Dear Amy: For all who don’t know my aunt well, she is a loving, sweet, and caring person with a great personality. Unfortunately, for her family members, we all know her true dark, psychotic, and twisted side and have been subject to her abusive mental torture.
Her daughter is just like her, so as we moved into adulthood many family functions were full of displays of their subliminal abuse, which may appear harmless to others, but is actually quite upsetting to the ones who know their true intentions (side glances, mutterings under breath, quiet tantrums, and “innocent” comments disguised as “concern” to other relatives to garner their sympathy). They are like the evil stepsisters in “Cinderella,” who gang up on others and then act innocent and try to gaslight you into thinking you misinterpreted their intentions.
After the birth of her first child, my sister decided to cut them out of her life after one such scene at a party. My other sister followed suit, and they were no longer part of any holidays, birthday parties, etc.
We occasionally see them at other gatherings we aren’t a part of arranging, but my sisters usually opt out of those because they don’t want to deal with her. I think that’s overkill, but fully support my sisters and keep a surface-level relationship with my aunt to keep the peace on both sides. But yet again, while I was also a victim of her cruelty, I am stronger than my sisters and have better coping skills.
Amy, do you think this is bullying for me to essentially “ghost” my aunt? I personally think this gives fuel to her fire of playing the victim and garnering sympathy, but my sisters don’t handle confrontation well. Sometimes you just have to walk away.
Do you think this was the right path to take? What else can we do? Is it bullying to cut out the bully?
Not a Bully
Dear Not a Bully: Avoiding a bully is not bullying, it is a “fight or flight” survival technique. Any person has the right to avoid another person, and mutually avoiding a bully doesn’t count as social exclusion.
You could help to turn down the heat on this by checking your own descriptors of the behavior: “Mental torture,” “Subliminal abuse,” “quiet tantrums,” “evil,” and casting yourself and others as “victims,” etc.
Your aunt’s behavior sounds slippery, insidious, and tough to nail down. She sounds like a jerk. I believe the best response is to make eye contact and be calm, assertive, direct, and calmly call someone out – if possible. Otherwise, behaving with consistent, socially polite and cool regard is a good way to take away the bully’s most powerful tool: the ability to control someone through intimidation.
Dear Amy: Recently I had an argument with my daughter-in-law.
The next day I gave her a hug and asked if things were OK.
Should I still have to say, “I’m sorry?”
Dear Perplexed: If you were in the wrong, then yes, you definitely have to say “I’m sorry.” Even if you weren’t in the wrong, it would still be best to address the issue directly, and acknowledge that you could or should have behaved differently.
Waiting a day, dispensing a hug, and asking if things are OK, are all ways of basically trying to sweep something under the rug. This is a nice and fairly benign technique, and it is certainly better than just ignoring a problem and waiting for it to go away. It turns out that problems, especially between in-laws, don’t really go away.
There is no substitute for a sincere and direct apology: “I am so sorry for my part in our argument yesterday. I was sarcastic and out of line, and I sincerely apologize. I really regret it, and hope you will forgive me.” A good apology also lays down some positive groundwork: “You are a wonderful wife to my son and I’m very grateful. I hope you’ll give me a chance to be a better mother-in-law to you.”
Dear Amy: I’d like to add my voice to those concerned by your softball advice to the children of the 85-year-old alcoholic mother. They took her car away and she leased another. Now they need to call the police.
Dear Concerned: The adult children didn’t present any evidence that their mother drove drunk, but – given the circumstances they described, it is certainly possible. I agree with readers who felt my advice was too soft, and thank you all.
Email Amy at firstname.lastname@example.org.