Getting unwanted inlaws to go away
October 14, 2007 8:16 PM   Subscribe

How do I handle a perceived threat from an inlaw, and get her and the rest of that family to just go away?

First, the backstory: My wife (let's call her Mary) has been estranged from her dysfunctional family by her own choice for the last 15 years or so. The reasons are complex, but the biggie is that as a young child she was abused at the hands of two of her brothers. Eventually the rest of the family was made aware of the abuse, but dealt with it by asking when she was going to "get over it." Eighteen years ago while in therapy, she decided that it was time to cut off all ties with her siblings and father. I should point out that she came from a large family and her mother died shortly before we were married, and all siblings are over 40 now.

Mary's method of staying out of contact has been to simply not respond to any attempts. Fast-forward to the mid '90s. Shortly after we moved across the country, one of her sisters (let's call her Cathy) phoned my place of work and left a rambling voice mail about how she wanted to reconcile with my wife, then sent a couple of handwritten letters along the same lines. My wife then contacted a lawyer, who wrote a cease and desist type of letter, Cathy made no further efforts to contact us at that time. If it matters, we have reason to believe that Cathy has been treated for depression in the recent past as well.

Things had been quiet since then, until this year. Cathy was getting married last month. She somehow found our current mailing address and sent us an invitation. As has been the case with other family communications, the invitation was not responded to. Earlier this week I started getting emails from Cathy. It seemed that she was back to her old ramblings, which were once again ignored. Yesterday's email, however, concerns me.

Here is the email in its entirety (the "Fred" referred to here is me): "I will keep trying. I am not going to go away Fred. If anything happens to you, God forbid, we all want Mary to be able to return to the support of her brothers and sisters. Make this wonderful thing happen Fred. I know that you can."

I'm not sure how to take this, but the first part sounds like a threat to me. Against her better judgment, my wife is considering breaking our silence by writing Cathy a letter to request that she stop contacting us. We've considered getting a restraining order, which might be tough since the words quoted aren't an overt threat and we're over 2,000 miles away from her. I've been tempted to make the emails public by posting them to the web non-anonymously, but am not sure what that would serve. We could go back to silence and see if it works, but are concerned that these attempts to contact keep popping up every 6 or 7 years, and my wife and I would really like it to end.

The bottom line is that my wife has gotten on with her life and just wants no further contact with her family of birth. Has anybody else here been forced to deal with a similar situation? If so, what did you do?

Throwaway email, just in case anybody needs it:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (37 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If anything happens to you, God forbid, we all want Mary to be able to return to the support of her brothers and sisters.

I think you're overreacting. I don't read it as a threat, I read it as saying, "If anything should happen to you, she needs a family to fall back on and we want to reconcile with her."

I understand why that would creep you out, but I think it is meant innocently.
posted by jayder at 8:25 PM on October 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I would so not post it online non-anonymously, this woman is trying very hard to get a reaction from you and I think an extreme action like that would start an all out war. I would just ignore it and I wouldn't necessarily say that it's a threat, although I certainly can see why it would concern you. Also, since she wasn't the one that abused your wife, I think you have even less reason to worry.

People will yell at me for saying this but I think restraining orders are fairly useless unless you want to drag her through the legal ringer, which it really doesn't seem like you do.

Just ignore her, she may go away and pop up again at some point every few years, but I personally think that is a far better outcome than the backlash that could result from anything you do.
posted by whoaali at 8:26 PM on October 14, 2007

Oh, and I meant to add, just keep ignoring them. They can't force you or your wife to talk to them. If they become aggressive or violent, or if they trespass, you can get a restraining order.
posted by jayder at 8:27 PM on October 14, 2007

I also did not hear a threat, per se, but it might be there. Who knows.

If your wife does not want to restart a relationship with them, I suggest she continue with her non-engagement. Any change in behavior from her, e.g., a personal letter, will be seen as progress and only encourage further attempts at reconciliation, rather than deter them.

I have had some similar in-law situations, and have always found that non-engagement is almost always the best course of action. If you engage them in any way, you validate their insanity and betray your commitment to not have any contact. If it escalates, you might want to consider more extreme measures, but for now I would suggest just ignoring it completely.
posted by milarepa at 8:30 PM on October 14, 2007

Ignoring her sounds like the simplest course of action for now.
posted by growabrain at 8:34 PM on October 14, 2007

Ignore them. Any response from you or your wife will encourage them. Just like we were taught in school - ignore the people who act up; don't encourage them.

Also try to change your e-mail address if you can or have her messages be placed into a junk mail folder so you don't even see them.
posted by bitteroldman at 8:34 PM on October 14, 2007

Apple's can fake a "bounce" message, indicating to the average user that their email did not arrive, which may be more useful than ignoring the mail or having to change emails. I'm sure this isn't some Apple-only feature - perhaps someone else can suggest a windows app with the same functionality.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 8:44 PM on October 14, 2007 [5 favorites]

Nthing the suggestion to ignore. Replying will only teach her that it takes 15 (or however many) emails or phone messages to get a response, and then she really won't leave you alone. I agree with the person above who does not really see anything threatening in what she has written.

I and others have mentioned the book The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker in other threads; parts of it are very useful in outlining the best way to deal with unwanted attempts at contact such as this.
posted by kitty teeth at 8:50 PM on October 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

RE: bouncing the message back... IncrediMail has that feature. Not sure if it's on the free version, but it's on the premium one.

I'm going through this right now with my ex. We have a lifetime of history, most of which now appears to be a figment of our imaginations. We've always tried to stay in touch over the years. The marriage was brief, the breakup was horrible, and the pretense of trying to stay friends is over. I've been ignoring his emails for a year now. Not that I've gotten many - maybe three or so. I just don't respond. I don't find it all that difficult, either. Click. Delete. Done.
posted by Corky at 8:55 PM on October 14, 2007

Could she write a letter just reiterating "Cathy, I wish you every happiness in your marriage, and I appreciate that you wish me well. But it's my decision that I don't want to be part of the family anymore. Please respect that. I won't be responding to any further communications."?
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:59 PM on October 14, 2007

"Cathy, I wish you every happiness in your marriage, and I appreciate that you wish me well. But it's my decision that I don't want to be part of the family anymore. Please respect that. I won't be responding to any further communications."

That response sounds like a good way to get her to write back more, trying to argue your wife into a different point of view.

I agree that it doesn't sound like a threat, and that "SENDER=Sister-in-law; ACTION=Move to Trash" is your friend.
posted by ottereroticist at 9:11 PM on October 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've been tempted to make the emails public

DO NOT respond in anyway, either directly or indirectly to this person. Any response will be seen as "progress" in their mind and will encourage them to seek further contact with you and your wife (not to mention your idea of making them public is bizarre in and of itself as well as extremely counterproductive...)

Like some of the above posters I don't see anything particularly threatening in the email. She may literally worry that if something did happen to you that her long lost sister would be all alone in the world, although her expression of this fear is a little muddled in her email communication.

I would also NOT fake a bounced email back to this person. All a bounced email will tell them is that they have the wrong address and thus they should keep searching for different ways to contact you.

As you say this person is 2,000 miles away... if the only annoyance she is causing is the odd email or rambling voice mail every few years then it maybe something you and your wife just have to learn to deal with.
posted by wfrgms at 9:19 PM on October 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't know if this would be an option for you, but someone I knew from college changed her last name (in fact her dad did it for his entire immediate family) because of family issues as well. They have not been bothered since the change.

Do you keep your information in the yellow pages public? What does it come up with when you google yourself or your wife's name? How does she keep on finding you?
posted by spec80 at 9:19 PM on October 14, 2007

This may not be the kind of response you're looking for, but you might consider the possibility that Cathy is reaching out because she too was abused and has only recently come to terms with it. Just by observation it is not uncommon for one sibling to pull back the curtain on abuse and the other to refuse to acknowledge it.

I don't perceive any threat in that message, either.
posted by loiseau at 9:19 PM on October 14, 2007 [2 favorites]

I have to disagree -- I think it sounds a wee bit threatening, though nothing you could take legal action on. (If nothing else, she's certainly threatening harassment.) Not to mention, Fred, that it's creepy as all hell, Fred. Gee, Fred, sure would be a shame if anything were to happen to ya, Fred, and she had to return to the bosom of her lovin' family, Fred.

Threat or not, I think the best thing to do is to not respond. Keep her creepy emails, though, and anything else she might send your way. They may come in handy if you need someday to bring harassment charges.
posted by sculpin at 9:25 PM on October 14, 2007

Based on my interactions with my own troubled in-laws, I'd guess that it's not a threat so much as a misguided guilt trip. "If you were to die, would you want Mary to be all alone in the world?"

Nthing just ignore. Set up a filter to delete the emails automatically and don't respond.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:45 PM on October 14, 2007

I'm more bothered by the "I'm not going to go away" than the "If anything happens to you" part. "Rewarding" this kind of behavior with any response, even if it is "stop contacting us" is just going to encourage her. Don't post, don't respond, don't anything. Just disregard.
posted by almostmanda at 10:09 PM on October 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Not responding to these emails sounds like the best course of action.

As well, you should be documenting all contact, and should probably seek legal counsel in order to be as prepared as possible should you need to seek a restraining order.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:11 PM on October 14, 2007

"[W]e all want Mary to be able to return to the support of her brothers and sisters."

That sounds horrible and terrifying; no matter if these adults have changed and are no longer abusers, I can't imagine it being at all helpful for your wife to re-establish contact. Your wife should not directly engage with Cathy. It will open the door and encourage her to strengthen her efforts.

If you do not want to investigate whether Cathy was herself abused and looking for support (which her last email doesn't seem to convey) then you need to make sure every communication is official and documented. Lawyers, bounced emails, restraining orders, sounds right.

Make sure your friends, employers, etc know not to give out your personal info; remove your contact info from easy-to-access web directories, alum organizations, phone books, and basically try to remove your info from public access. Good luck.
posted by lychee at 10:34 PM on October 14, 2007


Doesn't appear to be the case... from the OPs In-laws email "to return to the support of her brothers and sisters", seems she's towing the family line of "get over it".

nth-ing what everyone else has said so far, don't give them the attention/contact that they're seeking, it'll only give them reason to keep trying, if they learn that they need to push that hard to get a "go away" response from her, then they'll just figure they need to push twice as hard again to get a "ok fine, lets talk" response.

The statement doesn't appear to be a threat, but she seems to be almost emotionally blackmailing the OP by saying that if he were to die, who would look after her.
posted by chrisbucks at 10:46 PM on October 14, 2007

I don't read it as a threat either. One major reason for having a family support network is for help dealing with things like the loss of a husband, wife, child, etc. I think she's trying to make an appeal to this common practice.
posted by chrisamiller at 11:40 PM on October 14, 2007

This isn't related to your current problem, but Cathy does raise an interesting point. If something should happen to both you and your wife, it's possible your in-laws could acquire power of attorney over her if she is hospitalized and unconscious. You should contact a lawyer to draft medical directives to utterly erase these people from your lives. Likewise for estate inheritance.
posted by dendrite at 12:36 AM on October 15, 2007 [3 favorites]

I vote for creepy but not malicious. I get messages like that every once in a while from an old friend who is now born-again.
posted by rhizome at 12:59 AM on October 15, 2007

Mailwasher will bounce back unwanted emails to the sender. It's a Windows app and it's free.

I, too, didn't read an overt thread in the email, but I understand how it's creeping you out.
posted by essexjan at 3:37 AM on October 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

I read the email line and reread it. I do think it is implying that at this point, the family is blaming Fred for not letting Mary "get over it" and return to the fold. It seems to say to me that as soon as Fred is gone, they know Mary is returning. If that is the correct interpretation, this is a threat to Fred.

I have a person stalking me from a previous job 8 years ago. He writes letters to anyone connected to me in anyway calling me all sorts of outrageous things. DO NOT RESPOND to Mary's family. It will only encourage them.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 3:45 AM on October 15, 2007

I see no implicit threat at all in that e-mail. and share the consensus here. Delete it.
posted by Wilder at 3:55 AM on October 15, 2007

I think its important not to read the emails either. OK it with the wife, and filter to move to trash. By reading the emails you are allowing this woman into your life, even if in a psychological, non-physical way.
posted by letahl at 5:42 AM on October 15, 2007

I agree with all of the foregoing, and am only leaving a comment to say this: re-read what dendrite wrote, and take it to heart.
posted by aramaic at 6:19 AM on October 15, 2007

At present, the nutty inlaws have no way of knowing that their messages are getting through. Don't give them one. Treat those mails exactly as if they are trying to sell you Viagra: autofilter to trash.
posted by flabdablet at 6:25 AM on October 15, 2007

And don't install a mail bouncer. That's a change in behaviour. Just let their mails continue to drop into a black hole.
posted by flabdablet at 6:27 AM on October 15, 2007

I wonder, based on that line, if Cathy and the rest of the family consider Fred to be some kind of wife-abusing control freak? If her cutting herself off more completely from the family corresponds to her marriage, they or at least Cathy might be justifying it as 'It's not us, it's him.'
posted by jacquilynne at 7:01 AM on October 15, 2007

You don't say where you are, but in Canada the standard for criminal harressment only really requires that you've asked them to stop and that you're can reasonably articulate why their behaviour makes you fear for yourself or your family.

That is to say, up here you're don't have to have recieved some specific threat, but only need to express a reasonable belief that you're being threatened. That's enough to get a peace bond (aka a restraining order in US terms) which then makes it a criminal offense for someone to continue to contact you.

Contact the police whereever it is you live and ask them about doing something similar. In Canada this type of thing is free (no lawyer required) but YMMV.

I am NOT a lawyer, but I think you might need one.
posted by tiamat at 7:10 AM on October 15, 2007

Just chiming in to say I empathize and to say that I applaud your wife for cutting her family loose. Too many people ignore their own needs for the sake of paying lip service to some notion of familial harmony. For your wife, this can only be a notion because the reality was something horrible and damaging. Now a meddling family member has taken it on herself to "heal" the family by emotionally blackmailing you and your wife to act against her own enlightened self-interest. Good for her for proceeding on with her life and your life together. And good on you, too, for supporting her decision.

As to the e-mail - that sounds like classic abusive family passive agression. Don't respond. Cathy has decided to play peacemaker and put herself in the middle. Maybe she, too, was abused, but if she's chosen to ally herself with her own and her sister's abusers, well, that's just really messed up. These people only have as much power as you give them. So what if they keep calling and e-mailing? It's a headache, but your wife has already proven herself much more powerful than to be cowed by this sort of bullying. And it is bullying, no matter how well-intended.

Also seconding dendrite regarding your legal options in case of an emergency. Good luck.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 11:19 AM on October 15, 2007

It sounds like Cathy thinks you're stonewalling her attempts to contact her sister. And the thing is, if your wife did contact Cathy and say "enough, stop trying to contact me." It could very well be interpreted as, "the evil controlling husband wont let me talk to my sister!" The email is a threat to continue to harass you until your wife caves in and, contacts her sister. Maybe I'm reading too much into it but, it sounds like nothing short of reconciliation is an option for these folks.

Perhaps, another way to approach the problem is, instead of trying to prevent all contact, accept the fact that once in a blue moon a family member is going to attempt to contact your wife. Shrug it off, laugh it off, whatever you need to do to de-stress after the latest message (I know how stressful it can be). But, if this is a bigger threat than what was posted here I'd speak to a lawyer.
posted by squeak at 11:42 AM on October 15, 2007

I believe there is a subtle threat in the email. Save a copy with full headers. If contacted again, I'd go to a lawyer for another Cease & Desist letter and/or a Restraining Order.
posted by theora55 at 2:25 PM on October 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

It couldn't hurt to check with authorities to see what your options are.

I'm creeped out, and I DO see a perceived threat.
posted by konolia at 6:12 PM on October 15, 2007

Just saw this definition of harassment and thought of this post...

“Harassment” means engaging in a purposeful, knowing or reckless course of conduct involving more than one incident that alarms, or causes distress to another person and serves no legitimate purpose. The course of conduct must be such as would cause a reasonable person to suffer distress and must actually cause distress.
posted by letahl at 5:39 AM on October 16, 2007

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