Carolyn Hax: Bullying stops when witnesses step in

September 8, 2013 

Carolyn: At family gatherings, my brother’s wife puts my brother down with negative comments, says indirect, hurtful comments to her son’s girlfriend, and is, in general, denigrating to other relatives. My mother has started to speak up when my brother’s wife says something negative about my brother, which appears to have brought on comments from my brother’s wife about how difficult my mother is and how she should go to a nursing home due to her age. (Both of these comments about my mother are utterly wrong.)

My sister and I are trying to figure out how to not enable these situations and also how to not engage in her negative behavior. We don’t feel avoiding family gatherings is an option. Should we set boundaries? Should we ignore her? We need help with how we should handle ourselves to make our family gatherings more pleasant.

TWO SISTERS

No one has your mother’s back?

When she draws your sister-in-law’s wrath for speaking up, the answer isn’t to leave your mother hanging out there; that’s some thanks for her courage. You need to denounce the negativity, openly, and stop making it so easy for your sister-in-law to dismiss your mother, or brother.

The key to any bullying situation isn’t the bully or the victim. It’s the witness. When witnesses stand up, step in, say — in word or deed — that nastiness won’t be tolerated in this crowd, then bullying stops.

When witnesses cower or shrug, or when no one supports the brave ones who do step in, then the bully gets a clear message: “Carry on.” Declining to engage is enabling her.

So please stop wringing your hands and respond to every negative blast, direct or otherwise, with a firm message: Not here, not now, and not to my family. If you’re concerned that it will put your brother in a worse spot, remember — he isn’t his wife’s only victim, nor is your mother. The wife’s negativity poisons the shared air of your family gatherings, and every single one of you has standing to suggest she take her hatefulness somewhere else.

Dear Carolyn: My parents are both deceased. I have known relatives only on my mother’s side.

After doing some research, I found family on my father’s side a few years ago — a first cousin and her husband. We’ve met in person and spoken on the phone and through email.

This cousin, “Joyce,” only wants me to be in contact with her — no other relatives, including her children and their families. I’m not comfortable with that. I’d appreciate your feedback!

J.

An odd request for sure, and the best approach to any odd request is to insist, gently, on knowing why before you agree to it.

Obviously Joyce has no business telling you whom you can and can’t contact, the adults at least — but because she has presumed to do so anyway, expect that ignoring Joyce’s wishes will cost you Joyce. Whether that’s an acceptable price is entirely up to you.

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