I am a white woman of privilege. I am also the full-time working single mother of an adopted child, and I have led a very successful career. While I have benefited throughout my life from my parents’ financial support, even though I have never married, my parents have worked hard to keep things financially equal among me and my siblings.
My issue is this: My sister-in-law constantly makes snide comments about how I have it so good. She implies that my brother/her husband and my father support my lifestyle. My brother has NEVER given me any money, and any money I get from my parents, she and my brother get annually too. I would never accept money from my brother unless I were in dire straits, and even then I would do it transparently with her input and support.
In fact, my brother inherited my father’s business so, in reality, they have benefited the most financially from my parents. I love my sister-in-law. She is not easy, but we have a good relationship and I know that she loves my daughter unconditionally. That said, this has been going on for years, and I am so angry about it I feel like I am going to snap.
I want to ask her why she thinks this is the case, and point out that my brother inherited my dad’s business (which continues to do quite well). But I don’t know how to do this without sounding angry and defensive. I feel like her perception is her reality, and anything I try to say to defend myself will fall on deaf ears. I also think she and my brother help out her family financially and, therefore, she has a raw nerve.
Regardless, I have worked hard and done well, and her snide comments really p— me off. I am worried that one day I might just lose it. I just want a one-line zinger to shut her up when she says these things, which she only does when we’re alone. Oh, and don’t ask me to talk to my brother — he bows down at her feet and wouldn’t want to get involved. Any suggestions, other than continue to ignore her comments to keep the peace?
Ready to lose it
There’s one thing worse than a family fighting over a will, and that’s a family competing with one another over who gets the most financial support from their parents. Actually, they’re both equally bad. No number of zingers will vanquish your sister-in-law, but I do have some advice for you.
“ ‘First, you set boundaries with other people — snarky sister-in-laws, sarcastic siblings, competitive coworkers or crafty car dealers — then you set boundaries with yourself. You must do BOTH.’ ”
First, you set boundaries with other people — snarky sisters-in-law, sarcastic siblings, competitive coworkers or crafty car dealers — and then you set boundaries with yourself. You must do BOTH.
The same is true for political conversations over Thanksgiving dinner, difficult family members and salary negotiations. Know where your red line and white line are, and speak up. It’s OK to ask for things, it’s OK to not get them, but it’s also OK to know what you will accept and what you will not accept.
You need to have a clear idea of your needs in order for others to meet them.
Chris Voss, a former FBI negotiator, understands this double boundary issue. “The No. 1 rule in any negotiation is don’t take yourself hostage. People do this to themselves all the time by being desperate for ‘yes’ or afraid of ‘no,’” he previously wrote for MarketWatch.
“So they don’t ask for what they really want,” he added. “Instead, they ask for what they can realistically get. I’ve heard many people say, ‘Well that’s a non-starter so we won’t even bring it up.’ By doing so, they’ve taken themselves hostage. Their counterpart has already won.”
The philosopher Alain de Botton in his book, “Status Anxiety,” says we usually choose people we consider to be our equals to identify with and then compare ourselves to. “We cannot appreciate what we have in isolation, nor judge against the lives of our medieval forbearers,” de Botton writes.
“If we learn through ill-advised attendance at a school reunion that some of our old friends are now living in houses larger than our own, bought on the proceeds of more enticing occupations, we are likely to return home nursing a violent sense of misfortune,” he adds.
Here are my five golden rules for dealing with difficult people:
1. A question is better than a statement. “What do you mean by that? I want to understand it” is more productive than “That’s a horrible thing to say.” That’s when it all kicks off. You plug into the hurt and anger, and it becomes a messy, emotional exchange instead of a transparent fact-finding mission.
2. Tell them how you feel, not what they are: “Comments like that hurt my feelings.” If she says you can’t take a joke and/or tries to deflect by saying she meant X or Y, say it again: “It hurt my feelings.” If she does it again, say, “Remember I asked you not to make comments about my life?”
3. Don’t lie to them. Smiling politely (or sarcastically) when someone makes an unflattering comment can feel like you’re taking the moral high ground, but seldom does it make us feel better afterwards. It’s also not an honest or authentic response. Ignoring such slings and arrows creates resentment.
4. Avoid the sandbox. If your sister-in-law wants to get a rise out of you by throwing some shade, responding in kind will feed her habit and you will do yourself a great disservice. If you get into a debate or shouting match with an irrational person, there will be two crazy people, not one.
5. A kindergarten teacher I know tells her students about the importance of having agency over their own bodies. If someone says or does something that makes them uncomfortable, she tells them to say, “STOP. I don’t like that.” If it’s good enough for a three-year-old, it’s good enough for me.
If you inform someone of your needs and they don’t abide by them, it’s a boundary problem they have with the world. Your sister-in-law is telling you how she feels about herself and her life when she throws shade. Enjoy your success. Ultimately, her comments have nothing to do with you.
I could give you lots of zingers. “Take this tin of cat food and eat supper at home instead.” Or, “You have a case of jelly belly brought on by eating too many sour grapes.” I could go on zinging. But please do NOT do it. They might give you a short-term high, but you will feel rotten afterwards.
Look, I get it. No one likes unsolicited advice or commentary on our lives, especially from people we like. It’s easy to judge people and it’s easy not to judge people. You can’t change her. You would like her respect. But the only person who truly needs to respect you is you. But it takes practice.
You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want to read more?Follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitterand read more of his columns here.
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