Sunday, September 03, 2006

Dismaying Story #45: It's All in the Point of View

Dear Andrew,

I married into a family of business people. My husband's only sister had married "well." She was living the life of country clubs, cocktail parties with bar tenders and serving wenches. We were more your everyday pot roast and mashed potatoes type of people.

Her efforts to drag us into the realm of "the better life" were subtle but unending. There was not enough money to live according to their style. She is the best person in the world and has taken care of our children when they were tiny little people, but didn't understand that teeny little chickens stuffed with wild rice in orange peels are not things that your average four year old will express great fondness for --- not to mention the celery casserole on the plate with nothing to hide it under.

I would seriously love to tell her, "I have been in this family for an enormous amount of time and I love you dearly, but could you get off my back about living 'the good life.' "

As time has passed, she is mellowing a fuzz, but still maintains exaggerated memories of the poor but honest childhood she and my husband had. The next time she starts into one of her imagined stories, could I just ask her what really happened on that occasion?

I feel like a poor relation and we are not. Why do some people elevate their social standing, by putting others down?

Signed, Not So Poor

Dear Rich in So Many Ways,

Understanding someone else's motivation in a conflict situation can be a challenge. When this happens, there is often a natural tendency to do two things:
  • Make the issue about ourselves; and
  • Assume the other person is dealing from a position of strength.
You feel criticized, like the issue here is your lifestyle. That is an understandable reaction, since that has frequently been the topic of conversation. Going along with that, you feel like you are getting the worst of this exchange. She seems to have great confidence in the value of her lifestyle as compared with yours.

To gain a greater appreciation for what she might be thinking, however, it often helps to remember this: she has the same two natural tendencies.

From your sister-in-law's point of view, how might this be an issue about her? Is it possible this is more about her insecurities than her confidence?

I'm sure she's smart enough to figure out that her attempts to please your children (at least at dinner) are flops compared with your own. She may feel torn between two worlds. From her point of view, the upper crust folks may look down on her because of her childhood, and the down to Earth crowd doesn't understand her because she is different. I wouldn't be surprised if she feels nobody truly accepts her. She might envy the fact that you don't have two worlds pulling at you. Her attempts to draw you into her world might be a plea for company, a desire to have someone just like her with whom she can share the experience.

Her actions make more sense when you consider them from this point of view. Which is more likely, that a generally nice person would take every opportunity to put you down, or that a person with insecurities would have trouble concealing them? I suspect the latter.

If we assume this is true, then her idealized childhood memories are another way of saying, "See? We really do have something in common." Correcting her would be likely serve only to make her feel more isolated and rejected. If you can appreciate these comments from her point of view, I suspect you will feel less like correcting her.

More than that, with an understanding of what she has likely gone through, you may be able to find opportunities to reassure her, to make her feel accepted and appreciated. I suspect that, more than anything else, might cut down on the number of times you hear about this sort of issue.

All the best,


  1. Everyone is a story, and when we learn to read people that way it IS easier to offer grace and acceptance, which, nearly always eases the tension in any conflict. One addition, if I may, is that she may genuinely feel lucky and have a sincere desire to "help" her loved ones enjoy the same "fortune" she does. Most people are dismally unaware of the diversity of values between individuals, and cannot really imagine that you wouldn't actually want the things that they do. Perhaps sharing with her how much you enjoy your lifestyle could pave the way for more open communication.

  2. Is it so difficult to let her say her thing without being affected by it?Andrew is right when he says that your sister in law may actually be very lonely at heart and believe me such people ARE having a tough time and need careful handling.

  3. i think she does protest too much...

    i think you were dealing with two insecure people here...

    just my two cents...

  4. She says her sisterinlaw is a nice person...and has helped with her children...thats something to be greatful for...I would try to understand her better if she is nice....unlike my sisterinlaw who is the rich bitch who is running my Fathers business and none of us can stand her, lol. She has the money now...but what good is money if you have no friends??? I think it can be lonely at the top. Ill take my friends anyday!!! Im sure her SIL has insecurities...I would try to understand that.

  5. Coming into money, and no this does not mean sleeping with a rich broad, at a time when the world has gone crazy often leads to a warped sense that more is better.

    I think it's more self preservation than anything else because it somehow eliminates those feelings of inadequacy during times when money issues were out of your hand.