UPDATE (2019): FIND NINA AND HER COLUMN AT HER NEW FRIENDSHIP ADVICE SITE
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.
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.
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!)
We’re always looking for new reader questions for Nina! If you have a difficult friendship situation that you’d like advice on, fill out our anonymous contact form.