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June 18, 2015
The Real Issue
I Overheard a Marital Argument
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


My husband’s sister is married to a jerk. He is self-centered and uncaring. He picks fights with family members and makes himself deliberately unpleasant.

The rest of the family are welcoming, considerate people who have tried for years to be kind to him. But at our recent family reunion, he sulked, antagonized others and argued the entire time, making it impossible for my sister-in-law her to enjoy herself.

On the second night of the reunion, I accidentally walked in on an argument between my sister-in-law and her husband. He was complaining about being at the reunion and demanding that they go home immediately. I guess she gave in, because they left the next morning.

They didn’t see me or know that I overheard their argument because I left the room quietly as soon as I realized what was happening. But now I wonder if I should have said something. I’m tired of this man’s behavior and the way he treats my sister-in-law. He had no right to ruin her vacation and break up the reunion early.

Should I have spoken up?


It’s amazing when a fully grown adult cannot carry out the basic functions of family life, such as behaving pleasantly at family gatherings.

It seems to me that, even in the absence of genuine affection, anyone over the age of eight, and certainly over the age of eighteen, should be capable of arranging his or her face in a neutral expression and making inoffensive small talk with the extended family. If an adult is unwilling to extend this simple expression of goodwill, for heaven’s sake, he should stay home.

Your sister-in-law’s husband, unfortunately, appears to be one of those adults who refuse to behave decently at family gatherings. It’s possible that he lacks social graces and is unaware of the effect of his behavior on others, but from your description, it appears that he is simply selfish. He cares more about expressing his own unpleasant feelings than about showing consideration for others.

His behavior at your family reunion undoubtedly embarrassed and stressed your sister-in-law. It’s no wonder she was willing to go home early. Going home was probably less painful than enduring his behavior any longer.

This man refuses to behave appropriately in public, shows little consideration for his wife or others and throws extended temper tantrums to get his way.

Given that unflattering assessment of his character, what should you have done when you stumbled upon the argument between him and his wife? Was it best to slip away unnoticed, or should you have spoken up to diffuse the argument, defend your sister-in-law or give him a piece of your mind?

I think you did the right thing when you quietly retreated from the room where the couple was arguing. They were arguing in private about something that had nothing to do with you.

Married couples, thankfully, are entitled to argue in private and to manage their affairs as they see fit. Their disagreements are, by definition, nobody’s business. Even your unpleasant brother-in-law deserves the courtesy of being allowed to argue with his wife without interference from you or anyone else.

In other words, you correctly treated him with respect. I think your extended family has it right by trying to extend kindness and civility to this man. If the ultimate goal is to help your sister-in-law participate in family events, then accepting her difficult husband is necessary, even if he doesn’t deserve it.

Also, even if this man is unpleasant, it is unlikely that he is 100% at fault for the argument you overheard. You overheard one snippet of a larger, private marital argument. You don’t know what came before or after the part you heard any more than you know all the details of their marriage.

Nor do you know about all of the interactions your brother-in-law has had with other members of the family. It’s possible that some family members have responded in kind to his bad behavior. What sounded like par-for-the-course jerk behavior from him, therefore, might not seem quite so unfair if you knew the whole story.

Your choice not to interfere was also sensible from a practical point of view — what could you have possibly said that would have changed the outcome? This man wanted to go home. His mind was made up. It is unlikely that you could have convinced him that he was having a wonderful time, or persuaded him to stay or shamed him into behaving nicely.

And what would have happened down the road if you had intervened? It might have felt good to speak up for your sister-in-law, or to tell off her husband for being a jerk. But any satisfaction you felt in the moment would have been selfish.

You might have felt better after ranting at her husband, but your sister-in-law would have been worse off. Her husband already dislikes family gatherings, and you would have given him a concrete reason to avoid them in the future.

Further, your sister-in-law might have felt embarrassed that you overheard her private conversation with her husband. She knows her husband behaves badly and is not well-liked, and his behavior probably embarrasses her. Her humiliation would have been compounded by knowing that you overheard their argument and observed first-hand that his private behavior toward her is as bad as his public behavior toward the rest of the family.

Nor would your interference have improved the dynamics of their relationship. This man would not have responded to your interference by thinking, “Oh, gee. Charlotte thinks I’m a jerk to my wife. I hadn’t realized my behavior was offensive. Now that I know, I’ll change.”

And your sister-in-law would not have said, “Wow, Charlotte. Thanks for sticking up for me. What you said really put me in a better position to manage my relationship with my husband.”

It should also be pointed out that family reunions, what with all the sun and heat and rowdy children and togetherness, tend to be stressful for everyone. And especially for the unpleasant brother-in-law that nobody likes.

Finally, your question raises the specter of spousal abuse. The effect of your brother-in-law’s actions was to isolate your sister-in-law from her family. And a husband who insists his wife leave her family reunion because he is not enjoying himself could be abusively controlling in other ways.

I suggest you read up on the signs of spousal abuse and how you can extend a helping hand to your sister-in-law, should she need one. Then, keep your eyes open.

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