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Dear Flora: Family Feuds and (Possibly) Abusive Friends

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Dear Flora,

My aunt never had any children of her own, so we have always made an effort to include her in our family milestones (graduations, big birthdays, etc). She has always been a needy person, so a lot of effort has been made to make sure she feels included to avoid hurt feelings. This wasn't an issue before our grandmother passed, but since her passing, my mother and aunt have been butting heads more and more. My mother doesn't want my aunt as included in events, and seems to think including my aunt means including her less. The first wedding out of my siblings and cousins is coming up, and I don't know how to avoid drama between my mother and aunt. It shouldn't hurt anything to have her included in the planning, but I worry about her neediness steamrolling my mother.

Stuck Between a Daughter and a Niece

Dear Stuck,

My condolences for the passing of your grandmother! It sometimes happens that siblings' relationship changes after the death of a parent. Often, this means that they become closer, but occasionally, as it appears with your mother and aunt, the grief brings up old rivalries and hurt feelings that their parent used to help mitigate. Unfortunately, not only does this affect them, but the family around them, who is certainly grieving for the loss of a family member in their own way.

I'm afraid that, despite your best intentions, there isn't much you can do to prevent your mother and aunt from "butting heads," but it's kind of you to want to limit the fighting during the wedding planning and proceedings. Of course, in the case of the wedding, the best strategy regarding wedding planning is to ask to couple whom it is for: they may intend to plan the event entirely themselves, or hire a professional, in order to leave out family drama. Of course, if the couple intends to include your mother or your aunt (or possibly both) in planning, that's a whole different story.

One way to avoid your mother being "steamrolled" by your aunt's need to be included is to delegate tasks. With the wedding couple's guidance and permission, decide who is in charge of which task. One person may be charged with arranging catering, one with flowers, one with hair and makeup, and so on. Hopefully, they'll be so busy with their own tasks that they'll forget to fight. If they do, be a mediator. I've often found that with family feuds, inviting the two (or more) offenders outside to share how their attitudes make you feel helps them shape up, at least for the day. In the most dire straits, separate them like you would two squabbling children. After all, if you act like a kid, you'll be treated as one.

Dear Flora,

Recently, I discovered that one of my oldest friends and his wife split up because he was abusing her when he was drunk. I’ve known him since we were in diapers, and never once had a hint that he was capable of this sort of behavior, as he was always my “protective older brother” figure. I was never particularly close to his wife, and I’m at a loss about what to do. I kind of don’t believe her, but also that would be the world's [expletive] thing to say to her. Should I write off my friend or try to talk to him about what happened and hear his side of the situation?

Changed Friend


Dear Changed,

We never want to believe bad gossip about our friends, especially friends like yours, whom you've known your whole life, with not a bit of bad behavior. It can feel offensive that anybody would call our friends abusive, and downright damaging to our friendships. Of course, there's also the feminist call to stand by women who report abuse, and it can be hard to believe when the perpetrator is someone we know.

Abuse isn't to be taken lightly, and I'm glad you're treating this case with a healthy amount of respect. That said, I wonder if your inclination not to believe her stems from not knowing her very well, as you said, or denial that your friend could do such a thing, as you also mentioned. Your instinct was right that telling her that you don't really believe her story would be very unkind, and not at all helpful. Yet I don't think that if you simply wrote your friend off that you'd get the closure you'd need. For that, you'll need to talk to him.

When he tells you his side of the story, remember that there is never an excuse to abuse a spouse. Keeping that in mind, when you get the details, use your best judgement, and prepare for the worst news. Your friend likely won't admit outright to abuse, even if it occurred in his marriage. If the details suggest that he's an abuser, is that a friend you want to keep? Can you live with being associated through friendship with an abuser, especially if he faced public, legal consequences? You wrote that his wife claims that he abused her while drunk; does your friend possibly have a problem with alcohol? If so, could you help him get what he needs for addiction recovery? There are very important questions that you ought to ask yourself.

Remember, talking to your friend is for YOUR peace of mind, not for him to explain away abuse.

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