My sister-in-law has treated her family terribly. I avoid her but still feel bad about it | Family

My sister-in-law of nearly 15 years isn’t someone I’d seek as a friend but she’s mostly enjoyable to be around. However, a couple of years ago she started making harsh claims about her parents – my in-laws, whom I adore. I didn’t agree with what she was saying but chalked it up to some sort of personal crisis and tried to be supportive, but without agreeing with her. However, not long after that she made a harsh claim against my young child and was unkind to my husband (her brother) in the process. She also decided she needed time out and told my husband she would reach out when ready.

I was so angry and hurt about the claim against my son, coupled with how terribly my in-laws seemed to be treated, that it caused major strain in our marriage; my husband (a reserved man) was trying to be understanding while watching his family feeling hurt (they had previously been solid). She contacted us again 10 months later, which felt like a ridiculously long time, and when our nuclear families got together it felt strange – we had to act as if nothing had happened.

With most people, I would address my hurt and confusion directly, but my sister-in-law is like an emotional ticking time bomb, and I fear causing more issues and subsequent claims of wrongdoing against her. But to protect my children and because I no longer like or respect her, I do my best to avoid her. This makes holidays difficult, as we can no longer gather as one big family. I feel bad about this and don’t know what to do.

In your longer letter you said you spoke to a few people who felt you were right to avoid her but it’s interesting that you still don’t feel it’s the right choice. While I really feel for you, and your anger and frustration are understandable, I was left concerned about your sister-in-law. You didn’t say what the claims she made against your in-laws or son were, and of course they may be unforgivable. But without knowing the details, I was left wondering what her take on all this was. Where is she in her life? Does she have a partner? Children? These things aren’t essential and they’re actively not desirable to some, but there you all are coupled up with children, which is wonderful, but could leave her feeling pushed out or as if she doesn’t know where she belongs any more. I wondered, even, if this was a feeling she might have had when your husband was born (is she the eldest?) and is now reliving? The uncertainty in your letter makes me think you may also be wondering if there’s a bit more room for curiosity than recrimination.

I went to AFT-registered family therapist Sarah Helps, who said: “What are your husband’s thoughts and feelings about the situation? His relationship with his sister seemed pretty absent.” Helps wondered how your in-laws do emotional talk. “Is avoidance part of their family script? Why is no one asking your sister-in-law if she’s all right and what’s happening, in a very ordinary way?”

I also want to know more about the “major strain” this put on your marriage, and why.

When family or friends fall out, it’s easy to do a whole heap of imagining about what’s going on, but unless we ask, we don’t know. Helps also wondered if your sister-in-law “had been sitting on strong feelings, perhaps for a while, and then got to a point where she couldn’t contain them any longer. Do you think she meant to cause harm or was her intention different and it just landed badly?”

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Helps wanted you to think about how avoiding this situation is going for you. “Is it making you feel better or worse? If worse and preoccupied [which it sounds like], it’s probably not the right strategy.”

It’s certainly not up to you to fix this, or her, but it feels as if you want to do something and it also sounds like you may have more skills than the rest of the family, certainly more perception (perhaps also compassion?). You don’t need to do anything drastic: perhaps send an ordinary text asking how she is or try to find common ground (“Have you seen this film? Thought you’d like it”), or include her in something you’re planning. The rest is up to her. With difficult family members it’s easy to think in terms of absolutes but maybe just “getting along” is the best you can hope for. For now.

Every week, Annalisa Barbieri addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa, please send your problem to Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

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