Dear Carolyn: How do you treat someone who talks about you behind your back? She does this with everyone. Cutting her out of my life is not an option.
Think of it in terms of output and input, where output is what you say to her, and input is what she says about you.
First, control your output by giving her as little information as possible. Be cordial, be vague, be neither defensive nor confrontational. “Hi, Back-Stabby” — B.S. for short — “you’re looking well.” Be ready with virtuous places to be other than in the room with this person. “I’ve got the dishes — you go enjoy the fire.” (“Preferably in it,” you will say silently to yourself.)
Then, control how you handle the input. When you learn of something terrible B.S. said about you, use this checklist: (1) This is about B.S., not me; (2) Because B.S. treats everyone this way; (3) People I respect know this about B.S.; (4) So my only concern is, can I ignore this latest backstabbing, or do I need to correct the record with key people?
Master this, and you can add another coping skill: pity. Who tears everyone down? Only those who are dying inside.
Dear Carolyn: My husband is the youngest of three brothers, and we were married last of the bunch. My older sisters-in-law have become close friends over the years and have a lot in common — both are teachers (I work in finance), both are of Swedish descent (I’m Greek), and both have two sons (I have three daughters). We all live in different parts of the country, but spend Christmas in our husbands’ hometown.
I have tried very hard over the years not to feel like the fifth wheel, but it’s hard when they have so much in common and I can’t relate to many of their conversations. I have tried to connect with them individually between Christmases, but I’m always the initiator. I know they maintain close contact with one another, but I rarely hear from them. I hesitate to bring up that I’m feeling left out because I want them to be in a relationship with me by choice, not make the effort out of obligation.
How can I be fair to them (not force them to read my mind), not come off as whiny or needy, and still form a genuine connection with them when there doesn’t seem to be room for me?
Fifth Wheel Sister
You can’t. I’m sorry. A connection requires other people who want to connect.
You have done what a reasonable and decent person would do to embrace your extended family. For four reasons you cite (latecoming, infrequent gatherings, bad luck with common interests, their pre-existing close friendship) and one you don’t (their apparent, unfortunate and utter indifference), you had an uphill climb from the start.
That wasn’t a reason not to try, and I hope you at least are glad you did. In fact, do keep trying because “trying” here means being friendly and warm — being yourself. Don’t push hard, don’t pull back, just be.
The futility of it, though, is a reason to abandon the goal of your effort, if not the effort itself. Fortunately, kindness often works best as an end unto itself.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com, follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at washingtonpost.com.