When I first met Tina*, my future sister-in-law, it was during dinner at a nice restaurant where my fiance, Jesse, had arranged for his family to meet me. Trouble brewed even at that first encounter as Tina knocked over her water glass twice, burped loudly, and chain-smoked. She even asked bluntly, "Why do you guys want to get married? You could just live together."
Shocked, I looked at Jesse, not knowing how to respond to such candor. He smiled, reached for my hand, and said firmly but kindly, "We're getting married because we love each other and want to spend the rest of our lives together." Tina harrumphed. "Oh, please! That'll wear off soon enough. Just wait till you're married."
Life with Tina didn't get easier after Jesse and I married. A month after our wedding, Jesse and I met with his family at a restaurant to celebrate Tina's birthday. When Jesse held my hand during dinner, Tina said sarcastically, "Aren't you guys over that yet?"
Startled, I turned to Jesse, who just smiled as if to say, Okay, it's your turn to explain. When I told Tina Jesse and I believe marriage is for keeps and that we're each other's best friend, she just sniffed. "Get real. Nobody loves like that." She stomped off toward the restroom to smoke a cigarette.
That night I told Jesse heatedly, "I'm sick of your sister—and her attitude. What's wrong with her anyway?" Jesse gently reminded me that none of his family, including Tina, were Christians, as we were. But when he encouraged me to build a friendship with her, I replied angrily, "That's easy for you to say! Guys look at relationships differently." I was realizing that during our wedding ceremony, when I'd vowed to stick with Jesse "for better or for worse," the latter part included his obnoxious sister.
For the next several years, Tina and I simply coexisted. Every time we got together, she talked about how she'd partied the night before. I struggled to find common ground with someone whose lifestyle so differed from mine. I felt forced to relate to someone I thought of as "a wild child," and I knew she thought of me as a religious "goody two-shoes." I wondered if the chasm between us could ever be bridged—or if it was even worth trying.
At family gatherings we continued to exchange minimal chitchat and gave each other the kind of gifts people give when they don't know each other well. Then one day I got a phone call from Tina. She wanted to know if I'd go out to lunch with her. After some waffling, I finally said, "Sure … when do you want to do it?" But what I was really thinking was, Oh, great. A whole lunch with her.
As the week before our lunch passed, I woke up each morning with knots in my stomach, dreading the event. I didn't share my feelings with Jesse, since I worried I'd already harped on his family enough. The day finally arrived. By the time Tina got to the restaurant, half an hour late, my response to her was frosty. We were escorted to a table. She asked about my job, and I gave a half-hearted response, then stared at a menu. After that, she monopolized the conversation, trying to goad me into saying something negative about Jesse. When I told her how sweet he was to me, that he even helped with the dishes, she said wryly, "Yeah, right. Like you live in a fairy tale. That can't be my brother."
I swallowed back an angry response. After lunch, I drove to my long-time friend Anna's house and ranted about my sister-in-law for more than an hour. When I was done fuming, Anna eyed me and said bluntly, "You know what? I think Tina's jealous of what you and Jesse have." Then Anna's voice softened. "And from what I'm hearing, it doesn't sound as if you're being very nice to her, either. Whether you say it or not, you judge her every time she does anything, and I'm sure she can feel that. Next time, instead of thinking how much she bugs you, try to connect with her. Find out what she likes to do, what makes her tick. That way you'll have something more to talk about, and maybe you won't annoy each other as much."
Gulp. Leave it to Anna to call things like she sees them—and rightfully so. I went home sobered by my critical attitude. I'd kept Tina at a distance because she didn't fit the mold of who I thought a sister-in-law should be. That afternoon, I sat on the couch and cried, asking God to forgive me for being judgmental and selfish. I'd been looking for what I wanted out of the relationship—instead of what I might be able to offer Tina.
The next day, I swallowed my pride and phoned her. When she answered, I plunged in, telling her I was sorry about how short I'd been with her at lunch and asked if we could get together again soon. The surprise in her voice was evident. But Tina agreed—and we decided to try out a different restaurant in two weeks.
That phone call—and my friend Anna's targeted words 14 years ago—were the start of a long road toward a better relationship with my sister-in-law. Although our communication hasn't always been comfortable, Tina and I have found ways to relate more effectively to each other. I've been learning to see her as God sees her (though she still drives me crazy sometimes!). She's still not perfect, but neither am I. We're not best friends, but we're becoming friends. Here are five strategies that have helped us.
1. Find neutral territory.
Tina always seemed tense when she was at my house. She'd call me a "neat-freak" and say she was afraid to sit down anywhere. In contrast, her apartment—with clothes and half-eaten food strewn everywhere—seemed alien to me. So I decided we had to get on neutral turf.
One day Tina mentioned wanting to go to a flower show—she was looking for ideas to brighten her apartment. I jumped at the idea, and we made plans to go that Saturday. As we walked around the exhibit together, I discovered how much she knew about flowers. And the amazing thing is, I didn't get annoyed with her even once during our outing. It was a small victory, but a start on the right path to a better relationship.
2. Work hard to be a friend.
A wise friend gave me some sage advice before my wedding: "Make friends with your mother-in-law, and she'll be your friend for life. But if you don't, she could be your enemy for life." I wish someone had given me the same advice about my sister-in-law; maybe our relationship would have been less rocky. It took many years for me to realize I should treat Tina as any other new friend—spend time with her one-on-one, getting to know her.
For example, I began to ask Tina questions about her work. Although at first she just said her job was boring, I noticed she brightened when she talked about one aspect of it: interacting with a certain guy in marketing. So each time I saw Tina, I asked if she'd had any more conversations with Theo. On her next birthday, I also went out of my way to surprise her during my lunch break with a chocolate-chip cookie bouquet. Tina was touched by this unexpected expression of friendship and affection from me.
3. Look for common ground.
When you're so different from your husband's sibling, it may be hard to find anything in common. But the search is worth the effort. Four years after Tina met Theo, the guy in marketing, they got married and moved into an old house 20 minutes from us. Tina didn't seem like the domestic type, so I was surprised when she began phoning me for decorating ideas. When I saw how serious she was about it, I suggested we go together to a sponge-painting class (her theme was Southwestern decor). She accepted, and we both had a ball experimenting with techniques. The day she got brave enough to sponge-paint her living room, I popped in with warm banana bread to give her a break. As she showed off her handiwork, I began to see a new side of Tina: a person who cared about beauty, who longed for the stability of home and family.
A few weeks later, in an unguarded moment, she told me how jealous she was of the kind of relationship Jesse and I had. She admitted that her relationship with Theo was more explosive, as was Jesse's parents' relationship, and sometimes she felt really hurt and didn't know how to make the marriage better. This time, when I talked about my relationship with Jesse, and about the role Christ played in our marriage, she was ready to listen.
4. Don't expect her to be like your husband.
Just because they're siblings doesn't mean they're alike. Other than shared dark hair and dark eyes, it's hard for me to believe Jesse and Tina come from the same parents, since their personalities seem worlds apart. For years, every time I interacted with Tina, I walked away wishing she were more like Jesse. But that "wishful thinking" set up an instant wall between us, for I was expecting her to be someone she wasn't. It wasn't until the day my friend Anna kindly set me straight that I realized how much subtle pressure I'd been putting on Tina to be like Jesse. Her way of responding to my unspoken expectations was the use of sarcastic wit, which hurt my feelings. In order to break that vicious cycle, I had to sit down and list Tina's good qualities, then refer to them frequently as a reminder. As I did this every time I interacted with her, I found myself beginning to look for her good traits instead of judging her for not being like Jesse.
5. Allow each other to change.
When I first met Tina, she was a single, carefree, wild twentysomething. Now she's in her mid-thirties, married, and has two young children under the age of five. Although she still likes to stay out late on Friday nights, the one night she has a babysitter, she phoned me recently to say she's reconsidering that choice.
"It's hard to get out of bed on Saturdays, and I feel so crabby," she admitted. I could tell she was waiting for me to say something—almost holding her breath to see if I'd judge her—but I didn't. I just listened. What Tina needed that afternoon was a listening ear—not a lecture about how she needed to grow up. I had to trust her to work things out for herself. And that was a change for me!
In that conversation, Tina told me she'd always seen me as a "Miss Priss" and that she'd struggled to relate to me. I told her I certainly didn't have a perfect life—just a different sort of life. And that I had my own set of problems. Her voice perked up. "You do? What are they?" I told her how I'd longed to conceive a child, but hadn't been able to. It was a painful reality in my life.
"I just thought you and Jesse didn't want kids. You mean I've got something you don't?" she replied, then quickly muttered, "Uh, I didn't mean that like it sounded."
"I know you didn't," I responded kindly and smiled to myself. And this time I meant the smile—it was no longer forced, but a true smile from my heart for my sister-in-process.
Maria Lopez is a pseudonym for a writer who lives in Chicago.
Copyright 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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