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My wife's cousin is rude, pushy – and disabled. What do we do?

The question

My wife and her cousin (let's call her "Patty") have been close since childhood. Patty has been afflicted with serious health issues all her life. Lately, she has become more pushy, rude, aggressive, self-serving and caustic with my wife. Granted, some of these traits are left over from her years of being hospital-bound, when she had to fight to get help and service. Patty has difficulty walking, but is stubborn about receiving assistance. She's also looking after her young grandchild. Yet she won't hesitate in including herself in any activity and expecting her and the child to be looked after. Patty also doesn't like it when my wife goes visiting or shopping with a friend and Patty isn't invited. She will say to my wife, "Well I can go too, you know." She never asks, but always demands: "Where's my coffee? Why can't you pick me up? It's not that far out of your way," etc. My wife tries to defuse situations as they arise, but we (and others) feel her actions are just getting worse. I feel a lesson in manners would help her, but there's no way I'm going there. Any suggestions?

The answer

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There's a problem, I've noticed over the years, in consistently lending a helping hand to other people, whether it be giving them lifts, doing their dishes, making them dinner or what have you.

They develop "gratitude fatigue," and whatever you do becomes, first, "your thing," and then invisible to them to the point where the only way they notice is if you don't do it – and then it makes them angry.

Example: We have a dog, Murphy. My three boys begged for a dog, we laid Murphy on them as a Christmas present, it was all festive and fun until the reality set in that now you have yet another creature in your household looking up at you with, as one of my friends puts it, "eyes full of unmet needs."

In the immemorial way of children, although they had fervently sworn, in the roll-up to getting a dog, they would help take care of him, they squawked and balked at the actual reality of it.

So I wound up walking the dog – a never-ending, Sisyphean chore: day in, day out, trudging through the rain, sleet, snow, hail, picking up Murphy's stinking, steaming "offerings," suffering the slings and arrows of other dog owners' often obnoxious personalities.

I'm talking three times a day, or roughly 1,000 times a year. Then six or seven years, or about 6,000-7,000 walks in, I realized: This heinous, thrice-daily activity is not only not appreciated by my family, it's invisible to them. Walking the dog has become "my thing," i.e. the fact the dog needs walking is my problem, and any and all requests to take the odd walk off my hands are met with disdain and hauteur.

So I set about rectifying this imbalance – basically by insisting other family members walk the dog on a regular basis –and yo and behold: everything runs more smoothly. I resent less, they appreciate more.

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I would advance some kind of similar program with your mobility- and gratitude-challenged cousin. You don't have to make any global, grandiloquent statements about her character or personality, but when she exhibits signs of entitlement and obnoxiousness, make a point of pointing out to her that your wife is in fact doing her a series of favours, and these things she's haughtily demanding are privileges, not rights.

I mean, she's a cousin, for God's sake. That's not even actually all that close a relative.

And I do think it should be you, rather than your wife, who drops some truth-bombs on her. I'm getting the feeling your wife is too "nice"– i.e. your cousin has sensed that she is what I call a "guilt-based organism" and therefore can easily be manipulated by pushing a few simple buttons. You should step in on her behalf, be the "bad cop."

Of course, all this should be done within the context of compassion for someone who appears genuinely to need assistance, and may be covering up her frustration over this fact by lashing out. Also, you may want to look into the question of whether this "Patty" needs full- or part-time professional assistance.

In the meantime, if she doesn't mend her ways, temper her tantrums, and start to show a little gratitude – withdraw the services! Stop bringing her coffee, giving her lifts and so forth.

That might seem harsh, but I have a funny feeling that when the services dry up, and it's been explained that the reason is her lack-of-gratitude attitude, she'll de-sour in short order – and it will lead to a golden era of politeness and appreciation.

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It's for her own good: Tough love is still love, and you want to be able to do the things you do for her with a happy heart, out of the joy of being of genuine service to another creature (despite how it might seem, I do believe that is one of life's deepest and most abiding joys), and not because the other creature is angrily demanding it.

What am I supposed to do now?

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