Advice from an "Expert in Failed Relationships"

Note from editors: Every since our editor-in-chief’s book, Harlots Sauce, was published, she has been receiving dozens of emails and Facebook messages each week from people seeking her advice on their life and love problems. About this she has said, “People seem to feel comfortable asking my opinion, even if they haven’t met me. Maybe it’s because after reading my book, they learn that I’m someone who, in my past, has failed miserably at every possible relationship – that of being daughter, wife, mother… even friend. You go to an expert when you have a question, don’t you? Well, I’m an expert at failure.”


Problems with Future Mother-in-Law are a ‘Shoe-In’, For Sure

Dear EFR: I have the weirdest problem with my fiancé’s mother ─ she thinks we wear the same shoe size, which we most definitely do not. Though we technically wear the same number, her foot is as wide as a Mac truck. Why is this a problem? She insists on trying on all my shoes. If I take my shoes off, even for a moment, she stuffs her feet into them, sometimes even using a shoe horn to force them to fit! Then she models them, “ Look ─ you see? We’re the same…” she says.

Naturally, when she’s done giving my fiancé and me her ‘fashion show’ my shoe is actually stretched out! One pair (one of my favorites and most expensive, actually) never went back to fitting me properly.

My fiancé thinks this is hilarious, but I think it’s disgusting and intrusive. What can I do to get her to stop without alienating her?

Shooed and Shy in San Pablo

Dear SASISP: Oh, boy, oh boy, oh boy ─ I’m no student of Freud, but I bet he’d have a field day with one! Trying to fit into your shoes, and modeling them for her son, saying- “Look- we’re the same?” Yikes, girl! You have a bigger problem than simple sagging shoe leather.

To me, this woman has what I like to call “umbilical cord issues”. Before you go any further down that white carpeted aisle, observe your future m-i-l closely, and notice whether or not she is this invasive in any other aspects of your life. For example, does she buy your fiancé’s underwear for him? Iron his pajamas? Ask you to buy a certain type of olive oil, because that’s the only kind her son likes? (Don’t ask me how I came up with these examples, please.) If you think she is going to have issues separating from her baby boy, you and your beloved need to have a talk now ─ right now ─ about what role he expects his mother to have in your married life.

If on the other hand, she is just quirky when it comes to footwear, keep them on your feet, honey. Or buy a pair of attractive slippers, change into them while you are visiting her or she’s visiting you, and keep your shoes locked up in either a handbag you keep snugly at your side for just this purpose, or in your closets. If she then goes to retrieve your shoes so she can try them on, and your fiancé still thinks this is “hysterical” then – listen carefully – run away from this Oedipal situation as fast as your stretched-out-leather-shod feet will take you.


“Successful and Happy” Still Hurts from a Family Sadness…

Dear EFR: I’m almost embarrassed to write this letter, because I’m afraid you’ll think I’m insane. I am an adult male in my forties, who, though happily married and successful, still have some dark moments when I relive the abuse I suffered not only at my parents’ hands, but at my siblings. I have overcome many of the problems this caused me in my life through therapy, and finally through separating myself from the people involved, and yet, I’ve always wondered why this happened. Have you ever heard of a case where only one child was abused by his/her parents and whose siblings also were abusive? My case of abuse was so extensive that I even was abused by some of my aunts and uncles. To this day, I wonder how this could be, and what I could have done differently to prevent it. I’ve never told anyone the extent of this abuse, (mostly emotional, but some physical) because I doubted anyone could believe that only one person in a whole group of people was abused. Have you ever heard of this happening? And what did I do to cause it?

Still Hurt and Confused in New York City

Dear SHACINYC: This letter breaks my heart. First, because it proves what a very wise friend of mine once said, “that everyone, even those who appear happy and successful, have at least one, giant heartbreak they carry around with them in secret.”

I’m so sorry that this is yours, but I hope what I write here will ease at least some of it. To answer your questions, 1) this situation is much more common than you can imagine, and 2) you could do nothing to prevent it. Trust me on this.

My experts tell me that this type of child abuse is called “targeted abuse.” One of the most horrific cases of a parent singling out a child for abuse is that of Dave Pelzer, author of A Child Called “It.” In 1973, Dave’s case was considered the worse case of child abuse in the history of California. None of his brothers appeared to be abused, but even if they had, the physical evidence unmistakably showed that Dave was especially singled out and horrifically so. (By the way, I highly recommend this memoir to you, it is inspiring and encouraging.)

In your case, it was not only that your parents singled you out, but that your siblings and extended family members actively went along with them. This too, is more common that you might imagine. The reasons that siblings and other family members get behind this behavior, is because when one segment of a particular family is dysfunctional, it is more often than not the case that the entire extended family is also dysfunctional. This is because people with severe emotional problems who do not seek the help of a therapist can only feel psychologically comfortable with others who are as disturbed as they are. Once they form an alliance, they ‘collude’ with one another in a secret agreement that all is right and well with the way they behave and view the world. They do this so that they’re not forced to change. Generally speaking, the family member they choose to collectively abuse has either consciously or unconsciously ‘called them’ on their behavior because he/she does not naturally display the same self-destructive traits, nor desire for collusion. In addition, the abused often inadvertently poses some kind of a perceived threat to the abusers in one or more of the following ways:

  • the abused child is viewed as an adversary (for example- a mother might see her daughter as competition for her husband’s attention, a father might see in his daughter traits he dislikes in his wife)
  • the abuser dislikes certain personality traits that the child exhibits, especially if these traits remind the abuser of someone he/she has a particular aversion to (an estranged spouse, a despised sibling, a feared parent, etc.) Or if the child resembles that person in looks.
  • the abuser is jealous of the child’s looks, mannerisms, character, abilities, intelligence, strong will, and so punishes the child for those perceived ‘faults.’
  • the child was a product of an unwanted pregnancy, the pregnancy was difficult, or there was extreme stress in the abusers’ lives when the child was born.
  • the child has a physical or mental handicap, and the abuser (usually a parent, in this case) sees this handicap as a failure on his/her own part and blames the child for revealing this failure to the world through his/her affliction.

If you carefully examine these common reasons why children can become the victims of abuse, you can see that there is no way that the abused could do or say anything to prevent it.

But why would a sibling also be an abuser? The answer to that is simple: power. In a dysfunctional family, every child, abused or not, feel helpless and unhappy. The abusive sibling feels neglected and insecure. He or she may feel strong only in relation to a sibling being powerless. The feeling of power children experience when they mistreat a brother or sister often reinforces their decision to repeat the abuse. This can also be true of some extended family members. Think very carefully about which extended family members abused you emotionally. What were their other relationships like? Did they appear powerless or not in control at every other time except for the times they were abusing you? My guess is the answer to that is “yes.”

I would encourage you to see the inherent power and self-esteem you must have exhibited unknowingly in order for this den of malicious, but insecure human beings to gang up on you, and try to crush that spirit of yours. It sounds as though as much as they may have hurt you, they didn’t succeed in their efforts to destroy you. Recognize this behavior for the tragedy it is for them, not you, and let yourself completely heal, my friend.


“Experience is a brutal teacher, but you learn. My God, do you learn.”
C.S. Lewis

Do you have a question for me about failed (or failing) relationships? I’m happy to read your questions and answer them in this column. Keep in mind that I’m a writer and licensed teacher, but not a therapist or a lawyer. However, I do consult these experts to answer my letters when necessary. Leave your questions in the comment box below, or e-mail and put “advice column” in subject line. For more information about me, visit

Please note: Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

Patricia V. Davis is the author of Harlot’s Sauce: A Memoir of Food, Family, Love, Loss and Greece.


My experts tell me that

Last 5 posts by Patricia V. Davis - an Expert in Failed Relationships

Last 5 posts by Patricia V. Davis - an Expert in Failed Relationships