Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Problematic Sister-in-Law Upsetting Family Interactions

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Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,

I’ve known my husband for 16 years; we’ve been happily married the past eight. We have one daughter, five-year-old Emma. Since the very beginning my husband’s sister, Patricia, has not liked me. She now has a son, Barry, who is a year younger than Emma. I should mention that Patricia also has issues with my husband, her brother, and her father.

My husband has no desire to try and repair his broken relationship with her because he feels like every time he’s tried, she lists every wrong she has ever experienced from him, not to mention her lack of respect for me. Our relationship with her has devolved into something where we only see them at holidays, at my in-laws, or in passing at Grandma’s. Of late Patricia has been saying that Barry asks about my husband and Emma all the time, and that she would like the two kids to spend more time together.

I recently dropped off our daughter for a day at Grandma’s. When picking her up, Grandma mentioned to me that Patricia and her husband stayed with Barry and that Emma had gotten upset because she felt they were being mean to her. They claimed they were just trying to get to know Emma. This did not sit right with me and my husband. We felt if they truly want to get to know our daughter, they should have let us know that this was the purpose of the visit. We would have wanted one of us to stay with Emma as she is not familiar with them.

We decided to send a group text to them that I initiated; in retrospect my husband and I agree he probably should have sent it. The text just said we were glad they want a relationship with our daughter, but if that is the purpose of them visiting Grandma when they knew we wouldn’t be there, to please keep us in the loop about their intentions. Well, that touched a nerve! A flurry of texts came accusing me of demanding for them to clear with me when she, Patricia that is, can go to her mother’s. Which of course is not the case. We just don’t want Emma with them at Grandma’s when we’re not there.

After both Patricia and her husband did some name calling about me, my husband let them know that he didn’t appreciate vitriol being hurled at his wife. This has firmed up in both our minds that a relationship with them feels impossible. In fact, my husband has expressed he’s happier when he doesn’t have to try and placate her moods.

For me, I’m weary of having Grandma watch our daughter because I’m not comfortable with her as I feel like she might try to invite them over again without us knowing. And Emma has expressed that she is not comfortable around them. She told me that Aunt Patricia is weird and her uncle [Patricia’s husband] scares her. Her words, not ours! I’ve accepted that I think that it will never be the family dynamic I had hoped for. I guess I’m wondering if you have any words of advice in how to cope with this dynamic moving forward.


Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response

You ask if I have any words of advice for you moving forward. No, I do not. I have nothing but praise for you and your husband. The only advice I have is for you and your husband to keep on doing what you’re doing!

Commendable steps you’ve taken include:

  • Listening to your daughter when she expressed discomfort with Patricia and her husband. Too many times parents gloss over their children’s feelings, e.g., “Oh, I’m sure it isn’t as bad as you’re saying,” or “I’m sure so-and-so didn’t mean it the way you’re taking it.”
  • Coming to an agreement as a couple about what is best for your family, e.g., making sure you are with Emma when she is in the company of certain family members, minimizing the time spent with extended family.
  • Giving a difficult relationship a chance to work, and when that is unsuccessful, walking away from it. That is, your husband trying to get along with Patricia, only to find she sours things by constantly referring to long-term grievances she has with him.
  • Not succumbing to others’ requests and preferences that don’t sit well with you, for example, Patricia wanting Emma to spend time with Barry when you’re not present.
  • Putting boundaries around family interactions, as with you deciding not to leave Emma alone at Grandma’s. This reinforces the point that grandparents should not go against the wishes of their grandchildren’s parents. This breach of trust can often be difficult to reestablish.

The steps you have taken ensure that you are managing some difficult family relationships to meet your needs: you are not allowing other people to take actions that are unacceptable to you. It is not easy to take the steps you have taken — you did not acquiesce and take the path of least resistance. By being true to your values and principles you are protecting your daughter. Try as they may, no one can fault you for that.

Kudos! You are so on top of this situation!


Thank you so much, Gramma Karen! It is so nice to feel like I am supported at least from somewhere in my attempt to do the right thing. I really appreciate your detailed response and how incredibly positive and affirming it is. I feel a lot more confident now that my sticking to my convictions is not only warranted, but in the best interest of my daughter.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

Email queries to [email protected]

Dr. Rancourt’s most recent book is,

It’s All About Relationships:

New Ways to Make Them Healthy and Fulfilling, at Home and at Work.

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