Miss Conduct

The outlaw-in-law

Coping with a ne'er-do-well relative, plus instituting a no-lending policy.

By Robin Abrahams
January 2, 2011

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My sister’s husband is a loser. He drinks a lot, he hits on everyone (including cousins and girlfriends of other relatives), and he never helps out or brings anything to family dinners and barbecues. Plus, he often doesn’t work, and his past is sketchy (drugs, jail, long rap sheet). We have a close and large family, and we often get together. My sister defends him constantly and is hurt when he is not invited to stuff. It is getting really uncomfortable. Any advice? S.O./Boston

I would be hurt if my husband weren’t invited to “stuff” in my own family, too. And if your sister is constantly defending her husband, perhaps it’s because the rest of you are constantly attacking him. Your feelings are entirely justifiable, given the unsavory picture you paint of your brother-in-law. It must be painful to see someone you love make such a disastrous choice. Nevertheless, it is her choice, and she has already made it. Your criticisms won’t change her feelings about him, only her feelings about you – and not for the better. In the long run, making someone choose between his or her spouse and you – whether “you” are a family member, the “other woman,” or a demanding boss – is never a winning move.

This doesn’t mean you have to pretend to be best buddies with the loser-in-law. But you do – yes, you do – have to invite him to family gatherings. Why? Because he is a member of the family. He shouldn’t be allowed to drive drunk or be abusive to other guests, but handle his misbehavior as it occurs. (“He never helps out,” you say. Really? Can you not simply say, “Hey, Mike, give Tricia a hand clearing the table. I’m going to start getting dessert out.”) Discipline Mike’s behavior, if necessary, but don’t attack his personality.

Depending on how antagonistic your close and large family has been to Mike, an apology to your sister might be in order. Look at it this way: Someday, from my column to God’s ears, she might ditch this miscreant. Do you want that decision to be a joyful one for her, or do you want it to involve her crawling back to the family with her tail between her legs?

My husband is a carpenter and has thousands of dollars worth of tools and equipment. Neighbors ask to borrow them all the time, and we have issues with folks not returning them, breaking them, or not refilling some with gas. One neighbor borrowed a lawnmower and broke the gas cap. Another one borrowed a piece of equipment and needed training on how to use it. My husband spent an entire Sunday afternoon with him for free when he could have been spending time with our family. Our neighbor should have just hired him to do the job. How can we stop being the neighborhood’s free rental store? T.M./Hingham

You say no, consistently, and you mean it. Your husband may have wonderful carpentry skills, but he needs to learn how to be a more effective entrepreneur. Are these thousands of dollars worth of equipment even insured? For a small businessman to lend out his equipment (especially to untrained amateurs) seems like a remarkably bad idea.

Since he’s been lending his tools out all this time, some neighbors may take offense at the sudden change of policy. He’ll need to explain that it isn’t personal, but simply a responsible business decision. And once the no-loan rule goes into effect, no exceptions. (Otherwise, the neighbors you don’t lend to will be resentful.) Similarly, if your husband is asked to do favors that are really part of his job, as in the Lost Sunday scenario, he needs to state his professional rates calmly and authoritatively.

Robin Abrahams is a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology. Got a question or a comment? Write to BLOG Read more of Miss Conduct’s wit and wisdom at CHAT Get advice live this Wednesday, noon to 1 p.m., at

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