Dear Carolyn: My wife’s parents, in their mid-80s, returned to the United States three weeks ago after working and living in Europe, and are staying with us until their household goods arrive. My wife’s sister, who lives a couple of miles away, has yet to even invite her parents to her home (shared with her nonworking husband and teenage son) for a visit, meal or whatever. She has also avoided getting involved in efforts aimed at getting the parents oriented medically or assisting in the inevitable housing decision.
No one except me seems to want to address the issue with her for fear of hurting her feelings. She is no busier than anyone else. I am the nonblood relative here, and while I am willing to support my wife and her parents, I wonder how to engage the sister. Do you have any suggestions? – W.
A: Engage your wife and figure out the cost-benefit analysis she and her parents did, because when someone lives a couple of miles away, shares the home with an adult who apparently has time on his hands, volunteers zero help for three weeks, and still gets a pass from the people who know her best, you can be sure there’s a lot of history telling them to leave the sister alone.
Certainly that history can be “Sister does nothing and gets away with it,” in which case you have standing to say to your wife that you’re not interested in doing extra work to support her sister’s leisure. Not that this would change anything necessarily – you would just have every right to say it.
But that history also could be one of suffering at the hands of these parents, where your wife was the favored child; or it could be that her spouse and/or son give her enough to deal with; or it could be that whenever Sister does X, she creates 2X worth of drama and hassle; or it could be that your wife likes to be in control or to be the martyr, and her sister has learned to take no part in it.
You’re a couple of miles away from her home and presumably not a newcomer to this family; surely you know enough of the context to draw a better conclusion than I can.
So take that knowledge of the family and formulate it into a plan, then run it by your wife. For example, “Your family dynamic is that, for whatever reason, you guys do the work and Sis does not. A lot of this stuff is falling on my lap, though, so I’d like to call her now and ask her to do X and Y. Any objection?”
Note the three elements to this: acknowledging the history, noting its direct effect on you, proposing a specific alternative.
Depending on how your wife responds, you’ll need a cost-benefit analysis of your own: Is this battle worth your energy, or does it make more sense just to absorb this temporary extra work?
Remember that your marriage is what’s most important. Don’t let the family circus distract you.