Dear Margo: When You Live on a One-Way Street

Why are family relationships so hard? Margo Howard’s advice

When You Live on a One-Way Street

Dear Margo: My patience has run out with the three living members of my family. My father, his mother and my brother have gone through periods of not talking to each other or to me. My brother wants nothing to do with my father or our grandmother, both of whom dissed him throughout his life because of the wrongheaded idea that he came from our abusive, alcoholic mother’s affair. My brother, now a high-functioning recluse, has social anxiety and has started snapping at me and pulling away. I finally told him he could seek me out for a change, and I haven’t heard from him since.

After seven years of estrangement, my father and I have been emailing for the past couple of years. (We bumped into each other in a store; if that hadn’t happened, we probably still wouldn’t be talking.) Unfortunately, he is passive-aggressive and capricious like his mother, whom I gave up contacting a decade ago.

The pattern I’m seeing is that I’ve had to seek these people out, and if I don’t make the effort to call or email them, they feel no need to stay in touch with me. When I’ve brought up how they’ve hurt me, the response is defensive — or they just don’t respond. (In contrast, I’ve listened to and apologized to them when they’ve brought up their grievances with me.)

I can’t believe these three are the same people who doted on my daughter when she was born and, for the first few years, were involved in her life and mine. I have been closest with my brother, who formerly treated my daughter and me with the most affection, though he seems more and more like a stranger who doesn’t want me in his life. My question is: Should I give up on the idea that I might ever have real relationships with any of them? — Like an Orphan

Dear Like: What can I say? You just didn’t win the lottery for loving, warm relatives, and it sounds unlikely that anything’s going to change. The handwriting is on the wall, and what it says is Dysfunction Beyond Repair. These people sound damaged, your brother especially. It seems to me that you should work at accepting the limitations you are up against and find succor from friends. Acceptance, I believe, is the key here. These are the cards you were dealt. I hope you can internalize that it was a bad break, but that’s the way things are. — Margo, forwardly

When a Name or a Voice Is Androgynous

Dear Margo: I work in a professional office as the office manager. Sometimes I get calls from people and can’t tell from their voices whether they are male or female. When the name is gender-neutral and I have to put the person on hold, upon return what is a gender-neutral greeting alternative to saying “ma’am” or “sir”? I hate picking up the phone and saying, “Hey…” I don’t feel comfortable saying “Bobbie,” either, as I will not call a client by his or her first name unless they invite me to. Might you have any suggestions? — Shannon in N.C.

Dear Shan: I must say your mention of gender-neutral names reminded me of the famous SNL skit about “Pat.” I salute you for not addressing people by their first names. I myself find it kind of weird, if not presumptuous, when a stranger is on the other end of the line using my first name. (I also sometimes cannot peg a voice as a man’s or a woman’s.) To get around your dilemma, you might begin your return to the call with, “Hello again. Let’s continue.” — Margo, practically

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Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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24 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    LW#1:  It sounds like you have made all reasonable efforts to stay close to your family members.  I think you need to follow Margo’s advice and just accept that you lost the lottery on the family score…focus on your own immediate family and strive to build a better family legacy for your daughter.  I have several family members ( my mother for one and others by marriage) and friends who come from similar dysfunctional families who have managed to build close, loving and happy families of their own.  As for your brother, it is a sad situation but I think that you have done what you can.  At some point, if he gets himself together, he may return to you.  Keep the door open if he does and recognize that he is also a victim of your dysfunctional upbringing who has evidently not weathered the storm as well as you have.

    LW#2:  I had forgotten about *Pat* on SNL!  I think Margo’s solution is perfect!   

  2. avatar ch says:


    Margo’s solution is good.

    You can also come back politely with, “I’m sorry to have kept you on hold”, or “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting,” and then add in “How may I help you?” or “Where were we?” or more politely “Please continue.”

    • avatar toni says:

      I like yours! Or one could say Thank you for waiting.

    • avatar bright eyes says:

      I pick up the phone (when I can’t remember a name) and say I’m sorry about that – how can I help you?

      I used to feel funny about calling people by their first names, however I’m in a field where everyone goes by their first names. Every now and then I’ll call someone Mr. X or Mrs. Y and they will chuckle a bit.
      The problem I have is when they tell me their name but I forget to write it down! :-p  

  3. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #1: “The pattern I’m seeing is that I’ve had to seek these people out, and if I don’t make the effort to call or email them, they feel no need to stay in touch with me.” Been there/done that; some with family but more with “friends.” Actions do speak louder than words. You feel pain in this situation. Unfortunately the situation likely will not change. Given the fact their behaviors also *now* extend to your daughter — that is THE “handwriting on the wall.” Apparently there’s self-justification, self-pity, and resentment amongst them all; what a toxic brew. 🙁 I’ve stopped contacting such persons (kin or not); not out of spite, but out of sanity. However, if they should come to me I’ll respond.

    L #2: I like Margo’s suggestion.

    • avatar bright eyes says:

      Cindy – I’m doing the same thing now. I think this is more common than people think – although not usually at the letter writer’s level. My sister went away to college and we kept in touch. When we moved to where she was living, we’d see each other frequently. She doted on my child and we talked all of the time. Now it’s a few years later and she’s got kids of her own – now I only hear from her when she needs something. Yes she sends me pictures of her kids and posts things on facebook, but she’s no longer interested in what I’m doing or what my child is doing – to the point of forgetting birthdays and Christmas. I decided to let her do things on her terms. I’m tired of always being the one to make contact so I’m happy to take calls, but not to make them.
      This has damaged her relationship with my child probably beyond repair, but also that I didn’t want to put my child through it anymore and am doing what’s best for us and not doing things just because they’re family. I can’t let my child sit there with expectations that I know will not be met. And my child is a realist – after being blown off a few times, it’s not longer a big deal. I have friends who are more involved with my child than family. 

  4. avatar David Bolton says:

    LW1: The pattern is that you want some sort of acceptance from these people that they are not willing to give. Let it go. 

    LW2: I’m not trying to be catty, but you couldn’t figure this out on your own? Seriously?  

    • avatar balthuszar says:

      i’m not trying to be catty…but cant 99.9% of letters to either margo or dear abby figure their problems out ont heir own? why single that one out?

      • avatar David Bolton says:

        Because she’s an office MANAGER in a professional office. This problem is akin to saying: “I can’t figure out what that there <Enter> key does.” 

        • avatar stateoflove_N_Trust says:

          Hit any key.  Ohhh where’s the any key.

        • avatar bright eyes says:

          I do the “Thank you for Holding, how can I help you?” so that they start with a few words of the conversation that we were in before I put them on hold. Or if I just need to connect them to someone, it’s “Thank you for holding, I’ll get David for you now.” And I’m an office manager – usually someone with experience will come up with a few of these things on their own pretty quickly – unless they require you to say something else.

  5. avatar R Scott says:

    LW1 – “Should I give up on the idea that I might ever have real relationships with any of them?” Yes.

    LW2 – How about you simply say, “I’m sorry for keeping you but since you have a very gender bender voice and name I was totally flumoxed on what to say when I returned to the phone so I was in the bathroom puking with anxiety. So, where were we. Gene/Jean”?  

  6. avatar mac13 says:

    LW1. Here goes what is likely to be a unpopular comment. I read that letter a half dozen times and it just doesn’t make sense to me. Genetic testing is inexpensive. Surely after years of “dissing” a test would have been done.  If just to silence the critics.  The letter writer barely acknowledges her mother as having a part in this whole situation, other than the sketchy parentage. Could it be that the writer and brother sided with the “abusive alcoholic” mother? It seems there is way too little information to form good advice to her.

  7. avatar Amy says:

    My fiancee has the opposite problem as the people LW#2 mentions. He’s a tall, muscular, deep-voiced hottie of a man, but his name happens to be Hilary. You can see the shenanigans this gets us into on a regular basis.

    • avatar Patti Spencer says:

      Sorry, had t laugh at that one!  I know the feeling about not being able to have people tell if I am a man or woman – I make sure that I keep my name feminine, Patti not Pat – but will answer to Pat – for me it is due to being put on steroids due to loosing my voice a number of times.

      • avatar Amy says:

        It’s totally worth laughing at, no worries. :p I’m so sorry to hear about your maladies…I’ve been put on meds that do the opposite actually: I take medication for benign ovarian tumors that LOWER my testosterone. And I’ll be danged if my voice hasn’t gotten more lilting. I used to be able to sing a lot of songs by Johnny Cash and Chris Cornell, but now I just can’t hit the low notes the way I used to. Isn’t it funny how simple body chemicals can have such an effect on our physiology?

        • avatar Patti Spencer says:

          Amy: Yes it is amazing!!  Glad to hear you both have a sense of humor – sometimes that is all that gets us through life!  Here is a good laugh for you – when I am on my second to last day of regaining my voice – I sound like Minny Mouse – or that I have been sucking on a helium tank!!  Please – feel free to laugh at this one – I do – twice a year!

    • avatar francophile1962 says:

      To be fair, you’ve added insult to injury by referring to Hilary as your “finacee” with two “e’s”. A guy who is engaged is a “fiance”, with only one “e”. Bummer. The double “e” is for the ladies only.

  8. avatar balthuszar says:

    i’m a guy, and i work fast food, and when working the drive thru, i get called “ma’am” ALL the time…i don’t sound particularly feminine, and i used to reply to them with their opposite gender on purpose…it’s rude to assume, and you shouldnt assume you’re speaking to a man or a woman and use “ma’am” or “sir” anyways…but especially when you can’t tell

  9. avatar The Wild Sow says:

    Shannon?  Seriously — Shannon?!  Are you a boy Shannon or a girl Shannon? And I do know some of each <g>

    • avatar David Bolton says:

      My favorite is when people spell my middle name (which is what I go by usually), with A FREAKING “I” at the end, “because that’s how people usually spell it.”

      Yes, and I also have a habit of drawing a heart with a smiley face over the “I” instead of a dot. (eyeroll)


  10. avatar bamabob says:

    LW#2 I have a similar problem at work where I email coworkers in India a lot and then discuss the email with coworkers onshore.  I can’t tell by the names if they are male or female and when I talk about the correspondence with colleagues do I say “he said” or “she said”.  It’s awkward to repeatedly say “Jannalapain said”…

  11. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    We get to choose everything in our lives except our families. A little acceptance as Margo suggested is always a good thing. So is a little avoidance…

  12. avatar Carol Oleary says:

    LW1, you say that the main problem is that you must always initiate the contact. I’ve dropped a friend because of this – I told her very clearly to call me to arrange our next get together, and included “The ball’s in your court on this one” and she never did call.

    But to me, it’s a little different with family, there’s something so irreplaceable with family that just isn’t in the picture with a friend. The hurt is worse, but so is the motivation.

    Look at it this way: your choice is to resign yourself to be the initiator, or to forgo having family relationships with them. I can’t imagine your hurt but I do imagine it will hurt worse to not have them at all, than to have them in your life but know how deeply flawed they are.

    Since this is true of all of them, maybe you just need to remind yourself this is their particular form of “family stupidity” (and don’t we ALL have some variant of that!!) and that it’s not personal against you.