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Question

My sister-in-law discounts other people’s opinions, especially mine, and lauds her opinions as the final word on any subject whether she has any background or information on it. She also demands that the rest of the family do what she wants or raises an emotional ruckus. Then later launches a diatribe, “You wouldn’t even do — that I asked you.” This has been ongoing all the 40-plus years I have been married.

Here is one brief example: Although my husband and I had plans to attend a performance, she still demanded that my husband pick her up at the airport and drive her 40 miles to her home. He already made the same trip earlier in the week. Although she has two grown children in the area with cars (not to mention the availability of public transportation), she only wants my husband to drive her. She is financially well off and has a husband who travels a lot so her flights are free. My husband says, “She is his sister”, so he needs to take care of her.

Answer

I don’t know why your husband has such a strong split loyalty between you and his sister, but this issue is actually less about his sister and more about your marriage. I encourage you to focus your efforts on communicating clearly with your husband, as directing your efforts toward your sister-in-law won’t likely produce any changes.

President Gordon B. Hinckley taught the importance of loyalty as a foundation of strong marriages when he said, “When you are married, be fiercely loyal one to another. Selfishness is the great destroyer of happy family life. If you will make your first concern the comfort, the well-being, and the happiness of your companion, sublimating any personal concern to that loftier goal, you will be happy, and your marriage will go on throughout eternity”.[i]

Your husband’s kind heart and willingness to help out his sister is certainly one of his strengths. However, as Elder Dallin H. Oaks warned, “Satan can also attack us where we think we are strong—in the very areas where we are proud of our strengths.”[ii] Your husband may have a blind spot where he feels good about his willingness to help his sister and others at the expense of his marriage.

Another possibility is that your husband simply feels trapped by his sister’s demands and doesn’t know how to set appropriate limits with her. He may have grown up in a family system where the unspoken expectation was that everyone organizes around the demands of others. He may have other beliefs of experiences that make it difficult for him to balance his needs with the needs of others. He may simply have the best intentions in the world, but no clarity around what is most important.

Regardless of the reasons, it’s important for you to not stay silent about your need for his loyalty to your marriage. Even if you both decide that it’s best for him to help out his sister, the key is that you’re unified in your decision. She needs to know that her needs go through the marriage. If her needs are at odds with what’s best for the marriage, then her needs take a back seat.

Continue to advocate for your husband’s loyalty. You don’t need to be demanding or rude as you express this need. It will likely take tremendous patience, long-suffering, and persuasion on your part, as he appears to feel a strong internal conflict about her needs.[iii] Have these conversations during times when your sister-in-law isn’t making demands. Commend him for his good heart and willingness to help her while asking him why he feels such a strong pull to put her needs first. Let him know you’re not trying to keep him from being there for his sister, but, rather, you want to be included in the decision of how his actions affect you and the marriage. Frame this as a desire to work with him, not separately. Hopefully he can stay open to your desire to have unity and loyalty in your marriage.

 

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at geoff@lovingmarriage.com

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:
Website: www.lovingmarriage.com
Twitter: @geoffsteurer
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT

[i] Brigham Young University commencement exercises, Provo, Utah, 27 Apr. 1995.

[ii] https://www.lds.org/ensign/1994/10/our-strengths-can-become-our-downfall?lang=eng

[iii] D&C 121:41