Learn to obey sister-in-law’s limits, boundaries

  • By Carolyn Hax
  • Tuesday, November 25, 2014 6:54pm
  • Life

Dear Carolyn:

My brother’s wife has created a lot of tension in our family right from the start. She is very opinionated and says exactly what is on her mind. She has openly told us only her family matters and nobody else. She has told us she does not want us to buy anything for their daughter, 5. She wants us to give her the money so she can buy all the gifts, and we can choose something from the gifts and then give it to our niece.

I asked her if she could tell me what our niece likes and we would go out and buy something of that sort. But she said no to that. She would rather we don’t buy anything at all.

My niece and I went to the mall the other day to shop for others, and I bought her a shirt that she picked out. My sister-in-law took the shirt off her and put it on a chair and said they wouldn’t take it home. I also bought her a stuffed animal. My sister-in-law told me she already has 20 shirts and she gets a lot of things from friends and she doesn’t need any more shirts or stuffed animals.

I don’t see my niece that much because we don’t live in the same country, so it was fun to spend time with her and treat her to something. My sister-in-law’s family always asks her before they buy anything for her daughter.

I would ask before I buy something bigger, but a shirt or a stuffed animal or a book? What gives? We all are at a loss for what to do.

— E.

It’s not complicated: Don’t buy gifts for your niece.

There are obviously problems with this scenario — your sister-in-law sounds controlling and difficult at best — but murkiness is not one of them. She is saying exactly what is on her mind! Agree with it, disagree with it, that’s your prerogative, but it’s not your place to hammer in interpretations where no room has been left for them.

Are the limits she’s setting excessive? Yes. But I’ll grant that for one reason only: because the excellent cause of limiting a 5-year-old to 20 shirts is sometimes trumped by the even better cause of kindness. Taking an aunt’s gift from a very little girl is meanness that swallows the cause.

That said, I’d like to shout this over the groaning of an earth laden with stuff stuff stuff stuff STUFF: If you can’t find an alternate way to bond with your niece than buying her stuff, then that’s on you. And I include the rest of your “we” in that.

Which brings me to the broader answer here. Tension does not emerge fully formed in the body of one opinionated woman. Tension forms when opinionated hits a wall of we-don’t-like-your-opinion-so-change-it-to-one-we-like.

Should you all cave to her every demand? Obviously not; I’m not saying the mule-iest mule always wins. You don’t even have to like her. But since she’s apparently setting terms just for her immediate family, the answer that’s both pragmatic and boundary-friendly is just respect those terms, simply and cleanly, for what they are. Certainly you can get creative about ways to show your affection for your niece without adding stuff to her life, like writing her poems or giving her family photos. If Sisterinlawzilla rejects those gifts, then we can talk.

Even if Zilla’s difficulties do run that deep, changing her isn’t an option. So, find ways to deal with her — and stay involved for your niece’s sake. Top suggestion: Choose not to take Zilla or her rules or her opinions personally. That means overriding the little animal reflex that equates “having different ways” to “rejecting my ways.” Play along when it makes sense to, as with gifts; give her wide berth when your values dictate; and push back only when health and safety insist.

And, why not: Look for the good in her, too. If nothing else, you have the (yes) luxury of knowing exactly where you and she stand.

Dear Carolyn:

I was very close to one of my three siblings until close to our mother’s death 10 years ago. He had power of attorney and, at one point, ignored my vote on an important health issue concerning my mom. I wrote him a letter that was quite harsh, and we haven’t spoken since.

I’m about to retire and am looking at life a little bit differently, so am considering trying to rebuild that relationship. What are your thoughts — is this a wise thing to do, and, if so, how would I best go about this?

— State of Confusion

You don’t need to agree with his handling of the health issue, just recognize now, with distance, that he acted in good faith.

If you believe that, then say that, and apologize for lashing out — for letting (presumably) the stress and grief overtake you.

Succeed or fail, it’s worth trying. Good luck.

Washington Post Writers Group

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