Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years. This week, she counsels a woman whose husband’s younger sister suddenly insists on being included in all of the family’s activities.
Dear Dr. Ford:
I am 53 years old. My husband and I have been happily married since I as 27. We have a good sex life, get along well, and have three adult children who are “successfully launched.” For many years we have been looking forward to this time in our lives for travel and others things that mid-life freedom affords us.
Trouble began when my husband’s sister, Janine, recently moved to our city after her third divorce. Once a fabled beauty (though no longer, after too many years of alcohol, cigarettes, and sun) she is without a career or children at this point in her life. Although she has enough money to be independent, she is insisting that she be included in all our family’s activities. She wants to be invited when we go to our club, hints at being included in our upcoming vacation, and has even begun co-opting some of our adult daughter’s time as well.
Though my husband understands that our plans are being altered by his sister’s demands, he feels guilty toward her and doesn’t want to hurt her feelings. I don’t either, but I am very disturbed by her intrusion into our life together.
Dr Ford Responds:
Sometimes it seems as if responsibility for family members is a never-ending duty, especially to those of us in the “sandwich generation” who often have to care for elderly parents and children at the same time. Siblings present problems for their more well-functioning brothers and sisters as well, and knowing where—and more important, how—to draw the line can be hard.
It’s especially hard when there is disagreement about the issue. “In-law” disagreements are one of the most common flash points for married couples. You and your husband are approaching Janine with very different histories. For him, the relationship with his sister is fraught with all the complexity and freight that typically surround the dynamics of any family. This includes feelings of responsibility and guilt (as well as love) toward someone he sees as not having fared as well in life as he has.
On the other hand, to others Janine may look like someone who hasn’t handled things well—someone who, unlike you, has made bad choices. Just as you are about to reap some of the benefits of your steady path, she shows up and wants “in.” Clearly, you and your husband need to find some common ground in how you see her in order to set some boundaries.
It will help if you try to meet him halfway by understanding why he feels as he does. He probably does not see her as someone who has traded her beauty and now must pay the price. Most of us see our siblings in relation to our whole history with them: to him she is his “little sister” and he may see her in his mind’s eye as a younger, more vulnerable self than as an adult who can take care of herself. He may also not understand the feelings of envy and resentment that are stirred up by women who seem to have used their looks to effortlessly open doors while the rest of us have had to learn to knock, use the doorknobs, or even to pick the locks.
Nevertheless, great beauty can also be a handicap of sorts. People respond so quickly to a beautiful woman’s physical self that she can come to feel that the way she looks is the only thing that is valuable about her. She may ignore focusing on other strengths as a result, and, as in Janine’s case, become accustomed to not needing to make an effort to gain others’ attention. Getting older is hard for all of us, but it can be shocking and bewildering to women like her.
To solve the problem you have with your sister-in-law you will need to approach it on two levels. One one level, you and your husband should encourage her to set goals that will help her become more independent in the long run, including finding her own place in the community. She may also require professional help to come to terms with the losses she has suffered. Helping her find outside help or networking opportunities is a much more appropriate—and truly useful—way to support her.
In the meantime, you and your husband need to find a way to draw a firmer boundary. Talk with your husband about his concerns, with an eye toward helping him understand that Janine needs to start figuring things out for herself if she is going to live a happier life in the future. The two of you might need to develop a “script” that you “write” together of what you need to say to her when she is being too demanding or intrusive. Just as we need to be tough sometimes with our young-adult children when they need to be more independent, it can be difficult but important to say no when someone we care about is in need. Try to recognize that she and your family will both be much better off in the long run if she can remake her own life in her own way.