Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Dismaying Story #51: The Sister-In-Law Wars

Dear Andrew,

My husband and I have been together for 10 years. When we first met, I was drinking to suppress my sorrow over losing my first born child. He died at 1 month of age due to a heart attack and being pre-term. My husband was using meth and cocaine. I understand his family's reaction towards me when we first got together. I was another throw-away girlfriend, an 18 year old flake. But then I got pregnant, and they had their doubts that the baby was my husband's. Once they were convinced, and my husband cleaned up, things slowly changed for the better within my relationship with his parents.

But the siblings, after 10 years they still treat me like the throw away girlfriend. They gossip behind my back, they say terrible things about me to my babysitters. The biggest problem is with my youngest sister-in-law. She is only a year younger then I am but still behaves as though she is in high school. She says derogatory things in front of my children, and verbally abuses me when I ask her not too. She blames me for my husband's drug use, even though I had met him after he started all of that. He has been clean 8 years now, but she won't let go. Sometimes I feel like she hates me only because she was unable to marry her brother. Then there is the fact that I had the first grandson, which is a big deal in that family. She showed up shortly after the birth of our last son, ignored me totally and the first words out of her mouth was an insult towards the newborn. It has even got to the point where my mother-in-law had to physically restrain me from hitting her.

I try to stay away from family events that I know she is attending, but I am tired of this animosity. I have tried being nice, and helpful, I have tried ignoring, but her gossip comes back to me and can be painful. I love my husband dearly, I love his parents. But I don't know what to do about this sister in law. Should I continue to ignore her?

I know this hurts my husband. He loves her but can't stand the fact that she behaves this way towards me. I want it to stop or at least have this hatred towards me suppressed enough so that everyone can enjoy the family events.

Signed, Not So Throw-Away

Dear Not So,

I am sorry to hear of the loss of your son. That is the type of pain that follows you for a lifetime, but I hope time has taken some of the sharpness away and made it more bearable.

You mention the various ways you have tried to mend fences with your sister-in-law. The glaring omission in your letter, though, is what your husband has done about it.

I'm a big believer that once you get married, that marriage now becomes your primary household, your number one family. Extended family is incredibly important, of course, especially once children come along. Children gain wonderful benefits from having loving grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. In a conflict like this, though, your husband has to make it clear where his primary allegiance lies.

He knows how his sister treats you, yet I assume (because you didn't say otherwise) that his own relationship with her has not changed much. What message is she likely to take from this? That's easy. He is showing that he condones her behavior, at least to the extent he is willing to tolerate it.

If that continues, what kind of pressure does that put on the relationship between you and him? You say he doesn't like the behavior, but it wouldn't surprise me if the fact that he tolerates it will at some point become an issue between you. He is now your husband and the father to your children. It's time for him to step up and act like a husband. He needs to let his sister know where his primary allegiance lies.

More than that, he is the one with the leverage here. You and your sister-in-law are forced into occasional contact and the two of you have not developed a close bond, which means the thought of you withdrawing from a relationship with her is not much of a threat from her point of view. On the other hand, I bet her relationship with her brother is important to her. That gives him some bargaining chips you don't have.

He needs to get her alone and tell her in no uncertain terms that she is hurting you, she is hurting him (not only because he hates to see his sister acting this way but because she is driving a wedge into his marriage) and he will not stand for it. He must look her straight in the eye and tell her that she will treat you and your children with respect, and that if she continues to force him to choose between his sister and his wife ... she will lose.

In many cases this will be enough to turn the tide. If that doesn't happen, he must be willing to back up his words. To show that he will not tolerate her behavior, he should refuse to subject you and himself to that relationship unless and until she can at least be respectful.

I also know that it usually takes two to tango, even if the bitterness comes primarily from one direction. You mention being physically restrained from trying to hit her, so your sister-in-law is obviously not the only one with fighting spirit. Are there times in the past when you have thrown fat on the fire with things you have said or done? Once your husband lays it on the line with his sister, you must be willing to do your part (and from your letter it sounds like you are). You want respect from her so you should treat her the same way.

Hopefully that will open the door to begin healing the rift.

All the best,

If you haven't already done so, don't forget to check out this week's Ask the Faithful Readers question. Let me know what you think about the relationship skills of the Game Boy generation.


  1. Good advice here!

    "Not so" - as hard as it is, tell yourself that this is HER problem and not yours. If you let it get to you, you are giving her exactly what she wants.

  2. I think life is hard enough with children and a husband. I agree totally that this is the husbands job and responsibility. She needs to remove herself from all situations to keep peace. Even if the sister in law does not change.

    The thing that concerns me is the talk in front of the children. These kids will one day grow up to learn their parents are not perfect, why does the sister in law want to take away their childhood early. If she doesn't make immediate concessions to remain at a higher level with the children present, she will be eliminated from them completely.

    It is more important to shield the children than the mother. This should be the husbands motivation.

  3. Julie Bo Boolie9:49 AM


  4. "I'm a big believer that once you get married, that marriage now becomes your primary household, your number one family."

    This is why I read your site, Andrew. You wisely point out what should be obvious but somehow gets overlooked.

  5. Ruff stuff. I was in a marriage that included some of that dissention. That's pretty much behind me now, but I do have a similar situation now with my own sister. She despises my son's girlfriend. She treats her terribly. She hates their child (my granddaughter) and constantly makes negative comments. My son's girlfriend is not just a fleeting person here. She's not only the mother of my grandchild but she is like a daughter to me. I have been offended by the way my sister treats her and I felt it was my job to confront her about it, so I did. Her argument was that she doesn't hate the girl, she just doesn't think of her as a person. I said, "Oh, you mean like the slave owners did with the slaves?" It is a struggle as we have a close family that gets together a lot. I have put my foot down and told her that in no way will I participate in a gathering that includes her continued open disdain toward this person (or any person, for that matter). I will confront her openly and it will not be pretty. She has backed down, so far.

    So, I agree. The ball is clearly in the husband's court. When I got married, my mother would say negative things about my husband to me. I told her, "Mom, if you have such things to say about my husband, you'd best say them to someone else. I don't want to hear it. He's my husband." She told me later that she gained an immense amount of respect for me that day.

    Hopefully, the husband will see that he needs to do something. It's very hard to make waves in a family and he will likely resist, or put it off. If he's a more passive type who has lived in a family where these things haven't been confronted before, it will be a huge step for him.

    Andrew, do you have any other ideas for solutions in the event he either feels it is not his place or he is just not emotionally up to it?

  6. Past telling her sister in law she didn’t like the way she was treating her she shouldn’t have anything more to say.
    It’s her husbands job to tell his sister to shut up and mind her own business, that’s if:
    1.He has any backbone
    2. He loves his wife
    But the fact that he questioned the legitimacy of his own kid I would wonder about number 2.

    I am a bit of a radical so I would cut his family off from seeing any of her kids especially the bitch of a SIL if they were mean.
    Anyone that says anything nasty about one of my kids is spitting teeth across the room, family or not and I have done it to my brother for slapping my ex.
    They don’t deserve to be near her kids if all they are doing is hurting the children by saying derogatory statements about their mother to them.
    I could almost see their bent down heads looking at the floor lost and confused listening to what is said.

    She should have told her MIL to get a DNA test to see if her FIL was that actual father of her husband before she did hers.
    A person who can’t defend their partner or someone they say they love doesn’t deserve to be with that person and she should question his feelings towards them.
    You are right once you start a family it becomes your primary focus the rest of the family are in the bleachers.

    Have a nice day Andrew

  7. Reading this post made me realize how mean I used to be to my sister in law. I am the baby sister and for some reason I felt protective over my older brothers in this strange way. Thank goodness I grew up enough not to do that anymore!

  8. Great advice. My husband and I don't have a 'perfect' marriage (who does?) but there's one thing that he's always been absolutely wonderful about. He's always taken my part with his family. I've never had a problem with his brother or sil, I love them very much, but my mil has been very difficult at various times over the years. My husband's let her know, in no uncertain terms, that his allegiance is to me and our fledgling family, and over the years she has come to accept this. I credit him with this turn-about on her part. If he hadn't been so adamant, mine and my mil's relationship might be much different (worse) today.

  9. Great comments everyone! I always appreciate it when I see such an outpouring of genuine support for the letter writer.

    Teri: If he can't or won't step up, then Not-So has yet another problem: a non-supportive husband. My first suggestion would be to insist on his support, to attempt to educate him that it really is his place to handle this problem and she truly needs his support. Failure to step up after that would usually be a significant impediment for the marriage. She could choose to accept this flaw in their relationship or take it to the next level, which might include marriage counseling.

  10. Right on, Andrew! Your advice is straight out of the Bible---paraphrasing here---"Therefore, shall a man leave his mother and father and cleave only unto his wife". Did this woman's husband take the marriage vow wherein the preacher says, "Do you take this woman, forsaking all others?" Sorry little sister, he belongs to the new family unit he formed.

  11. Alot of men are wussy when it comes to standing up to their families...but i agree completely that you have to defend your marriage. The whole "leaving your mother and father and cleaving to your wife" thing that i vaguely remember in my wedding...lol.

    I am protective of my brother and had a hard time accepting my sil, however over time, i felt bad...and we started to accept her. However she was cheating on my brother and well, we were right...but I think she should concentrate on her marriage and children...and avoid sil from now on.

  12. Great advice. I've found that although it hurts, sometimes our own families aren't healthy for us.

    Yes, family should be a supportive and caring network but like me, many have dysfunction at either of the family Thanksgiving dinner tables.

    There comes a point when you have to lay matters on the line and remain firm. If they can't respect your wishes - it hurts, but hurts less in the long run to stop the ball of dysfunction from bouncing within your own home walls.

    Ignoring after your point has been made, is not rude nor unloving... it can often be the sane thing to do.

  13. ahhhh, U just have the best advice!

  14. This is a great advise!. I went through the same issues. It is hard to set boundaries with our own families, but if we have choosen marriage our families have to understand it.

  15. I have a similar relationship with my SIL's. I know what you mean about your SIL being angry that she didn't get to marry her brother. I've said the same about my SIL. Andrew gave great advice. The most important being that your husband needs to stand up to his sister. She will torture you for as long as he will allow it. This has been the biggest issue with my husband. With marriage counseling, he finally realized his part in the situation and things have improved. The best advice I can give is for you to always be the bigger person. Do not bad mouth or stoop to her level ever no matter how bad you want to, especially to your husband. You will look way more credible. Treat her with kindness and indifference. It drives my SIL crazy that she no longer gets under my skin or so she thinks. I save my bitching for my close girl friends.

  16. Hi and thankyou for visiting my blog! I used to be in a relationship where the mother did not accept me, she couldn't let go of her youngest son and in turn we went our seperate ways, todate he still stays with her cause she is an alcholic and he is yet to have a sucessful relationship! Your blog is very interesting and I will surely be back!

  17. Hubby and I have been thorugh this. He has stood up to them and defended his family! It was very hard for him, and this article was validation that he did the right thing. Stuff sure has been easier with the in-laws since.

  18. Kamrin: Great point. It *IS* hard to stand up to family members, especially for those among us with less aggressive personalities. In this type of situation, though, the alternative to standing up is even harder to bear.

  19. I agree with Andrew.What kind of a man would allow his wife to be humiliated by his sister?The parents in law seem to be better.Despite everything that their daughter says they seem to stand up for their DIL.Otherwise she wouldn't have said that she loved them.Is the husband being subjected to some kind of emotinal black mail by the sister?I do wonder if there is that the sister knows that he doesn't want his wife to know.

  20. Dr. Andrew - once again, insightful advice!
    I hope you realize what an asset to the on-line community you are! Thank you!