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A Good Old-Fashioned Family Drama Blow-up For the Holidays

Dec16

by

I am a longtime reader of your column, and love your advice! I’m hoping you can help me with some awful family-drama. I am at a loss of what to do. My husband’s family has always been wonderful to us. I love his parents dearly and they are everything you could hope for in-laws. My husband also has one older brother who was kind of a bully to my husband growing up (physically), but as adults they have always gotten along fine, and enjoy each others’ company. The brother is a little intense, but we love him. His wife, super sweet lady. My two kids love this aunt, she is always patient, knows fun songs to sing, ready to dance or play, and give big hugs. While we don’t sit around talking about our feelings all the time, I thought we had a good relationship.

My husband and I needed babysitters for a holiday function this past weekend, and about two months ago I asked the wife if she would be interested in swapping babysitting – if they watched our 2 kids for this function, we would watch their 2 kids on a different night for them. She agreed. We planned to take our kids to their house for their convenience and then would pick them up after our event and bring them home. It would be late but our kids don’t have trouble transitioning sleeping locations in general. leading up to the night, she mentioned a few times that her daughter was excited, they were planning to bake cookies with our kids. The day before the babysitting, the weather forecast looked bad, and my husband and I worried about getting the kids in the car and driving late night with icy roads and other potentially bad drivers, so I called and asked the wife if we could bring a blowup mattress over and crash there after our event and just drive home in the morning to be safe. She said that was no problem at all and we had chit-chatted pleasantly for another 10 minutes.

A few hours later, the brother called my husband screaming at him how dare we change our plans. His wife had been screaming at him for hours about how awful we are, and we just take advantage of them, and we really need to consider what we are asking. My husband said never mind, we won’t bring the kids over at all and we found another babysitter pronto. After several texts and voicemails from the brother saying he wanted to apologize, my husband called him back. Brother asked why my husband was upset. Husband replied that his wife should have just said no if it was a problem to begin with and brother shouldn’t have called attacking and being so rude. Brother then went on a rant. We are mooches, they don’t owe us anything, they aren’t our parents here to serve us, and they certainly don’t have to be at our beck and call and bow to our whims. Why would we ever ask them to babysit. They are too busy to help us. We are selfish, we shouldn’t just expect we can rely on them to be there for us. My husband at that point kind of lost it, screamed “what the @&$/ is wrong with you, you are a $&@/!!! we are supposed to be family, and we were trying to plan some fun for everyone.” Brother hung up on him.

So I’ve been over analyzing this for a few days now. I feel so terrible that I caused this somehow, and this is family! (Family that I thought was really wonderful). The brother/wife have babysat for us exactly once before. We were trading babysitting services this time. We don’t ask them for money, for items, for anything really, so I’m kind of at a loss how we are taking advantage of them or being mooches.

So I guess a few advice items. Did I unknowingly break some code of rules by asking to swap babysitting nights, or was the proposed sleepover out-of-line? (In my mind the kids were already sleeping by the time we got back, so it didn’t add any extra effort on their part really). More importantly, how do I make this right? Obviously I want them to come to us and apologize for not communicating their true feelings at all and then exploding at my husband. That seems unlikely…. I don’t really want to say I’m sorry for taking advantage of them? Because I don’t feel like I did and me apologizing would validate their feelings that WE did something wrong, not them. And how do I ever trust that the wife is not silently furious with me for some unknown reason, as she pleasantly chats and smiles to my face!?!? I feel like this family is irretrievably broken right now…. Those two people are completely fake and have some crazy issues and are self-absorbed. Tell me we can fix it somehow? For the sake of husband’s parents, and for all the children, who really get along wonderfully. Wow, sorry so long-winded!

Signed,
Please help our family before the holidays

Ugh, I’m sorry this happened. I’m guessing many, many people have been in similar situations (with family and/or “friends”) — everything seems just fine and dandy and then BLAMMO. Backstabbing. Explosions. That feeling like somebody (you? them? everybody?) is taking crazy pills because where did this come from?

From my armchair over here (or more accurately, a wobbly office chair from Target), I am going to diagnose this situation as Probably Not Really About You. Or the babysitting. Or the air mattress. No, you absolutely DID NOT cross a single blessed line with the proposed babysitting arrangement. And asking to crash with family after a night out in inclement weather isn’t a big deal either — that’s actually something most rational people will just up and OFFER. And your husband was right: If your sister-in-law was unhappy with any of it, she should have just said no.

The force of your brother-in-law’s reaction and his description of his wife “screaming” at him for “hours” are so far out of proportion for this situation that I’m honestly worried about them (and their kids). That’s a lot of rage to suddenly unleash. And then to beg for the chance to apologize only to double-down with the sweeping (yet incomprehensible) proclamations that a single babysitting trade offer is some kind of straw that broke the camel’s back after years and years of indentured servitude that does not actually seem to exist in reality? Is someone off their meds? Are there undiagnosed mental issues going on here? Are they on drugs? Drinking themselves into boozy hysterics? Having severe financial troubles and thus more likely to view even the smallest “favor” through a lens of jealousy and resentment? (“They can afford to pay a babysitter! Why are they asking us? We can’t even afford a night out anyway, etc.”)

These are actually legitimate questions to consider here, although there’s also Occam’s Razor: Your in-laws are unhappy assholes who get off on creating drama.

As to how to “fix” this, I’m sadly not really sure. Obviously, you have NOTHING to apologize for, so if you did reach out to her in an attempt to smooth things over you would need to be SUPER CAREFUL with your wording to avoid the classic markers of a non-apology (“I’m sorry YOU felt like blah blah blah.”). I’d also avoid getting either of these lunatics on the phone ever again, since it sounds like she’ll be nothing but fake and he’ll use it as another opportunity to escalate everything and verbally abuse you guys some more.

If you still feel compelled to do SOMETHING before the holidays, I guess I would try a very-carefully worded, very-short email, sent just to your SIL. Lots of “I” and “me” and keep it true. You are horrified that your suggestion resulted in so much ugliness and anger. (True!) You had no idea you were coming across as moochy or demanding. (Also true!) You would also still be happy to babysit your nieces/nephews for them, no strings attached or reciprocation expected. (Possibly more than these people “deserve,” but I’m concerned about what those poor kids are witnessing on a regular basis. Time away from their rage-y, bitter parents would be a good thing, I think.) And that’s it. No getting defensive or reiterating the “but we were TRADING!” aspect of the babysitting deal. A restaurant or movie gift card might be a nice tie-in for Christmas, if you want to fully go with the kill them with kindness route.

Her response will probably be telling. She might not respond at all. She might respond super-fake and you’ll know that she just wants to pretend this never happened…and also know that this couple cannot really be trusted and you should minimize your interaction with them and keep it way superficial. Interact in public/group settings only.

She might just be professionally fake at this point, however, to cover the fact that her husband has anger/rage issues and is the one who blew this out of proportion. This is a possibility that’s weighing heavier on my mind, the more I re-read your description of this couple and the events of that night. Did your husband hear her voicing agreement with your BIL over the phone or was the conversation clearly just with him? Does he seem controlling of your SIL in general? Is it possible the whole blow-up was actually him getting angry at HER for not checking with him first before agreeing to let you guys stay over? And thus he humiliated and sabotaged her relationship with you, deprived his kids of a fun night they were excited about, and got to relive the glory days of bullying his little brother, all in one fell swoop.

I’m leaping to all kinds of assumptions here, of course — you could email her and she might very well open up her own bucket of crazy and go off on you again with an imagined list of slights and insults and mooching. At which point you BACK AWAY. QUICKLY. Do not engage further, but let your husband decide how to proceed, since it is technically “his” family.

Whatever comes of this, I am SUPER proud of your husband for standing up for you and not letting his childhood bully restart the cycle. Good for @&$/ing him, honestly.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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23 Responses to “A Good Old-Fashioned Family Drama Blow-up For the Holidays”

  1. Julie Dec 16 at 10:28 pm Reply Reply

    I don’t have anything to add but I hope the reader comments back with an update on what happens. I hope things can be resolved for her!

  2. csmith Dec 16 at 10:56 pm Reply Reply

    I think your last suggestion sounds closest to the truth. The brother sounds like a controlling, possibly abusive jerk. My ex used to sabotage my relationship with his family, and my own friends by acting like I was a crazy b@#$h. He would tell them that I was upset about being asked to do a favor or show up to some event, when in reality I was glad to do it. He also told them that I said hateful things about them when I did not. It’s classic abusive behavior. After all, what kind of good husband makes his wife look bad by saying things like that about her. And, the way he makes himself out to be the victim of her yelling make me even more suspicious. I would definitely reach out to the sister-in-law. If she’s being treated badly the last thing she needs is to lose allies.

  3. Autumn Dec 16 at 11:33 pm Reply Reply

    My vote is the abusive BIL wasn’t happy about his wife doing something he didn’t like.

    Reach out quietly to the wife.  She could use all the friends she can get.  And don’t let them babysit your kids.  Not a good idea based on family history.

    Good Luck!  

  4. Anon Dec 16 at 11:36 pm Reply Reply

    I agree with cssmith.  The brother might have all this crazy built-up resentment against the two of you (for whatever reason), and because he’s a jerk he decided to b.s. that his WIFE was the one who was angry.  Some people just can’t take responsibility for their own feelings, so they try to make someone else look like the bad guy. If the wife is truly a sweet, kind lady who you really can’t picture screaming or being mad about this, I would try to talk to her in private.

  5. anon Dec 17 at 12:05 am Reply Reply

    I agree with your reply with one exception, the staying over night. It makes sense to stay over but, it puts a lot more stress on them. She would need to make sure the whole house is guest clean. They would need to feed everyone breakfast and would not get to start their day in their normal routine. They don’t know what time you will really leave the next day. She might not want you to see her before a shower the next day… etc…. Although I very much love my family and in-laws, it does stress me out to have them stay the night and if hubby doesn’t want to or isn’t able to help clean and entertain in the morning, I can see how she could be upset with him too.

  6. Kerry Dec 17 at 11:31 am Reply Reply

    My suggestion is to wait and see. Maybe don’t even be the first to say anything, if you can avoid it, and if you do say something make that something as neutral as possible. If this is as isolated of an incident as it seems to be, it’s probably not the moment that you discover your whole relationship with you in-laws is a lie. Probably one or the other of them struggles with some irrational anger and misplaced blame issues (toddler – “I’m going to hit Mommy because I dropped my cupcake and then I’m going to scream that she never lets me have cupcakes even though she clearly just gave me a cupcake” – style), and does well enough that you haven’t had to deal with it until now, but completely embarrassed themselves this time around. Hopefully they’ll apologize, but I think there’s a chance they’ll be too mortified to bring it up. Since this is your husband’s brother though, I’d try to avoid rethinking the whole relationship too much though based on what could have been one very bad day. 

  7. KimC Dec 17 at 11:45 am Reply Reply

    What may have happened: Sister-in-law got off the phone and went into a panic about cleaning- my in-law’s make me feel very judged, so I have to have everything super perfect for their visits.  Like, I would have gotten off the phone and been in a tizzy because leftovers in the fridge from two weeks ago!  And all the papers!  And the litter box and the closet and OMG! (somehow kids do not apply to this scenario.  They only care about the toys and that there is food eventually)

    My husband would have calmed me down, we would have been fine because dude, it will be okay. I probably would have been mad with him anyway because he wasn’t suddenly able to read minds and do all the things.

    My dad would have responded with anger.  It isnt helpful, but that’s what he would have done.  

    Send off an email to SIL, don’t ask them for crap ever ever again!

  8. Brittany Dec 17 at 12:26 pm Reply Reply

    Ugh, that’s rough.  Sorry, OP.  I love Amalah’s wording in the proposed email and think that’s a great suggestion.  Ditto on this being a lesson learned– wouldn’t ask them for anything again ever.  
    I think this single incident is not quite enough to diagnose these people with an anger, or substance or emotional abuse problem.  I can actually see myself and my husband reacting in a similar way (minus all the yelling).  After five years of marriage, I am a seasoned professional at being pleasant while my in-laws are making me uncomfortable.  I am a people-pleaser and would never be able to tell my in-laws “no” to a seemingly reasonable request like that.
    But as soon as I got off the phone, I would be like “OMG your brother’s wife just invited herself to spend the night!  You need to fix this.”  And my husband would think he was being totally supportive by being all confrontational and placing the blame on them, rather than diplomatically suggesting a different solution.
    Anyway, we aren’t yellers so it wouldn’t have gone down quite like that, but I can see how this kind of thing can spiral out of control.  As for your relationship with them, give it time.  It might be a little awkward at Christmas, but I think you can all be friends again eventually.

  9. Kerry Dec 17 at 12:27 pm Reply Reply

    Also…how is your husband interpreting his brother’s behavior? Everything you did was perfectly reasonable, and the fact that you’re doubting yourself now makes me think you’re not used to being lashed out at. I’m guessing you (luckily for you and the people close to you) aren’t very familiar with the concept of getting really mad and then saying the most hurtful things that you can say not because they’re true but just because you feel like being hurtful….but if this is a bad habit that his brother has always had, or had mostly grown out of, or is taking after one of their parents on, your husband might have valuable perspective.

    If it’s coming from the sister-in-law, I guess it might be as new to him as it is to you, but I kind of doubt that…at worst, she ranted to her husband in the privacy of her own home never intending for you to find out, probably because she knew deep down that these weren’t the kinds of feelings that deserve to see the light of day. He’s the one who picked up the phone and dialed it.  

  10. Mary Dec 17 at 12:32 pm Reply Reply

    Wow. How disappointing and confusing… I hope you let us know how it turns out.

  11. Annie Dec 17 at 3:23 pm Reply Reply

    My take is the same as csmith and Autumn.  This is about the BIL, not his poor wife.  After all, she had made the decision that it was OK for them to stay over but apparently BIL wanted to be consulted on the matter.  SIL sounds like a lovely lady and probably needs a (virtual) hug or two.

  12. Wendy Dec 17 at 3:53 pm Reply Reply

    I agree this is confusing, but I would also secretly be upset if there was a plan to just have the kids and then last minute the blow up mattress idea came up (have you and your husband ever stayed the night at their house before?).  I wouldn’t know how to say that I don’t appreciate last minute plans and would most likely request my husband break the news that I wasn’t comfortable with it.  The confusing part is all the yelling and name calling.  The Holiday Season can be stressful for people and make usually normal people act in very unpredictable emotional ways, but that seems way overboard on the reaction.  Luckily you were able to line up a back up plan, and I agree with everyone about not asking for them to babysit (or favors in general) going forward.  

  13. Sara Dec 17 at 4:04 pm Reply Reply

    Looking at my own family, I think that it is possible that your SIL and BIL may have just gotten overly stressed and blown up.  This is especially since you say that up until this point you thought that they were “wonderful.”‘  If that is true, and you’ve probably spent many years coming to the conclusion that they are good people, then I wouldn’t let one blow up change your mind about them completely.

    Possible scenario: Two months ago babysitting around the holidays sounded like a great idea to them.  As the day drew closer, your SIL realized that they have so much holiday stuff to do, or that they would have to turn down going to their own party to babysit, or that they really needed a quiet night in with the family, but since they’d agreed to babysit, they were going to make the best of it.

    Then you asked if you could come over, and since they felt that they were making a sacrifice to babysit as it was, they weren’t ok with that.  I can understand that, and your SIL should have just told you that it wouldn’t work, but I think she may have had trouble with that, especially since you offered to bring an air mattress and sleep on the ground.  She had no easy way to claim that it would be too much of an inconvenience to her, because you were trying to make your request as convenient as possible.

    But, perhaps she had been planning on spending the next day getting a tree, or doing something with just her family, and now she has to think about 1) cleaning her house; 2) making you breakfast; 3) not knowing how late you will want to stay the following day.

    The problem is that you don’t know what was behind any of this.  It sounds like your BIL knew that he was out of line and wanted to apologize, but maybe he just wasn’t ready.  He may be ready now, after a few days.  I wouldn’t be quick to assume that they are alcoholics or abusive to their children because of one outburst.

  14. Jess Dec 17 at 4:26 pm Reply Reply

    sorry for the verbal overload here:  OP here.  This is some really good insight (Amalah gleans a lot from the unwritten story!), and I’m glad for the unbiased opinions.  As far the questions, BIL does take xanax (or something similar?) and has had a history of alcohol abuse.  These days, BIL “seems” like a completely normal, competent, and nice person.  They don’t have money issues. I don’t “think” their relationship is abusive or controlling.  SIL seems to run the social schedule in general, her contact with us isn’t controlled (I don’t think) and she certainly has disagreed with or stood up to BIL in front of us. We aren’t seeing other evidence of isolation techniques per se.   BUT having said all that, now that the idea is planted, I would not be surprised if she had no idea this even happened.  When BIL called, he even made a point of saying something like, “hold on while I find somewhere private to talk” before really laying into my husband.  Maybe she said something along the lines “yikes, feeling stressed about having the in-laws sleep over.  Ugh, that was unexpected”.  And then BIL just escalated from there and ran with it unbeknownst to her.  But in reality, I don’t know what to expect –  ignorance of the offense, professional kindness, or unexpected rage.
     
    I plan to send her a short message  as Amalah suggested.  We are actually celebrating with husband’s family a few days after Christmas, so I plan to send the message right after Christmas (but before we would see them).  If she was unaware of the blowup or there actually is some kind of abuse, I don’t want to cause more fights/anger right before their kids’ Christmas.  
     
    I was surprised to see the commenters who would get stressed about a proposed sleepover but keep it secret, but good to know!  I don’t think we are judge-y, (of course I don’t, haha), and we have the mentality that our house is open to anyone and everyone for any reason, and if they would judge us for it not being in perfect condition, well that’s their problem.  So it’s interesting to read different perspectives!  In chatting with SIL, I did say we would be leaving very early the next morning (pre-breakfast) as soon as kids awoke b/c we had places to be and didn’t want to be in their way anyway.  
     
    I’ll let Amalah know how the short message and later holiday celebration go over.  But certainly as a takeaway – I will not be asking them for anything at all ever!  I will not be leaving them alone with our children ever (as I  typed about the alcohol abuse and prescription drug taking, I kind of felt stupid that I hadn’t considered those as potential issues for child supervision, do’h).  And husband has already said, that any future relationship with his brother will be completely superficial – he is completely shell-shocked by the verbal attack and is as flabbergasted as I am about what REALLY happened and why. 

    • Lydia Dec 18 at 10:54 am Reply Reply

      Thanks so much for updating OP!  I would love to hear how things go at your Xmas celebration.

    • Kerry Dec 21 at 2:25 pm Reply Reply

      I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that at least one person in this forum either takes xanax, or has overcome an alcohol problem, or both, and yet regularly trusts herself alone with her own children. It doesn’t sound like you and your inlaws communicate together particularly well though, or that they share your our house is your house philosophy, so it is probably smart to find other people that you can depend on for babysitting swaps and the like. 

  15. JenVegas Dec 17 at 5:04 pm Reply Reply

    Man this makes me glad I have no irrational siblings to deal with during the holidays. I’m sorry this happened to you. It’s super crappy. Even without siblings I come from a very open extended family and “can we just bring over an air mattress and crash that night?” would not have been such a loaded question. Even when my family turns me down it’s rationally. Except my mom, she does stuff like this sometimes but she’s diagnosed Boarderline Personality Disorder. I don’t know what THEIR excuse is.

  16. ummnilofar Dec 18 at 11:11 am Reply Reply

    Can I be a horrible person and say I loved reading this letter, only because it helps me remember that I am not a freak and not the only person on earth with an insane dysfunctional family.

    She described her BIL as “intense”. To me it sounds like he might have a personality disorder. I have recently come back in touch with a sibling with a PD and the OP’s BIL’s behavior sounds remarkably similar. I too was bullied by my sibling forever as a child. Now I walk on eggshells around my siblings because their behavior is so erratic. She flies into rages completely unprovoked. Not meeting every demand is met with screaming accusations, tantrums, attempts at coercion.

    It just freaking sucks. I’m learning that boundaries are incredibly important. I think it’s important to let the BIL know youo aren’t willing to communicate with him if he cannot be civil and always be very clear about expectation.

    good luck. I’m sorry. I know how hard this is

  17. A Dec 18 at 2:21 pm Reply Reply

    I have to laugh because right before I read this I had my own holiday freakout and texted my husband “I @#$%ing hate your brother!” because it turns out he is sending our kids gifts even though we agreed to not do that this year. So I have to run out and get last minute gifts and spend a ton of money to make sure they get there on time (family dynamics make this necessary, ugh).
    Of course I’m just stressed and don’t really hate his brother, just irritated that I have MORE to add to my massive to do list. My husband understands that and laughed it off because he understands where I’m coming from. But I can see a situation where a wife vents frustration at her husband, husband freaks out and blows up because MY WIFE IS STRESSED AND FREAKING OUT ON ME AND HOW DARE YOU ASK HER TO DO ONE MORE THING!!!
    Personally I would go ahead and apologize saying “I’m so sorry, I never meant to overstep. I just wasn’t thinking.” to preserve the peace. And then never ask them for favors. I like Amalah’s idea of babysitting their kids anyway, but not necessary. Hopefully they’ll just be embarrassed that they/he blew things way out of proportion.

  18. ksmaybe Dec 18 at 10:49 pm Reply Reply

    We are in a similar situation….minus the emotional blow up part. The family dynamics are different in my in-laws, but DH is the baby by a lot of years. He abhors staying with either his parents or mine because of comfort issues (older smaller homes, sound issues, plumbing issues, you name it). So, he began asking one of his brothers if we could stay there when we were visiting back home. At some point, it became clear that they were put out by this, as they came up with excuses to rule out one or two nights of the stay, etc. We simply threw up our hands and book a hotel now. This satisfies everyone except the moms who honestly, I think are a bit hurt that we don’t stay with them, but only one of them is my problem and she doesn’t really care. We have small children (younger than the others in the family due to the age gap of the parents) and it’s just easier for us to stay elsewhere. It was nicer to not have as much travel and not have to pay for hotels, but not worth sibling drama. I think they just felt put out in that they weren’t our parents. I hope we were gracious and kind houseguests, but either we weren’t or they just didn’t want to host. Who knows. We only visit a few times a year, so it isn’t like we were bunking down every other weekend. Whatever it was, we won’t know, but I’m glad they spared us the emotional blow up.

  19. Daisy Dec 19 at 10:50 am Reply Reply

    Ugh, what a crappy situation. I just wanted to toss it out there, that the SIL and BIL seem like the “keeping score type.” Knowing me (a people pleaser) I’d probably go out of my way for the time being make sure things are super equal. Like, everyone meets up for dinner and brings something? I’m going to be sure I don’t just show up with the 2 liter of soda and the pack of paper napkins. If we all go to dinner, I’ll make sure we don’t offer to just split it if someone in my family got something pricey or had a 2nd drink. These are things that would *normally* be fine (especially with family, everthing equals out in the end) but they seem to be keeping tabs (which sucks) so I’d be hyper vigilante about keeping the playing field even.

  20. Lindsay Dec 19 at 11:07 am Reply Reply

    Families are rough. I like Amalah’s response and especially her suggestions for emailing your SIL, but I wouldn’t cut these folks off quite as much as she seems to suggest. If something like this happens again, then yeah, maybe, but it sounds like this is the first such instance, and everybody’s entitled to a little crazy occasionally. without being eternally punished. Also, I could see myself agreeing to an overnight with family that I didn’t really want. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. I’d also babysit for family or a friend even if I maybe didn’t want to. But not if it would send me over some sort of mental cliff. Like other people have said, it’s the yelling and confrontation that’s strange. I agree it sounds totally plausible that the crazy might be all the BIL.

  21. pt Dec 23 at 3:55 am Reply Reply

    Hmm. A few things.  I feel the Brother in Law might be pretending/ defaulting responsibility. Saying that the issue is with his wife.  The other issue is that they/ he might have felt forced to accept the babysitting offer in the first place.. And then to have the parents staying over too might have been too much work (a slight gate-crash it seems). More stress, and expectations of social politness, hosting etc.That would have felt like an imposition. It could have been proposed to cancel the night, or to discuss options with the babysitting party. Who knows what is going in people’s private lives and life, despite good intentions is sometimes not that simple.

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