The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carolyn Hax: Quip at ‘obnoxious’ sister-in-law forces damage control

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t stand my obnoxious, hardhearted sister-in-law. Every crisis in our family since my brother married her was met with the opinion that she’d never be stupid enough to get herself in that situation. She’s selfish with her time and money, usually mean and always arrogant. The whole time my husband and I were caring for my mother-in-law through multiple sclerosis, my sister-in-law’s favorite line was that she’d “put a bullet in her head” before she’d be dependent on anyone. My mother-in-law could hear her.

In 2020, she got the coronavirus because of her own arrogance and has not fully recovered. Her lingering health issues have my brother reaching out for help. I cleaned their entire house last week, and rather than being grateful, she was critical. In return, I asked whether she had changed her mind about depending on people or needed help finding a bullet. It was wrong, but I’m not sorry. She’s acting all hurt, but I’m sure she’s just mad that I called her on her bull.

Even so, I realize I need to apologize, because my brother is actually hurt. How do I make myself do this? I need to for my brother’s sake, but I don’t want to.

— Not Sorry

Not Sorry: Hm. You’re not sorry, so I don’t know about the value of an apology. And your sister-in-law has crossed abundant lines, in some cases grotesquely, so although it’s never good to get that out of your system via overhead smash, you did have a valid point to make with her, and you made it.

So here’s what I’m thinking: Before you skulk to her bedside for an insincere patch-up job, talk to your brother. Assuming you feel this way, say that you’re sorry you hurt him, sorry you handled it the way you did, sorry you weren’t more graceful — but that your rage and frustration were honest. Remind him of what she has said and how much you resent it. Ask him how he would handle this if he were in your place and how he would like you to proceed, short of an insincere apology. This is the relationship you care about, so tend to it.

As for your sister-in-law, if it would help your cause with your brother, talk this out with her. Say you shouldn’t have thrown it back in her face, but it was your aha moment for how appalled you were by that comment. See what she has to say.

In the meantime, readers have thoughts:

· No need to apologize to the ungrateful wretch. She made that bed abundantly over the years and is lying in it, griping.

· Well, boohoo. His toxic wife owes your mother-in-law a huge apology. The comment was perfect, and no apology is needed.

· Feel free to cut her off. Tell your bro you’re always happy to see him, but if his wife continues her nastiness, you will reply to her in kind. Or in mean.

· I would say to the brother, in all sincerity: “Are you okay with her saying things that hurt your family in this way?” Then really listen to his answer. Then think about how you should move forward with your relationship with your brother, given how his wife treats people.

· Thanks for the laugh. No, it was not the nicest thing to say, but the turnaround here is she gets to say ugly and offensive things to people’s faces, but no one gets to reply in kind. Don’t bite.