How Much Do I Really Owe My Family?

My father is retired and lives outside the country. He bought a house here with my brother; it’s in both of their names and mostly paid off. Because my brother has never been able to support himself, though, the house has fallen into disrepair. Now, my father is coming home temporarily for cancer treatment and has asked me to fix up the house so he can stay in it. I have offered to pay for a smaller place for him (without my brother), but he wants to stay in their house — possibly so my brother has a place to live. I don’t think it’s fair for me to pay for repairs on a house that my brother can’t maintain. What can I do without damaging my relationships?


Many readers are quick, in my experience, to catastrophize situations in which adult children need financial help. So, let’s note that you have not expressed worry that your father will die penniless or that you will become financially responsible for your brother when he’s gone. You just don’t want to pay for their home repairs, which is totally reasonable!

Have a direct conversation with your father. Tell him you want him to be comfortable during his treatment and will happily find lodgings for him, but you don’t think it’s wise to invest money in repairing a house that your brother can’t afford to maintain. If, indeed, you are worried about your father’s or brother’s financial security, raise that issue too.

Based on your question, I don’t know whether your brother is a financial powder keg or temporarily unable to afford a new furnace. And guess what? It doesn’t matter. Saving the day is not your responsibility here. Talking through the issues with your father and brother — and setting reasonable boundaries with them — may be the healthiest outcome for everyone.

Credit…Miguel Porlan

I have a neighbor who is always complaining about the cheap quality of her home’s construction. The problem: Aside from this being annoying, we live in a development in which the houses are identical. So, when she criticizes her house, she is also criticizing mine. I have a construction background; there is nothing wrong with these homes. They are basic construction, which is reflected in their price. What can I say to let her know that her criticisms are hurtful?


Your neighbor is entitled to her opinion. And she probably hasn’t considered that her (annoying) litany of complaints upsets you. You could be direct with her: “Listen, our houses are identical. When you criticize yours, you’re also criticizing mine.”

It may be just as effective, though, and less emotionally fraught to offer an informed counter opinion. Say: “I’ve worked in construction, and I think we got fair value for our money. I’m happy with my home.” That may stop the complaining.

I’ve had lunch alone with my mother-in-law five times. The last was six years ago, when she asked me not to marry her son. (We married anyway.) My husband and I had a baby recently, and my mother-in-law has suggested that she, the baby and I start having weekly lunches. I want my child to have a relationship with her grandmother. But I don’t want to act as if the past never happened or hang out with someone who doesn’t like me. Advice?


I’m impressed by your generosity. I also hope that your mother-in-law has found other ways (aside from private lunches) to show you warmth and contrition for her error in judgment. If she has, maybe let her more recent kind actions speak louder than her older and colder words.

But if she remains chilly and simply pretends the terrible lunch never took place, clear the air before you start planning new weekly outings with her. (“You hurt me when you told me not to marry your son.”) If you are uncomfortable having this talk alone, ask your husband for support. He should appreciate that many partners would not be as gracious to his mother as you.

During a pandemic, I think that shaking hands is gross and unnecessary. Still, people keep introducing themselves to me with handshakes. I was at an outdoor birthday party last weekend, and several people reached out to shake. I know it’s a hard habit to break, but what should I do when people extend their hands?


You may be underestimating how baked into the culture handshaking is. When I was a kid, my parents ran handshake drills with my brothers and me: We had to look them in the eye, shake their hands firmly and tell them it was nice to see them.

So, I don’t blame people for extending their hands out of habit. I don’t shake them either! The next time someone does, say, “Let’s put handshakes on hold for now.” Personally, I like the small bows of head and upper torso that I see replacing them. (Fewer germs and just as pleasant!)

For help with your awkward situation, send a question to, to Philip Galanes on Facebook or @SocialQPhilip on Twitter.

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