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damage control

The question

Holiday time at our house is tricky. My former husband and his twin sister don’t speak to each other. She is a very good friend of mine. He is the father of my children. My daughters want their father to come. It is always at our house. I would like my former sister-in-law to be invited, but their dad won’t come if she is coming (childish). My sister-in-law lives alone and has no other family here. I am in the middle of all this. What should I do? I feel like going away for the holidays.

The answer

I certainly understand your impulse to flee.

Recently, there was a conflict in my extended family. And I blush to tell you I was the focus of a fair amount of it.

My first impulse: Take evasive action! Seek out tropical paradise over holidays, read thriller in sunshine, play beach volleyball, swim, sip mojito, eat fresh grilled shrimp, maybe with a little spritz of lime on it …

Uh, where was I? Oh yeah: But that wouldn’t have solved anything, only postponed it, perhaps even exacerbated it.

In any event, a family conference was called and we all did our best to hash it out: to speak honestly, air grievances and try to resolve them.

In other words, everyone was willing to swallow their pride and anger and hurt feelings for the sake of family harmony. Since then, we’ve moved a long way toward re-establishing good relations and I can once again picture us all gathered around the piano, my wife tickling the ivories, everyone happily singing festive tunes, like family favourite First Christmas Morn.

(Well, I’ll just be moving my lips, I have a horrible singing voice.)

I suggest you do something similar with your ex-husband and his twin sister. I don’t know the details of the origins of the dispute, but I can almost give you my Dave Eddie Guaranfriggintee™ that whatever it is probably isn’t worth carrying around the terrible psychic burden of non-forgiveness for a lifetime.

What could possibly be worth that? Was someone shot? Forcibly confined? I feel like if anything like that were the case, you would have mentioned it -- and P.S., just about anyone in my family, e.g. brother-in-law, could deliberately shoot me in the leg and I would forgive him.

(Why would he do that? Perhaps to demonstrate the viability of a blunderbuss he’d acquired – he’s an antique dealer – and, of course, forgiveness might take a while, but after I was released from the hospital and finished rehab, I could see us once again noshing together at our favourite dim sum place, chatting away merrily, my cane resting against the table.)

So, yes. Get them together for a little conference. Just the three of you. (I feel like the daughters could cloud the issue and there’s the chance someone might wind up feeling ganged up on.)

Has to be face to face. E-mail, as I and many others believe, is not a good medium for resolving disputes. It’s hard-wired, deep in our DNA: Seeing a person’s face helps promote empathy, sympathy, compassion, forgiveness and everything else a situation such as this would seem to require.

Maybe establish some ground rules beforehand. My sister-in-law did that. Hers were: 1) No swearing; 2) No raising of voices; 3) No interrupting.

Might seem a bit formal, but it worked a treat in our case. At several points, when emotions ran high, people were tempted to break each one of these rules, at which point another person would say, sotto voce (so as not to break Rule #2): “Don’t forget the rules!”

Of course, the trick will be to get both your ex and his sister under the same roof in the first place. But part of me feels like on some level, they must want to shake off their psychic burden (not to mention the one they are inflicting on those around them) and learn to get along again.

If it doesn’t work, well, you gave it a shot and, from that point forward, I would say the ball’s in their court. Invite them both to your house and let them sort out between themselves who comes and doesn’t.

But if it does work, you’ve done everyone a favour and, soon enough, you may find yourself gathered around singing (or just moving your lips to) your family’s favourite festive song.

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