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Mind Games/Sister in law from hell

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Question
I recently got into a fight with my sister in law. She accused me of doing something I did not do and when she found out I didn't do it she could not apologize for her mistake. She made up an excuse of why she is right and I am wrong. She then proceeded to push my buttons and then played the victim when I played on my emotions. She is very manipulative and tried to tear my husband and I apart by playing the victim. We are fine but then she proceeded to bring him in the middle and bring his nephew (her son) into the mix. Saying she doesn't want this to come between his nephew and his relationship. His nephew is one year old and has nothing to do with the fight. She is playing games and I dont. I know what I need to do. Be cordial around her say hi but our relationship will never be the same. I can't look at her the same knowing the game she is playing and being so manipulative. All this is over something petty. I am worried if I am only cordial to her say the minimum and give her nothing will this ruin my relationship with by husband.

Answer
Hi Alexandria!

Sorry to hear about your problem, and also I'm sorry to get back to you so late!

Honestly, that sounds really tough.  While I am fortunate enough not to have had too much personal experience with such a situation - I did have an elementary school friend like this whom I stopped talking to when I became an adult - I know plenty of people who have.  Some people even had parents like that whom they had to deal with throughout their childhood, if you can imagine that.

Most people's solution seems to be either silently endure it or get into yelling or screaming matches with said person.  While I'm pretty sure neither response is optimal, I must warn you: People usually ask me for dating or romantic advice, so if you don't understand or are not satisfied with my response, feel free to let me know with a follow up.

I'd like to start with why people sometimes behave this way.  I'll try not to get too in depth here, but I think understanding may bring you a sense of closure.

There's this quite annoying bias that most, if not all, people have called COGNITIVE DISSONANCE.  It's basically mental discomfort we feel when we hold two conflicting ideas or beliefs at the same time, usually in the face of an event that makes us realize or consider a second.  The first idea is usually a broad, simplified or generalized and rigid idea or belief about ourselves which shapes our self-concept, like "I'm a good person" or "I'm never wrong", the second a new one which conflicts with our current identity, like "Good people don't lie, but I just lied" or "I made a mistake".  As you can see, the first one is usually one that was formed a very long time ago and for reasons I will not get into, had solidified itself over time.  The second is more specific and often more realistic.

We all seek consonance - harmony among all the ideas or beliefs we have.  A very few people will feel dissonance, realize that their initial idea may be wrong, and maturely change it accordingly.  Most people, however, will try to solidify their original idea even more in order to maintain their original self-concept by ignoring, diminishing, or even disregarding the second idea.  Your sister-in-law might tell herself "Yeah, I made a mistake, but it wasn't IMPORTANT, so she shouldn't be complaining about it" or "It wasn't a mistake, it was two different perspectives, so nobody's WRONG" or, even "No, I know I never make mistakes so it COULDN'T BE a mistake, it must be something else. I'll figure it out, but until then I'm not going to apologize."  People like this will sometimes go to extreme measures, like using other family members as leverage, in order to evade blame.

Now let's move on to the important part: What to do.  There are several strategies that are vital to dealing with this kind of person.

1. Do not take the defensive.  If you've dealt with a person like this enough times, you realize there is NO compromise, no negotiation.  There is nothing you can do or say that will persuade them to take a middle ground or accept a gray area.  For them, it is all or nothing, black or white, and they do not intend to lose or be seen as bad.  What they have done, to use a legal analogy, is determined that you are already guilty, and you need to PROVE you are innocent.  But courts are not set up like this because it is IMPOSSIBLE to completely prove innocence, you can only prove guilt.  The reasonable thing to do is PRESUME innocence, but these people are not interested in being reasonable, they're interested in winning.  But they have rigged the game in their favor, and the best strategy is simply to refuse to play.

2. Accept their immaturity.  This may sound condescending, but you must basically accept the fact that, at least in this regard, THEY ARE STILL LIKE CHILDREN.  This is does not mean you should console yourself by feeling high and mighty, this is basically just stating a fact: if you ask any developmental psychologist how children think and behave, it will sound just like the behavior of this type of person.  Whether that's good or bad is not the issue here, it's just how it is.  All you can do is accept it.  What this means is...

3. You are not the problem, but this is about you.  It's not your fault that they behave the way they do, which is to say there's NOTHING you can do to "fix" it.  People like this have existed, exist and will always exist.  Most of them do not improve.  They will not change any more than a child will suddenly acquire the cognitive abilities of an adult, so you need to focus on what you can change: yourself.  You can change the way you think about the situation and what you do or say in regards to this person.  If you remind yourself that the person cannot act any differently or has psychological or emotional problems that they can't help, you may be more inclined to be patient, even sympathetic or even detached from the situation.  Rather than engaging them in a futile and exhausting argument, you may simply choose to remove yourself from the situation by walking into another room or going outside.  If you are positively minded, you could even accept this as a chance to grow, a challenge.  You may even be motivated to find beneficial methods of communication.

Ultimately, what I think is important to understand is that a lot of people's negative behavior patterns are not so much a deliberate, planned, conscious scheme but more of an unconscious defense mechanism, often because of a disorder they did not choose to have.  Now, this does not necessarily mean your sister-in-law is definitely ill, that is not for me to say.  More importantly, this does NOT mean she is NOT responsible for her behavior.  To use a medical analogy, if you have a cold, we may have reason to feel sympathy towards you, but you are still responsible for going to the doctor or taking medicine or doing whatever it takes to get better.

Finally, if you want more information, I highly recommend checking out these pages:

1. http://blogs.hbr.org/schwartz/2011/10/the-secret-to-dealing-with-dif.html
This is a blog article about how to view the situation.  I think they explain it very well.
2. http://www.wikihow.com/Deal-With-Impossible-People
This is an article about actions you can take when dealing with these types of people.  Normally I'm not a big fan of wikihow or sites like that, but I thought this was very helpful.
3. http://bpdfamily.com/
This is a site for people who are dealing with loved ones who have BPD - borderline personality disorder - and are either looking for support or ways to cope.  I don't know that your sister-in-law has this disorder per se, but she seems to be exhibiting at least one of the traits, so you may be able to find some support or solutions here.  The members are unbelievably patient and considerate.

Well, I hope that wasn't too long, and thanks for bearing with me!  I hope this helped!

Mind Games

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Brian

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Besides having an immensely powerful sense of intuition, I am also currently studying (and having been privately studying for years) psychology, and grew up with around psychology and psychologists. I've read considerably in regards to biology, evolutionary biology, genetics, behavior therapy, conditioning and personality. There is almost no human pattern that does not make sense to me (but I'll admit, the opposite sex is a tricky subject!). If someone's behavior makes absolutely no sense to you, I'll be able to help you figure it out, and even give you suggestions on how to deal with it.

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As mentioned above, currently studying psychology, a psychology-influenced upbringing, plus countless hours of giving people advice on the behavior of others.

Education/Credentials
Currently studying Psychology at the California Coastal College.

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