By Esther Mann, LCSW
I’ve been married to “Chaim” for about two years now, and his sister, “Barbara,” is driving me crazy. I just don’t know how to handle her anymore.
I saw the problem firsthand and for the first time at our wedding. It was the most important and fabulous evening of my life. My parents made sure that all my dreams came true and everything was beautiful and perfect. Chaim and I came out of the yichud room, and we were all hyped up for our first dance with family and friends. Like all weddings, it was a frenzy of people and the dance floor was crowded. Maybe five minutes into the dance, I heard a yell, and suddenly all eyes were on Barbara. Apparently, in all the commotion, someone had stepped on her toe with a high heel.
I’ve had my toes stepped on more times than I care to remember during wedding dances. Sometimes it was no big deal and sometimes I suffered for weeks with a swollen toe. But I always kept my mouth shut! I suffered in silence. This is how I was raised. My pain can wait. It doesn’t have to be about me all the time.
Getting back to the wedding, suddenly everyone was worried about Barbara. Someone pulled over a chair for her and people were calling around for help to see if there was a Hatzalah person around to help her. For a good five minutes, all heads were turned toward her, and it felt as though everyone forgot that I was even there. For the moment, I was no longer the center of attention. The rest of the evening, she was the nebach case. Turns out, it was nothing with nothing. But she remained seated for the rest of the wedding, while people went over to her to see how she was feeling.
I should have known then and there that it would always be about Barbara. But it took me a while to figure out what the deal was with her. She is single and two years older than Chaim. She is the only daughter among three sons. Through little snippets of stories I’ve heard from various family members over the past few years, it seems that nothing ever went smoothly for her.
When I see her at family get-togethers, I never know whether she’ll show up with a sling covering one arm, wearing weird glasses because she can’t wear her contact lenses due to a scratch on her cornea, or maybe she’s suddenly limping. I find this beyond weird. It would almost be funny, if it weren’t so absurd.
The rest of the family, including Chaim, doesn’t seem to find this behavior crazy. They just kind of chalk it up to “poor Barbara, always something,” and then proceed to pamper and pity her. Whatever her most recent problem is, she naturally becomes the center of attention for the evening, and as a result no other meaningful interactions seem to take place.
In my family, we hate to be pitied, and no one is a kvetch. Unless a limb is clearly hanging by a thread, we try to cover up our problems in order to not make it about ourselves or make a scene. We deal with whatever we get handed and hopefully with a smile on our face. We’re strong. Maybe sometimes too strong, but that’s for another column.
So the issues that have arisen over Barbara’s behavior are many. To begin with, I’m sad that I don’t like my sister-in-law and that when I see her coming, I feel like I want to run away. I can’t deal with her stories about herself and find I have no sympathy for her. Also, numerous times, Chaim has had to run to her rescue, leaving me and our son home alone. I feel as though we are second fiddle to her numerous problems. I resent how she sometimes comes in between my husband and me. It’s like I’m being punished because I am a non-complainer and basically self-sufficient.
I also hate to see my in-laws pander to her. They are actually very nice people whom I thought I liked a lot. But I find I have no respect for them, as I watch how they behave around her. It kind of makes me sick and I want to shake them and give them a good wake-up call.
What do I do about her? Should I say something to her and to my in-laws and take a stand? Do I try to point out to them that she is out of her mind and that they are only encouraging her nutty behavior? Or am I somehow behaving like the insensitive one here?
Sounds like what we have here is a classic case of a drama queen. That label in often thrown around loosely and doesn’t always really describe the individual in question. But from everything that you’ve described about your sister-in-law, I think the verdict is quite clear.
Drama queens desperately seek attention and absolutely want to be at the very center of things at all times. They make it hard for others to be around them, as there seems to be little or no oxygen left in the room for anyone else. Sometimes, these individuals suffer from some emotional dysfunction, which sets the stage for this type of histrionic behavior.
Drama queens put a strain on the people who are forced to spend time with them. It’s always about them and their problems—whether made-up or real—which leaves no room to focus on anyone else, even if others have something serious or meaningful going on.
Sometimes it seems as if these drama queens actually enjoy their own suffering. Their overly emotional and exaggerated reactions to situations appear to fill some deep-seated need within them.
It’s good advice to try avoiding drama queens at all costs. They just take up too much of one’s energy and put a strain on peripheral relationships. If playing along with a drama queen or catering to her every whim would somehow “cure” her, that would be one thing. But generally, you cannot help these people. Unless they decide their lives have become totally unmanageable and they decide to seek help themselves, it’s a waste of energy for one to believe that she can “cure” the drama queen.
Unfortunately, total avoidance is out of the question for you, since Barbara is now part of your family or, more to the point, you are part of her family. Though your gut sensibly tells you to run for your life, that’s not really an option.
The best advice I can give you is to accept the fact that she is just part of the package you signed on for when you married Chaim. Once you came on the scene, the dynamics between her and her family, which includes Chaim, were already etched in stone and I don’t believe anything you can say or do will change the way they all play off of each other. Long ago, Barbara became the family’s official identified patient. Taking care of her, pitying her, rescuing her, and validating her real or perceived illnesses allowed everyone in the family to feel useful and compassionate. Somehow, on some level, everyone’s needs are being met.
As difficult as the family get-togethers may feel to you, put a smile on your face, assume the role of an observer at a particularly bizarre show, and don’t take any of it personally. To compare yourself and your reactions to Barbara’s is silly and frustrating. The two of you are cut from completely different cloths.
I would, however, encourage you to make an effort to spend time alone with your in-laws and with your brothers-in-law. This is not something that should happen during holiday time, but on random Sundays, or other times that work for all of you. Arrange dinners out, afternoon visits, whatever. But try to get back those warm feelings that you have towards your in-laws, which should be easy to rekindle when Barbara is not on the scene.
Regarding Chaim running out to “rescue” his sister, I think you need to set boundaries around this issue with him. Chaim may not be able to hear or handle the truth about her, but if you feel he is running out to help her too often, you need to sit down together and figure out how much “Barbara time” you are comfortable with and how much is just too much. Hopefully, Chaim can accommodate you from the perspective of taking care of you. If you present it as a way of curing her, you will most likely get resistance from Chaim.
Again, I’m not feeling too hopeful about anyone succeeding in curing your sister-in-law, but I think you can work on your own attitude adjustment, enabling you to accept the situation without letting it drag you down or make you angry.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.