How to let go of bad family relationships?
January 17, 2013 2:11 PM   Subscribe

Asking for advice and book recommendations for letting go of bad family relationships.

A close friend has been trying unsuccessfully to build a relationship with her sister-in-law (husband’s older brother’s wife) for 15 years. Her husband’s parents are deceased, so this is the main in-law relationship for her. Husband’s extended family is very large, and this particular SIL is a “queen bee” of sorts. My friend gets along very well with the extended family, but is constantly snubbed by the SIL.

For her entire marriage my friend has longed to be accepted and treated well by this SIL (and BIL, who shares many characteristics with his wife). But the sad truth is that these people are jerks, with many, many of their own problems, and my friend will likely never get what she is hoping for. She is starting to understand this, but it is very difficult for her to accept. She is a peacemaker who hates conflict. She’s also a kind, sensitive person and this rejection hurts her terribly.

Her husband has suggested cutting them off completely, but she has never felt at peace with that idea. Her children are close with their cousins, and she doesn’t want to cause discord amongst the extended family. But she is coming to realize that this relationship is damaging and draining. She is spending too much emotional energy stressing out about it.

She is looking for help on how to:

1 - stop wanting acceptance from these people
2 - stop taking the rejection personally
3 - develop strategies for how to deal with them when she does have to see them at family events (about 6-8 times a year)

She’s come to me for advice and I’m coming to you. Thank you.
posted by yawper to Human Relations (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Family is a bear, it just is. I think your friend should start looking upon this situation as a chance to be the bigger person. Sure, she's got hurt feelings, but it's been 15-years and it's apparent things aren't going to change.

The rest of the family likes her and her husband supports her, that should be enough.

She should stop extending invitations to her BIL and SIL, but extend them to her neices and nephews instead, perhaps brokered through their cousins. She should be as nice and as engaged with her neices and nephews as she is with the rest of the family. No sense in making kids feel bad about stuff they have no control over.

As for family gatherings. She knows what to expect. Hang out with the folks she likes, catch up with the more far flung of the crew and give SIL and BIL a wide berth. If they approach, she can go get more punch. If she's in the middle of the story, she can smile and include them, "Oh Wanda and Felix, I was just telling Audrey about this hilarious thing my Sally did, you'll love this." Then if they show their asses, well that's on them. The correct response, as they walk away in a snit is, "Oh my, I wonder who peed on her corn flakes." The laugh you're aiming for is Wilma and Betty from the Flintstones.

You don't say how her husband interacts with his sister, but if he's done with her, that's okay. If not, your friend should promote his having a relationship with his sister, even if she's treated badly, not because she's a doormat, but because, SHE'S THE BIGGER PERSON!

You only get one life and 15 years is long enough to be seeking approval from people who are not ever going to give it. Accept it and move on.

Also, as a grown woman, you must realize that she may just dislike you, for whatever reason. That's okay, it's not YOUR problem.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:22 PM on January 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Bunny has great advice, but I'll add one thing. Your friend needs to accept that she will never win these people over to her side. Never. It's not going to happen. Every time she engages with them, she will lose. And that's exactly how the BIL and SIL like it.

Since she will never win these people over, all she's left with is how she responds to the situation. She can keep wasting her energy trying to win their approval or she can move on to other things. However, this is like any other small disappointment in life - it has as much impact on her as she allows it to have.

Decide that they have no impact. Be grateful that there are only two jerks in the family (which is pretty much a lottery win on in-laws). Spend time with the non-jerky at family functions.
posted by 26.2 at 2:45 PM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

If her husband is suggesting cutting them off entirely he must think they are toxic. Your friend just has to stop caring what those people do or say.

Has she ever tried to call them out on this? Has anyone? Is her husband enabling the bad behavior? Keeping mum when he should be outraged?
posted by Mr. Yuck at 4:48 PM on January 17, 2013

She needs to accept that she will never be loved by these people.

I have this problem with my mother and her sister-- my mom wants to be bosom friends with her a la Anne of Green Gables, and my aunt is just not emotionally warm and fuzzy. But my mom, like your relative, refuses to throw in the towel despite all logic and reason. It's probably even harder with my mom because it's her sister rather than in-laws, though. (And god knows no in-laws in the "adult" generation like each other!)

I think the first step is just reminding herself that (a) not everybody is everybody's sort of people, and (b) that applies EVEN IF YOU ARE RELATED and stuck with each other. I'm sure it's worse because the Queen Bee runs everything and it's horrible to be shut out at every family gathering, and it'd be so much easier if QB could just love her back....

I agree with her husband that cutting them off would be the best solution. But if that's not happening, I think your friend needs to have the bare minimum of time spent around QB. I don't know how old the kids are and if they can see their cousins without their mother around or not, but if it's possible to send them to see their cousins with Dad or someone else, do so. Have the husband (who I am guessing is not in buttmonkey status) do the interaction with his brother and sister-in-law wherever possible.

And at family parties...hell, I'd say to ignore her back. Mirror her behavior. She doesn't want you around--well fine, you don't either. Be barely polite to her, avoid her otherwise, same treatment that she's giving out.

And well...constantly reminding herself that (a) not everyone is everyone's sort of person, and (b) that applies even if you are related. Yes, it's personal, and it hurts that she hates you. But it's been 15 years and it's not getting better. At some point you just gotta accept it. Hell, make fun of how obnoxiously she hates you behind your back, make a game out of it. But overall.... she needs to just remind herself that no matter what she does, she can't earn these people's love. And that's okay, because even if they're family, they're jerks! Would she want to hang out with these people if they weren't in-laws? Probably not!
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:10 PM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thank you for your responses. Yes, they have been called out numerous times, mostly by her husband, but also by her. It's a pointless exercise. The in-laws are dysfunctional and irrational. What she needs to do is detach; there's no changing them.
posted by yawper at 6:12 PM on January 17, 2013

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