Rules Of Engagement With In-laws

Dear Dr. Darcy, 

I am very close to my brother’s wife. We’re all in our 30’s and hang out on weekends. 

I recently had a situation where my sister-in-law got pissed off at me for something I did. I understand why she’s mad because I was wrong but the way she told me made me feel attacked. She yelled at me in front of my family and my brother just sat there and did nothing. I was so caught off guard I didn’t know how to react so I stayed quiet and when she was done yelling, I told her I was sorry and left.

If it had been anyone else, I would have fought back (with words, obvi) but I felt like I couldn’t stick up for myself because it’s my brother’s wife. 

Now it’s been 2 weeks and we haven’t hung out. I feel uncomfortable going to their house. What am I supposed to do? I don’t want tension in the family but I also don’t think it’s okay how she talked to me. My brother has always been my biggest protector and suddenly he’s acting like a little bitch.   




Handling a fight with an in-law is so tricky. You’re each tied to one person but the ties you have to each other are almost always looser and prone to tangles. For that reason, you need to use your most evolved relationship skills when handling conflict with each other — a memo your sister-in-law clearly missed.

I’m glad you didn’t further complicate the situation by fighting back, since the setting (having your family as an audience) and her emotional state (escalated af) weren’t conducive to having a productive conversation. 

Here’s what to do now: 

Call her — don’t text — and ask if you can meet up. Assuming she’ll be reasonable since you’re family and there’s no avoiding each other, meet up in a park or somewhere you can go for a walk with reasonable privacy. Walking will help you both stay calm because it’s physical activity. 

Tell her you’d like to make up with her and that you’d like to hear how you made her feel. Hopefully that puts her on a path of talking about feelings rather than what you did wrong, but regardless, every few sentences, gently interrupt her and say, “I want to make sure I heard you right. [insert her words here, repeating back what you heard her say]. Is that right?” 

If it’s right, let her continue and repeat this until she’s completely done. If you got something wrong, ask her to rephrase it, then repeat it back to her, continuing until she has finished expressing herself. 

Find something about her feelings that make sense to you. This is called validating her feelings. Since you’re in agreement that you were legitimately wrong, this should be relatively easy to do. It’s harder to validate someone’s feelings when you disagree about the facts. You validate her feelings by saying something to the effect of, “It makes sense to me that you felt [insert her feelings here] because [tell her why it makes sense to you here].”

Once you’re done, you have a rare opportunity: You can negotiate the rules of engagement for your next disagreement, so she doesn’t act like an asshole the next time you do something wrong. 

Try saying something like this: 

“I hope you know how much our relationship means to me. The next time I upset you, can we skip the part that happened in front of the family and agree to meet up privately when we’re cooled off so we can just fix things?”

That last part, btw, sets the two of you up to know how to resolve and repair a fight in a way that 99.9% of the population doesn’t.  


Writer’s Demographics

Gender: Female

Sexual Orientation: Straight