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Carolyn Hax: In-law makes family gatherings hard to handle


Hi, Carolyn:

I’ve written before, but in a much elongated version. Yet the problem persists:

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 brother-in-law, husband to my husband’s sister, has been verbally abusing my husband for over a year now (well, actually, through e-mail to him and rants to other relatives). His sister will not intervene, since her husband has proceeded with her knowledge and approval.

This mess is entirely the result of a family business situation, not of either of their making.

The dilemma: We are often invited to celebratory family events that these two will surely attend. Our non-attendance is noted. So, how to handle these situations? Parents-in-law say not going would be “politically” loathsome (allowing bro-in-law and sis to “win”); ignoring bro-in-law seems childish; small talk seems abhorrent — unless it’s to call him out as the ass he is, which would be rude. I am in a quandary. Suggestions?

This is still too long.


No, it’s just right. There’s a lot going on here.

And it all adds up to a classic bullying scene. Your brother-in-law is the bully, your sister-in-law is his validation — mean people generally think they’re justified, not mean — your husband is the victim, their parents and other relatives are the under-outraged bystanders (perhaps with their own agendas), and you’re the one watching it all and saying, “Um, isn’t anyone going to do anything?”

To answer your question: Whoever thinks to ask it is the one stuck with acting on it.

So talk to your husband about how you and he can handle this in a way less reminiscent of rolling helplessly onto your backs.

You can, for example, explain to his parents this has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with decency. Skipping encounters with the brother- and sister-in-law is your right, and if the rest of the family misses you, then they can take it up with the brother.

If they don’t like that (or you don’t, or your husband doesn’t), then you can say you’ll gladly take your place at family gatherings, but do so feeling no obligation to pretend all is peachy just to maintain appearances. Perhaps: “Whenever you’re ready to have a civilized conversation, BIL, I’m here. Until then, please understand I have nothing to say to you.” Add a turkey and you have yourself a Thanksgiving.

In-your-face approaches? Both, yes. But not gratuitously, and not with the intention of returning the abuse. Instead, it’s a quiet, calm stand to deny this family’s denial, thereby removing the courtesy-cover under which the bully operates. Like so many others.

To operate effectively, bullies need people to have some other objective than exposing them: avoiding the bully’s wrath, say, or preserving the appearance of normalcy, or covering one’s own culpability, or enjoying a shared enemy’s takedown. Families fear they’ll be torn apart, or just that confrontation will ruin Christmas.

But when a bully’s at work, few objectives have sufficient weight to justify shrugging and saying, “Well, I don’t have all the details,” or whatever else people shrug and say when witnessing an attack.

If your husband refuses to rock the boat — steady it, I say — then please remind him that everything he does or doesn’t do at this point is a statement; it might as well state what he wants to say.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Subscribe at

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