Confront in law or not confront
November 18, 2018 11:35 PM   Subscribe

My overall decent relationship with SIL is souring through a few grudges. Trying to decide if worth bringing them up to clear air, or just continue swallowing resentment and moving on.

I've been married for five years. I have a positive relationship with my in-laws, who are good people who I like. One of my sisters-in-law gets under my skin, though, and I'm wondering what the smartest way forward is.

My list of grudges:
1. While engaged, she gave me totally unsolicited and pretty darn presumptuous advice about a complicated decision me and my fiancee were dealing with about our shared life together (involving him possibly going long distance for a few months shortly after the wedding for job reasons-- her advice was "you should support him in his career and not get in his way" and I'm still pretty furious about this years later, hence, you know, "grudge").
2. When we hosted the family for the holidays, I asked for help with chores in a way she felt was very entitled and bossy. She proceeded to call me out on this in front of everyone. (for context: she then did help out a lot). She then sort-of apologized later by explaining why she felt the need to call me out, when the actual thing I would have wanted an apology for was not "being called out" (I'm not perfect, sometimes criticism is warranted) but "being called out publicly in a humiliating fashion". Basically I think she realized she did something wrong but not what, so sort of tried to half-apologize. The apology was also done publicly, which left me feeling like I couldn't be frank about what I was actually upset about -- if she had pulled me aside privately I probably would have been.
3. The latest straw was her, once again at a family gathering, publicly asking me if I'm pregnant (I apparently was showing more than I realized) and then demanding to know my due date. I had planned on announcing the pregnancy in a few weeks. I also consider it super socially inappropriate to demand a due date, although there may be a cultural norm difference there. When I awkwardly laughed off the question, she cornered my husband in front of another sibling to demand he tell her.

In addition, there's been various much much smaller incidents where she's just rubbed me the wrong way or been a bit abrasive. I can feel kind of steamrollered by her, in general. We clearly have wildly different communication styles.

It is important for me to emphasize that, the lingering friction/tension aside, the relationship is overall positive. We've had plenty of positive interactions that went fine. I like her even if she is certainly not the in-law I'm most comfortable with, and I think all of these incidents stemmed from obliviousness on her end, not malice. Listing all three grudges together comes off pretty bad but it has been five years and if I was better at letting go I probably wouldn't even be here asking this question.

Buuut I'm also clearly slowly storing up a ledger of resentments and then taking them out and nursing them each time something new gets added, which is unhealthy.

What I'm debating is whether I should discuss this with her to clear the air. I've asked my husband, but he doesn't know whether she would take it well (he's not great at gauging this kind of thing). It's possible that a frank discussion would improve the relationship a lot. But it's also possible that she might not take it well and then drama and whatever. I don't know her well enough to be certain.

With a friend, I'd go ahead and have the confrontation, because either we get through it and our relationship improves, or we don't and the friendship ends, which is healthier than this in-between place. But with an in-law, it's like... we're stuck together regardless, which means on the one hand I am so not interested in making things go sour, but also, I'm stuck with her for the next couple of decades so maybe it's worth taking a risk on things improving?

I'm very conflict avoidant, but she sort of reminds me of a friend of mine who actually prefers direct confrontation, which is why I'm considering talking it out being helpful in the first place. Like, she is clearly very blunt, and some blunt people are able to handle bluntness aimed right back at them. (for what it's worth, I would tentatively guess her mbti is estj). But is it actually worth the risk? It's not like I need to be besties with this person, maybe I should just chill and let things go and not make waves. On the other hand, maybe that's just my tendency towards passive-agressive conflict-avoidance talking...

I've been debating this back and forth for a few days and still don't know.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Trying to decide if worth bringing them up to clear air, or just continue swallowing resentment and moving on.

I don't like either of those alternatives.

In your circumstances I would be doing my best to remind myself that resenting another person's behavior when I have given them no immediate feedback after a boundary breach is completely and utterly pointless and unproductive. It achieves nothing but making me feel bad.

Next, I would contemplate each of the occasions on which the other person's behavior has indeed left me feeling resentful, and work out where whichever of my bright-line boundaries they crossed actually lies. Then I'd think about that boundary, decide on and commit to a future strategy for dealing with anybody trying to cross it, and sock that away for later.

The main thing that this approach achieves is decoupling the resentment-inducing crossing of a boundary from the person who originally crossed it, making it much easier to let go of resentment against that specific person and maintain something approaching a positive working relationship with them. But it also means that I'm not simply swallowing resentment and trying to pretend it doesn't matter. Rather, I'm using the experience of resentment as a facilitator for exploring just where my own boundaries are.

Because the simple fact is that your SIL is not going to be the only person you ever meet who rubs you the wrong way in any of these ways, and having a plan up front for dealing with the next time somebody does is going to save you endless amounts of resentment and stewing later on.
posted by flabdablet at 12:03 AM on November 19, 2018 [54 favorites]

Suggested scripts for each of your specific cases, next time they come up from anybody, are along these lines:

1. Unsolicited advice: bland smile, then "I hear what you say and I'll take that on board." This is nothing more than business-speak for "Fuck off", but like all time-worn battle-tested bizspeak it is constructed from industrial grade passive-aggressive plausible deniability.

2. Being publicly accused of entitlement and bossiness after asking for help with chores: Just enough silence to give the discomfort of all bystanders time to take root, then "Are you done?" delivered in a completely level tone of voice, much as you'd use to ask somebody if they knew what time it was. Any followup can be met as for (1).

3. Publicly being asked for a due date for an unannounced pregnancy: Cultural expectations be damned. Just make it clear where you stand: "It's completely inappropriate to ask anybody that before they've even told you they're pregnant" delivered in a tone of voice that clearly communicates outrage at the subject having even been raised.
posted by flabdablet at 12:31 AM on November 19, 2018 [21 favorites]

As a professional grudge holder, I sympathise, but the time for airing grievances has come and gone, I don't know, five years ago. You can't raise any of these points now without looking petty. However, that doesn't mean you can't plan going forward! I would ask myself a few question. Is SIL like this with everyone? I mean, is this just her general personality or is she specifically like this with you? If she's specifically like this with you, I'd hazard a guess that she's picked you as an easy target and someone who won't fight back (whether that's because you're trying to keep on good terms with your in laws or that you're a meeker personality overall.)

Then you have to decide if you want to fight back, in a passive aggressive way, an outright slap her down verbally in public way (which will shock the hell out of her and either declare all out war or make her think twice before doing it again.) You could kill her with kindness. You could send your husband in to speak on your behalf or you could do the ultra sneaky thing which I would do and the next time she publicly berates you, look genuinely upset, genuinely shocked, muster up some tears and rush off to the bathroom. She'll look like a mega bitch and the entire family will be on your side. Then you can cry to your MIL that you just don't know what you've done to upset her, she's always making these horrible comments! She'll look like a huge bully. Game over.
posted by Jubey at 12:48 AM on November 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

You should let it go. 3 fairly minor faux pas over 5 years? If you bring it up, you're going to sound like a loony and you're not going to change what seems to be a fundamental part of her personality.
You say you like her and most of of your interactions are positive, if that's the case, why are you so hung up on these incidents? Unsolicited advice and inappropriate personal questions? That's par for the course with relatives IMO.
She apologized for the second one so let it go, you presumably asked a guest for help with chores in front of everyone so unless you asked her privately and then she dragged you in front of everyone to berate you, it seems normal that her apology was for what she said, not where she said it and she also did that in front of everyone which is IMO the appropriate thing to do, if she humiliated you in front of everyone, then its correct for her to apologize publicly too.
posted by missmagenta at 12:56 AM on November 19, 2018 [25 favorites]

I don’t see any good coming from bringing this up. Sisters-in-law or not, these are old things someone did that annoyed you. Just forget they even happened. I don’t think any of them were even worth being mad about in the first place to be honest; they all sound kind of defensible to me. I think the advice to focus on the future is great.
posted by bleep at 1:08 AM on November 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

Nothing good will come of bringing these issues back up now. File them under "sister-in-law can really be a jerk sometimes" and maybe it'd be nice if your partner would back you up on that by validating your feelings.

In fact, is it possible that the resolution you're looking for here is from your partner and not his sister? Would you rather hear her say "I didn't know it bothered you that much but I'll try to tone it down," or hear him say "I know, she's been like that ever since I can remember. She's my sister and I love her but I don't think she always understands how she comes across when she's like that." Because I suspect the latter is a lot more achievable and waiting for the former just hands power over your relationship to someone who isn't necessarily going to use it wisely.
posted by Nerd of the North at 1:25 AM on November 19, 2018 [13 favorites]

I was complaining about a relative recently to two different coworkers and before I got into the details both of them said, “is she mean?” very sympathetically, like they knew what I was going to say before I said it. But the thing is, no. She isn’t mean. She’s only annoying. So I realized, being around family, and especially in-law family, means we have to hang out with people we wouldn’t choose and who may not be like us, but maybe a personality difference isn’t that big of a deal. It could be worse.

It doesn’t sound like to me your sister in law has ever had bad intent here, and as you are going to have to deal with her for the rest of your life, you’ll be best served by accepting she doesn’t respond to things quite like you want her to. Holding resentments for years over minor incidents is going to hurt only you.
posted by something something at 1:32 AM on November 19, 2018 [5 favorites]

The only one of those I would really side-eye and really is the only one I would remember years later is the pregnancy thing (which I agree is way out of line). That said, this person is your sister-in-law, you're going to keep seeing them through your life, and holding onto grudges isn't going to achieve anything. Let them go. Try to ignore her irritating behaviour and limit your interactions with her in future where possible (I don't mean like "don't go to your in-law's Christmas dinner", more like "go, but don't get into conversations with her and if you need help with chores ask your partner to ask their sister").
posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:34 AM on November 19, 2018

Problems exist inside relationships, and that can sometimes make it hard to see what the real problem is. For example, if I'm usually a little late, and I have a friend who doesn't mind, we don't have a problem. But if I have a friend who is really bothered by my lateness, we do have a problem! And when we look at the conflict, it will look like *I* am the problem, because lateness is widely considered rude. But the real problem is in the combination of my lateness and my friend's sensitivity to lateness.

So I try to look at problems I have with friends or family from that light. Not that it's not worth it to ask a late friend to try to be more timely, but it's also really valuable to introspect into why lateness pushes my buttons and ask myself if there are ways that I can reduce my own reactivity to the things that bother me.

People do irritating things all the time; sometimes they bother us and sometimes not. Why do HER behaviors push your buttons? Can you deescalate your responses to her without having to involve her in the process? That might help give you some control and new insight into the situation.
posted by spindrifter at 2:39 AM on November 19, 2018 [5 favorites]

By your own assessment of her character, she is well-intentioned but oblivious. Does your husband (who has known her a lot longer than you have) agree?

I do think it would be worth sitting down with her privately over coffee and tell her specific instances when her words were hurtful/rude to you. I'd probably focus on the unsolicited advice and the pregnancy thing, because those have actionable next steps:

"Please don't give me unsolicited advice, it makes me feel belittled/childish/[insert adjective here]. If I want advice about something I'll come to you." (Note: don't actually go to her about issues you want kept private. If the pregnancy interrogation is any indication, she seems the sort who believes one person's news is the whole family's news.)

"When you asked about my pregnancy publicly at the Fourth of July picnic, I felt it was invasive of my privacy and really put on the spot. I had planned to announce it [in particular way] to the family on X date, and suddenly that joyous announcement was taken away from me. Please, even if you suspect something like that, don't say anything out loud."
posted by basalganglia at 4:05 AM on November 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Be gentler on yourself and her?

These are all benign social mistakes on her part, and some of them would have been a source for complaint from you no matter what she had done (ex. had she apologized privately for calling you out on your tone, you’d be mad everyone saw her call you out but not apologize. Also, you hate her, so I bet your tone was unpleasant.)

This person holds no actual malice towards you. Do you know what a blessing that is?

Work on being more accommodating of other people and use mindfulness techniques to cultivate an appreciation for these differences. I bet there are a lot of situations where your SIL’s style is effective. Maybe you can see her like cilantro, it’s not everyone’s taste but it IS an indispensable flavor note in certain cuisines and dishes for those that like it.

Be gentler on yourself and her. I’m not dismissing your feelings, I’m saying this is an opportunity for personal growth for you. She doesn’t hate you and does not behave towards you with malice or hostility. That’s huge. HUGE. People are so awful sometimes, genuinely cruel. You’re lucky. This is manageable.

I’m really glad you don’t have any stories about being betrayed or targeted and victimized*. She’s more forward socially than you are, her boundaries are different than yours. I think you can manage this! It’s the type of thing people read books to develop skills around. You can turn this into a positive experience for yourself without needing to change her or anyone else.

*I know you might see her persistently asking about your pregnancy as targeting you, but there wasn’t anything in your narrative that was mean. Yes she was forward, but she didn’t hurt you with news of your pregnancy. She wanted to know something you didn’t want to tell or discuss, since you say you were obviously showing. You wanted her to be like everyone else and wait to be told the obvious. She couldn’t let something obvious go. You’re different from each other. She wasn’t meanspirited. I hope you can embrace this in her before she picks up on your hostility and it turns into a real feud.
posted by jbenben at 4:17 AM on November 19, 2018 [7 favorites]

I don’t think confronting her is going to lead anywhere good. Correcting her in the moment will be more effective. Unsolicited advice? “Oh? That’s interesting,” followed by a subject change. She persists? “We’ve got it under control.” She keeps going “Excuse me while I check on the toast/refresh my glass/run an errand.”

The direct rudeness your husband should handle. I’m a big fan of “Ok” or “wow” and then moving on. The prying with “Why do you ask?” and then moving on.

I have to ask, though: where is your husband in this? Would you be holding on to this grudge if you felt he had your back?
posted by snickerdoodle at 4:19 AM on November 19, 2018 [5 favorites]

SIL has strong opinions and poor boundaries. You have a fear of confrontation and conflict. She has crossed some serious boundaries with you.

What do you want to have happen? I think a discussion of past grievances will create conflict with little chance of positive outcome. I think she's going to continue to be bossy and controlling.
1. She gave invasive unsolicited advice. We'll figure it out.
2. You asked for help, she had a public hissy fit. By asking for help, you were, reasonably, taking control of a situation. She wants to be in control. She was rude and overbearing. Please don't yell at me. . Even better, please be civil.
3. She asked about pregnancy, repeatedly. She feels in control when she gets information. That's way too personal. If I have news to share, I'll decide when to share it.

I think you will be happier if you learn to be a bit more aggressive. People like SIL are everywhere, they are fine with confrontation and conflict, may even thrive on it. They want the control and will keep taking it. No such thing as status quo, they always want more. Unfortunately, when you start to stand up to them, they'll up their game, so you have to be strong enough to take no crap. Try SIL, stop bullying me. SIL, cut that out; it's inappropriate/ unkind/ unpleasant.. She will get worse unless you learn to enforce very strong boundaries.
posted by theora55 at 5:20 AM on November 19, 2018 [5 favorites]

I think you should let things go. It's not good to hold on to grudges for this long for what were ultimately pretty minor infractions in the grand scheme of things.

The first thing was a bit presumptuous for sure, but honestly if that's the worst unsolicited advice you get from family, consider yourself lucky. (Is you SIL by any chance from an Asian family? I ask because you mention cultural differences and that's the kind of thing older people in Asian families tend to say - careers come first, and people find the Western preoccupation with married people always living together to be strange. I know that in my family a separation of a few months wouldn't be considered anything to get worked up about, especially with no kids involved. If not, disregard, but it's definitely a thing.)

For number 2, I feel that you're at least as at fault as she is. After all, you "publicly called her out" for not helping you. That could be considered humiliating too. Cultural differences could come into play here too. My parents would likely impale themselves on a sword before asking guests they were hosting for help with chores. It would be considered almost unfathomably rude.

The third one I agree she was definitely in the wrong, but as an inveterate blurter-out of things, I'd ask you to keep in mind the lack of malice. It is important.

This stuff is honestly so hard. I come from a family much closer in style to your SIL's and married into one closer to yours. Sometimes I just have to bite my tongue. As you say, your in-laws aren't going anywhere.
posted by peacheater at 5:21 AM on November 19, 2018 [5 favorites]

This is sort of typical inlaw bullshit. It varies enough so that it feels unique. I married a guy who was always very late to stuff. The second I married him, I was the one with the lateness problem-- according to that family. They were also incredibly intrusive about my career and my weight and what car I drove. Just thinking about this, my fingers are itching to type more, but you get the idea.

I felt a lot better once I began to see this as a sort of comedy schtick some people do. I remembered my new brother in law at my wedding giving a toast to inlaws and knowing there was some kind of weird subtext, realizing what it was and laughing belatedly. And yes, get your spouse firmly in your corner. We used to practice things to say to them as we drove over to their house and do post-mortems on the way home, and it was kind of mean but bonding for us.
posted by BibiRose at 5:42 AM on November 19, 2018 [5 favorites]

Yeah, do not go back and bring up grudges; the fact that you're holding grudges is about you and not about her. I'd get therapy about that before I'd bring it to her.

But what you should do is prepare yourself to talk to her next time something like this happens. Like, next time something happens that would go on your grudge list, talk to her about it right away (if not in the same conversation, then in the next day or two). Seek her out privately and explain why you were bothered.

Like, if it was the time where she called you out and then apologized, you can catch her at the next possible alone moment and say "thanks for apologizing before. I wanted to say, though, that I really don't mind the feedback; what bothered me was doing it in front of everyone. That was embarrassing and I hope you can tell me privately if you feel that way about anything else."

Or for the pregnancy thing, "Hey we were going to wait a few weeks to tell anyone; I wish you hadn't forced us to announce it." (Asking the due date is a very standard follow up; I can't quite understand how that's invasive, though I can understand how anything she said would be The Worst after she outed your pregnancy.)

So yeah, emotionally prepare yourself now for the confrontation that you'll have next time, so you have words you can say and present yourself correctly. I think you feel helpless because she is blunt and you hate confrontation; if you can find a way to deal with it next time, so your list of grudges doesn't go any further, I think you'll be able to deal with her better.
posted by gideonfrog at 8:01 AM on November 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

Peacheater's response resonates with me (even though I am Caucasian and my in-laws are Asian, but even my own Caucasian parents when hosting try to get everyone to relax). The unspoken part and where I could see your SIL erring is in not offering to help because I think that is also understood in my family and with my in-laws that *of course* you should be offering to help. This is just to affirm that it may be cultural and in these cases it doesn't mean that anyone's culture is better.

Where I do take issue in that interaction is that you asked your SIL and not your brother. Perhaps you did ask your family members first and didn't note that but I would be annoyed if I were called out to help if my husband hadn't been. I would be annoyed for both gender and family reasons.

The other two wouldn't have bothered me at all except that I think again that SIL should have asked your husband (or her spouse - don't know if she's your husband's sister or married to his brother/sister). Again, just different expectations. So I'm not disagreeing with any of your reactions as you are entitled to feel how you feel, but I am affirming that I would likely act more like your SIL and have done so without malice. I like the advice you have received on how to cope with similar situations in the moment when they arise again. As for letting go of a grudge, that's harder. I think grudges become bigger than they are but think of all the good things that your extended family does and think of times when you may have annoyed them and then over-all, let the annoyance fade away.
posted by biggreenplant at 8:09 AM on November 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

I can see why each of these occasions aggravated you -- I think she did something objectionable in each one. I agree with others, though, that the time to say so has passed. I'd consider it even more objectionable to say nothing for years while harboring resentment.

I also agree with others that the alternative isn't just to say nothing, ever. Rather, it's on you to work towards noticing your bad feelings in the moment, or as close to that moment as you can, and saying something at that time.

Where I really wanted to chime in is on the kind of thing you might say at that point, as I don't like passive or aggressive options, and I do like emotionally open and honest ones. My suggestions would be something like these: For the first situation, "I feel aggravated [or whatever you do in fact feel] that you're telling me what to do. It's more complex than you know. I'm not looking for advice." For the second: "Whoa, that embarrasses me." For the third: "I know you mean well, but I'm really uncomfortable with this questioning. How about we talk about something else?"

You could adapt each of those suggestions for use up to a few days after the given event happens. Longer than that, for this scale of offense, means it's back on you to improve your time-to-emotional-awareness. You have to work to notice and reveal that you're angry or hurt or whatever closer to when it happens. That way, you can respond sooner the next time, while it's still a manageably small thing rather than one you've been mulling over for ages. That's a self-improvement I can recommend only because it's been a hard-won one for me, and one that I still wrestle with. (I probably have pointers if you want them, from the perspective of someone who's enough of an amateur at it to still need to think about it consciously.)
posted by daisyace at 9:57 AM on November 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm surprised by the number of people who think these things "aren't that bad". I'd be horrified by the third, appalled by the second, and annoyed by the first.

When people tell you who they are, believe them. She's told you valuable things in each of these instances (not the least of which is that she's bad at respecting your boundaries). If she seems like the sort of person who might change if asked nicely, you could bring up the most recent and ask for what you wanted (ie, "I wanted to be able to announce the baby on our own schedule, and your questions in front of everyone made me very uncomfortable. Please don't ask personal questions in front of a group").

But each of these instances make it seem like she thinks she knows better than you about these things, so I wouldn't have much hope for that conversation. The better way to control your resentment is just to accept that this is the sort of person she is - sometimes lovely, sometimes willing to drag you in front of the whole family. You might ask your husband if he has any insights on how to deal with such incidents, or you might just move forward with this increased knowledge of who she is.
posted by ldthomps at 12:28 PM on November 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

« Older How do I ask for better feedback on an essay?   |   A comfortable story in which the world doesn’t end Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments