My Sister-in-Law Abuses Alcohol and Drugs — I Need Some Distance in our Relationship

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Reader’s Question

Over the past few years my 24-year-old sister-in-law has had legal problems due to her alcohol and drug use. She was physically violent with her partner after becoming intoxicated, she was recently caught driving under the influence, and she was expelled from college due to possession of marijuana.

She has solicited support from my husband and me by calling us to bond her out of jail, has asked us to pick her up after becoming too intoxicated to drive, and has requested us to come and support her while police mediate domestic disputes involving her and her partner. It became too much for us and we began to detach and put some distance in our relationship.

In the meantime, other family members became upset with us for doing so. They were not aware of the DUI and domestic violence incident. Eventually we told her mother and father about those incidents because we were worried for my sister-in-law. We also felt we needed to explain our actions to our in-laws, who thought we had abandoned my sister-in-law for no apparent reason. My in-laws do not believe she has a substance abuse problem or problems with anger management. In addition, my sister-in-law is very angry that we told her parents. She has said hurtful things about us to anyone who will listen and has even left us nasty phone messages. As a result, we have chosen to block her telephone number. Her mother and father are upset with us for doing that and want us to move on and apologize to her for betraying her.

It’s hard to know what to do. I feel very manipulated and used by her. She is extremely abusive when we don’t help her out with legal issues or when we try to put distance between us. I am at a loss for what to do. I care about her, but I personally do not wish to have a relationship with her while she is still using drugs and alcohol. How can I explain to my husband’s family members that I want to move forward in that fashion? Did I do the wrong thing by cluing them in on her alcohol-related problems?

Psychologist’s Reply

It sounds like you are trying to assert your boundaries with your sister-in-law and have been receiving family flack in response. The two major issues of concern seem to be your sister-in-law’s substance abuse problems and the family’s denial concerning her addictions. While you certainly cannot change either your sister-in-law or the family’s response, it seems that you and your husband are doing what you can to protect yourselves by distancing yourselves from your sister-in-law while she continues to abuse alcohol and/or other substances. Unfortunately, the family appears to be invested in blaming you for your decisions, rather than helping your sister-in-law. This suggests that they may be in denial about the seriousness of your sister-in-law’s problems. Rather than focusing on obtaining help for her, they seem more preoccupied with blaming you for revealing your sister-in-law’s addiction problems and for your decision to separate.

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There are several ways you could address this situation, depending on what you want to achieve. My understanding is that you want to explain your position to the family; that you wish to protect yourselves from your sister-in-law as long as she continues using drugs. You even ask, ”How can I explain to my husband’s family members that I want to move forward…?” How you phrase this question leads me to believe you are considering talking with your husband’s family members on your own. By communicating with them individually, you may be setting yourself up for becoming the scapegoat within this family system. Ideally, you and your husband might sit down together with family members, explaining how you both have decided not to be involved with the sister-in-law as long as she continues to use substances.

It also seems like you may need to clarify your position directly with your sister-in-law. You and your husband could explain how you both care about her and wish to retain a relationship (assuming this is true), but that you simply cannot have a relationship with her while she hangs onto her addictions. If you like, you can also offer her information about treatment resources and inform her how you will support her decision to seek treatment. If you want to have this discussion, it might be helpful to arrange in advance a date and time to talk. That way, you, your husband, and sister-in-law can communicate during a relatively calm time (vs. following another DUI or other substance-related incident) and your communication will more likely be viewed as a proactive stance rather than a reactive response. By all of you agreeing to get together in advance, there is less risk of your words being seen as a reaction to your sister-in-law and will instead be viewed as a position you and your husband are assuming with regard to her drug use. Hopefully your sister-in-law will decide to seek treatment. If she chooses not to, at least you can feel comfortable knowing you suggested treatment options and communicated in a healthy way with her and her family.

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