Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.
Q. In-laws: After meeting my now sister-in-law, my brother washed his hands of our family and his former friends. We used to be quite close and to the extent of my knowledge there wasn't a specific incident that led to his current behavior other than meeting his wife and adopting her lifestyle and family. While I acknowledge that his life is his choice, I'm struggling to deal with the impact his abandonment has had on my parents. For example, when my brother married he only invited a handful of his relatives and friends (we didn't even take up a whole table at the reception) to a 300-person ceremony and my immediate family appeared in exactly two of thousands of photos. My mother cried for weeks afterward and family friends constantly talk about staging an intervention. My brother and his wife never visit my parents and he only calls if my SIL is not around. Now they have a small child and my father refuses to acknowledge the child to keep from getting attached and my mother's heart is broken by not being able to have a relationship with her grandchild. The situation is only made worse by a plethora of pictures and comments online to the tune of "My mother is the best grammy ever!" and "(Baby) is so lucky to have such an amazing family!" in reference to my SIL's folks. I hate having all the holiday appearances and grandchildren needs fall on my shoulders, but more importantly, I hate seeing my parents hurt without knowing the reason why. What can I say or do to help the situation?
A: I'm going to take your word that this is not a case in which your brother is distancing himself from an abusive or overly controlling family, but that your sister-in-law is engaging in a systematic campaign of alienation of affection. These situations are both heart-breaking and baffling for the family left behind. For some reason, certain people are vulnerable to a cult-like romance in which the new partner dictates who is acceptable and who is not. We recognize more clearly when it's a husband who isolates his wife from her family and friends that he's dangerously controlling. From your description, your brother is being terribly manipulated by his wife. Unfortunately, your brother willingly signed up for this. Either his wife has him convinced that your family is toxic, or he realizes he will pay too big a price at home if he tries to see his family. That he does call when his wife is out indicates he has a glimmer of understanding that his situation is not normal. Your brother is an adult and presumably competent, so painful as it is your family might have to recognize there's not much you can do. Perhaps you, however, can act as a bridge. If you're in the same town, suggest lunch with your brother. Tell him how much you all miss him and say that now that you're both parents you want the cousins to get to know each other. Don't lay on a guilt trip, but see if there's an opening to get the kids together, which could lead to more contact generally. I think your father's position vis-a-vis the child is counterproductive. Your family does not want to give your sister-in-law evidence to build her case that you are all cold and unloving. So all of you should mark the baby's birthday with gifts and cards. You should occasionally call or email neutral good wishes, even if they are not returned. And all of you should stop looking at the social media announcements of your sister-in-law, which aren't so much a news feed as a daily twisting of a knife in a wound.
Dear Prudence: No Kissing on the Mouth
Q. Thoughtless SIL Sharing Pregnancy News: I recently became pregnant after four years of fertility treatments. Needless to say, my husband and I are overjoyed. We were so excited to share the news with our families. Then literally the day after we announced our pregnancy, my SIL texted everyone to say she just found out SHE was pregnant (with her third). I am so upset. She has known about our trouble with conceiving and has always been supportive. I thought she would be more considerate of our news, especially since she's done this twice before. We are meeting up for a family gathering soon and I don't know how I can face her. All the grandchildren on my husband's side are girls and I don't know how I'd feel if she had the first grandson and I had a girl like everybody else. Please give me tips on how I can act normal around her while I'm seething.
A: When you all get together, you could suggest you'll reserve an ice floe to float away her little bundle of joy in case the baby turns out to have XY chromosomes. I hear from a lot of women struggling with infertility who find it a struggle to be around happy, fecund friends and family members. But there's something perverse about someone who finds she is pregnant and wishes to wave a magic wand to make disappear any other gestating family members. I don't know if the tone of your sister-in-law's email was, "Ha ha, forget Jennie's baby, I'm having a third!" or "Hey, more good news. I'm pregnant, too. It will be so much fun to have cousins who are like twins!" Whatever the case, you need to act as if you personally believe the latter sentiment. Each year about 4 million babies are born in the U.S. and nearly every one of them is thought to be the most precious gift imaginable—which each one is. But parents should understand everyone else's child is equally important and anticipated, be it the first or the third. My best tip for how you can act normal is to recognize you are acting abnormally, and that you decide you are going to be happy to have a close, knowledgeable person you can turn to when you have questions about the miracle that's happening inside you.
Q. Rule-Following Sister-in-Law: My brother got married last spring to a woman who seemed very nice, but I did not know her very well. My family and I recently moved closer to my brother. Now that I am spending more time with my sister-in-law, I've noticed she has a peculiar adherence to rule-following. For example, last week we attended a book club at a local bookstore. When we arrived, she immediately checked the vehicles parked in the handicapped spots to make sure they had handicapped placards visible. One vehicle did not, so she called the police nonemergency line to report this vehicle. In another example, we went shopping for clothing to wear to my parents anniversary dinner and another shopper left a pile of clothing in the dressing room. My SIL approached her and asked her to return the clothing to the designated spot. In both of these instances, my SIL was not negatively impacted by these individuals. She also does not work as a police officer or at the department store. When I was discussing this with my husband, he said that he noticed the same thing, and dubbed her "the world's hall monitor." Is this something worth discussing with my brother? Should I discuss this with her directly? This behavior makes me want to only spend time with her during family events only.
A: This is the week of the crazy sister-in-law. Brothers, before you walk down the aisle, please ask yourself, "Am I about to marry a nut?" I like your husband's designation of her as the world's hall monitor. And oh, how everyone loves a hall monitor! I've read some interesting primate studies (which range from monkeys to humans) which show that without a certain number of such individuals taking it upon themselves to enforce society’s rules, the cheaters, miscreants, and selfish run rampant. However, that doesn't make it pleasant to socialize with your own personal MP. And someone with those tendencies also needs to learn how to reel it in or risk alienating everyone around her. None of you know your brother's wife very well, and despite these two incidents, you need to simply spend more time with her to have a fuller picture of her personality. So I don't think you should sit down with your brother right now and tell him to stop her one woman citizen's brigade. But if she does something you think is out of bounds when you're together, you can certainly say, "Cindy, I get that this is annoying, but let's just let it go and get to where we need to be."