I’ve always had a good relationship with my husband’s sister, but a few months ago when she came for a visit, she abruptly left when she found out my daughter and I had flown across the country over the summer to see my brother and didn’t visit her adult daughter who lives nearby.
My daughter told her we had visited. My sister-in-law incorrectly assumed that I had asked my daughter to not tell her and that it accidentally slipped out, both untrue. She decided she was not welcome in our home and left after arriving about two hours prior.
When I got home from work and learned what had happened, I texted her to let her know I had not asked my daughter to lie, that it was a short trip to see my brother and I had just wanted to spend time with him, as it was the first time I had seen him since my father’s funeral. I haven’t heard from her since.
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My husband’s input is: I told you you should have visited my niece when you were there.
Was I obligated to visit her? Do I owe my sister-in-law an apology? For the record, my daughter did visit with my niece and my sister-in-law just a few weeks after the “incident” at a family gathering, which I was unable to attend due to my job.
Short trip, narrow purpose, you didn’t feel obligated to see your niece: You are entitled to that opinion, just as you were entitled to spend your trip as you pleased.
Your sister-in-law strongly disagreed, and thinks her view of how you should have spent your time is paramount. She is entitled to her opinion, too. It’s a lousy one, and I imagine a much happier life for her if she is ever able to overrule her impulse to be offended and recognize that not every decision others make is a referendum on her, but it’s her lousy opinion to have.
So the choice you have is between sticking to your message (“No harm intended, I just had a specific purpose for this trip”), or indulging your sister-in-law to a degree that doesn’t feel insincere (“I’m sorry — I should at least have called her/told you myself, I wasn’t thinking”).
The facts that your sister-in-law reacted in such an extreme and dramatic way; now has invoked the silent treatment — the mother of all emotional abuse tactics; and has, apparently, at least partial backing of your husband, who no doubt was shaped by the same (unhealthy) emotional forces your sister was, means you’re probably not looking at a onetime blowup that you need to navigate. So consider how you feel best about managing your relationships with knee-jerk sensitive people in general, more than just this sister-in-law, to give you some clarity.
Is it enough to hold to your truth and let others adjust to it (or not)? Would you rather be conciliatory as long as you aren’t apologizing for actions you don’t believe were wrong? Would you rather talk feelings than facts?: “I never meant to upset you, I’m sorry.” It never hurts to have a plan.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.