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Corrosive Favoritism

By Amalah

Hi Amy!

My husband of 4 years and I live in the US while his family lives in Europe. I’ve always been aware that my husband and his younger sister “Sally” – who lives at home – don’t quite meet eye to eye which is why I was not surprised when my mother-in-law began singing her praises Non- Stop in an attempt to get me to see her in a positive light. Things took an eerie turn when our daughter was born and mother in law started referring to her as mini-Sally, Sally- version II – oh! Sally has an orange shirt too and would then proceed to send me a video of Sally in said shirt. We told her to stop with the comparisons as they were getting silly and she responded by getting ‘offended’ and stating that we could only wish to have a daughter as ‘caring’ as Sally.

Our daughter is a year old now and within the first 6 months of her birth, Sally has been to the US twice and has not paid a visit (in spite of invitations). She sends plenty of gifts but still maintains distance from us – in the last year, has not checked in with her brother once … mother-in-law continues singing her praises with hopes that we’ll bombard her with congratulatory messages every time she completes a task at work…or send a get well card when she’s had dental work done, etc. I’ve taken the high road and sent her messages here and there but the mother still fails to address why Sally has never acknowledged each time her brother has gotten a promotion, when our beloved dog passed away or even when our (then infant) daughter had a 103+ fever (she still hasn’t met her niece and has already planned the next holiday trip to Morocco – with her boyfriend who she wants our daughter to refer to as Uncle (haha..ha!).

Lately I’ve been getting assertive with mother-in-law who (ironically) occasionally slips in the “blood is thicker than water” expression and who claims she’s raised educated, independent children capable of making their own decisions…. I respond with something to the effect of “that’s all we can do! Equip them with confidence and ability to fight their own battles and be self sufficient!” After some back and forth I stopped myself as we were both being very passive-aggressive and told her that I have a lot on my plate and will be disengaging from social media (our main means of communication). I have not heard from her since and feel that the tension is fizzling off. My husband (who’s been dealing with this favoritism much much longer and was told he’s talking “rubbish” when he expressed his point of view) says he’s embarrassed, ashamed..tired…and no longer wants to engage with his family. My father-in-law is Okay- actually he’s pretty amazing… he sees things precisely for what they are but is stuck in the middle. I don’t want to be the reason for further family tension or be seen as the evil daughter-in-law but I’m at my wits end.

I DO respect and want to get along with my in-law but can’t help notice she deflects from anything good happening to my husband and I just to.. yet again… sing Sally’s praises shortly after.

Is mother-in-law awkwardly fixated with her daughter? Does she just not know how to properly mediate OR stay out of her kids’ issues? My husband is the middle child, does that have something to do with it? Gaah! Help me !

I’m eager to see this from a different perspective ….Thank you 🙂

Disengage! Flee to neutral territory and stay there.

This really is your husband’s battle to fight, and he’s raised the white flag. Frankly, I don’t blame him.

Favoritism is ugly, and yet parents who play favorites will rarely, if EVER, handle being called on the behavior well. They will deny, act shocked and hurt, lash out, and then proceed to gaslight ’til the clouds come home.

Sally is the favorite, and is basically behaving like someone who’s been told her whole life that she can do no wrong and hung the moon. She is not interested in being a hands-on aunt or having a close relationship with her brother. Fine. That’s her call, and there’s nothing really to do there but accept the reality for what it is.

And I totally understand why it is SO. DAMN. IRRITATING. to hear your MIL rewriting that reality to gaslighting levels, plus hi, your son exists, as do many many many other people in the world BESIDES SALLY, OY WITH THE SALLY ALREADY. It’s like a broken record, I’m sure.

Perhaps your MIL’s fixation on talking to YOU about Sally and making all the comparisons was an ham-fisted attempt at bonding with you: You both have…daughters? So…besties? Sally is basically her only point of reference when it comes to baby girls so Sally Sally Sally? Or it could be over-compensation because she KNOWS Sally and your husband don’t have a close relationship and that actually really bothers her, so she’s going to re-write the whole dynamic in hopes that you’ll hop on-board the Sally Train eventually and find some way to “fix it.” Or maybe it’s plain old jealousy at the attention your daughter gets as the “new” baby of the family.

Or ALL OF ABOVE. Or something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. Either way, it’s not your mess to fix, and you’re going to stop letting her bait you, suck you in, and drag you down to her passive-aggressive Facebook level. Mute her, hide her, whatever. Let her comment but don’t reply. There is nothing to be gained here by anything stronger than an eyeroll and going on with your day. If she wants to be Sally’s social media PR firm, that’s fine. We all know plenty of PR reps that lie and spin and post B.S. on behalf of their badly-behaving client. Put her nonsense in that category and ignore the hell out of her.

Beyond that, follow your husband’s lead in terms of interacting with his parents and what level of involvement he’s comfortable with them having in your daughter’s life. (Thankfully you’ve already got a handy built-in ocean between you!) If his relationship with his mother is truly toxic (and it sounds like it is, or at least close to it) and actively causing him pain and embarrassment or mental anguish, he’s allowed to put his foot down and keep her at arms’ length, or even farther. And it’s also incredibly painful to have another parent who is otherwise “awesome” and “sees things precisely for what they are” but then refuses to do anything about it. He might be “stuck in the middle” but he’s also a grown-up human who is probably the one person who SHOULD be getting assertive with your MIL and pointing out how ridiculous (and ultimately damaging) she’s behaving, and that her obvious favoritism of Sally is obvious. Maybe he has tried in the past and it didn’t go well and so he’s just given up. Your husband tried and got beaten down as well. Trust me, your odds of success at getting her to change in any way, shape or form are the lowest of anyone.

Let your husband know that when it comes to his family, you ALSO see things precisely for what they are, and you completely support and understand his need to disengage. Then disengage right along with him, to whatever degree the two of you agree on together.

Photo source: Depositphotos/kaninstudio


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Published May 15, 2017. Last updated May 15, 2017.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


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 Ama...

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 [email protected].

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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  • Caroline Bowman

    May 16, 2017 at 11:03 am

    Favoritism is a terrible thing, and whilst I totally get having little favorites at certain points in their lives (we all love our baby ”most” when they’re little and cute, and our eldest ”most” when they do something amazing… and so on… as in, for their , that type of obvious hurtfulness reverberates. My husband is very much NOT the favorite, particularly with his father and has pretty much disengaged, but it still hurts and winds me up incredibly (HI! MUCH LOVED ONLY CHILD HERE, had never seen this kind of thing before I met him). But they backed the wrong horse because their son has given them The Grandchildren, and their other child has… not. But has dogs AND WE LOVE DOGS! So we hear all the time about these hideous-sounding dogs that are wildly undisciplined, eat off dinner plates and are incredibly destructive, and are referred to as ”fur grandchildren”. I must confess I have actually outright said to my mother in law that she surely grasps the difference between an actual child… and a dog, yes? And she had the grace to blush and look down… and that’s toned down quite a bit since. But I digress.

    You need to simply block off any communication on anything Sally-related beyond being polite. Just literally don’t comment. Don’t fall for bait. Simply ignore it ”oh baby Felicia is JUST LIKE SALLY IN ALL WAYS” ”Oh we love baby Felicia, did I tell you, we went to this wonderful park yesterday? So much fun!”. ”Sally hung the moon, did you know that?” ”No I didn’t, gosh, ooh, guess what? We have had the worst weather lately! Rain all the time! Crazy! How are you?”. Simply say the minimum to be courteous and then change the subject completely. Don’t agree, don’t disagree. If asked directly, parry. ”Do you think Felicia looks like Sally?” ”Oh… I think Felicia looks just like herself! She started crawling yesterday, so cute, I’ll send a picture”. It’s a game, you’ll get the hang of it.

  • LadyK

    May 16, 2017 at 12:28 pm

    I am not the favorite. My dad has a new family and the daughter of his new partner had a baby around the same time as me.

    I mean no ill will to the child or their mother, because I will most likely never meet either of them. But I really don’t need to hear about them. I don’t need to hear about their medical stuff or how the baby is hitting milestones or anything. I’m more interested in my baby and if her grandfather wants anything to do with her, shocking I know.

    It hurts and its hard and I’m sorry you’re in this position.

    The best thing I have found has been to let phones/email go both ways. I don’t push for more contact than he reaches out for and I fade out if he brings up his favorite grandbaby. As in “Oh yeah, I need to go, I have a thing…” and then say my goodbyes and hang up. Social media is fine for this because you can always miss a posting or be too busy/uninterested to respond to a comment. If they’re talking about Sally, you don’t need to respond because you don’t know Sally and have nothing to add, its not your conversation to be a part of at that point.

    Does my child have the relationship I would want for her with her grandfather? Nope, and that sucks. But she’s not being pushed to try to interact with someone who doesn’t have time for her, and I think that is the best I can do for her with the situation.

  • Lauren

    May 16, 2017 at 3:09 pm

    Not the favorite here either… my mother tells my daughters All. THE. TIME about the stuff my brother did when he was little… but not a thing about me. It hurt for a long time. It dragged down my self esteem for a long time. But in the end it made me funnier, work harder, and made me more empathetic. Thank god im not the golden child, is all I have to say now. I’ve seen what damage that can do too.

    And Amy is right that you’ll never convince the MIL. I’m CRAZY for having brought it up in the past. I’m Also a drama queen. And a sanctimonious uptight b*tch (that last one got yelled at me while I was pregnant) and they wonder why I don’t visit more.

    Their loss.

  • Helen

    May 19, 2017 at 8:12 am

    Oh I hear about my saintly sister-in-law all the time, and how great she is, because she–I don’t know, breathes? Gets up in the morning and goes to work? Dresses herself? From the comfort of her mom and dad’s house, which she wasn’t left, despite recently celebrating her 50th birthday. It’s a curse to be the favoured child, it’s infantilizing. Who would agree to live that way? You just have to extricate yourself as best you can in general and in the particulars, and put all your effort into your own life.

  • JenVegas

    May 24, 2017 at 4:47 pm

    If it makes any of y’all feel better I’m an only child and still not the favorite. My mother and my cousins prefer my husband to me and he can do NO WRONG and is always THE SMARTEST and THE FUNNIEST to the point where I am completely ignored. To the point where if I say something it will be dismissed until he repeats it.

  • JD

    June 25, 2017 at 9:53 am

    you mentioned your husband is the middle child? what’s the relationship like with the oldest sibling? if there is a good (or even decent enough) relationship, have they ever mentioned they’ve experienced the same thing? if so, how have they handled it?

    • CC

      July 12, 2017 at 12:45 pm

      Hello JD,

      His older brother is an introverted-sticks to himself type of person. He’s another one who limits his involvement to gifts and material things. He also lives in the UK. Recently, however he asked us for recommendations for his next holiday- obviously we suggested ‘come visit us!!’ He responded with, “the world doesn’t revolve around you! Neither does your parents or your sister’s.” This leads me to believe this was a bait question for him to unleash his thoughts about the family drama.

      The more time passes, I’m convinced the mother has Narcissitic Personality Disorder. My husband appears to be the typical scapegoat and Sally the goldenchild. I have only met the brother once (at his wedding) but I imagine he is stressed as his wife has fertility issues and they’ve been trying to conceive for a while.

      At his wedding though, I was seated with the bride’s siblings and in-laws. The sister in laws let it slip that she (the wife) “often complains about the mother in law and sister”. So I guess I’m not the only one that MIL waxes poetically to. I’m not close to my brother in laws or the wife to engage them about this.