a lot?
GENTLE READER: You could stop thinking that it is a special hardship to have to consider other people's feelings before you make casual remarks. That is something that everyone is supposed to be doing all the time (and that almost no one does before firing off e-mails) to avoid making trouble.
Miss Manners would not have thought it much of a leap to realize that your sister would not be amused at joking references to her former husband's promiscuity. Nor should it be all that hard to remember that your friend does not care to be referred to as having been the wife of a bigamist.
Your concern about their not facing the past suggests to Miss Manners that you are annoying them for their own good, as you see it. It might help you to think of them as adults whose ways of coping should be respected.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: My husband and I bought our second home two years ago, and we bought our first one 11 years ago. We've never lived in this new home, as we decided to do a complete remodel when we bought it.
The construction is now near completion, and we are excited to finally be able to move in. We want to have a housewarming party, and we have thought of registering for gifts. My sister thinks this is presumptuous. I think it's practical. Who's right?
GENTLE READER: Both of you.