Question

My husband’s older sister was widowed two years ago. She has no children and no other siblings. Prior to this, she would barely give my husband and me the time of day. However, since being widowed, she had bonded to us like cement!

We were there for her throughout the initial difficulties, but now my husband has made himself more than available to her. Don’t get me wrong — my heart goes out to her. However, she has never been particularly kind to me — always authoritative and quite snooty.

Two years have passed and due to my husband’s inability to say “no” to her, I feel we are no longer a couple. She’s become the “third wheel” in our marriage. Perhaps it wouldn’t be quite as difficult for me if she and I got along, but from the get-go she has looked down on me and treated me as though I am interfering in her relationship with her brother. She now treats him as though she is his mother / wife like constantly buying him clothing and food from fancy take out restaurants.

Here’s the bottom line: she’s driving me nuts and my husband feels that he’s got to help her.

She’s constantly planning social events for the two of them, such as attending performances. She’s even planning vacations for the three of us! Please help! Is there any escape hatch?

Answer

It’s difficult to compassionately make room for people when they forcefully push their way into our lives. You and your husband have some challenging decisions to make as you balance the needs of your marriage, your need to feel respected, and the needs of your widowed sister-in-law. Let’s talk about how to sort this out.

You asked if there was an escape hatch. Of course, you want this to just magically disappear! It’s caused great pain to you as she’s personally rejected you and hijacked your marriage. You want this to go away quickly, but I believe there is an opportunity to set appropriate limits with her and build a stronger connection with your husband.

I don’t know how directly you’ve addressed this with your husband, as it can be a sensitive issue many couples would avoid. I recommend you make this your first priority. Recognize that either your marriage had enough space in it for her to march in and take over, or your husband opened a huge space for her. Either way, you need to get to the bottom of why this space opened up and determine how you’re going to reclaim it. Until you and your husband close that space and decide how much room you’ll allot her in your marriage, any boundaries you personally set with her will potentially undermine your relationship with your husband. You both need to be unified in your efforts to pull close to each other and invite her back into your newly reinforced marriage.

Perhaps it’s time for you to schedule your own getaway with your husband and dedicate sacred space to talk about the impact this is having on your connection with him. Don’t make this about her and your troubled history with her. Make this about how important your husband is to you and how much you miss your close connection. Let him know that you want to be his first priority and you want him to be yours. Identify other areas that may also be crowding out your connection with each other. It’s likely she’s not the only offender. Make an honest assessment and see if you can find your way back to each other.

These competing needs don’t need to become polarized so there is a winner and a loser. I’m confident that if you feel securely connected to your husband again, you’ll find space for her that makes sense for both of you. And, with the appropriate boundaries in place, you’ll discover that it’s easier to feel more sensitivity toward her difficult plight.

When we face dilemmas like this, please remember the comforting direction from President Russell M. Nelson in our most recent General Conference:

“Our Father knows that when we are surrounded by uncertainty and fear, what will help us the very most is to hear His Son.

Because when we seek to hear—truly hear—His Son, we will be guided to know what to do in any circumstance.”[i]

She has hurt you and now she’s hurting your marriage. It’s challenging to know what’s the right way to respond to someone who threatens you on so many personal levels. The Savior commanded us to “do good to them that hate [us],”[ii] which can include setting appropriate limits. Allowing her to live in a pseudo-marriage with your husband isn’t in her best interest, as it keeps her from dealing with her grief and moving forward in her life. Remember that being Christlike can include saying “no” and saying “yes.”

You can be sensitive to these siblings who are holding on to each other tightly while asking your husband to hold you the tightest. He made strict covenants to choose you first, not his sister. I’m confident you can take your rightful place in this marriage and invite your husband back to his privilege of caring for you first. Then, you can both work together to find a healthy and sustainable place for his sister.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]

If you’ve broken trust with your spouse and want a structured approach to repairing the damage you’ve created, I’ve created the Trust Building Bootcamp, a 12-week online program designed to help you restore trust and become a trustworthy person. You can receive 15% off by entering the code MERIDIAN at checkout. Visit www.trustbuildingacademy.com to learn more and enroll in the course.

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples, pornography/sexual addiction, betrayal trauma, and infidelity. He is the founder of LifeStar of St. George, Utah (www.lifestarstgeorge.com) and Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com). Geoff is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, the host of the Illuminate podcast, and creates online relationship courses available at www.trustbuildingacademy.com. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

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[i] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2020/04/45nelson?lang=eng

[ii] Matthew 5:44