Is it ever okay to go behind your wife's back?
May 19, 2011 1:10 PM   Subscribe

My wife doesn't get along with my sister. My sister is graduating. My wife discovers that I am buying her a graduation gift without her knowledge. She is upset I went behind her back. Where do I go from here?

My wife and I are newlyweds. My sister and my wife don't get along. It’s a personality conflict. My wife’s grievance is that my sister isn’t making her feel like she is part of the family. My sister’s grievance is that my wife behaves like a princess. My sister and my wife aren’t interested in getting along with each other and both are good at holding grudges. It stresses me that they don’t get along. We're in our late 20s.

I have a good relationship with my sister. She is graduating from her post-grad program and moving away. It's a big milestone in her life. To my wife’s credit, she initiates the conversation about a getting a graduation gift that we could give as a couple.

However, the gift my wife wants to give is intended as a mere formality and would be inadequate by itself. I know it is inadequate because I know my sister.

Yet I agree with my wife’s choice. Probably my biggest mistake. I know that for my wife, giving a gift to someone she dislikes is a big deal. So if I tell my wife that her gift idea for our joint gift is not good enough, there would be a fair amount of drama including whether I was on her side or my sister’s side.

I want my wife to feel good about “the thought that counts” aspect of her gift, yet make sure that my sister is not inadvertently insulted. So I plan on secretly adding another gift to make the overall gift better.

My wife found out about my plan basically because she read a note she wasn’t meant to read.

My wife is very hurt now because she says I violated the trust in our marriage. She says I have plotted behind her back to buy my sister a gift without telling her.

I don’t think I have violated the sacred trust a marriage is built on, but I did do something behind her back. I can see why she is hurt. For what it’s worth, my wife says she would not agree to the additional gift if I had brought it up in the first place.

Anyhow, how do I mend the situation with my wife? In your view, how badly did I screw up? And what are the things I need to think about and do to make things right, both for my wife's sake and for my sister's sake.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (69 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The best marriage advice I can give you is "Take your lumps up front". If you were dead-set on buying the additional gift you should have told your wife that and stuck to it. You've simply compounded your misery.

The second best marriage advice I can give you is "Explain your side of the story, then say I love you, and move on."
posted by Nahum Tate at 1:15 PM on May 19, 2011 [20 favorites]

Your wife is being a drama queen. Put your foot down. She's your sister, you can do for her whatever you want to. Tell your wife that if *she* values the sacred trust of your marriage, she will make a good faith effort to get along with your sister, because she's going to be your sister for the rest of your life, and only shitty people make their significant others choose between them and their families (unless their families are crazy).
posted by clockzero at 1:15 PM on May 19, 2011 [142 favorites]

You didn't violate the marriage, first of all. Apologize for going behind your wife's back and point out that you are entitled to get your sister an appropriate graduation gift, just as you would if it were her sister graduating.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:15 PM on May 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

Ugh. Your sister is your sister. Your wife seems to be making this way more complicated than it needs to be. Maybe you could have found a way to say to your wife, "You know, I would like to get her more than the gift you suggested. This is what I'm going to do." If saying and doing this was a scary enough proposition that you weren't able to tell your wife about it, I'm afraid it sounds like you have bigger problems than two sisters-in-law not getting along.
posted by Buffaload at 1:16 PM on May 19, 2011 [13 favorites]

You need to tell your wife that she doesn't get to approve (or not approve) of your gift that you're giving to your sister unless it's a money issue. That's bullshit and it's weirdly controlling. Why do her feelings towards your sister affect what YOU can give her?

Whether or not she likes your sister is immaterial. She has to be pleasant, polite, and stop putting you in the middle.

As for your sister, she needs to stop complaining to you about your wife.

"I don't want to hear it" should be your default statement when either one of them is throwing barbs.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:16 PM on May 19, 2011 [23 favorites]

You: "Wife, I really appreciate your willingness to participate in Sister's graduation. However, knowing her, I'm confidence that Gift B is going to be the most appropriate choice."

I don't really understand why the gift would matter unless your choice is much more expensive and this is a "you spent money that is Ours without discussing it" issue.
posted by k8t at 1:17 PM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Perhaps now is the time to talk about what you do as a couple, and what you do as individuals. Being married doesn't mean you have to agree on everything, or always act in unison. It might be events and outings that one person is excited about and the other dreads, or it might be friendships that are not as strong for both you and your wife.

Or to keep it simple, and appologize to your wife (if you haven't already) for going behind her back, then offer that you give your sister a gift (the one you bought in secret) and your wife gives her the formerly joint gift.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:17 PM on May 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

Wow, you married your sister. How about that. You've got to figure out a way to stop tolerating all this nonsense. You have got to stop being afraid of making people upset. Sounds like they really enjoy being upset! People who enjoy being upset deserve it. So do what you think is best and let everyone get mad!

You shouldn't have to judge your gifts based on whether or not they'll make your sister upset, and you shouldn't have to run every communication with your sister through your wife. You need to communicate to each of these women separately that they don't have to like each other, but you're not playing these games anymore. If you two send your sister a gift and she complains later that she doesn't like it, tell her where she can put her gift. Stop being afraid of making her upset! She enjoys being upset! Giving her a reason to be angry sounds like it could be the best gift of all!

If you wanted to send a nicer gift to your sister, you needed to tell your wife that from the beginning. Doing it secretly to avoid drama lets her know that she can push you around (and, obviously, backfires on you when she finds out about it anyway). If it makes her mad, oh well! Bonus for her! Because she loves to be upset!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:17 PM on May 19, 2011 [40 favorites]

Your wife sounds like she's being seriously manipulative. Maybe you should've told her that you wanted to get your sister an extra gift, but not doing so hardly violates your marriage vows.
posted by T.D. Strange at 1:17 PM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Personally, I don't think you screwed up that bad, aside from leaving notes lying around. Your relationship with your sister is a lifelong one and shouldn't come in to play while developing your relationship with your wife. People need to have boundaries and when dealing with family, whether standing on the outside or marrying into it, people need to respect that. It's not about taking sides and celebrating a win. What happens if you cave-in now? Are you parents next? Your other siblings or extended family? It's a slippery slope.

Also, you could tell your sister to relax a little and give you the gift of understanding and support. A compromise in a situation like this one, which goes way beyond what should be some simple gift-giving, is probably a good long-term strategy on dealing with two people who are going to be a part of your life for the foreseeable future.
posted by jsavimbi at 1:18 PM on May 19, 2011

I think your wife needs to grow up. I don't know the dynamics of money in your marriage, but my husband and I have always had our separate shares of funds, to do with as we liked, without permission of the other party. On shared purchases, we had a limit (which has increased over the years) as to how much one could spend without informing the other (started at $50.)

If you've got your own money, buy your sister a decent gift. If you wife wants to sign the card, great.

And don't do secret stuff in the future. You can apologize, but you really need a talk about money, family, and so on.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:18 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

You messed up when you didn't tell your wife that you should be the one to pick the gift for your sister, not her, as you will be able to pick something most appropriate. But your wife is the bigger screw-up here.

Set this boundary now. Your wife doesn't get to dictate how your relationship with your sister goes. If she doesn't want to deal with her, that's regrettable, but can be dealt with. She shouldn't be so upset about how you interact with her when it has nothing to do with her.

Some people just don't get along. It's not fair for her to insist you to join her.
posted by inturnaround at 1:19 PM on May 19, 2011 [5 favorites]

I think it's pretty lousy that you went behind her back for any reason. You could've just told her you're giving sis a gift too. No secrets.

As for her not agreeing with your extra gift, you can tell her your gift is solely between you and your sister.
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 1:19 PM on May 19, 2011

This is a tight spot, and I sympathize.

I'd first acknowledge that yes, it was a dick move for you to go behind your wife's back, kind of was.

However. I would not classify that act to be a "violation of the trust a marriage is built on". That kind of epithet is reserved for things like infidelity or stealing all of the money out of your wife's bank account. What you did isn't even in the same ballpark. And yet, it was still something you should have been up front about wanting to do, and you were justified in wanting to do it because it's your damn sister.

So I would acknowledge that a) you did fuck up, but then b) point out that calling it "a violation of sacred trust" is an unfair characterization, and c) point out that you were uneasy about giving in about your sister because for God's sake, it's your sister, and yet d) you still admit you should have let her know you were doing this rather than going behind her back. And then e) offer to have the nice gift come from both of you, rather than just you, because f) point out that it'll get your wife in good with your sister too, in the bargain, which may improve their relations anyway.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:20 PM on May 19, 2011 [6 favorites]

You shouldn't have been sneaky about it. However, this is a seriously minor infraction.
Your sister isn't going to stop being your sister just because your wife doesn't like her. Your wife needs to get less juvenile about this, pronto.
posted by willpie at 1:20 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

One of the smartest things my wife and I did was agree that when it came to gifts for our respective family members (christmas, birthday, whatever) it was our individual responsibility to select and purchase the gifts. Thus, I buy gifts for my family members, she for hers, and the tags simply say they are from the both of us.

Saves a lot of stress. I would suggest this approach for you and your wife, once you are past this issue.
posted by never used baby shoes at 1:23 PM on May 19, 2011 [18 favorites]

In my view you did not screw up at all. Apologize for hurting her feelings, and explain that all you did was an attempt to spare her feelings, an attempt that did not work because she snooped (better not use that exact word).

If you are not upfront now, this is a battle that will be reenacted repeatedly for Xmas, birthdays, other graduations etc. My family thinks that one should give the best that one can afford, while my husband family thinks that it is the thought that counts. We solved this for a while by he buying his family's gifts and I buying for my family. This did not last long because he discovered how much fun it is giving good gifts instead of token ones.
posted by francesca too at 1:24 PM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

I know that for my wife, giving a gift to someone she dislikes is a big deal.

And yeah--she needs to grow up. So she dislikes someone. Too bad. Your wife being pleasant to your family (and I'm talking the bare minimum here, like signing cards) is a basic expectation for a marriage. This is not a big heroic gesture. This is Supporting Your Partner 101.

The fact that she wanted to pick the gift out and be in control of that makes me think that the gift is more like a passive-aggressive jab than an actual gift. That's not okay and she shouldn't get to play the martyr over it.

(These all go out the window in an abusive family, but that's a completely different story).
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:26 PM on May 19, 2011 [28 favorites]

Yeah, uh, it does sound like your sister might have a point about your wife. Because this was an infraction but a minor one. Getting a present for your sister is perfectly appropriate, but agreeing with your wife about what you both would buy and then buying something else behind her back was not cool. A violation of the trust your marriage is founded on? Wow, no.

This is your sister. It's not appropriate for your wife to try and make you alienate your family.
posted by Justinian at 1:26 PM on May 19, 2011 [5 favorites]

Look, going forward, pick a budget together, agree on it, and then find a gift, either together or alone. If there is money left over, then its still available for spending. If you find something above budget, that's something that you need to clear with your wife - and be prepared to justify it. Note: 'She's my sister and I want to get her this for graduation. It is a one time event and it means a lot to both her and me.' is sufficient justification.
posted by Nanukthedog at 1:33 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

In your view, how badly did I screw up?

Um, not badly? and in fact, it sounds more like your wife is so incredibly punitive ("violation of the sacred trust of the marriage" what) that most people would be reluctant to be upfront with her. Careful she doesn't turn your kids into sneaks, by the way, if you're planning on having any; punitive parents often do that, because they turn mistakes into mortal sins, which makes kids not want to own up to them.
posted by palliser at 1:35 PM on May 19, 2011 [24 favorites]

Tell your wife to grow up.

Quit being such a wimp and tell your wife and your sister both that if they insist on not trying to get along with each other that they no longer have the luxury of dragging you along with it, btw.

And it's not too early to start shopping for a marriage counselor. You are gonna need one.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:37 PM on May 19, 2011 [9 favorites]

Not that big of a deal ("plotted" ?) - you screwed up but your wife needs to chill out. Apologize, and explain to her why you didn't run it by her - and take this opportunity to talk to both your wife and your sister about what's going on. Neither one of them needs to like the other or to participate in a relationship, but both of them need to respect your relationship with the other, and both of them need to follow minimally socially acceptable conventions (smile, say hello, give gifts at appropriate occasions).

Stop trying to keep the peace, because you can't, you will just get it from both sides - stand strong and respect both relationships and refuse to listen to complaints from them about each other. Be honest with your wife, but don't let her control your relationship with your sister - if her refusal to agree on the gift was money related (ostensibly), then you take the money out of your own allotted money that you would otherwise spend on yourself. Otherwise, it's not up to her to agree - marriage is a partnership but it doesn't mean acting with one mind.

I don't mean it to sound harsh as much as firm - this is not going to get better on its own, and your best outcome is to maintain your relationships and not get sucked into the drama. Just flat our refuse to participate.
posted by mrs. taters at 1:37 PM on May 19, 2011

This is not a big issue at all.

You really need to be more assertive here. With both of them. And if she makes this a huge deal, tell her you know it was wrong to be sneaky, but her attitude makes you be sneaky, and that unless she starts reacting according to the situation you'll have to treat her like a time bomb all the time. So she needs to chill and you need to stop enabling her.
posted by Tarumba at 1:40 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ugh. It sounds like you've got two women in your life making things difficult and you're willing to take the blame for it. That's probably what they like about you.

Explain to your wife that sneaking around behind her back was easier than straight up getting mad at her. It's a drag that you can't simply enjoy doing something nice for your sister without her having to send a message or make a point with it.

Then explain to her that your sister isn't fully formed yet, as a human being, and showing compassion for her in her partially-formed, imperfect state is what you do because you love your sister. Then go tell your sister the same thing about your wife. Also tell them each that you'll deny ever having said that.

If it helps, the same is true about you--you're partially-formed, imperfect, and you appreciate that they don't hold it against you all the time.
posted by vitabellosi at 1:43 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with the trend of the advice that you made a mistake and owe your wife an apology for not being upfront, but it wasn't a betrayal of your marriage. Within your family budget (including your own discretionary spending money), you should buy your sister the graduation gift you think is appropriate. Similarly, you need to be more assertive in telling your wife and your sister to grow up/chill out/don't bring their complaining about each other to you.

I rarely suggest counseling, but if you're newlyweds and you and your wife are already having this level of conflict about frankly minor stuff like graduation gifts for your sister, you're going to need it.
posted by immlass at 1:43 PM on May 19, 2011

Apologize, promise to not do it again and move on.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 1:46 PM on May 19, 2011

So...she says "Hey, let's get your sister these silver earrings for graduation" and you say "OK!" while secretly thinking "Silver earrings are not enough. She will be expecting a diamond tennis bracelet"...and then go ahead and buy the diamond bracelet sneakily? You couldn't just have said "Oh, I think silver earrings are nice. But you know Sister, she'll be expecting a diamond tennis bracelet, and I really want to get it for her because..." I'm not sure why you'd have to lie about it, even if Wife and Sister don't get along. (I believe my Grandma had a saying "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.")
So apologize for the sneaking, and explain that you want to get you appreciate your wife thinking about your sister, but that you really want to get her something bigger.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 1:47 PM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

You are doing marriage wrong.

The fact that you are married does not mean you are forever more one joined unit. You are still two individuals with individual relationships. This is your sister - you are in charge of selecting and buying the gift for her. There is zero - ZERO - reason for that to be a joint decision. She doesn't need to agree to the additional gift because it's not her call. Period.

It is, by the way, not a big deal for to give a gift to someone she doesn't like when that person is your sister. It is a basic premise of grown up civility. And more importantly, it is not about her.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:47 PM on May 19, 2011 [25 favorites]

Anyhow, how do I mend the situation with my wife?

Honestly, I have no idea. I don't mean to disparage your wife, but she seems very intent on playing you for this problem while ignoring how she may have contributed to it.

Acknowledge that you were wrong to go behind her back, 'cause you were.

In your view, how badly did I screw up?

Look, I'm thinking you messed up pretty badly by marrying someone like this. Her behavior is petty and childish and a deal breaker IMO.

Your wife has point though. Ya'll are newlyweds and you're already lying and going behind her back. Her behavior may contribute to you thinking that's ok, but it's still your choice and it's a crappy one. Be honest or don't be married.

And what are the things I need to think about and do to make things right, both for my wife's sake and for my sister's sake.

Be honest and straight forward with your wife. ALWAYS. You tried to hide something from her to avoid confrontation and now it's blown up even further. If you can't win, you might as well be honest so you can least say to yourself "Look, I'm telling her the truth about what I think and feel."

As to the sister and wife, you three need to sit down and talk, get everything on the table. Either do it now and have it explode over Thanksgiving dinner or divorce court. They don't have to like each other, but since they both love you, they should try to minimize the stress placed on you by their dislike. Neither should try to compromise the relationship you have with the other.

In all situations, your wife comes first unless she starts demanding that she come first, if you know what I mean. An SO should never seek to come between siblings and any that does should be put on notice that it's not going to happen and they need to deal with it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:51 PM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, you should have told your wife upfront that you wanted to get your sister something else/more/different, that her thought was great but you know your sister, and she would prefer X.

I am curious why your wife would not have agreed to the additional gift -- too expensive?

Your sister needs to accept that your wife is now part of the family, and to include your wife as she includes other family members. Your wife needs to accept that your sister is part of her family now. They both need to accept that you get to have relationships with both of them.
posted by jeather at 1:51 PM on May 19, 2011

Unless your sister has seriously abused you in the past (thereby making your wife's request reasonable), you need to:

A) Start standing up for yourself. Why go behind your wife's back? That is a childish thing to do. I have a feeling that this isn't the first time you've done this.

B) Stop giving into your wife's petty demands. Why should she dictate what kind of reasonable gift you get your sister? Your sister is a blood relative, not some random friend. Grownups should be polite to the family that they've married into.

C) Stop giving into your sister's grudges. Your sister needs to be cordial to the woman you married. Don't listen to any negativity she spews about your wife.

You are enabling both of them by your behavior, and you need to realize your part in this. Stick to your guns and don't deal with your wife's threats or your sister's cold shouldering. I have a feeling that once you begin to be more honest in your sister/wife relationships, a lot of this will die down. You say: "I don’t think I have violated the sacred trust a marriage is built on", but that probably isn't exactly what your wife meant. Your statement paints her reaction as ridiculous instead of reasonable--you did lie to her, after all. You need to take responsibility for your actions instead of doing whatever you want and thinking you can dodge the drama. I think you're creating more of the issues than you're giving yourself credit for.
posted by 200burritos at 1:54 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Go see a marriage counselor now, while its early. If you don't nip this in the bud now, you never will, and it will ruin your marriage. It sounds to me like your wife is busily confirming your sister's suspicions. Your sister is a close family member, and there's no competition between the two of them (I hope). Your wife needs to understand this.

Your sister needs to understand that you love your wife and its not cool to continuously snipe at your wife.

The biggest mistake was doing what you're doing with the gift behind your wife's back. Understandable, but it sets a bad precedent. You should tell your wife that you're both going to give a gift that your sister will appreciate and that you have no intention whatsoever of giving a separate gift. They're each from you and your wife. You must also let her know that you're going to be happy to give good gifts to her friends and family, even if they're not your favorites, just because you know it will make her happy.
posted by Hylas at 2:07 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know that for my wife, giving a gift to someone she dislikes is a big deal. So if I tell my wife that her gift idea for our joint gift is not good enough, there would be a fair amount of drama including whether I was on her side or my sister’s side.

That is seriously messed up. Read that back to yourself and think about it. There are at least three big red flags in there.

You need to step back from thinking about this specific situation and figure out the big picture here, or else I highly suspect there are huge trainwrecks in your future.
posted by EmilyClimbs at 2:10 PM on May 19, 2011 [7 favorites]

I agree with the thrust of most of the previous responses. I've been married a couple times (whether that makes my advice more or less relevant is up to you), so I have some thoughts based on my experience.

You need to talk to your wife now. You need to set boundaries. Money disagreements are the single biggest reason for divorce. Head that off, at all costs. Have an honest conversation, something like this (but nicer):

"You: I do not want you to have veto powers over gifts I choose to give, nor do I want to be forced to go behind your back to do so. I'm sorry, I should've brought this up before buying the gift, it won't happen again."

Her: but it is our money, and I hate XXX

You: I understand your dislike of XXX, but I don't dislike her, and I'm choosing to give her a present.

Her: How would you feel if I gave a gift to (random hurtful person YYY)?

You: That would be your choice. I'm choosing to spend some of my money on someone to whom I want to give a gift."

Bam, boundaries set. If you roll over now, you'll never have a cent to your name that you can spend with impunity. Despite the myth of marriage, you are not one unit, and you should not be.

I would suggest, as a further idea, that you set "allowances" for both of you. The allowances are to taken in cash, no judgement allowed, and inviolate. Even in the most restricted budgetary situation, there's usually some money for an allowance. Take the allowance, and use it as you see fit, no judgement allowed. I did this, and (after my wife complained for months about how juvenile it seemed, yes, she's an ex-wife now for similar reasons), and we both came to love the freedom.

If you must have a "reason" for proposing the allowance (bad idea, bad precedent to offer one, IMHO), you can simply say that it will allow you to buy presents for her that she can't see in Quicken.
posted by Invoke at 2:15 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

In your view, how badly did I screw up?

In buying the gift? Not that badly at all.

Your wife, however, by being punitive and controlling is really screwing up, even though I don't think she knows it and she certainly doesn't want you to know it.

In other words: not only is this not about the gift, it's not even about your sister. As others have said, from what you've written it appears there are some significant red flags here.
posted by scody at 2:23 PM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Wow, this is tough. You need to set some ground rules now, or you will have trouble in the long run. If you want to buy your sister a present, that is your choice. Buy her what you want OPENLY. If you wife wants to buy a joint present and you agree, buy one.

This is your sister, not a friend; this is family. There are different rules for family. You can dislike family member, but they are still family. Your wife is treating your sister like a friend. She has to get over this. Friends are optional, family is for life.
posted by fifilaru at 2:37 PM on May 19, 2011

The worst part is she is trying to drag you in to snubbing your own sister with a crappy gift and they got mad when her plan didn't work.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:43 PM on May 19, 2011 [36 favorites]

The only way you screwed up was by leaving the note where your wife could find it. She needs to chill out. I'm willing to bet that this isn't about the gift at all.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 2:44 PM on May 19, 2011

I agree with most of the other commenters, but I also want to turn this around a bit.

Your wife has expressed to you that she doesn't feel like part of the family, and that your sister is one cause. There is a family event coming up - your sister's graduation - and (presumably) you entrusted your wife with the Getting of the Gift.

Then, you went behind her back to secretly get an additional gift for your sister. Do you see how this could be interpreted as extremely isolating for your wife? I can imagine that she sees you and her as a team, and she has just learned that you don't. She already didn't feel like part of your family, and now she doesn't even feel like part of her own little family.

So no, this probably isn't a huge violation of the marital trust. But, on the other hand, the fact that you feel like you have to hide stuff from your wife makes your wife legitimately feel like shit.
posted by muddgirl at 2:44 PM on May 19, 2011 [18 favorites]

Unless you used joint funds to buy the present, I fail to see what the problem is other than that you're letting your wife control you in a way that is detrimental to you.

If you used joint funds, well then I can understand why she got annoyed but still her reaction seems over the top. If you did not, she really has no business telling you what you can and cannot buy for your own sister with your own money.

This is a power play between your wife and your sister and you need to calmly and tactfully tell them both that they can behave however they want to with one another but that you will not be put in the middle of it. Basically, you should not a pawn in their own power games.
posted by mleigh at 2:47 PM on May 19, 2011

My sister’s grievance is that my wife behaves like a princess. My sister and my wife aren’t interested in getting along with each other and both are good at holding grudges.

It sounds to me like you married someone kind of like your sister, and your sister and your wife recognize the parts about themselves they don't like very much in each other. You know what? That is for them to work out, not you. When the subject of one comes up with the other, either 1) don't engage or 2) turn the tables and ask them to change their own behavior "I love her, and that isn't going to change. It pains me that you don't try to get along, if only for my sake."

You each need to have your own money. Not all of it, but some. Enough so that you can buy gifts for your sister or whatever without having to account to your wife.

Apologize for going behind her back. But push back on her rhetoric, 'cause that's way over the top.
posted by ambrosia at 2:51 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ok, you shouldn't have gone behind your wife's back after you'd made an agreement with her about the gift. You should have had the courage to be upfront with your wife about the appropriateness of the gift. So you owe your wife an apology there.

It sounds like your wife has a point about your sister, anf your sister has a point about your wife. They both have some growing up to do here, and so do you. On the one hand, your sister is your SISTER, not some flighty friend who won't be around long, and your wife is your WIFE for crying out loud, not some chick you've been dating for six weeks. So, since you've already allowed yourself to be placed in the middle of this thing, it's time to talk to each of them, separately, and tell them that they don't have to be best friends, but they damn well better start treating each other with respect, out of a sense of their love for you.

Then tell them that you will not entertain any more gossip or poor attitudes from either about the other. One of the things you learn in marriage is that when you are around family, sometimes you just have to shut your mouth and smile. They each need to learn this.
posted by vignettist at 3:04 PM on May 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

The sneaking and secrecy was dumb, because it made something that didn't really have to be that big a deal into more of a big deal. That's really the only thing you did wrong here. Tell your wife that you were wrong to not talk to her honestly about it and you're sorry. But also don't back down on giving your sister whatever the hell you want to get her - she is your sister and your wife doesn't get to tell you what presents to give your family unless it goes against whatever agreements you've previously made about spending limits from a joint account or whatever. You are not "violating the sacred trust of marriage," and you wife needs to stop feeling like she's in a competition with the rest of your family.
posted by naoko at 3:18 PM on May 19, 2011

Vignettist is displaying the wisdom of Solomon.

- Tell your wife that you will no longer tolerate negative talk about your sister. She's your sister. Your wife doesn't have to like her, but she needs to act like an adult.

- Tell your sister that you will no longer tolerate negative talk about your wife. She's your wife. Your sister doesn't have to like her, but she needs to act like an adult.

You are letting both of these women manipulate you. As soon as you start setting the boundaries and making clear what you will and will not tolerate (reasonably and respectfully), things will get easier for you.

You also cannot talk badly about one to the other.

And, you buy your sister whatever the hell you want.
posted by DWRoelands at 3:31 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Is it ever okay to go behind your wife's back?" is the title of this page, and I will say it OFTEN is. And vice versa.

Being married in Japan is interesting. People here have a much different conception of marriage. They assume that spouses will keep things to themselves, and they assume that's HEALTHY, because if you are going to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want to keep some personal space as well. The whole "total and complete disclosure of everything" ideal in America is something I now see as actually both unrealistic and unhelpful for the longterm health of the relationship.

Of course, this is not carte blanche to go around doing major stuff behind your spouse's back, but buying your sister a gift is not major stuff for any adult.

Your wife, by the way, is not an adult, no matter how many years she has under her belt.
posted by zachawry at 3:38 PM on May 19, 2011 [8 favorites]

Unless the gift you had in mind will put you and your wife in debt, there is no reason you should Not get your sister your gift!

You only need to apologize for going behund her back. Admit that was a bad move, but then explain to her that in your family, milestone events deserve special acknowledgement. For that reason, this is the gift you want to give to your sister. Let her know that you still intend to do so, and that if she really wants to be part of the family, it would be best if this gift came from the two of you. She has the opportunity to be the bigger person here (in fact, tell her that, too, she'll probably feel like she 'wins' in this little power battle between her and your sis). But if she doesn't want her name on this gift, she can give your sis the one she chose, and this gift will just be from you.

And, to avoid arguments in the future, you should assure her that you will BOTH set the budget for gifts in the future, and it will be the same for her family as it will be for yours, because you are all ONE family now. No skimping on gifts for the family members she doesn't like--everyone gets the same consideration, because that's how mature adults handle family affairs.
posted by misha at 3:40 PM on May 19, 2011

You are letting both of these women manipulate you. As soon as you start setting the boundaries and making clear what you will and will not tolerate (reasonably and respectfully), things will get easier for you.
This. In years to come, you may well see this as a defining moment in the relationship with your wife, which may be good or bad, depending on how things go.

Yes, you have done the wrong thing by not being up-front from the beginning, but that's done now and you can't undo it (but don't do it again). Best to acknoweldge that you were wrong and apologise unreservedly, because your wife deserves that. But use this as an opportunity to set the scene for the future - your wife and your sister need to stop being childish and possessive and you need to tell both of them that in no uncertain terms. They are both part of your family and they can either accept that and be polite with one another (there's no rule that says you have to like your family) or make everyone miserable and uncomfortable forever.

Assuming that your wife's concern is not a genuine issue of you not being able to afford the gift you want to give, stand your ground and be clear that you are going to buy the gift whether your wife likes it or not. It's her choice whether the gift is from you alone or from both, but don't make it from her if she feels strongly enough that she doesn't want to be associated with it. In the same way that you have a right to give your sister a gift, she has the right to stand by her principles and not be part of it. Do not compound this issue by going behind your wife's back again and buying a secret present - she won't forgive you and she would be right.

It sounds like you are on the road to becoming a 'hen-pecked husband (or wife, I guess)' and, if you want to avoid that (hint: you do - trust me on this), here's your chance to stop that happening. If anything, your wife will respect you more for standing your ground on something that matters to you. If she doesn't, well, that doesn't bode well for the future.

Good luck.
posted by dg at 3:50 PM on May 19, 2011

Oh, and I disagree with the whole idea of sitting wife and sister down and having a talk with them together! They are adults, not children. That will just make them angry and resentful and each will feel during that discussion that you are taking the other's side.

And you should not put them in the middle, either--don't speak disparagingly about your wife to your sister after you and your wife have argued. Don't complain about your sister to your wife. Don't do anything behind anyone's back. That's how you show you are an adult, too.

Instead, just let each one know, privately that you expect her to be cordial and respectful to the other because she is important to you and part of the family like it or not, and then let it go.

They don't have to like each other. They just have to be civil.
posted by misha at 3:50 PM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

your wife is being a massive, massive dick, and you, little sir, need to figure out where you want to stand and fast.

lemme re-frame this from the perspective of a guy from a southern family in the dramatic vein:

six years ago, the family matriarch, my grandmother, died. the entire family, naturally, assembled for a funeral. mimi was kind of a huge bitch and made some intensely arrogant decisions about her funerary arrangements which pissed everyone off. but we dealt with it, because we're family. unfortunately, her sons disapproved and refused at the last minute to be pallbearers. very public.

the end result: those two sons are remembered in the family as "those assholes who ruined mimi's funeral." your wife is going down the path of my uncles, and she's going to be the asshole who messed up your sister's graduation. and you're going to be the asshole who helped her.

don't be that asshole. destroying a family is not worth it.
posted by patricking at 4:01 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't know whether the gift giving is the issue .... in fact the bigger issue is the problems related to your wife and your sister not getting along.

And by not getting along, we mean "hate each other's guts".

Seriously - unless you take steps to sort this issue out, you are going to spend the next however many years of your life stuck in the middle of a tug-of-war between two people who are obviously very important in your life.

And for mine, that's not the way to spend your days. It'd be miserable - trust me, I've seen it happen.

You can be the conduit that works to sort the situation out. You need to get them talking, get them to try and at least reach a detente. They don't need to love each other, but if they respect you they should stop making your life a misery.

And perhaps that's the question to ask: "Do they respect you?" If so, they'd be making more of an effort not to be ripping each other's throats out around you.'

Again, they don't have to be best mates, but they should endeavour to get along for your sake.
posted by chris88 at 4:32 PM on May 19, 2011

I originally misread the question that you went behind your wife's back to get her disliked sister a present. I thought - wow, wife's reaction was a bit over the top, but I can how that's problematic.

On closer inspection, it sounds like your wife wanted to send a bullshit 'here's how little we think of you and your graduation' present message ostensibly from both of you?

Oh honey, no.

Both of these grown-ass women need to hear that their relationship issues are their own, and while you'd love for them to work it out, you will not be in the middle. They don't have to like each other, but they do have to be civil around you - and for the love of all that's holy don't sneak around your wife's back. It's ridiculous, petty and sets you up for a lifetime of this 'violated a sacred trust' over high school level nonsense like this. Good luck. I do not envy you your situation.
posted by Space Kitty at 4:39 PM on May 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


On closer inspection, it sounds like your wife wanted to send YOUR sister....
posted by Space Kitty at 4:44 PM on May 19, 2011

Dude. There are no sides here. Your wife and your sister play completely different roles in your life. Whatever gift you decide to get your sister is truly none of your wife's business. Yes, you shouldn't have done it behind her back once you agreed to go along with her idea. So what you can do in the future is be upfront with her when you don't agree with a gift she wants to give one of your family members on behalf of both of you. She needs to step back and realize that your sister is your sister. You love your sister, and you love your wife, and they both need to be able to understand that.

"Giving a gift to someone she dislikes" is one thing when it's, say, some acquaintance of your wife or one of her family members and it's up to her what that person gets, but this is your freaking sister! As for this note she read that she wasn't supposed to read, was she snooping around? It sounds like she didn't trust you to begin with, really. This sounds like part of a larger issue, and you guys should communicate openly and set some ground rules in terms of what is and is not OK in your relationship.
posted by wondermouse at 4:54 PM on May 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

The first thing that springs to mind is that you're both making a mountain out of a molehill. It's a one-time gift for yes, an important event, but it's just a gift. If money is tight enough so that the gift you want to give will cut into the food budget, well, that' a problem. If it's no major financial burden though - what the hell?

What springs to mind here is how on earth you two will ever decide on what house to live in, or where to go for a holiday or other such things.

Basically: you should've been upfront when the gift was discussed, and said 'No, I don't think that's appropriate, we should get OtherThing instead.' Or, said 'I want to add ThisThing to it, to make it what I want to give my sister'. That bit was your bad. The bit where your wife is having a hissy fit because you added something ... well, okay, doing it secretly, she deserves an apology for you displaying a lack of trust in her ability to handle things in a mature way, but she's seriously overreacting.

Marriage counselling. You pair are not communicating well.
posted by ysabet at 5:26 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hmm. I guess I'm on the other side of most people here. In my mind, your first loyalty is always to your wife, not your family. That's my view. Otherwise, if you allow your family - or any member of your family - to control you against your wife, then I can see how from the point of view of your wife, you're not a husband worth having. Really, I cannot imagine a situation, where I pick my family over my wife, or my wife picks her family over me. The whole "in-laws" drama is ridiculous. In some cultures the wife upon entering a marriage becomes a servant to the family of her husband. I strongly believe that you form a new union, a new family with your wife, and that's your number one priority above any other human beings, family or not. That's where your loyalties should be - always. But there is another side to this - my wife would not make unreasonable requests of me vs my family nor would I vs her family. This is where you need to talk to your wife. Explore the issue, at length if necessary. In the end, if you cannot reach agreement, you need to ask her, if she really wants to be irrational about this. Because if she does, you will do as she wishes, because she's your wife, but you want her to understand that you are doing this while you strongly believe her to be wrong, and tell her never to ask for such things lightly.

As to your sister - if I were you, I'd say to her very clearly, that while you love her, she should always be aware of your loyalty to your wife - you will not tolerate any smearing or ugly remarks about her; if she persists, you tell her in no uncertain terms, that this will mean the end of your association with her. Because only a lousy husband allows anyone to walk all over his wife.
posted by VikingSword at 5:29 PM on May 19, 2011 [13 favorites]

You better deal with these root issues or you are going to have to deal with one of those family fissures that will be well nigh heartbreaking. Make no mistake, a few years from now children will be used as pawns in this simmering feud. An accumulation of perceived and real wrongs meted out by all sides culminating in you coming to askmefi on how to deal with your wife, the holidays and your relatives thinking you are dissing them. Deal with it. Make sure your wife knows exactly that there is a limit. And that getting a graduation gift for your sister is very FAR from distrust and dishonesty in a marriage; very far.
posted by jadepearl at 5:40 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Agreeing with most here . You shouldn't have gone behind your wife's back, but it is no way a violation of trust in the marriage. Putting it that way is a gross overreaction. You were wrong, and the right thing to do now is to admit and apologize for it. But what you did is understandable and that makes it OK. Just don't do it again.

That being said, unless there's a money issue where you simply can't afford it, your wife does not get to dictate what you buy for your sister, especially when it's based on petty personality conflicts. Assuming you're spending your own money and you can afford it, what you buy your sister is essentially none of your wife's business.

This sounds to me like you're being pushed around, at least by your wife and possibly by both sides. I would set some boundaries now, or you'll regret it later. Their conflict is between the two of them. My advice to you is to stay out of it, don't take sides and have a separate relationship with both parties.
posted by cnc at 5:46 PM on May 19, 2011

Ew. This advice could not be more wrong:

VikingSword said
Because if she does, you will do as she wishes, because she's your wife, but you want her to understand that you are doing this while you strongly believe her to be wrong, and tell her never to ask for such things lightly.
If you have any intent or desire to stay in the marriage, clear up this situation now. Set reasonably boundaries, which include privacy, and your own money. Otherwise you are simply doomed to a painful divorce.
posted by Invoke at 5:47 PM on May 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

Wow. Unless you bought your sister a new car or some similarly extravagant present (i.e. something outside your budget), this seems rather ridiculous.

Yup, you should have told her, but no, this doesn't seem like it should be a huge deal, either.
posted by smirkette at 5:52 PM on May 19, 2011

Well, the OP will pick the advice that most speaks to him, so it's enough to state one's point, and let it be, rather than comment on other people's advice.

To clarify my point for the OP, what I find of essence here is the relationship between your wife and your sister. Your wife is - or should be - the person who is closest to you, this is the person you're spending your life with. If someone else has a conflict with your wife, whose side are you on? Look at the situation you outlined. Your sister doesn't like your wife. Fine. You can't force people to like your wife. Not fine: your sister expressing hostility to your wife ("princess" etc.) - how can you stand by, while someone does that to your wife? It doesn't matter who it is, a friend, a stranger, a family member - you ask them to please not behave in a hostile way to your wife, or else you will stop associating with them. Instead, you are buying presents for them? Behind your wife's back. Err, no. Wrong. You must demand respect for your wife from your family - or stop associating with them. They don't need to like her. But they are not allowed to behave in a hostile manner, and still expect to have a relationship with you. That's what's wrong. Your wife feels betrayed here - rightly so. Because you are not taking care of the problem with your sister. You in effect want to say: my relationships with people, no matter how they act toward you my wife, come first. To me that's grounds for divorce. It's no different in kind than the inferior status of the wife vs her in-laws in certain cultures - it's only a matter of degree. And I personally would not stand for that.

Frankly, I would find your wife to be right here. It might be different, if your sister did not in fact behave shittily toward your wife, it becomes a question of who your wife is, and do you want to spend your life with this person. If your wife is habitually taking offense at random people and making your life miserable, then you have a much bigger problem than a gift to your sister. But if your wife is in the right - as she appears to be here - then you need to stand up and be a man and stand by your wife.
posted by VikingSword at 6:13 PM on May 19, 2011 [13 favorites]

On the commonsensical level, this is a dumb, minor infraction. On the symbolic level, you screwed up in a big way. Your sister is putting pressure on your marriage by isolating your wife; you just sneakily undermined the plan to present a united marriage front to her. Now, I'd have a few things to say to her, too, but... if there's ever a time to go behind your wife's back, this wasn't it.

I suspect that your wife feels that she is the victim of relational bullying. Do you have her back or not? Figure it out and stand your ground.

Most of us are assuming this was an innocent action, but I wonder -- are you sure you aren't secretly grooving on the drama of having two women fighting over you? Because it sounds to me like you're stoking that drama pretty well there. For instance, this business about your wife being a "princess" sounds like a direct quotation. If you're serious about your marriage, you should not be having conversations about your wife's character with your sister, ever. Even your silent acceptance of your sister's complaining is a hint to her that she can get a wedge into your marriage and walk all over your wife. No good can come of it, so shut that shit down. If Sis wants to trash your wife, she can go do it with somebody who isn't you.
posted by sculpin at 6:26 PM on May 19, 2011 [16 favorites]

And what are the things I need to think about and do to make things right, both for my wife's sake and for my sister's sake.

You could talk to her about love languages, maybe. My husband expresses love through gifts, gifts that I sometimes think are extravagant. I emphatically do NOT place much stock in gifts; there are other "love languages" such as verbal affirmation or acts of service that work for me.

That's just anecdotal, and your post doesn't have enough detail to say whether your wife was mad because the gift you wanted to give was expensive or because it was going to your sister, in particular. If the former, I'd tell her, "I'm sorry I went behind your back. I'm still working out some of this marriage stuff. But it's important for me to give my sister a gift that really shows how important I think her achievement is. You don't really think of gift-giving that way, and I truly just didn't want to argue with you about it."

If it's the latter (your wife is fine with big gifts but just doesn't want one to go to your sister), then yeah. Marriage counseling.
posted by torticat at 7:26 PM on May 19, 2011

My wife found out about my plan basically because she read a note she wasn’t meant to read.

I'm not sure what to make of this detail - but it sounds off. We're all fine with stopping someone snooping, but then, hmmm, who was the note to and what was written on it? I don't think you should write notes to your family [?] that could hurt their view of your wife, whether she reads them or not.

So yes, your representation of the situation skews towards 'your wife is an insecure drama queen with control issues, put your foot down/tell her to mind her own business/she IS a princess' but hmm, unless she's actually very irrational, certifiably silly, then I think there's a back story that we don't know. In that vein, I'm inclined to take up Vikingsword's position.

Does your wife feel that you have possibly left her unsupported in the face of your sister's issues with her over several episodes or situations? A 'princess' tag is lazy sister-in-law/family speak that can capture a lot of things to a jealous sibling. I've seen that myself - a heretofore close sibling relationship has had to renegotiate in adult life; and it's a far more irrational tag than the 'your family doesn't care about me' tag coming from your wife. Joining families is not a simple endeavour, even in the happiest of families. I'm not saying your wife is right in using the hyperbole of 'breaking sacred trusts', but I tend to think that she can't explain it appropriately, just that it's causing a BIG reaction. If I read a note my partner wrote about this situation, it would be the note that would feel pretty shitty to me. It IS a break of some trust - you're being two faced.

Listen carefully to your wife when she talks about feeling excluded and don't wait for a blow up over something you think is relatively innocuous. Hyperbole like this comes I think, after other tentative, quieter assertions have been made and they haven't been acknowledged or addressed. Stand up for your wife, don't write notes about situations you're to frightened to tackle in an adult fashion. Apologise and consider some ideas for moving forward - this may involve seeing this apparently overwrought situation as possibly emanating from a pattern of behaviour and interaction that she and you need to deal with better.
posted by honey-barbara at 9:19 PM on May 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

I don't like how you put the entire conflict down to a "personality conflict." Saying that is intellectually and emotionally lazy. Copping that attitude is prolonging the hostilities by fueling the competition for your attention. You're throwing gasoline on the fire by playing Mr. Nice Guy between these two. Stop it.

Take a stand and reject the bad behavior from both women. Be consistent. It'll work out.
posted by jbenben at 11:16 PM on May 19, 2011

Why did you go behind her back? Just buy the gift without the cover of darkness. You are getting a graduate a aren't using your spoils of war to buy women and booze.

I mean damn.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:39 PM on May 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

You know what: I think you need to put your foot down & nip this behavior in the bud. It's your family. If she doesn't want to take part in the relationship for whatever reason, that is fine. However, she should not be sabotaging whatever relationship you choose to maintain with them.

As for Doing It Behind Her Back, That's one way to look at it. From my perspective: She's already made it clear she doesn't want to play nice, so there was no reason to involve her in that decision. She is spinning this to the worst possible angle. Do not let this manipulation fly.

In a nutshell, tell her to grow up. This person is important to you, and you will not have her insulted, no matter how elegantly gift wrapped the insult will be.

On the flip side, your family doesn't get to mess with her either. Bear that in mind when dealing with them, because you have some obligation to run interference on that end as well.
posted by Ys at 3:02 AM on May 20, 2011

In a previous relationship, I was in (sort of) your wife's shoes. My family doesn't do extravagant gifts, and my SO and I were pinched during our first Xmas with joint finances. We agreed to make our own gifts, they were nice, and I put a lot more work into them than he did.

I shipped mine off to my family. He went out at the last minute and spent a lot of money on extra gifts for his. OK, his family is big on LOTS and LOTS of PRESENTS. But it was extremely hurtful, and it set the scene for other problems. (Not the extra gifts in and of themselves, but the lack of communication.)

Your wife is reacting to the symbolism. She needs to be an adult, but you need to make your loyalties to her very very clear.
posted by 2soxy4mypuppet at 10:56 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

You did not screw up. You made a mistake in how you handled things and your wife's feelings got hurt. You've apologised. I think that part has been dealt with.

Next? I think you need to get your wife and your sister and yourself in the same room and tell them both that their animosity is unfair on you and if they cannot or will not get along, that you expect them to be civil and that you trust their judgement on how best to make that a reality.
posted by littleredspiders at 8:43 AM on May 24, 2011

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