Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Dismaying Story #51: The Sister-In-Law Wars
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.