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Try to move past outburst

Dear Carolyn: I have four nieces and a nephew, none of whom I get to see very often, as they all have young children.

Last Christmas, Niece 3 invited my partner and me to her house the morning before we traveled home. I engaged her husband (who was busy with the children in the background) in a little banter, whereupon he exploded that we shouldn't have come over without calling ahead. Feeling quite unwelcome, we left, despite my niece's protestations that we were always welcome in her home.

Her husband has never apologized to us. This has clouded my relationship with my niece, and I don't quite know what to do about it. This year's visit is coming up, and I would appreciate your suggestions on how I should handle it. I am inclined never to set foot in their house again; I can always visit with my niece and her children at my sister's house.

-- W.

A: That's one answer to one possible interpretation -- that the husband is a volatile jerk who doesn't want you in his home.

But since this spousal eruption was apparently a first, the possibility of other interpretations remains: including, say, that he and Niece 3 had been arguing when you arrived, and he lacks the social skill to have handled his distress more smoothly. Or, that he had been up half the night with said young children, or they'd just worked him over all morning, and he lacks the social skill to have handled his frazzled nerves more smoothly. Or, something else explains it, something that had nothing to do with you, but he lacks the social skill to recognize that his duty to apologize trumps his impulse to hide in shame. Unskilled equals unfortunate, not avoid at all costs.

Back to the volatile-jerk possibility: Maybe he really is explosive, and you witnessed one point on an otherwise-unseen continuum. In that case, distancing yourself from Niece 3 would compound the problem. If he's trouble, then she and her kids are in trouble (maybe explaining her non-apology). And while helping someone in trouble is complicated business, the simplest part is staying in nonjudgmental touch.

So, do accept any invitation your niece extends, open your mind and see what happens. Just call before you show up.


Nephew's life is his own

Dear Carolyn: My 21-year-old nephew is going overseas to propose to his 19-year-old girlfriend (former au pair).

This whole situation is a train wreck. My nephew is in his fourth year of trying to get his associate degree. He lives with his parents and hasn't paid a bill in his life. Her parents paid for his plane ticket. He bought an engagement ring with money he earns scooping ice cream part-time. His family is enabling his bad decisions by preparing for her arrival and making home improvements.

I don't want to risk the relationship with my sister, but I can't pretend the situation doesn't bother me. What sane person could possibly support such poor decisions?

-- Realist at heart

A: He's 21. What sane person who doesn't have a stake in this would want to get involved? Plus, they might surprise you. Publicly -- and privately -- wish them the best.