The question: I love my sister and her kids but can’t stand being around her husband, so I don’t see them as often as I’d like. Should I broach the subject with her or just bite my tongue?
The answer: Ahhh, family members and the outlaws – two of the biggest sources of stress for many people, yet an inevitable part of life for all of us.
The serenity prayer is a handy guiding principle to keep in your metaphorical pocket here: “… grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Here are the facts you must accept:
1. You love your sister, you love her kids, and you want to be seeing them more than you do.
2. Your sister (I’m presuming) loves her husband, and he is probably not going anywhere, any time soon.
3. You telling your sister you don’t care for her husband is likely going to have zero impact on fact No. 1 or No. 2.
Here are the things you can control:
1. Your self-talk, that is your perceptions and judgments, about your brother-in-law.
2. The way you conduct yourself around your brother-in-law, which will likely impact the respect your sister and her kids have for you.
There is likely little to no added value in you telling your sister how you feel about her husband. There is a good chance she already knows how you feel without you saying a word. And there’s an even greater chance that she probably feels caught in the middle and is not quite sure how to deal with wanting to be around two people she loves.
Are the issues with your brother-in-law differences in personality or beliefs? If so, you may need to simply agree to disagree. Minimize the level of your interaction with him on, for example, any hot topics that create conflict between the two of you. Or are the issues more substantive? For example, does he treat your sister in a way that is disrespectful or offensive, and is that the source of your dislike? This latter situation is more complicated and may warrant you having a candid and direct conversation with your sister.
You can gain some control over your emotional reaction to him. Our emotions are strongly affected by the thoughts we are having. Be mindful of your self-talk when you see him, and actively work to challenge and replace your thoughts so that they are realistic, accurate and fair. For example, rather than having negative thoughts when you see him (“Ugh, I hate this guy so much.”), replace them with more accurate thoughts that lead to a less intense emotional reaction (“He is definitely low on the list of people I like, but he treats my sister well, she loves him, and thankfully I don’t have to live with him.”).
Ultimately, you need to decide whether your desire to be a bigger part of your sister and her kids’ life trumps your dislike for her husband. You can certainly try to be creative in organizing visits and activities when her husband is not around or is unavailable (such as times he is at work). But the reality is you probably are going to have to accept that seeing your sister more is going to mean you are going to have to see him more. If appropriate, you may want to have a conversation with him (“Look, we both know we are not each other’s favourite person in the world, but we both love my sister and I want us to get along as best as we can.”). Maintain your focus on the positives that come along with spending more time with your sister and her kids, and minimize the energy you give to her husband.
Send psychologist Joti Samra your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.
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