BIANCA BAGNARELLI

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My husband’s family is extremely close-knit, and my immediate family spends lots of time with them. I value raising my children in a warm extended-family environment, but I am finding it harder and harder to be with my sister-in-law.

She is an honest, trustworthy person and has never done anything to hurt me or anyone else in the family. Unfortunately, I can't stand her. Everything about her rubs me the wrong way. She sees the world in black and white, while I see infinite shades of gray. She’s quite accomplished in her academic discipline, but has zero emotional intelligence, which is the main characteristic I appreciate in people. For example, she’s always asking whether things are “good or bad,” even when we’re discussing a topic like an interpersonal relationship, which doesn’t usually fit into such binary categorization. She is also extremely health-conscious and has a list of things she doesn’t eat because “they’re not healthy.” It’s always absolutes, even about subjects for which there is no scientific consensus. I used to try to make special foods when she came over, but I always ended up doing something wrong and she wouldn't eat them, so I gave up.

I never know what to say to her—whenever she comes out with an absolute question or statement, I find myself either dropping my jaw, saying something that sounds condescending, or both. I feel so uncomfortable that I try to avoid being with her altogether, but that isn’t easy to do in intimate family gatherings.

All of this has really put my husband in an uncomfortable situation. He also finds her a bit hard to swallow, but is much better than I am at laughing her off, or finding a way to respond to her that isn’t hurtful. Also, he tends to gravitate toward his brother (her husband), which is very understandable, but the result is that I am left with her. I’m usually fine at maintaining a conversation with people with a wide range of interests and personalities, but with her, I just find doing so impossible.

I don’t want to create a disconnect between my husband and kids and his family, but I truly don’t know how to build a relationship, even a superficial one, with her. I feel like bringing up the issue with her wouldn’t be helpful, because the problem isn’t something specific that she does, but rather her basic personality and emotional intelligence.

Any advice would be appreciated.

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

You’re certainly not alone in your irritation at having to spend time with an in-law whose company you don’t enjoy. Ideally, you would feel as simpatico with your husband’s family as you do with him, and you and your sister-in-law would be more compatible.

Clearly she isn’t someone you’d choose as a friend, but what strikes me about your letter is the intensity of your feelings toward her. You say that she is honest and trustworthy, and has never done anything to hurt you or anyone in the family. But because she lacks “emotional intelligence” and holds what you consider to be less nuanced views on things like relationships and food choices, you “can’t stand her.”

When people have very strong reactions to others, I wonder how much of that vehemence is a direct response to the qualities of the person who triggers it, and how much is about something else.

You might want to get curious about how much of your reaction belongs in each category, because figuring this out will accomplish two things. First, it will help you see your sister-in-law more kindly, which in turn will diminish the intensity of your feelings and make the difficult relationship run more smoothly. Second, it will create more self-awareness, which will come in handy in all of your relationships, now and in the future.

To start, I suggest asking yourself, Who does this person remind me of? In other words, even if you didn’t grow up around someone who, on the surface, seems like your sister-in-law, do the feelings that come up when you think of spending time with her feel at all familiar? Maybe in some way she reminds you of a parent or your own sibling. Or maybe—and this generally takes people by surprise before they see the truth in it—she reminds you of you.

I realize, of course, that your frustration with your sister-in-law is rooted in your perception of how different you are. But many of the things that irritate us most about others are disowned parts of ourselves—the parts that are inconsistent with how we wish to view ourselves. We might disavow these parts by saying, for instance, “I can’t stand her; she’s so envious of her friends,” because we feel so much shame about the fact that we, too, feel envy. In other words, we take great pains to distinguish ourselves from a person who exhibits the very qualities we find shameful in ourselves, so much so that we aren’t even aware that we share them.

Exploring the ways in which you might be similar to someone you can't stand takes a lot of self-compassion, but that’s exactly why doing so will help you have an easier time with her. By mustering up compassion for your own self-examination, you may find that you have more compassion for her too—and that’ll make family gatherings easier for everyone.

Let’s look more closely at your initial complaint to see where you might apply this approach. Take where you write that you “see the world in infinite shades of gray” whereas your sister-in-law operates only in “absolutes.” If you step back a bit, you might see something different: that you, too, can get stuck in absolutes. “Everything about her rubs me the wrong way,” you say, but this seems like an overstatement, given her kindness and honesty and care not to hurt others.

Similarly, you say that she “always” thinks in absolutes, such as whether a relationship is “good” or “bad,” but you don’t seem to consider that when someone asks, “So are things good or bad with their relationship?,” this doesn’t necessarily mean that the person believes the relationship is good (or bad) all the time. I’m guessing that if you asked your sister-in-law what she meant, she’d say something like “I meant overall, are things going well or not?” Consider, too, that she might not be interested in a more granular analysis of the particular relationship in question in the midst of a casual family gathering (or ever)—even if you find that kind of conversation interesting. (I’m imagining your sister-in-law’s version of things: “If I ask how someone’s relationship is going—is it good or bad?—my sister-in-law acts like I’m an ignoramus, when I’m just trying to make light conversation since we have so little in common beyond our husbands being brothers. She takes what I say so literally.”)

Additionally, there are more than two options for managing your differences regarding food and health—beyond either arguing about the accuracy of her beliefs or resentfully trying to accommodate them. For example, you might say, “Hey, I know you have some foods you’re trying to avoid, and I’m concerned about making something you won’t enjoy, so if you aren’t comfortable with what we’re eating, can you bring what you’d like?”

I’m sure you know that a key aspect of emotional intelligence, a quality you value so much, is the ability to create a pleasant relationship with someone with whom you don’t always agree or share a worldview—like your husband manages to do with his sister-in-law. Instead, you drop your jaw or say something hurtful and condescending when, as you say, your sister-in-law isn’t trying to upset you and means no harm. You might ask yourself why an otherwise emotionally intelligent person gets so thrown off by this one individual to the point of rudely insulting her.

My hunch is that there’s some personal history here that’s coloring how you see your sister-in-law—whether it’s your own inner shame, a person from your past who prompted similar feelings in you, or even a sense of longing tinged with resentment. You say that your husband’s family is close-knit, but you don’t mention your own. Sometimes people long for close-knit families because they didn’t have one growing up, and when they marry into one, they’re either easily disappointed (and sometimes very critical) if the in-laws aren’t the perfectly compatible people they imagined, or they become so resentful of the close-knit family they didn’t have that they do everything in their (unconscious) power to break it apart—like being unable to tolerate their husband’s not-so-terrible sister-in-law and thereby creating problems for their husband and his brother.

You may never become best friends with your sister-in-law, but once you figure out what’s getting in the way, you’ll be able to appreciate her positive qualities, see her through a more generous lens, model a warm extended-family relationship for your children, and, though you can’t imagine it now, enjoy her love and support and whatever else the relationship brings when you’re less “binary” in your feelings about her and able to see the gray.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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