My sister bullies me

She and my mother-in-law gang up and make life miserable

Topics: Since You Asked, Family, bowen family systems, family systems theory,

My sister bullies me (Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I am about to turn 40. I’m a working mom, married — we’re both teachers — and my mother-in-law and my sister seem to share a displeasure for my wanting to address disagreements or misunderstandings directly, and calmly. They share in common a desire to enjoy my children and sometimes I feel like a mere obstacle in the way of their fun time.

My sister yells at me, exaggerating and cursing at me, saying “you always …,” or “you never …” Most recently it’s been bickering (her snappy bully talk and my direct speak) about my recently widowed mom who is having mysterious long seizures since Dad died. Obviously there is a terrible grief motivating the pain masked as anger or irritation but she is unlikely to change her ways. My mother-in-law is an enigma for which I need an enema — and if you answer this one I will write again. Thanks!

Stupid Little B

Dear Stupid Little B,

Ideally you, your sister and your mother-in-law would visit a family therapist and explain that you are having increased conflict in the wake of your father’s death and you want help managing your emotions and your relationships.

Fat chance, right?

So how about this: How about you and your husband visit a family therapist and explain the situation as above, and ask, how can we two, as a couple, support each other better through this hard time of grieving and conflict?

Now that sounds doable.

There would be lots of things to talk about. For instance, I’m not a therapist, but I’m interested to know, since your father recently died, what role he played in the family. And I’m interested to know where your husband fits in. How does he respond to the bullying from your sister? I’m also interested to know whether this went on in the family when you were little and who was there to protect you. Was your father there to protect you from your sister’s bullying when you were young? What about your mother? Did she protect you? Did your sister bully your mother as well? Does she today? And what is your husband’s role now in family conflict? Does he support you in your struggles with your sister and mother-in-law, or is he caught between you and his mother?



In the safe setting of a family therapist’s office, you could trace the lineage of today’s conflict, and you could get a feel for the shifting battle lines. And the battle lines are shifting all the time. That is a crucial thing to realize. You sound like an analytical person so I think you will find Bowen family systems theory extremely interesting. One of its eight fundamental ideas is triangulation. People team up against each other in families. You’ve observed that. Your mother-in-law and your sister have teamed up against you. If you learn how such alliances form and shift, you can be better prepared and feel more stable.

So here are my main suggestions: One, visit a family therapist, as a couple. Two, read up on family systems theory. And three, find ways to lessen the overall stress on the family. For as Georgetown professor of sociology C. Margaret Hall says in “The Bowen Family Theory and Its Uses,” “The probability of certain kinds of behavior in nuclear family emotional systems also depends on complex stress factors and the overall level of anxiety in the families.”

Rather than seeking a quick fix, or resorting to “emotional cutoff,” take a long-term approach. Work on self-care, stress reduction and strengthening your primary relationship. It can work. Your home can be transformed from occupied territory to sanctuary. And your marriage can become a refuge from outside threats.

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