I have been married for 10 years and we have one daughter. My husband and I are different nationalities. In the past, I have felt uncomfortable visiting my in-laws because I feel that my sister-in-law doesn’t like me.
We moved abroad a few years ago and came back to visit at Christmas, staying with my in-laws. My husband was looking forward to seeing his family, and our daughter was looking forward to seeing her cousin. While there, my sister-in-law said she had tickets for a trip later in the week for my husband and her son and husband for a boys’ day out. She was going to take me, her other child and my daughter on a separate outing.
On the day, we got a text to say that, because of some confusion with the tickets, everyone was now going except me and my daughter. I had already turned down an invitation to do something with friends. My husband saw I was upset so he didn’t go, and spent the afternoon with us.
The next day, my sister-in-law said I’d messed things up and she was angry and upset with me. I told her I had no problem with the original plan, but when it changed to exclude us, I was upset. She said I had messed up a long-organised plan to get her husband and mine together and that I was demanding. She said the brothers rarely see each other and I am always saying my country is best (I don’t). She said I am never satisfied with anything.
The hardest part was that she said she would prefer my husband to visit them alone, that she doesn’t love me, that I am not family and never will be. I was very upset. My husband heard everything. I stayed for a few more days and then we all flew home.
I don’t understand how she can say a lot of negative things to me, then act as if nothing had happened when we were together two days later. Or why she never apologised for her harsh words. What should I do next if we get together as a family?
I worked on your letter a bit as English isn’t your first language, so I hope I have interpreted it all correctly. Cultural differences can cause confusion, but I like to think basic good manners cross most borders. As things stand, what your sister-in-law did was thoughtless and what she said was rude.
Almost every week, I wonder about the other side of the story, but especially this time. Not because I don’t think you are entirely justified, but I wonder how much of this is perhaps both of you thinking you don’t like each other and acting accordingly. You may not have shouted at her, but you did say (in your longer letter) that you removed yourself from another family occasion.
The crucial piece of the jigsaw however, for me, was what your husband did on hearing the heated exchange.
Psychotherapist Phyllis Coulter (bacp.co.uk) explained that, in a situation where there is “a lot of anxiety, we don’t think straight” and that family situations can make us anxious. “One of the important things to remember,” says Coulter, “is that you are not with this person all the time. Plus, it was Christmas, when feelings are heightened and people have expectations that are sometimes not met.”
I would also say that this situation carried even more expectations as you had travelled a long way and your husband doesn’t see much of his family. It is not unreasonable for your sister-in-law to want your husband to spend the maximum time with his family, given that they don’t see each other often. But perhaps if you had felt more welcomed, it would have given you the confidence to be more flexible. And, frankly, little excuses her outburst.
Coulter thought it was essential that you and your husband play as a team. “You need to be sure that he supports you, that you’re important to him and that you come first.”
I don’t know if you will visit his family again, given what your sister-in-law has said, but I think it would be a shame for the bigger family picture if you take yourself out of the frame. You will just reinforce their idea of you. But, I wouldn’t stay at her house again – stay in a hotel next time.
I use two coping mechanisms if I’m not sure if someone is being bitchy or mean. One, I imagine the same words in a speech bubble coming out of the mouth of someone whom I know likes me, and see how that “sounds”. This helps me to see if I’m reacting to the words themselves or to the person who is saying them. Two, if I feel brave, I say: “Did you mean that to sound so bitchy/horrible?” That either makes them face up to what they have just said, or makes them explain it and lessens any misinterpretation on my part.
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 31 January 2015.