Exceptions and Sisters-in-Law

Exceptions and Sisters-in-Law

In this month’s HerTake question, Nina answers a question from a woman trying to forge a friendship with a sister-in-law who seems to only have an interest in a civil relationship at best. We love that our community helps each other in the comments section. Don’t be afraid to add your two cents.

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Dear Nina,

What is the expectation level of friendship within family? And how do we deal with disappointment when it’s clear that no friendship is likely to emerge from a family relationship?

My brother-in-law got remarried about a year ago, and I was really hoping that I would be friends with his new wife. I made a lot of effort at the outset, calling and texting and giving presents, but my overtures were met with a cold politeness (at best), and, at worst, hostility. If it were just a potential friend or acquaintance, I would move on and stop trying, but since it’s family, and we live in the same town, I don’t feel that I can just brush her off (even though she is brushing me off).

What’s worse is that I see her being friendly to other people, I hear about how nice she is from others, and it’s really hard for me to not be hurt by the feeling that she is choosing to connect with other people but not me. She never calls, never texts, it’s all very one-sided and very unsatisfying. Also, we seem to look at the world very differently, so even on the rare occasion when we talk, it’s very strained and awkward.

How do I balance the difficulty of “doing the right thing,” which is to keep being friendly and not burn this bridge, but managing my feelings of aggravation and disappointment.

Thanks,

Wanting a Friendly Family

 

Dear Wanting a Friendly Family,

Your question will touch on a sore spot for many readers since we can replace sister-in-law with mother-in-law, daughter-in-law, and any other familial relationship. How many of us hold onto expectations for our family members and inevitably feel frustrated and disappointed with the wide disparity between our expectations and reality? Too many of us, I’m sure.

My gut reaction is that recalibrating your expectations to something more reasonable is the first step here. “Wanting a friendly family” is a workable and commendable goal. Wanting to be friends with your family, even with the new members married into the crew, is probably reaching too high. I wonder if it would help you to expect less from your sister-in-law if friendly rather than “friends” is the goal.

Your question made me think about my three sisters-in-law. I feel a close and special friendship with all three of them, but those relationships developed over many years and there were some lows for us, too. It took maturity, empathy, and changes in behavior for all parties involved to rise above the fray. And the four of us live in four different cities!

Back to your sister-in-law. There may be all sorts of reasons she is not responding to your attempts at forging a friendship. She may not like your husband. She may have grown up in a family where one does not have good relationships with in-laws or with siblings. She may not “get” how a close family works. She may feel overwhelmed by the new family or by marriage.

I admit that it would feel less like rejection if you were hearing bad things about her. It’s human nature to feel better about ourselves if we have confirmation that the lack of chemistry is truly about the other person. But I want you let yourself off the hook even though you’re hearing she’s sweet towards others. You’ve done what you can so there’s no reason to worry if there’s something about you she doesn’t like. You’re not going to change for her so there’s no reason to over-analyze. Remember: your new goal is friendly not friends.

As a special bonus answer, I reached out to a wise friend of mine who has had a tumultuous relationship with her sister-in-law for many years. She read your question and here’s what she wrote back to me.

“Oy, Nina, you would think I wrote this myself, right? I believe actions are more important than reactions. So if it’s in the letter writer’s character to always show up pleasant and happy, then that is how she should show up. After many years of trying to create a better relationship with my sister-in-law who clearly had no interest in the same kind of connection, I woke up and said, ‘I have a village. I have people who are my friends. I have people who are my family. Sometimes it’s both. My energy is better spent investing in the relationships where it’s reciprocal and stop forcing it where it’s not.’ I decided that as long as the dynamic with my sister-in-law is polite enough for my husband’s family to eat dinner together, then I’m being a good partner in this. 

 The one holding the cards, in this scenario the sister-in-law, isn’t the only one who dictates the boundaries. When I made the commitment to just show up with a smile on my face but gave up hopes of anything whatsoever from my sister-in-law, that is when my sister-in-law started being nicer to me. She appeared at more family events like my kids’ recitals or birthday parties. She made more conversation with me at family get togethers. The commitment I made to myself was this: I am not going to play the victim. I’m responsible for what I bring and don’t bring to this relationship. My feelings were definitely hurt at times. That’s just life. Ya, know? You get through it. You stop being petty. You move on. It’s literally flipping the switch from reaction to action, which is a good lesson to learn in all relationships.”

Isn’t my friend smart?

Bottom line: You don’t have to be friends with your family. It’s noble you tried, but at this point it seems it’s best to be friendly and keep the door open as you never know what the future may bring. I’ve seen family crisis bring family members closer, and while I hope it doesn’t take something like that for you, it’s good to have the idea in mind that relationships can change in time. You keep being YOU, but keep your expectations of others reasonable.

Good luck and report back if you can.

Nina (and Nina’s good friend!)

 

 

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18 comments

  1. As always, Nina, this is spot-on advice (from you and from the wise support system you consult).

    I have a great relationship with all my in-laws and have counted myself very lucky in this – as chemistry and compatibility is no guarantee.

    This doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of frustration – my own family members can be frustrating after all – but I always try to look at the intentions underlying anyone’s behavior/choices.

    I may not agree, but I can respect that their goal was a good one. (This is where I loop back to being lucky my in-laws are good people.)

    All we can do is show up politely every time. My only advice to add (and I suppose it should go without saying as a general rule for kind behavior under any circumstance) is that she not discuss her frustration with regards to her sister-in-law with a lot of other people. (I’m guessing she doesn’t since she sought anonymous advice!) This kind of negativity would not only keep her down in terms of her own feelings, but could get back to the sister-in-law.

    You can’t go wrong by treating others kindly, in word and deed.

  2. Caryn says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your advice Nina! The idea of “friendly over friends” is the perfect — and attainable — goal. And as you allude to with your SILs, friendships (no matter the context) grow over time so perhaps things will develop as the years go on. I can apply this advice to a non-family situation in my life, so thank you and good luck to the letter writer!

  3. So um…you might remember this post:

    I wrote about letting go of toxic people at your place several years ago. 🙂 http://ninabadzin.com/2012/03/14/letting-go-of-toxic-people/

    I’m so glad that I let go of my sister-in-law. (Now my ex-sister-in-law.) I have to say, it is going to be a challenge for this woman to remain close to her brother-in-law if she cannot let go of her own need to be liked (because, really, that’s all this is). WANTING A FAMILY FRIEND wants everyone to like her and be her friend and all of us have to accept that there are certain people who will just not like us no matter how nice we are. Best to let them go and focus on those who come toward us willingly.

  4. Dakota Nyght says:

    I married an only child, so can’t speak directly to the SIL situation, but I wanted to maybe add something from a different perspective. I would like to think that I’m a nice person, but I AM an ambivert and have gotten pretty busy with kids and family and running a small creative business. I have met quite a few people that I liked, and they have reached out to me – but I’m just not in the right place to be good friends with them. Sometimes it’s scheduling differences, sometimes it’s just personality differences (I have kids, they don’t, and it makes it hard to relate from a lifestyle perspective). I also tend to be nice to a wide range of people but only have two or three friends that I’m very, very close with.

    All this to say – I think your advice about resetting her expectations lower is spot on. The SIL may not realize she’s being standoffish, or perhaps the initial overtures were a little more than she was expecting. (I would be confused by presents and not know how to respond appropriately or what the expectations were.) Giving her some space might give her time to come around.
    Dakota Nyght recently posted…Crafting with Kids – Tips to Hook them for LifeMy Profile

  5. I think I’ve been lucky in the in-law department, as my sisters-in-law are 1) phenomenal and 2) much older than me. Fortunately, we all hit off. And, of course, living on opposite sides of the country probably makes for fewer quibbles. Great advice as always, Nina. Amazing what a change in semantics can do for outlook (Friend/friendly).
    Melissa Crytzer fry recently posted…Night BloomMy Profile

  6. There are so many different factors that can affect the SIL relationship. Maybe a SIL has sisters of her own and feels disloyal if she forges too close a relationship with her husband’s sister. Maybe the SIL is focused on navigating the often rough waters of connecting with the mother-in-law. Whatever the reasons, I think your advice is spot on as always. Don’t force the relationship and remember that whatever it might turn out to be, the relationship can take a long time to evolve into what it will ultimately be.
    Mo at Mocadeaux recently posted…The Camino of St. JamesMy Profile

  7. Tamara says:

    Clear-headed advice! I would not be as mature or friendly as anyone in this post! You or the one wanting advice. Whatever the reasons, the expectations should be lowered. Friendly.. that’s a good goal. Perhaps it will develop into more.

  8. Sarah says:

    Completely agree, Nina. And this: “we can replace sister-in-law with mother-in-law, daughter-in-law, and any other familial relationship.” I was going to say… It’s true. Two things with this particular situation are the woman lives in the same town (ugh) and she’s a seemingly nice person to everyone else. Sometimes we have to let these things go. You’re right that we do not need to be friends with our family. (And, honestly, most of us aren’t.)
    Sarah recently posted…Deflecting Compliments (Like a Ninja)My Profile

  9. Thoughtful advice as always, Nina. I really love the idea of changing the goal from friends to friendly. I think that’s an excellent tip for non-family relationships too. It’d be a great way of looking at colleagues, for example, or people who are in your life without necessarily being your friend. Friendly, not friends. I just love that.
    Annie Neugebauer recently posted…Traditional Horror Poetry? Work the Form!My Profile

  10. Kristen says:

    If the internet weren’t so searchable, I’d leave a more personalized comment that describes my own experience (I have three SILs, and each of them with their own…stuff), but suffice it to say that lowering expectations with two of them and basically just trying to remain amicable with the third when we are together has been precisely what I’ve done. It’s mostly worked, though I do sometimes still wish it could be different; I now think that comes largely from a place of having always wanted a sister, which, I now see, isn’t what they are. Great advice, Nina.

  11. Dana says:

    Great advice from you and your wise friend, Nina – particularly the suggestion to focus on her actions instead of reactions. That’s a good rule to follow for all relationships.

  12. Gail Freedman says:

    Good, mature advice on family dynamics. It’s taken me years to learn these things. I’m not close to any of my 3 SIL, but the one I like best of course lives a 4 hour plane ride away.

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