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How to handle a brother-in-law-bully

Carolyn Hax
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D ear Carolyn:

My husband of 15 years has two sisters who live two and four hours away, respectively. Sadly, both parents died five years ago. We try to keep the family ties despite the distance.

Ten years ago, the sister who lives closer to us, “Liz,” married “George.” George has three brothers and the family is tight-knit, a small pond where they all feel like very large fish. George has an overinflated opinion of himself that I think conceals a great deal of insecurity. He demonstrates this by “joking” about my husband, me, and anything else that catches his fancy. He particularly does this at holiday events with his family. Naturally, the brothers think it’s hilarious.

Ten years of this has worn very thin for me, but my husband doesn’t want to lose the relationship with Liz.

Recently, we all traveled to celebrate at a big party. George took it upon himself to emcee the party and broadcast his small-minded “jokes” to everyone, singling out my husband on a private matter that happened years before. In the interest of not ruining the party for others, we let it go. However, I am livid and my husband is deeply hurt.

I want nothing to do with Liz or George. I know it pains my husband, but I will no longer tolerate being treated disrespectfully by them.

Liz has reached out to my husband to complain that we didn’t see them this summer. Because George is so thin-skinned, there’s no way we can have a rational conversation about his comments without him exploding in self-righteous indignation. My husband is more pained now by the harm to the relationship with Liz than by the original offense, but neither of us sees a way out of this without having to swallow our pride and continue to put up with George. Suggestions?

— Fuming Mad

This is so common with angry reactions: ruling out courses of action before you even try them.

You can’t object during the party … because it’ll ruin it for others?

You can’t tell the truth now … because George will explode?

You can’t stay connected to Liz … because it means swallowing pride?

These aren’t factual outcomes, they’re projected outcomes — imagined, really. And yet you’re basing real choices on them as if they’re certainties.

The only certainties are your anger at George, your freezing out George and Liz because of it, and your excuses not to tell them so.

George may be a thin-skinned, explosive, small-pond bully, exactly as you’ve made him out to be, and telling Liz the truth might well set him/them off — but at this point you have effectively terminated the relationship with these two already. So what do you have to lose by telling Liz the truth now?

Plus, leaving Liz to wonder why you’ve vanished — when she obviously noticed and misses you — is cruel.

So, one of you, ideally your husband: Get on the phone with Liz. Do the thing you judge George so harshly for not doing, and own your behavior. “I’m sorry, Liz, that we went silent. We should have said on the spot: We were very upset that George aired (private matter) to the whole party. We’d love to see you, but George’s so-called jokes have always been close to the line, and this time he crossed it.”

The consequences won’t be fun, but neither is the kind of silent — and, frankly, gutless — shunning you’ve resorted to instead. Sharing what the problem is lets you all decide whether and how it gets fixed.

•••

Hi, Carolyn!

For a few years in high school, and a few years again in our late 20’s, I dated a man who my family — and I — love. He’s still my best friend, but we’re no longer romantically involved. In total it was probably six years.

But he likes strip clubs and cocaine a bit too much; I broke up with him because of it, and his last girlfriend did too.

My family thinks I’ve broken up with him because I’ve gotten together with another guy in the past two years (!?), and they keep harping that I need to get back with No. 1, because that’s who they know.

He’s my best friend. I know his best and worst things — my family only knows his best. How do I proceed?

— A.

Why are you even having this conversation with them?

I won’t talk about this specific guy, tempting as coke and strippers (!?) may be. This is just about adult relationships, period, every one of them:

(1) They consist of two people.

(2) Those two are the only ones with a vote on the relationship’s fate.

(3) It takes two votes to be in a relationship, but only one to get out.

So you decided this guy isn’t for you. That’s the end of it, and that’s how you proceed: “He wasn’t for me.” Period, and entertain no further discussion. Don’t mistake the fact of follow-up questions with an obligation to answer them.

Email Carolyn at [email protected] , follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com .

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