"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
September 19, 2013
My Stepmother Is Angry with Me
by Cyndie Swindlehurst

Question:

My stepmother is very angry with me. She feels I have injured my sister. I have a good relationship with my sister, and have spoken to her about what happened. She is not upset with me at all and does not feel the least bit slighted or injured.

But my stepmother won’t speak to me, my husband, or my children, and she won’t let my father invite us to her house. This is awkward as we are in the same ward.

In the past, my stepmother has become unjustifiably angry at other members of the family, so this behavior is not new. It’s impossible to convince her she’s wrong when she gets like this, but it usually blows over eventually. Still, I’ve never been the one she’s mad at. Her behavior is very hurtful and I’d like to make things right as soon as I can, especially with the holidays coming up. How can I reach out to her?

Answer:

I am going to take you at your word that you truly did nothing to be offensive, rude, or inconsiderate to your stepmother or your sister, and that your stepmother’s anger is without cause.

You pose an interesting question, one almost all of us have faced: What do you do when a person you cannot avoid, such as a close family member, a neighbor, or a person in your ward, is easily offended and not quite rational, and has turned their irrational anger on you? How do you manage a relationship with such a person?

I have eight suggestions for you.

First, expect your stepmother to be this way until the day she dies. Refuse to be surprised ever again at her irrational behavior. Instead of assuming she will act like a rational adult, assume she could become angry at any time for an unpredictable reason.

It doesn’t matter that she is your stepmother and should treat you better, or that she is an active Church member and should know better, or that she is an adult and should have more self control. The fact is, she is what she is, and she does what she does, and it is futile to expect anything else from her.

Second, do not try to change her. You will fail. So don’t waste any energy trying.

What you can do is accept her just the way she is. “That’s just Claire,” you might say to yourself. Forgive her for her past and future hurtful behavior, and try to appreciate her good qualities. This may be difficult, but if you can truly forgive her, you will find her irrational anger less hurtful and more tolerable.

Third, always treat her charitably. Speak to her kindly, politely, and respectfully. Try to see her point of view and feel compassion for her. Give her time to cool off when she is angry. Be patient and tolerant. Although you cannot control her behavior, you can control your own. Let it be above reproach, and whatever happens, you will at least have the comfort of knowing you behaved well.

Charity includes turning the other cheek and forgiving her, even after she has mistreated you. Look for appropriate opportunities to extend kindness to her. You might remember her birthday or compliment her new haircut.

Fourth, decide how close you can be to your stepmother and still stay sane. Beyond that, keep your distance.

No one has unlimited capacity to deal with difficult people. You need to figure out what your capacity is, and not go beyond it. Remember that your stepmother is only one person in your life. Your husband and children need you more than she does, and your primary duty is to them.

You cannot fulfill that duty if you spend all of your mental and emotional energy trying to manage your relationship with your stepmother.

So decide what you can handle and what you cannot, and set your limits. You might limit how much time you spend with her, what kinds of activities you do together, or what topics you discuss. You might avoid her altogether when she is feeling particularly angry. When you decline an invitation from her, remember that “I can’t,” is a perfectly acceptable reason for not doing something, even when you are dealing with family.

Fifth, do not be manipulated. When your stepmother gets angry at someone, does that person make an extra effort to reconcile with her? Does he change his plans to please her? Does she end up with something she wants? If so, she is using anger to manipulate the family.

You don’t have to be angry about her manipulation. You just have to be aware of it so you can resist it. You have to resist it because if you don’t, she will keep doing it. Plus, her anger will sting less when you realize that it is her way of getting what she wants, and not just an outpouring of negative emotion against you.

So if you have decided you cannot do something with her (attend a book club, paint her living room, and so on), and she uses anger to pressure you into it, resist. Be kind and polite, but do not change your plans to placate her. If you do, she will never stop using anger to get what she wants, and it will be very difficult for you to keep the distance you need for your sanity.

Sixth, control your temper. You will probably have a tense conversation with her at some point. If you lose your temper you will not be able to tell what is right to say and do, and what is your temper talking. Do not let her pull you into her anger.

Seventh, do not discuss your stepmother with ward members or mutual friends. Your problems are a private family matter. Any nosy questions about whether you and your stepmother are speaking to each other can be met with a response like, “Oh! I think Claire is feeling fine.” Or, “Oh! Why do you ask?” Or just, “Oh!” And any offers by ward members to mediate or otherwise insert themselves into the problem should be immediately rejected with a firm, “No.”

Eighth, if you want to have a closer relationship with your father than you do with your stepmother, remember that she is his wife, and it is right for him to be loyal to her. Try to appreciate the difficult position he is in and do not ask him to take sides. Remember that although you are his daughter, you are an adult, and you will not make unreasonable or childish demands of him.

Finally, I suggest you plan to spend the holidays alone with your husband and children. Don’t sit around and do nothing because you feel sad and hurt: Plan a celebration your family will enjoy. If necessary, insulate your children from any spiteful behavior or obvious exclusion from extended family events.

If you do attend family events, expect her to behave badly, but be gracious if she doesn’t. It will be impossible to conceal the rift from your family, but don’t make a bigger deal of it than you must. If she truly behaves this way all the time, the rest of the family will probably understand your position.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!


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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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