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Ask Ellie: Strained relationship is complex territory

Grandmother should tread lightly when it comes to son's marriage

My son and his wife have invited me to spend a couple of weeks with them and their toddler in their home. They live in a distant city, so it hasn’t been easy for me to spend time with them and my grandbaby during the pandemic.

But we do Skype a lot. Before the arrival of this, their first (and only) child, they were a very loving couple. It warmed my heart to see them cuddling, hugging, etc.

Now, whenever I see them on Skype, they sit at a distance from each other, or if they’re sitting beside each other at a table, she turns her body away from him. This makes me sick at heart.

When I visit them, should I ask them outright what the problem is? Maybe they will be willing to talk to me about it and actually hear what’s happening for the other person. Or do I just ignore their tensions and hope they manage to resolve over time?

First-Time Granny

This is complex and potentially damaging territory to enter without an invitation. Especially so for an in-law living far away, and not a regular presence in their married life.

The only semi-safe approach is to tell your son, tactfully, and privately, that their relationship appears very strained. Be prepared that he may immediately deny this, overreact, and/or tell you to mind your own business.

The only safe next step is to say that, if they do have a serious matter dividing them, you hope they’ll be able to discuss it openly together or consider getting insights and guidance from a professional marital counsellor.

You might even tell him of some impasse you once faced with your own husband, if that’s true, and how you handled it as a couple. Or how you didn’t handle it and the resulting effect on your then-relationship.

Do not pressure your son, because he might then tell your daughter-in-law everything you’ve said and that could escalate things if she resents your input.

However, there’s some value in delivering a parting statement, something like this: “I’ve loved seeing my adorable grandbaby. I dearly hope you two wonderful parents can resolve whatever’s visibly bothering you as a couple, because it’s not healthy for all three of you.”

Exit quickly.

Feedback: Regarding the author, neuroscientist Dr. Ethan Kross’ book Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, about putting your inner voice to positive use (Feb. 1):

Reader: “I find that intelligent, articulate, passionate people who dedicate their lives to their profession are the most interesting people to talk to and to seek advice from. Their books are often brilliant and insightful. I will be buying Dr. Kross’ book soon to learn more.

“Having just experienced a painful break-up, I’m struggling to calm the voice in my head and stop beating myself up. I’m unused to feeling so dejected and glum. I need to refocus and get moving again. But I can’t seem to motivate myself to do that.”

Ellie: Ah, but you just did. You were motivated to think ahead positively, by determining to read up on this topic and when you do, you’ll be faster and better at knowing how to intervene and not beat yourself up.

There are also books and guides on dealing with divorce. A search will take you to titles dealing with how to move on, with parenting after divorce, with making the right financial decisions etc. You do have control over your inner voice.

Reader’s Commentary: Regarding the woman who feels stuck, unable to leave her relationship with her married boss (Feb.4):

“The woman writes: ‘I feel nothing will change in his life. I spend every holiday, weekend and night alone. I couldn’t possibly repay him for all the help he’s given me but his favours are attached with strings that are self-serving.’

“She should open her eyes. The debt has already been paid back many times over.

“Leave that job, but not before seeking legal advice. Feeling ‘forced’ to leave under these circumstances could possibly entitle her to both severance and human rights compensation.

“She needs to start looking for a new job first. She must get her resume updated.

“My own job-seeking advice to her: Focus on the positives that you bring to your position and your skills. Write action statements, not job duties. Research new formats of today for your application.”

Ellie’s tip of the day

Adult children’s marital problems are their business. Tread very carefully, unless discussion ensues.

Send relationship questions to ellie@thestar.ca.