DEAR CAROLYN: My brother-in-law, husband to my husband's sister, has been verbally abusing my husband for over a year now (actually, through email to him and rants to other relatives). His sister will not intervene, since her husband has proceeded with her knowledge and approval.
This mess is the result of a family business situation; neither is at fault.
The dilemma: We are often invited to family events these two will surely attend. Our non-attendance is noted. So, how to handle these situations? Parents-in-law say not going would be "politically" loathsome (allowing bro-in-law and sis to "win"); ignoring bro-in-law seems childish; small-talk seems abhorrent unless it's to call him out as the ass he is, which would be rude. I am in a quandary.
DEAR ANONYMOUS: There's a lot going on here, adding up to a classic bullying scene. Your brother-in-law is the bully, your sister-in-law is his validation mean people generally think they're justified your husband is the victim, their parents and other relatives are underoutraged bystanders, and you're watching it all, saying, "Isn't anyone going to do anything?"
Whoever thinks to ask it is the one stuck with acting on it. So talk to your husband about how you and he can handle this in a way less reminiscent of rolling helplessly onto your backs.
You can, for example, explain to his parents that this has nothing to do with politics, everything with decency. Skipping encounters with the brother and sister-in-law is your right, and if the rest of the family misses you, then they can take it up with the brother.
If they don't like that (or you don't, or your husband doesn't), then you can say you'll gladly take your place at family gatherings, but do so feeling no obligation to pretend all is peachy. Perhaps: "Whenever you're ready to have a civilized conversation, BIL, I'm here. Until then, please understand I have nothing to say to you."
In-your-face approaches? Yes. But not gratuitously, and not with the intention of returning the abuse. Instead, it's a quiet, calm stand to deny this denial, thereby removing the cover under which the bully operates.
To operate effectively, bullies need people to have some other objective than exposing them: avoiding the bully's wrath, say, or preserving the appearance of normalcy, or covering one's own culpability, or enjoying a shared enemy's takedown.
But when a bully's at work, few objectives have sufficient weight to justify shrugging and saying, "Well, I don't have all the details," or whatever else people shrug and say when witnessing an attack.
If your husband refuses to rock the boat, remind him that all he does or doesn't do is a statement; it might as well state what he wants to say.