I have tried over the years to have a good relationship with my sister-in-law. She is a nice person in general, and I like her. I have two sisters of my own, but I find that my sister-in-law is much warmer than my own sisters, and I’ve responded to her warmth. She loves to hug, tells me she loves me, and is always complimenting me. I get none of this from my own sisters (not because they are bad people — it’s just not the way that we were raised), so you can imagine that I appreciate these gestures.
Here’s the problem. My in-laws, her parents, are wonderful people. But they definitely have some character traits that both my sister-in-law and I can find hard to handle at times. For instance, my mother-in-law is demanding. When she comes to either of us for a Shabbos, she’ll give us a list of things she wants, where she wants to sleep, etc. So we can’t help feeling nervous before the in-laws come and wiped out by the time they leave. Mind you, when we go to my mother-in-law’s home, she bends over backwards to make us as comfortable as possible and is ready to do everything we might possibly want.
Recently, my in-laws went to my sister-in-law for the weekend. By the time they left, my sister-in-law was exhausted. She was busy trying to please them all weekend. They were grateful, but it was a lot. I let her vent to me for as long as she wanted, empathizing with the pressure of it all. At one point, I threw in a recent story of my own about feeling overwhelmed by having them. The next thing I know, my sister-in-law starts telling me how I don’t appreciate her parents, how I should never judge them, how wonderful they are, and on and on.
I get so blown away every time this happens. We’ve been sisters-in-law for close to 20 years, and yet I keep falling into this trap again and again. We talk often and are honest about our feelings and our lives. At those times I feel safe with her, and maybe I let down my guard too much as I commiserate, and suddenly she talks to me like I’m a complete horror, an ungrateful daughter-in-law and a bad person.
This or similar things have happened a number of times already. In between, everything is great. But after it happens, I feel wounded. Lately, I feel like I never want to speak to my sister-in-law again! That would be a major loss for both of us, but my life has been difficult in a lot of ways and I feel like I can’t allow any more negative energy into my life. Frankly, I’m feeling that way regarding anyone who adds any extra negativity to my life. I don’t think I have the energy to deal with even a drop more stress.
Since that recent conversation, I haven’t spoken to her. I just don’t have the energy to rehash it and defend myself. I like my sister-in-law so much, but I don’t have room in my life for feeling like I’m on trial. In my worst moods, I say to myself that it would be just as well if we never spoke again. I know that’s a knee-jerk reaction, but it just all feels like too much for me!
If I resume speaking to her, I know I’ll get lulled back into a sense of safety, and before you know it, she’ll start complaining to me about her parents, and we’ll be off.
Am I overreacting? Should I allow her to tell me I’m insensitive when I’m agreeing with some of the things she says? Could it be I’m the one with the problem? Sometimes I think that I’ve lost touch and I’m not sure about my feelings or reactions anymore!
Dear On Overload,
I hear what you’re saying regarding your relationship with your sister-in-law and how it sometimes goes off the rails, which I’ll get to a bit later on. But what I’m really hearing, loud and clear, is a general feeling of being on emotional overload. It sounds like there is a lot going on in your life right now. You’re not alone. Many people are feeling the stress of COVID, the possible financial ramifications, children Zooming from home, some insecurity and paranoia thrown in for good measure, and the realization that we know so little about what’s going on and what will be. This is the perfect recipe for shortness of temper, lack of tolerance, and wanting all the bad feelings and experiences to just go away.
Possibly your sister-in-law is also not quite herself — quicker to become defensive, experience anger, and ultimately lash out. Many people feel as though they are hanging on by a thread these days. It’s understandable. Therefore, now more than ever (though it’s never a bad idea), we all have to treat one another with an added dose of tenderness and kindness. No one ever truly knows what other people are going through and how they are experiencing life. It has now become abundantly clear that we are living in an unsafe world, the rules are constantly changing, and some of the most confident among us are feeling a bit insecure.
Now back to your sister-in-law. It sounds like she’s an amazing person who brings a great deal of love and appreciation into your life. To abandon her now would be a bad move on your part. It sounds as though you need to tweak the way in which the two of you communicate. You mentioned only one area of conversation that has the capacity to bring the two of you to verbal blows, and that is her dual commentary on her parents. She clearly loves them, appreciates them in many ways, and cannot tolerate the idea of anyone saying one bad word about them. She is absolutely protective of them, which is quite beautiful. As wonderful as they are, they are not perfect, and at times she needs the opportunity to vent about the stress they sometimes bring into her life. You are the lucky recipient of her venting.
You have a choice. Have an internal dialogue with yourself and decide whether you’re capable of being a silent listener going forward, allowing your sister-in-law to vent, without giving any commentary in response. That’s often easier said than done. Or, you can apologize to her for anything negative you recently said about her parents and reassure her that you consider them wonderful people but that going forward it’s best if the two of you don’t discuss them, since it can lead you both down a slippery slope. I’m sure the two of you have plenty to talk about, even if this topic becomes taboo.
In closing, let’s talk a little bit more about you. It’s always a good idea to find ways to self-soothe. Get back to basics so that you can once again be in touch with how you are feeling and why. Yes, our opportunities for distracting and comforting ourselves have dwindled significantly. But there are still all sorts of avenues to pursue to feel better. Whether these opportunities are emotion-based or physical, it’s time to start taking care of yourself in ways that you may have forgotten about or never even tried. Journaling, yoga, helping others who are in much worse straits than you are … I could go on and on. The main thing is to recognize that, to some degree, it sounds like you’ve lost your way and, as you so correctly say, are on “overload” and need to find your way back to a calmer place. That seems to be the more significant challenge for you at the moment. Manage that, and the rest will follow.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther is presently offering phone, Zoom, and FaceTime sessions. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.