I have been married for 12 years and my wife and three sisters simply cannot get along. My sisters don’t have any ill feelings toward my wife, but my wife cannot stand them. She seems to find things to get annoyed by with them. She says that my sisters are not very good at responding to her text messages and don’t seem to show much interest in her life. It’s gotten to the point where my wife doesn’t even want to see them, while my sisters are in shock as to why she feels that way toward them.
I feel like I am stuck in a fight I don’t want to have. At one point my wife’s brother gave me a very difficult time but I realized life is too short, so I went up to him and apologized even though he was 100 percent at fault. I told my wife that if I sat down and thought of all the negative flaws her family has, I would never want to associate with them. Instead, when I see my wife’s parents, I put on a big smile and laugh with them. I share moments with her siblings too. Why can’t she do that for my sake?
We have two small children, and I am having to find excuses not to see my sisters and my own parents because my wife doesn’t want to spend a day with them. I barely see my parents and my sisters, so that my wife doesn’t give me hell for a full week by telling me about every single negative word that came out of one of my sisters’ mouths.
I have told my wife that I can try to talk to my sisters, but she refuses as she says they won’t see faults in their actions.
I’m overwhelmed. What can I do in this situation?
You feel overwhelmed for good reason—your wife has set up what is essentially an impossible task: Choose between the people you love. If you see your sisters, you are betraying your wife. If you don’t see them, you are betraying your sisters. And if you suppress your needs, you are betraying yourself.
I don’t know when this conflict between your wife and sisters began—whether tensions have been present since they first met, or whether your wife started feeling slighted by them later. I don’t know if there was an inciting incident, some envy or competitiveness, or if there is simply a personality mismatch. Nor do I have a clear sense of whether your wife is reading into your sisters’ actions or whether your sisters are brushing aside your wife’s valid perceptions without taking responsibility for their role in the tension.
What I do know is that whatever their issues are, you won’t be able to solve them. What you can do, however, is work on the issues between you and your wife.
You might start by noticing what you and your wife have in common: Both of you seem to feel unseen and unheard. I’m guessing that she feels ignored not only by your sisters but also by you. For example, when she shares that she feels hurt by your sisters, instead of offering compassion, you defend yourself by saying that when you feel hurt by her family, you let it go—as if your way of handling your pain is how she should handle hers. The result is that you both feel more alone: She feels unsupported by you (because you aren’t offering the comfort she seeks), and you feel unsupported by her (because she won’t let things go for your sake).
The less supported you both feel, the more you try to be understood—but in ways that create more distance. Instead of working through this as partners, you become adversaries. She punishes you for not understanding her pain by “giving you hell” after spending time with your family, and you punish her by insulting her family under the guise of being noble: I put up with your family; you should put up with mine, and You think my family is bad? What about yours? As you’ve noticed, these contests have no winners. You just remain stuck in place.
To break through this impasse, you’ll need to have a different kind of conversation with your wife—not about your sisters, but about the two of you. You can begin by saying that you love her very much, and that you realize that this conflict is taking a toll on your marriage. Tell her that you’ve given much thought as to how you can support each other, and that you’d like to work together to learn what each of you can do to strengthen your relationship, even if you don’t always have the same feelings about your family members.
The important part here is that you can have compassion without fixing the issue or intervening. You don’t have to agree that your sisters did anything wrong, but you do need to understand that your wife feels hurt by them and validate her experience. Instead of saying “I feel bad that you’re hurt, but why can’t you just let it go?” or “My sisters don’t mean you any harm,” you might say something like “I’m sorry that you’re hurt; I know how hard this is on you” or “I love you and I’m here for you.”
Once you establish yourselves as a team with the same goal—supporting the health of your marriage—you can honor what each person needs. For you, that might be asking your wife to support your enjoyment of your family during and after your visits. For her, it might be receiving a smile or supportive hand squeeze from you when you’re around your sisters together, so she doesn’t feel so alone, or if you do witness your sisters being unkind in any way to your wife, making sure you say something instead of letting it slide. For both of you, it might be putting the needs of your children above the family tension by prioritizing their relationships with their aunts and grandparents, even if your wife decides to stay home sometimes.
The advantage of shifting the focus from your sisters to your marriage is that the more understood and supported you and your wife feel inside the marriage, the less those outside conflicts will come between you. It also takes you out of the position of needing to do something about their conflict or choosing between her and your family. Meanwhile, your compassion and attention might give your wife a stronger sense of being valued and decrease the emotional reactivity she experiences when she feels neglected by your sisters.
It helps, too, to keep in mind that when you marry someone, you also marry their families, but loving the person you married doesn’t guarantee compatibility with the people they grew up with. You can work as a team, and you can set boundaries (“I love you, but I have nothing more to offer here, so let’s talk about something else now”), but sometimes additional guidance is helpful. If your wife is open to seeking out a therapist who can help her understand the conflict with your sisters and gain some strategies and tools for managing it better, this would benefit not just her well-being, but the well-being of your marriage as well.
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.