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No sympathy for my sis-in-law

How can I help my codependent in-laws without getting sucked into their madness?

You can’t change their behaviour, says our elder — but you can change your own attitude. Stop being so judgemental.

Dear EWC

My husband’s mother and sister have a classic codependent relationship. My sister-in-law has never had a job in her life. She is 49 now. Her mommy has bought her cars and a house. Her mommy supplies her all of her wants and needs. Her mother even gives her 75 percent of her monthly pension. Sis-in-law basically drinks all day and complains about everyone. For the record, there is nothing wrong with her. She literally filed a complaint on her last doctor because he told her there was nothing wrong with her and she should try to get a job. My mother-in-law has decided she is dying. She has taken to her bed and refuses to leave her room. She has health issues including COPD. But it is like she has suddenly just given up on life. Her doctors tell her to get up and move around, to stop panicking and being dramatic but it does no good. My SIL is falling to pieces. She is lashing out at everyone. Starting fights and even getting physical. When my SIL is not around my MIL seems to miraculously feel better. My husband and I sat with her for four and a half hours one day and she talked nonstop. Chatting away all happy. When SIL is there she lays her head in her mommy’s lap and cries. Then screams at everyone else. I know it is too late to do anything to help the unhealthy relationship these women have with one another. There is no way my husband and I will be “taking care” of his sister when his mother does pass away. I want to do right by these women but I don’t want to be stung into their madness. What can I do to help?

Rechama replies

First, you can realize that it is not accurate to say “there is nothing wrong with her” in reference to your husband’s sister. Obviously, there is a lot wrong with her including, it would appear, acute alcoholism and very likely other psychological problems. She may very well be falling apart more rapidly than before because she is facing the loss of her mother who has been supporting her both financially and psychologically. Her alcohol use sounds like slow suicide and very likely is making her underlying psychological condition worse. It is not uncommon for people who are suffering from depression to self medicate by using drugs or alcohol. Of course, alcohol is actually a depressant so they pay for the temporary high with deeper depression when the comedown.

Second: you can accept the fact that you cannot do anything to help what you call their madness. Well, maybe one thing, you can stop taking comfort in being judgmental. Using terms like “classic co-dependent relationship and referring to your sister’s being given a house and cars from “her mommy” is counter-productive if you want to stop being “stung into their madness.” Co-dependence as a way of describing relationships where an addict is helped by someone closely related to him or her is now (finally) being viewed as a much too easy way to blame the addict’s problem on someone else. You hear it all the time: alcohol abusers referring to “my co.” The truth is much more complex.

You may also believe in another debunked theory “tough love.” If so, you are probably tempted to believe that if you could just convince your husband’s mother to stop “coddling” his sister, somehow magically his sister would cure herself of her deep-seated psychological problems. That is rarely the case. People who “hit bottom” because no one is willing to support them, often stay on that bottom. Many homeless people are homeless because have severe psychological problems and self medicate in order to be able to endure life on that bottom.

Third, you can accept the fact that you cannot change your mother, your husband’ sister, or their relationship. Then you can look at what you can do for yourself and your husband without trying to change either his mother or his sister. You and your husband must come to an agreement between the two of you as to what, if anything, you are willing to do for his sister when his mother dies. But remember, it would be a huge mistake for you to nag or insist that he refuse to help his sister when his mother is no longer able to. It would be perfectly natural for him to defend his mother and sister against the kind of judgmental and belittling remarks you have included in your submission.

You may not be pleased that I have concentrated on your changing your own attitude, rather than suggesting ways for you to change what you view as “madness.” But the hard truth is that we cannot change anyone in a relationship but ourselves. Sometimes this means accepting others as they are without trying to analyze or judge them against how you think they should be. It all goes back to the “serenity prayer.” It goes something like this:
“God grant me the power to change what I can change;
the strength to endure what I cannot change;
and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I hope this helps. I learned these hard truths from dealing with alcoholism in my own family

Letter #: 439830
Category: Family

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