Dear Therapist: My Sister-in-Law Said the Most Painful Thing to Me, and I Can’t Let It Go

An illustration of a woman guarding a child and pointing a fencing saber at another woman
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,

I am originally from Germany. Two years ago, my daughter got married and my twin brother and his family came over to celebrate with us.

My sister-in-law has come for visits many times without my brother, and I’ve taken her all over to shop and visit places.

When she was here for my daughter’s wedding, we started talking about children. I have a second daughter with some mild developmental delays. I asked her why they didn’t have a second child. She answered very bluntly that she didn’t want a child “like my second child.” She actually said her name. I was so taken aback by this comment that I didn’t say anything in response.

My brother wasn’t well while he was here, and later found out he had bladder cancer. So between my daughter’s wedding and my brother not being well, I didn’t want to raise how I was feeling and create a problem.

But I am still hurting badly, and her comment always plays in my head. My sister-in-law has since behaved as though nothing happened. She is very demanding and has always acted like she is a step better than us. I’m angry with myself that I didn’t get in her face right away, but as I said, it wasn’t the right time.

So my question is: Now that my brother is done with his treatment and feeling better again, should I tell him about her insult? I’m worried I’ll create a problem between them, which I don’t want to do.

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Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

Your sister-in-law’s comment wasn’t just a hurtful insult—it was an act of aggression. In response to your question, she went right for the jugular with the cruelest possible thing anyone could say to a parent. This makes me think that she wanted to hurt you because she felt hurt by you.

You might be wondering how you hurt her, and my hunch is that your question about why she didn’t have a second child hit on something painful for her. Of course, it’s possible that your sister-in-law is just a horribly insensitive person, but usually people lash out in this way when you touch something tender in them, and to get rid of their pain, they toss it onto others.

Although I’m sure that you didn’t intend to hurt your sister-in-law by asking why she had only one child, your question might have been a loaded one for her. A common lament I hear in therapy from people who have either one or no children is this: Why do people ask those with one child why they didn’t have another, but don’t ask those with two or more children why they didn’t have another child—or fewer children? Why do people ask those without children why they didn’t have them, but don’t ask those with children why they decided to have them? The implication is that if you have no children or one child, there has to be a good reason (infertility, not enough money), because most people would choose to have at least two. For those who wanted multiple children but didn’t have them, questions like these can be incredibly painful and even create a sense of shame.

Shame is at the core of what’s called a narcissistic injury. A narcissistic injury occurs when a person reacts to a perceived criticism (about, say, having just one child) with rage, often in the form of a vindictive response. Whereas the average person might be tempted to say something unkind if you touch a sensitive nerve, a person with narcissistic tendencies (such as being demanding or acting as though she’s better than you) will verbally eviscerate you. If your sister-in-law has been made to feel “less than” for having only one child, making you feel “less than” for having a child with some challenges allows her to send her self-hatred your way. By making you feel small, she gets to feel big again. The result is that you are left holding the pain.

So now that you’re holding this pain, what can you do to diffuse it? You say that you don’t want to create a problem, but the problem is already there. The question isn’t so much about whether to bring it up, but how. One thing to consider is what you hope to gain from a conversation with your brother. For example, do you imagine that his sympathizing with your pain and agreeing that what his wife said was awful will make you feel better—seen, heard, understood, loved? Do you want to ask him whether his wife’s comment was untrue—that they didn’t have a second child for a reason other than their fear that the child would have developmental delays? And if there is some truth in it, how can the two of you talk about this in a way that separates his or his wife’s concerns about raising a child with some additional challenges from the fact that you have a child with these needs whom you love dearly?

You’re right that if you talk to your brother alone, he’ll probably become upset with his wife, and that could indeed create all kinds of problems, not just for them but also for your relationship with him, because he will be caught between two people he loves. To avoid this, you can set up a conversation with both of them. (If you’re in different countries, do this on video chat, rather than the phone, so that you can see each other’s faces.)

Then you might say something like this: “I know that a lot was going on the week of the wedding and that you both might have been on edge because you were sick and you were worried. And I realize that you’ve been through so much in the past two years with the cancer diagnosis and treatment. But because I value our families’ relationships, I want to talk with you both about something that has been very painful for me that occurred back then.” Then mention the comment and its impact on you, and rather than accusing her of ill intent or requesting an apology, simply ask your sister-in-law if she understands why saying that she didn’t want a daughter like yours was so hurtful.

Your sister-in-law might, in a calmer moment like this, take responsibility for what she said and even acknowledge that she did so not because it was true, but because she felt that your question was intrusive or insulting (in which case you might let her know that you can see why the number of kids she has isn’t your business). She may or may not apologize. Your brother might get angry with her, sympathize with you, or even defend his wife by insisting that you misinterpreted what she said. And while the hope is that emotional repairs are made and you all leave with a better understanding of how this happened and what was behind it, be prepared that this might not occur.

And that’s okay—because the mere act of confronting someone who hurt you instead of hiding in fear is ultimately what will set you free.


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.