Dear Emuna: The Miserable Host

February 23, 2012

7 min read


Help! Our sponsor is driving us crazy but we can’t afford to move out!

Dear Emuna,

We are new immigrants and, at the moment, my husband and I and our two kids are living with my cousin who sponsored us. Every time we chat, all I hear from her are complaints, bitterness about her past, and unsolicited opinions about her friends' lives. I understand that she has been alone for years and that she doesn’t have a good relationship with her daughter. I pity her and I tried my best to console her but her issues are the same everyday and it’s starting to drag me down. Sometimes I just want to scream to her to just let go and mind her own business.

We just got here and we can’t afford yet to move out. Please advise me how to deal with this situation.

-- Dependent and Discouraged Relative

Dear Dependent and Discouraged,

You are definitely in a tough situation. On the one hand, you owe your cousin a tremendous debt of gratitude for sponsoring you and taking you in. On the other hand, her negative attitude is not good for you or your family. On the one hand, you have compassion for her (as you should) and want to be a listening ear while on the other hand, you are actually not allowed to listen to negative language about others. You seem to be stuck.

Frequently when people (from small children to older adults) seek attention through negative behavior, it’s because they haven’t received it through positive behavior. It’s not too late to give your cousin incentives to act more upbeat. Every time she does something generous, praise her. Every time she says something positive, find a way to respond enthusiastically. Even if she doesn’t respond, you will feel better about the situation.

However, if she really doesn’t seem inclined to change, you need to make some important decisions for your family. Change the topic of conversation every time she starts sharing negative information about others. Or leave the room. Or try some other creative technique. Perhaps she will get the hint.

Being around negative people is – for lack of a better word – a real downer. Negative people have a tendency to drag everyone down with them. You cannot permit that to happen to you or your family. If there are no other options available, you have to stay out of the house as much as possible and when there, you have to “put on a happy face”. You are responsible to be cheery and upbeat and convey optimism and joy, whether you feel it or not. Perhaps this will rub off on her, perhaps not. But for your family’s sake, paste on that smile.

-- Emuna

Dear Emuna,

Will these teenage years never end? I try so hard to be patient with my daughter but it frequently feels like it is to no avail. Whatever I say is wrong, whatever I do is wrong. And she lets me know through rolled eyes and cutting remarks. She is so hurtful to me yet if I respond with a touch of my own frustration she stomps off with so much resentment. It doesn’t seem quite fair. Can you help me?

-- Mother of Frustrating Adolescent

Dear Frustrated Mother,

Can I help? It depends on how you define help. If you want empathy, I can give you that. Your daughter sounds like 98% of all teenagers. It is not reflective of bad character or bad parenting. It is merely reflective of that tumultuous time in their lives when their emotions are unstable and their reactions are unpredictable. Actually they are predictable – they’re usually negative!

However, if you want solutions, it’s not so simple. You can’t really make her behavior go away; only time will take care of that. But you can control your own reaction. No matter how hard it is, you have to really try not to respond in kind. Actually it’s even more than that; you have to model constant patience, tolerance and love. (And you thought the terrible two’s were bad!)

Yes, it is very difficult. Their behavior does not make you feel all warm and cozy towards them. You are a human being who can be hurt by their cutting remarks. You have to remember that this is a time of pain and struggle for them. They are confused and uncertain. Not to mention that their hormones are going crazy!

We need to have compassion for them. They are terrified of the future and mask it through defiance or cruelty. But they are still little girls (or boys) inside who want nothing more than their parents’ love and acceptance (yes, even while they’re scorning us). So you need to follow the same advice as the desperate relative above. Paste on that smile, give lots of love – and just ignore the negativity. (This is also a good moment to discover the power of prayer!)

-- Emuna

Dear Emuna,

Our best friends are very wealthy. They are on the boards of most prominent charitable institutions and are constantly going to fund-raising events (they are often honored at them). Their family takes expensive trips at school break and their children wear designer clothes. However, they are nevertheless lovely, kind and generous people and we feel fortunate to have them for friends. The problem is not with them -- but with us. In the first place we are always invited to these events with them but we just can’t keep up. We can’t afford to give tzedaka to every charity they are involved with – and certainly not the price the banquets charge! And secondly, it’s making our kids jealous. They are always asking to take the same trips and buy the same clothes but the reality is that we just can’t. The friendship is very important to me but I don’t want to damage my family. What should I do?

-- Middle Class Mom

Dear Middle Class,

I understand that these are serious issues in your family. The first one seems easier to solve. Just say no. You do not have to go to every dinner you are invited to. You do not have to give a donation to every organization that asks. And you certainly can’t give to the point where it damages your own family’s financial resources. Surely your friends aren’t oblivious to the fact that you have less money than they do. They probably aren’t expecting you to give to everything and just don’t want you to feel left out or insulted if they don’t invite you.

If it’s the real friendship you claim it is, then I think you could have an honest discussion. Explain to your friend how it is overwhelming you and why you can’t participate. (You don’t need to share every detail of your financial situation.) I’m sure they will understand and either not invite you in the future or have no expectations (if they even ever did) when they do.

The situation with your children is more complicated because they are children. They have less perspective. Their desires are real and immediate. But this is, as the President would say, a “teachable moment.” This is an opportunity for your family to have some real and important discussions. You can open conversations about the value of material possessions. You can discuss the important Torah idea of being happy with what you have and all its implications. You can spearhead an even deeper conversation about the more important idea that the Almighty runs the world and gives everyone exactly what they need. If you were meant to have more, you would. This is a chance for everyone in your family to grow individually and together. Most people don’t get to experience these differences in such a glaring and dramatic way and neither do they get the opportunity to deal with them head on. And to become better people through the process. Instead of something to be resentful of, or confused about, this is a situation for which you should be grateful.

-- Emuna

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