How to handle this? Newly anxiety-inducing relationship with SIL.
November 11, 2019 12:59 PM   Subscribe

Metafilter has always been there for me when I am in an anxiety spiral about something. I would not say I am in one now, but I was recently and upon reflection could still use advice about how to deal with this new situation with my sister in law. I never thought there was any conflict in our relationship until recently. I'll try to keep it from being too wordy but snowflakes inside.

I just moved to a new city because (1) I never felt at home in the city I was in (2) I like this city a lot better and could see myself here long term and (3) my brother, who I get along well with, and his wife of a few years, who I also was getting to be good friends with, live here. Sister in law (SIL) and I have texted regularly and talked occasionally over the past year. Since my family is spread out though I haven't really spent a huge amount of time with her in person, I have visited a few times alone and then at family stuff a few times a year.

SIL and I both have some mental health issues. I have bipolar disorder and anxiety, though since getting on mood stabilizers about 15 years ago, 90% of the problem is anxiety. SIL has anxiety and depression and has recently started experiencing a recurrence of depression, for the first time since I've known her, but not the first time for her.

I like SIL a lot and thought we had a good relationship but shortly before I moved we had a where from her tone of voice/manner on the phone, I thought she was annoyed with me. When I thought back over the conversation I could see the thing I'd said that in hindsight wasn't cool, and when I talked to her a couple days later I apologized about it. She assured me that she hadn't been upset at all and there was nothing to apologize about.

I also noticed a recent trend of conversations that seem to go like this: I say something. She questions whether what I'm saying is accurate. I feel defensive/try to "prove" what I was saying. Then (usually) we just move on to another topic. For example:
--Me: My mom used to yell at me a lot when I was a kid and is controlling to my dad. I was scared of her when I was a kid. Her: That doesn't sound like your mom. It seems to me like your dad is really dismissive of your mom. Me: Well, "X" incident happened (childhood example), she doesn't act that way around you, I think my brother either had a different experience of our childhood or just doesn't talk about it...
--Me: Was marijuana just legalized here? Someone was smoking while we were waiting for the bus. Her: No, they probably weren't actually smoking, did you actually see it? They probably had just smoked. Me: I guess you are right that I did not actually see it. It just smelled like it was right there.
--Me: I had a bad experience at my last job where my supervisor the first year disliked me and got angry with me, and some people were talking about me behind my back, and now I get anxious about something like that happening again. Her: Are you sure they were doing that, maybe it was just your social anxiety? Me: No, I know it happened because (various things confirmed by people who didn't have a problem with me).
I don't really think SIL is aware that she is doing this.

Then we get to the other day, which was in fact bad. We were going to hang out/do some work together (both work from home). I woke up feeling pretty anxious/dreading the day and wanted to bail but I am trying not to be a person who bails on things. However, right from the start it was obvious how anxious I was, mostly about a work issue, but apparently it was obvious to her (I was NOT trying to show this or put it on her, I am not sure what specific things I did that made it clear) that I am also anxious about my relationship with her, which she found upsetting. She brought it up and said she doesn't want me to feel that way because I am one of her favorite people and there is no reason to worry about whether she is secretly mad, if there is an issue she will tell me. I thought we talked it out and were fine, and even though it was uncomfortable I appreciated her saying it.

But later in the day, in the context of both talking about how we have trouble getting stuff done due to anxiety/depression: Me: Yeah if people know I have a mood disorder they think that is such a big deal but anxiety is the big problem in my life. Her: briefly tries to convince me that anxiety is a mood disorder. Me: No, I mean I have bipolar disorder but my main problem now is anxiety. Her: (apparently very surprised although I could SWEAR I told her that before): What do you mean? I've never seen you act manic. (I try to explain symptoms I have had before.) Even my psychiatrist thinks hypomania isn't a real thing. Are you sure it isn't your anxiety that would make you not sleep for a week? Me, finally: Why you are challenging me on this? Her: (starts crying): Why do you have to assume bad intentions into everything I say? You are exhausting to be around. I feel like I have to tiptoe around you. I know so many people who have been misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder and sometimes the person with the diagnosis isn't the one in the best position to be able to realize that. Me: Somehow end up sort of apologizing to smooth things over.

When I type all this out it seems more clear that (1) my anxiety and fear of upsetting her is definitely putting her on edge, especially since she's not doing great right now although (2) I am not the one making these conversations go in such a weird direction. But I ended up going home and crying, feeling crazy and like she had just confirmed my fears. Like, how am I supposed to "not worry" when she has just told me that I am "exhausting to be around"? How is that not going to be in my head?

We texted after and have talked it out as much as I think is useful--turn it into an even bigger thing. I just don't really know what to DO, going forward, and could use some strategies for how to deal with the situation. If this was not a family member I would probably just mentally downgrade the relationship, meaning, still be friends/friendly/invite to group things but stay away from personal topics and one-on-one bonding, and focus my energy on people who enjoy my presence. I don't know. Help?
posted by picardythird to Human Relations (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
She sounds like someone who needs to prove that she has superior knowledge or insight into a situation, perhaps to alleviate her own anxiety. It's terribly annoying even if she does have such knowledge; if not, it starts to feel akin to gaslighting. There are two techniques for this, one short-term, one long-term: (a) short-term: don't engage in the debate--"no, thank you, I'm quite confident in my diagnosis...(change subject)"; (b) long-term: at a non-fraught time when she does this, gently point out that she seems to do this with some frequency and that when you share your thoughts with her on such personal matters, you're more hoping for sympathy and support than to have the truth-value of the statements evaluated. If she's a thoughtful and otherwise nice person, she may be able to take that on board. Eventually. But you may just need to stick to (a). Don't get caught up in proving whatever. Just break off the subject.
posted by praemunire at 1:11 PM on November 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

Yeah, this is a common type. It is SO VERY ANNOYING especially if one is someone who takes pride in speaking accurately (ha-- just thinking about how angry I get with this sort of thing is starting to raise my blood pressure.) You have to identify it as what it is: a sort of tic or reflex that she has. It isn't actually about you. And it has nothing to do with being "mad."

The thing is, the people around her are generally dealing with her as praumunire suggests -- it is the only livable way -- which is to not engage with it. So if you do engage with it -- if you call her out and say "no, I spoke accurately, your second-guessing me is incorrect and rude" -- then yeah, she's going to experience that as unusual, and "exhausting" and/or traumatic. Which isn't your fault. But it isn't likely to be a smooth interaction.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:28 PM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

“Please stop picking at every thing I say to try and point out something you think is wrong. You are not my fact-checker. It makes me want to not spend time with you because I can’t get a sentence out without you trying to debate me over something stupid, like whether a random stranger was smoking pot on a bus, or worse—my own mental health.”

The next time she does it, don’t respond on the substance, but say “hey, you’re doing that correcting thing again. Please stop.”
posted by sallybrown at 2:05 PM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think it’s a reasonable assumption that her anxiety extends to her relationship with her husband, and if anyone is in a position to point out her faults to him it would be her birth family.

So — in-laws at a distance: tolerable. In-laws up close, potentially watching her marriage in detail: terrifying.

Or to look at it slightly differently, she had her husband all to herself and then you showed up.

That’s definitely going to cause some weirdness between you.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:08 PM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Shut it down. “I was stating a fact, not asking for your opinion. I was there, I think I’d know better than you what actually happened.”
posted by Jubey at 2:08 PM on November 11, 2019

One thing to be aware of, because if you confront her about it she will probably bring it up—this is not just her disagreeing with you, it’s her trying to correct you. The difference is she’s not just expressing that she thinks something else, she’s trying to get you to concede to her that she’s right and you’re wrong. The second and third example you give are clearly this—she wants to hear you confirm that you’re wrong and she’s right. The first example you give is a little more complicated, because of course she may not notice a long-standing part of your parents’ dynamic and see it as something else. In that case you could have moved the conversation forward without contradicting each other.

Some people have the flip side of her problem, in that they take all difference of opinion as criticism. “Oh, you like red better than blue? So you’re saying I’m wrong that blue is a good color??” You want to be careful going forward that you don’t take all her expressions of disagreement as her trying to overrule you, because there will be a lot of times in life where you just have different opinions. When you just differ, let it pass or drop it. Where she’s trying to correct you, ask her to cut it out.
posted by sallybrown at 2:25 PM on November 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

I wrote...
point out her faults to him it would be her birth family.

Er, "his birth family"
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:44 PM on November 11, 2019

I have a friend who reminds me of this: in each example you give, your sister in law's correction/disagreement is trying to convince you that a situation is not as bad as you say it is. (Even the pot smoking which is kind of the outlier of the examples: she's saying it's not really as big a deal as you think it is -- that is, nothing is strange or different, everything is still normal and as it always was.) She says: Your parents aren't as bad as you might think, your mental health issue was not as serious as you say it is and people weren't really as negative to you as you believed.
Yes I agree it's annoying for her to act like she knows your reality better than you, but if by chance she is like my friend who does this kind of thing, perhaps it's her way of trying to manage and give a different angle on what feels to her like an anxious situation for you. My friend actually thinks she's giving me a comforting perspective when she does this: "Maybe it's not as bad as you think."
Like: Me: So and so said this rude thing to me.
My friend: Oh probably they didn't mean it that way, probably they meant it this other way that isn't rude.
Me: Sigh... no, they were rude.
Her: No probably they weren't trying to be rude, etc etc..
So after 20 years of her doing this I finally realized It's about my friend projecting her anxiety onto me and instead of saying "Wow so and so said that? how rude!" she is always instead trying to manage the world for me, by downplaying how actually anxiety-producing things are .
I don't know if this explains your SIL but if it resonates, it might make it a bit less negative for you to see her motivations this way; doesn't mean you should let her keep correcting you; in my own friendship it's still a way that my friend's anxiety makes her act a bit controlling and it annoys me, but it seems less fraught to me once I thought of it this way, as her trying in a funny way to comfort me that maybe things aren't so bad.
posted by nantucket at 2:47 PM on November 11, 2019 [29 favorites]

Hello. You have called out my most hated trait. It gets super compulsive when I’m at a low mental health point. I can suffer from feelings of derealization, and being around other people is likely to trigger it. I know people have different experiences and slightly different viewpoints. But sometimes when I get up close to that fact, it can trigger a feeling like my existence is fake, and I don’t know what reality is. Trying to recruit another person to see things from my perspective is my (super annoying and unhealthy) way of grounding myself and making sure I’m still here.

None of that is to say that you need to tolerate that behavior. But it might help make sense of the contradiction that she says you’re one of her favorite people, yet continually argues with the way you see the world.
posted by politikitty at 2:52 PM on November 11, 2019 [5 favorites]

Something you can do that is less intrusive than confronting is just choosing not to engage when she does it in the exact same way every time. For me, it's "oh, okay." The sky is purple, oh okay. I didn't see what I saw, oh okay. I feel like this other way rather than the way I said I felt, oh okay. Shrug, not gonna talk about it anymore.

I'm no longer as prone to her style of engagement as I used to be, but it was absolutely a function of my worse depression cycles and it was irritating as fuck EVEN TO ME when I caught myself doing it, but it just kept coming out of my mouth. I think it's just being out of the molecules required to social like a decent person, and the pitch black negativity I felt about everything including that everyone else is wrong always about everything. My depression sometimes manifests as almost bottomless self-absorption, just entirely down the rabbithole of the absolute worst person in the world, me, and it makes everything so...awful.

I also agree with what nantucket just said, some people do this thinking they're empathizing but they're up their own asses so far they can't hear what they sound like. I've told the story here before of a friend who developed the verbal tic of "you think that's bad? I had a much worse thing blah blah" and she truly thought she was saying, "That sounds awful but there's hope, here's an example of something and it turned out okay and I'm hoping it'll be okay for you" but one day she said "You think that's bad?" to someone who had just spoken of a terrible family tragedy and my friend is lucky she didn't get punched in the face. And then she stopped saying that.

(Don't punch your sister-in-law in the face. Almost guaranteed to be a bad call.)

You can just ask for clarification. "I'm sorry, I can't tell if you think I'm wrong or if you're just trying to find a brighter side?" You have to do it right then, you can't come back to it later. It might start a fight. It might start a fight but then also actually sink in with her that she could be doing a better job of whatever it is she's trying to accomplish. I mean, if she's trying to gaslight you she's not great it it, and if she's trying to make you feel better she's not great at it, she should go big or go home, one way or the other.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:57 PM on November 11, 2019 [19 favorites]

My family talks to each other like this regularly and to us it's not necessarily challenging or second-guessing, it's just, trying to engage with you. Get more information about your situation, try to say something that will make you not feel so bad, offer up another perspective. But to people outside my family (and I guess, hers?) it comes off awful, and as a consequence I often have no idea what to say to people that won't make them mad. Then I talk to my mom about something stressful and she's saying stuff like "Hey it's not so bad because at least ___" and I think, man, these other people I know would be so offended right now. Given that you two are in a situation where you need to figure this out and you're both motivated to do so, you could try reframing when you think she's challenging you as her just doing her best to engage. If she says something like, "How do you know it's __ and not __", you could take that as a valid question that may or may not have an answer, and either say "I know because __", or if you hadn't considered it, now you have the opportunity to think it through with someone.
posted by bleep at 5:59 PM on November 11, 2019 [11 favorites]

nantucket has it, I believe. You and your sister-in-law cope with your respective anxiety issues in completely different ways. She likes devil's-advocating, for lack of a better term, because if there's another consideration floating about unrecognized then an anxiety response might be unnecessary. (No, I find this undermining, too, but that's how some people roll. It's useful to recognize a technique and de-personalize it in one go.) You're setting one another off right now; pushing back even a bit brought on the waterworks. It won't always be like this.

I think you did mention your bipolar disorder to her, probably ages ago, but anxiety and depression can interfere with memory in the weirdest ways.

You can still pull away temporarily and avoid personal topics, while remaining friendly -- even with family. Prioritize your own mental well-being and take the steps which work for you. In this instance, I think you'd be supporting your SIL with what she's going through, too.
posted by Iris Gambol at 7:31 PM on November 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

Also agree with nantucket. Reading this, it seems like she's ineptly trying to help by doing the reframing or reality check work for you, which is why she gets so upset when, instead of helping, it makes things worse. "I have to walk on eggshells"
Just based on reading this account. You will obviously have a more accurate take as you have experienced this and know all the subtle details that might not be clear in a written account.
posted by Zumbador at 7:49 PM on November 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

An ex partner of mine did this all the time and still does it now that we are friends. I have attempted to call it to their attention several times and they basically just ignore what I am saying. It’s frustrating because it seems as though if I have any strong feelings about anything whatsoever, they feel obligated to play devils advocate and/or to downplay the reasons for my feelings or opinion.

This person is not going to change, no matter how annoying and dismissive I find the behavior. They have many other qualities that are great. So I have learned to say to myself, when it happens, there they go again, and to say out loud, that’s possible. Mostly what I have learned to do is to not share things that make me feel particularly vulnerable or, if I need to share things that make me feel particularly vulnerable, to preface that sharing with an announcement that I need support and validation in the form of “Yes, that sucks, rather than, it’s not that bad.”

Because they have been able to respond appropriately when I’ve been facing a crisis, we are still friends and good friends. Not every person can be trusted with our full selves at all times. I understand that now, and pull back from people if they show me that they are untrustworthy. Sometimes I don’t pull back completely; sometimes I pull back just a bit. It is important to have friends with whom you can be fully yourself. I encourage you to go out and meet new people so you can develop, over time, a broader social-support network. I once relied entirely too much on a particular in-law for support during a challenging time, and discovered that she was actually incapable of giving me the support I need. It was heartbreaking at the time. Only later did I realize that it was not actually my in-law’s job to be the support I needed.

Please note, OP, I am not suggesting that you have done anything wrong. You haven’t. But your sister-in-law has her own challenges and is clearly incapable of just hearing you out and letting it be. That’s a good thing to know about her now, before any shit truly hits the fan and you really truly no kidding need some serious back up. It is my hope that your brother is available for that should such a thing happen and also that you do develop a larger social network of friends who have your back as you have theirs.

TL;DR: Moving sucks. Go make a life for yourself in this new city that you like, a life in which your brother and his wife are just a couple of the many elements that will come to make the place feel like home. She is not going to change; plan accordingly. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 2:30 AM on November 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Generally speaking, I am in favor of normalizing discussion of mental health, but it sounds like maybe your discussions with your SIL are getting a little too clinical for someone you want to have a friendly, but not necessarily intimate (in the sense of very close, not in the sense of sexual) relationship with? As a rough parallel, I might discuss some aspects of my physical health with friends, but I probably would not get into explicit symptom-level discussions ("I'm having some GI issues" vs "I had explosive diarrhea last night" or "I had a terrible head cold" vs "I was horking up yellow phlegm and had a headache so bad I yelled at the cat for licking herself too loudly"). Those nitty-gritty details get saved for the wife and my medical professionals.

Going forward, maybe try to direct your mental health discussions into subjective generalities about how you feel, rather than specific diagnostics. ("Sorry if I'm a bit out of it today, I'm feeling pretty stressed." "Is it your anxiety or your bipolar or what?" "Ehn, it's kind of hard to tell to be honest, it's probably a mix of everything.")
posted by Rock Steady at 5:43 AM on November 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Hey, so honestly, I don’t think anything she’s doing is that bad. Yes she was “challenging you” or “questioning you” in these examples, but it honestly seems very mild to me. Many people I have regular small talk with do the same and it’s considered normal and no big deal to most people. They don’t mind being mildly challenged and they expect others not to mind. Gently, I do actually agree with your SIL in that it really does sound like you tend to stew over what many people would consider relatively minor forgettable incidents.

Especially the marijuana thing. You asked her straight up if it was legalized, she said no, and made a very reasonable, logical solid point that you hadn’t actually seen it. I don’t know, maybe there was snarkier tone on her part than I’m imagining. But this is the kind of conversation I have with my husband like literally every day and I don’t take offense at all, I just say, “of course, that makes sense. You’re probably right honey.” You know?

Now, questioning someone’s medical diagnosis is a bigger line in the sand. Most people would be touchier about this and I think you can expect a reasonably socially aware person to know it’s a hot topic. That said- for the level of a close family relationship, I would honestly expect and forgive some well-intentioned discussion of diagnoses or questioning, as long as it was meant to be helpful and not dismissive. It’s hard to say what her intentions were, but considering she seems to value your relationship, and seems to be trying to connect with you, I would be very inclined to mentally assign her good intentions and give her the benefit of the doubt. She will probably know that this topic is sensitive going forward and will not bring it up again.
posted by stockpuppet at 9:56 AM on November 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

Can you just take her questions at face value, as requests for more information, rather than assuming they're judgmental or challenging you? As others have said, I don't know what her tone of voice is during these exchanges, but you actually are making a choice to get "defensive" or "try to 'prove'" what you were saying, and you can make a different choice.

Because yes, she's being annoying, but she's being annoying in a way that so many people are well-intentionedly annoying that I'm kind of surprised that so many responses here are assigning such negative intentions to her. This style of response is common enough that it's probably helpful to have a standard way of dealing with it in general.
posted by lazuli at 10:57 AM on November 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Reading this, it seems like she's ineptly trying to help by doing the reframing or reality check work for you,

This is what it seems like to me too. I’m a person who appreciates that from people I’m close to, but it still feels sucky in the moment sometimes when you want someone to just sympathize. Even if the other person is right. Sometimes especially when they’re right!

I think maybe understanding that she’s trying to be kind and failing might help deal with the dynamic and let you kind of ignore it if it’s not helpful.
posted by corb at 2:32 PM on November 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

It seems like you all are good friends who care about each other, and that this might be worth working through. I think you should take each other's hurt seriously. Just as she should understand that you are feeling hurt by what you perceive as her correcting you, you should take seriously that she's hurt by the suggestion that she has a negative intention in this. I'd suggest you talk about this at a time when it hasn't come up, when you're both not feeling bad.

My other suggestion is that you ask her for what you want: do you want validation or for her to listen without giving you a different perspective? What kind of reaction would you most appreciate? And then tell her that.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:02 PM on November 12, 2019

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