Family ties, new and old

Dear Ms Behavior:

My girlfriend Laura is introverted to a degree that might seem freaky to others. Sometimes when she is overwhelmed, she clams up, turns on the TV and curls up for several hours. She doesn’t speak or engage. This happens when we fight, but also when she’s upset over small things; she just shuts down.

I am an extrovert, as are all the members of my family. We have a family visit planned next month; my parents and three of my chatty siblings will be coming to see us. Everyone has met Laura but we haven’t spent a weekend together.

I’m worried that the visit will be stressful for Laura and that she’ll pull one of her inside-the-turtle-shell episodes in front of them. I know that my family will judge her/us.

So, would I be a controlling bitch if I asked Laura not to clam up or hide while the family is visiting? Or should I back off and not worry about what my family thinks? — Married to the Reptile

Dear Married to the Reptile:

It’s understandable that you want to save your girlfriend (and yourself) from your family’s judgment, but you probably can’t control everyone’s experience. If Laura needs to go hide in the bedroom (or the broom closet), let her do it. As long as your family doesn’t see her curled in the fetal position under the dining-room table, it should be fine.

Sometimes when people recede into their shells, it’s protective: Hiding takes the pressure off. Disappearing may help Laura to defend against having a true meltdown —which would really give your family something to talk about.

Ms. Behavior suspects that the real issue here may be your need for your family’s approval. Why are you so invested in their opinion? Why not align yourself with Laura instead of your critical family?

Dear Ms. Behavior:

When I was “straight” and married to a woman, I was a lousy husband and father. I drank and went out all the time and was basically a jerk. This fact continues to plague me with guilt and regret.

I have a boyfriend now and I’m a much happier person. Rick and I have been together for three years. He’s a nice guy who has no bad feelings about my previous life. In fact, he has suggested that I contact my ex-wife, to apologize to her for everything I did wrong.

When I last saw Gina (several years ago), she threw the contents of the kitchen cabinets at my head. But now time has passed, and more recently our kids have kept me apprised of her well-being and new marriage, and it sounds like she’s in a good place.

So, I need some advice. First of all, is it selfish to try to arrange a rapprochement with someone you’ve wronged? Or is it a good thing to do — and am I just looking for an excuse to avoid this difficult reunion (as Rick suspects)? — Sorry Ex-Spouse

Dear Sorry Ex-Spouse:

If you are truly sorry for your past behavior and want to make amends to your ex, apologize to her on her terms. If you’re taking responsibility for being inconsiderate, don’t dump your guilt on Gina or make it all about you. Simply send her an e-mail and ask if she’s willing to get together so that you can apologize to her. If she is not ready right now, respect her wishes. You can make amends by changing your behavior. Say nice things about her in public. Don’t wear chaps when you pick up the kids at her house.

If she’s willing to hear you out, make sure to focus on your behavior. Chances are good that you were worse than you remember, so make sure you give her a chance to express her feelings, which may be difficult for you.

It can be disorienting to hang out with an ex, so have the kids and Rick meet you afterward for some normalizing behavior to help you move on: an ice cream, a séance, dancing the Hora.

Meryl Cohn is the author of “‘Do What I Say’: Ms. Behavior’s Guide to Gay and Lesbian Etiquette” (Houghton Mifflin). E-mail her at [email protected] or visit www.msbehavior.com.