"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
February 20, 2014
My Mean Sister-in-Law
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


My sister-in-law is mean. She makes fun of the rest of the family — even the kids — and if you ask her to stop or challenge her, she gets worse. She posts snarky comments to photos of my baby, making fun of his clothes and his hair (which are darling, btw), and of whatever we are doing that day.

She’s not a happy person, and for years I’ve tried to help the situation by making friends with her. I’ve been really nice, sent gifts to her family and all that, but it hasn’t worked at all.

We are going to a family event soon, and I’m dreading it. She makes everyone miserable. Confronting her doesn’t work, being nice has failed, and I can’t do it anymore, anyway.

Where do I go from here?


Kindness is a long, long game sometimes. I think you were right to try and improve your relationship with this person by showing sincere kindness and regard for her. But I understand that you have hit your limit.

People can only take so much. And when an antagonistic family member is routinely rude and hurtful, you are under no social or family obligation to let him abuse you or your family.

However, you are under an obligation to behave correctly and kindly, and to control your own behavior. Therefore, although it may be tempting to hit back with insults of your own, I do not recommend that you let her have it.

If she is as awful as you say, she will relish your descent to her level, emotions will flare, and you will not feel any better once the adrenaline wears off. Instead, you will feel ashamed that she goaded you into attacking her and that you could not control the nasty things that flew out of your mouth.

Instead, I suggest a plan of cool, detached politeness. Here is how it will work.

Step one is to make up your mind — firmly — that your sister-in-law will never offend, bother, or hurt you again. I cannot describe to you how to do this. You simply decide it and do it. There is no hate or anger involved. There is just detachment.

This is also a good approach to the people in your ward who drive you bananas. You simply declare to yourself that they will not, by definition, bother you any more. You flat out refuse to let their baloney affect you.

To the extent you have to deal with them because of your calling or overlapping social circles, you remain dispassionate. Instead of being upset by these people and their offensive behavior, you soothe other people who have not yet discovered that they can decide to not be hurt by them. You say things like, “Well, that’s just Tim,” and “I know. Can you believe it?” Then you change the subject.

I admit that there is an element of condescension required to make this work. You are, in essence, declaring that this person is not a real person who can bother you, that this person’s feelings, actions and opinions are so unworthy, they are not worth considering. If that is the case, so be it. It is better to feel condescending tolerance towards a person than outright anger.

Step two is to manage your time around her so you are not actually around her very much. It’s not that you are avoiding her, it’s that you prefer to be somewhere else. So, when she arrives where you are, you give a vague smile or nod, and, within a few minutes, discover that you have somewhere else to be. For example, you might prefer to help get dinner on the table, or to take the children on a walk. This step will be easy if she is lazy and you are industrious.

Step three is that when you talk to her (which cannot be totally avoided), you engage her as you would with an acquaintance, and not a friend. For example, you listen politely and ask follow-up questions, but you keep things on the surface. The point of this is to avoid more conversation with her than you wish to have.

During conversation, you should manage her rudeness calmly and directly. When she says rude things about other people, you don’t have to agree with her or ignore it. Remembering step one, you don’t get upset. Nothing she says can bother you. Instead, you say conversationally, “I don’t think that’s true,” or “I like Chas. He has good taste.”

If you can manage it without sneering in disgust, you can communicate your disapproval of her gossip with raised eyebrows.

When she says rude things about your family, you should defend them. Respond directly, but not hotly, “Don’t talk about my husband that way,” or “Don’t talk to Sarah about her hair anymore.” I wouldn’t even bother with a reason (“he’s a devoted father” or “she does her best with it”). The only reason she needs is that you won’t have it.

When the rude comments are online posts that you cannot block or delete, I suggest you let your eyes slide right past them. Remember that she’s the one who looks snarky and mean and unattractive, not you. You could always curtail your posts, but if you enjoy posting pictures and such, that would give her unnecessary power in your life, and would deprive other family members of your pictures. She doesn’t get to do that to you.

Going private might be an option, but it won’t work unless you are willing to decline her requests to follow you.

Finally, remember that you are playing a long game here. You are not trying to make your sister-in-law into a reasonable adult. You are trying to manage your relationship with her in a way that doesn’t consume your emotional energy or ruin your interactions with the rest of the family.

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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