A complaint about my brother's wife who I don't want to punch but might...
July 12, 2007 11:48 AM   Subscribe

How to handle the very annoying sister-in-law part of my toxic, dysfunctional family?

I am either looking for advice, or, for those of you who can relate to chime in and say- Yeah, I can relate....

My family, my brother's family, and my parents all live in the same vicinity. So, it's difficult to avoid having at least some contact.

I am the designated "black sheep" and no matter what I do/ don't do any more- can't seem to shake the label and for the most part no longer care... (I had a wild youth marked by exuberance and not unoccasional bad judgement, but not any real, lasting destruction... and I have few regrets...) I am now a happily married gov employee with 3 children, a quilting hobby, and my drumkit set up in the garage.

I no longer fret about my notoriety of old except for when I have to be around my mother and my brother's wife: If you have seen "Ordinary People" you may have an idea of what my mother is like. My sister-in-law has somehow positioned herself as the golden girl and as much as I normally would laugh this sort of thing off- it's really getting to me. She's calling my mother "Mom." My mother is the least maternal, least likely to respond to this sort of sentiment- and I cringe every time she does it in front of me. (and I think she does it in front of me on purpose...) She gladhands my parents and my parents' alcohoic Republican friends at gatherings (and they are eating it up) and I am really starting to resent it in spite of my better self.

She does enough little, insinuating things- things that make me sense a rivalry from her when there is, truly, no competition- I lost that one a while ago. I think she wants to rub my face in something and I feel like punching her sometimes. Help me not to.

And, no, unfortunately I can't totally avoid these situations b/c despite my unpopularity- my children are popular in as much as they are at least ornamental to my parents.

Thanks for any sense anyone can make of this or any shared comraderie....
posted by ohdeanna to Human Relations (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
She does enough little, insinuating things- things that make me sense a rivalry from her when there is, truly, no competition- I lost that one a while ago.

I think the key to seeing the situation differently is within this comment. What if you abandon the narrative (and the emotional baggage that comes with it) of characterziing yourself as having "lost" the competition? Instead, what would it mean to see yourself as having won? (Or, alternatively, from having opted out of the competition entirely on your own terms.)

You won because you stayed true to yourself. You won because you're happy.

You won because you developed a family, career, and hobbies that bring you enjoyment, meaning, and love.

You won because you are secure enough to have no need or compulsion to engage in such petty, transparent, jockeying for position.

You won because you are not threatened, offended, or affronted by someone else having chosen to live their lives on their own terms, the way your sister-in-law appears to be.

And you hit the fucking jackpot by not putting yourself in the position of gladhandling a bunch of alcoholic Republicans.
posted by scody at 12:12 PM on July 12, 2007 [20 favorites]

I don't have a sister-in-law.

Could it be that your sister-in-law's ingratiating behavior is her way of dealing with the same issues you've talked about struggling with with your parents and their friends? Or her way of getting over some bad relationships with her own parents?

I do sense from the tone of what you've written here that you may have passed judgment on the rest of your family, or at least your parents, and have internalized your status as the black sheep to a large enough extent that it's actually difficult for you to see yourself ever enjoying their company again. I am, without doubt, the black sheep of the family (I've come out of the closet, have lived in Indonesia at a poverty wage, and have refused to own a car or a television, among other things); while there are certainly benefits to being "apart" and acknowledging your status as such (not feeling beholden to anyone, avoiding "advice" [which is really criticism] of your "lifestyle" by getting away from everyone), I actually get annoyed that, dammit, I still like talking to them the few times a year I see the rest of my extended family, and they value me *because* I am so different.

The "problem" is, I think, my own insecurity about being different, a fear of not being accepted that leads me to avoid conflict by avoiding contact, which is sad - I think, for example, that my younger cousins need to have someone a little kooky in their lives, someone who's done some unconventional stuff and is happy to chat about it. I don't know how to solve this yet.

I think the best way to approach this is to try to meet up with your sister-in-law just to hang out and get to know her better, if only because it doesn't seem like you've spent much time with her just doing whatever it is you both are into doing (and it could be something easy, like meeting up for lunch or a playdate with your respective kids at a park or whatever).
posted by mdonley at 12:14 PM on July 12, 2007

So the short summary is that she seems really chummy with your parents and your parents' friends, and this bugs you - what should you do?

The only thing you can control here is how you react to it. Why does this continue to bother you so much, despite all your achievements? Do you feel unappreciated by your parents? Where is this jealousy and irritation coming from?

It's not quite clear what you mean by "little insinuating things," so far from what you've written, it's entirely possible she's just really desperate to be liked by your parents.

Don't play the game. Find ways to continue to keep your cool, so you don't get drawn in.
posted by canine epigram at 12:17 PM on July 12, 2007

Ah, I think I can relate. I'm going to start by saying there is nothing you can do to change your sister-in-law's behavior. She is who she is, and she is now a part of your family. You may not like her calling your mother "Mom", but if your mother allows it, that's her call.

That said, sounds to me like you've got some bitterness against your family, and you want to be accepted the way your sister-in-law apparently is, no questions asked. My own (ex) sister-in-law, who I'd probably have gotten to be friends with under different circumstances, fit quite naturally in with my parents and I, too, felt my face flushing with envy on occasion. My dad, who has scarecely two words for me most of the time, would drone on and on about how smart, pretty, funny, just generally fantastic my sister-in-law was and blah de bloo until I finally would just clam up or change the subject. My mother enjoyed going shopping and having pedicures and all that jazz with my sister-in-law, things I just don't get into at all. So, I get it. I really do.

I had to learn that my feelings were my problem and no one else's. Keep in mind that many people are more comfortable expressing affection and care to people from whom they are slightly removed than those whom they love the most. If you can let yourself off the hook for your past behavior and become your own cheerleader here in the present, it won't matter nearly as much to you your parents' opinion of you, or the stark constrast between how they treat you and your sister-in-law.

And also, scody has a great plan of action. Great advice there.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 12:22 PM on July 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Well first remember that punching her is the exact opposite of what you want to do, and is probably right in line what she'd like: The family will only be more sympathetic to her, and angry with you, which she will relish.

Remember also that probably whatever it is that is driving her isn't born from anything you have done. She probably had a horrible childhood. Surely, she was forced into this sort of sibling competition as a child, and now, even as an adult, cannot shake the compulsion to try and please the local parental figures, and the surest way for her to be "better" is to knock you down a peg.

You have three choices as I see it:

a) You ignore it. You know about this one already, because it's what you've been doing. Some days will be harder than others, but life goes on.

b) You try to talk to her about it. Most likely she will deny there is any such competition, or worse tells everybody what you told her.

b) You take up the gauntlet and play along. Of course, you can't play the game her way, she has far too much experience with it. You're going to have to go with some other angles. The following are suggestions only, just to set the mood of what you should be going for.

1) Practical jokes. Nothing will infuriate her further than to be the subject of a practical joke in front of your parents. Think black gum, or perhaps whoopee cushion. Anything that will make her feel like the one who is being laughed at, rather than the one who is doing the laughing. She needs to be taken down a peg.

2) Find out something bad about her. No one is perfectly golden, like she's making herself out to be. There is something that she would be humiliated about if people found out, especially your parents You're going to have to really work on this one. It could be some arrest for pot in her youth; her secretly watching Judge Judy when no one is around; or that she has bad credit. Any of these facts are the perfect comeback for when she is doing one of her little digs at you..."Well at least I don't watch Judge Judy".

3) Do your absolute best to get her really drunk at the next get together that includes the parents and parents' friends. Naturally, you will need to spike her drinks with additional liquor. Her true colors will come through.

posted by poppo at 12:22 PM on July 12, 2007

Is it possible that she's just someone who fits better into their social circle than you do? Maybe she likes your parents and their friends. Perhaps that's why she's so gracious to them; she may actually like these people.
posted by 26.2 at 12:31 PM on July 12, 2007

Keep your cool.

I can relate, inasmuch as I have a sister-not-in-law (nobody's married) whose personality and mine will never, ever mesh. She thinks I'm hopelessly weird and she doesn't know how to have fun.

Anyway, I have three techniques for moments of trial.

1. Accepting love - that is, trying to see her as a whole person in those irritating, grating, offensively offputting moments, and trying to see her through "God's eyes," for lack of a better term, as a flawed child who can do no better than prance about drawing her identity in contrast to yours and in an attempt to eclipse it and get a little notoriety. Frequent applications of this technique will make you better at actually being able to make her feel better about herself when you interact, which will help break her bad habit of being a pig.

2. Find some hilarious mannerism or tendency she has than you can just amuse yourself with. For me, with my prim and perfect and unobjectionable sister-not-in-law, it was the fact that she wears her hair in three styles and three styles only, two of which are pulled simply back, but that she apparently has a poor conception of the shape of her head because the ponytail is always an inch of center to the right. I picture her concentrating intently in the mirror every morning, getting that smooth ponytail unobtrusively smooth, and yet never knowing that that spot is not where she thinks it is on her head. haahahahaa.

3. Let the nastiness wash over you and deal with it later. Get license to bitch freely but sensitively with other parts of your family. Don't be mean to her, ever. You are the stronger person and that's a responsibility you have. Blowing off steam is fine, but the ultimate goal is to help yourself enough that you can help her as well.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:33 PM on July 12, 2007

I understand. Here were my thoughts about it at the time, "Hmmm. To be as popular with my parents and their friends as she is, I would have to be MORE LIKE HER. And more like them. Ugh. No. That is not an option."
posted by jeanmari at 12:43 PM on July 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

Your perspective on her will change dramatically if you can feel sorry for her. You're describing someone who lives a really small life, and probably isn't very happy. Be embarrassed for her, not angry at her.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:43 PM on July 12, 2007

I can totally relate. I have a few family members who always seem to like to subtly one-up me or people I like, or who are so goody-goody they make me want to scream.

I am also a very argumentative, competitive person. So my first impression is almost always that these things are deliberate, that they are out to get me, and that they are trying to prove that they're better than me.

But you know what? They probably aren't. There are a million reasons why they might be doing the things they do, so there is no reason to assume they are doing it out of spite or dislike. It really isn't a competition. And even if they DO think it is...you don't have to. Be the better person, and just keep being yourself.

With people you have to deal with all the time, you just have to accept that they are the way they are, and change how you let them affect you. Ignore or avoid them when you can. If they bring something up that bothers you, find ways to change the subject.

And if all else fails, kill her with kindness.
posted by tastybrains at 12:48 PM on July 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Um, are you sure she's really trying to one-up you? A lot of the way she behaves - sucking up, calling your mother "Mom" - sounds like the way I behave around my in-laws. Fitting in with a new family can be hard, and I want to make sure they don't think their son made a colossal mistake in marrying me. And my husband's family is pretty normal - I can imagine that if your family is as dysfunctional as you say, your sister-in-law could feel like she's on pins and needles constantly. The "insinuating little things" could be subconscious digs on her part, or maybe just things she says that get misconstrued.

I'd vote for trying to get to know her better. And if after getting to know her better, you realize she is just playing a game and trying to curry your mother's favor, just ignore and pity her. What a sad way to live.
posted by christinetheslp at 1:16 PM on July 12, 2007

wow. all great points.

I think I need to consider all of them. Even the practical jokes.

On one note- I did try to get to know her better. When I was pregnant with my first child, she threw a baby shower for me. I gave her a list of 10-12 friends and she contacted them and made a buffet and it was really very nice.

When she was pregnant- I offered to do the same. She sent me a list of 80+ guests, a list of suggested activities (I want everyone to send ahead of time a pic of themselves as a baby and you'll make a poster and we'll play who is who guessing games), and I received orders and directives for weeks leading up to the shower- this took much joy out of it for me as instead of being the host, I became her employee it seemed.... and although it was an awesome shower- she acted less than thrilled. I put up with it knowing I would not take something like that on again in her case. Ever.
posted by ohdeanna at 1:18 PM on July 12, 2007

What scody said, a thousand times. Carolyn Hax fields these kinds of questions all the time, and her reaction is always the same: you have to realize that she is the insecure one. Just one example is the need to call your mom "Mom". Some families do this, but in this case, with the other things, it is probably her way of reaffirming that she has a place in the family.

In other words, she's jealous er, envious of you. In her eyes, it's grating that you can be the black sheep -- and yet not be excluded at holidays. To her, gosh, blood forgives blood and because she's not blood she has to work ten times as hard just to keep up.

You're over that, right? You don't want an insecure toady to be your puppetmaster, right? Don't frame your ignoring her antics as some masochistic torture, frame it as your maturity -- gained in part through the refiner's fire of life -- as allowing you to see through her like glass and, of course, you only hope that one day she, too, will be able to grow up.
posted by dhartung at 1:20 PM on July 12, 2007

This reminds me of some people who stick their foot out and wait for you to trip (metaphorically speaking of course). She's waiting and you oblige (that is, like your s-i-l, you are predictable and she knows you will react in a certain way).

When I've found myself in situations like this in the past and finally recognized what was going on, I try to do something unpredictable. For example, once my father got very mad at me for some perceived indiscretion towards his wife (not my mother). When he angrily voiced his feelings and said "I think you should apologize to her," I surprised him by saying "Ok, put her on the phone. I'd be glad to."

It really threw him for a loop. He was expecting I'd get angry back at him and then he'd be justified in the first place for being angry at me. He stammered and stuttered for a moment and then put her on the phone. And I apologized.

It's sort of like the difference between Western boxing (power meets power) verses Eastern martial arts (you use the other person's power to gain the advantage). If you go with the flow, so to speak, then you can dissipate the other person's negative energy.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 1:21 PM on July 12, 2007 [4 favorites]

People like this are just yearning for approval and attention. They are just in such continual doubt of themselves and so, like puppies and little children, they will tend to show off to make sure somebody cares about them one way or another (even if it's bad feelings). And that's pretty much how you have to deal with her: call her out and tell her to stop the shit. So the next time she does some stupid little petty thing speak to her in private and slowly, calmly explain to her that whatever her problem is she needs to handle it in private and stop acting out and involve you. You are not going to play her game, not going to give her any more attention after this little talk, and most of all you her to grow the hell up and leave you alone.

Now two things will happen at this point: she will either feel ashamed and stop the shit and perhaps even start avoiding you (win-win!) or she will rededicate herself to playing mindgames with you. If the latter happens you have two options (a) totally ignore her, restricting yourself to the bare minimum of communication including possibly telling your mom you won't come around if she's there (b) slap her.
posted by nixerman at 1:25 PM on July 12, 2007

Well, I don't have a sister in law but I had an intended sister in law for a while there and she and I just... we were never going to be close, let's put it that way. But even in the midst of all the bullshit - all the calling of his parents mom and dad (make me GAG!) and all the comments like "well mom and dad let me do ____ because I'm FAMILY now" - I still knew, I just knew, that she was jealous as shit of me. For things that I truly didn't even care about or like about myself. Which made it seem all the more ridiculous and vicious. But there it was. Women can be so outrageously competitive. And my guess is your mere presence as a happy person, having done what you've done and lived to tell the story (again - happily!) somehow eats her up inside. Just keep that little nugget of information with you. Because she'll probably know exactly how to push your buttons - the insecure ones can be the most skilled at passive agression hands down - but you've still got her beat, just by being you.
posted by smallstatic at 1:35 PM on July 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

and omg - didn't even read your second comment about the baby shower. who needs 80 people at their baby shower? people who are miserable and need to make themselves feel good about their lives, that's who.
posted by smallstatic at 1:42 PM on July 12, 2007

From your description of your parents and their friends, together with your sister-in-law's unctuous, ingratiating behavior, I would have to guess there may be some wealth at stake when they die or even as they continue to live, and that your sister-in-law could be competing with you for precedence there.

If so, given the expense of higher education, this might not be a competition your can withdraw from without jeopardizing the future of your children, for all that it looks to be the cleanest and easiest course.

You mention your brother's family, but not any children. If your brother does not have any children, you have a simple and almost unanswerable winning strategy for any encounter. All you need to do is find a way of pointing to your children and the fact that she does not have any. If she is waxing on about her artistic and educational attainments or her community service, for example, just sigh and look toward your kids, and say something like 'I've often wondered what it would have been like to be so free and easy, sis, but I had other things on my mind, and when I look into their faces, I really can't bring myself to regret it.'

If they do have kids, then I think you should ignore her bad behavior as best you can, and concentrate on being as loving toward her children as you possibly can. Since it seems your brother has chosen a woman like his mom (big shock), any such kids will certainly need that love (didn't you?), and nothing could threaten her more than seeing them respond to it from you. And it will also serve to give your children the chance at one of best things any kid could have, a strong and loving extended family. It will also make it impossible her to drive you out of the family without looking like the wicked witch of the west.

I don't imagine this will be easy; when you say you were the "black sheep" that translates to me as "scapegoat and sacrificial victim" and I think you will have to fight a lifetime of training in order to overcome the impulse to throw yourself onto the burning pyre when your sister-in-law lights it, but I'm confident the rewards will be worth the effort.

On preview, I see they do have at least one child. Good luck!
posted by jamjam at 2:23 PM on July 12, 2007

[small back and forth snark removed - please rephrase without the namecalling and all will be well.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:34 PM on July 12, 2007

OP again

I am impressed with and so grateful for all of the comments.

From your description of your parents and their friends, together with your sister-in-law's unctuous, ingratiating behavior, I would have to guess there may be some wealth at stake when they die or even as they continue to live, and that your sister-in-law could be competing with you for precedence there

This notion has entered my mind and it makes me exceedingly uncomfortable. She has already made off with certain family pieces that belonged to my grandmother that I know were intended for me (my grandmother was the saving grace of my miserable childhood).

I just don't know if I can stomach a cold war over things and money. I don't know if I even have the skillset to prevail at all if this is, indeed, what is going on......
posted by ohdeanna at 2:37 PM on July 12, 2007

Pretty much any response advocating trying to outwit the sister-in-law is pretty much doomed to failure - and likely would only exacerbate OP's black sheep position.
posted by canine epigram at 2:39 PM on July 12, 2007

some wealth at stake when they die

Yikes. I hope things don't get too hairy, but just remember that however things work out, she won't be able to take away or possess your memories of your grandmother. Things are just that - things. What they represent to us is both immensely more valuable, and impossible to steal. Sadly, perhaps it's that emotional connection that she wants, and in that case, I'd let the things go if it preserved your sanity. WWG(H)D: What would Grandma (have) do(ne)? :)

I don't know if I even have the skillset to prevail at all if this is, indeed, what is going on

You need not prevail. You need not even participate. You'll always have your Grandma's love and affection and "saving grace", because they helped shape who you are, which you are, I believe, proud of and happy with.
posted by mdonley at 3:21 PM on July 12, 2007

She has already made off with certain family pieces that belonged to my grandmother

ah such a familiar tale, my mother's family are quite famous for this sort of behaviour. I'd ask for the pieces back, telling her that your grandmother wanted you to have them and they mean a great deal to you and you understand she probably didn't know and of course your mother wouldn't have embarrasssed her by telling her when she'd ~asked directly~ If she is shameless enough to refuse ask her if you can expect her to show up at your parent's house the day of the funeral with a u-haul.

Next time she hands you a list of 80 guests I'd practice telling her "no" because you're going to need it.
posted by fshgrl at 5:35 PM on July 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

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