Carolyn Hax: Husband will not stand up to abusive sister. Can his wife?

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Dear Caroline: My husband’s sister is very abusive to my husband, she yells at him and talks down to him and blames him for everything that goes wrong in her life. She has no respect for him at all and expects him to drop what he’s doing and take care of her. He is a kind person and does not oppose her. He says it’s easier for him to just take her abuse and do what she wants than fight her or even stand up for himself.

I think that has been a pattern throughout her life. I’ve watched this for the 10 years we’ve been married and it’s only gotten worse. She sometimes gets in his face and yells at him at the top of her lungs right in front of me. The problems she yells at him about are small, like leaving something out of place or not doing a chore exactly the way she wants him to.

For his sake, I didn’t interfere other than leave the room. But I find I can’t take it anymore. As a wife, do I have the right to tell her to stop talking to my husband like that, or does a sister have more rights than a wife? I want to set ground rules with her, even if my husband doesn’t want that.

Fed up: The question is whether the victim has more rights than a bystander. Her husband is the one she’s attacking, so yes, he has more say than you in how the two of you handle this situation.

Also, she’s his sister; there, too, the direct relative has the first word.

But: You are a member of the marriage that your crying affects and the household that your crying disturbs. You have the right to set boundaries if your husband refuses to do so. Call it oh-hell-no power.

As with any preference that goes against what your spouse wants, it gets better if you talk about it face-to-face first and give each other space to be heard. You don’t want to add this to his conflict-avoiding to-do list; I can easily imagine him taking on the burden of your feelings and not the other way around.

An example of such a conversation might be: “I understand that this is your sister and accepting her abuse seems like an easier decision for you to make. However, it also hurts me to see you suffer. And their tirades ruin meetings for me, happen on my time, happen in my house and offend my family.

“I kept my mouth shut. But I’m done and willing to face the consequences if I defy her. I respect that you might think differently, so I’ll talk to you first.”

That way he can give you his blessing or promise to go against her first or work with you on an alternative. Maybe he’d rather just free you from any obligation to ever spend time with her again. Supportive, cooperative couples find their way; almost any of them will, except you join his sister to drown out his voice.

Because you two are all that matters here. Your love, your respect, your home and your family environment. Both of you are responsible for moving beyond his family dysfunction far enough to give each other an equal say in your life together.

Hello Caroline: How do I tell my 19 year old son and 16 year old daughter that I was married to someone else (six months) before I married their father 20 years ago?

I never told them as a kid because I didn’t think it mattered. Now that they are older and will have their own relationships, I want to be honest with them. We have a great relationship. I don’t know how to just mug her without scarring her for life. I’d like to be frank with them before (God forbid) they somehow find out for themselves.

L: All you can do now is say it, no hedges and no excuses.

Explain exactly why you haven’t said anything like you said it here until now.

Encourage them to ask follow-up questions. Respect them enough to ask these questions without getting defensive.

If you feel like you’ve done something wrong, admit you were wrong. If you feel that you have hurt or underestimated them, sincerely apologize. If you feel you have used your best judgment, say so—they will see it in you when you seek their mercy.

Whether or not you get it is ultimately up to them, so stick to your goal: educate them about a part of your life they deserve. That you have a “great relationship” with them suggests that you have already taught them well that life is messy and forgiveness is an expression of love.

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