Carolyn Hax: A balanced response to a bossy sister-in-law

Carolyn Hax
Columnist August 15, 2013

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

My husband’s oldest sister is on the bossy side and typically arranges family gatherings. During our wedding planning, it was pretty clear she was used to getting her way. I am usually a good communicator and good at picking battles, so I figured I could handle her.

My husband and I purchased a new house and offered to host a holiday gathering so everybody could see our new place. Since then, his sister has made our lives very difficult. She comes over to our house suggesting total overhauls of rooms and gave me a menu — most of the items she is planning on bringing, claiming that “you don’t know how our family does things yet.”

She sends daily e-mails dictating all sorts of things. She also doesn’t want one of the brothers to bring his girlfriend because they “haven’t been dating long enough to share holidays.”


She is out of control. My husband tried being blunt with her: “We are hosting this holiday and are happy to see you then. But until then, let us do it our way.” Evidently her husband and my in-laws let her get her way because it is easier. I don’t want to do that or fight with her about every side dish for the rest of my life. How do I balance this?

Pushed

Your husband was blunt with her; what he “tried” to do was rein her in by being blunt with her.

At this point, it appears as if you and your husband both need to accept that stopping her bossiness isn’t a realistic goal. A goal that is realistic is to host this gathering the way you want to, no matter what Bossy says.

You can achieve that by pushing back whenever she pushes, but that sounds exhausting and needlessly high-conflict.

Instead, you can also just decline to engage her and hold your course. For example, she suggests room overhauls (I love that one — she’s paying the bill?), and you say, “Hm, interesting,” and arrange things as you wish. She suggests side dishes and you say, “Thanks, but please don’t bring food. We’re cooking.” When she brings food anyway, say, “Huh, I’m sure I said we were cooking,” serve one of her dishes and store the rest.

When she declares that the new girlfriend isn’t welcome, say, “Hmm, I see what you’re saying,” and invite the new girlfriend anyway. The e-mails, you can ignore — or respond to selectively. If she says five things in an e-mail, you can deal with one in your response and just not mention the rest.

You can do this because you have two things in your favor: your house and your husband. You can invite whom you want, serve what you want and present a unified front against whatever fit Bossy decides to pitch. She can react by making a lot of noise, of course, and even by trying to turn the family against you, but if you stay calm and firm and welcoming, she probably will have little leverage — at least not enough to overcome her own history of annoying the snot out of the very people she’s trying to get on her side.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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