Help! My Brother Acts as if His In-Laws Are His Only Real Family.

Advice on manners and morals.
Jan. 27 2014 3:11 PM

Marrying Out

In a live chat, Prudie offers advice on a brother who abandoned his real family for his wife’s.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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 prudence@slate.com.)

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?

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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."

Q. Disabled-Access Toilet Stall: You may have already weighed in on this, but I was wondering if you had an opinion. I was in the restroom of a casual dining restaurant recently. There were four stalls, one of which was accessible/ADA compliant. All of the stalls were full, and there was a line of a few people. A woman in a wheelchair came in with her husband. When the person who was in the disabled access stall came out (she had gone in before the woman in the wheelchair entered), the woman and her husband rudely and nastily told her off for using the disabled access stall. So, my question is: Is this correct etiquette? Should no one ever use a disabled access stall, just in case someone disabled needs it? I always believed that the idea was to give equal access, which would mean that disabled persons would have to wait in line like the rest of us (though I believe they should be able to skip to the front of the line when the disabled access stall becomes available). Perhaps I'm being insensitive, however. (Also, I am an attorney, and, as far as I know, there is no legal requirement of patrons of an establishment to leave the stall free, as there is with a parking space. I believe it is simply an etiquette issue.) Thanks!

A: The sister-in-law in the letter above is right that handicapped parking spaces are to be left open and used exclusively by disabled drivers. But I believe the stall situation is different. People are quickly in and out of a stall, and if no one in the restroom line is in a wheelchair it just hangs everyone else up not to use all the stalls. I disagree with you that the disabled person should just wait in line. When someone who needs special facilities shows up, that person gets priority and he or she goes to the head of the line. In this case, it sounds as if the woman and her husband only had to wait a minute or so for the stall to open, and the woman using it didn't know someone with special needs would be coming in. It's unfortunate that they made a scene over a marginal inconvenience. I hope the woman coming out of the stall simply apologized, and then literally and figuratively washed her hands of the situation.

Q. Re: Thoughtless pregnancy: My cousin and I were born two days apart and our moms were even in the same hospital room. We went to the same school and were often in the same class growing up. We even shared birthday parties. We thought we were really special being "cousin-twins." The letter writer should be excited that her child will have a "cousin-twin" too and remember that attention isn't a lump sum. There's plenty to go around.

A: Lovely—thank you!

Q. In-laws Seem Horrified Whenever We Mention Having Kids: My husband and I are in our late 20s, have been happily married for over several years now, own our home, are financially stable, and both pursing Ph.D.s in our prospective fields. Over the holidays we offhandedly mentioned that we may consider having children sometime in the next few years and possibly before we finish graduate school. My in-laws were utterly horrified! They immediately lectured us what a terrible plan this was, how they were not ready to be grandparents, and that we needed "real 9-to-5 jobs" before we should ever consider expending our family. While we don't need anyone's approval can't help but be a little offended by their strong negative reaction. They also seem determined to convince us we are still "college students" and not adults, which is utterly ridiculous considering we both teach college classes as part of our responsibilities. Is this a normal reaction for parents with grown children? Or are my in-laws delusional?

A: Can you please clone your in-laws and use them to replace the parents who incessantly harass grown children about when the grandchildren are coming. You raised the issue, thus inviting the reaction. But normally the reaction is, "I'm going out to buy the crib!" I agree that being horrified at the prospect of two responsible, married adults producing your grandchild is unusual and out of line. So now having opened the topic, you need to close it. Tell them you've heard their objections, you're sorry you brought up this issue, and you don't want to discuss your reproductive choices any more.

Q. Re: Disabled-access toilet stall: For the architects/builders that decide how a bathroom is laid out, every municipality I have dealt with has rules about how to design a bathroom. They instruct to first calculate how many stalls are required (that depends on people in the building, type of establishment etc.), and second make a percentage of those stalls handicapped. Therefore a non-handicapped person should use the handicapped stall without guilt or being yelled at, since that is what the building code intended.

A: Thanks for confirming the stalls are for everyone, unlike the parking spaces. Another writer pointed out that someone might have a not-so-visible handicap but needs to use the handrails.

Q. Infidelity?: My husband and I often host open house parties including an annual New Year's Eve party. This past year a woman who's a real estate agent and a friend of a friend showed up uninvited. The following morning I found her business card on my husband's bedside table. On the back of the card she wrote her recommendation of a "fab" divorce attorney. My husband claims he knows nothing about it; he says he doesn't even remember seeing her at our large party. He said he doesn't even know how the card came into his possession. He said he emptied his pockets and put all of the contents on his nightstand. I emailed the woman and she said she gave out some cards that night but didn't remember writing anything on the back of any of them. My husband and I have a strong, loving marriage (or at least I think so). Friends all think it’s very odd and that the woman is predatory. But would a woman be that forward with a man, unsolicited? What is a wife to do?

A: Since it's almost a month since the strange card showed up on your nightstand and you haven't been served with any divorce papers in the interim, you need to conclude this game of Clue is not going to have a satisfactory ending. Yes, it could be that this woman is your husband's mistress and she decided to move things forward by recommending a divorce lawyer to him while enjoying your hospitality. It could be that someone else entirely got the card, used it to pass along the note, the card got put aside, your husband found it while cleaning up and stuck it in his pocket, without even remembering doing so. You have tracked down all your leads to no effect, so stop now before you resemble Inspector Clouseau. You say you have a good marriage, so accept that your husband is not such a fiend and dope that he would leave his secret divorce plans on the night stand. Chalk this all up to the punch bowl packing too big a punch.

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Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column.