Ask Amy

Tuesday, January 5, 2010 at 11:45pm

DEAR AMY: Several times a year my wife and I have dinner with three other couples.

We all get along fine, but I do not look forward to these get-togethers because the evenings have turned into four hours of inane, shallow chitchat. My wife says friends should avoid talking about sensitive issues like politics or religion, but I am at a loss as to how to get more stimulating conversation flowing.

If someone is talking about the price of milk, it is hard to break in and say, "What do you think about health care legislation?"

Can you offer advice about how to stimulate more interesting conversation?

— Bored to Tears

There's politics, there's religion and there's the price of milk.

Talking about milk prices can lead to a discussion about current events, especially if you introduce the subject by asking a question, such as, "How is the economy affecting your business lately?"

Other topics can readily be found on the front pages (or the local pages, the sports pages or the movie listings) of your newspaper.

You can stay away from a heated political exchange if you decide in advance to listen and promise yourself to end the evening having learned something new.

It can be challenging to listen to people prattle on about their kids and their ski vacations, but I believe that most people are eager to dig a little deeper — if they're given the opportunity.

DEAR AMY: I am estranged from my nephew. His parents took him and moved away when he was a child.

He is now an adult, and I'd like to get together with him again, but he doesn't want to get together with me — his own aunt.

I've tried to keep track of him over the years, sending him birthday and Christmas presents, and a few e-mails a year.

Except for once about two years ago, when he wrote me a thank-you letter, I do not hear from him.

I don't want him to think I don't care, so I try to keep up some sort of communication.

I just want to know how other people handle this type of situation.

My heart is broken but after two years of therapy — about 15 years ago — I "sort of" learned to live with it.

I think my whole family grieves over the loss of this young man from our lives. Of course with the holidays this rift comes up annually.

I have a great relationship with other nieces and nephews. But this estrangement is a heartbreaker. If adult siblings have problems with each other, I wish they wouldn't drag the kids into it. Everybody loses.

— Sad Aunt

DEAR AUNT: Estrangements within families are sadly common. These rifts can be brought on by a multitude of reasons — and sadly often the estrangement outlasts the memory of its cause.

You're helping yourself by acknowledging the grief you feel and seeking help to put this into perspective.

You have so many functioning relationships in your life. You should continue to celebrate and focus on these healthy relationships.

It's OK to continue to contact your nephew, but don't send him gifts. Gifts have a way of putting pressure on the recipient. Your contact should be straightforward, warm and newsy. Don't pressure him to be in touch, but let him know you'd welcome hearing from him.

My favorite book on this challenging topic is, Healing From Family Rifts: Ten Steps to Finding Peace After Being Cut Off From a Family Member by Mark Sichel (2004, McGraw Hill).

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