How do you deal with strained relationship because of a in-law?
December 4, 2012 10:26 AM   Subscribe

My sister-in-law is not fond of my girlfriend and it's affecting my relationship. I'm hoping to get perspectives from others that may have experience with a similar situation.

Sorry in advance for the long post.

My GF (30's) and I (M/30's) have been together for about a year and a half. My brother and his wife have been together for about 10 years - so I've known my SIL for a long time. I've never been overly fond of her, but we've gotten along just fine.

For a while now it's been pretty clear that my SIL is not a fan of my girlfriend, with no real reason behind it. I think it's a jealousy issue, but don't really know. After bringing up the issue with my brother, he claims that my GF has seemed a bit cold and stand-off'ish in the past, but I have not witnessed this at all. In fact, my other family and my friend get along very well with her. I do see that my brother tries to engage in small talk and to be generally more polite ever since I talked with him about it, but his wife is still just cold - which is interpreted as rude and disrespectful by my GF, I don't necessarily disagree.

So, here's where the problems come in. My GF feels like I don't put her first and that I don't defend her when she, in her own words, "is being treated like s$@t". And that I send my brother and his wife the message that it's OK because I don't say anything. I readily admit that there are things I've done that would make her feel that way. For instance, a few months ago I sent my SIL a birthday present. My GF's birthday is the day after and all she got from my brother and his wife was an e-card. My GF didn't know I had sent a gift, but when she found out, she was quite upset. It's not that she wanted a gift or anything, but she feels like I was rewarding my SIL for bad behavior and she feels like I try to keep peace with my brother and his wife at her expense. I probably should have said something to my brother then, but didn't.

I think from my brother's point of view, my relationship is still relatively new and my GF kind of needs to "pay her dues" (my words, not his). My GF's solution is for me to essentially tell-off my SIL and basically give my brother the ultimatum of "you treat my girlfriend better or I will treat my SIL the same way". The problem I have with this is that I am naturally conflict averse. My brother and I are close and I don't want to have a strain on my relationship with him because his wife doesn't know how to play nice. Also I feel like this type of approach may backfire and make them dislike my GF even more. I was feeling like things were getting better since my initial discussion with my brother and wanted to give it more time. My GF has obviously reached a breaking point.

I know I need to have another discussion with my brother at some point soon, but there never seems to be an appropriate time (I know the e-Card thing would have been a good time). Ultimately, if this woman is important in my life, they should treat her accordingly - unless there was some issue or incident that would make them behave otherwise (which, as far as I can tell, there is not).

But, here's the other problem. My GF has a temper (don't want to get into details, but she's dealing with it), and I feel like we have a hard time communicating through this particular issue because she gets emotional and will say unproductive and somewhat hurtful things to try to drive her point home. I understand that she feels hurt, but I have a hard time wanting to try to work things out when she gets into that mode. My reaction is usually to shut down and not say anything - which I know is just as unproductive, and I'm working on that as well. However, it feels like no matter what I say, she just gets more upset and my only option is to wait it out. Some days I just feel like it would be easier to walk away from the whole relationship. I realize, though, that my brother and SIL are a primary factor in this issue and this may just happen again with any new relationship.

Can anyone who has dealt with a similar situation offer any suggestions or perspectives to dealing with this?

posted by miit to Human Relations (54 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Your GF is making a mountain out of a molehill and frankly, not everyone has to like each other, all they have to do is be civil to each other.

As for the present to your SIL, you were perfectly right to send one to her. She's a member of your family and she's been in your life for 10 years.

What your brother and is wife do for your girlfriend by way of gifts has NOTHING to do with it. Nada.

Your girlfriend sounds childish in demanding that your brother and his wife do more by way of her. If they're not downright mean to her, she can go talk with other folks at family events, or she can stay home.

If you later get married, you can renegotiate some stuff, but you can't control other people and it's really messed up of her to demand that you do.

What do you expect your brother and wife to do? Send better presents, pretend to like her more?

Your brother has no more control over his wife than you do over your GF. If the bitch don't like her, there's nothing anyone can do about it.

Your girlfriend needs to grow up. You need to stay out of it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:33 AM on December 4, 2012 [46 favorites]

Two things:

Right now, your SIL is bound to you as a family member - and your girlfriend isn't bound to her in the same way. It's been a year and a half, and that seems like a really long time to you, because you're there all the time. But it's easy to not notice the passage of time in a more casual relationship - especially one where you started not liking each other.

Therapy and mediation are really useful tools for situations where you can't seem to have a productive conversation with another person.

(Oh, and, it could really be helpful to take a look at some basic information about the nature of hate, fear, anger, and relationships.)
posted by SMPA at 10:34 AM on December 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

You keep using terms like "not fond" and "not a fan". It's unclear here whether the issue is one of people who aren't close, or people who actively can't get along.

Taking "not fond" and "cold" and "not a fan" at your world, it sounds horribly incongruent that your girlfriend is bent out of shape about this. Surely she knows that there are all kinds of families, and all that jazz, and that some people are warm and friendly and want to be your best friend forever, and other people are more reserved. This is kindergarten level social skills.

On the other hand, it also sounds like maybe your SIL is being actively ugly to your girlfriend (the "treated like shit" comment), and you're sugar coating it for our benefit. In which case I agree with your girlfriend, you're not standing up for her on this, if even just to acknowledge that she and your SIL actively don't get along and it goes beyond her being a reserved person or them not having much in common or whatever.

I also wonder, if you're erasing what is actually happening in your question to strangers on the internet about what is happening, how are you talking to people closer to the situation? I would be pissed as hell if I was the recipient of an obvious social slight by someone my partner claimed not to even like very much, and said partner then pretended to everyone involved that it hadn't happened, and that said SIL was just "reserved" or something.
posted by Sara C. at 10:37 AM on December 4, 2012 [7 favorites]

A gf who is trying to make you pick sides and create family drama over what amounts to not liking your SIL's tone is way out of line.

I'm all for being on your partners side, but you can't make people like your partner. If they're being civil and not freezing her out, inviting both of you to things and generally behaving like adults then your GF needs to suck it up and do the same.

Now if your SIL is being insulting, or actively being rude then that's a different situation. But not getting a gift for someone you've met at family functions 6-10 times is really not a thing.
posted by dadici at 10:40 AM on December 4, 2012 [16 favorites]

life's too short for this, move on and get a new girlfriend.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 10:44 AM on December 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

You should not retaliate against your sister-in-law and your brother. I think your girlfriend's suggestion here is unreasonable, and I would take a hard line. If this is how you feel as well, you should lay it out clearly for your girlfriend. You are extremely sympathetic to her feelings, and you think she is being treated badly (if this is what you think) -- but you are not going to join a war against your family. Other solutions can be discussed.

Maybe the deep problem for your girlfriend is the view that she does not deserve good treatment because she is not family, unlike the SIL. She may feel that, because you don't challenge the SIL, you also must feel this way -- if she thinks you are showing that you do not seriously care, of course she might be upset. I.e., maybe she wants to be "family" more than her treatment by SIL, bro, and you would suggest.

A year and a half is a long relationship, not just a fling. I don't know whether either of you see a permanent alliance in the future, but it can't hurt to point out to your brother and / or SIL that this is no longer a young relationship. Can they imagine being rude and standoffish at all the family gatherings next year? The year after? When your parents and extended family is there? In front of their kids? In front of your kids?

Of course, maybe there's no chance that you will marry this woman -- but I think extending the time horizon a little will make it clearer to your brother and SIL how churlish she is / they are being.
posted by grobstein at 10:45 AM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your girlfriend is being childish and if you did what she wanted, you'd start a big family feud for no other reason than your sister-in-law isn't being friendly to her — this is not a crime for which she should be ostracized! If your girlfriend is this demanding and manipulative about other things, your SIL may have reason not to like your girlfriend. And when this kind of behaviour is combined with the temper you say she has... I'd be rethinking the relationship if I were you. But that wasn't your question.

Go on treating your family members the way you always have. Tell your girlfriend that all you ask of her is that she be civil to the SIL, say that you expect the same from the SIL, and promise her that if you see any actual rudeness from the SIL you'll do what you can to help resolve the situation. If she keeps pushing for different things from you after that... consider leaving her or at least getting some joint counselling.
posted by orange swan at 10:47 AM on December 4, 2012 [11 favorites]

This caught my attention: My GF's birthday is the day after and all she got from my brother and his wife was an e-card.

That's just petty. They acknowledged her birthday: that's a nice thing to do, especially for someone they haven't known for long and aren't especially close to. To frame it as "all she got" makes it sound like your girlfriend is being unreasonable. What did she expect? What would satisfy her? I can't tell if this is just your girlfriend looking for more reasons to dislike them, or if she actually expects her boyfriend's family to make a big deal of her birthday--either way, it's clear she isn't looking at this situation with an open mind or a goal of improving relations.

The proposed ultimatum is childish, and it sounds like you've already discussed this with your brother so I can't really see the value in having another conversation asking him to talk to his wife. Instead, I'd suggest that you and your girlfriend get some relationship counseling to work on conflict resolution and communication between the two of you. It sounds like her anger is a big problem, but it also sounds like you're struggling with your own role in the relationship as well. When one partner has anger issues, it can be really important to build up the relationship skills at the same time as the angry partner is getting individual help.

I'm suggesting this rather than cutting off contact or having a big confrontation because it sounds like your girlfriend's anger problem is really feeding into this feud. It doesn't sound like your SIL is a toxic, abusive person--if I'm wrong, then disregard, but it sounds like your girlfriend has her own issues to deal with before you and she can conclude that this family relationship is worth fighting and ultimatums.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:51 AM on December 4, 2012 [11 favorites]

1. Your SIL may see something you don't. If anything, your GF sounds like the jealous one, not SIL.

2. You've known your SIL for 10 years, of course you send her a bday gift. Your brother and SIL has probably seen your girlfriend only a handful of times. There's no reason for them to send your GF a gift.

3. You and your GF are not one unit, and you shouldn't be. There's no logical reason you have to treat your SIL the same way they treat your GF. Your GF doesn't magically get to leech off of your existing relationships with brother and SIL; she has to make her own relationships with them.

4. Your girlfriend sounds demanding. Possibly too demanding. It's not strange at all that your SIL is "a bit cold". (Especially if they don't see each other often, come from different backgrounds, or SIL is an introvert.) That your GF has an issue with it would be a red flag to me.
posted by ethidda at 10:54 AM on December 4, 2012 [13 favorites]

A general rule of thumb: anyone over the age of 12 who gets into snits over the presumed inadequacy of birthday presents from people they barely know (or from anyone, for that matter) almost certainly has some major issues in terms of maturity, entitlement, and perspective.
posted by scody at 10:55 AM on December 4, 2012 [63 favorites]

I'm going to go a bit against the grain here and note that I understand where your SO is coming from. It is important to feel like you're both on the same team even if you have some disagreements. Is she aware that you have talked to your brother about the problem and aren't completely ignoring it?

That said, if she expects you to create some massive family drama over this, she's not thinking clearly. Unless we're wrong and she's being treated actively badly, in which case you do need to step up and say "not cool." Not necessarily make a big deal out of it, but just in the moment in a social and forgettable way.
posted by wierdo at 10:57 AM on December 4, 2012

How do you deal with strained relationship because of a in-law? - This is most definitely not caused by your SIL!

How do you deal with your gf after realizing she is trying to strain your relationship with your brother and SIL? Sit down and talk it out with her, couples therapy, ooooorr just move on!
posted by xicana63 at 10:58 AM on December 4, 2012

For instance, a few months ago I sent my SIL a birthday present. My GF's birthday is the day after and all she got from my brother and his wife was an e-card. My GF didn't know I had sent a gift, but when she found out, she was quite upset. It's not that she wanted a gift or anything, but she feels like I was rewarding my SIL for bad behavior and she feels like I try to keep peace with my brother and his wife at her expense.

If I'm reading you correctly, you sent the gift to your SIL earlier (since her birthday is a day before your gf's) without telling your gf about it. Then on the day of your gf's birthday she received an e-card from your brother and SIL. And instead of feeling grateful that your family is acknowledging what is a relatively new relationship from their point of view, your gf got into a snit about it (just an e-card? Seriously? Is "it's the thought that counts" an alien concept to her?). On top of that she objected to you sending a gift to your SIL at all. This is all just incredibly petty behavior. You want to be in a relationship with someone who is generous and open-hearted, not someone who keeps score. Unless there is more that you are not telling us here, it seems like your gf is the one who needs to grow up.
posted by peacheater at 11:01 AM on December 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

I think it would be helpful to have more information here. From the way you've written the question, it really sounds like your GF is making a big deal out of something that is basically nothing, and may even resolve itself as your SIL gets to know your GF better. What you've written makes it sound like your SIL is just being standoffish and a little cool, in which case, yeah, your GF is overreacting like whoa.

BUT it'd be helpful to ascertain that's actually what's going on. Can you provide any examples of supposedly egregious behavior that have pissed off your GF to the point that she's mentioned them? Does she complain that your SIL says cutting or insulting or snide things, or just that she doesn't talk to her? It is unlikely but possible that your GF is getting worse treatment from your SIL when you're not around or not paying attention -- and if it's snobbery or quietly insulting remarks, then, well, I've been there and I definitely side with your girlfriend, because that is horrendously uncomfortable behavior to be around, but at the same time you don't want to call out your significant other's relatives and make a big fuss.

If it's exactly as you've described, however, and SIL just isn't overwhelmingly friendly and they don't know her/you guys as a couple well enough to send her presents yet, then yeah, everyone above is right.
posted by WidgetAlley at 11:01 AM on December 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

To me it sounds like your girlfriend wants to be an accepted fixture of your life by your brother and sister-in-law. She wants some validation that she is becoming a part of your family and it's manifesting itself in this rather ridiculous way.

Unless your SIL is sitting there and actively insulting your girlfriend or speaking terribly of her behind her back, there's really nothing you need to be defending your girlfriend for, and nothing in this post suggests to me your SIL is treating her like shit.

It sounds like your SIL is treating her as the girlfriend of her husband's brother. It doesn't sound like she's going out of her way to make your girlfriend feel welcome, true, but I'm not sure it's her job to.
posted by zizzle at 11:14 AM on December 4, 2012 [10 favorites]

Girlfriends come and go. It is really, really, really hard to get family attached to a partner who doesn't stick around. Wives can end up out of the picture, too, but the chances are a lot lower. It's hard when families are a bit more distant, but from their perspective, if you two break up at some point in the future, what happens to them if they've really gotten to like her? Being more reserved is a pretty normal way of coping with this uncertainty.

My brother's girlfriend was somebody I liked reasonably well and thought was pretty cool, but I certainly didn't get her real Christmas/birthday presents. A few years on, my brother's wife? I think she's awesome and I absolutely get her real presents, and possibly better ones than much of the rest of my family because she's got tastes similar to mine. But I wasn't going to make that commitment to her as a family member until my brother made that commitment to her.

If your girlfriend cannot get that there is a distinction between a girlfriend and a wife (or long-term unmarried partnership term of your choice, it's not the ceremony that matters) then this isn't fixable.
posted by gracedissolved at 11:30 AM on December 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Here are some questions.

Why would your sister-in-law be jealous of your girlfriend? I realize that this isn't an easy question to find an objective answer to, but if you had to speculate, what would you say?

What are some specific things your sister-in-law has done to convey her dislike of your girlfriend? Or is it more of a general attitude thing?

You say your girlfriend has a temper. Have there been any times when her temper has made itself known to other people besides you?
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:33 AM on December 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

My GF's solution is for me to essentially tell-off my SIL and basically give my brother the ultimatum of "you treat my girlfriend better or I will treat my SIL the same way".

What. No. It doesn't work this way. Real life is not the same as the sandbox at kindergarten or the cafeteria at middle school. You're doing the right thing by treating your SIL with kindness and respect, even if you're "not fond" of her, because that is what adults do.

Your girlfriend is acting like a petulant child. Sometimes it's hard to be objective about situations like this, and perhaps her emotions are preventing her from seeing that her behavior is totally unreasonable. I think you should have an honest discussion with her about how her behavior is affecting both your relationship with your brother and sister-in-law AND your relationship with your girlfriend.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 11:39 AM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I also feel like we really need more specific examples of what has actually gone one between your GF and SIL. There's a difference between being cool but polite to someone who you just aren't besties with and being deliberately cold, unwelcoming, and unpleasant to someone because you don't like them at all. If the first thing is going on, your GF is overreacting and needs to chill big time, work on her temper, and make a much bigger effort not to take things so personally. If the second thing is happening, if you love your GF, you need to stand up for her big time.

I say this because, you see, my brother-in-law doesn't like me. I've known him for 15 years, and we just do not get along. If he'd been able to restrain himself and do cool/polite with me, it wouldn't really be a big deal. Instead, he spent a lot of the early years of my relationship with my now-husband being straight-up mean, sly, and undermining to me. It was absolutely awful. Around our second year dating until our fourth, this was a big issue for me and my then-BF. My BF had to make a choice to stand with me, stand up for me, and make it clear that his brother didn't have to like me, but he had to be polite and not make me cry all the time. As my BF is a conflict-avoidant type who is very close to his family, it was hard for him. It was also essential to the fact that we're together today.
posted by mostlymartha at 11:43 AM on December 4, 2012 [23 favorites]

For a while now it's been pretty clear that my SIL is not a fan of my girlfriend, with no real reason behind it.....But, here's the other problem. My GF has a temper

Maybe that's why your SIL doesn't like your GF- maybe SIL is sick of seeing and hearing about you being treated poorly by GF with a temper.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:06 PM on December 4, 2012 [11 favorites]

As Mr. mostlymartha, the only thing I'd add is that you need to have a conversation with either your GF or brother and possibly SIL sooner rather than later. Don't postpone to avoid conflict. If this is a matter of being unpleasant and not just being impolite, the only thing that happens is more instances of snubbing will happen.

I spent the first year of my relationship with mostlymartha telling my brother that she didn't appreciate some of his comments. Then the next three years telling him to knock it off. It finally hit a point where I had to tell my brother that if he didn't stop his behavior I'd have to cut off contact with him. That did get him to stop but strained our relationship.

If on the other hand, your GF is an angry overreactive person, you need to think about if you deserve better.

Either way, don't let things get to a boiling point before dealing with it.
posted by jaybeans at 12:13 PM on December 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Yeah, I think maybe this isn't the advice you were expecting here, but your GF doesn't sound reasonable. I mean, possibly your SIL has been really awful and unreasonable, but you've given us no evidence of this; and the one specific you've mentioned - the bit about the birthday present - really makes her sound nutty. You've been sending your SIL gifts for years, she was your family before you even met your GF; why would you stop sending her gifts now? Your GF and you don't share your incomes, do you? Because that's the only way her demand isn't insane.

(If your SIL is openly rude to your GF, then yes, you need to speak up and tell her that's unacceptable. But not sending a birthday present to your brother's gf isn't rude... it's standard.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:14 PM on December 4, 2012

> It's not that she wanted a gift or anything, but she feels like I was rewarding my SIL for bad behavior

Huh? Not unless you travelled back in time. Your gift can't be a "reward" for behavior by your brother and SIL that hadn't yet occurred. (There was nothing wrong with their behavior. Also, of course your GF wanted a gift.)

> My GF's solution is for me to essentially tell-off my SIL and basically give my brother the ultimatum of "you treat my girlfriend better or I will treat my SIL the same way". The problem I have with this is that I am naturally conflict averse.

No, the problem with this is that it's a ludicrously unreasonable suggestion. And how, exactly, would doubling-down on emotional manipulation get your SIL to treat your GF more nicely?

You may be conflict-adverse, that may be an issue with the chilly relationship between your GF and SIL, but this is not an example of your problem. Right now, the big problem I see is that your GF insists on keeping score and perceiving everything as evidence of a slight. Perhaps she should treat your SIL the way she would like to be treated?
posted by desuetude at 12:16 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

1. Why didn't you tell your girlfriend that you were sending your sister in law a gift? You say you are conflict-averse and she has a temper--do you handle things that would potentially cause conflict by hiding them from her instead of addressing them directly?

2. You don't give any real examples of what your SIL has done to make your GF say that she is being treated badly--but her solution of treating your SIL badly as retaliation is childish and unproductive.

3. Her temper. Your girlfriend does not say hurtful things when she is angry to try and "drive her point home", she says them because she is angry and trying to be hurtful. It is totally okay to refuse to engage with someone while they are mid temper-tantrum, especially when she is saying hurtful things. Revisit the issue later when you have both calmed down and discuss it like adults.

4. I am also wondering if your GF has had difficulty in past relationships with not being accepted or feeling accepted by families of people she has dated in the past, and what her relationship is like with her own family.
posted by inertia at 12:19 PM on December 4, 2012

In similar territory, my fiance has a really good friend who's wife I'm not fond of. She pretty much ignores me and excludes me from conversations, making me uncomfortable. Particularly irritating when it's just the four of us at their house for a whole evening.

At the time I took issue with this, I'd been dating him for about a year. We'd hung out with this couple a few times already and I'd initially figured it was just her not being comfortable with me yet. But after a while, after I'd made pointed efforts to engage her in conversation and befriend her, she still wasn't warming up to me at all, still ignored me. I told my guy that something's amiss here and he mentioned it to them. She replied with a "what are you talking about?" and I saw little improvement thereafter.

So I just chalked it up to her being a bitch, and reminded myself I don't need to be her BFF.

In general we don't hang out with them very much just 2-on-2 anymore, especially at their house which can drag on for hours with the guys visiting. We go to neutral territory like a restaurant for shorter visits, we visit in larger groups, or I tell my guy to visit his friend and I'll do something else.
posted by ergo at 12:45 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think your girlfriend is being unreasonable. Not everyone has to like each other and people are entitled to their feelings. You can't force people to be nice to each other. You aren't children and this isn't a matter of learning to be nice. So, I don't really get what your girlfriend wants you to accomplish except for perpetuating the cycle of passive aggressive behaviour to create further drama.

Moreover, if you give in and blow your sister-in-law off, you will probably create long-standing conflict in your family. In my opinion, it's not worth it to start something like this over a girlfriend that may or may not be forever.
posted by cyml at 12:47 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: OP here -

Wow, I didn't expect to get this much feedback so quickly. Thank you all for the input.

I feel I need to clarify a few things. The being treated poorly thing has been a series of less than friendly interactions over the last year. Like when arriving for an event, the SIL won't even bother to say hello to her. We've been to dinner a few times where the SIL will pretty much ignore her - and it's just the four of us. There have been a few instances where I know my GF blew it way out of proportion, but others where I totally see it happen. So the birthday gift being a "reward for poor behavior" comment relates the previous incidents and is not about retaliation for not receiving her own gift.

Also, the reason I know my SIL doesn't care for my GF is because I overheard her tell someone she "wasn't a fan". I know I can't force people to like each other, but it just seems to me like the SIL is not even attempting just to be courteous.
posted by miit at 12:56 PM on December 4, 2012

There's a couple of things going on here that don't gel right with me but the main thing that jumps out at me is that you and your GF seem to be expecting your brother and SIL to do all the "being nice," and that's not quite how it works. It also bears repeating that beyond reciprocal civility, they are not obligated to much else to GF, even if you married. If they are actively being rude or mean to her, I'm not sure why GF isn't standing up for herself.

I've been in a similar situation and my mother continually pressured me very hard to treat her partner in a different (more familiar and loving) manner than I was comfortable with. This soured the relationship between all of us a great deal and caused a lot of resentment. This could have been avoided with a little transparency (actually communicating with me instead of making demands of me) and appropriate expectations (a person I think is rude and controlling towards my mother/others is not a person that I was going to embrace, physically or emotionally, ever, but for my mother's sake I would be polite, respectful, and considerate if it was reciprocated in kind).

Also, It's not that she wanted a gift or anything,
sounds like not-quite-truth to me.
posted by sm1tten at 1:03 PM on December 4, 2012

Okay, now, THAT makes sense. It sounds like your SIL really is being unnecessarily unpleasant, but not in a way that makes it easy to ignore in a close setting; and also that your GF is being a bit difficult to work with. As far as things like presents go, I'm not sure I would be sending gifts to someone if I thought they were 'jealous' of my GF (which is still an odd comment-- what did you mean by that?)

I'm not being very coherent. Basically, it sounds like your GF has a reasonable case but that she's not handling it very well. I suggest you sit down with her sometime when she is not already upset and say something like, "I know you feel treated poorly and I don't want to seem complicit in it because it upsets me too. I want to avoid creating family drama, and I want to maintain at least some social ties with my brother and his wife, but what can I do to make you feel more supported?"

This may be something like mentioning to your brother that SIL needs to be more polite if you are all going to hang out together, just the four of you (since it's much easier to avoid/ignore rude behavior in large family gatherings, since everyone else likes her.) It may also be something like giving your GF a graceful out if she chooses NOT to hang out with your SIL and brother in small group settings (this is not unreasonable.) It might be that she just wants you to acknowledge that she's treated quite poorly, and the support will be enough. Either way, you need to sit down like adults and work out some compromises.
posted by WidgetAlley at 1:07 PM on December 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

less than friendly interactions ... Like when arriving for an event, the SIL won't even bother to say hello to her

That's not less than friendly.

That's actively rude. Potentially beyond the pale rude unless you have an extremely chilly family.

I dislike my BIL, and we don't really get along at all. I usually do my best to avoid one on one conversations because I just can't even. Even so, I always say hello and make sure to generally present a warm and accepting appearance.

I definitely agree with your GF. You need to stand up for her, even if it's to acknowledge with your words to your girlfriend that SIL is being rude and treating her like shit. Because all this weird passive voice "not a fan" and "less than friendly" type stuff directly negates her actual experience of what SIL is doing.
posted by Sara C. at 1:09 PM on December 4, 2012 [13 favorites]

If they are actively being rude or mean to her, I'm not sure why GF isn't standing up for herself.

On preview: you would have to ask her, but I am guessing that your GF is NOT standing up for herself out of respect for you and your family ties. I am a very capable person when it comes to defending myself against verbal abuse or insinuation or rudeness. I am blunt, I am direct, and I will call a MF'er out-- but I have not done that with my SO's families, because I did not want to create family drama for them when it might be better handled internally. This might be one reason why your GF is so frustrated by your (perceived) inaction or the (perceived) ineffectualness of your actions: she doesn't want to say anything to SIL herself, but she is also having trouble getting what she feels she needs (I'm not saying she's right) from you. Ask her.
posted by WidgetAlley at 1:11 PM on December 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

You glossed over concrete examples of ways your SIL has treated your GF "like shit."

I don't think any of these answers count, because we don't have the full picture.

I bet your GF is pissed off because you are doing the same thing IRL that you are doing in the way you've asked this question here - downplaying the source/cause/specifics of your GF's discomfort.

Hypothetically... If SIL is politically savvy enough to send your GF an e-card on her birthday (just to put on a good show to the larger group) but still treats GF "like shit" when there isn't audience - I would be seething at my BF for not noticing the truth and failing to protect or stand up for me, too.

If my hypothetical is closer to what's really going on, please stop equivocating and figure out where you stand. You may be conflict averse, but it sounds like your SIL has no problems pushing your GF's buttons, and maybe vice versa.

posted by jbenben at 1:15 PM on December 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

Like when arriving for an event, the SIL won't even bother to say hello to her. We've been to dinner a few times where the SIL will pretty much ignore her - and it's just the four of us.

Also, the reason I know my SIL doesn't care for my GF is because I overheard her tell someone she "wasn't a fan"

Have you considered just asking SIL about this directly? Instead of going through your brother alone? That first bit sounds horribly rude and I'm wondering if there's a reason behind it.

On preview: And what I mean about "why doesn't she stand up for herself" (sorry, poor wording) is, not being confrontational necessarily, but how does your GF respond to these incidents? Does she respond? I favor "killing them with kindness," so I'd probably make a point of saying hello or acknowledging SIL in some way, but I absolutely do not mean that your GF should unleash her aforementioned temper.
posted by sm1tten at 1:18 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just talk to your sister-in-law. You've known her over a decade--you can have these types of conversations. I think you being conflict-averse is making this more complicated than it needs to be. Ask SIL what's up/what's happened.
posted by girlmightlive at 1:20 PM on December 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

Tell your brother he's going to be seeing a lot less of you of his wife can't at least pleasant and stops with the little social jabs to your gf. Tell him you aren't going to be subjecting her to family events and dinners out if your gf is made to feel uncomfortable. And you won't be leaving her at home either, you'll be staying away too the vast majority of the time. And if other family members ask what's up you will discreetly be honest about the reason you are staying away.

Now tell your girlfriend that this is as much as you can do and it's beyond your power to change your sil and she has to be willing accept civility from your sil because friendliness is probably unattainable. So if sil shapes up a little, as in says hello, doesn't ignore her or exclude her from conversations, that needs to be good enough. She can't reasonably expect a 180, but she can expect basic courtesy.

I'm guessing your brother will get his wife to at least go through the motions to some degree if you put down this ultimatum.
posted by whoaali at 1:48 PM on December 4, 2012 [7 favorites]

While I was posting, you've updated.

You live with your GF, right?

Let me see if I have this...

- So, over intimate dinners where it is just the four of you, your SIL entirely freezes out your GF, and the three of you socialize like everything is pleasant and normal?

- At larger events, your SIL makes a public show of not even acknowledging your GF?

Um. That really is unacceptable from family. Your SIL is waaaaaay out of line. Wow.

The only person I ignore and freeze out like that is a colleague I am at the same venue with 2x per week who is so odious to me, so questionable and reckless and creepy is her behavior, that ignoring her is my only solution. That person is a stranger, and I will never ever being seeing her again, once my business in that arena concludes.

In the context of a family dynamic, your SIL is "mean girling" your GF. I'm sure your GF has a temper about this (and now lots of other things, too) and is at the end of her rope. Why wouldn't she be?

Every time your GF shows up to a family event to enjoy your family and be supportive of your relationship with them, your SIL is awful to her - in front of you and other people. That's humiliating for your GF on a visceral level.

Doubtless, your SIL drops mean comments and gossips about your GF behind her back in an attempt to get other family to dislike her, as well.

On the rare chance SIL isn't gossiping about your GF, your GF still has every reason to assume SIL is actively campaigning against her. I bet worries over how your SIL might be acting behind her back (for if your SIL gets away with freezing her out and making snide comments in front of your GF, she can only imagine what is going on behind the scenes!) is spoiling the mutual enjoyment your GF has experienced spending time with you and the rest of your family, thus far.

Don't let your SIL bully or sideline your GF.

If you are not prepared to stand up for your GF, you should break up now, because this won't end well. It sounds like your GF has been pretty tolerant, actually. I would have brought this to a head after the second or third incident.

How ugly of your SIL. Shame on her.
posted by jbenben at 2:04 PM on December 4, 2012 [15 favorites]

We've been to dinner a few times where the SIL will pretty much ignore her - and it's just the four of us.

This is "meangirl" behavior and passive-aggressive to the extreme. What do you say when this happens? Do you say "ah wait a sec SIL, GF didn't get to her punchline yet" or "how's the salmon? GF got it last time & loved it, didn't you, GF?"

What would you say to your SIL if you brought your boss to a family dinner and she ignored him/her? What if your SIL was ignoring your mother? You?

There have been a few instances where I know my GF blew it way out of proportion, but others where I totally see it happen.

And what did you do/say then? How much is GF's blowing things out of proportion due to your not calling SIL out on her rudeness? If her boyfriend can't say "wow SIL, are you doing ok? You seem a bit not yourself today" on her behalf, then you're telling her you're not worth the trouble.

I know I can't force people to like each other, but it just seems to me like the SIL is not even attempting just to be courteous.

Why would she? She's getting exactly what she wants. You and your brother are either cowed by her or don't care, but you're sure as hell giving her attention (i.e., power). And if GF complains, then she's being bitchy and demanding and oversensitive. Win-win for the meangirl.

So what are you doing about it? Do you pointedly include GF in group conversations? Do you explicitly say things like, "SIL, did you see GF is here? What do you think of her earrings? They're an early Valentines' gift."

It doesn't have to be a huge conflict ... or a huge conflict-avoidance thing where you talk to your brother but not to the SIL and your brother talks to you but not to the GF and the SIL and GF both know everything that was said and DRAAAAMMMAAAAAAA! Just call people out on their shit there and then, and get it overwith. Life is short, fill it with good stuff, not middle-school BS.
posted by headnsouth at 2:18 PM on December 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

Screw your SIL. I have been your girlfriend and to this day I still feel sick about the fact that my ex repeatedly refused to stand up for me against his horrifically abusive and publicly rude family member when it was clear to everyone else that I had never done anything to upset her except exist. Yes, your GF was being a little immature re: the birthday present thing but having been there I know exactly what she was feeling and it sucks to be in a longterm relationship with someone and know that they don't have your back.

You are NOT doing right by your girlfriend if you aren't taking steps to seriously nip this crap in the bud. Stand up for her.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 2:33 PM on December 4, 2012

You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. Yes, you can talk to your SIL and your brother and demand that they be nicer. Do let me know how that works out. Or your GF can try being nice as pie, to all three of you--no keeping score, no complaining, no snit fits. I would bet that if she pretends that everything's just rosy, the others will be nicer to her. I understand that this is hard, but forcing people into a desired behavior frequently backfires. Reassure your GF, role play with her if you have to, and make sure she knows that you're on her side. But you playing White Knight in defense of his damsel will not work the way she wants it to.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:33 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, this is bullying, and what I expect from 8-to-13-year-olds.

For whatever reason, your SIL has decided to "other" the crap out of your GF, and that's not going to change unless someone whose opinion she cares about makes it clear that it's totally unacceptable to them.

So, talk to your brother, or your parents, or her parents, or her best sane girlfriend, or a celebrity she loves on Twitter, or whatever. What you need is someone she wants the respect of to deny her that respect until she treats your GF well.
posted by SMPA at 2:35 PM on December 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

On a being-in-the-wrong scale of 1 to 10, your SIL is about a 6.... but on the same scale, your GF is about 9.5: NEITHER of them is behaving well,especially when they keep dragging you and your brother into it. Unless the four of you (you, your brother, SIL and GF) all live in the same house where you're required to interact daily, you and your brother should tell both of them to back off.

*GF is mad because you gave SIL a present? Well, that's because as your SIL, she is family, and that was the right thing to do. Brother & SIL "only" gave GF a gift card? Since GF is NOT family, that was actually pretty nice of them --- of course, that's assuming it wasn't something like a $10 giftcard for McDonald's..... POINTS TO SIL.
*SIL doesn't greet GF? Pretty tacky childish and passive-aggressive behavior, even if she's tired of GF's snarky behavior..... POINTS TO GF.
*Both of then bitch about you 'favoring' one over the other? NO POINTS TO ANYONE.

You say the problem is your SIL's "jealousy issue", but to be honest, I think the problem is *GF's* jealousy issues, and if she doesn't modify her behavior (either on her own or with professional therapy), then I'm afraid I'd have to suggest ditching her --- letting GF drive a wedge between you and your family members will only increase to the point where eventually, if you dare to talk to ANYONE else, GF will take it as a personal insult.
posted by easily confused at 2:58 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sounds like GF and SIL are accusing each other of the same thing - being cold/stand-offish.

Like when arriving for an event, the SIL won't even bother to say hello to her

What does GF do? Does she go up to SIL and say Hello, or does she expect SIL to do all the work?

At these dinners is GF actively attempting to converse with SIL or just sitting there pouting waiting to be included?
posted by missmagenta at 3:27 PM on December 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

Hi OP. Thanks for clarifying! I was hoping you could answer the other questions I had. I'm trying to get a clearer picture of the situation. It's easy for comments to get lost in the shuffle, so just in case, those questions are:

1. You said that your sister-in-law's dislike of your girlfriend seems to be rooted in jealousy. If you had to speculate, what would you say she's most likely to be jealous of? It's okay if all you have is a wild guess.

2. You mention that your girlfriend has a temper, and tends to say hurtful things when incensed. What sorts of hurtful things, if you don't mind sharing? But more to the point, has she ever exhibited that temper in situations where it's more than just the two of you? If not actually in front of your brother and his wife, is it possible that word of her behavior at those times may have gotten back to your brother and his wife?
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 3:30 PM on December 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

A few more thoughts: I have two younger brothers. As a result of how my brother-in-law treated me, I have always done my damndest to make all of their girlfriends feel as welcome as I possibly can. Some of them were around for a long time, some for only a few dates. Some were fun and nice, some were dumb as posts and half as enjoyable. That doesn't determine how I treat them.

Am I more casual and intimate with the GFs I like better? Sure. Am I ever
rude to the ones I don't. Hell no. I am an adult, I love my brothers, I am their big sister. It is my duty and responsibility to be, at the very least, nice. My husband (who has been a part of our family as a boyfriend and spouse for 15 years) feels the same way. Sure, your GF has the duty be polite and nice back. But is is NOT her job to let your SIL (or anyone in your family) walk all over her. It's not catching flies with honey or vinegar; it's being treated with respect.

If this relationship is serious, then the day will come when she should mean more to you than your brother and SIL. That's what marriage and forming your own family is about. But even at an earlier stage in the relationship, it sounds like there's a lot of passive-aggressive behavior coming from your SIL, brother, and even you. Just because this feels normal to all of you doesn't mean it's healthy.

I imagine your GF feels incredibly minimized, ignored, and frustrated. Even if she's getting nit-picky/angry, what other option does she have? This is bullying, straight up. I'm surprised she hasn't lost it totally.
posted by mostlymartha at 3:36 PM on December 4, 2012 [13 favorites]

I think you and the SIL should seriously go to lunch and have a chat about it. Just the two of you. Maybe, for some reason, she is feeling protective of you. Maybe she heard some snotty thing GF said and it soured her on the girl but she doesn't want to bring it up and be petty. Maybe she knows more about this "temper" than you think and she worries that this girl isn't good for you. Regardless, get together with her and be direct but be personal -- "I've noticed that you don't seem to like GF. You don't say 'hello' when we get together, I feel like you don't include her in the conversation and I've noticed you ignoring her when she asks you direct questions. What's the deal there? Why do you not like her?"

Then let her talk. Do not mention anything that your girlfriend has said about your sister-in-law. This is between you two. When she's done, tell her, "Hey, thanks for listening -- I really like GF and she is going to be around for awhile so I hope you guys can get along and maybe even be friends."

From then on out, you may find that she's a little less obviously frosty to your girlfriend or, if she acts poorly, you will have given her adequate warning and you can then stand up and say, "Well, we're not feeling welcome so I think we'll just cut this one short." Then leave.
posted by amanda at 4:27 PM on December 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

less than friendly interactions ... Like when arriving for an event, the SIL won't even bother to say hello to her

Need more information on this. Is your SIL giving GF the cut direct, or does SIL just not make overtures in GF's direction? Ie does SIL ignore speech GF is directing at her as though GF weren't even there, or does SIL just not talk with GF unless she has to? Or, is SIL simply more interested in talking to you and your brother, whom she knows and has loved for at least ten years, than talking to the "new girl" whom she may not like? These are very, very different levels of courtesy issues.

Honestly, in this scenario, GF should be the one who is ingratiating herself to SIL, not the other way around. GF getting upset because of perceived disrespect is not sensible or within the bounds of normalcy.
posted by corb at 4:38 PM on December 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Your entire question could be written by my husband 15 years ago when we were dating. Very close to his brother, conflict averse, feeling pulled in both directions. His SIL's behavior got worse and worse over the years and escalated after we had our son. I felt exactly like your gf does, angry that he didn't take my side and feeling like her feelings mattered more than mine. One thing you may not realize is how much time you're able to ignore your SIL because you're hanging out with your brother, having a great time, while your gf is stuck dealing with a bitchy woman who treats her badly.

Unfortunately, SIL got so over the top that 3 years ago my husband told his brother that if things didn't change, he wasn't going to ask me to deal with them anymore. His brother said SIL wasn't going to change and we haven't seen or spoken to them since. It's been amazing and my husband is sad (as am I) about the loss of the relationship with his brother, but our lives are so much happier.
posted by hollygoheavy at 4:43 PM on December 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

I would tell my sister in law that I didn't appreciate her being so rude to my girlfriend. I'm honestly a little confused as to why this didn't occur to you.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:27 PM on December 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

So while your girlfriend may be being a bit childish, I believe that you are a big part of the problem too. I understand being conflict adverse, but put yourself in her shoes. She tries to talk to you repeatedly about what she feels like is disrespect or a general dislike of her by your family. But instead of dealing with the problem in a calm way with your brother and SIL and either solving it, or at the very least, showing your GF that you respect her feelings and want her to feel comfortable and liked by your family, instead, you just ignore it and hope it solves itself. So you are essentially saying to your GF that her feelings AREN'T worth having a simple discussion with your brother about, and you have been saying that repeatedly to her probably for a long time now. Of course she's going to act out more and more to try to get you to do SOMETHING, it may be childish, but it is understandable as well.

Try actually talking to your brother, own up that you've not been dealing with this problem and that that has made it much worse, and see what solutions you can come up with.
posted by katers890 at 9:13 PM on December 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

It's been a year and a half that GF has been dealing with this BS.

Others have said it, and so have I, but GF seems pretty tolerant and not petty or immature, as some have judged, given how long this has been going on. Geez!

I liked the response above where someone suggested someone your SIL respects approaches her directly and tells her to cut it out. That will work on a bully.

Then, it is up to your GF to accept the positive change. That is tough one. In her shoes, I might be holding on to a lot of residual resentment.

ProTip: As an adult, don't EVER let your family show rudeness towards your significant other. Nip that behavior in the bud before it festers like it has currently.

Do this for your own self-respect.
posted by jbenben at 11:47 PM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

This sounds like the reverse of the situation my finacee was in.

My financee's first wife was awful to his brother. She did a lot of the mean girl freeze out bull shit, along with just being hostile and unfriendly. She was a pretty unpleasant person to a lot of people, but her animosity towards his brother was worse. His brother tried to make friends with her, tried to build some semblance of a relationship with her, but she just kept treating him horribly. My financee also tried to get her to be more friendly, but it never really worked. She would just be sarcastic and really insincerely "nice" for a while, but eventually go back to being awful.

The end result?

My finacee's brother basically cut himself out of his life. He saw his brother once a year, if that, and never for an overnight visit because of her. For 10 years my finacee had very very little contact with his brother apart from the once-a-year visit and the occasional phone call. Their relationship went from brothers to barely aquaintences.

When my finacee announce he was divorcing, everyone was so relieved, but I think his brother was the most relieved. Since the divorce their relationship has been rebuilding and they are becoming friends again. He has met me a bunch of times and at first he was really hesitant and distant, I think because his brother's last woman was so awful to him. It didn't take long to win him over, but it was so clear how much her awful behaviour towards him really impacted him.

I don't know what the point of my saying this is. I guess I'm just saying how this kind of situation can have a really negative effect on the sibling relationship. My fiance and his brother lost a decade because of her, and that makes me so so sad for them. If this situation isn't solveable so that you can maintain a social relationship with your brother and sister in law and you end up deciding you have to stop interracting with them socially, at least consider attempting to maintain a relationship with your brother (as long as he isn't part of the problem). Go out and do a boys-night from time to time. Keep in contact with him. Don't stop being his brother.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 8:56 AM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Tell your girlfriend you think your SIL is being a straight-up asshole to her, and do your best to bridge the gap when you're together as a group. Directly allude to your GF in conversation so she has an in to talk about things. If your SIL says something blatantly rude, be like, "whoa, what was that all about?" Actually DO THINGS to show that you think SIL is being unacceptable, if you truly do. Set boundaries-- you'll probably still send her gifts, for instance-- but don't play all namby-pamby with your girlfriend and waste her time. If your GF is not important enough to you to stand up for her, then maybe tell her so so she can move on. I still don't really understand why rudeness in a friend group is unacceptable but this is not. I mean, as is you're going to lose one or the other, so try to ameliorate the situation or else choose.
posted by stoneandstar at 5:50 PM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's extremely rude of your SIL to directly say she was not a fan of you GF where you could hear her and I am wondering how you responded.
posted by bq at 5:22 PM on December 6, 2012

I think this bears repeating: You want to be in a relationship with someone who is generous and open-hearted, not someone who keeps score.
posted by eustacescrubb at 8:38 AM on December 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

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