Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: Yesterday, I was putting my son down for a nap in my in-laws’ guest room. Through the magic of their HVAC system, I could hear my mother- and sister-in-law tearing me apart — everything from my shyness (they think I’m cold) to the value of my work (“I can’t believe people get paid for that!”) to my mother’s health (“such a drama-queen hypochondriac” — my mother has had cancer twice) to my haircut (I agree, but I can’t control how fast my hair grows). I’ve always done my best to maintain a good relationship with my in-laws and had a feeling they talk about me behind my back (because they talk about everyone else), but I never thought it would be this hurtful and bad.
I haven’t talked to my husband about this yet. Should I confront them (making me an eavesdropper in their eyes)? Just let it go? Let my husband confront them? Start repeating their exact words back to them in a seemingly innocent manner?
Talk to your husband. He should know what you’re up against and be an equal partner in the discussion about how you deal with his family from now on. You might decide not to change much (since the nastiness isn’t new, it’s just confirmed), but it’ll still feel better as a joint decision.
If I were writing this as a movie with a happy ending, he’d be furious on your behalf and give you license to avoid his folks; you’d appreciate that but agree to suck it up periodically so he and your son wouldn’t lose this family entirely. He would then let his family know what was overheard, that’s he’s embarrassed to be associated with them, and that he expects basic civility or he’s finished with them.
They, chastened and embarrassed, would admit they went too far and make inclusive overtures of toward you. You’d briefly weigh flipping them the fattest bird ever, but opt against and return the kindness. Fast forward 15 years, and you’re the one your mother-in-law wants around when her health starts failing. Roll credits.
But we have to start somewhere: Remind yourself they don’t hate you this much. Instead, they use you (and apparently others) to tighten their bond and feel superior. Scapegoating has to be as old as humanity. I’m sorry you’re being used that way, but it is surmountable, if you want it to be.
Re: Overheard: My childhood memories are of my mom complaining and gossiping about our entire extended family on the car rides home from visits. I didn’t know any better so started doing the same thing with my friends.
One person had the guts to confront me and it was like a light bulb going off; I’ve completely changed my behavior but I cringe when I think back on some of the unnecessary crap I said about people I really liked.
I really think your husband should call them out, since it could take just one time for them to realize how mean they were. If they get defensive, then it’s time to think about distancing yourself.
Used to Be the Nasty One
Here’s hoping they’re as self-aware as you are, and as willing to challenge themselves.