Sister-in-Law Trying to Control the Family

Reader’s Question

My sister-in-law has recently sent my husband numerous emails with the following:

  1. Accusing us of not wanting her and her husband in our daughter’s life and that we give “framed pictures of our daughter to everyone and their dog but not them”. (We only see them at family functions and always give them pictures. We had actually just left them pictures at their parents’ because we thought they’d like them. Life becomes really busy learning to be new parents and that is our priority right now. I can’t help if she has a feeling of maybe neglect.)
  2. Telling us that we feel they will hurt our daughter. (We just feel that their dogs should not be around our daughter until she is old enough. They say that if we don’t accept their dogs, we don’t accept them.)
  3. They are mad because we don’t want our baby around their 2 Dobermans. (No one knows how these dogs will react to her, even if they have been around young children before. We’re just protecting our daughter.)
  4. Accusing us of not replacing gas used at the cottage. (We’ve used the boat one time this year and maybe went 1 km. My guess is that she is being territorial regarding their family cottage and in a roundabout way trying to tell me that I have no rights on their family cottage. Note: I work very hard helping to maintain the cottage and keep it looking nice.)
  5. Accusing us of not helping out with my mother-in-law during her illness. (We may not communicate this with her but we are at my MIL’s every week and always offer our assistance. Just because she does not know this, why do we need to tell her?)
  6. Stating that I have no rights in the family because it is their family. (I love my MIL and feel that I should know if her illness is serious. I have suggested that my husband and her talk with their parents about their mom’s illness and determine if future plans need to be made. I know this is a tough discussion but they need to have it.)
  7. Accusing us of ignoring her emails. (We had no computer for 2 months. She complains about no communication but she never once picked up the phone to call when her emails were not answered. Instead she accused my husband of ignoring the situation and that we don’t know how badly we have hurt them.)
  8. Accusing us of not calling to find out about their mom. (If my husband’s mom is telling us she feels great then why would we think otherwise? My SIL goes with my MIL to her Dr’s appointments and apparently knows more then we do, but when she has called has never said that the illness was really bad.)
  9. Telling us we should not visit my family when her mom is sick. (She says that we should have called her to tell her that my MIL was OK with us going on vacation while she had 14 days in between treatments. Why do we need to tell her what arrangements we made with my MIL?)
  10. Telling us we have never offered to take mom to a Dr’s appointment. (We’re not sure why she feels she needs to control everything.)

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And the list could actually go on longer.

Her emails are full of rage, ranting, demands and untrue accusations. We were thrown for a loop when we even got the emails.

My question is: How do I handle a SIL that is trying to control every aspect of “their family’s” life?

Psychologist’s Reply

Fasten your seatbelts…you’re in for a wild ride here! There is a question that is extremely important in understanding the behavior of the SIL: Is this behavior something that has surfaced only recently or has she always been this way? If these behaviors have appeared within the last 18 months, the SIL may be reacting to the stress of her mother’s illness and the obligation and responsibility she feels as a daughter. When a parent is ill in a family system, there is typically a primary caregiver or monitor — this may be the SIL. The caretaker position is often very stressful and the caretaker quickly becomes resentful and bitter due to the limited involvement of other family members. As the months pass, the caregiver becomes emotionally exhausted, depressed and very hostile toward other family members who they perceive are not doing their share. Their hostility and anger eventually explodes into the types of accusations you report — including a tremendous amount of anger and hostility over very small, insignificant events or situations. When we bottle-up and repress anger, we often look for any situation that can be used to vent our rage. Not replacing gas in a boat is a perfect example. If her behavior is considered uncharacteristic of her normal personality, stress and depression are likely responsible.

If the sister-in-law has always behaved in this manner, then you’ve got even more troubles. Individuals who have this type of personality — who frequently try to control and verbally abuse others, who justify nasty attacks on family members, and who try to isolate and alienate family members — are typically “personality disorders” (see my introduction to personality disorders on this website). An individual with a Personality Disorder (PD) operates on a totally selfish agenda and feels justified to verbally abuse, emotionally upset, and control those around them. They have a tremendous sense of entitlement and feel entitled to decide who is in the family based on their selfish beliefs. Importantly, they accept no personal responsibility for their behavior and look at every situation as an opportunity to obtain or use the situation for their purpose or benefit. The boat gas is again, another example.

If you suspect a Personality Disorder and reading about Personality Disorders confirms your suspicion, you’ll need to be very cautious. Personality Disorders are highly manipulative, plotting, and full of hidden agendas. If you and your family are the target of multiple attacks by the SIL, it’s very likely that she has an alternative agenda. Her attack may have nothing to do with her dogs (an appropriate caution on your part by the way), boat gas, Mom’s appointments, or framed pictures. If your mother-in-law is ill, she may be increasing her chances of an inheritance by moving your family out of the picture, using her offensiveness to keep you out of the family business and activities. If this is suspected, your family will need to develop a strategy to deal with her behavior. If she has a personality disorder, you can be assured that the topic-of-the-week is irrelevant. The real purpose is the opportunity to blast you with accusations, guilt, hostility, rejection, etc.

Additional information on Personality Disorders and their presence in a family system is available by selecting the tag for “personality disorders” in the sidebar of this page. I have frequently addressed dealing with personality disorders in a family. Don’t get thrown for a loop — just fasten your seatbelts. Don’t get defensive, make your email replies very short and polite, and don’t overreact. Remember, those emails and accusations are for her agenda and purpose. She doesn’t care about boat gas, only that she can use that incident as a reason to verbally blast you for fifteen minutes. If you overreact, she will then use your reaction or email as evidence that you are having a problem with the family.

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