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Carolyn Hax: Sensitive in-law saps one’s energy

Sun., Sept. 4, 2011

Dear Carolyn: How do I deal with my out-of-state sister-in-law of 20-plus years (and mother of my very beloved, only niece) who is uber-sensitive? Occasionally during one of our many texts, emails or talks, I will say something totally benign that upsets her in some way. Her reaction is to keep it inside, sometimes choosing not to speak to me, or ambushing me with days/weeks of anger that she has supposedly “moved past” (she never does, these incidents are piled up in a mental storage room somewhere). I end up asking if something is wrong, and then apologizing and/or explaining that it wasn’t meant that way, was taken out of context, etc. The response is always, “Well – that’s how I perceived it.”

She never approaches me about the supposed issue, her reasoning being that “this is what happens” (me defending/explaining myself).

I have spent way too many years walking on eggshells, being overly generous, apologizing and constantly monitoring what I say and do. So much for the friendship I thought we had, as this has also ruined more than one vacation or outing. After the last incident, I am left feeling hurt, very angry and more than a bit tired of it. If my tween niece and brother were not part of the family unit, I’d move on. Suggestions? – Tired of it

First, a simple and easy suggestion: Avoid texts and emails. I realize dealing with your sister-in-law is a chore, and therefore communicating at arm’s length is tempting, but giving in to that temptation multiplies the opportunities you give your sister-in-law to misinterpret your words. Stick to the phone. And deal with your brother directly where feasible.

Next, a simple and difficult suggestion: Drop your end of the rope. Stop tiptoeing, asking if everything’s OK, if you’ve done something wrong. When she ambushes you “with days/weeks of anger,” don’t defend or explain yourself. Instead: “Gosh, I wish you’d said something when it happened; that was so long ago!” When she lobs a “That’s how I perceived it,” return it with “Of course, I see that, and I’d be upset too if I saw it that way – but that was certainly not my intent.” I.e., acknowledge her feelings without taking responsibility for them.

It’s important not to challenge her claims to the victim territory, because she’s going to claim it regardless; she’s going to say/do/not say/not do/claim/argue whatever it takes to prove to herself she’s been wronged.

And while granting her all that territory won’t feel satisfying or improve your relationship, it will take the energy you waste – on eggshell-walking, explaining and drama – and redirect it toward making the best choices you can and letting your decency speak for itself.

As for your niece: Her mom won’t be her gateway to the world for much longer. Position yourself for the long term by being as warm and accessible to her as you can be – and to her mom, too, for that matter. Warmth and a refusal to engage can peacefully coexist if you remain calm on your side of the line.

Email Carolyn at, follow her on Facebook at carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 9 a.m. Pacific time each Friday at

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