Dear Virginia, Over Sunday lunch, my son-in-law suddenly blurted out some home truths about me and my husband that he said he'd been storing up for ages. We were so upset, particularly considering we've lent them money and always been helpful to them. My husband now refuses to speak to him until we've had an apology. But although I know my son-in-law regrets what he said – or, rather, the way he said it – he won't say sorry. What can we do? Best wishes, Barbie

It's that old syndrome, isn't it? "When an irresistible force meets an immovable object, what happens?" Your son-in-law refuses to apologise. Your husband refuses to talk.

You, however, have no such constraints. So I suggest that you start talking as soon as you possibly can, in the most matter-of-fact way that you can summon up.

It sounds to me that it's not a question of your son-in-law refusing to apologise. A more charitable way of looking at it would be to say that he can't. Now, as someone who is happy to apologise at the drop of a hat, even for things that other people have done wrong or for things I don't think I'm guilty of – "sorry" is my middle name – this inability is very difficult for me to understand. But I have met people who are just unable to say sorry. They say it in other ways – by smiling, ringing, buying presents – but they're just incapable of saying sorry. You might as well ask a cat to read Wordsworth to you out loud. It's just not going to happen.

I've spent many days – and now I look back on it, pointless days – of my life wishing people would do things that they can't do. "Why couldn't he have just rung to say he was late?" "Why couldn't she have told me she's had a miscarriage the day before I started droning on about babies?" And so on and so on. Complete waste of time. The truth is that they just couldn't. Either they weren't imaginative enough to know how one would be worrying or they just have a blank spot when it comes to doing things that you and I take for granted.

Your son-in-law has already lost enough face (in his eyes) by having to borrow money from you. He already feels, I'm sure, like less of a man. He lost his temper and said all those things to give him a sense of self-worth. Misguided, of course, and hurtful, but there it is. To ask him now to abase himself again by apologising – well, it's just not kind or charitable.

If this man were some passing acquaintance then obviously you could just cut him out of your lives. But he's your son-in-law. He's your daughter's loving partner. You've just got to get on with him.

Try to get your husband to see his son-in-law as a helpless, out-of-control idiot rather than a gigantic warrior set on wounding him. And start talking to him, yourself, and encourage your daughter to keep talking to her dad. It may be that you just have to wait for this to blow over and it's not heading for years of feuding. I do hope so.

Take it slowly

You haven't said what your daughter thinks, but you have implied there is something in these "home truths". Could it be they "burst" out in that way because your son-in-law feels he cannot normally speak to you both? You haven't said if there are grandchildren who will also suffer from a rift.

Lending your family money gives you no rights over them, but can cause discomfort and resentment on both sides. You can't force someone to apologise – it wouldn't be a real apology anyway. The only thing you can do is to try keeping regular contact with your daughter, and then try a family meeting again at a birthday or an anniversary when things have calmed down.

In my experience trying to talk things through may be an ideal situation, but isn't practical with all personalities. Just try telling your husband he has right on his side (and maybe your son-in-law does too) but the whole family will lose out if they don't try to put it behind them. Try to forget the money and the words and just get on with any positive aspects of the relationship. Parents have far more to lose than the children if there's a rift.

Name and address supplied

Seize this opportunity

Don't "not talk to your son-in-law". You must talk and talk. You have a golden opportunity to talk openly and truthfully to him and your daughter, which many families never have, and who consequently live their whole lives together in pretence and politeness, never fully understanding or accepting one another. Stop and listen to yourselves, so full of anger and self-righteousness. So you lent them money. So what? That's what families are for. Could it be that you harped on about it overly? Could it be that you felt that it entitled you to be a bit critical or interfering?

Examine your own behaviour and then try to find out why your son-in-law felt compelled to this outburst. If you can all talk openly and honestly I'm sure you will come to understand one another's viewpoints and will have a much more honest and maybe more loving relationship in future.

Penny Joseph, Shoreham-by-sea, West Sussex

Face the truth

You used the words "home truths", which implies that maybe you think he had a point. I suspect that during your Sunday lunch, a few glasses of wine were drunk and the saying in vino veritas comes to mind. However, I think that we all do the wrong things when we have drunk too much wine. If this is the case, your son-in-law is probably feeling guilty and ashamed of his outburst.

You don't mention your daughter's views. She may be torn between her husband and father. She's the only one who can mend things. Ask her to speak to them both and surely a compromise can be made. If they love her they'll agree to settle their differences. Life's too short for family feuding.

Anita Ashford, Norwich

Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

One afternoon recently, I left my four-year-old son with a friend who has another little boy the same age. My son was excited to be going to visit, but after I went to collect him he burst into tears on the way home. He told me he'd spilt some juice on a carpet and my friend had sent him to the naughty step. We don't have the naughty step in our house, because I think it's cruel and humiliating, and I was furious that my friend had upset my little boy for making such a minor mistake. Do you think I should I say something to my friend?

Yours sincerely, Georgie

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