Dilemmas: There is a time when you must stop helping a selfish scrooge

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Barbara is always doing her in-laws favours: doing their tax returns, entertaining them. Her reward's been an egg-timer. Now her father-in-law's asking for advice on shares he's giving his other grandchildren - not her children, he says, because she's a Labour supporter. She feels bitter. Her husband says she shouldn't be so generous.

The dilemma is really this: what do you do if you have a completely unthinking, unfeeling git in the family? Try to josh them out of it? Cut them out of your life? Write them a serious letter explaining how you feel? Mean old gits are notoriously insensitive and usually it means using devious means to get them to change their behaviour in any way at all.

First of all Barbara needs to get the situation clear in her head. Forget the fact that he's her father-in-law or that nice people are meant to do nice things for people in order to have nice things done back to them. Mean old gits don't speak this language. She is, simply, being exploited by a jerk and she must decide whether to continue to be generous to him, turning the other cheek, or to use self-preservation techniques and in future say that she's far too busy (trying to earn money to buy shares for her children, perhaps?) to be able to help them again.

She could of course write him a letter. Not a whingeing or an angry letter, but one that runs something like this. "Dear Dad, I have been so glad to have been some help to you over your tax and enjoyed saving you several thousands of pounds, but I can't help feeling hurt that you are now deciding to give shares only to your other grandchildren. I am not upset on my own behalf, but on behalf of my children. Have I or they done something wrong to be treated like this? Perhaps I have offended you in some way. If so I apologise. Do let me know what has happened between us so that I may try to put things right, love from Barbara".

Or she could approach her mother-in-law, who is a rather shady figure in this whole saga. (Though probably she's something of a diminished figure, having been browbeaten by her ghastly husband all these years). It's likely that her mother-in-law would be more sensitive to the problem and might be able to have a word with her husband. The other thing would be for her husband to write his parents a letter saying how upset he feels. He could say that although Barbara has not said a word to him, and has always enjoyed doing the parents favours, he can't help feeling that as a reward for all her work the result is that their children are being deprived.

Humour and elaborate, slightly unkind teasing, is the only other way to get the message through. Constant harping on the amount of "free" labour he's getting, calling him an old meanie in an apparently affectionate way, joking about the difference in their politics, remarking, if he ever produces his wallet, that he'd better watch out when the moths fly out, or simply making a big production of it: `Hey, get the camera! Grandad's got his wallet out! Ring up the papers!" - all these are things that get to the meanest of old gits.

Barbara's done all the right things so far. She has tried her best to be generous and helpful. But when you do this and your generosity is met by a brick wall, it's a moment take stock. The father-in-law is never going to turn into an old sweetie and what Barbara mustn't do is to continue to sacrifice herself again and again in the hope that he will change. Enough is enough. She has now learned just what kind of man he is, and she must accept it rather than beating her brains out hoping he'll suddenly say: "Thank you."

what readers say

Ask them for help

When other people don't appear to respond to given situations with a generosity equal to our own we are often disappointed. Unless you feel able to discuss your misgivings openly with your father-in-law (which I assume is not an option or you would already have tried it) then your husband is probably right. You may find a shift in your own attitude will bring rewards. The next time your in-laws ask for advice think of something that they could help you with in return, then ask for it! Maybe there is a reason why they have never offered to help with your new baby eg they may feel you don't trust them.

If you continue to give your time and resources so freely then clearly your in-laws will continue to make demands and your resentment will doubtless increase. By showing them that you have needs too the dynamics of your relationship will be forced to change, hopefully for the better.

Lizette Aldsworth

Rich but impoverished

I can well understand how Barbara feels about her father-in-law's meanness. My Dad is a master in the art of increasing his already considerable wealth but doesn't believe in sharing it. Apart from buying everything second- hand, he'd rather wear his coat indoors than put his heating on during the day. He has never offered to baby-sit for his grandchildren nor taken them to a burger bar or the cinema, believing them to be a "scandalous waste of money".

My mother is the opposite (that's probably why they're divorced) and never stops spending, on holidays, expensive clothes, jewellery and cosmetics - for herself. She is far too busy treating herself to spend time with us or her grandchildren, and steadfastly sticks to her limit of pounds 12.50 per child at Christmas.

My mother-in-law, stricken with a chronic illness, is confined to bed and her oxygen machine - yet is financially and emotionally generous. Her greatest sorrow is that she can no longer baby-sit or play with her grandchildren.

I find my parents' selfishness infuriating and beyond belief sometimes - especially compared to my mother-in-law, but I don't believe that rowing or trying to thwart them would change anything. Barbara's generous nature won't change and she should stop expecting her father-in-law to be any different. Like my parents, he may be well off, but is to be pitied because he is impoverished by such an ugly trait.

Anon

Professional advice

It is a sad, but general, rule that people do not place much value on the help they get for free.

Next time Barbara's odious father-in-law wants "a hand" with his tax arrangements, she should tell him pleasantly that she is unfortunately too busy to give his affairs the attention they require, but that she would be glad to recommend the services of a professional acquaintance - warning him that this may well set him back a bit. I think he will get the message.

As for the milk of human kindness, Barbara, you've been pouring it down the drain.

Angela Partington

Convert to the Tories!

If I were in Barbara's position I would feign having changed my politics and see what happens then. If a man can be as despicably mean-spirited as is claimed he deserves a deliberate lie and a good one at that.

Alan J. Page

Next week's dilemma

This may sound a trivial problem, but it's something I can't come to terms with. My husband is a really nice man. He's intelligent, he's funny, he's kind, he's generous. But nearly every weekend we go off on an expedition, and as soon as we get into the car he becomes a different man. He's bad-tempered with other drivers, drives too fast (I think) though he's never had an accident, gets enraged with me if I read the map wrongly, and, worst of all, always refuses to ask the way if we're lost. Last week we drove round for an hour searching for a country house we wanted to see and by the time we got there it was closed. I'm starting to dread these weekend outings, but he doesn't seem to understand what upsets me. Do any other readers have the same problem?

Hannah

Letters are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora. Send your personal experiences or comments to me at the features Department, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax 0171-293 2182) by Tuesday morning.

And if you have any dilemma of your own that you would like to share, please let me know.

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