Boundaries, the Manipulative Sister-in-Law, and the Spoiled Child Nephew

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Reader’s Question

Please help. How do you deal with a manipulative sister-in-law who has unrealistic expectations of sisters who have no natural children but do have children by marriage? Here is the situation. My brother and his wife have one child who has been spoiled beyond belief. He is now 28 years old, still lives at home, and he and his girlfriend have one child. Every holiday is spent at my house. There is never an offer to have Christmas at my brother’s house (my sister lives out of town). My nephew doesn’t eat the traditional dinners we serve, so we have to fix special food of his liking just for him or my sister-in-law will be totally upset. When we received a wish list for Christmas from my nephew this year, it was three gifts that totaled over $300. In addition, we received a list from the girlfriend as well.

They opened their gifts and never once did my sister or I even get a thank you. They have never recognized our husbands’ children as being part of the family — all of our stepchildren live out of town and don’t spend Christmas with us. If we don’t do exactly what my sister-in-law expects, she will ensure we have no relationship with our brother — any time we question anything my brother jumps down our throats and there have been months where he won’t speak with us.

Every year the expectations get bigger. It is not that we can’t afford what they request — it is that the joy of giving has been taken away from the expectations which have been set. We also don’t feel it is fair for them to ignore our husbands’ children. We now want to end all of these expectations but don’t know how without causing a complete divide in the family. Christmas is so stressful, but really the entire year is stressful. We walk on eggshells in our dealings with my sister-in-law because if we make one misstep there are always repercussions.

As an aside, my sister-in-law ensured my brother’s child by a previous marriage was totally disowned and no one in the family has heard from her in years. My sister-in-law is the problem — but my brother doesn’t have guts enough to stand up to her (or maybe he really feels we are in the wrong).

What should we do?

Psychologist’s Reply

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To the extent that any change in the status quo will evoke a reaction from them, and also to the extent that the status quo is untenable, it seems like a divide in the family is inevitable. It seems like there is already a divide within you. You hesitate — understandably — to move that divide from within yourself to your relationship with them. Hopefully, any divide that occurs will be short-lived, and relationships can be restore with time. There can be no denying, however, that you take a risk when you choose to be assertive. From what you’ve said, it seems like it will be easier for you to imagine a worst case scenario than the best case scenario. That is, it is easier for you to imagine their reacting negatively to your assertiveness than to imagine their reacting positively. I do encourage you to imagine the best and worst case scenarios before you take an assertive stance. Once you’ve done that, then you can decide if the venture is worth the risk.

The quote that comes to mind is “to thine own self be true.” In your generosity, you seem to have ideas about the kind of gifts and Christmas you would like to offer, regardless of the way they are received. In addition to your own well being, you are also considering what is in the best interest of the children, both the spoiled one and the absent one.

In deciding whether or not to take a stand with your brother, consider whether indulging his son’s spoiled nature is really in his best interest. Of course, it is not your job to raise him as if he were your own (young) child. It is true, though, that no one outside of the family will indulge him as his parents have. It seems like only a matter of time before he is faced with a confrontation with some else who will not indulge him — a boss, an acquaintance, etc. Do you do him a favor by forestalling that? Perhaps, if you knew that his reality check would be soon in coming, you could postpone your own confrontation with him. Perhaps his social relations would make a corrective intervention for you. It doesn’t sound like that has happened yet, and you are ready to take matters in your own hands.

If you choose to be assertive, I can only encourage you to explain yourself fully to all concerned. Do not assume that they will understand your action without a clear explanation. It’s likely they won’t understand it anyway, and will react negatively to any change you enact. In being assertive, the best that can be hoped for is that you will not have to live with the dissatisfaction of being taken for granted, or enabling the young man’s spoiled nature. You may not be friends with your sister-in-law, but you may be a better friend to yourself.

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