She said, he said: A political struggle with a sister-in-law
December 20, 2017
Dear Jeff and Lori,
I get along great with my husband's parents. We often go to their home for the holidays because they live closer than my family. This year his sister is also coming, and she and I always end up arguing. We have very different political views and she is outspoken and unrelenting about hers. My husband says I always put him in the middle, and this year he's asked me to manage it on my own. How do I do that when she's constantly provoking me? The holidays are a special time for my husband and I, so I want to try to make it as enjoyable as possible.
Lori and Jeff: While painful to swallow, it's an unavoidable fact that when you marry, you marry the whole family. Just as you cannot pick and choose the traits of the partner that you've committed to, you cannot sift out particular members of his family. Yet, we fully acknowledge mixing with a spouse's kin can sometimes be more spice than sugar.
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Lori: First, I invite you to explore what specifically about your sister-in-law burns you. Politics can be a deeply passionate topic because of its ties to our values, wants and fears. However, whether you hear another's point of view with open curiosity or animosity often has more to do with you than red or blue. For example, I wonder if your description of her as "outspoken" is a way to convey that you perceive yourself as having less power than her. Is your reflex a result of feeling as though she's trying to jam her opinion down your throat? If so, a little confidence and self advocacy may be the missing ingredients.
Jeff: Set clear boundaries and rules. While you may feel powerless around having to spend time with your sister-in-law, you can still set boundaries and ground rules around the type and tone of the interactions you have. It may be that you sit down with her and state the obvious around the differences you have when it comes to the areas about which you disagree. A statement imparting your refusal to engage in any kind of discussion around these topics can be quite powerful and serve as the cornerstone for your refusal to engage in the moment ("Remember, I've already told you I won't discuss these topics with you."). If she is unwilling to talk, then your statement may be in letter or email form. At the very least, you can convey the message that she seems like she's trying to provoke you by simply walking away, refusing to engage or changing the subject.
Lori and Jeff: Lastly, seek out aspects of her that you appreciate. What values do you share? What strengths in her do you see? Even her characteristics that create the biggest challenges for you (boldness, passion, conviction) may be qualities you would respect under different circumstances. We have evolved culturally to overemphasize political orientation in how we perceive others' identities. If you've mentally frosted her in unpalatable red, it's your responsibility to seek a more balanced view of her many layers. In the end, we're all just humans wanting to matter and to thrive.
Lori and Jeff are married licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Coaching. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.