It’s no secret that my relationship with my sister-in-law is non-existent. It’s that way for survival purposes. Sometimes a person is so toxic to you that you just have to distance yourself from them to avoid going into a downward spiral of depression. For those that follow my blog, I’ve had a very bad relationship with my now sister-in-law for the past nine years. It was a vicious cycle of the two of us seeing each other at a holiday (because she chose for it to be a holiday-only relationship form the beginning), then her finding something I did, didn’t do, said or didn’t say so incredibly offensive that she had to give me the silent treatment until I reached out and apologized for whatever transgression she imagined. Sometimes it was a bad gift, sometimes it was asking if her kid was sick, sometimes it was just having the nerve to be pregnant. Regardless, I was always the one reaching out and it eventually go to the point where I had enough. Holiday gatherings were so incredibly stressful that I would get a migraine or get physically ill thinking about them. One day as Christmas approached, I found myself Googling divorce lawyers and filling out the request information form because leaving my husband seemed to be the only way to make the nightmare end. It was that bad.
Fortunately, I found a way to make things better and my husband was supportive. The stress in my life is much lower, particularly around the holidays and we’re still married, happier now than before. Apparently the situation was stressful for both of us. So how did I do it? Here are the 5 steps I took to deal with my “difficult” sister-in-law.
1.) Identify and articulate the problem to my husband.
My husband is the most non-confrontational man on the planet. He hates disappointing people (I’m not including myself in this grouping), especially his mom. He would see these interactions happening between crazy-train and I and he wouldn’t say or do anything, hoping the whole thing would just blow over and we could make it work until the next holiday. He loves his little brother and he didn’t want to terminate that relationship because his brother’s girlfriend (now wife) and I couldn’t get along.
I know that to him it just seemed like petty disagreements. I had to really think about all of our various interactions over the years to try to find the root of the problem. Once I did, my husband immediately recognized that I was right in my assessment. In case you’re wondering, my sister-in-law has to be the center of attention at all times. We got married shortly after her prom and then we announced our pregnancy 4 months after she got pregnant. Granted, she was a teenager and had only been seeing my brother-in-law for about 6 months at that point and we had been married for 6 months, but obviously I was stealing her thunder. I’ve been told this she shows the symptoms of having narcissistic personality disorder.
2.) Identify abusive behaviors and why they bother you.
I’m a big communicator (just look how long this blog post is!) and my sister-in-law’s methods focus on shutting down communication. She gives me the silent treatment, blocks me from calling, texting or messaging her on social media and demands that everyone keep any news of hers secret from me (like when she and my brother-in-law bought a house or had a 4th child, for example). Family members go along with the secret keeping because she threatens to withhold access to her children and she follows through on it. Basically, my mother-in-law is afraid of her.
Once I identified the abusive behavior and why it bothers me, I was able to express that to my husband in a way he understood. He knows me, so he knows how damaging shutting down communication can be for me.
3.) I refused to take responsibility for her abuse.
At first, I blamed myself. I think the abuse went on for so long because I would listen to my mother-in-law tell me that it was my fault because I didn’t treat her with kid gloves. She’s younger than me and she has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, so she was not taking her medication and was therefore not responsible for her actions. Be the bigger person because my mother-in-law’s mantra and I thought there was something wrong with me because no matter how big of a person I would be, she would still find something wrong with what I said, didn’t say, did or didn’t do and the abuse would continue. I felt like I was constantly apologizing and I would have anxiety about holiday gatherings because I knew that my mere presence would trigger her and then I would be blamed for her abusive behavior.
In hindsight, I shouldn’t have taken responsibility for the way she was treating me. I shouldn’t have ever thought it was my fault or a result of something I didn’t do well enough. I shouldn’t have let my mother-in-law tell me to suck it up so she could have the postcard-perfect family Christmases she was after. I’m not mad at my mother-in-law, I know she couldn’t have stood up for me without losing visitation of her grandchildren. I understand WHY she approached the situation the way she did, but I also understand that it was not the right way. I wound up internalizing the psychological abuse and I shouldn’t have.
4.) I removed myself from the situation.
Unfortunately, the only way to stop the abuse was to remove myself from the situation. I tried to get my mother-in-law to alternate holidays with us, but she wouldn’t. Although she won’t come right out and say it these days (she did in the past), she’s afraid of losing contact with her grandchildren. It’s a valid concern, but it also shows just how messed up my sister-in-law is. She uses her children as a weapon without concern for their own well-being because it’s effective.
So, I stopped going to my mother-in-law’s holiday parties. I stopped putting myself in a situation where the abuse would continue. It pisses off my mother-in-law because she doesn’t have the picture-perfect family holidays she wants, but it’s better for my mental health.
5.) Get support from a trusted person.
When you’re leaving an abusive situation it’s important to have support from at least one person. Things are going to get worse before they get better and it’s important to have someone in your corner that knows your story and only has your best interests in mind. In my case it was my husband and my best friend. When I doubted myself, they told me I was doing what had to be done to save my sanity. When I wanted to just go back and suck it up for the benefit of everyone else, they told me I deserved better. You won’t always be able to be strong, so you need someone that’s willing to be strong for you.
Looking back, I’m able to recognize the abuse for what it is, but at the time I questioned everything. When a woman is being beat by a man and emotionally abused by a man, everyone asks why she didn’t just leave him. This is the same situation, but my abuser is my sister-in-law and not a man I am romantically involved with. Instead of congratulating me from escaping the abuse, my mother-in-law and her husband are berating me to go back to her. My mother-in-law has told me that I’ve ruined her family. She has tried to guilt me into going back to the abuse. Her husband has told me I’m childish for knowing that the situation won’t improve and for walking away for my own mental health. I’ve been told by both of them that I’m hurting my children by not letting them have a relationship with their cousins (this relationship cannot be independent of my abuser). I have not seen my sister-in-law in over 2 years and there is still immense pressure from my mother-in-law and her new husband to just go back to the way things were when I would get physically ill thinking about seeing this person because she’s so psychologically and emotionally abusive.
Meanwhile, my abuser doesn’t mind seeing me again. She enjoys being abusive. So because she’s more than willing to go back to that demented cycle and I’m not, my mother-in-law and her husband have decided that I am the bad person. I hope that one day they’ll understand that I had to leave the situation for my own mental health. My mother-in-law left her husband because he was a narcissist, so I really hope she can look at the situation one day and see it for what it was. Maybe then she will be able to forgive me for ruining her dream of perfect family holidays.
So mother-in-law, if you’re reading this, know that I never meant to hurt you by quitting your holiday parties. I just had to stop hurting myself.