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Heavy Meddle: Keeping The Peace — And One's Mouth Shut — In A Large, Dysfunctional Family

An elderly couple's daughter has assumed the mantle of their care and lets her resentment show. Her sister-in-law wonders: Should I say something? (Gerard Moonen/Unsplash)
An elderly couple's daughter has assumed the mantle of their care and lets her resentment show. Her sister-in-law wonders: Should I say something? (Gerard Moonen/Unsplash)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the advice column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

...

Dear Steve,

I have a question about how to cope with a large, dysfunctional family… as an in-law. I know from reading this column and listening to Dear Sugar that you get a lot of tough questions about how to walk the right line when it comes to dealing with the family you married into. Here’s the deal:

My wife’s sister, let’s call her Sharon, has taken over managing the affairs of my in-laws. They are elderly and infirm and require near constant supervision. About two years ago, Sharon moved in with them. To her credit, she does a tremendous amount of work, and she does it well.

...she handles her parents’ affairs, and her interactions with the rest of the family, in a bossy, off-putting and controlling way.

The problem is that she handles her parents’ affairs, and her interactions with the rest of the family, in a bossy, off-putting and controlling way. She considers herself the authority and last word on all things relating to her parents and their care. When she needs a day (or sometimes a week) off, she informs her siblings without any notice and expects them to drop everything and take over. If they push back at all, or ask for more notice in the future, Sharon flies off the handle and lays into them about how ungrateful they are.

My wife, and the rest of her siblings (there are five total), believe it’s time for their parents to move into a nursing home. Sharon won’t hear of it, and takes personal offense at the suggestion. My in-laws are good-natured, easy-going people, and they just want to live out the rest of their years in peace. They are happy at home, but they don’t want to be a burden and have been very open to the idea of moving into assisted living when the time is right. However, they are understandably very deferential to Sharon since she is their primary caretaker.

I am trying to stay neutral and to support my wife in her interactions with her family. But it’s getting increasingly difficult to bite my tongue.

What would you recommend?

A Bemused Daughter-in-Law
...

Dear Bemused,

Bite your tongue.

I certainly understand your frustration. Sharon sounds like a difficult character. Then again, you might think about how much of her own life she’s given up to care for her parents. By your own account, she does “a tremendous amount of work, and she does it well.” In her own mind, she’s the one who’s taken on this huge burden, one about which she is both resentful and proprietary.

Obviously, her sacrifice doesn’t give her the right to take her siblings for granted, or to bully them. And it should not interfere with your parents’ decision about where they want to live. But it’s up to your siblings to resolve these matters with Sharon, not you.

A more positive way of saying this would be: You’re doing just what you need to do — supporting your wife.

Families tend to fight when they’re upset, because it’s easier to be angry and resentful than it is to be sad.

I can understand that as someone looking at the situation from the outside, you may feel inclined to offer your perspective and to defend your partner. But I’m not sure what would be gained by your saying something to Sharon. I strongly suspect she would view any rebuke from you as presumptuous and provocative. The risk, in other words, is that you’ll further agitate a painful situation.
Look: the dynamics at play when beloved parents are nearing the end are fraught. Even the happiest and healthiest adult children act out in ways that feel regressed. This is disturbing to witness. But your in-laws and your wife and her siblings are the ones who have to work this all out, as best they can.

The best role you can play as an in-law, it seems to me, is to try to understand everyone’s perspective and to be supportive of the entire family as they deal with this new phase in their family’s life. I stress this because, realistically, it’s likely to get more difficult in the months and years ahead. Families tend to fight when they’re upset, because it’s easier to be angry and resentful than it is to be sad. But none of the fighting between your wife and her siblings will get at the truth of their struggle. It’s a distraction.

Go forth in patience and compassion,

Steve

Author's note: Remember a few years ago when there was all that talk about Death Panels? Those didn’t actually exist. But end of life planning does. And this is a family in the throes of trying to cope with it. Other readers who have experience with dynamics like this are encouraged to offer their advice in the comments section below. And feel free to send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.

Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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