Help with Harsh Sister-In-Law Part 1

Dear Annie,


My sister-in-law is a wonderful women. She is a protective and caring mother and the first to volunteer when someone needs help. Also my relationship with her is great. However she can be very hard on her husband, which in turn effects my wife and mother-in-law who lives with us (I am married to the husband's sister). My brother-in-law (BIL) provides her a very good life style, he is a successful doctor and she has never had to work outside the home and has wanted for nothing. Yet she appears to have no joy in her life.

The problem comes in that she makes BIL's life miserable if he ever wants to do anything with the guys (golf, cards). Recently, we invited them over only to be told that she didn't want to come. BIL did come with 2 of the 3 children, stayed a while and left. He could not explain her behavior primarily because he does not understand it himself. After he left my mother-in-law was in tears because she sees her son is not happy.  My wife has concerns about the well being of her brother and nieces. Should I get involved? Signed - Brother-In-Law-In-Law

Dear Brother-In-Law-In-Law,

Oh so much I want to say. So let's break it down.
Here's Part 1 of my answer: What is going on with your sister-in-law (SIL)?

Why all the harshness?

Preemptive note: By attempting to understand where harshness comes from, I am not saying it's ok. Being respectful toward others is each person's responsibility. That said, looking behind the scenes can give you a better picture for helping.

People are harsh for many different reasons that range from unintentional (think cultural style) or the occasional bad day, to downright vengeful and cruel (think pleasure centers of the brain light up when inflicting pain). Habit, poor skills, unhappiness, and old baggage fall somewhere in the middle. In this range, while it can seem like the harsh person has the power, it is often out of a feeling of powerlessness that a person uses this strategy. Excessive complaining, criticism and angry outbursts are often the grown-up version of 'crying'.


Since SIL is not this way with everyone then it's safe to say she's unhappy with BIL. When you say she 'wants for nothing', perhaps you mean: wants for nothing material. Clearly she wants for something.

I wonder if she is like many women who marry thinking that being a wife and mother will be fulfilling. Turns out that being a mom all day is a lot of giving and not a lot of getting. The daily rewards tend to be smaller than the expenditure of time, teaching, nurturing, and disciplining. Not to mention the feeding, chauffeuring and house-keeping.

But that's ok because we love our kids and if we are lucky, we have this great partner coming home to fulfill our needs. Oops. That's what he's thinking of you. In SIL's case, her husband may not even have much time at home given his profession. And they both may be giving much of their good attention to their day jobs.

Dominant thinking about happiness is that you are responsible for your own. And to a large extent that's true. Self-fulfillment is each individual's job. But what if what makes you happy is feeling like you are part of a team? Feeling special and valued? You need others. And stay-at-home moms have few options. You can't (and shouldn't) expect it from your kids. Your partner, if you have one, seems a likely source. But if he gets his self-worth from a variety of sources it can feel very imbalanced - and very unpowerful. Whaah.

Of course, HOW she is trying to get support from her husband, and appreciating that he is not MORE responsible for her needs that SHE is, is very important. People can fall into the trap of insisting that the world change instead of changing themselves. She can't pin her harshness on BIL though she may be disappointed with him.

It is unreasonable and even impossible for BIL to meet all of his wife's needs. But on the other hand it IS reasonable to expect him to meet some of the important, intangible ones. That's what being a couple is about, meeting each others' needs. How much does he try? How often does he make her his priority? Time as a family, let alone a couple is a scarce commodity. So when he wants to go out - whether for cards, golf or to visit extended family - it requires SIL to be in the support role again. Whaah.

BUT if he is a supportive husband, emotionally as well as tangibly, and she has unreasonable expectations, then he needs to stand up for himself. And they will likely both need new skills. It's no accident that aggressiveness is found where passiveness exists. They play off each other. In an attempt to placate a confrontational person, we sometimes help create a bully. In an attempt to be heard by a passive person, we sometimes cry REALLY LOUD!

To complicate matters there is extended family! It sounds like your wife and mom-in-law aren't very close with SIL, which makes sense if they feel she is harsh with someone they love. Plus if she is a 'prickly' kind of person, it may make it hard to bond. And your wife and mom-in-law may be feeling hurt as well - feeling like SIL doesn't care about their family. The trouble is, where does it go from there?

So to get involved or not to get involved? That is the question though I encourage you to contemplate this part of the answer for a while before you read on. When ready: Click here for Help with Harsh Sister-in-law Part 2.

Take care,