Living Columns & Blogs

Carolyn Hax: Consider past and future when dealing with sister-in-law

DEAR CAROLYN: My wife’s parents, in their mid-80s, returned to the U.S. three weeks ago after working and living in Europe, and are staying with us until their household goods arrive. My wife’s sister, who lives about 2 miles away, has yet to even invite her parents to her home (shared with her non-working husband and teenage son). She has also avoided getting involved in efforts aimed at getting the parents oriented medically (visits are averaging at least one every other day) or assisting in the inevitable housing decision.

No one except me seems to want to address the issue with her for fear of hurting her feelings. She is no busier than anyone else. I am the non-blood relative here, and while I am willing to support my wife and her parents, I wonder how to engage the sister.


DEAR ANONYMOUS: Engage your wife and figure out the cost-benefit analysis she and her parents did, because when someone lives 2 miles away, shares the home with an adult who apparently has time on his hands, volunteers zero help for three weeks, and still gets a pass from the people who know her best, you can be sure there’s a lot of history telling them to leave the sister alone.

Certainly that history can be, “Sister does nothing and gets away with it,” in which case you have standing to say to your wife that you’re not interested in doing extra work to support her sister’s leisure. Not that this would change anything necessarily.

But that history also could be one of suffering at the hands of these parents, where your wife was the favored child; or it could be that her spouse and/or son give her enough to deal with; or it could be that whenever Sister does X, she creates 2X worth of drama and hassle; or it could be that your wife likes to be in control.

So, take that knowledge of the family and formulatea plan, then run it by your wife. For example, “Your family dynamic is that, for whatever reason, you guys do the work and Sis does not. A lot of this stuff is falling on my lap, though, so I’d like to call her now and ask her to do X and Y. Any objection?”

Note the three elements to this: acknowledging the history, noting its direct effect on you, proposing a specific alternative.

Depending on how your wife responds, you’ll need a cost-benefit analysis of your own: Is this battle worth your energy, or does it make more sense to absorb this temporary extra work? Your in-laws need help and the sister might be due for comeuppance, but your marriage is your priority.Don’t let her family’s circus distract you.

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