The Very, Very Territorial Sister-In-Law
I just started reading your column and wanted to ask for your advice.
A few years back my husband’s sister and her family—along with his mom—moved around the corner from us. They used to live five hours away. My mother-in-law now lives part-time in our home and part-time in my sister-in-law’s home. They are an amazing family and I’m thankful for all of them.
Shortly after they moved here, I was excited to start family dinners with both sides of the family. I am one of five siblings and my entire family, their children and my parents all live in the area. All our nieces and nephews were in our wedding and got along very well. I love seeing these cousins together! It seemed that the parents (our siblings) also got along well too.
Then when my sister-in-law moved in next door to one of our teenage niece’s boyfriends, things got weird. My sister-in-law saw my niece driving without a license and told my sister about it. My sister thanked her for being extra eyes on the tribe, talked with my niece and disciplined my niece as they saw fit. My niece said some of the information my sister-in-law provided couldn’t be true because they had broken up by then.
When my sister and sister-in-law had a conversation about it, it ended up causing a rift. I’m not sure if my sister-in-law was expecting more in the way of my sister’s response, but from what I understand everyone parents differently and that’s their business. If my sister-in-law didn’t like the way my sister parented, ok, fine. And I’ve since realized she doesn’t have to associate with my sister if she thinks it’s that bad.
But then she sent me a private Facebook message saying that she and her husband (my brother-in-law) wanted nothing to do with my sister and her family, and that she couldn’t be associated with someone like her. I was shocked! Absolutely shocked because I hate confrontation, drama and because I absolutely love all of our family and thought everyone was getting along. I didn’t respond to the message but showed my husband and he said he’d talk with her.
Well, my husband tried to say his sister was angry was because my sister didn’t believe an adult over her child and it caused more drama between my husband and me.
For two years my sister-in-law gave us the short, cold shoulder, not interacting much with us, being stand-off-ish, as if to punish us for still remaining connected to my family. The only reason I noticed is that she emailed us that later. It was awkward, weird, and hard to navigate. I was totally confused, I was angry and hurt and have been that way for two years. There were many occasions when we would invite them to different events with us and with my entire family and either just the brother-in-law would go or my sister-in-law would attend and be stand-offish. How does a grown adult act like that over a teenager incident?
My husband tried to placate the situation but really things didn’t change. We still interact with his family, but honestly, it’s frustrating. I love his sister so much but I don’t understand all this drama. Now that we have a child in the mix, things have changed a bit. We’ve had a few family functions where everyone gathered and seemed to be getting along better…the adults that is, the kids have never had a problem.
This past year we got an email with my sister-in-law expressing that she feels we’ve never been there for her, that when I talk about tribe, she’s had to find their tribe with other friends not us and that we haven’t preferred her family for holiday events and that she didn’t want us to respond, but that she just wanted us to know that she hopes it changes. She even referenced a book I had in my house that I love for the art but could also be associated with classic Americana home and family and said she doesn’t see her family being treated that way.
Again, I felt caught and angry. I was just starting to see some signs of our families coming together because of our child. I’ve since lost the expectation that our families will get to mingle the way I imagined originally, even though all our kids are friends and a few considered moving in together. So I resigned to just doing things with her family and mine separately and feel stuck trying to “balance” the time between them. Not to mention, we now have our little growing unit and want to make our own memories.
That being said, we still have to navigate holidays. This past Easter after I invited her little one over to dye eggs together pre-Easter, my sister-in-law texted that we need to let her know which holidays we’re spending with my family so she can plan accordingly and that she’d like to make memories and spend time with us too. This was after she acted surprised that we were going to spend just the morning with her and go to church with her family, then spend the afternoon/evening with at my sister’s—at an Easter egg hunt that we’ve done for five years.
I hadn’t bothered to invite their family because she makes it clear they do their own thing, away from my family. My husband said we need to sit down and plan what we want to do as a family and plan ahead for all holidays. We always do spend time with both sides of the family.
Sometimes, we split it up where in the mornings we are with his family and the evenings with mine. Other times, my sister-in-law changes the plans or they travel away. But we try to be there for birthdays, the kids game events and have camped together.
Well, now Mother’s day is around the corner. I’d like to spend it with my mom and sisters at a spot we’ve gone to for several years and it’s never been a problem. Last night my husband said, “Isn’t this one of the holidays we need to talk about?” – Like we might need to be with his sister and his mom. It should be noted that I always get his mom and sister, my mom and sister a card, and the mothers flowers. Last year, we even got flowers for his sister. We do the same with the dads for Father’s day. Anyways, I have invited them in the past but anytime I invite them, they politely or quietly decline.
Should I ask again as a fleece since Easter turned out the way it did? I feel stuck and a bit angry that my sister-in-law is this looming influence and has a say on what I get to do on Mother’s Day. She gets to vent, give us the silent treatment, treat us as though she’s been slighted all the time and then my husband tries to appease her. I get that she wants more time with us, but I feel like we are trying. I love my family and don’t want to give that up to be with them all the time either. Yet I’m subjected to silence? She hasn’t once let me share my side of what I see and observe, but maybe I’m biased and it wouldn’t go well anyway. I’ve asked my husband if maybe I can chat with her but my husband seems negative about it, like it wouldn’t go well.
My family is fairly close and he has his sister and his mom. I love my sister-in-law and feel close to her, despite all this drama. Her recent complaints were that our time with her always feels “rushed” and she wants that to change but we have a big family to consider on my side too, which is a lot harder to change or corral times because my siblings in-laws and other aunts and uncles usually also enjoy holidays with us.
Truth be told, when she plans things she’s inviting different friends too (her tribe), people she prefers to be with and we oblige. I just don’t get why she can’t get along with my family, but she obviously has her reasons. I’ve given up my expectations there, despite the cousins getting along. I just don’t want our relationship to be like this for the next 20 years and I don’t plan to sacrifice time with my family either. I want my child to have memories with both sides.
Please help?!! How should I navigate this? Is it fair to split up holidays the way we have? If not, how do we navigate the holidays?
Tug of Family War
Family Drama vs. One Bad Drama Apple?
It took me a while to parse this whole situation and wrap my head around all the family dynamics, and after I did all that it took me a while longer still to get past my own initial anti-family-drama reaction which was basically just OH MY GOD YOU SHOULD MOVE. MOVE FAR, FAR AWAY.
But of course, that’s not a serious suggestion, since it sounds like you’ve got one bad drama apple in a sea of otherwise healthy and functional family relationships.
Your sister-in-law is the one responsible for this situation; she explicitly DECIDED to create this situation. And yet she’s piled on all the natural consequences of the situation on YOU, along with all the emotional labor to ensure that she doesn’t suffer the teensiest, tiniest smidge of hurt feelings or inconvenience from the situation.
She had a disagreement with one of your sisters that she has since spun out into a years’ long grudge match against your entire extended family. She said, flat-out, that she wants nothing to do with any of them and can no longer be “associated” with “someone like her.”
(Which personally I’d be like, WOW, OKAY, that’s my family you’re talking about there but suuuuure, we’re still super cool.)
(And all of this is because…your sister took her teenage daughter’s word over the word of an adult she presumably didn’t know all that well? Even if the daughter was totally lying and your sister’s observation was correct, it’s still completely up to your sister to do what she sees fit with that information. All told, your sister-in-law was probably justified to a good long eye-roll over it, and then needed to go right back to minding her own business.)
Don’t Keep Shouldering the Burden to Keep Folks Happy
I suspect that your sister-in-law was never on board with your vision of big fat happy extended blended family holidays and gatherings, and basically went looking for an excuse to bow out and break things back up into “hers” and “yours.”
Which, you know, fine! Super big family things aren’t for everyone! But she can’t keep putting all the onus on YOU to figure out how to divide everything up and keep everybody 100% happy all the time. (Especially since she keeps making her unhappiness explicitly clear to you via whiny emails and Facebook messages.)
I also suspect that she assumed her brother (your husband) would naturally choose to prioritize “his” side of the family over yours, and the more you attempt to keep things totally “fair” the more she simply obsesses over things being NOT perfectly 50/50 fair (or showing favoritism to her) and gets bent out of shape over coffee table books.
Navigating Family Holidays Going Forward
(Editor: apologies that we got to this question in the queue after Mother’s Day; but the answer is still relevant for the future) No, you don’t need to divide up MOTHER’S DAY. You spend Mother’s Day with YOUR mother, if that’s what you want. Your husband then decides what to do for HIS mother. You aren’t obligated to send a card and flowers to every person in your life who also happens to be a mother! It’s super nice that you do! But it’s probably time to recognize that those efforts will never be enough to truly please and placate your sister-in-law, who is just seeing everything through this warped/jealous/territorial view of your side of the family.
In a perfect world, your husband would tell his sister — maybe in response to her last email, since that’s how she likes to roll — something like:
“Look, we’ve tried to make you feel included and that naturally, OF COURSE, you are welcome to events and gatherings with [my wife’s/ insert your name] side of the family. But you’ve made it abundantly clear that you don’t want that, either by turning our invitations down or being clearly uncomfortable around them. So we’re going to stop putting you in that position to hang out with people you don’t want to be around. We disagree with your reasons why, but we’ll respect your decision. And now you’ll need to respect OUR decision to keep [my wife’s/insert your name] family in our life, and understand that while we do our best on holidays and birthdays and whatever, it’s impossible to please everybody all of the time. This has nothing to do with our feelings for you, it’s simply the logistics of living super close by to two sides of a family. If you ever change your mind about [my wife’s/insert your name] sister and family, please know that door is always open to join in. If not, please stop taking our holiday plans like a personal affront, because it’s stressing both of us out and causing unnecessary drama. We’re doing our best and respectfully ask to not be put in the middle of this situation with [my wife’s/insert your name] sister any longer.”
It sounds like he won’t do that, however. And I don’t think you sending something alone those lines would help either, given her knee-jerk reactions to people taking “sides” against her and her penchant for rifts and grudges. Instead, write out everything you’d like to say to her, and then delete it. And then go forth approaching life as if you DID say it all, because it’s all SO OBVIOUS to a reasonable person (and it’s not your job to reason with unreasonable people) that this is nothing to take so personally, that there’s only so much family time to go around, and that no, holidays do not need to be scheduled in advance down to a 50/50 division of minutes. I guarantee you that will still not be enough for her, and she will not appreciate you turning yourself inside out to please everyone any more than she already does…or doesn’t, more accurately.
Again, she created this problem. Two years on, she’s feeling the natural consequences of this problem. That’s not your problem to solve.
(And then let me add that us obsessive people-pleasing, conflict-avoiding, I-need-to-make-everyone-happy-all-the-time types very much benefit from a good therapist reminding us of that on a regular basis.)