Not Seeing The Forest

by admin on August 5, 2013

Two years ago, I married a divorced man with a big extended family. While many of his relatives – none of whom I’d previously met – came to the our wedding, some couldn’t, including one brother and sister-in-law. We did receive a wedding gift from them, an obvious regift set of candles, one of which was broken. (This could not have been a ‘We wanted to send you something even though we can’t afford it’ gift. They have two homes, and the husband, although retired, is on the board of a very chi chi private college.) I thought the gift was odd, but sent a very appreciative thank you card anyway.

It was several months after our wedding that I finally met this brother and his wife at another family event. Now the brother is just about the warmest, most charming person you could ever hope to meet. But his wife refused to shake my hand, or even make eye contact.

We were at another event last month, and again, she acted like I wasn’t there. I am basically very shy and socially inept, so I’m reluctant to ask her what the problem is.

I’m a middle-aged woman, not some young hottie who drives men wild, so it’s not as if she has anything to worry about. I am nobody’s idea of a trophy wife. I did not break up my husband’s marriage. I’ve met his ex, and she has always been friendly and hospitable to me. And the rest of his family has been very welcoming.

We should be invited to this couple’s grandson’s christening in another month or two, and I dread having to feel like I’m some horrible person that my sister-in-law can’t stand being in the same room with.

My husband won’t say anything to her, and her husband seems not to notice.

Any recommendations??  0802-13

Why, why, why are you giving this woman such enormous power over you to negatively affect your mood and perception of all family functions?    Why can you not focus on the “very welcoming” attitude of the entire rest of the family?  It’s as if you are trying your darnedest to only see the one rotten apple in the entire orchard of lovely fruit. Unless you want to fertilize the seeds of family drama, I suggest ignoring her and concentrate on being grateful that the rest of the family are kind, welcoming people.

{ 70 comments… read them below or add one }

Powers August 6, 2013 at 9:51 am

Am I the only one who noticed that the sister-in-law refuses to shake hands with the correspondent? That is a form of the cut direct… it goes far beyond just being mean, and socially serves as a direct statement that one is ‘persona non-grata’.

That is an actively hostile move. The charming techniques offered by other commenters, such as “Say hello and shake her hand” are obviously insufficient to the task of responding to this direct insult. You cannot “warmly greet” a person who doesn’t even acknowledge your existence, and you certainly cannot shake her hand.

Especially at this Christening, where the sister-in-law will be the hostess, this will create a hostile environment. That is not something the letter-writers should have to tolerate, now or in the future.

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Raven August 6, 2013 at 9:56 am

Ok, let me rephrase what I said earlier. I’m not saying OP’s husband should be refereeing this issue or anything, but rather just looking out for his wife. If she’s upset by her SIL, upset enough that she’s posting about it on the internet and struggling at family gatherings, it seems natural to me that he would be concerned and want to be supportive. This doesn’t sound like the typical catty back-and-forth (at least in my own experience; maybe I’m wrong) and it would be worth getting in to, I think. Everyone’s relationship is different, I guess. I know for me, if my fiance had a family member treating me this way, he would absolutely try to help me resolve it, because he wouldn’t be comfortable with someone treating me so disrespectfully. Again, everyone’s relationship is different.

Anyway, I’m obviously in the minority here, so OP good luck to you. My vote is still to call her on it, even though you say it makes you uncomfortable. I feel for you (I used to be the same way) but have found that the discomfort experienced during the actual conversation is often minor compared to the repeated discomfort experienced during the repeated incidents of rudeness. You don’t have to go on the attack, and it doesn’t have to turn into WWIII.

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Anonymous August 6, 2013 at 11:20 am

I agree with the “water off a duck” approach that everyone else is pushing, but I’d like to add something else: An invitation is not a summons, and not EVERY family function is a “must-attend” event. So, I’d scale it back a bit. Instead of going for Christmas dinner, drop by the in-laws’ house for a few hours on Christmas afternoon (or Christmas Eve, or Boxing Day, or even a random day in January after the holiday rush has died down). Instead of going to the “big family dinner” for every birthday, just do something individually for/with the birthday person. The same can apply for graduations, baby showers, or any other happy events. For really big things, like weddings and funerals, sure, you can make an appearance, but you don’t have to stay until the bitter end.

As for the rest of the family members, who you do like, you could continue to invite them (individually, or in couple/nuclear family groups) over to your house for dinner, or on informal outings. etc., on “non-holiday” days throughout the year. It gets a bit harder with the “nice brother, nasty SIL” problem, but surely there are some interests that your husband and his brother share, but not SIL, right? So, for example, your husband could invite his brother out to play golf, and then after that, all three of you could have dinner at your house. The dinner part doesn’t have to be a stated part of the invitation; it’d just be, “OPHusband invited Brother out for golf, and they were both hungry afterwards, so OP barbecued some hamburgers for everyone back at the house.”

This isn’t technically rude, because the “social unit” rule has some wiggle room–it’s okay if it’s a single-gender or one-on-one outing, and it’s okay if it’s a specific-interest thing. For example, even in a co-ed group (book club, garage band, Ultimate Frisbee team, whatever), it’s okay, and even natural, not to include spouses/partners, if they’re not bookish/musical/fans of round plastic projectiles. So, while it may take a bit of creativity to keep thinking of excuses to invite Brother without SIL, over time, she’ll see that she’s not being invited to things, and either change her behaviour, and become more pleasant to be around, or stay the same, in which case you continue to not invite her. Either way, it’s a win for you, and an etiquette-approved win at that.

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sv August 6, 2013 at 12:05 pm

First things first: it is a mistake to presume you know anything about their finances unless you are their accountant. The big houses, etc etc might be far more than they can afford. The fact that it was a regift could be for many reasons, and yes, disinterest could easily be one of them, but do not assume that.
Now, as for the rest. You don’t know this woman; she might also have social shyness. Or maybe she’s just a jerk- it’s impossible to say on such a brief amount of time. Does it matter? If she is shy she will eventually get over it, and if she is a jerk she won’t. Either way your job is clear – act like yourself and enjoy the rest of the family. Why do you need to involve your husband in this? I am all for telling him your feelings but having him talk to her is a bit dramatic. If you don’t want to talk to her yourself then just let it go and concentrate on all the other people who have welcomed you into this family.

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Miss Raven August 6, 2013 at 1:38 pm

Is anyone else completely baffled by people like OP’s SIL? It would be silly to pretend like none of us ever dislike someone else irrationally. There are some people that you have no reason to dislike, but for one reason or another, just grate on you.

For me personally, and I think for most of us, those people have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA who they are. We were not raised by wolves. We know how to be polite and affable in social settings where the person we are not super fond of is unavoidable. This goes double and triple with family!

Being openly cold, rude, distant, or outright mean to someone who has done nothing to deserve it is something I cannot even conceive of.

I am not much for self-help books, but there is something in the book The Four Agreements that always stuck with me: “Don’t take anything personally.” Everything anyone does or says to you is a reflection of their own reality, and nothing more. Consider this, OP!

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sio8bhan August 6, 2013 at 2:47 pm

“Unless you want to fertilize the seeds of family drama,”

I love that phrase! May I borrow it some time when it’s appropriate, which I hope is soon?

I do understand the confusion and hurt the letter-writer feels, because I’ve come across that situation and am very CURIOUS, because I haven’t done anything (yet) to cause the animosity. I end up disliking the person for that reason. I then find out that he/she affects some others the same way.

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SJ August 6, 2013 at 2:49 pm

I’ve been in social situations where someone seems to be ignoring me. Usually if I make a blatant effort to be friendly, they open up.

“I don’t think we’ve officially met, I’m OP. What a lovely blouse. May I ask where you got it?”

If you still get the cold shoulder, I guess it’s her loss!

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NicoleK August 6, 2013 at 3:15 pm

I don’t know about this university, but for many non-profits you pay to be on the board, you don’t get paid. It may be money is tighter than you think, especially if they have a big house.

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Kimstu August 6, 2013 at 4:06 pm

@Tsunoba: “I honestly hate the advice of “Why should you care? Just stop thinking about it.”
Mainly because I don’t understand how you’re supposed to prevent yourself from thinking about anything.”

Practice, practice, practice. Whenever the situation you’re fretting about pops up in your head, just keep reminding yourself that the other person’s bad behavior is their problem, not yours, and gradually you’ll convince yourself and the fretting will slack off.

You CAN use your conscious rational judgement to help realign your instinctive emotion-based reactions. It won’t happen all at once, but over time it will have an effect.

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Kirsten August 7, 2013 at 3:04 am

Whether you dislike someone or not, it is incredibly rude to refuse to speak to them or shake their hand. What the SIL is doing, as Powers pointed out, is being actively hostile, and that is just not OK. I’m not surprised the OP is upset – she is being treated extremely badly in public and everyone else seems to be fine with it. The SIL is also being very rude to her hosts with this behaviour.

In OP’s place I might ask the BIL if I have done something to offend his wife, and when he asks why, tell him – she won’t shake my hand or speak to me. Or I would ask someone else. This is a horrible thing to do and it goes beyond someone not liking you. It’s an active statement of hatred at every family gathering, and that’s a bit much to take.

Failing this, I would simply have to ignore her back.

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Flulffy August 7, 2013 at 6:31 am

Not going to the family events is likely just what SIL wants. OP will just have to learn to live around SIL and not let herself be isolated from the mostly loving family.

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Ergala August 7, 2013 at 12:50 pm

There is always one person who loves to cause drama. On my husband’s side there is one person who does this. Sadly I was the target and 3/4 of that side has nothing to do with me. From day one of me dating my husband they have not liked me. They clearly tolerated my presence. What I did discover though was that if this one person wasn’t at a function people actually talked to me! That’s right I was in the room and it was acknowledged! It was then that I figured out that it wasn’t me, it was her. I was really hurt however when I found out that all the women on that side would do a weekly thing at a local place. They’d get together and make pottery. I was never invited. Not once. Even the younger girls were included but I was never ever ever invited. It was hosted by this person that hated me. It hurt a lot that nobody would speak up and say “Hey did anyone ever invite Ergala?” but apparently they all walked on egg shells because of it. Oh well. Not my loss.

I finally had to issue an ultimatum to my husband though. I told him I was not going to spend another one of my holidays feeling like I was the elephant in the room. It wasn’t fun for me and there was no reason why I should have to suffer just to make THEM happy. So I started to stay home or make other plans for family get togethers and holiday parties. He didn’t think I was serious. Boy was he wrong. And I will say that I am soooo happy I did that. I get to spend those days not feeling like I am merely tolerated. Now we are moving back to that area and we will be expected to go. We decided together that until attitudes change we have zero desire to interact with them.

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AIP August 7, 2013 at 1:13 pm

You could ask her if you had done anything to offend her, if you don’t think it could cause a rift between the brothers. There could be any number reasons for her behaviour ranging from an even worse case of the shys, to possibly thinking that you had something to do with your husband’s divorce, to even being one of these women who don’t shake hands when meeting people in a social setting. I know one man who refuses to say hello or goodbye, the best you’ll generally get out of him when he enters a room is a “Well!” ( he happens to have Asperger’s, but I think he is using it as an excuse because if you surprise him he’ll sometimes slip up ;) ). It’s arrogant but sometimes you just have to pick your battles. Ask your husband if she was like that with the ex and you’ll know if it’s personal or not.

Sure it came off as rude, but if it’s going to bother you to the extent of avoiding family events – which you don’t have to go to – then you only have a few options available to you.

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Anonymous August 7, 2013 at 6:12 pm

>>Whether you dislike someone or not, it is incredibly rude to refuse to speak to them or shake their hand.<<

Not necessarily. I used to know/live/work with a woman who was blatantly toxic. We lived in the same university residence community, and were later student leaders together (she became a student leader before me), and EVERYTHING I said was just more ammunition for her. For example, one day, we were painting bedroom door signs for new residents scheduled to arrive within the next few days. I was waiting for her to finish with the red paint, and the following exchange happened:

TOXIC WOMAN: "What are you doing?"

ME: "Oh, I was just waiting for the red."

TW: "Well, you could ASK!!!"

ME: "Well, you weren't done with it yet."

TW: "You know, if you want to be on a team, you need to work on your manners and communication!!!"

At that point, I was at a complete loss for words, because I knew that if I'd said something like, "Hey, TW, can I please use the red paint when you're done with it?"; she would have reamed me out for being "impatient." She also routinely antagonized me in front of our mutual friends, sometimes viciously and loudly, and not a thing was done about it. Going over her head to the "higher-up" student leaders didn't work, because they were friends with her, and she was popular and athletic. So, after a while, I didn't talk to her unless I absolutely had to. By the way, she was perfectly nice to most other people (although, some people I knew told me that TW was "extremely rude," and a lot of residents preferred me to her), so she wasn't toxic to THEM, but she was definitely toxic to ME. However, I'm fairly sure that this isn't the OP's situation, because generally speaking, toxic people don't visit sites like this one, because, like Toxic Woman, they're convinced that they're Always Right.

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Marguette August 7, 2013 at 7:55 pm

In #27 it was suggested to just “say hello and shake her hand.” If Cold SIL repeats the refusing to shake hands trick again, how should OP respond. Stand awkwardly with her hand extended long enough for someone to notice? Reach in and grab SIL’s hand? Snatch her own hand back when she realizes it isn’t going to be shaken? Move in for a forced hug and cheek kiss instead? If it was me, I could live with the cold shoulder and ignoring the rest of the time, but a refusal to shake hands is so blatant that I think it needs some further advice.

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The Elf August 7, 2013 at 9:37 pm

I’ve been with my husband for over 20 years now. My father in law STILL does not usually speak to me directly. Sometimes he will, but it’s exceptionable enough to be noteworthy. I still try to be polite and civil. Sometimes he’ll cut me off with something unrelated. Sometimes he’ll walk away when I’m mid-sentence. He pulls my husband aside to talk about all the preparations he’s made for his death, because he’s convinced I’m only in it for his money. (FWIW, he’s not wealthy. He does alright, but that’s mostly because he’s such a miser.) It’s taken a long time, but I don’t let it bother me a lot. After a few days it does get to me, but I try to shrug it off. I enjoy my book, I talk with the other relatives (the ones he’s not fighting with at the moment), and I remind myself that I’ll be the one to pick out his nursing home. Hehehe. Last laugh, buddy.

I don’t take it personally – he does it to just about everyone.

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Cozy August 9, 2013 at 10:00 pm

I do not like people who try to hug, shake, kiss me against my will. I am sore all over, and dread meeting new people who I will have to try to escape being ‘hurt’ by. I would always make sure I had way too much in my hands at church – like a huge purse, a shawl a Bible, enough that they would not offer their hand. I also hate how people think nothing of showing up dog sick and hugging everyone. I can’t afford to be sick, because it is so hard for me to recover. Please respect someone else’s space and realize that she may have a problem not related to you.

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sillyme August 11, 2013 at 5:24 pm

I scanned through and didn’t see this posed anywhere, so I’m just throwing out there. Of course being treated this way is going to bother someone. It’s hard. Our instincts are to evaluate our behavior to find out 1) what we did wrong and 2) how we can fix it. It’s also just scarey. People who act inexplicably hostile set off necessary insticts in us that make us alarmed and afraid.

However, I wasn’t puzzled. I figured the SIL has a thing for the OP’s husband. That makes sense to me. Whether she was able to explore those feelings before OP met the new husband isn’t necessarily here or there. But I would ask my new husband why a non-blood relative hates me so much the minute I walk on the scene. I’d definitely want to know. You may not see yourself as a threat, but writer, you got the ring and the man all the same. And from where I sit, that looks like it was enough to p!ss that woman off.

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Jewel August 12, 2013 at 5:42 pm

Marguette, keep your hand out noticeably long enough to ensure she’s noticed it, then wait a heartbeat before dropping your hand back to your side. After the first time anyone snubs your handshake, don’t bother extending yours to that person in future meetings. If you were to do so, in my opinion, your motivation would be to either deliberately antagonize the person or you have hopes that others see the exchange and the person is shamed for snubbing your handshake.

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